"short" Introductory Message (fwd)

Martin Keegan martin at cam.sri.com
Sat Jun 7 03:36:34 New Zealand Standard Time 1997

I've been asked by Chris to write a "short" introductory message, which
I've completely failed to do as this introduction runs to more than a
hundred lines. I tried to post this to the list earlier but it doesn't
seem to have got through. Apologies to anyone who receives two copies.

Those of you who know me (*) will probably be readers of
rec.games.mud.admin where I post way too much for my continued employment
prospects. I've been mudding since 1994 (**), mainly on a from-scratch mud
called Island, which I took over running in 1996 until its unexpected
closure.  My interests cover many areas of mudding, though "design" sums
most of them up. As far as coding goes, I'm no maestro - I can barely use
C (Indeed, on Island I introduced The Bug That Killed The Game), and am an
advocate of exploring other languages for writing muds.

Anyway, a few notes on Island, what I'm doing now, and miscellaneous ideas
of mine ...


Island was a from-scratch mud which ran in Oxford and Cambridge between
1990 and 1996. It was based on Mundi and MIST. The "Classic" version was
only available to people local to the machine it was on, each running
their own copy of the game, which communicated through shared files. In
1993, the game was rewritten to be accessible from the Internet, and
rechristened Island TNG.

TNG, played by a broader range of people than found in the Oxford
University Physics Dept, rapidly underwent imbalance problems. XP based
muds are inherently unstable - once players reach the top, there's nothing
left for them to do. A temporary solution (apart from the "Add more
levels, obviously" response I got from a Dikuer) is to increase the
difficulty of advancement. Island did this through the introduction of a
harsh regime of compulsory quests. The quests tended to be quite elaborate,
and provoked fierce competition. It took me more than six months to complete
them all.

Eventually, it became apparent that the quest-oriented nature of the game
was driving players away. Crucially, it was driving away the idiots and
powerlevellers. "Strong in Spades", is how Island was described in the
light of Bartle's HCDS paper. (Spades being the "Explorer" types). Every
year or so, the quests would be updated, and made more numerous, and (we
hoped) more intellectually challenging.

Island's gameplay was nothing to get excited about, unless you liked
combat (well, unless you liked Island's peculiar brand of combat, that
is!), which became so complicated that the moves were abbreviated to
numbers. The real magic of the game (and the point, as far as the
administration was concerned), was the "culture" which the game
engendered. The text of the mud (the database, messages, even comments and
variable/function names in the source code) was steeped in allusions to
literature, mythology, comedy, music and Island history. At one point,
political battles would be fought out by writing Island-related parodies
of pop songs ('Thank you for the Upgrade', 'Privacy Gaga', 'Lagman', 'The
Final Shutdown') 

Overall, the game was crippled by atrocious design decisions taken early
in its history (***), its immense intellectual snobbery (even the new
ideas discussion board contained Biblical references), and "political"
problems which had little to do with the game, culminating in a former
player unplugging the host machine. The search for a safe site with
trustworthy administrators continues.

What I'm doing now:

At the moment I'm writing a mud (from scratch, unsurprisingly) which
allows building at a proportional cost to the player, rather than being
based on rank. (Or letting everyone build, or no-one at all).

More interesting to the design people is that the system incorporates a
language called 'E', which looks a bit like Inform. I've had a look at
many mud languages, and didn't like any. 'Mud languages' sums these up
very well. Muds, as far as I'm concerned, are "virtual worlds", and the
languages used to describe them tend to be modelled on general programming
languages rather than reflecting virtual worlds in their design.  LPC, the
best known "mud language", I found to be way too general: you can write
webservers in it; it's not a world description language but a general
programming language with Mud-flavoured knobs on. (****)

E works as a series of definitions of entities within a model world. 
Entities can inherit features of other entities. That's basically all
there is to it, and such concepts will doubtless be familiar to most
people on this list. The interpreter enforces very little in the way of
type or sanity checking. Not only are objects, doors, monsters and rooms
described in E, but the grammar and syntax of the language used to access
the mud (the parser, effectively) are also defined. 

In text-based muds, we use languages to communicate between human players
and the computer-controlled game. The "suspension of disbelief" upon which
immersive experiences (and other fiction, whether interactive or
otherwise) like mudding depends can be impaired if the user's attention is
distracted from the content by the interface. If the text of a mud is
ungrammatical, dull, poorly spelt, offensive, repetitive or just plain
boring, then the spell can be broken, and the experience spoilt. 
Similarly, the parser must attempt to accept as broad a subset of natural
English (or whatever language the mud is in) as possible; having to
wrestle with a commandline parser is not conducive to enjoyment of a mud. 

To the end of making sure the text is not repetitive, I've designed a
system for randomised generation of non-boring text, which got an airing
in rec.games.mud.admin in a thread about creating consistent names for
newborn NPCs. Named "EricGeneric", it has been described as everything
from "An invention more significant and useful than time travel" to
"Prolog for Poofters" (really!)


Various other things I'm into include The Mud Tree ("A year-long project
to incriminate Richard Bartle"), which is a family tree of mud codebases
and original (non-codebase) muds, in which many of you may be interested. 
(I'm currently in a legal dispute with a company which has placed an
unattributed copy of this on their website and claimed copyright.)

My other mudding related projects would have to be MUDNS (a lookup system
for muds in collaboration with The Mud Connector and ZMud), the
oft-discussed but seldom-progressed Hypertext Mud Terminal Protocol, and a
voice-driven mud client.

Anyway - I've now written a "short" introduction much longer than Greg
Munt's (which apparently quoted me, one of his (to me) amusing habits :)).
What I've read of this mailing list I find quite encouraging, and hope it
comes to serve as a shining "You are not alone" beacon for mud designers
everywhere. Thanks for having me along :)


(*) though it seems I am better known on the Net as the step-brother of
Australia's answer to Jenny McCarthy
(**) I played Shades and Islandia before this, but not for any length of
(***) It was only expected to last 6 months (!)
(****) Doubtless I'll now be informed that "Obscura-9 does all this and
more, and you really ought to have heard of it"

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