With all the graphical MMORPGs available today, are yesterday's MUDs doomed to perpetual decline?
I recently visited Achaea, a free MUD I used to enjoy on a regular basis, after a few years away. I was very disappointed to discover that its population is dwindling. At first I thought their lack of updating was to blame (the game seems exactly the same as it was years ago, despite a claim on their website that they offer constant new development). To test the theory, I visited Aardwolf as well, another popular free MUD, and saw the same - a world still "alive" with robotic NPCs and plenty of bad guys to fight, but conspicuously short on real players, like some long-abandoned amusement park where the rides continue to run all on their own. I wondered if this would eventually be the fate of all MUDs, but eventually decided it needn't be.
Due to their unique medium in pure text, text games of all sorts, MUDs included, will always have a niche. Any writer or avid reader will tell you that text has unique strengths over other artistic mediums - well-written text inspires the imagination to create an experience which is at once unique, personal, and vivid. Graphical adventures paint a nice picture, but always fall short in details, or succumb to pattern and repetition in gameplay and visuals. A well-designed text game isn't much to look at, but paints a mental picture with infinite detail and regularly invokes all five senses. Low-tech pen and paper games offer unlimited possibilities but simplify reality to numbers and dice, forever distracting players from the story and reminding them it's all a simulation. Well-designed text games may not be infinitely flexible, but allow the player to focus on the world they evoke while hiding the mechanics below layers of beautifully written text. In concert, these strengths deliver a more immersive gaming experience than either pen and paper or graphical games can offer, potentially inspiring a unparalleled sense of wonder and adventure.
In my opinion, the only obstacle to the resurgence of text games is the attitude that they have only weaknesses, and their legacy. Many (most?) text games available today, especially the free variety, have failed to improve as technology advanced, and continue to offer the same level of gaming experience they offered nearly two decades ago. By today's standards, they feel repetitive, mechanical, and outdated, their worlds underpopulated. But with a few good ideas and a determination to build something unique, any developer could dominate this market niche by offering MMORPG fans something refreshingly original, giving pen and paper players a less-mechanical, more available experience, and handing MUD zealots a reason to finally shout, "I told you so!". I'm working on a MUD client myself, and I hope others will apply some of the suggestions I make in this blog to their own text games.