Word gamers

For some fans of text-based role playing, virtual reality is all in the mind.

By Etelka Lehoczky

Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"There will always be a market for the graphic -- you know, point-and-click, bash heads, blow snot, take the monster's stuff and run," says Sean Patrick Fannon. But the director of Obsidian Studios is convinced that text-based gaming -- Dungeons and Dragons-style campaigns played by e-mail and in online chat areas -- is here to stay. "There still is and will always be a community of people for whom the written word is their most profound form of expression ... It's in that form that they are able to truly come alive in a way that they can't in their normal lives."

Fannon has spent over a decade writing and producing gaming titles like The Mutant File and Champions Universe, but his audience is small compared to the millions who shoot their way through the animated worlds of games like Quake, Doom and Tomb Raider. The 3D graphics, video effects and multi-player environments flaunted by these games are just about the closest anyone's come to that most coveted grail of the personal computer game industry, virtual reality.

Still, Fannon's fans and other devotees of text-based gaming -- a small but stubborn community of role players -- find that V.R. is less important that good old-fashioned storytelling. At Web sites like WebRPG and The Play-by-Email News, gamers busily conduct text-based Dungeons and Dragons campaigns with players from around the world. WebRPG claims 2 million page views per month and runs thousands of games through its message boards, while the Play-by-Email News carries announcements for hundreds of e-mail adventures of every conceivable variety.

"You can get more depth out of a text-based game than a graphic game," says Rick Loomis, president of the Game Manufacturers Association and owner of the Flying Buffalo game company. "This is less true than it has been in the past, but the more graphics and music and everything else you add to it, the less depth there is to the game."

Fans of multi-player titans like Ultima Online and EverQuest might disagree. And there's certainly no reason to believe that some gamers wouldn't be happy hopping between an imagined world that they shape as they write and the rich, graphic experience of multi-player adventure games. But it's clear that there is a hardcore group of gamers who eschew the Ultima Onlines and EverQuests -- with their seven-figure development costs -- in favor of the orcs and saving throws of that tabletop classic, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).

Some participants in this summer's Re:Play game developers' online conference were certainly more interested in storytelling than pictures. "It should be clear ... that good simulation of human behavior will change the way that games are made, and possibly [the] kinds of games that are made," wrote Marc LeBlanc, lead engineer of the game engine team at LookingGlass Studios, in one of the online conference's forums. Other contributors agreed.

"MUDs were supposed to have an open structure, but their appeal is gradually being confined to satisfy the testosterone frenzy of the 'majority' MUD audience," one writer said. "Yes, we all believe that commercial parties are developing MUDs with a broad appeal, full of blacksmiths and diplomats and midwives, but we never see them ... Classic pencil and paper RPGs [still] come closest to providing an open structure."

Fannon is banking on the continued appeal of such simple interactions. Obsidian Studios is structuring its new game system, The Shards of the Stone, around e-mail and chat-room forms of play, and though Fannon hopes to expand to "more of a full graphical Ultima Online, Everquest-style approach," he says he'll never stop supporting text-based gaming.

Some advocates of text-based gaming are quite critical of the graphical fantasy games. "Only when a computer brain can achieve close to human intelligence will it be possible for a multi-player game or MUD to offer the same degree of flexibility that a human-moderated game can," says Nick Pendrell, who created the D&D-style world of Bohavia, which generates about 3,000 words per day. Pendrell's players have fought a herd of bulls intent on copulating with the ox drawing their cart, encountered a magical, disembodied nose and stumbled across a medieval gay bar -- all scenarios unimaginable in the pre-programmed world of Everquest.

The kind of commitment and verbosity that Pendrell's players evidence is made possible, surprisingly enough, by the delayed nature of play. While the action in an e-mail campaign can seem glacial compared to that of a real-time role-playing game, that's just fine with players who can't or don't want to commit several hours at a stretch. Most of Pendrell's campaigners are professionals, many are married and some have kids -- yet most can scrounge a few moments each day to send off an e-mail message and stay in the game.

"Personally, I hate real-time games," Loomis says. "I feel rushed. Quick-quick, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do. I prefer to get my move, look it over, savor it awhile ... and at my leisure decide what to do and turn in the results."

Such complaints may lie behind the so-called "churn rate" faced by some online games. "Both Ultima Online and Everquest claim to have over 125,000 users," says Greg Costikyan, a long time game designer and author of the just-released report "The Future of Online Gaming." "On the other hand, Ultima Online I think has sold more than 400,000 copies and Everquest about 300,000, which means the majority of the people who bought Ultima Online ... have decided not to renew their subscriptions. So clearly churn rate is an issue."

Fannon remains convinced that the antidote to churn is a more rewarding degree of interpersonal contact. In order to offer graphics-based game players options beyond "just walking off into the wilderness and seeing what happens," he hopes to adapt some of the elements found in e-mail gaming and MUDs. He's particularly excited about the prospect of assembling networks of skilled facilitators -- in short, online dungeon masters -- who can guide newcomers toward a satisfying experience.

"The next level of online gaming is not about the technology," he says. "It's about the social engineering."

Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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