Here I am making myself crazy once again. Why? Why do I insist on visiting games that I know will provoke issues both physical and mental? I guess it's because lately I have been fascinated with MUDs, or multi-user-dungeons. They are better described as text-based MMOs or choose-your-own-adventure books written with thousands of other players. It's a fascinating concept, especially when you consider how dissimilar it is to today's modern, easy-to-play offerings. The ancient design of the MUD now feels fresh, so much so that I have decided to dedicate a future article about the possibility of MUDs' viability in today's three-dimensional world.
I have found some good and some very bad over the last several weeks. I've also stumbled across brand-new versions of the migraines that often bother me when I concentrate way, way too hard on PC text. I have to admit that my issues do not seem that common, but it is important to look at a game from all angles, even from the angle of someone who has specific issues. BatMUD has tested my patience over the last few weeks and several hours. It's also shown me some wonderful adventure and sparked my imagination.
I'm going to start by saying that, yes, I realize I can't experience even a fraction of what the game has to offer within a few weeks of play. I know this. The reason my experience is important is that so many game designers ignore or forget the new player experience. Ask any developer to tell you how many players are lost during those precious first few hours of gameplay. It's something that vexes game studios; it's a problem that seems almost unsolvable. Sure, good design can encourage players to stick around, but I tend to think that so many designers are so worried about their high-level playerbase or about rushing their new players through the game that they forget just how exciting -- or lame -- some very basic mechanics can be to a new player.
For example, BatMUD follows the same path that a lot of these MUDs seem to take by allowing new players to make varied characters that range from tree-like creatures to gargoyles. The character of the player character is of paramount importance to a MUD, or so it seems. I couldn't believe how excited I was when I was just checking out the race list page. It's obvious how hard it is to create such a vast array of characters in a typical, three-dimensional MMO, but some have done it. Either way, I loved seeing the selections that were offered. I ended up going with an unassuming Tinman but regretted it later when I realized I did not want to play a Borg-like character from the land of Oz! I am thinking of re-rolling as a Gargoyle... that's just too cool.
I also loved the artwork that was featured all over the website. The character portraits, the background art... all of it was lovingly hand-painted. The art later on served to remind me how wonderful it would be to see even some of it inside the actual game. Gemstone IV, a MUD I looked at a few weeks ago, had bits of art that would show up during room descriptions or monster fights, and it was nice just to have it break up the monotonous experience of reading. Reading. Reading. Watch the embedded video if you want an idea of just how frustrating playing BatMUD can be. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that setting the game up to feel comfortable, like a nice book, is very, very frustrating.
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This is another trend in MUDs: The designers and many of the players seem perfectly fine with hosting or playing a game that literally looks like it did 15 to 20 years ago. I have been playing games, all sorts of games, for so long that I understand each experience often needs to be tweaked -- sometimes very heavily -- to each individual player. I understand this now more than ever since my eyes were opened to the plight of the disabled gamer. Even though I understand this, the frustration of some clients is surprising.
Let's forget the game client issues for now, though. Once I got the game to look and feel how I wanted it to (thanks in very large part to players like Antti, who helped me on the forums and Twitter), I found myself in a pretty typical MUD. There were descriptions of most areas, and I navigated by typing an N for North or SW for Southwest and would interact through typed commands. The official client did include a nice hotbar to bind commands to. Unfortunately, the numbers on the bar, 1 through 10, corresponded to the F family of keys, like F1, F2 and so on. Why, then, do they say "1,2,3,4"? I know it sounds like such a tiny thing, but remember this: MUDs can be very hard to figure out. It can be hard enough to figure out a brand-new graphical MMO, but imagine if you had to read mountains of text just to find out the best way to attack something, memorize those commands unless you wanted to pore over those mounds of text again, and then repeat the process for almost everything else in the game.
There was a newbie channel and a list of helpers, but more often than not I was told to "read X" or "type help X," and I would quickly become depressed knowing that I had to read more and more text. Yes, there were some very helpful players. There were also many players who shouted rude things, named their items nasty names, and generally acted as if it was recess time in junior high. Gemstone IV and a small amount of Threshold RPG have spoiled me; in those titles, roleplay is enforced, especially in the latter. BatMUD just seems to not care about the whole thing. If roleplay isn't enforced in a MUD, than what am I doing crafting a character? I am simply playing a batch of stats.
"How about some basic videos for newbies to watch? After all, I received several emails and in-game tells that told me how helpful it was to watch my hour-long video."
There's really too much for me to complain about with BatMUD, but honestly most of it is so fixable that I have faith the developers could clean it up in one patch. How about some basic videos for newbies to watch? After all, I received several emails and in-game tells that told me how helpful it was to watch my hour-long video. Why do developers avoid simply sitting down a brand-new player and seeing how she navigates the game? I think I got my answer in one particular tell that basically said the game's issues stemmed from the fact that it was made for people who already knew a lot about MUDs, i.e., it wasn't made with new players in mind. I believe that, especially after experiencing it.
Don't let me convince you that BatMUD is all bad. It's actually really darn cool when you make sense of the game. But it is a game of contradictions. For example, there is a great realm map that actually updates in real time, but there's no map that works as well in a city. Combat is fun, but it can be very hard to find monsters to fight. There are plenty of quests, it seems, but the newbie quest-giver details are about as clear as fogged glass. I loved making my character and joining the unique ranks of a race, but then I found out I could upload any photo to my in-game profile and roleplay was not enforced. How... odd.
Look, I know I need more time with these MUDs. I know this. I want these newbie-player experiences to serve the same purpose they have for the entire run of Rise and Shiny: to show just how important the newbie experience is. I was initially drawn in to BatMUD just by checking out the website's descriptions. So much of that pull was weakened when I got in game and was bombarded by confusion. This could be solved, I think, by re-hashing the newbie experience, whipping up some helpful videos, and asking, "What would a newbie do?" once in a while. I'll definitely be checking back on this one.
Next week, I am pushing for more punishment and jumping into Threshold RPG, another title that is fun so far but has made almost no attempt at modernizing. We'll see how it plays for me. Watch me stream the game live on Monday, May 21st, at 5:00 p.m. EDT right here on our Twitch.tv channel! See you in the chat room!
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook!