Survival of Text-Based Games in the Graphical Age

Brody's Speech from the first FidoCon, Sept. 8, 2006:

Every few months, it never fails: Someone posts on the forums at The MUD Connector or Top MUD Sites about the impending demise of text-based games because too many players are drawn away to the big graphical MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, Everquest and City of Heroes.

I feel compelled to respond: Text isn't dead. It's not dying. But its enthusiasts need to work harder to get the word out and remind people that our games exist and that they offer something the graphical giants don't.

At this moment, more than 1,600 MUDs of one variety or another are listed at TMC. Those are just the games that get listed. Sure, some are defunct now. Some never got off the ground. But many are up and running. Some have been operational for a decade or more.

The other day, I was perusing a discussion about World of Warcraft's perennial patching issues at Gamespot, and someone mentioned in the thread how you never got problems like that in the old days, when MUDs were around and running on Telnet. The poster wondered if MUDs even existed anymore. Small surprise that: Computer gaming magazines don't spend time writing about text-based games. It's not because text-based games suck. It's because computer game magazines are supported more by advertising than by subscribers. If you're going to sell a more expensive computer with a hyped-up graphics card, why give coverage to games that don't even use graphics? And, let's face it, magazines and gaming websites are image-driven, and text games don't make for compelling pictures to accompany articles.

So, my fellow text-based gamers, we're effectively shut out of the media attention market unless we do something controversial (say, coding addictive drugs and effects into your game as Iron Realms did) to get a little buzz, buy an ad in those magazines (as Medievia and others that can afford to do so have done), or find some other way to garner attention via letters to the editor and other outlets in gaming magazines and their web forums. But media attention for text-based games only lasts so long. It's a blip on the radar that might bring an upswing of activity for a little while. They come for the novelty - "Look, an old-timey text game. How quaint!" - but do they stay?

What do graphical games offer for upwards of $15 a month?

  • Puzzles
  • Quests
  • Monster-killing
  • Level-grinding
  • Player vs. Player combat
  • Trade/Crafting
  • Clans/Guilds
  • Pretty pictures that require a high-end graphics card and processor to run optimally

What does the average MUD offer for free? All of those features except the pictures, which means that, by and large, MUDs are compatible across all computer platforms and they're cost-effective to play and produce, even if they're not as pretty as WoW. Some are playable via web browsers. Some come with their own prettified client software. But most of them are accessible by simple Telnet connection or through the use of free or low-cost client software that can be downloaded on the web.

As a general rule, most free MUDs can match many of the features of a pay-to-play graphical MMORPG, with the added bonus that MUD players are part of a tighter-knit community whose voices matter far more than they do in WoW or Everquest.

But within the cozy niche market of MUDs, the games that really stand to flourish in the face of competition from the graphical MMORPGs are the MUDs that put a strong focus on evolving storylines in which the players can grow and have a real impact on the shape of the world their characters inhabit.

On WoW, the quests never change. The missions always end the same. It comes down to strategic planning and playing your class. It's impractical for Blizzard to let players truly change the world because it would involve expenses on new art assets that they'd rather invest in making new expansions to sell more games. Oh, sure, you can kill Warchief Thrall, the leader of the Horde, but he just respawns a few minutes later. You can delve into Molten Core over and over again, repeatedly slaying the same bosses in the hopes of winning valuable loot. But nothing actually changes until Blizzard says it's time to make new areas available.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that while I talk about the unchanging nature of WoW, I've been a paying player there since it came online in 2004. I got my job as a writer/designer on the new Fallen Earth MMORPG due to the time and effort I put into playing one of my characters, Stamp, on the Earthen Ring server. So, I'm both an MMORPG player *and* I'm now part of the enemy camp, as it were, developing a graphical online RPG. However, I'm still a fan of text-based games and I won't give up on them. Yes, we may see a decline of repetitive MUDs that don't offer anything new and different. But if more text-based games are developed with an eye toward worlds that change, shaping storylines that depend on interactions of players who then have a real impact on the form their world assumes, then I think such games will have a chance to thrive and prosper.

Development of interesting, player-affected worlds is only the first step toward ensuring the survival of text-based games in the graphical age, though. We can't just keep preaching to the same choirs in forums that already are devoted to people who know about MUDs. Our marketing efforts need to branch out. Run a game with real-time improvisational interactive storytelling? That's just a LARP (Live-Action Roleplaying) game without the logistics, the heat, or the bulky props. Find LARP-related forums, especially those that are close to your thematic interests, and invite them. Find writing forums. Find storytelling forums. And those are just the free venues, but they are the venues that can really last and generate the most long-term interest in our games.

The more expensive venues are still open to us, but they would require a level of cooperation and trust between text-based game developers that we've never really seen much, if at all, in the past. Alone, most MUDs couldn't afford to buy a decent-sized ad in a magazine. If we pooled resources, both financial and artistic, we could put together promotional ads to remind people that MUDs aren't dead, never died, and are still around and thriving. We could point people to places like TMC, TMS and other MUD community sites.

In short: We've definitely got a chance for our games to survive despite the growing crop of MMORPGs, and whether we work together on joint marketing efforts or separately on our own independent game promotions, we stand to create a rising tide that lifts all boats.

We're still here. We're not vanishing. We just need to work harder to remind gamers that they could save money and get a more fulfilling long-term experience from text-based games.

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