Discussion Hat

7. Discussion.

7.1 Organisation.

This section contains a selection of representative quotes on a variety of MUA-related subjects. Some of the quotes presented are solicited, unlike those in previous sections; most, however, are taken without permission from public sources such as magazine articles, bulletin boards, and InterNet's rec.games.mud list.

Between quotes are connecting paragraphs advancing the main points. At the end of each subsection is a summary.

7.2 Why Do People Play?

The first and most obvious reason people play MUAs is because it's fun to do so. In some cases, 'fun' is perhaps too weak a word, however:

"There was little doubt that playing MUD was exciting and stimulating. After one long evening interview, wishing to experience the game first hand, I agreed to join a player as he prepared to access Essex. Not all who wished to play could, as it was strictly on a 'first come, first served' basis, and as the methods of access were no straightforward much of the excitement seemed to hinge upon whether one could gain entry. While waiting to see if his efforts had been successful, the interviewee thrust his wrist to me to feel his racing pulse. He did not get in, but stated that he always got an 'adrenalin high' before and during play."
                -- Margaret Shotton [Computer Addiction? A study of computer dependency]

Many MUA players feel this kind of a buzz playing the game - particularly killers, ie. those who attack other personae with intent to cause them harm. The 'thrill' of the hunt can be so strong that it doesn't always matter who wins the eventual fight - and in many ways, if the killer is taking a risk then it can be an even greater attraction (like gambling). Similarly, role-players can enjoy deceiving other people into believing things that aren't true, although realising that someone has attempted to trick you is rarely as exciting as avoiding persona death in a fight.

Contrast the heart-pounding excitement of the above MUD1 player with the faint enthusiasm of a TinyMUD veteran:

"Why do I MUD? Same reason you use the phone. And it's a lot cheaper."
                -- Bryant Durrell [Islandia founder]

Here, it's mere convenience that determines why Durrell plays. TinyMUDs have little or no puzzles, exploration is seldom rewarding, so they settle down into chatlines. Players who met when the game first started, and were learning to build rooms together, struck bonds of friendship. However, when the futility of that activity sinks in, they just sit around talking. New players don't get the same initial fun, so don't play for very long, and older players are lost through general attrition. Eventually, the game/chatline is deserted.

(The reason it's cheaper, incidentally, is because Durrell uses InterNet, so the costs are borne by others).

So it seems there is a distinction between a MUA that models reality in some way and one that merely provides chatline facilities, with the former having more staying power than the latter because the emotional talons with which it holds its players are stronger. Why is this so, though? Why should interaction that occurs in a computer-moderated fantasy world be any more gripping than straight CB-style interaction?

"I remember the first time I was killed in MUD - it was deliberate. I was in tears. I really knew what it was like to be dead, the simulation was so real."
                -- An interviewee (male) [Computer Addiction? A study of computer dependency]

The reason is that a good MUA can be believable. If it works the same way as the real world, then the players use the same mind-set as if they were in the real world, and hence emotional response to events in the MUA world are as if they were affecting the player directly in the real world. In a chatline, nothing happens; people don't interact, they merely communicate. Whatever, there must certainly be some other players - a SUA may be lifelike, but it's essentially private. For a world to seem truly real, it must be a shared experience.

"One thing is for sure, and that is that the multi-user feature is very important."
                -- Lars Pensjo [LPMUD author]

If, however, MUA worlds can seem to the players like they are real, should events that take place in these worlds be treated as if they were real-world events? Or are they distinct? Should players shrug off what happens to them? What if they can't?

"MUDs are games. Deal with it."
                -- Clay Webster [player]

This is a popular view: people who are unable to switch off when they leave a MUA ought to learn to do so, because the bottom line is that a MUA is just a game, and haranguing people about what they did in the game is as pointless as haranguing authors about what happened in books they wrote. This viewpoint is held mostly by people who have never played a MUA, have played but never let themselves become emotionally absorbed by it, or who play killer personae in order to get a kick out of annoying someone who doesn't hold the "MUAs are games" viewpoint.

Surely, though, things which wield this kind of emotional power over people can't be mere games? The passions roused in (traditional) MUAs have the kind of fire to them normally reserved for religious or political evangelism. People aren't so much playing the MUA as living it.

"Ready for the shocker? Reality is a game. It has rules (physics), players (life forms), and many goals. ... I won't deny that MUDs are games, but if that is so then reality can also be considered a game."
                -- Ray Cromwell [TinyMUD player]

This argument is intended to show by reducto ad absurdum that MUAs (or at least TinyMUDs) aren't really games, because if they were then everything is a game. However, perhaps it be applied in reverse: if real life is as much a game as is a MUA, perhaps MUAs are as much a reality as real life?

"My MUD philosophy is that it's more than just a game, it's a virtual reality."
                -- Bruce Woodcock [TinyMUD player]

Correct. Although the popular conception of virtual reality is a mass of electronic headsets and cybergloves containing Tomorrow's World presenters, MUAs are precisely the same thing, only instead of the images being generated by a computer they're created by the imagination of each individual player.

The 'virtual' in 'virtual reality' is used in the same sense as 'virtual image' in optics: the appearance of a real reality is there, but it actually doesn't exist. However, if it truly doesn't exist, then nothing that occurs in it really happens either, and therefore it should have no effect on the real world (which, we assume, does exist).

"All repeat after me: IT'S ONLY A GAME!"
                -- Anton Rang [TinyTalk author]

The crucial point is that the virtual reality does exist; not in the same way as real life, but as a conceptualisation which can have an effect on people in real life.

"I'm hesitant to label it 'just a game'. Sure it looks like a game. It uses a text-adventure metaphor for social interaction. However, that geeky phrase doesn't even *begin* to convey the complexities of 'what mud is'."
                -- Stephen White [TinyMUCK author]

When a player like Shotton's interviewee controls a persona in a MUA and becomes absorbed to such an extent that he is oblivious to the real world, concentrating only on the virtual reality, then the player and his persona fuse; he 'becomes' his persona in that MUA. As far as the player is concerned, things are happening not to the persona but to he himself. He can do things that are impossible in the real world, and be whoever he wants to be. That's the attraction.

Of course, a sudden change back to real life is going to be jarring. The emotions felt by the player as he lived in the virtual reality cannot be shaken off when he leaves that reality any more than real life emotions can be dismissed at the drop of a hat. No wonder Shotton's interviewee cried when his persona - ie. he himself - was killed in MUD1.

MUAs are not merely chatlines with games screwed on top; rather, they are a whole that is greater than the sum of these two parts. Of course, a good deal of their insidious attraction is that they can lure not just people who want a virtual reality buzz, but ones who simply like games and ones who simply like chatlines. People who just like talking can do that in a MUA if they want to. TinyMUD has a very weak 'learn what to do' game about it when it is first installed at a site, and then it rapidly degenerates into a chatline; however, even then it has enough of a virtual world about it to have prompted this recent posting on InterNet:

"I was thinking about things today, and realised that I was spending more than 8 hours a day MUDding, skipping classes and ignoring homework in favour of all the socialisation of the MUDs. It also hit me that I was going to flunk out of college if I didn't stop it. I'm addicted bad. Real bad. ... To all of you who insist that MUD is a game, I disagree. MUD is a socialisation tool that just happens to allow you to go adventuring and solve puzzles. Problem is, that I over-used it, to the exclusion of a real life."
                -- Garth Minette [ex-TinyMUD player]

MUAs are very addictive. Chatlines can be addictive, and games can be addictive, but neither compares remotely with what a MUA can do to people. It happens in all MUAs:

"The burnout player has a very clear profile - he is a very active player who cannot be missed when he is in the game, he is chatty and likeable, a fighter (but not very good), and he sparkles, bubbles, burbles and froths all over chat. Above all, he wants to be involved with everything. The symptoms are very obvious from the outset: long hours of play every day may gradually move into peak time, followed by a furious activity towards the end of the first quarter, with a 'well I might as well be hanged for stealing a sheep as a lamb' attitude just before the bill arrives. Then the painful farewell to friends and enemies moments before dad consigns the modem to the dustbin. Then, silence forever. He is never seen again. Burnout."
                -- Pip Cordrey [IOWA owner]

Apart from the predictable grouse about telephone charges, Cordrey has a genuine point here. People who like the world offered by a MUA more than they do the real world will often spend a lot of time there. If they are obliged to pay for their time after having played, and are aware that they can't, they'll play as much as they can before being cut off. This will increase their addiction even more, and when the phone is finally disconnect then the sudden wrench from the MUA can be devastating. Players have described it as 'cold Turkey'.

"MUDs are addictive, as we who play them are well aware. Gibson and the rest were right about the addictive possibilities of cyberspace. They were just wrong about the magnitude."
                -- Bryant Durrell [Islandia founder]

The intersection between game and chatline which is so addictive is a form of role-playing. The term is appropriate, however note:

"Role-playing games have attracted some criticism; US religious fundamentalists have managed to conflate them with satanism and other evils - such as psychiatry."
                -- Computer Weekly [magazine]

That's why these days, in discussing their relationship to their persona, smart American MUA players stay on the virtual reality bandwagon.

"In my case, Sir Bruce Sterling is mostly me. His words are generally my words in that situation, his actions often the ones I would take. But there are slight differences. I can do things in MUDs I can't in real life, which allows options I don't have in real life. And when I kill in virtual reality, it doesn't mean I'd actually kill under the same circumstances in real life, since no-one *really* dies or even ceases to exist on MUDs if they are killed."
                -- Bruce Woodcock [player]

Why is role-playing seductive? Its principal attraction is that it allows players to be someone else, to take on an assumed identity. They can be themselves, but when things go wrong they don't feel so bad about it. Anonymity is the key.

"Considering my MUD persona - and I only have one, which probably says a lot in itself - there are a lot of similarities. I definitely hide behind the anonymity, but share a large number of traits (not all good) with my MUD personality."
                -- Mike Prudence [player]

Anonymity also enables players to take on completely different roles, behaving outrageously, safe in the knowledge that they can't be hurt in the real world.

"Interaction can mean anything from kissing to killing or stealing."
                -- The Economist

Often, this involves sexual manipulation - sometimes subtle, but not always:

"The hozer: 'Yo, babe! I got this amazing ten-inch love muscle. Wanna date? Lie down and spread your legs.' Hozers are usually college freshmen with no social skills who can't get sex any other way. They tend to skew the male/female ratio on MUDs even further by causing all female characters in the vicinity to change to male or gender-neutral characters."
                -- Lauren Burka [TinyMUD player]

The ability to live out sexual fantasies in a MUA does attract certain people, especially to games set up precisely for that purpose (eg. Zone). This can cause managerial problems if it is uninvited. Something common in all MUAs, though, is cross-gender playing. Most male players play female personae (usually admitting that they are really male if questioned) and many female players play male personae (usually not admitting it if asked). Sometimes, males playing females will attempt to get themselves picked up by players they think are male:

"The slut: 'Hey, does anyone here want a blow-job?' The slut comes in all different shapes and sizes, but her description always includes mention of her luscious lips and prominent nipples. 95% of all sluts are played by male players. Most of these used to be hozers."
                -- Lauren Burka [TinyMUD player]

Rarely will this totally brazen technique fool anyone, but an accomplished role-player can build up amazingly detailed on-line relationships over time. Quite what the fun in this involves is hard to say - it's probably to do with enjoying manipulation other people, although the challenge of role-playing may be a significant factor. Certainly, it can lead to tragic cases where a player falls in love with a persona played by someone of their own gender (almost invariably they're both male - females don't appear to indulge in this kind of thing with quite the same dedication). Most MUAs will have that happen to them at some time in their history unless they're very well managed.

Male players in some games have developed a defence against the possibility that the female persona that they are talking to is actually male:

"If you see a persona with a female name, it's really a male. If they come up and talk all feminine and giggle, it's still a male. If they phone you, meet you in a park, chat for two hours about MUD and produce logs of their games, it's still a male playing the persona. If you actually see them sitting down, playing the game, behaving just like they do when you've snooped them, then they might be the real thing but the chances are they're not. You can't be too careful!"
                -- Richard Bartle [Comms Plus!]

Except in games with a near-even male/female ratio, many women adopt the same attitude:

"Perhaps it's because women are so scarce on the computers that some men haven't realised that they don't have to talk any differently to us. I know that some women conceal their gender from those who think that just because someone says that they are female, this is an invitation to be harassed. This loss of freedom seems to be a high price to pay to get respect."
                -- Paola Kathuria [Comms Plus!]

The 'freedom' Kathuria is talking about is that of being able to be yourself. Many new female players will be scared off by male players trying to chat them up all the time, and will not play as male personae because they object to being forced into a role by the attitudes of others.

For those women who play openly as females, a barrage of pick-up lines can be expected (not normally meant to be offensive, just very numerous because there are many more males per female player). Once this has died down, women can play pretty much the same way as men. By then, however, male players will often have formed a visual impression of them that might not fit physical reality.

"In my experience, unless I have got to know someone well enough to call them a (platonic) friend, after face-to-face meetings things are never the same back on the talkers. I have therefore developed a rule of not meeting people while I am getting to know them and instead just relish wanting to meet them. I am inclined to think that if I were male there would be no problem. I put this down to my hunch that when men meet women on a computer the way women are imagined to look like tends to be more like an ideal than someone who may be skinny or fat, spotty, six feet tall or four feet short. I know that when I started to meet people I had a real shock when I found out they wore glasses or had a beard."
                -- Paola Kathuria [Comms Plus!]

This reluctance to meet people face-to-face is quite sad in a way, because whereas more men than women get immediate pleasure from role-playing, more women than men find that their true enjoyment manifests itself in the way in which friendships and companionship can form between players over time.

"The biggest attraction for me would have to be the people here. I have developed many friendships that I will cherish for years to come."
                -- Stargazer [BL player]

In two games at least (Shades and British Legends), players have married people whom they first met in the game. If female players don't want to go to face-to-face meetings for fear of shattering their friends' illusions of them, it can detract from their overall enjoyment of the MUA. Long-standing MUA players who may have jealously guarded their anonymity initially will often gladly turn up at face-to-face meetings to renew their friendships.

"One of the most interesting features of the MUG phenomenon is their social aspect, not just in the game but outside as well. Every game holds social gatherings, and at these events all the players get together and enjoy meeting the people behind the personae. It's always amazing to see people who were battling each other in cold fury the previous evening sitting down together over a pint discussing tactics."
                -- Pip Cordrey [Confidential]

To summarise, then: chatlines can be addictive, games can be addictive; combining the two should therefore be addictive, and yes, MUAs do attract people who like chatlines and people who like games. However, MUAs can exert an influence over a large number of these players out of all proportion to that of either a chatline or game alone. MUAs have an emotional hold over their players which stems from the players' ability to project themselves onto their game personae, feeling as if the things which happen to the game personae are happening directly to the players themselves.

When persona and player fuse, as they do in a good MUA, events are given an impact far beyond that of the mere words that convey them. The game's virtual reality becomes (temporarily) the player's reality. Players can do things and have things done to them that are impossible in real life; they can experience feelings and imbue feelings in others that real life denies them. It's the belief that things are happening to you, not to a game persona, that makes MUAs unique.

This must be understood by the reader. The really exceptional thing about interactive, multi-user computer games of the MUA variety is not that you're chatting to someone miles away (although that can be fun), and it's not that you're competing against a real human instead of a machine (although that can also be fun); it's that you're existing in another world. That's the root of their appeal.

"You get very excited with adventure games. Your adrenalin goes up and you get very tense. It's fascinating that you forget you are hunched over a computer and that others are - you feel you are all together in the magic land of MUD. It's a further extension from reading a book. It's totally engrossing - the mind is focused on one thing and you don't notice anything else."
                -- An interviewee (female) [Computer Addiction? A study of computer dependency]

7.3 Why Do People Not Play?

If MUAs are as entertaining as has just been claimed, why do some people start playing them and then give up shortly afterwards?

New players are the lifeblood of MUAs, as they are needed to replenish the older players who stop playing for personal or financial reasons. They also stop a game from becoming sterile. Hence, most MUAs make some effort to keep new players for long enough to get them hooked.

One of the things commonly cited as a reason for not playing a MUA is that it is too daunting. There is a class of person that finds huge amounts of pre-game reading a real appetiser for the game, and who by the time they've read all the documentation will be raring to go. Many people do not like it, however. They want simple, basic instructions, and they don't want to be told just how much they'll need to know to play the game in earnest - it's just too awesome.

The best way to achieve this is by means of on-line help. Players can ask for assistance on specific game-related topics, and the game will give them details. Purists argue that this spoils the atmosphere, but it's necessary if players are to learn gradually rather than be put off by an initial flood of facts.

"Virtual reality is not hurt by being able to find out how the virtual reality is mapped to the real reality at any time. It's very unrealistic not to be able to whisper to someone because I forgot the command and the help command is not global. Sheesh."
                -- Lee Brintle [player]

However, the crucial factor in ensnaring new players into a game is how the other players react. New players are often confused in their first session, and longer-standing players can help enlighten them.

"If you give people a little guidance, they'll all pull in the same direction, rather than one zillion different directions."
                -- Mike Prudence [TinyMUCK player]

Unfortunately, the behaviour of other players is as potent in its ability to scare off newcomers as it is to welcome them. In male-heavy games, women have special difficulties as outlined earlier. However, everyone suffers verbal abuse from time to time from anonymous personae. Older players will dismiss it without comment, but newcomers (and especially journalists looking for a story) are often shocked, and can easily be driven away (which is, of course, exactly what their abuser intended).

"One of the most annoying things is when I'm sitting in a public (or private) place and someone comes by and starts swearing and insulting me and everyone else in there."
                -- Gregory Blake [player]

Proper game management, especially the ability of arch-wizzes to find out to which account any persona belongs, can do a great deal to stop these practices. However, they'll always be open to misuse by people using guest accounts, where no link between a persona and a real person can be determined.

Swearing and sexual innuendo can creep into any public service with a chatline component - 'sleaze' is the term used to refer to it. Due to mismanagement in some MUAs, eg. Shades, an attitude has set in that this is somehow inevitable, and that when anyone plays a MUA the result is a transformation comparable with that of Dr Jekyll's to Mr Hyde. Since this can be used as an argument against allowing MUAs at all, it is important that it be recognised as fallacious.

"Computer interaction seems to make people nastier and more obnoxious. It doesn't: it merely gives the rude and ignorant more efficient and anonymous means to display their rudeness and ignorance."
                -- Lauren Burka [TinyMUD player]

In other words, MUAs don't make people behave badly; all they do is enable people who want to behave badly to do so. In a properly organised MUA, bad behaviour by an individual will occur at most twice: the first time, if they appear to have thought it was OK to do what they did, they'll perhaps be let off with a stern warning; the second time, they're ejected. Games that allow wrongdoers to return have a harder time of maintaining discipline. That said, when people play MUAs their emotions are often difficult to contain, so when disputes do break out they can escalate rapidly.

Note that sleaze is not limited to MUAs, and that BT is very sensitive about it:

"Should you receive offensive or abusive material over any of our data transmission services or feel that material on a database is offensive and you wish to complain, please register your complaint in one of the following ways. ..."
                -- W. R. Broadhead [head of BT MNS Customer Service Unit, in a letter to PSS customers]

It is impossible to deal with sleaze so long as narrow-minded individuals have access to a system and know they cannot be traced. Automated censorship is presently impossible - computers would throw out words like 'Scunthorpe', and if they didn't then players would use them as swearwords.

To summarise: new players will lose interest if they find a game looks too complicated to play, or if it is too sleazy for them. More experienced players will leave if sleaze gets really bad, but otherwise have a higher tolerance of it. Good game management can reduce the amount of sleaze, in the same way as good Home Office policing can reduce the amount of sleaze on ham radio. However, it can't ever be removed 100%. You can discourage people from breaking a code of acceptable behaviour (eg. by throwing them out), but you can't actually stop them from breaking it.

"If you think about it, you will realise that a game is just a coded collection of rules. With a multi-user adventure these rules are complex, and defy being entirely coded. So some externally applied rules have to exist. The purpose of rules in the game is to ensure that the game is fair and enjoyable to all players."
                -- Pip Cordrey [IOWA owner]

7.4 Why Do People Stop Playing?

MUAs do lose long-standing players. Sometimes it's because the games are boring, or no longer games (as with TinyMUD and derivatives). Other times, the players or their circumstances change: they get older, change job, die, move house, marry, have children.

However, in the UK at least, the main reason that people stop playing is because telephone charges are too high. The evidence for this is overwhelming - almost every professional article on the subject complains about the cost.

"The main obstacle to MUD, and similar programs, gaining a wider airing is the cost of making a telephone call."
                -- Popular Computing Weekly [magazine]

"The problem area with this way to play is the cost and speed at which it operates. Current costs are prohibitive."
                -- New Computer Express [magazine]

"These games are expensive to play, habit forming, and rapidly becoming big business."
                -- PC Plus [magazine]

"No MUG is free when it comes to your telephone bill!"
                -- GM [magazine]

"Maybe the forthcoming changes to BT might lead to a more enlightened attitude to telephone charges for this type of service. For the home user, however, MUD playing will be limited to the rich or the resourceful."
                -- The Times

The service BT provides is held in contempt by everyone in the commercial comms field. Usage patterns for MUAs are very different to those of voice users, with players commonly sitting down for several hours at a stretch playing a game. During that time they are, of course, occupying slots on the same exchanges that normal telephone users are paying full-price to use, however since they have no choice in the matter it can hardly be said to be their fault. Even the absolute minimum price for a local telephone call in the UK works out at 5.06p per 240 seconds, ie. £0.759/hour; for a long-distance call, it's 5.06p per 38 seconds, ie. £4.794/hour. An evening of playing even a free MUA would cost the players anything between £2 and £14 each. Even for commercial games, the bulk of the money players pay ends up in BT's coffers.

BT is very complacent about all this; after all, it's making money by doing nothing, so why bother? Indeed, since there are some people who apparently spout sleaze in these games, perhaps it would be better in the long run if they were all shut down? Less hassle for all concerned...

BT could make a lot more money from MUAs if it dropped its prices. One large phone bill will drive a person off a MUA, whereas they are likely to accept smaller ones over a much longer period. £300 for one quarter nets BT £300; £75 per quarter for two years nets BT £600. People don't play less when the price goes up, they either continue to play or just stop. It's an issue for Market Research to determine the exact trade-off point for maximum income, but it's definitely below 75p/hour.

Another important point is that although BT makes money from MUAs, they're commercially unattractive to games companies. Players are prepared to pay only a certain amount per hour to play, but if BT takes the lion's share of that then there's little profit for the MUA authors. This means companies that specialise in computer games prefer to invest their energies elsewhere, and so the number of commercial MUAs is small. The more games there are, the more players, and therefore the more income due to BT overall.

BT does provide alternative services for its users. Most of these suffer from the fact that they are distance-dependent: most telephone numbers may be local to London, but MUAs often hold a special appeal to people in remote areas, for whom a long-distance call is 5 or 6 times as much. Present facilities and their disadvantages are as follows:

  • PSS
    Allows inexpensive data transfer compared to direct dial over a modem long-distance, but is still a local call plus a high premium of several pounds per hour (depending on the amount of data sent).

  • 0800 numbers
    Players don't get big phone bills, they get big bills from the MUA owners, who in turn get the big phone bills. If they are charged up front to use the service, this can be beneficial - people don't get any nasty surprises. Unattractive to MUA owners because it's distance-dependent, and local callers subsidise distance callers. If, however, all calls to the number cost the MUA owners the same, and that amount was equal to or less than the price of a local call, it would be a very satisfactory option - especially if the MUA providers could claim back the VAT on their phone bills.

  • 0345 numbers
    These are numbers that are a local phone call from anywhere in the country. They're a cross between 0800 calls and normal calls - long-distance calls are subsidised by the owner of the 0345 number. If local call rate from pretty well everywhere in the country could be guaranteed, with no hidden charges, this would be a reasonable second-best option.

  • 0898 numbers
    These are the premium call-rate numbers, where users pay enormous amounts per minute and BT gives some of the resulting money to the 0898 number owner. This would work well for MUAs if the prices weren't so incredibly high - £19.80/hour. Bring it down to £1 or £1.50 an hour and it would be more reasonable. Players would get even larger phone bills to pay all at once, however, and thus may be even more inclined to give up their gaming.

  • Midnight Lines
    Midnight lines allow their owner to pay a flat fee per quarter and make unlimited phone calls any distance in the UK, so long as they do so between midnight and 6am. Best used as a call-back system, where players dial the game, give their password, log off, and the game calls them back on its midnight line; this way, only the game needs the midnight lines, not the players. The problem with these lines is that only the most hardened of players will stay up so late before they can start to play.

Given that BT's options are limited by its charter, there probably isn't much scope for altering these services or providing similar ones. As far as MUA players are concerned, the best solution is to have a service like the 0800 numbers where calls can be made from any distance and don't appear on the users' phone bill. Different prices for different times of day are a reasonable thing for BT to ask, but they should always be the same as or less than a local phone call. The MUA provider would sell players 'credits', take these away from their total at a certain rate depending on the time of day, and ask for more when they ran out. In this way, players can see precisely how much the game is costing them, can budget in advance, and have no nasty shocks when their phone bills arrive:

"In general, I think paying for credits in advance is definitely better than running up a bill. It allows players to budget, and avoids the problems a lot of new players could encounter of a huge bill arriving after the first month or so, which puts them off playing and therefore loses the game a customer."
                -- Phil Purle [MUD2 player]

From the MUA providers' point of view, the best solution is a service like the 0898 numbers. This is because they'll get more people playing during the day using their companies' resources; also, BT does all the billing. However, the 0800-lookalike solution is probably fairer.

A third alternative is for BT to charge the MUA providers a flat fee for a number that can be dialled by anyone without costing them anything - a sort of 0800/midnight/land line. This may be subject to time-of-day restrictions, perhaps only working at cheap-rate times. Provided the cost of doing this wasn't too large, it would benefit both the player (free calls to the MUA in the evening) and the MUA (daytime calls from users on their company phones). However, as a service it's perhaps a little complicated to operate.

All this assumes use of the existing telephone network. There are likely to be problems, however, in that providing new services primarily for transmitting and receiving data doesn't ensure that they will be used for those purposes. For example, if a company bought a data 0800 number that only cost it local call access outside business hours, there is nothing to prevent its being used for voice communication. It could, of course, be made a condition of having such a line that there should always be a modem on the end, but this may prove expensive to police.

Although at this stage there is probably insufficient evidence to tempt all but the most progressive of companies into setting up a data-oriented network, nevertheless that's probably the best way to proceed. Certainly it will be needed in the future, it's just a question of how long BT or their competitors (such as they are) wait before implementing it (or realising that they'll even need it - mind you, Finland has it already, and it's free). Local phone calls to a special data node will doubtless be with us for some time to come, but a national packet-switched data network that people don't require a special account to use will come eventually. All they'd have to do is dial the appropriate code for the data network followed by the number of the recipient, and instead of being charged on a time basis they'd be charged on a data transmitted/received basis. If CompuServe can knock up a system that gives local call access to their mainframes from pretty well anywhere in the USA, BT can surely manage something in Britain.

Of course, if BT is ever allowed to run its services on a subscription basis like cable TV, other avenues are open:

"I do feel that you're best off following the example of US TV or radio - don't charge the end-user if at all possible, and pull in the revenue someplace else."
                -- Bryant Durrell [Islandia founder]

Summarising this, then, there are several options available for people who wish to use IMPCGs. A very important consideration is the cost: if at all possible, it should be standard countrywide, irrespective of distance; also, it should be no more expensive than a local phone call - otherwise, why would people a local call away bother with it?

MUAs are played most frequently in non-business hours, which may give some leeway in implementing changes to existing approaches. Of these, the most favoured are where all the cost is borne by the information provider, either as a flat fee per line or time-dependent as at present.

Ideally, data communications should have their own network which charges on a data sent/received basis rather than for time used. Voice sends lots of data over a short period, but on-line services send smaller amounts over a longer period, and furthermore can be carried more efficiently if their computer-oriented nature is known. This, a datanet would achieve.

"The quality of networked services in the UK is very poor, and I do not wish the work that we have done up to this point to be swamped by poorly managed highly commercial services."
                -- Pip Cordrey [IOWA owner]

7.5 What Does the Future Hold?

"With the software industry definitely looking for new ideas to keep home computer users interested, the multi-user game is strongly tipped as being a hot item."
                -- Datamation [magazine]

"At a time when the microcomputer software industry is entering a period of crisis - the number of new ideas for computer games is painfully small - the idea of multi-user games has been put forward as the next big area for development."
                -- Computing [magazine]

MUAs are fun, rewarding to play, and compulsive. From a software author's point of view, they're a dream: the software is not made public, so there is no danger of piracy; people pay for them continually, they don't just make a one-off payment; larger computers acting as a host mean that more sophisticated games can be written than work on home micros. A pity BT takes such a huge percentage of the revenue. Nevertheless, MUAs are definitely the future.

But what exactly is that future? The present trend in MUA design is for games that allow players to add rooms etc. to it themselves. For many reasons, this approach is unlikely to be successful commercially - quality, security and the UK copyright laws are the main objections. However, that is not to say that new alternatives should not be examined; too many MUAs these days are formula issues that use the old, tried-and-trusted approaches.

"The main thing hampering game development is the fact that the people writing them are content to produce yet another Shades clone. It seems that whilst there is a lot of enthusiasm for writing your own games, nobody is willing to be a bit adventurous and try and make things a little more complex."
                -- Wabit [player]

To seasoned players, the older MUAs look very dated. If members of the general public were given a wider access to these games, then after a while they'd come to feel the same way too. Unless work starts soon on the "next wave" of MUAs, there'll be nothing there to take their place.

"Hopefully, they will be replaced by new games, but who is going to write them? And who is going to back them? BT don't need to replace Shades, it still brings in the money..."
                -- Wabit [player]

The authors are there, but the backers aren't. Even CompuServe doesn't commission games, it merely deigns to permit them on its network. Prestel will allow companies access to its user base, but at £6,500 per entry point plus £260 per channel, both sums charged annually, there are few takers. Unfortunately, BT is too big an organisation for this to make much difference to it, and its charter means that cross-subsidisation is not allowed; thus, Prestel couldn't let new services join it for free in the knowledge that this would generate income for the telephone division, because Prestel itself would have to pay for the connection and would get nothing (or comparatively little) in return.

MUA authors and carriers generally agree on the next big step in MUAs:

"I see it splitting several ways. There'll be the continuing MUD/Shades type games, there'll be an increase in on-line chat/conferencing systems concentrating on the 'social' side of MUGs as they are, and there'll be the hard-edged commercial things, probably graphical games."
                -- Nigel Hardy [Comms Plus!]

Graphics are seen as being the key to bringing MUAs to a wider audience; sound, too, if possible. Viewdata, sadly, is nowhere near good enough, despite Prestel's doggedness.

"To market MUDs successfully, the interface between host and client must be improved. It is a small percentage of the buying public that will suffer through typing and reading to enjoy a few hours' escapism. If someone were to combine the ease of watching television with the interactivity of MUDs and make it available to the world at large, they would soon put the passive networks (NBC, ABC, BBC, ITV etc.) out of business."
                -- Duncan Howard [author of An Introduction to MUD]

Graphical MUAs are possible right now, it's just that no MUA author has the financial clout to do anything about it. The approach is not to send photographic images down the line, but instead to provide these on disc or multimedia systems at the user end. The MUA host merely transmits a few control codes that say "Print background 219, with a tree at co-ordinates (314, 16), and Eric at (210, 101) with a face using identikit image 12/11/23/1/92." This doesn't need ISDN telephone links, and it's the way games like Air Warrior work.

"Graphical MUGs won't work until the BT monopoly is broken and 15 year olds can afford to play shoot-em-and-run type games over the phone."
                -- Graeme [Ripper author]

IMPCGs in the future will, in general, be one of the following types:

  • Arcade style.
    These will appeal to people who like blasting aliens. However, blasting aliens is a lonesome thing, and players will not take kindly to being blasted by other people. When teenagers play such games over the phone, it'll be because that's a way the computer companies have figured they can make more money out of it. Making people pay as they play is always going to be more lucrative than making them pay once only.

  • Strategy.
    These are mainly going to be two-player games between 'older' players of a generation that came too early for AD&D. People enjoy playing things like chess by post, and will enjoy playing such games by phone. They are unlikely to come in their hordes, however; this is a niche market. Networks will only be necessary as a place to meet opponents before playing direct-dial.

  • Simulators.
    The players take sides in a competitive environment of fast action and/or skill. This covers everything from flight simulators to rock climbing. Doubtless there will be people who want to play golf against a real human being in a laserdisc rendition of the US Masters course, but whether they'll keep coming back for more or grow tired when the novelty wears off (or they keep losing) is uncertain.

  • Chatlines.
    Not really games, but such a socially useful tool that despite the sleaze factor they'll eventually conquer all. They'll appeal to people who are prudish about playing games but who don't mind a little gossip.

  • MUAs.
    Chatlines plus games. Unbeatable, except for people who "don't like dragons and suchlike", ie. are too old or set in their ways. With graphics and sound, they'll be absolutely sensational.

There is going to be an enormous market for IMPCGs. Although the UK has a significant lead in MUAs, it'll disappear in a couple of years once the US academics get working on it in earnest, unless the UK industry is given support. If not, it'll be brushed aside by the US and Japanese giants, particularly purveyors of arcade games and simulators who have suddenly become aware of "virtual reality" and may implement such systems leap-frogging present-day MUAs completely.

There is a demand for these simulator games, unquestionably. However, the danger is that they will constitute all the games on offer. There's a common misunderstanding among company people discussing playing games over the phone: they think that the reason people do it is because they relish the challenge of taking on a real human being in a test of skill. They don't. People may have that idea initially, but any long-standing MUA player will tell you that it's not really this that keeps people playing. To some extent it's the social aspect of the game that holds the key, but the real juice is the virtual reality.

To summarise: single-player games that are modified merely by giving them more players will probably have some considerable appeal. This will be enough to satisfy their backers. However, shared virtual reality is where the big bucks lie hidden, and the first company to make a top-notch graphical MUA available to a large user base will clean up.

"Business users pay for the system and we have to look after them, but we get a lot of satisfaction from the home users who come on the system in the evenings. They are the lifeblood - no, the SOUL of MicroLink"
                -- Derek Meakin [MicroLink chairman]

7.6 Conclusion.

BT has been lucky enough to have the leading technology for IMPCGs take root in its front garden. It can nurture this young shoot until it is strong, then plant its seeds elsewhere, or it can dig it up and wait a few years until someone else sells one at the garden centre.

BT can watch or participate - preferably the latter.

"For adult educators and researchers, text-based virtual realities offer an opportunity to enter a synthetic society either as observers of the sociology (and sociopathy) of a predominantly adolescent culture, or as mission-oriented contributors to the informal education and enrichment of the young people populating the ethereal world of Cyberion City."
                -- Barry Kort [BBN scientist]

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
21st January 1999: imucg7.htm