[MUD-Dev] Achaea's history

Matt Mihaly the_logos at achaea.com
Sun Jun 30 20:51:26 New Zealand Standard Time 2002


On Fri, 21 Jun 2002 Daniel.Harman at barclayscapital.com wrote:
 
> Have you ever done a write up of how you started, what kind of
> feature set you had to originally bring players in, when you
> introduced your revenue model & etc? I know you've made passing
> comments about these things, but a little history of Achaea would
> be fascinating. Of course I realise you might see it as giving
> away competitive advantage, so I won't be offended if you don't
> want to comment in any depth.

Sure. It's going to be a bit rambling though. And no worries about
competitive advantage. As you are about to see, Achaea's competitive
advantage is most definitely not in how we started. =)

When I started, it was with (in hindsight) only the vaguest idea of
what I was doing. No business plan, no game design, nothing. Didn't
even know how to code. I had started playing text MUDs around 1991,
in my second year of university and then after graduation in 1994, I
got my licenses (series 7 and 63) to be a
stockbroker. Unfortunately, not only did I hate my job, but it was
seriously cutting into the time I could play a small commercial text
MUD we'll call FooMUD (not its real name obviously). Clearly, the
job had to go and, happily, that was the last time (early '95) I
worked for anyone else. I had some money saved up, so wasn't going
to starve, and spent some months mainly just MUDing, clubbing, and
otherwise distracting myself.

At some point in that year, the owner of FooMUD moved to Chicago
from Europe and we got a really nice penthouse-type place on the
water together, for which he was paying 75% of the rent. I thought
to myself, "Hmm, this guy seems to have a lot of spending money,
sets his own schedule completely, and really doesn't do much work at
all. Sounds good to me."

So, I let myself get ripped off and paid way WAY too much for what I
can only describe as the single worst MUD engine in existence:
Hourglass. It had no local variables, no way to break up code into
more than one file, no way to pass variables aside from using
globals, totally inconsistent database syntaxes, not even an 'or'
statement. It was truly awful.

Anyway, none of those things bothered me, because, afterall, FooMUD
had been written in it, so it must be possible. I didn't know how to
code, but the person who sold me Hourglass gave me a core shell game
where I could login and walk around a couple rooms. Learning enough
to write a few emotes was simply, so I started off just writing
emotes.

Very, very little got done for the next year, aside from playing
FooMUD, where I eventually became the God of Pain. It was a good
week if I got 4 hours of work done. In June of '96 I left Chicago to
move to San Francisco.

I "hired" a coder, once in the Bay Area, who was a player on FooMUD,
promising him 10% of the game, but he quickly turned out to be
flakey (surprise) and I got rid of him. I found another guy who was
willing to code for $3000 + 10% of the game who wanted to move from
England to the Bay Area so he could sleep with a woman from
FooMUD. So, on this pitiful amount of pay, he moved
over. Unfortunately, he didn't know how to code, and I was the one
teaching him. You can imagine how well that worked out. He lasted
about a year, year and a half. We've since re-written nearly every
line of code he wrote, since it was so bad.

But, bad or not, between his awful code and my not-quite-as-awful
code (I didn't believe in using helpfully-named variables at that
time, preferring to use temp1, temp2, temp3, etc on the logic that
it made it really hard for anyone else to steal my code, because it
was so freaking hard to read. I also didn't indent the code at
all. I don't mean to imply it was good logic, btw.), and my designs
we got Achaea online in September of 1997.

Soon after opening, we spent 4 months converting all of our code to
a different engine, called Vortex, that had been originally written
to be Hourglass running in Linux (instead of Acorn RISC computers,
which Hourglass originally ran in). The terms of Vortex were much
more reasonable, and more importantly, we wouldn't have to put up
with the asshole admin of FooMUD listening to all input into Achaea
via his illegal backdoor into Hourglass. FooMUD was -extremely-
paranoid about their players leaving to play Achaea. Apparently to
this day, their admins harrass and ban anyone who talks about Achaea
there. It's no wonder they're smaller now than they were when we
opened.

Somewhere in there I had also brought in a young English guy
studying English at Oxford to help do some ability-writing, as well
as a guy to help write some locations. Neither of them ever finished
their jobs, but any help was better than no help, and the former is
still a partner in Achaea as well as in another business with me.

When Achaea went online, we were pitifully broken, bugged, and
incomplete in every sense of the word. I was just sick and tired of
working on Achaea without any players. Most of the FooMUD players
knew I was starting my own MUD, and a number of them left FooMUD to
establish themselves in Achaea.

We weren't yet accepting money, and around February of 1998 I was
nearly out of money. (I was able to extend the money I had after
college by starting a project, in 1996, with a few others, to do an
Elite-style graphical internet game, and after it became clear the
coding team was not going to do the job with any competence, managed
to sell out to some optimistic fellow at a fat profit.)
 
So, my options at this point were either get a proper job, or
continue on with Achaea, which could very well end up being a total
waste of time. I still didn't really have any firm plan to make
money with it, and my plan was to start charging hourly at some
point. I decided that getting a proper job just didn't jive with my
vision for life, so made a post on Achaea's newsboards asking for
help from players. Actually, I think I may have done this once
before too, around the time we opened. I can't recall for sure.

In any case, I had one player buy 1% of Achaea for $2000, one player
buy 1% for $2500, another buy 1% for $3000, and then one player from
Hong Kong bought 10% for $30,000. I'm a little amazed the latter one
gave me money actually, insofar as to this day I've never met him or
spoken to him on the phone. All communication has been via e-mail,
Achaea, and FooMUD. Further, we never really had any decent
contracts. I just typed out a paragraph stating that so-and-so gets
X% of Achaea in return for X amount of money. It was all extremely
informal, based mainly on the trust that had grown through playing
FooMUD and Achaea together for a number of years. That money went to
pay off some debts I had accumulated, and to pay my rent and food
until Achaea could support me. (Incidentally, I've since b

In June of 1998, we got our first generation of players who weren't
from FooMUD when we decided we were ready to list on
Mudconnector. It was exciting for us, and we immediately grew quite
a bit in terms of maxplayers (unfortunately, we didn't do very good
stat-taking back then, so I don't really have any numbers on how
many players we had at that point. It wasn't a lot. Maxxing at 30
online maybe?). Right around that time, the coder guy I had working
for me (who was back in England by this time, things having not
worked out between he and the woman he was living with here) quit,
which was fine with me, given that his coding 'skills' seemed to
have gotten even worse.

We plodded along happily, and started selling credits via money
order, check, or cash only. I formed Achaea as a company sometime
around here too. Our CTO, Christopher Kohnert started playing around
this time, and quickly volunteered to code for us, which was one of
the best things that's ever happened to Achaea. (He's now the
largest owner, after me, and a full-time employee.) Chris is an
excellent coder, and brought a level of professionalism to the
implementation process that we had so far been lacking. Being around
him let me have someone to learn from who actually knew something
about coding, which was a plus (I was a political science major in
college, and hadn't ever taken classes of any sort in coding.)

Around December of 1998, we announced that within a month we were
going to start charging people by the hour to play
Achaea. Naturally, this braindead decision (the times of hourly
charging were over with) caused most of our players to tell us that,
regretfully, they'd have to leave if we did that. We couldn't face
starting over again with no playerbase, so we relented, and came up
with our current business model instead, which has worked out just
peachily.
 
At some point it became clear that Vortex wasn't going to be able to
accomodate our growing playerbase. It was written too
inefficiently. So, Chris and I struck a deal whereby he'd get a
large chunk of ownership in return for writing a new engine for
us. He figured it'd take 9 months, and using that estimate I forced
the owner of Vortex to sell us Vortex cheaply, on the logic that he
was going to lose the only royalties he was getting anyway once we
switched to Rapture. It was a great decision, because Rapture took
about 2 years to finish in the end, so we saved ourselves a lot of
royalty payments. (Rapture wouldn't take 2 years to finish
full-time, but Chris was working without pay, while going to school,
and while also coding in-game systems for Achaea).

To cut an already way-too-long story short, Rapture finally went
live in July 2001 and to our great relief, is probably a magnitude
faster than Vortex was, giving us plenty of growth space.

In May of last year, as Geoffrey MacDougall, Josh Olson (both list
members) and I were shutting down The Sapience Group, Josh asked me
if I'd ever thought of franchising Achaea. From there, Aetolia was
born, which I hired Josh to run. It opened in October 2001 and is
coming along nicely.

So, that's the short summary. There's a lot more involved of course,
including 'wars' with a couple other MUDs, a project for a
UN-affiliated conference, drama among the administration, building a
volunteer force, etc. There was also another factor that I consider
rather important in Achaea's early days, but my posts on that
subject have been previously rejected, so I won't include it.

A couple things I didn't talk much about were what our feature set
was when we went up, and how we promoted Achaea. I honestly don't
remember what was and wasn't in when we went up, and though I could
arrive at it by looking at all our announcements since then and
deducting, that's too much work. I'll just say that what we had when
we went up were original abilities and skills that you won't see in
D&D or in stock MUDs, and that's about it. Many of those abilities
were bugged, or not working, and most of the skills (skills in
Achaea are one branch of a skill tree) had many missing
abilities. My favorite example of how awful we were when we went up
was that my first message was from our first mortal asking if
perhaps I could remove his paralysis, because there existed no way
for mortals to cure it, and so he was stuck standing there until a
God could help him.

In terms of advertising, we spend relatively little on it in terms
of our total revenue. Banner, button, and text ads at Mudconnector
(exclusive rights to the front page now), sometimes ads on
Overture's services, or Google, and we advertised on PvPOnline for a
month recently. These all do well for us, and as our growth has
generally been limited by content, we've not tried to grow more
quickly than the content has.

Some general lessons that I draw from my experience with
boostrapping a commercial MUD:

  1. Do something different. If you're trying to make another D&D
  clone, you're screwed. Most of the stock MUDs go in that
  direction.

  2. Get it online asap. There's nothing more depressing than
  working on an empty MUD. You need to get it online for your own
  sanity, and because getting player feedback (as long as some of it
  is good) makes you feel as if you haven't been laboring for
  nothing. Don't worry about "giving your MUD a bad rep." Just get
  it online and start building a loyal playerbase.

  3. Do everything as cheaply as possible. Get people to work on
  equity if you can. You aren't likely to have enough money to do it
  any differently for awhile. Paying people IS preferrable, but if
  you have the money to pay salaries starting out, you're already in
  a different class than I was at the beginning.

  4. Be persistent. Most MUDs I've seen are plagued by developers
  who aren't willing to just put in the month after month of work,
  slowly building your world into something to be proud of. It's not
  going to happen overnight, and it's not going to happen in a year.

  5. It's all about design. Technical implemetation is less
  important in a text MUD than it is in something of a larger
  scale. You have lots of room to be sloppy in terms of memory
  usage, CPU cycles, and so on. Further, given how easy it is to
  develop iteratively in text, you can afford to take the attitude
  that many problems can just be fixed as and when they occur.

  6. Volunteers. You need them. Get them, now. Empower them and
  imbue them with a sense of professionalism. The post that one of
  the admins from Armaggedon made the other day about having their
  admins sign off on their mission statement was excellent, I
  thought.

  7. Enjoy it. If you don't, give it up as you'll never stick with
  it long enough. I still love running Achaea on a day to day basis,
  which is one reason it is successful. I suspect that attitude ends
  up permeating your entire world.

--matt

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