The Slow Death of Text-Based Gaming

I was introduced to multi-user text-based gaming via Telnet in 1993. As an 80s baby, I grew up on Zork and Super Mario Brothers. Interactive gaming was a completely new and novel concept for me, a live action marriage between the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series and Dungeons and Dragons. The games were called Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and I was completely addicted from the first week. I played over a 1200 baud modem for six to eight hours at a clip before crashing, only to find myself dreaming in scrolling text. These games eventually spawned today’s household names: World of Warcraft, EverQuest, NeverWinter Nights, and dozens of others with big name gaming firms behind them. For those of us left behind in the Mom-and-Pop text-based shops, the evolution six or so years ago to both graphical and corporate has been slowly killing our way of gaming life.

I took two or three years off from gaming after I graduated from college, preferring to use my time to meet and eventually marry my now husband. I returned to gaming on a whim. Bored one afternoon, I connected via AOL dial-up to the MUD Connector, a gaming directory, to try to find my old MUD stomping grounds. My initial search was fruitless, but I found HexOnyx instead. I connected and made friends with an immortal calling herself Albus. I have been there ever since.

Where are the MUDs Now?
Flash forward from the late 90s to 2006 and you’ll find me presiding as Implementor over a superior game with a rapidly declining player base. As in the real world, MUDs often promote for the most ridiculous of reasons. I became the site manager and lead designer of Hexonyx.com, Hex’s web site. From there, I was promoted to Assistant Areas Head, and then, by virtue of attendance, Areas Head (meaning I’m in charge of all new area, monster, and equipment creation). Last year I was again promoted, this time to co-Implementor. Why? I’m always there and I’m willing to work. Just like in real life.

We’re suffering. In the “good old days,” as the 35+ crowd who originated Hex annoyingly refers to the early 1990s, there might have been as many as 30 people online at a time. Those were big numbers back then, considering that the vast majority of the U.S. population was unaware of the existence of the Internet. Now we’re lucky if we have 10 people on at a time.

Like any small community, we have our petty scandals. Just this year alone, we’ve been rocked by cheating, hacking, and accusations of corruption within the immortal community. Our players act disgustingly as if the game is real life, which isn’t uncommon within the RPG community. If they have to lie, cheat and steal to win, even if it means illegal activity in real life, they will do it. In June 2005, an online gamer in China (not one of ours) murdered a fellow player over a piece of “stolen” in-game equipment. The gamer reported the theft to the police, who told him that “virtual” property is not protected by the law. Unsatisfied and unwilling to let it go, the gamer took the law into his own hands and murdered the thief. Plenty of people were shocked by this killing, but I think it’s safe to assume that none of the shocked masses ever really played an RPG. This kind of game attracts the unbalanced.

Death By Minimum Effort/Maximum Reward Gaming Mentality
So what’s killing text-based online gaming? We have evolved into an minimum effort/maximum reward society. Why would you read a book when you can rent the movie? Why would you research in the library when you can use the Internet? And why would you play a text-based game when there’s a perfectly good visual interactive experience available? Sure, it leaves a lot less to the imagination, but why let reading get in the way of an otherwise perfectly good maiming and killing experience? How can the MUD community compete with that? The very industry we unwittingly spawned is now our biggest competitor – and they’re winning. With so many viable options out there, potential players are going first for flash and dazzle, not the low tech equivalent we provide. Faced with the choice of an AC type interface or a lot of reading, most players go for the sparkle and shine. It’s Mercedes over Daewoo.

In Hex’s case, our lack of numbers constitutes our single biggest issue and we’re in a death spiral because of it. The hacking and cheating melodramas this year resulted in the banning of two players. Turbine’s Asheron’s Call, a good-sized graphical RPG with corporate ownership, gives cheaters the boot now and again (according to their web site, they deleted dozens of accounts recently for ‘item duping’). AC can take the hit. They have corporate sponsorship, advertising, paid writers, and are a subscription-based service. When they ban two players, 20 more take their place. It’s like cutting off the heads of Hydra. The loss of two players doesn’t sound like much, but when you aren’t replacing them with anyone else, it’s an insurmountable obstacle that ultimately amounts to a death knell. In fact, while we are Multi-User Dungeons, AC and World of Warcraft fall into a separate category, MMORPG, or Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. The name says it all.

Hex isn’t the last MUD out there. New games pop up all the time and the smart ones have corporate sponsorship. This isn’t important so much for getting the bills paid as for getting the word out there. In the beginning, there were no corporate RPGs. There were only the local guys. If you had a good game and belonged to a few newsgroups, you could end up with the entire geek population of a university playing on your server. Now, we’re like the local hardware store competing with Home Depot. We don’t have the advertising dollars. We get maybe a half dozen truly new players a year. I think it’s safe to assume the number of new players World of Warcraft attracts is exponentially higher than that on an annual basis.

If I had to guess, I’d say MUDs probably have another three or four years of life left in them. Some of the bigger ones may survive or evolve into full-blown graphical RPGs. Will Hex make it that long? I don’t know. I’ll keep building new areas, creating new monsters, and rolling out the welcome wagon to newbies. I’m eternally optimistic that we’ll enjoy a renaissance, like the return of Garbage Pail Kids and Care Bears. If we don’t make it, though, you’ll probably find me hanging out in someone else’s graphical dungeon, looking for work.

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