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Recapturing that Old MUD Feeling

Mark Kern Posted:
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Before there was Ultima Online and Everquest, or even Meridian 59, there were MUDs. Standing for “Multi User Dungeon,” MUDs were the original MMOs. Played on mainframes with text descriptions and a simple command line, with no sound, no graphics, not even a map, you typed out your movements and actions in the game and waited to see the server’s response. You connected via your dial-up modem at 300 baud, and there were perhaps 20-30 players online at any given time.

But it is to these primitive beginnings that we owe the MMO genre. For those of us who played MUDs, we have fond memories of a type of online game that in many ways no longer exists in modern MMOs. There are elements from these MUDs that perhaps should not have been shed in the pursuit of progress. This will be the first of a series of short articles covering a few features and elements of MUDs that bear re-examination for use in modern MMOs.

One area that has dramatically changed since MUD days is the role of the GM. Game Masters were called that for a reason: they actually helped shape and drive the game experience for players by playing alongside them in the game. Today, GMs are customer service reps, relegated to offline chat interfaces (if even that), knowledge databases and ticket support systems. But is this really a good use of their time and potential creativity?

I spent time helping to develop the WoW customer support tools and procedures back when I was Team Lead for vanilla WoW. The game team actually created the tools that CS used. We created a unified ticket queue, offline chat tools (EQ at the time still required GMs to log in and use abilities to help players), knowledge bases and chat search systems. It was all for efficiency. We wanted to help customers as fast as we could with as few reps as possible. But we were still overwhelmed.  Blizzard began to spend large sums of the yearly budget on hiring more reps and building more tools. But as I look back, I don’t feel that customer satisfaction scaled linearly with the increase in spending. We had to spend a lot just to move the needle in customer satisfaction just a point or two. I started to ask myself why and if this was the right way to keep going?

I went down to the GM area and spent a few days answering CS tickets and interacting with players. What I found was that the majority of my interactions with players were negative experiences for the customer.  There were bugs with quests and the game, and all I could do was give the stock answer “it’s broken, we’re sorry, it will be fixed in a future patch soon and I will forward your comments to the dev team.” If it was a lost item, I would use the escalation system to elevate tickets to a lead GM, who would be so swamped that it would take hours to verify the item logs and reimburse the player, if not days. Then there were the complaints about other players, or policing bad behavior or exploits in the game. In short, I was either not able to help player immediately, or I was reprimanding and suspending and banning people. Perhaps only 20% of the time was there an immediate satisfying result for the customer. I asked myself “for all the money we are spending on customer service, why can’t we be using that to add value to the game itself?”

What I really wanted to see, what I yearned for, was to have GMs interact with the game and players again in the way I experienced playing those old MUDs. I wanted them to be greeters, guides, and actors in an online world, creating small events and content on the fly.  The interaction between the people running the game and the players,was so rich back then. I remember, as a new player, I would be greeted by a GM messaging me, and inviting me to an orientation hall with other new players. There they would help us get started understanding the game, how to play, and get our questions answered about starting out. We would gaze in awe at their text descriptions of resplendent robes and staffs of power, symbols of not just their authority, but what we might become ourselves if we played hard enough.

GMs in MUDs also tended to be game scripters themselves, adding rooms and zones to the game when they were not interacting with players. They also played as actors in large server-wide events. I remember a demon invasion in a game called Gemstone, where all the demon leaders were played out by GMs. We fought them and won, and it was an experience that was fluid and varied instead of static AI behavior and limited scripted lines. It was a lot of fun, and felt very special.

Everquest was an early enough MMO that there was still some GM interaction. GMs would regularly have “events” which were simply spawning in tough creatures that took entire teams to wipe out. But soon the role shifted completely to customer service, and the creative and human interaction aspect faded away. GMs no longer functioned to make the game a richer world and gaming experience for players. Now, we never see GMs in game, and we know them only as the people that change our name, give us warnings, or help us with lost items and incomplete quests or other bugs. This is valuable, I don’t want to say that it isn’t when it really is necessary and important. But its not adding gameplay to the game.

What I would like to see is a two pronged approach to getting back to the MUD feel of GMs. First, I want to free up GMs time, so they spend less of it on ticket queues and more time in the game. Secondly, I want to create a suite of tools that allow GMs to run events easily and efficiently in game, playing alongside or against players.

On the CS side, I would like to see the role of “game police” removed from GM functions. It’s a thankless and tedious job, and I think we could build crowdsourcing tools and other automated systems that would greatly reduce the number of people we currently dedicate to this task. I have always believed that players policing players and having tools to keep a culture and community alive is far better than a reactive response by GMs chasing down every little slight a player might have given another player. Bugs and exploits can also be more efficient, and I’ve had designs in my head for how to actually loop players into the bug/fix/test loop that all developers use in a way that would speed up bug fixes and proactively prevent players from falling into the same bug that have already affected hundreds of others before them. If we can do this, then we can devote more GMs to the second half of the approach: in-game events and player interaction.

I would love to see a way for a designer to design an event, and an in-game tool that gave GMs the ability to plug into the event design, run it and manage it, and keep players entertained and rewarded along the way. I see a sort of event “template” that gets created with stock storyline text/VO, a list of monsters and NPCs ready for the GM to spawn, and rewards that are packaged and ready to hand out to players. The GM would have extra tools to control mobs, direct the action, trigger VO and spawn creatures and events as needed. These events could be server wide,  but I don’t think they need to be so grand. I think it would be fun and exciting just to have lots of small local events through the day, never knowing when and where they might happen. Even if only a small group of players got to experience the event, the word would spread, and people would be excited the next time it was their turn to happen upon an event. They would create “watercooler talk” the next day at work, as players trade stories about the unique and special adventure they had the night before.

Most players would only encounter one or two of these events per month, but I bet they would remember them forever. Wouldn’t that enrich us all, even if we weren’t there, just to hear the stories and know that you might experience the same soon? Wouldn’t that have GMs adding real value to the game? And wouldn’t you love to have that job? I hope we can find a way. I miss those GMs from the MUD days, and would love to see them roaming our virtual worlds once again.


Mark Kern