What is lacking in the multiplayer text games of today and how far can a text medium go? It all depends on how you use the text. Quite literally.
The Pointless Debate: Is graphical better?
There have been various threads, Reddit posts and subreddits, Facebook Groups, Mudconnector forums, and other public discussions that have expressed strong doubts about text gaming's longevity or viability today. It is especially true in the last 5 years, as most of the larger realms have declined in size except "the Furries", which are veiled erotica. The business argument for making new text games is very thin on the ground, if judged from that perspective.
When these opinions are expressed by game owners themselves, and so bringing a false notion to prominence, it does get me wondering if those within the same sphere as Avalon are really seeing their own achievements and potential properly.
Graphics did not kill Text
I'll attack the easiest, because, partly, I have covered the subject before in an article published in the late 2000s for a few magazines/e-zines and which is now buried on the Avalon site. We were long aware of the "WoW effect" by 2009, except that, for Avalon, it was attracting people sick of formulaic gaming, rather than taking them away. We found that hard to believe at first.
The comparison itself is faulty for two reasons. One is, as succinctly put by Genesis, "comparing a book and a movie". The other reason is more complex: there are only a finite number of gamers out there and you must attract them, so text versus graphical becomes a real concern in this context.
However, the debate is always from the perspective of text being somehow inferior to graphics (the book/movie argument), rather than the actual viability -- i.e. the idea that a text game as a type of game itself is no longer attractive. For a game to be attractive, it must be fun and preferably addictive.
Personally I have seen every age group, social status, and nationality playing Avalon with equal obsession as you would on any MMORPG. What always unites these groups is their persistence to play and discover something new. Every new world holds a secret allure of the unknown and it is in this process every potential gamer becomes an addict. I would not dare suggest one medium is better than another at something so personal as being infatuated with a world and addicted to it. They are merely different kinds of stimulation to the same end goal.
Why the declining numbers
Why then was there a decline since the mid 2000s and is there a decline still? The decline proportionate to the Internet userbase is very real, but the Internet became truly mainstream only in the last fifteen years. Whether there is a decline in absolute terms -- people who would be interested in a game dedicated to text as its medium, however it is presented -- has as many possibilities as you find in literary work, from poem to prose.
Decline in mid-2000s
Decline in late 2000s and early 2010s
For game owners, there was another business related change: Freemium and mobile games appeared. These were far more of a threat than any graphical, because they were in similar formats presented better and asking nothing in return. Freemium of course has decimated a lot of the game industry's fledgling companies and independent games, which are still reeling from the idea and searching for the right blend. Mobile games had no immediate compatibility with large text worlds. Unless it is a static page, reading text flying down a mobile is almost impossible to make attractive.
What I am driving at is that in text gaming, there has not been a single major realm born before 2000 that has moved with the times. Why? It is very, very difficult to compete with the professionalism of 3000+ man-hours of specialist work, not to mention very expensive. It needs good ideas and execution to pull off a transformation of the text-in-telnet format.
What does the decline tell us?
Whenever you compare genuinely different mediums with a bias, there is every chance that bias is hiding what the other side still has to offer. In this case the bias is in favour of competition -- a grass is greener syndrome. A lot of the argument is thinly disguising the difficulty of real change.
What then are the changes that must occur to improve text gaming? We have identified a few in the last few years as fundamental rules going forward.
1. Streaming text is evil
All of the large multiplayer text games are essentially operating on telnet or a beefed up version of that. Nearly all of them also rely on third party clients for long-term playing. These messy toolboxes are very unkind to each individual game and tear out their soul -- how can you possibly communicate your words well if you have no idea how they will appear?
Avalon has known about this issue for longer than we wish to remember. It outgrew the ability to stream text tolerably well when it moved to the Internet in 1994. By that time, the realm already had over half a million words of text to read.
Without a dedicated client, there can be no way to manage the chaotic rush of words. The commands issued are not always in response to what appears last on the screen. The colours become more ambiguous as the types of content increase. Simply seeing who is online becomes a difficult skill in skim-reading.
The telnet medium is so inappropriate to large bodied text, that it is amazing so many still continue, Avalon included. That is the actual argument: telnet cannot be the primary method of interaction. It demands thousands of commands, specialist knowledge custom to each realm, and a tremendous learning curve in skim reading, that to a layman looks inhuman.
Players were forced to cope with this format, which of course limits your audience to the patient and masochistic. This format is not dying: it was long dead and nobody seems willing to say it, because what then is there? Well, do not be so pessimistic. Format is just that: how you display, not what you display. It is not a new world, just a new way to be in it.
2. User Experience is King
The Internet has in the last 25 years been consistent in one key factor: usability improves. That also means the bar rises over time, the effort to maintain it increases in time-cost, and the disparate variations make it more difficult to choose the right path. If you do not keep up, you die out there.
The exceptions to this rule are niche services and products, into which most text gaming could fit. This small bubble of community, that has been more or less the same size since 1996, has not all that much to fear in future, except the appearance of mobile-first social media and text-heavy products like Slack. Why them is to extend the field of view: games are competing for time, particularly focused time to immerse the player, and high usabiity means quicker immersion; anything that absorbs the player's attention more will be at some point in direct competition for your world's immersiveness. It is no different to a classroom of children, really.
What these new apps do so well is firmly in the heart of textland. Here is a leading question for you: how many commands in Slack or Discord do you know? They are both based on the IRC model and have a command set you can use, starting with a "/". I bet most will not even know that! That would be because you do not need to use them. The UI is so usable that you rarely feel the need to issue commands to this text-only app. The only text you do write, is in the form of messages: its primary content.
Messaging is only a small portion of games and to extend this idea to something that works for a text world requires considerable customisation. Portraying your text, the secondary content, and their actions, the primary content, requires a synthetic view -- not streamed, but not absent of real time.
3. Mobile proves Text's viability
More than Slack or Discord are the examples of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and similar who have all gathered huge followers who do nothing but write and read -- far more reading than writing, in fact. The Internet is familiarised with text, because that is how it started.
Text has never died, actually, and remains a key feature in literally every corner of the Internet. It is not going to go away either, but it will change as the theories of usability and user experience change. Mobile demonstrates that, provided you fit its format, text can have both high usability and immersion. Mobile even instructs, by its harsh demands, how to achieve that.
4. Be Mobile, Be Casual
What all mobile interfaces have is a way to be casual and interact in different ways. This casuality relates to how a terminal or telnet interface is fundamentally unusable. What mobile does is force any game owner to realise they must fit their model into something that can be put aside, however briefly, because this is how the Internet now works -- because that is how mobile computing is and will always work. However, it will also always demand consuming large amounts of text comfortably, because that too is in the DNA of the Internet.
The Answer: 42
The way to resolve the decaying format of text games is to reimagine their presentation, not their mechanics or type of player. Chasing freemiums and playing second fiddle to mobile games will avail nothing but suffering.
How Avalon will respond is of course a trade secret at present, so I am going to be a killjoy at this point. We have been planning this and making prototypes for a few years now to address Avalon's evolution to mobile, but only in 2017 had we the resources to truly pursue it. Our answer will not appear in perfect form when it first goes public, since innovations are never perfect to begin with, but it will give an inclination as to where we are headed and inform how we improve on our ideas.
Jasper is Avalon's first foray into reimagining its delivery in ways that have not been done before, especially on mobile. Its goal is to be a dedicated environment -- rather than just text and commands -- that will swaddle players 24/7 in their characters, without the demands placed on the user by telnet. It will of course begin with terminal access, but that feature will be phased out with every iteration as we weave anew each layer of Avalon's rich tapestry.
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