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PAX South 2017: MetaArcade – Old-School Text-Based Adventures Meet Modern Content Creation

Jason Winter Posted:
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If you're a gamer and a child of the '80s like me, you probably spent a fair amount of time curled up with Choose Your Own Adventure books. If you're super-nerdy, you might have gotten into some of the more advanced titles that added actual gameplay systems – dice, combat, equipment, etc. – beyond simple decision-making. My favorites were the ones based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Car Wars.

In a nutshell, it's those kind of “advanced” gaming books that MetaArcade is looking to emulate, allowing players to create their own adventures and play those created by others. Going into PAX, I had only a brief video and explanation of MetaArcade was from its website, and the concept seemed distant and nebulous. After getting some hands-on time with the platform at the show, it felt much more tangible, and I was eager to give it more of my time.

A typical MetaArcade adventure starts with a description of your circumstances and offers a few initial choices. In the sample adventure I was given, I started off in the Naked Doom, a classic old-timey module that tosses you, a prisoner, into a dungeon with nothing but your wits and the will to survive. In each room – or “page,” if you wanted to use the book analogy – I was presented with a piece of art, ambient music or sound effects, some text describing my surroundings, and some choices as to how to proceed. Sometimes, dice rolls were needed, either for combat or to make various checks against my attributes. Your success or failure, or sometimes simply the choices you make, and a dash of luck, will determine where your journey takes you next – or if it continues at all.

I skillfully maneuvered my way through and around obstacles, smiting goblins and eating dubious mushrooms that knocked me out for days. Similar to a roguelike, you'll advance your character as you progress; in my case, my combat skills were boosted to a ludicrous level, something like 9 dice + 100. I felt like I could take on the world! But gravity turned out to be my (literal) downfall. As I was carefully scooting across a log bridge, a horde of bats swooped down on me. I lost my grip and plummeted to my death.

MetaArcade currently uses the rules set for Tunnels & Trolls, one of the first pen-and-paper RPGs, which pioneered the concept of solo adventures. But you don't need any proficiency in its simple systems to experience adventures on the platform; I'd actually never played T&T before, but I could add numbers and roll virtual dice just fine. MetaArcade Co-Founder and CEO David Reid told me that they'd like to add more to the rules system and it could easily be modified to accommodate other gaming rules sets.

How easy is it to create an adventure in MetaArcade? Reid took me through the creation process, which was part of the “PAX South MegaAdventure,” a dungeon that con-goers were invited to add to with their own ideas. I decided to base mine around a crazy old wizard, and Reid was able to quickly pull up a suitably mad-looking old coot on a beach and add an ocean-breeze sound effect. MetaArcade has an extensive, and easily searchable, library of images and sound effects that they've procured the rights to for use in publicly created dungeons. The eventual goal is to allow creators to upload their own assets, once a system is in place to make certain nothing is used illegally.

My seaside wizard had a shell at his feet, so I decided to base my “room” around that. I won't get into the details – you'll have to play it out on your own! – but there were three choices, most of which led to skill checks that could have a variety of helpful or damaging effects if the player succeeded or failed their saving throws. While Reid did the driving, it wasn't difficult to see how the system worked, branching off into different trees based on decisions and dice rolls. If you're used to a content-creation system like the Foundry in Perfect World's games, you'll have no problem with MetaArcade's system. Even if you don't, the simplicity of it all should enable you to at least craft basic adventures. After about 10 minutes, my crazy wizard and his challenges were in the system, and I had grandiose notions of creating my own lengthy adventure from scratch.

I had to ask the really important question, which is how Reid's company will earn its own profits from MetaArcade. The creation platform is free, as are most of the adventures. You'll receive ads for free adventures, or you can purchase them, starting at $0.99. The revenue, whether from ads or direct purchases, will be split between MetaArcade and the content creator, allowing talented dungeon masters to profit from their work, similar to content-creation platforms for other games. Testing is currently limited to iOS and Android devices, but the plan is to bring the platform to PCs (via Steam) and Macs.

Volume will be key to MetaArcade's success. The sample adventure I played was professionally created, but user-created content is likely to vary greatly in terms of polish and overall quality. If the system can garner a critical mass of having enough people to produce fun adventures to keep up with the demands of players, it can succeed.

The greater question might be that of MetaArcade's audience. As I said at the start of this piece, MetaArcade reminds of me of single-player “game books” from the '80s, which aren't exactly in high demand 30 years later. Will there be enough people who want to play MetaArcade's stuff on their mobile devices during long trips instead of, say, Hearthstone? Or on their PCs instead of World of Warcraft? Even for an old-schooler like myself, who grew up with this kind of entertainment, that's a good question.

Still, I look forward to seeing what MetaArcade has to offer, at least to scratch my nostalgia itch. It's a refreshing new take on an old concept that's sure to appeal to a certain kind of gaming fan. Maybe I'll even bring back my crazy wizard for an adventure once the content creator is released to the general public. Just be careful about touching his seashell...


Jason Winter