Archive for the ‘MUDs’ Category

Just wander until you die

I have previously recounted bits and pieces of my experiences in StrangeMUD, the game that introduced me to online roleplaying and was my gateway drug to the MMOs of today. These days, StrangeMUD is still up and running, but the population is thin; when last I logged on, I saw only one other player who was as surprised to see me as I him.

There were likely several reasons why people started to leave StrangeMUD back in the day, but I remember one such reason very clearly. Back then we didn’t have quests unless an Imm was online and had declared that this day was the day we would Quest(tm). Usually we would log on, go to a few well-known areas, kill the famous mobs for their famous drops, chat, maybe group up for a particularly difficult kill, etc.

However, since part of the process to become an Imm was to create an area of one’s own, some Imms felt slighted that players did not frequent their areas, as some areas were clearly more popular than others. There were prolonged and heated debates on the game’s bulletin board about the matter. In an attempt to make sure that everyone’s areas received visitors, game-wide nerfs were put into place; suddenly, you would kill that favored mob that dropped that wonderful cloak, and find that not only was he more difficult to kill, but he no longer dropped anything. The solution, the Imms said, was to explore! Go out and find those other areas, they said.

The problem with this decree was, of course, the harsher nature of online RPGs in those days. Not only did you have to be careful not to be killed lest you leave your corpse (with all its loot and gold) behind in a hostile area, but there were death traps as well, which would simply destroy every item you were carrying without hope of retrieval – and being in a group rather than a solo player would in no way mitigate the loss. Most of us playing the game had no intention of wandering around the game world blindly hoping to stumble upon something interesting when so much precious loot was at stake.

Furthermore, the daily practice of logging in and “running the rounds” so to speak was part of the social life of the game. With that missing, people simply… stopped coming online. I watched the “who” list grow shorter by the week, until I, too, started forgetting to come back.

The moral of this story is that some people, by which I mean at least myself, like to explore, but do not necessarily like being hindered in our attempts due to either arbitrary difficulty spikes, acts of game god, or level gating. I am seeing three general trends represented in current and upcoming MMO’s approaches to the matter (sandboxes notwithstanding only because I don’t play sandboxes):

Rift (the prevailing mindset): Some things simply should be able to kill you if you wander into a higher-level area than your own. Get bigger numbers to counter their numbers. I say this is an example of the “progression model” because as with most MMOs, the emphasis is on growing your character number-wise, and level-gating serves as a carrot for players to pursue: to one day be powerful and well-geared enough to be able to safely explore that content. Level first, explore later.

Guild Wars 2 (we’ll fix it or die trying mindset – see also City of Heroes/Villains and Everquest II for similar, though not identical, ideas): You’ll always scale up or down to the area you’ve entered so that your numbers will roughly match the mob’s numbers. I call this a “bandaid model” because it doesn’t get rid of the level-gating (or levels) so much as it seeks to make those levels less relevant via scaling and side-kicking. It does raise the question of why we should bother with levels at all, but in this model exploration is king, since there is nothing keeping you from running over that hill yonder.

The Secret World (you’re not in Hyboria anymore): No levels, only skills. There will be mobs you can only take down using skills you can only purchase after you’ve earned a certain amount of xp (or purchased their pre-requisites). I call this the “oh what the hell, let’s try it out” model because given that The Secret World is a story-based MMO and not quite a sandbox, I’ve no real idea what effect this will have on exploration or how open the world will be (can you even wander the world without unlocking areas via story-based missions?).

Since neither TSW or GW2 are out yet, I will have to withhold judgment as to which of these models I would prefer, but I can easily state that I am quite tired of the first model, boy howdy. Exploration, and primarily story, are what drive me in an MMO, and current offerings can be admittedly weak on story, and then gate me from exploration on top of that.

What would an MMO be like, if it just let you wander without fear of death by numbers? It would have a different audience than many existing MMOs to be sure, but – what would it look like? Does this idea begin and end at games like Myst URU?

I wonder.

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I have found it very interesting reading reviews of Star Trek Online being posted across the blogosphere (Syp from Bio Break has compiled a cross-section here). Since the NDA has dropped, I have started seeing more positive reviews – the theory being that those most disappointed with a game in beta are most likely to break NDA because they don’t care about being kicked out – and that has put my mind to ease somewhat on whether there will be a sustained population to play with in the coming months. I have been reading the negative reviews carefully as well, because it often amuses me to see people criticize the very features that appeal to me most in-game.

I wonder if I should attribute my gaming preferences to my MUD background, or to having gotten my start in graphical MMOs with Guild Wars, or the fact that, unlike what seems like every other gamer in the free world, I never did get into Everquest, WoW, UO, or Asheron’s Call. That very admission might be enough for many gamers to strip me of the “MMO” I place before “gamer” – when Guild Wars’ rightful place in the realm of MMOs is still actively being debated today, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.* However, this background clearly indicates that while I did spend many hours chained to my computer in pursuit of the next boss drop in StrangeMUD, grinding gold to score trinkets for my house, or hanging out in chat, buying and selling items on the auction house waiting for enough players to be available for a roaming group, this is not the same experience as someone who saw the world graphically open up to them for the first time in EverQuest.

The worlds of the MUDs I played were not worlds in the same way as MMOs; even if you had to travel across the continent to reach a destination, it would always be simpler and faster to create an alias for all your w;w;w;w;s;s;s;w;d;e;e;e;u needs and set your wimpy to 50% than to physically point your avatar north and start running, dodging mobs along the way. The death penalties could be just as harsh as in MMOs of the time, the need for grouping and a player-driven economy just as prevalent, but there was arguably less time spent living in many text-based worlds than in a graphical one. I never thought of the MUDs I played as anything other than games, even as friendships were forged in-game and maintained out of it.**

And so it is that I have no desire to see hundreds of people surround me in any given location in-game; instancing is my preference because they replicate the cozy feeling I had playing MUDs where even with hundreds of players online, only a dozen at most could be expected to be in the same room as I was. I have no problem with fast travel, as I bore of riding for half an hour studying the countryside after the first time. Graphics are paramount in any MMO I play; I chose my imagination and text descriptions over EverQuest in 1999. Death penalties repulse me, for even when they existed in MUDs, the use of aliases and city recalls generally made corpse retrieval no more time-consuming than a spirit run in WoW. Funnily enough, these are traits that critics attribute to so-called “WoW-kiddies”, or gamers raised on consoles, though I was making use of them in 1995.

Are these two styles of play so very divergent that we cannot enjoy the same kinds of games? Am I the only MUDder who sees the current evolution of MMOs drawing closer to her prior gaming experiences, while MMO gamers see those same games as moving away from the virtual world model that captured their imaginations?

Edit: I am aware that the branch of MMOs starting with EverQuest and those following its example are based on the DikuMUD model. I still maintain that they play differently enough to warrant asking the question.

*I choose to describe myself as an MMO gamer anyway, because it is the category I most closely identify with; I do not play FPSes, single-player games, or console games, while I have at least sampled most MMOs, and maintained subscriptions to several. Also, nyah-nyah-nyah. :)
**Having not played every MUD in existence, I cannot verify that no MUD exists as a virtual world. However, I’m not certain what this would look like without verging into MUSH or MOO territory.

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I blame it all on Jojo the lich.

I was introduced to the world of multiplayer online gaming in 1995 by a college friend who enthralled me with tales of her adventures in a world called StrangeMUD. Late nights after studying, I would watch her rapid-fire typing, shrieks of glee and dismay as this or that mob ANNIHILATED! or EVISCERATED! her character, a warrior/mage lich, in battle. Eventually I would join her for 5-hour gaming sessions in the university computer lab with several other friends, slaying foes in such whimsical areas as Sesame Street, Wonderland, Ancient Rome, or the Stairway to Heaven.

It was through StrangeMUD that I learned what it meant to be addicted to a game, to log in to see my friends and find hours suddenly gone from my evening. It was also here that I developed my predominant play style: as a paladin hybrid it was relatively comfortable for me to solo most areas by myself, with occasional grouping for elite areas. More often than not I logged in for social reasons – the community was small enough to have an active global chat in which discussions of politics did not erupt into flame wars. Auctions took place on an automated public channel and could be participated in anywhere in the game world; Madlibs were a similarly automated channel to which anyone could contribute as well. Even while playing technically “alone”, I never felt lonely in the game world, as everyone in the close-knit community was a mere whisper and recall spell away.

Sure, there were no quests outside of special events held by the Imms from time to time, and levels had to be gained by wandering the world (or visiting a few favorite haunts) and killing mobs for hours. Sure, there were corpse runs and mobs that corpse-looted, mobs that would track you once they’d killed you and had to be taken down before you could re-enter the game world. Sure, there were Death Traps(tm) that insta-killed you in dramatic ways and caused you to lose whatever loot you were wearing or carrying, with no hope of retrieval. I remember all of those times, and not all of them fondly.

But mostly, I learned back then that I gamed for the people, and secondarily for the experiences I had with them. My friend and I left StrangeMUD after a couple of years for a variety of reasons, one being that we needed to refocus on our studies. I’ve returned, from time to time, to create a new character and run around the place I called home for so long, but the population has moved on, and none of my friends play any longer – it just isn’t the same. So, I suppose I’ve been looking to recreate that experience ever since. It is common knowledge by now, isn’t it, that you never forget your “first?”

Tomorrow: Addiction, Subscription, Guild Wars, and the Single-Player Experience

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