Series Info...#14: Question Reality

by Scott Roberts
August 20, 2001

"Question Reality."
— Bumper Sticker

First of all, I should start with a bit of news. This is the last column from me that you'll see on a weekly basis; from now on The Mummer's Dance will be coming out on a bi-weekly cycle. Things are getting somewhat busy in the columnist's work and personal life, so I need to cut down on this labor of love.

That being said, welcome to the 14th column in the Mummer's Dance series. This one is going to be something of a means of introducing myself (a bit belatedly) and will offer some commentary on Skotos itself, so I hope you'll bear with me as I'm about to ramble a bit.

On The Column

While I haven't had as much feedback on the Forums as I would like (though I suppose few columnists get what they want), the things I have heard have been pretty good, and I thank you for your encouragement. When I conceived of the idea for this column, I was hoping to provide tips for new and old players alike. My major concern was that no one took them as gospel. While I've got significant experience in the world of online prose games, I am by no means the only authority on them. Individual experiences vary, as do the different games you're in. While I'm flattered that some folks have used my writing in debates of their own, I have no wish to get used like Richard Bartle or similar writers in the field. Too much reliance on "experts" and too little self experimentation and self analysis leads to stagnation in a field. As I like to put it, "Question reality."

I'm always looking for new ideas for columns. I've covered quite a few things in the last three months – relationships, comparisons with other games, player "types", and the like – but there's always more out there to be talked about. Please feel free to mail me (or post on the forums) if there's anything you'd like to see covered in the column; I'd love to hear your thoughts and will do my best to cover your requests.

On The Author

I'm not that big on talking about myself, but I have been asked by a few people exactly what my background is in this "field", such as it is. My first involvement with what would eventually become online prose games started back in the late 1980s, writing on storyboards on various BBSes. In the years before the internet became popular, when modems were a fairly new item in terms of consumer awareness, individual computer owners would run software on their PCs that allowed folks to dial in – one at a time – and read messages posted on their bulletin board software, usually at 300 baud (as compared to 57.6kbps modems we have today).

Many of these places had interactive storyboards: you'd post a character outline or profile, then write in your part of the story, interacting with other folks, often without the benefit of a rules system at all. Storyboarding has morphed in and of itself into a number of different forms, and is still alive in many fan fiction forms, but it's probably the first ancestor of multiplayer online prose "games". (Of course, InfoCom had prose games about the same time – who can forget Zork and the rest? – but these weren't multiplayer.)

About 1992, I got involved with my first "real" online prose game, a DikuMUD called Arctic. That's where I made my first real mistakes – playing a female character because they got all the good gear, learning the rudiments of how people work in online prose games, and taking my first (abortive) venture into coding. Roleplaying was quite limited therein, as the game focused more on raising skills, killing monsters, and getting loot than it did on roleplaying with other characters.

In 1994, I found a game which, though I'm no longer involved with it, is still somewhat dear to my heart. Shadowrun MUSH, set in the Seattle of 2054 in what was then FASA's magic-meets-cyberware game world became my home for the next four years or so. I played there, staffed there, and eventually was in charge of the game's roleplaying staff (and later also staffed and played on a spinoff MUX of the same genre only set in Detroit). The five years I was involved with the Shadowrun games are when I learned the most – and made the major triumphs and errors of my online prose gaming career. The nuances of staffing, administering to the wants and needs of a few hundred players, and working through the labyrinthine politics of the games made for a very interesting experience. I left those games with mixed reviews as to my performance, and there are many things I'd change if I had it all to do over again.

In 1999 I got involved with a game called FiranMUX, run by Stephanie and Adam Dray out of Maryland and set in an original world somewhat similar to ancient Greece. This place represents some of the more interesting and experimental elements of online prose games – pre-generated characters; a highly complex set of coded systems; and a hybrid staffing philosophy that incorporates elements of MUDding's skill-and-kill with the more roleplaying oriented elements of other online prose games. It's not for everyone, but it was just right for me; I staffed there for a few months then settled in to be a player. It was while I was playing here that I heard about Skotos for the first time, which brings us to the present day.

On Skotos

When I first got involved with Skotos, I was skeptical, much like many other folks who've heard about what we're doing here. With so many free text-based games out there, and so much competition from the 3D MMORPG manufacturers, how could a pay-to-play online prose game company succeed? After arriving here, though, I've seen that it is possible and, in fact, occurring. Skotos offers a number of things which neither of the other two can. When compared to "free" games, its primary advantage is the nature of the company: what we are missing in previous years of development on MUSH-, MUD, and MUX servers, we make up for by having a dedicated, full-time staff of coders working to improve our codebase instead of a collection of folks who can only devote so much free time to such work. Skotos has striven to make online prose games more accessible to those who aren't into the nuances of figuring out text-based interfaces via telnet or other clients. We're working to produce games based on licenses available only to us. Our support staff is further dedicated to being there for the customers, with a professional attitude that can't be truly emulated by a wholly volunteer staff. Our web-based interfaces and forums make for a wider audience and a rich community.

We have the advantage over 3D MMORPGs in that our target community is much smaller, and hence, we can more rapidly and realistically respond to the concerns of the community. Changing things and meeting customer expectations is much more possible for us, when we don't need to focus on a large four-year codebase dedicated to a single game. As should be obvious, we also don't need to spend lots of time changing graphics that are built into our games in order to make alterations.

On a personal note, I was so interested in Skotos – and so confident in its products and success – that I relocated across country from New Jersey to California to take part in its development. I have not had any cause to regret that decision. In short, it's good to be here, and I look forward to staying for a long, long time.

In Two Weeks

In the next column, we're back to our regularly scheduled programming, where I'll be covering the nuances of roleplay in online prose games – the little things that make up the bigger world we live in, and how to add them to your characters and games to make them a much more interesting place. Until next time, I look forward to your commentary on the Forums!

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