[MUD-Dev] Re: (fwd) AD: [custom graphical] whitestar Crossfire MUD

Caliban Tiresias Darklock caliban at darklock.com
Thu Apr 30 03:18:17 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

On 11:28 PM 4/29/98 -0500, I personally witnessed Dr. Cat jumping up to say:
>I really have very few peers in the world, as far as other people that 
>want to write graphic mud servers that can handle hundreds of thousands 
>or even millions of users, and are engaged in a serious project to 
>actually do so.  So there's not many people for me to talk to that would 
>approach issues from a similar perspective.  And my opinions, 
>experiences, and approaches might be of no value whatsoever to someone 
>who's writing a non-commercial text mud as a hobby that handles 1000 
>users and explores some really exotic and bizarre new approach to mud 
>design.  People ought to be writing such muds, and playing them, but I'm 
>not really sure that I and the developer of that mud have very much to 
>talk to each other about.  My biggest focuses are on topics that see 
>little or no discussion here, such as providing extreme ease of use for 
>the extreme novices out there.

If I might interject, I have the same sort of issues with most other MUD
developers. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to seriously develop an
active project; however, interface design and mass marketability are key
issues I would dearly love to discuss. Some time back, I tried to start
such a thread. It crops up peripherally now and again, but I've never
really seen as much interest in it here as I'd like to. I think most MUDs I
see discussed here are designed for ease of administration, novelty of
concept, and elegance of code. In short, they're designed by developers,
for developers. In the existing MUD world, this pretty much works. In the
MUD world of upcoming years, I don't have much faith in its viability.
We've got a huge influx of new users and new players, and all we have to do
is get them online, interested, and addicted in order to make them
customers instead of just an untapped market. I don't see the next crop of
MUDs coming off this list being likely to do that. I think the MUDs that
come out of these discussions will quite likely be awe-inspiring and
tremendously fun to play, but I don't see them attracting and *keeping*
hordes of newbies. 

Basically, I'm hearing you say that you want to talk about the same things
*I* want to talk about, and postulating that no one wants to hear it. I do.
I'm also something of a fan. Whenever I see you post something to the list,
it's the first thing I read. There are a lot of good people here, but I
don't have memories of their names coming up on the screen when I was
playing some of my favorite games. Maybe that's pathetic of me. I don't
care. I wouldn't say you're my idol or my hero, because I really don't have
any of those; what I *do* have is a little mental list of people whose work
I have admired and respected for a long time, and you're on it. Along with
other illustrious but little-known company, such as Dave Hargrave (author
of the Arduin Grimoire) and Ray Gwinn (author of the X00 FOSSIL driver --
which was both a .SYS device driver and a .EXE TSR program, all you had to
do was rename it... how the hell did he DO that?!). I don't tend to put
many high-profile media-hyped people on that list, because I almost always
discover they're jerks in the end. I met Gary Gygax once. Need I say more?

Let me open this up with a few observations I've made about command
interfaces. I don't talk about this much, because command interfaces don't
seem to be of much concern in discussions here. By command interface, I
don't necessarily mean a command line, but whatever method the user employs
to communicate with the server; in most cases here, that means a command
line, but most people have at least some interest in going partially or
fully point-and-click. It's not much of a secret that I tend to prefer text
to graphical, based on certain economies of bandwidth and disk which come
from that, but I have to admit that when push comes to shove graphical will
pull more users. 

On most MUDs, command interfaces are very atomic. You do each and every
thing in a specific, low-level, high-detail sequence. This suits
programmers very well, because they're used to thinking that way -- but
most people aren't. When I was very very young, I was asked to give one of
the hackers in the computer lab where my mom went to college a description
of how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so he could tell whether
I'd make a good programmer. I started with "Get some bread and put peanut
butter...", but he stopped me and said that I had to be VERY explicit, and
that if I left out a step -- any step, no matter how small -- the sandwich
would never get made. So I thought a minute, and started over. "Go into the
kitchen. Take the bread from the top of the refrigerator. Put the bread on
the counter. Open the refrigerator. Locate the jelly on the door rack. Pick
up the jelly. Close the refrigerator." And so on, and so forth. He
reported, once I was done, that I'd be an excellent programmer. (And he was
right. But enough about me.) Now, the problem is, most people don't go very
far from the "Get some bread" line of thought. A lot of very smart people
can't go down to that level of detail without serious effort. But MUDs,
almost invariably, require that level of detail; you pick up an item. You
examine the item. You push buttons and pull levers. To a programmer, this
is fun. To a normal user, it's frustrating. Type, type, type, type, type,
type, TYPE. Enough already! I just want to microwave the damn Chinese food
for the hacker in the lab! To a degree, this can be remedied with natural
language processing, like shorthand: 

"Look." [There is a blue box here.] "Examine it." [You pick up the blue box
and examine it; there is a button on the side.] "Press it." [You press the
button on the box; the box makes a loud noise and begins to vibrate.] "Drop
it." [You drop the blue box; it vibrates more urgently.] "Hide." [You duck
behind something; the box explodes, but you are shielded from the blast.] 

Zork and other later Infocom games did okay on this score, although you had
to type "Get box then examine it" rather than the more intuitive "Get box
and examine it". Graphical interfaces offer a great way to avoid ambiguity.
You specify EXACTLY which blue box to pick up, without having to decide
which adjective would best describe it or having to count the boxes on the
screen and type something like "get 4.blue" or "get blue box 4". 

What gets overlooked in a lot of games I've played is whether a given
interface is confusing or not. Every time a user has to go use your help,
no matter how good that help is, his frustration level builds. Eventually
he decides it isn't worth the trouble. An obvious (bad) solution to this is
to use very few commands, so the user has very few things to look at the
help about. (Treating the symptom.) Another obvious but more difficult
solution is to use commands that are environment-sensitive. If you
double-click on a hand grenade that is on the ground, it should be picked
up. If you double-click one in your backpack, it should probably put it in
your hand, and if you double-click the grenade in your hand it should pull
the pin and expect you to double-click a target... fast. Drag-and-drop is
another excellent interface concept many people find easy to use. When
carrying something, you should be able to drag it to your hand or to the
scene and hold or drop it. The real key to this is to make it something
that people expect to happen; in a drag-and-drop interface, it can be
almost impossible to hold a pair of gloves without the intermediate steps
of emptying a hand, dropping the gloves, and picking them up again. Things
like this always make the game a pain in the ass, and in addition they
usually make the developer look stupid. 

In games that require mouse-driven play, speech -- and thus roleplay -- are
severely inhibited. You can't type and use a mouse at the same time,
usually. It's helpful when you can do whatever you need to do from either
place... except, of course, talk with the mouse. (That would be REALLY hard
to do. You might provide some stock phrases that could be dragged and
dropped, but they'd quickly get old. Even if they were custom by player, it
would be recognisable as a macro of some sort.) Menu driven mouse
interfaces annoy me, especially cascading menus that have things like
action->move->walk->north or similar multi-level cascades. Another thing I
really hate is having to switch between mouse and keyboard. It's always
annoying to me. 

I'm starting to get punchy, it being three AM. I can't really talk lucidly
right now. But let me reiterate... I'm very interested in discussing these
issues. I'm glad someone else wants to discuss them. So let's discuss,
dammit. ;)

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

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