If stunning graphics drive the computer gaming market, why are MUDs -- text-based online gaming environments -- still around? And why would the producers of a new online game built for a hot TV series adopt this old-fashioned model?
Players explain the MUD advantage succinctly: It's like the difference between reading the book and seeing the movie. "Almost invariably," MUD fan Sylverdust says, "the response is, 'Well, the movie was all right, but the book was better.'"
Text-based games are an unusual breed of cat because, essentially, they have no graphics and no linear path to follow. While many gamers eagerly debate the merits of various 3-D graphics cards and the "Riven" story line, others continue to migrate toward "old-school" games that forego graphics for interactive fiction, where gamers create a character and role-play for the duration of the game -- where they can go anywhere in the universe they can think of because there are no rails, no linear paths, no real-time physics to worry about.
In other words, MUDs (the acronym stands for "multi-user dimension" or "multi-user dungeon") are the online equivalent of old paper-and-pen role-playing games, where the only limit to where you can go or what you'll encounter is what's in your head. They're like a version of Dungeons and Dragons, all grown up.
Fans attribute their preference to the complete freedom available in MUDs -- you can go absolutely anywhere in the game world, do anything you want, say anything to any character you come across -- and to the pleasure of using their imaginations to picture places, other characters and even hunting weapons. "Nobody pictures a 'sooty yew longbow' in quite the same way," says MUD fan Medan (who, like all the fans interviewed for this piece, asked to be referred to by his nom-de-game). "But if you see it there on the screen, there's no question. Your imagination can picture what you see much better than the computer monitor."
It's this sentiment exactly that Simutronics and Universal -- creators of the month-old MUD "Hercules and Xena: Alliance of Heroes" -- are hoping will capture the fancy of the legion of Xena and Herc fans populating the Web.
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"Given the popularity of the shows on the Internet," says Michelle Babcock of Universal, "we felt that a multiplayer game would be very popular with our fans. We also liked the elements of chat that are incorporated into this style of game, as that's what we've found our fans like to do when they're online. They enjoy chatting about the shows and even making up scenarios about their favorite characters," she says -- and the number of sites dedicated to fans writing their own Xena and Herc stories, often erotic ones, is a clear testament to that.
Simutronics, on the other hand, has been in the MUD business since 1987, and is perhaps known best for its massively multiplayer "GemStone" MUDs. With a base of more than 50,000 subscribers (who collectively log roughly 2 million hours of gameplay a month), Simutronics was the logical choice for Universal when it decided to create a Xena and Hercules game. Not to mention that Simutronics could put the game together for Universal in less than a year -- a Herculean feat in the gaming world.
"We wanted to get a game out there just as soon as possible," says Babcock, "and most graphical games take almost two years to produce." "Alliance of Heroes," based on Simutronics's Interactive Fiction Engine, took only eight months.
That, however, was not the main reason for making a MUD instead of a fully graphical adventure, Babcock stresses. What with all the Xena fans online and the lack of the usual restraints an adventure game presents (linear gameplay, specific solutions to puzzles), "It seemed that a chat-type game made good sense for this audience."
Good sense indeed. Simutronics charges $9.95 a month for access to its games, and if it can draw in not only the regular MUD fans but also the tremendous numbers of Xena and Hercules fans, the company stands to make some serious money. Which is part of the reason Simutronics is hoping to lure stars Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo, among others, into making an appearance or two in the game. Xena and Herc fans are notorious for showing up in droves any time there's a chance of encountering the stars.
If Lawless shows up, "You better crank up your servers, because they're going to crash," warned the pseudonymous "Laura Sue Dean, the Actress" -- gossip columnist for Xena fan site WHOOSH.
Right now Universal will only say that it's "hoping to get the stars in the game shortly." Even so, Xena and Herc fans are checking into the game. Dean loves it. Part of the reason is simply that the game is tied very closely to the TV show. Scriptwriters clue game producers in on what's coming up on the show so they can weave the TV plot lines into the fabric of the game. For example, if Xena were to suddenly take a trip to Mars, gamemasters could create a new Mars area for gamers to explore.
Susan "Suz" Dodd, producer of "Alliance of Heroes," explains the appeal of the game: "You can wear the same kind of clothes Xena wears, learn to do these fantastic acrobatics Hercules does," she says, and do it all through the same woods, forests and villages where Xena and Hercules do it. For someone like Xena superfan Dean, the idea of being able to grab her Amazon friends, meet up at the temple and head off into Xena's universe is immensely appealing -- and, indeed, the communal nature of MUDs has always been one of their greatest draws.
"When I log into the game," says Sylverdust, "I connect with a vast neighborhood of friends and acquaintances from all over the place ... We get to know each other, make friends and enjoy each other's company and creativity." And while other kinds of more graphically impressive games like Blizzard.net's Diablo also offer meeting places and communal play, MUDs allow for changes in the parameters of the game itself -- something that can't be done nearly as easily or efficiently with a game from a box,
where changes come in the form of add-ons and patches.
"I could add 300 rooms right now," says Dodd -- or, in the blink of an eye, she could create a velvet, butterfly-covered knapsack should a player, for some reason, request it. Boxed games may be graphically intense or beautiful, but MUDs are simply more dynamic.
In the end, that may well be what brings success to the Xena game. After all, these are fans who live for the fantasy Xenaverse and take on alternate existences as warriors and priestesses. For them, the game may be more than the difference between the movie and the book; it may well be the difference between watching the world on TV and actually living it.