Why aren't you an MMORPG? Graphics are dead

the reason good text games grow when graphics cannot

Why aren't you like an MMORPG?

Over the last ten years, the most common question and indeed request to Avalon developers has been why a game that is the longest running RPG is not graphical but still lives, indeed growing rapidly.

"[You are] behind the times..." "[It's] past its sell-by date" "[Avalon is] too niche. It is a retro game" "There isn't the demographic to support it." "The MUD industry is shrinking!"

These are some of the remarks often heard. They are, quite honestly, laughable, but true for many text games out there right now for a number of reasons. Look at the growth on mudstats.com of every LP MUD, MUSH, MUX and generic C-based MUD clone out there.

Text games are indeed crashing and it is so obviously because graphics are better in every way.

Wait... are they? There's a few reasons graphical games are not and never will be the only game out there (that is what is inferred by graphics taking over other mediums and industries). There are also some reasons why Avalon is a very special case and, were it graphical, could make the same case either way. Let's focus purely on the text versus graphical aspects though.

How Can Text Compete?

  1. Graphical games take a mammoth amount of time to produce. Those graphics, no matter how short you make that time, are subject to the law that we are creatures of habit: we wish for things that are new. To produce fresh beautiful and titilating graphics will not meet the desires of the user's short attention span and graphical appreciation until they themselves can do it. However, they can't do it because they don't have the skill and, even if we replicated the skill of Rembrandt in a game, drawing your own "cool thing" will never be as potent as someone else's ideas you hadn't considered. This is what we call the imagination factor. Imagination is the highest component in all games, all culture and literature, all human invention: if it isn't new, it does not interest us quite as much. We strive for something different and if something keeps us thinking afresh, we keep coming back for more. MMORPGs, for all the time wasted in delivering and maintaining them, have very little value in replaying them other than the mechanics one may enjoy (and we will come back to this part).

  2. Graphical games involve loads of people to accomplish a modicum of activity from a single player's perspective. For me to feel in EVE Online that I am coasting through spacetime and a busy universe, I need 10,000 people online and even then it feels a bit empty (sure, space is, but it's a game right?). In a text based game, no matter how massive its geography or whatever its genre, what counts as 'busy' is how much text and unique activity occurs. This can be nearly infinite, as far as the player is concerned, with very few people. Avalon combat is over 5000 lines long, a room description typically 8 each time you move (and well written to boot), the notable actions (of which there are literally thousands) of other players reach you in various ways and circumstances. You cannot but be involved and engaged by this kind of activity.

  3. How much time does it take to develop imaginative games graphically versus textually? On the surface, you would say 6 graphic artists at 60,000 USD a year would be a lot more expensive and time consuming than 6 writers at 60,000 USD a year. However, what do those graphic artists accomplish in that time? Do they design new mechanics or express the world differently than before? They cannot. They work within the framework of graphics, just as writers cannot make an image pop out of the screen, graphic artists cannot make a moving attack thought provoking enough within their medium to escape it. In this respect, words are superior to graphics: when I show you an image, we see the same thing, but when I write, you think differently when you read my words, to when I do. Words have mutability and an innate power on the imagination. With this quality, like books versus movies, text is far more expressive of the possibilities and has an innate 'replayability' higher than graphics, which define absolutely what you will see and feel.

  4. But in the end the content of a graphical game is much much bigger, isn't it? Actually, no. They are miniscule in comparison to even the simplest of commercial text games. A graphical game has relatively simple mechanics, laws, rules and (often) patches/nerfs/whatever you call them to ensure continuous play is within acceptable margins of error. A text game, however, has only two components, both highly creative but (relative to graphics) low on concept-to-feature development: code and text. It is indeed that simple. The text is what enraptures the audience, the code is what gives them something new to do every day. If the coded mechanics are too sparse, it will become tawdry and repetitious; if the text is too flaccid, it will begin to tire its audience. A text game follows much the same rules as a good novel. What about a graphical game though? It needs megaservers, graphical artists, engine coders, mechanic designers, support and admin teams (TEAMS!), and vast numbers of test players before even publishing their collaborated work of art (rubbish). We all know no one can make a work of art if you do it with 50 other people, it stands to reason there's too many opinions - I wonder if one could even make a passable game that would entertain for 50 years. I for one hope to try in the future, but that is not the point. When you have so much attention to the details of graphics, voice overs and marketing, you forget that there is some fine and beautiful text you need to write and some awesome game mechanics that have playability beyond few months or (at best) years. This is why people say graphical games are about grinding -- they lack the mechanics to focus the playerbase, simply because they've spent far too long on the rest of the game. To make new mecahnics would require monumental amounts of work elsewhere just to implement it. Not possible. Text? It will always be as good as its writers and coders -- a poor text game will always be poor, but a fantastic group of coders and writers (often, for text games, the same people) can produce some of the best games imaginable.

Where Two Ends Meet

I give much credit to the graphical games industry, but I do not credit them imagination. They are burdened by the corporate capitalist mentality that wishes to be conservative, do what is known ever since Ultima Online or at best World of Warcraft, and repeat that fundamental model with small variations within a sandbox. They do not consider consequence, imagination or unlimited freedom for their playerbase -- it would wreak havoc if badly designed and, to be fair, how can you have faith in 16 employees who you see as bees and ants. I certainly would not give them creative agency, no wonder a 50 million corporation will not either. They must make profit and profits, by cycles, are perfectly respectable. They garner larger player bases with each iteration. Where a text game, however, is different is that it is a continuous project. It must entice or fail, first time. That is a depressing prospect... but not impossible... quite, quite far from that, actually.

This is Mathew Abonyi, chief of design and writing in Avalon, known as Cornelius, the all-consuming. I say there is a world for both and text will always be its own medium.