What MUDs Still Have to Offer to the Virtual World Discussion

There has been a lot of discussion within academic circles regarding the use of virtual worlds for the purpose of researching various forms of human and communal interaction and formation. Due to the exorbitant current cost of entry in creating an MMORPG (and the fact that they already have a population for the purposes of sampling), it seems like a great deal of the research is occurring within already established games. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, though there will come a time when the greater degree of control over variables that comes with creating your own environments will likely become necessary. (As a case in point, while they can select which games they choose to sample, researchers tend not to have control over how the game is marketed, nor which demographics it chooses to target.)

There also seems to be a fair bit of focus on contemporary games, like Second Life, and World of Warcraft. While this certainly has merit, especially in that these games reach a certain critical mass, allowing for a greater demographic sampling for research: you are more likely to get not just core gamers, but also casuals with other interests that play as a fad (because “everyone” plays). This can only help the overall direction of research into social dynamics and interaction, and examining the social organism as a whole. However, what I’ve found is very little attention to a return to prior research, prior virtual worlds and experiments.

I think this is incredibly unfortunate. I think there is still a lot of play left in earlier models, such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons, the text-based precursor to the modern MMORPG). Many MUDs at this point have been established for well over a decade, which I think would offer a wealth of opportunities for seeing how a community matures and shifts as it ages. Let’s take AvatarMUD for example, since I have nearly a decade of experience with it. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the population rise to a peak population count of 190 individual players on at a given time, with a median of roughly 120 across the day, to a slow decline as players moved on, where the median is closer to 60, with a daily peak player count of around 90. Even in this, it has survived better than many MUDs.

As the player community has shrunk, so has the sense of community, which could be partially attributed to several design implementations that allowed for greater fragmentation of the player base (in addition to outside factors, such as a shift away from MUDs in general, and the increased availability of broadband allowing for more visually robust games to be played). What is particularly notable is that as the nature of the game evolved, we started adjusting and adapting more and more for “min-max” players, and hardcore players. This came at the cost of the more casual, social player. While I don’t think it is a perfect ratio, I strongly suspect there is at least a passing corollary between the reduction in population, with the prior percentage of casual and social players. What has remained are largely committed players, who have invested hundreds or even thousands of hours into their characters, and generally have considerably more than one alt. They’ve “mastered” the play mechanics of the game, and generally continue to play because of their investment in the game, and the friends they’ve made within the game, rather than continuing to find new challenges.

Due to making these adjustments in order to “keep ahead” of the “hardcore” players, the barrier of entry for new and more socially-oriented players becomes untenable unless they already have friends within the game. This is not unreasonable, since MUDs are largely populated through word of mouth: they are often labors of love, and not even allowed to charge or generate revenue, which means they tend not to have the budget to advertise. It does, however, mean that the truly new player is largely left to fend for themselves, and can become extremely frustrated until they start establishing a rapport and support group among other players. If they aren’t willing or able to devote the time and energy towards that end, that often marks the end of their time on the MUD.

This isn’t meant to be a doom or gloom forecast of things to come with AvatarMUD, and the staff remains receptive to a number of ideas on how to aid the casual player in becoming established, without sacrificing the game mechanics and design path they’re interested in pursuing. It remains to be seen how effective these ideas will prove to be, but that returns me to the point of this essay: MUDs present an opportunity to observe communities further along in the cycle, and their continued use as a sandbox for virtual worlds should not be underestimated.

Improving the Middleware Licensing Model

[Before I get into the specifics of what I’m talking about, I’d like to preface all this by saying that I am not a business analyst, nor an economist. I don’t know the realities of how feasible this is, as I have not run any numbers to check that feasibility. More than anything, I am putting this out there as an idea, in the hopes that someone with the requisite expertise can actually run the numbers and (hopefully) put them into practice. — Nabil]

As I’m sure most of you are already aware, games are generally no longer made in someone’s basement on a shoestring budget. They are developed by teams ranging in size but rarely under a dozen at this point, and for budgets that are quickly rivalling the most expensive Hollywood blockbusters. While the size and scope of game development is now on par with that of movie development, we haven’t bothered to adopt many of the business models that are used within this sister entertainment industry, and not because they couldn’t be successful, but simply because those holding the purse strings are leery of trying something new on a $20 million game. This is only going to become worse as budgets continue to escalate into the $100 million and even $200 million game. Put simply, the financiers of the industry are becoming more risk-averse, and are going to become more conservative as time continues. If we’re going to find alternative models for game development, it needs to be done now if at all. Personally, one avenue I’d like to see pursued is a royalties-based licensing model.
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Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
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Narratology vs Ludology; Pictorialism Revisited

Video games are currently facing a slew of legislation attempting to ban or criminalize the representation or discussion of some topics within video games — effectively censoring what can be made in games, or even what can be defined as a game. This is hardly the first time this sort of action has come up, however, if you look back to other contemporary forms of media. In the early 20th century, photography had split into factions on the nature of photography as an art form. The division was between a style known as pictorialism, which allowed and encouraged image manipulation and pre-composition, and straight photography, which disallowed any pre or post-processing manipulation of the image. About the extent that was allowed in straight photography was some dodging and burning applied during the printing process. These two factions each had an advocate in the public fora, notably William Mortensen on the side of pictorialism, and Ansel Adams on the side of straight photography. The debates often became heated between the two, with Adams becoming the winner by default after Mortensen passed away. There was also some dirty pool played on the part of the straight photographers, who deliberately removed any but the most cursory mention of pictorialism as a photographic movement in Beaumont Newhall’s work, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present.

My personal contention is that this turn of events has significantly marred the public view of photography as an artform, encouraging the mindset that photography is simply an objective view of what is or was (which is not the case even within straight photography). It has taken decades and a fundamental paradigm shift in the realm of photography (ie digital manipulation; Photoshop, Painter, et cetera) to even make a dent in this perception, with considerable inroads still needing to be made. This denial of the more expressive, authorial form of the medium encourages the public view of the medium as a sort of stepchild to more accepted forms of art.
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Games in the Social Tapestry

In a country of just under 300 million people, current statistics suggest that roughly 60% of the population plays games on a regular or semi-regular basis[1] — that games have taken a central role in how we occupy our time is undeniable. What is still under debate, however, is how these games affect our lives outside the game, and how we interact with others in society. There has been some indication that video games temporarily increase aggression, but no more than watching an action movie or even a particularly rousing football game, with no long term corollary showing up to date.[2] Additionally, the role video games have on aggression is a relatively small element in the larger role games have on the social tapestry. The question that most interests me in this field is “How do games bring people together?”

One of the most immediately apparent examples of games serving as a coagulant for community building is the Massively Multiplayer Online style of game, which places thousands of players together within a persistent virtual world, where relationships with other players must be formed to survive. The most popular of these games is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW), which recently passed the 6 million player mark, making it more than twice as large as its nearest competition. World of Warcraft has even been alluded to replacing golf as the networking tool of choice in the realm of technology oriented business.[3] The comparison continues to gather steam, with exclusive guilds replacing country club memberships, and a number of celebrities playing together (notably Dave Chappelle, comedian and star of The Chappelle Show, and rumors suggest that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart also plays[4]).

The more interesting question to ask, however, is not how World of Warcraft reached this position, but why it did. It clearly is filling a role that society felt was needed; the game has largely operated on grassroots advertising and gamer-centric marketing, so the fact that it has garnered a wider market appeal suggests that it is fulfilling a role that was lacking in society. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg discusses the essential role a “third space” that is neither home nor work plays in the health of a community, and decries the destruction and devaluation of these places with the growth of suburbia and a commuter culture. I have a strong suspicion that the appeal for WoW, and other online games, is in its ability to create a virtual third space, a place for people to have shared experiences and garner a sense of comradeship. While it is not necessarily a perfect marriage, since it still ultimately keeps individuals physically apart and isolated, it is a stopgap solution the larger social organism has created to fulfill this necessary role in culture.
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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Released in October of 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, developed by Rockstar Games and distributed by Take Two Interactive. This installment outsold its already best selling predecessors (Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City respectively), taking place in a fictionalized variant of LA in the early 1990’s. The game’s encouragement and emphasis of in-game violence had already caused a considerable amount of uproar from several advocacy groups, but did not receive its true level of infamy until early July of 2005, when a “mod” was discovered called “hot coffee” that allowed the player to participate in a sexual act, which was construed as a violation of its Mature game rating (instead of Adults Only), and has sparked a flurry of lawsuits, media attention, and reactionary legislation against video games in general.

Before I discuss the game itself, let’s address the Hot Coffee scandal a little more directly. The content within the mod is overtly sexual, though nothing is actually seen beyond the player’s character behind his in-game girlfriend, making sexual movements. Because of this, it is true that the game should have received an Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), had the content been available to players. The only way to access this content is through manually altering the code through external means (on the PC, this involves physically altering game files; on the Playstation 2, this involves using another device such as a “Game Shark” to manipulate the game data or downloading and installing a patch on a system that has no direct method of downloading or installing patches). Insisting upon an Adults Only rating because of this content is roughly akin to insisting that a movie be given an NC-17 or even X rating because of a scene that was filmed but then cut from the final version of the film. Given that the game’s rating was already Mature, which has the same requirements for purchase or to watch as an R rated movie (age 17 or higher), this uproar becomes even more ludicrous. It has unfortunately caused a flood of knee-jerk legislation[1] and use as a political tool by those seeking re-election,[2] despite clear first amendment violations within the proposed laws that have already shut down early attempts at similar legislation.[3] The overwhelming amount of bad press and shoddy handling of the situation on the part of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive has caused company assets and stock value to plummet, inciting an additional string of lawsuits by the companies’ own stockholders.[4] Regardless of whether or not any of this furor is merited, it may well mean no more Grand Theft Auto games, and potentially hard and restrictive times for the game industry as a whole.
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Katamari Damacy

While my personal focus is on story-centric, or narratological games, I would be remiss to not also address some gameplay-centric, or ludological games. Without some ludological elements, a game would not be a game; it is essential to the definition of what a game is, and good gameplay is often pivotal to an immersive storytelling experience. With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a closer look at Katamari Damacy, which was published by Namco in 2004, and is arguably one of the most pure modern examples of a ludo-centric game.

The basic premise behind Katamari Damacy is simple and surreal: your father, the King of All Cosmos had an accident, and destroyed all the stars in the sky. Your task is to gather up material to recreate the stars, using a rolling ball called a “katamari” that picks up any object smaller than itself. The game starts by rolling up items around a house, collecting push pins and ants and stamps and pencils and tape dispensers, and proceeds to target larger items as the game progresses, until you are able to roll up cars and people, and then even buildings. In the final stage, the task is to recreate the moon, which involves creating a katamari so large that you are able to roll up the islands themselves. The story is really an excuse for the gameplay, which is itself an evolution of an early gameplay pattern seen in games such as the Pac-Man series (navigate an environment collecting objects, try to avoid running into things you can’t pick up). The game is simple, but engaging and more fun than its description suggests.
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Xenogears

While I may comment on the unfortunate lack of effective narratological games, that does not mean the field has been entirely devoid of effective titles; I would be hard pressed to make an argument for greater narrative in games if there weren’t games that have done so in the past with varying degrees of success. Most of the Final Fantasy games are good examples, though they are not the only ones. In my estimation, one of the best narratological games to date is not in fact a Final Fantasy game, though it was created by the same developer. Released quietly in 1998 by Squaresoft, Xenogears quickly gathered a cult following, due in large part to quite possibly the most epic and involving story yet attempted in a video game.

Xenogears is actually part of a larger storyline known as Xenosaga, of which Xenogears is episodes 5 and 6. (In a similar fashion to the Star Wars trilogy, the prior episodes had not been developed or released; also similarly, these earlier episodes are now in the process of being developed and released, though with nowhere near the critical acclaim and fanbase the original had.) The game starts with an animated sequence that takes place 10,000 years prior to the events in the game, showing a starship being overrun by some unknown force and being destroyed, the remains crashing onto a nearby planet. The game then shifts 10,000 years forward, in a small village, where a young man named Fei lives, who is the central protagonist in the game. Fei is asked to collect some things for a wedding to be held the following day from the doctor who lives above town. After making his way to the doctor’s house, on the way back the village, a large “gear” (a mechanical piloted robot) flies by and crashes into the village, pursued by other gears. Fei rushes back to the village, where a fire fight between the gears has ensued. While helping evacuate the village, Fei notices that the gear that was being pursued was now unmanned, and impulsively leaps into the device to try and defend his town. Things are going well, until an event occurs that causes Fei to lose control of the gear, which causes a blast of energy that utterly decimates the village. Upon waking up, Fei is exiled by the remaining villagers, which begins his journey into the larger world.
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Taking Back “Literature”

Video games are a category of creative work that deserves consideration and respect as an art form, and to be valued as literature. For nearly as long as there has been art or literature, there have been those who have tried to restrict the terms to only define the works that they have deemed worthy. This has become particularly prevalent in culture since the early Renaissance, with the sanctification and elevation of art and literature as the province of the refined and privileged, a method to further segregate the masses from the intellectual and social elite.[1] In modern society, however, there is no excuse for this segregation to continue. Art and literature can take many forms, and exist on a variety of levels throughout society, yet we continue to delineate only a few “classics” as qualifying for such a lofty term as literature or art. This needs to stop: art and literature are everywhere; art and literature are as varied and colorful as the individuals who create them; art and literature cannot be pigeonholed, categorized, or rigidly defined within a free society. We as individuals need to stand up for creative expression, and take back the language that has been subverted for so many years.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, literature can be defined as, “written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”. Given this definition, it is hardly a surprise that there is so much difficulty in defining what is or is not “literature”, and rightfully so: the definition is fluid, and ultimately subjective on what is of merit, as well as in what fashion it may be worthwhile. I believe that it is ultimately the individual’s decision on the merit or worthiness of any given work. Whether or not a work is considered “literature” by some arbitrary group should not dictate the social, intellectual, or legal value of that work. I believe that it’s possible to rephrase the current definition such that the intent of the term remains, but the terminology becomes less restrictive, and I feel that doing so is necessary towards doing away with segregational labels. I believe a better way to think about literature is that it is verbal art.
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Final Fantasy IV

The Final Fantasy series of games, developed by Squaresoft,[1] have proven to be one of the few places one could consistently go to for a reasonable narrative within a story. The games are simple in terms of interface, and ludologically speaking generally don’t need a great deal of timing or frenetic pace. Final Fantasy IV was originally developed by SquareSoft in 1991 for Nintendo’s Super Famicom game console. Shortly afterwards, it was localized (translated), and brought to the U.S. as Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo (the original Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III never left Japan). This was really the first console based video game to heavily emphasize narrative, and enjoyed moderate commercial success for it.

Final Fantasy IV is a story centering around Cecil, a dark knight in the service of the king of Baron. After questioning a particularly brutal order, Cecil is stripped of rank and sent off on a courier mission, which ends with the destruction of a village. This is the last straw for Cecil, and he begins his quest to put an end to Baron’s villainy. The plot takes several twists and turns, and ultimately ends on the planet’s moon, where an evil being known as Zemus has been manipulating the chain of events transpiring on the planet. As far as subtle and complex story lines go, it’s pretty simplistic. The dialogue is on par with a high school fantasy adventure, and none of the plot twists really take you by surprise at all (I should mention that I can say this about even the first time I played this game, when I was 11). Yet it still managed to immerse the player, encouraging attachment to the characters you enlist the aid of in the course of the story.
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