Amid all the hoopla about massively multiplayer online role-playing games these days, it's easy to forget that they've been around for years and years in text form. Gemstone and Island of Kesmai were among the first commercial games, running on GEnie and CompuServe, and I'm sure there were several others that I never heard about. Text-only commercial MMORPGs pretty nearly died in the face of competition from graphical games like Ultima Online and Asheron's Call, but not quite. Just as single-player text adventure games continue to be developed and played by a small society of die-hard fans, so text-only multiplayer role-playing games live on as well, in the form of Multi-User Dungeons or MUDs (also sometimes called Multi-User Domains, depending on who you talk to), and Multi-User Shared Hallucinations, or MUSHes. Very generally speaking, a MUD is a game containing the usual RPG elements of combat and character advancement, while a MUSH is an environment designed primarily for storytelling and roleplaying.
There's a great deal of literature about MUDs and MUSHes - like an artform, it has had its movements and schisms, its charismatic leaders and fierce debates. Because they're not subject to the kinds of commercial pressures or the huge development costs of graphical games, MUDs can explore the boundaries of roleplaying and interactive fiction in a way that games like EverQuest or Meridian 59 simply couldn't. And MUDs use only a tiny fraction of the computing power and net bandwidth that a graphical game needs to operate.
Recently a new company called Skotos Tech was founded with the explicit aim of making text roleplaying commercial again, while bringing it to a wider audience than the MUD community alone. That's a tall order, but last October they had the good fortune to sign up one of the world's most famous game designers, Brian ("Professor") Moriarty. Brian was at Infocom back in the heyday of text adventures, and since then he's had an extraordinary career at places like LucasArts, Rocket Science, and MPath. I've long felt that new ground will only be broken in the game industry by people who are prepared to take risks, so I decided to ask Brian how they were going about it.
What does "Skotos" mean?
It's a Greek word that means "the darkness before the dawn." It's been used by poets to represent the darkness of the womb before birth, or the last darkness seen before leaving hell.
Who's behind Skotos Tech? Can you tell me a bit more about the principals?
The founder is Christopher Allen. He's best known for the third company he founded, Consensus Development, which worked with Netscape to create the SSL standard - the security program that you use every time you make a purchase online. Chris has also worked on-and-off in the computer games field. He was a producer at Broderbund and a consultant at Maxis, and he's a long-time fan of prose adventures and role-playing games.
The other folks at Skotos bring a variety of experience. Par Winzell, our lead engineer, wrote a powerful chat server that was used by Yahoo!; he's also worked with online prose games for a decade. Shannon Appelcline, our Director of Operations, was an editor for Chaosium's Call Of Cthulhu line of games, and has also written books for a number of roleplaying companies, including Chaosium, Green Knight and White Wolf. Among the rest of us you can find a few entrepreneurs, some artists, and even a game designer or two.
OK, the $64 question about any new Internet startup: How is Skotos Tech going to make its money?
Subscriptions. It's $9.95 a month, and you get access to our entire community of games. We have one right now, Castle Marrach, which is in public Beta as of this writing. We expect that to grow to two by June, when we add a pair of Galactic Emperor games, "Succession" and "Diaspora". We also have a large fantasy RPG in development for the fall. When the end of 2001 rolls around, our first external game designers will have created their initial games, and we hope to be up to half a dozen or so (he said, crossing his fingers).
The price model is already proven, as demonstrated by games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, Gemstone and the like.
Is Skotos a game provider or a technology provider?
Both. We're providing games, but many of those will be created by our users, with the tools that we make available to them. We'd like to become the GeoCities of the online gaming: we provide the technology and the community, and customers use it to create great things for their peers.
Do you have any plans to sell your server?
Licensing our server isn't really a part of our business plan, but we don't want to just sit on the technology either, as we're sure that lots of people could do very neat things with it. We'd consider licensing it to others, particularly if they weren't in the online gaming field. We think a lot of great educational applications could be created, beyond the historical games that we're planning, and we'd love to license the server for that use.
No offense intended, but Skotos doesn't look like the Next Big Thing. Is there any audience in particular that you're trying to reach?
We'd like to reach an audience of thoughtful, articulate players who enjoy the power of prose - the millions of readers who support the book industry, and turn people like Stephen King into bestsellers. We also think there are new Stephen Kings just waiting to write their Shining in the interactive prose medium, and we think there are tens of thousands of readers who want to be part of their stories. Skotos wants to be a community where all that can happen.
What does your marketing plan look like? You're pretty well known in the existing MUD community, but obviously you're trying to reach beyond them to that segment of the general public that would like, but doesn't yet know about, text games. Any special plans to find them?
At first, most of our marketing effort will be directed at the existing base of online gamers, as our initial games are being designed to appeal to that audience. Later, when we've developed products suitable for less experienced players, we'll cast a wider net.
There are already plenty of free MUDs and MUSHes out there. What do you think is going to bring people to Skotos Tech?
First, we offer professionalism: paid designers, paid technologists and paid customer support, things you just can't get in the free communities. Even when games are created by our players, we'll have mechanisms by which StoryBuilders can rate each others games, and our Customer Experience staff will be there for the big issues.
Second, we offer a dedication to storytelling. We don't want to create games that are only about exploring dungeons, killing monsters and stealing treasures (although some games will certainly incorporate these thoroughly delightful activities). We want to fashion engaging story environments that evolve interactively, directed chiefly by the participants themselves. Castle Marrach has already proven a great success in this regard. More than half of the major plotlines are coming from the players, with no solicitation.
Third, we offer new technology. There hasn't been much significant change in the world of MUDs and MUSHes since the early 1990s. A lot of fascinating theoretical work has been published, but very little of it has been implemented in real games.
We designed our system from the ground up, building it on top of the powerful and secure DGD server. We're already doing things that other prose games can't - providing a system for consensual actions, and modeling spatial proximities within a room, for example. In the future, we'll be simulating a number of real-world systems, from sound and light to economics and biology.
Playing the game involves downloading a small client. What platforms are supported?
Windows 98, 2000, NT, ME; Macintosh; and most flavors of UNIX. We actually have two clients. Our ActiveX client only works on Windows platforms with Internet Explorer. The generic Java client, which isn't as sleek as the ActiveX version, theoretically works on any system with Java installed, though we've run into a few problems because of the incompatibilities between various Java implementations.
The interactive fiction community has a number of scripting engines to work with, including Infocom's old Z-machine. A single person can create a text adventure fairly easily. But Skotos games are intended to be multiplayer, and multiplayer games require customer support and on-line guides within the game, something a single individual would be hard-pressed to support. Can one person really build and run a Skotos game? Or does the support have to come from Skotos Tech staff?
Castle Marrach, our first game, was developed by a team of three or four people in just a few months while we had lots of other stuff going on, such as our first major convention. And our tools have become faster and easier to use since then.
The staffing question is a bit trickier. Skotos is going to offer the support for the really hard, time-critical questions (mainly billing and Terms of Service violations), but the StoryBuilder needs to provide the rest of the in-game staffing. It's been our experience, looking at online games, that people love to take positions of responsibility in online games, so we think it will be fairly easy for StoryBuilders to recruit from our existing online community to get help in staffing their game.
So, the bottom line: one person can certainly create a Skotos game, though he or she will probably want to reach out to friends or the community to get help staffing it; a group of three or four people would have an easy time both creating and staffing a game.
What kinds of things can you do that the graphical games can't do?
The practical advantages of prose over representational imagery are numerous and well known. Text is relatively inexpensive to create, manipulate and serve. We can implement fundamental architectural changes, quickly introduce vast new territories to explore, create significant new capabilities and special effects, and originate substantial in-game events with very little lead time.
Speaking as an author, the prose format gives me the luxury to change my mind. I can experiment freely with color and tone, try different approaches and generally improvise with a degree of flexibility unheard-of in graphical games.
None of this freedom is of any use if there's nobody to read what we've written. Fortunately, there are tens of thousands of dedicated connoisseurs online who appreciate the unique virtues of prose, and are willing to pay for it. They are not at all bothered - and frequently relieved by! - by the lack of animated 3D particles and subwoofer explosions.
I like to associate prose games with classical music. Compared to popular artists like Cher and Ricky Martin, the market for classical music is miniscule - barely 5% of US industry sales. But the audience is loyal, and there are enough of them out there to keep dozens of small labels in business. Nobody's getting rich, but people can make a living doing something they really love; and that's my definition of a fulfilling career.
I notice on Castle Marrach that you have an automatically-updated map. This addresses one of the great weaknesses of text adventures, the need to make a map as you go. Is this going to be a standard feature of all Skotos games?
Probably. But auto-mapping is hardly new. I implemented a fairly sophisticated onscreen map for Infocom's Beyond Zork back in 1987. And not all adventurers find mapmaking arduous - many actually enjoy it a lot, and produce maps considerably more handsome than the ones we use to create the game!
Incidentally, the Skotos system also allows arbitrarily-sized graphics to appear when performing relevant actions, like looking at an important scroll or painting; try examining the portraits in Marrach's art gallery, for example. Some games will use this capability more than others.
According to your website, XML underlies your scripting language, but you're planning to develop a StoryBuilder Toolkit with a GUI which will help designers to build worlds without coding. This sounds like a good thing, given that the definition of one sword in XML is 279 lines of code. What can you tell me about the StoryBuilder Toolkit?
It's an object-oriented development environment that lets you define almost anything in a game by filling in a Web form. Common stuff can indeed be created with absolutely no coding; nevertheless, I've found that it's the uncommon stuff that makes a game interesting. For this, there's a mini-language called BILBO (Built-In Language for Building Objects) that lets you easily produce all kinds of custom effects and behaviors. Hardcore types who aren't afraid of angle brackets can manipulate deeper layers of the system by composing directly in XML.
Do you have to be logged in to use the Toolkit, or can you develop offline?
The ideal environment for development is online, using the StoryBuilder Toolkit directly. This way, you can use the interface that lies on top of the XML code, and just fill in text fields, check off boxes, and choose from menus in order to create objects in your game environment.
But if you want you can instead write the XML code offline, using your favorite text editor. Then, you can just upload it directly to the developer toolkit. If you download a fairly standard template, you can just write in the XML elements almost as easily as you'd enter the information into text fields in the developer interface. We expect XML editors to be released in the next few years which will make all this much easier.
What brought you, personally, to Skotos Tech?
The chance to get paid for building prose games. Never thought I'd see the like again!
Are you working on a game yourself? Can we expect to see the next opus from Professor Moriarty any time soon?
My role at Skotos is supposed to be managerial, but I'll probably have a hand in most of our titles to some extent. And nothing will keep me out of the games as a player, typically in the role of chief pest and mischief-maker.
I've also done quite a bit of experimenting with single-player interactive fiction lately, but nothing I'm inclined to release.
Thanks for your time, Brian.
I'm indebted to Tess Snider, a longtime MUSHer herself, for her generous help in preparing this article.