[MUD-Dev] (no subject)

J C Lawrence claw at kanga.nu
Sat Nov 10 18:27:30 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


WebRPG: A Great Idea Gone Bad

What happened to WebRPG, you ask? In one sense, nothing; its website
(www.webrpg.com ) is still online, and you can still go there to
read about it and download all the necessary components for the
program. But even though WebRPG still exists in name, the spirit
that at one point made me consider it the future of online gaming is
gone. Here's why.

WebRPG started out as pure genius. It wasn't a preprogrammed dungeon
crawl like your typical MU* or MMORPG. Mostly, it was no different
than your average chat program, with a few extra bells and whistles
like a built-in dice roller. With a little bit of effort, you could
set up character sheets, miniatures, and maps for the benefit of GMs
and players alike. The creators also made the intelligent choice of
including a game tracker, so even if you didn't have a gaming group
of your own you could drop in at any time day or night to see what
other games were going on, observe them, or even join in. It was
quick to download, easy to set up, and best of all, free.

In short, WebRPG was the cyberspace equivalent of your friendly
neighborhood game shop. You could meet up with friends for a weekly
session, observe or join in other games, or just hang out and see
who dropped by for a chat. It wasn't quite the same as sitting down
for a good, old-fashioned tabletop session, but it was close
enough. There had never been anything quite like it offered on the
Internet (at least, nothing so high-profile or accessible), and one
by one gamers were sitting up and taking notice.

It's easy to see why a considerable amount of gamers began flocking
to WebRPG, either as a supplement or an alternative to
tabletopping. It was a great way to meet fellow gamers and form new
groups, or to keep long-standing groups together if their members
relocated. It wasn't a perfect program by any stretch of the
imagination; the fact that it was programmed using Java made it
quite a systems hog, and a number of annoying bugs in the software
made random disconnections, serious lag, and the entirely too
frequent appearance of the dreaded "blue screen of death" a way of
life for many of its users. Despite all this, there were many gamers
for whom the program became an indispensable tool for good online

The trouble started just about a month ago, when the creators of
WebRPG made a rather surprising announcement. Their program would no
longer be free to all who chose to download it. Instead, they had
decided to institute a monthly fee in exchange for the privilege of
using their program to run games. In my opinion, this decision
spells the beginning of the end for WebRPG.

You may be wondering, "Why should that make a difference?" It
matters because the great majority of Internet users are, at heart,
cheap bastards. We'll download and use anything if it's free, but
once we have to cough up our hard-earned cash for it, we're much
more likely to delete it than we are to keep it. Look at Napster. It
used to be that every other Internet user was enamored with the
wonders of free file-sharing. Its users didn't disappear during its
well-publicized cout battle, but the moment money became involved
most of them found better ways to trade MP3s. When WebRPG became a
pay service, I knew of about four different groups using it for
their weekly games. When the players in each group got word of
WebRPG's conversion, their immediate reaction was not to revise
their monthly budget to make room for a new expense. Without
exception, they began scrambling to find a different, free place to
host their games. I wouldn't be surprised if a substantial amount of
WebRPG's other users do the same.

There's also the fact that WebRPG has now gone from being a free,
extremely buggy piece of software to being an extremely buggy piece
of software that costs $10 a month to use. The technical problems
that followed in WebRPG's wake used to be a lot easier for players
to justify putting up with; after all, it was free, and you get what
you pay for. I should point out that WebRPG's creators have now
released a new version of their software which I have not had the
opportunity to test. If the new version resolves those issues, this
criticism could become a moot point, but I wouldn't count on it.

Finally, WebRPG's creators seem to have overlooked the fact that,
for most gamers, online gaming is a supplement to real-life
roleplaying and not a replacement for it. As much as I've enjoyed
the online games in which I've participated, I wouldn't give up my
weekly tabletop session for them even if WebRPG was paying me to do
it. Maybe WebRPG will continue to be a good solution for gamers in
isolated areas who don't have easy access to any other groups, but
as long as I have a "real life" gaming group to attend every week -
and as long as I can participate in it (mostly) for free - I just
don't need to pay for something that, in my opinion, is only second

And don't even get me started on the way WebRPG announced their
decision. There was never even a hint that the transition to a pay
service might be down the road, just a sudden, unprecedented
announcement. How many well-established games do you suppose had to
end abruptly because GMs and players wouldn't or couldn't pay the
fee? And even for the WebRPG users who decided to pay for it, the
upheaval must have been tremendous. WebRPG may have started out
trying to encourage real roleplaying on the Internet, but by not
bothering to give its users fair warning, it's done much more to
hinder it than it ever has to support it.

I realize that WebRPG's creators need to make money to support their
business. But it seems to me that they could have come up with a
better way to do it. Why not offer a stripped-down version for free,
but encourage users to pay for it in order to get extra features? 
This has worked for programs like ZMud and SimpleMU. However, WebRPG
has presented an interesting alternative to their users by allowing
them to contribute game material every month instead of paying the
fee. Whether users will take advantage of this alternative remains
to be seen, but if anything saves the program, I'd bet that this
will be it.

I could be wrong about all this, of course. This is all a fairly
recent development for WebRPG, so perhaps it's too early to predict
how having to pay to play will affect it. WebRPG is popular enough
that I'd imagine it will continue to exist in one form or another
for quite some time. But will yet another online gaming service with
an Everquest-like monthly fee really be able to bring sweeping
change to the world of online gaming the way the free WebRPG could
have? Only time will tell, but I'm almost certain that its answer
will be no.  by gamerchick | Fri Oct 26 00:25:01 2001 EST

J C Lawrence
---------(*)                Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.
claw at kanga.nu               He lived as a devil, eh?
http://www.kanga.nu/~claw/  Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.
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