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Free for All: How MUDs can stay relevant in today's 3-D world


My latest passion is MUDs, or multi-user-dungeons. Essentially, they are text-based MMOs. Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure book that is played with hundreds or thousands of other players. I have found more freedom in the text-based worlds of some titles, freedom to make the character I want to make. I've also found many of the common, underlying problems with MMOs in MUDs as well. These are issues that might have started with MUDs, being that they are some of the oldest multiplayer games in existence today.

I wanted to take a look at how many of these MUDs could keep themselves in the game. It's not as though they need the help; many of them have been steadily chugging along for a decade or more. What I would like to see is many of them add more players, add to their developer teams, and actually stick around for 10 more years.

Is it possible? I think so.

Gemstone IV website screenshot
Update the website

I see so many MUD developers (I have looked at about 15 so far) who simply refuse to update the official game website to a modern standard. Updating a website is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to attract players to your game. Add screenshots or concept art, feature a "player of the week" on the front page, embed a Twitter stream to show social activity and maybe update the logo. These little changes are ways to show that the game is still to be taken seriously. I'd love to see more MUD developers add videos to their websites. I know it sounds strange, but a 30-minute video that shows some of the basics of combat or details communication can be very valuable to a new player. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a thousand pictures. After I did a series of three MUD videos in a row, I received messages from players telling me how helpful it was to see how to play, and developers told me how helpful it was to see how a newcomer played the game.

Quit using inside-baseball terms

Imagine you're playing a brand-new MMO and need to find out how to do something. You ask the general chat and get an answer or two, but the helpful players are referring to game mechanics or specific terms that you wouldn't know in the first place. If you did, you would not be asking the question. Well, MUDs are filled with examples like that. In a MUD, everything is dependent on specific commands. If you don't know these commands, you are often told to read massive walls of help files. Much of the problem is that when these games were made, the developers used commands that read like lines of code. It can be very, very frustrating to play MUDs that require secret code words just to figure out how to pick something up the correct way. Developers could either make a video explaining some of the most important words or commands, or they can simplify the ones that exist already.

Gemstone IV website screenshot
Pick or host an official client

The great thing about MUDs is that they can be played with almost any client. Essentially, a MUD is a chat room (I know I'm simplifying) that can be read with whatever tool the player is comfortable with. While I enjoy this freedom of choice, I much prefer when a developer either features its own client, like the fantastic Gemstone IV, or recommends one. When a new player comes along and has questions about the client, often she is told to go check up on it herself. It would be much smarter for the MUD developers to pick a client if they are not going to make one themselves and give out specific guides on how to use it. Again, it would take an hour to make a video that explained the best ways to sign into the client, how to adjust text size and background color, and other important features. MUD developers too often shrug and avoid taking an official stance on the dozen client choices in the market. It would be wiser to get to know one or two very well and then recommend that one to the players.

Utilize social media

Social media is not just a tool for people who want to share pictures of their cats. Ask any AAA developer and he will tell you just how important and useful social media is to the communication process. Social media is yet another tool that helps modernize the game a bit. Gamers love to get a direct communication from their favorite developers. Social media is also an easy way (if done correctly) to help with customer service.

Get mobile

As with most of these suggestions, this one is easier said than done. I know this, but I will also promise that there are ways to do most of these without stressing the already-taxed all-volunteer development team that works on the game. Gamers are moving more and more to mobile. It's been shown that mobile gaming is going gangbusters while standard, client-based, and console gaming is starting to show serious signs of wear. Why is this happening? Simple convenience. MUDs need to recognize the convenience factor and either make an official app that connects to the world or pick out a mobile app and recommend it on the site. I showed off two mobile apps a few weeks ago, and there are more out there. It might be wise to host a browser-based version of the game as well. Remember, the lower the barrier to entry, the better, and there's almost no lower barrier than an app or browser-based version of a game.

So there are some tips from someone who considers himself nowhere near the talent level of a programmer or game creator. But I am someone who has seen how modernizing even the oldest games in existence can give them a new lease on life -- or at least new players. Strangely enough, I have been contacted by MUD developers and long-term players who don't seem interested in new players. They have a playerbase already and really see no reason to grow. Growth can mean much more work, after all.

I think that MUDs still have much to offer. Just look at the new crop of choose-your-adventure books that are popping up on app markets. People still love to read and still love text. MUDs can take advantage of that. I want to see MUDs get the respect they deserve, but they need to make some changes first.

If not, they will always be seen as nothing but relics from the past.

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!

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