As anyone who’s played a modern video game can attest, better graphics don’t necessarily make for a better game. What happens when you remove the graphics entirely? Word Games is Playboy.com’s column on text adventures both classic and contemporary.
World of Warcraft is in trouble.
After ten years at the top of the charts, World of Warcraft’s players have had enough. As of August 2015, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has only 5.6 million subscribers. That’s a drop of 44% over about six months, and less than half of World of Warcraft’s 12-million-subscriber peak. In the past, “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs) like WoW dominated the online gaming space; however, recently, spectator-friendly games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have stolen their throne.
Warcraft’s decline can’t be encouraging to the other players in the MMORPG market. While the trappings might be different, most MMORPGs are largely the same, and bad news for one is bad news for all of them. When all is said and done there aren’t that many differences between World of Warcraft and games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2, and if Warcraft goes down, the others will probably follow.
In short, if MMORPGs are going to survive, they’re going to need a drastic shake-up. And the solution might lie in the genre’s past.
See, before World of Warcraft, before EverQuest, and before Ultima Online, one of the earliest MMOs, there were MUDs (“multi-user dungeons”). MUDs are a lot like MMORPGS: they’re online multiplayer adventures that attract tens, sometimes even hundreds, of players at a time. There’s just one big difference: in a MUD, everything’s done via text—no graphics allowed.
Otherwise, however, MUDs are going sound very familiar to World of Warcraft veterans: you log in, choose your character’s race and profession, team up with other players and kill some monsters (or each other), power up with better gear, and repeat.
The similarity isn’t a coincidence. The first MUD (affectionately called MUD1) was released in 1978 by Roy Trubshaw, exclusively on Essex University’s local computer network. MUD1 opened up to remote users in 1983; from there, MUDS spread like wildfire. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s, MUDs flooded online services like CompuServe, America Online and other fledgling internet providers.
When Origin Systems decided to create Ultima Online, the first popular graphical MMORPG, the company hired Ralph Koster, a founder of the popular LegendMUD, to work as lead designer. Many members of the team behind EverQuest played on a MUD called Sojourn. In fact, EverQuest is so similar to its text-based predecessors that many people still believe that EverQuest stole code from DikuMUD, one of the most popular MUD platforms. A little later, many of EverQuest’s developers moved to Blizzard to work on World of Warcraft. The lineage is clear.
That left MUD owners in a quandary. Talk to almost anyone involved in the MUD scene and they’ll tell you that players started leaving in 1998 or 1999, right around the time that the first modern MMORPGs hit the market. The low-tech text games simply couldn’t compete with commercial games’ flashy graphics, player-friendly interfaces and hefty marketing budgets.
And yet, somehow, MUDs are still around. Even better, they might just provide the inspiration that MMORPGs need to flourish—again.
ADAPT TO SURVIVE
In order to survive, MUDs had to change. Even at their peak, MUDs had a steep learning curve, and navigating the games’ obtuse commands and dense, quickly scrolling text is challenging even for experienced players. Newcomers don’t have a chance.
“There was always an assumption that everyone connecting to a MUD was somewhat technical and knew their way around a MUD client,” says Lasher, the founder of Aardwolf, the most popular non-profit MUD around. “Over time, that clearly wasn’t the case.” In 2007, in a bid to make Aardwolf easier for new players, Lasher began work on one of Aardwolf’s signature features: its unique, semi-graphical user interface.
Unlike MMORPGs, which come bundled with their own applications, players connect to MUDs through a third-party piece of software called a client. In the late 2000s, Lasher reached out to Nick Gammon, the software engineer behind MUSHClient, one of the most popular pieces of MUD software. Together, Gammon and Lasher built a special version of MUSHClient for Aardwolf.
This expanded client primarily uses “miniwindows,” which isolate different types of information from Aardwolf’s text scroll, making the game easier to follow. Miniwindows support graphics, too. “Suddenly the provision of health bars, experience bars, inventory lists, and so on was a reality,” Gammon says. In 2010, Gammon took things even further with a mapping module, which lets players “visualize their positions in the fantasy world.”
The end result is something that looks remarkably similar to World of Warcraft’s user interface, albeit with text in a more prominent role. It’s worked. Lasher says that over half of Aardwolf’s players connect to the game with Gammon’s MUSHClient, and that the client has had a positive effect on recruitment and retension of new players.
It’s not just MUDs’ interfaces that have changed, either. In order to compete with MMORPGs, many MUDs doubled down on their unique features. For example, the multiplayer-oriented MUD Duris focuses on an intense, player-versus-player “racewar.” By design, the multiplayer combat is not kind to beginners. Compared even to World of Warcraft, which itself is absolutely massive, “Duris is huge, complex, hard, and punishing,” says Torgal, the MUD’s owner. “Those are the very things that make it so appealing to the players who play it.” When asked how he tries to recruit new players, Torgal has a simple answer: “Honestly, I don’t even try.” Duris is just too complicated.
Other MUDs focus on player-driven customization, which is a lot easier to facilitate in a text-based environment. According to BatMUD leader Nikloos Lindroos, because MUDs don’t have to worry about graphics, “it’s easy to contribute and develop something new.” BatMUD provides tools that let players to create their own cities without writing a single line of code, and if players are interested in joining the development team, all they have to do is send off an application.
Player freedom is also the big selling point of Avalon: The Legend Continues. Avalon is one of the oldest MUDs—it launched in 1989—and it had a huge impact on the MUD scene. Before Avalon, MUDs wiped their servers at regular intervals, letting everyone start over with a clean slate. By contrast, actions on Avalon are permanent. If something changes, it stays that way.
This means Avalon’s world is entirely player-driven. While MMORPGs have a set storyline written by their developers, all of the stories on Avalon emerge from gameplay. Sam Kendall, one of Avalon’s long-time players, notes that “an entire area of [Avalon’s] world may be destroyed, an entire population of players rendered homeless, and the gameplay of potentially dozens of people impacted by the actions of others.” Avalon’s administrators call its gameplay “realplaying,” as opposed to role-playing; Avalon’s been telling the same story since the late 80’s, and the players have been in charge the whole time.
None of these experiences are available in current MMORPGs (with the possible exception of CCP Games’ EVE Online, which is so complex and realistic it allows players to form multi-national conglomerates and rise as real life virtual space tyrants), and as a result, many MUDs share a similar benefit: their players stick around. Avalon’s founder, Yehueda Simmons, is still involved with the game (although he took a hiatus during the ‘90s). Lasher’s been with Aardwolf since he founded it in 1996. Gammon’s been part of the MUD scene since MUSHClient premiered in 1995, while Lindroos started playing BatMUD way back in 1991. MUD players are fiercely loyal, too. They don’t play MUDs; they play Duris, or Avalon, or Aardwolf specifically.
It’s easy to see why. For the most part, World of Warcraft and its ilk provide content for players to consume; MUDs let players create and steer the content themselves. Whether it’s the twists and turns of Duris’s never-ending war, BatMUD’s player-created world, or Avalon’s decades-old story, the players have a notable, meaningful impact on MUDs’ virtual worlds. They’re personally invested, and that’s what keeps them hooked.
If MMORPGs are going to survive long-term, that’s something that Blizzard, Square Enix and other MMORPG developers might want to look into. MUDs’ text-based interfaces might be low-tech, but they deliver rich, emotional, and intensely personal experiences. At their best, MUDS make people feel like they’re important. Despite World of Warcraft’s subscription woes, it’s actually very easy to keep players coming back for more: all you have to do is make them care. They’ll do the rest.
Christopher Gates is a writer and video game critic from Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time, he watches too much baseball, reads too many comics, and drinks too much beer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWGates.
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