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Having never attended a gaming convention of any sort, I knew there would be many surprises in store for me at DragonCon. Just getting accepted as an exhibitor was the first hurdle, but that was nothing compared to the enormous demands of all the costs and chaos of making the plans and arrangements (the booth and all its trappings, power, telephone line connection, etc.). Now that the smoke has cleared, it was certainly a good experience, and the lessons were as valuable as they were numerous. The hobby of mudding is one that suffers greatly from a lack of exposure within the rest of the gaming community. Events such as DragonCon are a great way to show the masses that our hobby is an exciting and entertaining one that many of them would really enjoy.
Going back to basics, The Settlers of Catan board game.
Believe it or not, online gaming was almost completely missing from the convention. Besides Threshold, the only other "online game" at the convention was a borderline multi-player graphical game. The game only supported up to 8 people, and one of those people had to run the "server version" on their machine. Obviously, this means that person has to have his or her system running all the time if anyone else is going to be able to play. Since they only have a windows version, this nearly eliminates the possibility of conveniently hosting it on a remote server somewhere. Further, you have to build your own world, and you have to use their monsters, items, etc (with limited ability to create your own within set parameters). I, and the 20 or so Threshold players who also visited the con, found this game to be a pretty significant step backwards in the concept of online or multi-player gaming. It was like combining the worst of all worlds. You had the limited number of players and limited connectivity of something like multi-player Age of Empires or multi-player Baldur's Gate. Unfortunately, the game did not even give you a world to explore in. Before you could even play with your friends, you had to build the entire world. Speaking to the owner of the company was "interesting". I stood there and just listened as he told me about their player killer registration system for new characters as if they had invented the concept (you just picked at creation if you were a player killer or not). Honestly, these people were at least 5 years behind the times in game design, and were acting like they had the goose that laid the golden egg. It was somewhat humorous, while at the same time disappointing to see that games like that are reaching far more people and yet are far behind what text based muds have been doing for years.
So this left Threshold as the only other online game of any sort at the convention. As a result of this, anyone interested in online gaming who visited the exhibitors hall stopped by our booth. That was a nice plus, but on the other hand, this lack of presence of online role playing games or muds made the hobby seem unpopular. It was a shame that online gaming had such a tiny presence at a convention of tens of thousands of people (they estimated 30 or 40 thousand visitors, but it seems like they really inflate their numbers).
Those who had heard of muds in the past were very pleasantly surprised. They would stop by and say things like "WOW! A mud at DragonCon? What a cool idea!" or "I've never seen a mud at a gaming convention. I never knew they were that popular." Even amongst people that had mudded in the past, the fact that a mud was at a "mainstream" gaming event was a shock to them. Those who had never heard of muds, however, seemed very intrigued. After reading a short one page FAQ about muds and just seeing a little bit of Threshold (we had one computer set up where people could play the game), a lot of people seemed really excited about the prospect of gaming with hundreds or thousands of people in real time from all over the world. To me, this indicated an untapped market of potential players who would be very interested in our hobby if they were just exposed to it.
There were only two types of negative reactions I received during the convention. The first is something we as a community can do little about but it is possible we might not need to. The second is a problem we have wrestled with as a community quite contentiously for a long while and have yet to find any sort of solution.
Where are the graphics? Obviously, there is little that the text based mudding community can do about this question. There were a few people who stopped by wanting to see some flashy graphics and some others who would mention that they had played Ultima Online or Everquest. Even if such people admitted to getting bored with those games quickly, some of them still couldn't understand how a game could be fun without cool graphics. There was, however, a brilliant light at the end of this tunnel. Those who were interested in role playing were much more convinced that text based games offer something unique that the graphical games do not. They complained about the eye-candy interfering with the story and reducing the ability or opportunity for people to interact. They also complained about the total lack of any efforts to enforce or even encourage role playing on Ultima Online or Everquest. In fact, there were at least 20 or more people who specifically mentioned they were sick of Ultima Online and/or Everquest and wanted to go back to text muds so they could actually enjoy some player interaction and role playing again. I took this as a very encouraging sign. With graphical games still being "new" to the marketplace, there appears to already be a pretty powerful backlash mounting. If text mud designers continue to make their games as interesting and engaging as possible, it appears the market for players is quite healthy. Those graphical games are really putting people's feet to sleep, and through good plots, interesting story-lines, and active preservation of the integrity of your game's theme, text muds can offer something players are really yearning for and yet not getting from the graphical juggernauts.
I've played muds before, but they were boring and all the same. Oh yes, the old stockmud issue rears its ugly head. There were many (at least 30 or so) people who had played muds before but got really turned off by the poor writing, lack of descriptiveness, and the fact that so many of them seemed exactly the same. I asked all of these people what muds they had played, and I didn't recognize any of the names (although I will note that many of them had the word "Realms" or "Realm" in them somewhere). The stockmud syndrome is in full effect, and it is driving people away from our hobby. This is not an article to expound upon that issue, but my experiences at the con certainly demonstrated that this problem continues to plague our hobby quite disastrously.
I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to describe one of the most enjoyable elements of attending a gaming convention like DragonCon. The opportunity to meet at least 20 or so Threshold players was a wonderful treat. Having a get together at a gaming convention makes it easy to set a date, and provides all sorts of events, activities, parties, etc. that you can all partake in. This eliminates a lot of the pressure and work that would normally be present when trying to plan a get together. An opportunity such as this to meet and get to know people you spend so much online time with is certainly something that should be seized. We all had so much fun we are already planning an even bigger get together at a smaller convention called MOCtoberfest.
All in all, the convention was an excellent opportunity to see how our hobby is received in the gaming community, and to hopefully spread the word that mudding is a very enjoyable and entertaining form of gaming. It was very interesting to learn what issues are important to the typical gamer, and I hope I was able to show the hundreds of people I talked to that mudding is definitely something they should try. If any of you who read this article have thought about attending a gaming convention, I highly recommend it. If you do, make sure to talk about mudding with the people you meet there. With a little exposure, our hobby could reach and attract the teeming masses of unsatisfied gamers looking for a fulfilling online gaming experience.
August 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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