Saturday, May 23, 2009

Trackside Interview: Matt Adcock@MUDGamers.com/BC-Dev.net

The MUDdy Hobo recently had a chance to ask a bunch of questions of Matt Adcock, whose official site can be found at bc-dev.net. We appreciate him taking the time to answer!

MH: How did you first discover MUDs?

Matt Adcock: I guess I was a relative latecomer to MUDs. I first discovered them around 1998/9 while at university. I don’t remember exactly how I started, possibly through TMC I think. I tried a few games that I don’t really remember much about, but the first MUD I played for any length of time was called Avalon.

MH: You indicated on your website that FMud, your Flash-based MUD client, came about because you weren't happy with existing web-based clients. How popular has FMud become since it became available? What are you happy with? What still needs work?


Matt Adcock: There are several MUDs out there using it and I think it is definitely a good alternative to something like the JTA telnet client. The biggest barrier to entry is the requirement to serve a policy file and that’s what I get the most support queries about. Unfortunately, this is required by the Flash player and the only real workaround is to use a proxy, which is what I did with MudGamers.

I think the client definitely looks nicer than some of the Java ones out there, and the scripting capabilities are pretty advanced for an embedded client. You can also save logs in plain text or HTML and load/save script settings locally which is nice.

The main problems with the client are the telnet and terminal support which are rather limited. It works well enough for the majority of MUDs out there, but ideally I’d like it to be more compliant. Background colours are probably the most glaring omission right now.

MH: How did your RPG project, Maiden Desmodus, come about?

Matt Adcock: About a year ago, I was looking to get involved in a MUD project and responded to an ad on TMC from Wade Gustafson who was looking for a partner to work with on a new project. Wade is an excellent writer and a very creative guy and he had several game themes that he’d fleshed out and between us we settled on Maiden Desmodus.

Wade does all the writing and the overall world theme and story, while I do the programming and design the game systems and mechanics. There is some crossover of course and we frequently bounce ideas off each other, but generally we work really well together within our own areas.

MH: What's the current status of Maiden Desmodus?

Matt Adcock: The original plan was to open Q1 of 2009 but as is often the way that has slipped a bit, but we hope to open soon. Certainly it’ll be a matter of weeks rather than months.

We began last summer and while it doesn’t feel like nearly a year I’m pleased with how much we have done in that time. As of today we have 1069 rooms, 373 objects, 171 mobiles and 297 scripts – all unique prototypes. We also have around 20,000 more lines of code than when we started.

I made the decision right away to use Nakedmud as a base to build on and I think it definitely gave us a head start compared to coding from scratch. It was a bit of a risk as at the time there were no operational MUDs using the codebase, but I liked the design and it was actively maintained which is a huge benefit.

MH: How are you approaching theme development on Maiden Desmodus? Are you providing a detailed history for players to build from or do you focus more on broader strokes while players fill in more of the details as time goes by?

Matt Adcock: There is definitely a distinct theme and world history to Maiden Desmodus. This is based around a faction conflict between two warring Kingdoms, as well as the mysterious figure of the Maiden Desmodus herself. I guess the setting would best be described as medieval low magic fantasy with a dark horror feel. It’s pretty gritty and brutal and I think it’s a nice change of pace from the more common gothic type of horror you often see in MUDs.

What we’re working on right now is putting in a long quest line which will introduce new players to the game world, history and the ongoing faction conflict. Each faction has a line of 20 quests each so hopefully these will really help to engage players with the setting.

Wade wrote a full-length novel based around another game theme he developed, so he is pretty detail-oriented and it’s fair to say he knows the setting of Maiden Desmodus inside and out. Unfortunately I spend too much time in the code and can’t even find my way around the world half the time, which is a little embarrassing I suppose. Although having designed the combat system I can PK him really easily :)

MH: How did the MUDGamers site come about?

Matt Adcock: It was something of a Sunday afternoon thing that I did after being frustrated trying to navigate TMC. I thought it would be so much cooler if MUD portal sites were more like modern web game sites such as Kongregate. Presenting games clearly and providing players with plenty of tools to sort and find games they are interested in playing, combined with a ‘click to play’ interface just seemed like a really good idea. This is even more important when you are trying to attract new players from outside the established MUD community.

I never really intended MudGamers to seriously compete with the likes of TMC and TMS, it was more of a ‘call to action’ for those sites to show them that MUDs can be presented in a more modern, appealing and accessible way. That said however, traffic is increasing and we just hit 75 games listed on the site so I am really pleased with how it’s working out.

MH: On your site, you state that you're working on a client for Iron Realms Entertainment. What's the status of that project? How did it come about?

Matt Adcock: The project is mostly complete now and the client has been used by IRE on several Flash gaming sites as well as on their main portal site. Back when I was first developing FMud I had heard that IRE were looking at doing a Flash based client so I got in touch and we went from there. Jeremy at IRE has been great to work with and it was a lot of fun working with him and their design guy to knock the client into shape. It was also a good learning opportunity for me as FMud was actually my first project using Adobe Flex.

MH: How optimistic are you about the future of text-based games? Why?

Matt Adcock: I am definitely optimistic and believe that MUDs have the potential to grow. Text games will always have a niche appeal, but with more and more people getting into online games there has to be a new audience out there for MUDs. Even my mother in law enjoys playing web games in her spare time.

Taking IRE as an example, if you look at the comments on their Kongregate entry there are plenty of “wtf text suxors” comments, but equally there are quite a few from players who’d never played a text game before and really enjoyed it. We need to find better ways of reaching these gamers.

Again this goes back to the reasoning behind MudGamers, I imagined someone coming from a MMORPG or web gaming background landing on TMC and just not knowing where to start. We need to say really clearly to people “these are the games, click here to play them”.

MH: What's the most important lesson MUD developers can learn from graphical MMORPGs?

Matt Adcock: The single biggest lesson is accessibility, no doubt about it. By this I mean ease with which a new player can get into your game. If you look at modern MMORPGs like WoW, WAR, AoC etc, character creation is simple, there are no separate tutorials to complete, no manuals to read, and new players are directed where to go and what to do as soon as they enter the game world.

Too often in MUDs I see a detailed character creation process where the player is forced to make character choices without knowing the consequences of those choices. This is often followed by some kind of “MUD school” that is completely removed from the rest of the game, often accompanied by lists of help files to read and remember. Couple this with some pretty arcane syntax and many games can be quite intimidating to players unfamiliar with MUDs.

Whatever the focus of your game, whether it is hack and slash, PvP, role-playing or whatever, the key is to get new players involved in that right from the start. You need to draw them in from the moment they log in, not tell them to go spend an hour reading help files or wandering around a phoney MUD school.

MH: How valuable are social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook for MUDs? Why?

Matt Adcock: Social networking is a great way to reach people who may share a common interest with you, so in that sense sites like Facebook could be used by MUDs as a marketing tool. I know FMud can be embedded on Facebook, MySpace or as a Google widget for example.

I think there are one or two MUDs that use Twitter for broadcasting game information and events in real time, and certainly if more people talk about MUDs whether on regular blogs or on services like Twitter it can only help MUDs as a whole. I personally use both Facebook and Twitter (@bcdev), although not specifically to publicise my MUD projects.

MH: Have you built a career around your projects or are they something you do in spare time? What do you do for a living?

Matt Adcock: I do have some commercial MUD projects, but I think it’d be something of a stretch to say I make a living from them! I have a wonderful day job taking care of my daughter and also work freelance as a web developer.

MH: What MUD-focused sites do you follow? Why?

Matt Adcock: I follow TMC, TMS and Mudbytes, although I am not a very frequent contributor to any of them. I also read quite a few blogs and other gaming sites such as Massively and Gamasutra. I do enjoy keeping up with what’s going on in the MUD and wider MMORPG community, although the signal to noise ratio can be pretty low a lot of the time.

MH: Are current MUD-focused sites missing something? What can they do to make themselves more relevant and viable?


Matt Adcock: As I’ve said before, I’d love to see a MUD community portal site that looked and functioned a lot more like a site such as Kongregate. A modern look with simplified navigation is important to attract and retain new visitors, and a way to play the listed games without having to download a dedicated client is really essential.

It’s not just about cosmetic changes however. I also think there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking by those of us who run MUDs. Traditionally there has been a lot of competition for players between MUDs but I believe this only harms the community in the long run. We all have our favourite few MUDs, but these often change over time as we discover new games or revisit old ones. I’d like to see portal sites that bring MUDs and their individual player bases together, where I can try out a variety of MUDs and hopefully find several that I can enjoy playing. Once you add in cross game features like chat and rankings you can really start to build a sense of community between games, rather than the site simply being a place to list in order to attract players to your own game.

MUDs are definitely a niche market, yet they can offer players a wide range of unique gameplay experiences. It’s vital that we, as MUDs, present what we’re about in the best possible way. I have the greatest respect for the existing MUD community sites and I think they do a great job, however I believe there are better ways to present MUDs, particularly to those who may never have played one before.

MH: One opportunity presented by MUDGamers.com is the sense of multiple projects available at a click through a single platform. Where do you see that going in the coming years?


Matt Adcock: Personally I’d love to take the MudGamers concept of “click to play” and apply it to a smaller selection of high quality games with cross game features like chat, achievement ladders and badges, all combined with a common account and micro transaction system. Something similar to what Skotos do I guess, but with a free to play model and more cross game features. This way you can build a community around a collection of games with the goal of sharing players rather than competing for them. You could also add in some simple Flash games that complement the MUDs, such as MUD themed mini games or even link them to the MUDs directly. One of the ideas I’ve got for Maiden Desmodus is to take the mass warfare system I’m working on out of the MUD completely and into a simple graphical strategy game on the website where the outcome of battles would be reflected in the MUD.

MH: What books are you reading these days? Got any movies, music, and games to recommend?

Matt Adcock: It’s terrible but I haven’t read a novel in ages. I’m reading Ted Castranova’s Synthetic Worlds right now which already feels a little dated but is a fascinating read none the less. I’m a big Steven Erikson fan and I think he has a new one out this Summer, but it’s frustrating waiting for the next novel as you invariably forget half of what’s happened before. I’ve also been following George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire but I’ve no idea when his next one is out, he seems to have been writing it for years now. My wife loved the new Star Trek but I fell asleep before the end so not sure I can really recommend it!

As far as gaming goes I don’t have as much time as I’d like and haven’t had the Xbox on for a couple weeks now. I tried Age of Conan recently but couldn’t really get into it so I am getting my MMORPG fix from Warhammer these days. It’s frustrating as I want to really like it, but it always somehow disappoints. It’s wonderfully accessible and I love how you can jump into PvP through scenarios or realm conflict almost immediately. The way the realm conflict is scaled in particular is great design but in practice there’s something missing. I almost wonder if it’s just too easy; you can jump in and out of PvP as you like, there’s no death penalty and with the open party system no need to find a group. It’s almost like there are no incentives not to suck, and with a game that forces team play to such a degree, being surrounded by mediocre players is no fun at all. If things get much worse I may have to turn to Darkfall. But I digress. I don’t really play any MUDs at the moment as I am too focused on Maiden Desmodus.

MH: Are you most passionate about the programming elements or the creative facets of your projects? More about nuts and bolts than the shiny? Why?

Matt Adcock: I like to think that programming is creative, at least it is the way I do it! I guess you’d say I love the nuts and bolts, the mechanics and the systems behind the design. The “how and the why” of games has always appealed to me, even as a player.

MH: Are text-based games that don't offer some form of web-based interface effectively doomed to perpetually tiny playerbases? How can they reach beyond the niche audience otherwise?

Matt Adcock: I don’t know about doomed, but they are certainly limiting their appeal if they don’t offer a web interface. There are plenty of options around in either Flash or Java, and I’ve even seen a few HTML implementations, so it should be relatively simple for any game to setup. They could even list on MudGamers and redirect from their own website direct to the client page if they wanted.

MH: You've blogged about the need for more commercialized MUDs. Has there been any blowback from this from people who condemn the monetization of text-based games? Why is it important to see more commercialized games?


Matt Adcock: I haven’t had any negative feedback on that actually, although there are definitely a few people in the MUD community who think commercial games are taboo. I don’t think it’s a particularly credible position given that MUDs have been commercial for at least as long as they’ve been free, and certainly before free codebases like DIKU and LP.

The main reason I’d like to see more commercial projects is I believe that this would raise the general profile of text games and help to attract more players to all MUDs. More revenue for MUDs means they can spend more on advertising, particularly outside the established MUD community. Developing new portal and community sites with the kinds of features I’ve mentioned would also cost money.

MH: What's the most important thing a MUD developer needs to consider before embarking on their own project?

Matt Adcock: I think you really need to be clear what your motivations are and what you hope to achieve. If you just want to learn programming that’s great, but if you want to produce a game try not to get too bogged down in the technical details. I suppose at this point I should make the customary appeal for people to join an existing project rather than start their own, but nobody who wants to run their own MUD wants to hear that :)

The single most important thing is to make sure you finish what you start.

MH: Where do you see MUDs going as a medium in the next few years? Five? Ten? Are they still around? What niche are they filling?


Matt Adcock: I’d like to see MUD portal sites incorporating some of the features I’ve advocated, and I definitely think we’ll see more web based clients in the future, particularly with custom features like maps, stat bars etc. I also think we’ll see more games merging, at least in terms of marketing, so rather than all trying to attract players to their own websites they can come under one site with a common interface.

While lacking the shinies of big graphical MMORPGs, MUDs can still fill an important niche for several years yet. Given that they are so much cheaper to develop and operate MUDs are able to cater to minority gaming interests in ways that graphical MMORPGs simply cannot. Features such as enforced role-play or permadeath, obscure historical settings and frequent administration run events just aren’t commercially viable for many graphical MMORPGs.

Graphical games will eventually catch up and we’re already seeing this for example with the Hero Engine which uses similar content creation tools to those that MUDs have had for years (not surprising given that it’s from Simutronics). I’m sure these types of tools will find their way to the masses one day, and then we’ll be inundated with hobbyist graphical MMORPGs, DIKU style. Art is still a huge barrier but maybe in the future procedural generation will become more viable and creating content for a graphical game will be on a par with that for a text game.

There will always be some players who just prefer text over graphics of course, but once graphical games are as cheap and easy to produce then we may well see the end of MUDs. I think that day is still a long way off though.

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