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Even my pet hamster has now heard about the Internet. With figures of 250 million users+ being bandied about, our playground has catapulted into popular culture. It is the flavor of the month, the buzzword of the decade. We are in the 'netty' naughties. Here in Britain, you ca not listen to the radio without some jingly ad about a great new earth-shattering web site that you can not possibly live without. Even my batty old auntie Mabel now "surfs" in her spare time. So how do we stop ourself from being drowned out, and how can alter this pessimistic perception of muds as a quaint but declining obsession practiced by geeks, introverts and the socially inadequate?
A hamster surfing the web.
Well, I have got news for you, and it is not all bad. Muds are not declining, nor should we be bloodfesting between ourselves over a supposedly shrinking pool of players. Proof? None whatsoever, but to me the sums just do not add up. Ten years ago, for example, we had what, 50-100 muds or so? Most of them had 100-300 patrons at peak times, and many people played several - I did. Now we have 2,500+. Sure, many people play several and a lot of muds do have a small player base, but even these seem to manage 10-20 at peak times, with the top 5-10% making 100-300+. Do the sums, they speak for themselves. I would suggest the scenario is different: muds are thriving and have never been as popular an activity as they are today.
Of course, there is a but. Namely this: yes the total player base is increasing, but not nearly as fast as graphical commercial games... and we are not exactly helping ourselves. We do a poor job of promoting ourselves, and the commercial net newbies are trampling all over us. Frankly, our collective 'rep' is not good. Is it not time we made more effort to get our due? After all, look at it from an objective perspective. Here you have hundreds of online worlds, many of which are beautiful, intricate communities held together by imagination, with buckets of sweat spent on them. Moreover, they are absolutely free for anyone to enter, maintained on a volunteer basis by people that do not even know each other from all over the world, do not require you to have the latest high-spec computer and do not suffer nearly as badly from the latency (lag) problems associated with many graphical worlds. Put it in these terms and you see that there is a beauty about muds - it is what the Internet is all about.
How not to do it
There are plenty of ways of increasing our collective presence, and we could do a lot worse than to start by putting our own house in order. I put a mini-review up a few months back at the Mud Connector. It was some great PR the mud that I work at had gained, coverage in some of the biggest gaming sites around whilst their gaming audience was waiting for the delayed Wheel of Time first-person shooter to come out. Immediately the next morning, two flames went up by people from another mud with the same theme as ours, and my mud was subjected to a Denial of Service attack. Criminal behavior, all in the name of PR. Unbelievable, considering that the attack was not only complete anathema to the participatory spirit of mudding, but also prevented the newcomers to mudding that wanted to log onto a mud for the first time because they would seen the coverage at Gamespot logging on. To whoever was responsible: pathetic - I spit in your face.
So how is it done?
I will come at it from two perspectives. How to stimulate a mud using out-of-game mechanisms, and what we should all be doing to collectively increase our visibility in the online community. One caveat: you have to have a good product - there is simply no way round that. In other words, getting together with a bunch of your mates, loading base stock code and then putting up a few spurious ads on Usenet just is not going to cut it. In fact, it lets us all down. If you do attract a few patrons they will more than likely move on, even if you do give them immortal positions or enhanced weapons. That said, if you have got something worth playing with some serious time and effort spent into making it unique then there really is not any mystery to getting your mud known, promoting your mud and getting a decent player base.
Your first stop should be to get a web presence for your mud. This is a big job, so your best bet is to recruit someone to do your web presence, and nothing else. Use the Mud Connector, Usenet or whatever to find someone, but get them on the case. Remember, your web site is the first thing that people go and look at when they hear about your mud. Before setting out on your web site, take some time to plan: you have to decide what it will actually do for you. Having a web site just for the sake of having a web site is old-hat, and putting up the help files from your mud is not enough - traffic will soon dwindle. Is it to educate non-mudders, to give patrons something different to do, to act as a marketing front, to educate your patrons, to get feedback or to build a community? Each of these require different approaches, although they can be combined. To educate non-mudders, explain what mudding is about, in terms that non-mudders can use (more on this later). To give patrons something different to do, have a bulletin board where they can talk about their r/l lives, create an endless story CGI, add a humor board or run a miss mud competition. To act as a marketing front, slap your best PR on the front page, add a "tell a friend" CGI, add a Java client so that your WWW visitors can try the game, and encourage your patrons to vote for you in the web-polls that seem to be on every RPG page - it all helps. To educate your patrons, write out the conventions and norms that you expect your patrons to adhere to, so that you can refer them to that page. To get feedback, add a "mail to the staff" form on your site, which gets mailed to immortals, and slap on a web-poll CGI - they are a lot of fun, especially as you can get instant results. Add your bulletin boards! To build a community, focus in on some of the main characters on your mud and put in a quarterly personality profile. Patrons love to know who is behind some of the characters in the game. Add a monthly mudzine. Have an email list that people can subscribe to. Allow patrons to put their profile, email addresses, ICQ numbers and r/l addresses into a players-type database page.
To this day, the single biggest referrer to my web site is Yahoo, and as soon as we were listed on there out player base literally doubled overnight. Quick rant: many muds do have a web site, but they are not geared towards helping the punters in the door. They use the language of muds, and do not try to explain muds to the 99.99% of the Internet that do not have the faintest idea what AFK, diku or OOC mean. Remember, your web site needs to guide these people by the hand, and take them through mudding from top to bottom, even explaining such things as telnet, behavioral norms and the theme, in basic terms. The trick is to imagine that you are coming at mudding without any knowledge of what it is about at all, and your job is to educate and explain, and to make it sound engaging and fun at the same time.
To sum up: a good web presence does not happen overnight, but once you have done it, it will churn away on your behalf and bring WWW tourists to your world whilst you have got more important things to do such as playing, building, coding, eating, or even sleeping.
Johan J Ingles-le Nobel is Nass, the Lord of the Dark on WoTmud IV, the Wheel of Time mud
March 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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