Free for All: Celebrating MUD May with Gemstone IV

GemStone IV website screenshot
MUD May has been a blast so far, but I won't lie to you and say that I hope to even make a dent in the decades-old history of many of these titles. I decided instead to use some examples from my favorite MUDs that I have come across over the last couple of years. It's admittedly been a challenge to think about what to cover. Do I cover the communities? The in-game mechanics? The publishers?

This week I decided to attempt to kill several birds with a handful of stones (and questions) and snagged Simutronics Producer Eric Latham for an video interview. Simutronics has been in the business for 26 years, and the publisher makes my favorite MUD, Gemstone IV. Latham has been with the company for 15 of those years! Technically I am using the interview and video as part of my Rise and Shiny series, but the questions and answers are more relevant to the general topic of MUDs. You might see it now as well as later, but it will hopefully provide some insight into the world of making MUDs.

GemStone IV website screenshot
One of the most important aspects of our interview, and one that I wish I would have concentrated on for most of the hour, concerned subscriptions. Modern MMO fans are by this point pretty used to some variation of a free-to-play model. There are time-limited trials, freemium models, buy-to-play, and many others. So when a player is told that a text-based, 20-plus-years-old MMO is asking for $15 to $50 per month for access, you can imagine the snickering that follows.

I am known as the free-to-play guy, or at least I was when I was hired at Massively three years ago. Now, free-to-play is the norm. But I never wanted my readers to feel as though I disliked subscriptions. The fact is that I support whatever type of access you enjoy, even if I prefer to play games that offer free access and that use microtransactions for financial fuel. If you want to pay $60 for a client download and $15 a month, go for it. MMOs, by they free-to-play or pay-to-play, offer more quality entertainment of the type you won't find anywhere else, for less than the price of a trip to the movies and dinner.

Still, I had to ask Eric about Simutronics' Premium and Platinum servers. The Platinum server was, at one time, even closer to $80 per month. It might sound astounding, but if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it's that if you do not place a price on what you create, many people will not value it. Sure, $50 for one month of access to might seem like an insane amount of money, but consider what you get.

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For example, in return for your 50 bucks, you get a smaller community. That might sound funny when we are referencing massively multiplayer games, but the smaller community is much more concentrated on roleplay and story. There are real social consequences if you act like a jerk in a smaller community. You also get access to more live events and special features than you would normally get on other servers. Admittedly, you still get the customization options and GM events on the lower-priced servers, but the frequency and intensity of the ones on Platinum are much higher. Every time I log into Platinum, I find some sort of unexpected twist. One night I joined a militia and fought giants; another night I hung out with some citizens roleplaying. There's always something going on, and Eric seemed as puzzled as I was as to why modern MMOs just do not offer the same GM interaction.

"Think about it for a second. When was the last time you played an MMO and witnessed a developer roleplay a character for you to interact with?"

Think about it for a second. When was the last time you played an MMO and witnessed a developer roleplay a character for you to interact with? This happens on a regular basis in many MUDs, and on the higher-cost servers like the ones you find in GemStone IV or Dragonrealms, it happens all the time. There is even a handy calendar on the official website to keep an eye on. What happens during these events? Well, a lot of things. A GM character might just pop in and reward you for excellent roleplay. The next time you see a GM, he or she might be roleplaying a vendor who sells customization options for in-game cash. If you've ever wondered how players get many of those really long, wonderful descriptions that I talked about in last week's article, that's how: They likely paid for them in-game by bumping into a GM.

Not all MUDs make you pay for gameplay or for customization. Some have similar systems for outfitting your character that are based on time played or RP points earned. Once again, the sheer number of MUDs and styles of play prevents me from listing all of the different ways, so I'll stick to the Simutronics examples for now. You can also purchase separate adventure packs that act essentially as a guided or scripted game of Dungeons and Dragons. A GM might become a general guide for the adventure, firing off events or slipping into the role of NPCs.

"We talked about the difference between those who run a MUD on a volunteer, part-time basis and those who run a MUD as a business: It's the ability to charge for something. I tend to agree."

Is it silly for a MUD to ask for any fees at all? We talked about the difference between those who run a MUD on a volunteer, part-time basis and those who run a MUD as a business: It's the ability to charge for something. I tend to agree. Indie development is hard, and people must be paid unless the games are run in someone's spare time. I noticed that Simutronics' website is one of the cleanest and best organized of MUD websites I have come across. The money that is being made is obviously going toward something. Sure, I would prefer a free model with a possible cash shop that sells titles or customizations, but I can only imagine the sheer rage that would erupt from the community if the word "microtransaction" showed up in the discussion. The sad part is that a sub is in reality the same thing; it's a price that must be paid to gain access to something in the game. Ironically, the 100 or so players in the chat room during our chat brought up wanting to return if not for the monthly fee... so free-to-play might not be a bad idea at all.

I was so happy to talk to Eric because MUDs have existed in the shadows of gaming's past for so long. I would love to sit down with him and other MUD developers for hours, talking about why they are doing what they do and why they believe that many gaming sites ignore them. To me, MUDs are still as valid as any other genre or game. Just because they're old doesn't mean they are gone.

I have seen MMOs with much, much smaller populations and much shorter histories getting front-page support on other websites. Why, then, don't MUDs deserve the occasional nod? I'll talk more about that next week when I interview a few MUD players. What draws a player to MUDs, and what can MUDs do to secure their place in gaming's future?

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.