Sacred Cows

A bit of a nerd fight erupted in the blogosphere recently as a Richard Bartle interview on Massively caused eyebrows to crinkle, and when some folks raised questions about Bartle’s current relevance, such discussion was met with rebuttal or backlash.

What this boils down to is that you have the Old Guard protecting their sacred cows, and the New Guard (many of whom have World of Warcraft as their primary or sole point of reference) questioning their elders. This pattern should sound familiar, because it happens in every generational shift around pretty much every art form. Congratulations to the MMO industry for finally being old enough to have a generational gap!

The Old Guard must come to terms with the fact that this is the natural order of things, and they need to stop getting pissy about it. Youth questions its elders; that’s how progress happens. People should stop feeling like they need to pounce on anyone who dares question Bartle’s position in history, for as he himself noted in a response to this mess, he’s relevant for as long as people think he is and are willing to pay him for his input. That seems fair to me.

While I’m at it, there are two other old school truisms I’d like to take some shots at. Hey, I’m on a roll, so why not?

First, I get tired of people implying that today’s MMOs owe their entire existence to the MUDs of yesteryear. Sorry, I disagree. The gameplay style of EQ or WoW is obviously influenced by MUDs, but I propose that MMOs would have evolved anyway. I hereby offer Moorgard’s Theorum of the Origin of the MMO Species:

P&P RPGs + personal computers + Internet = MMOs

I submit to you that there would absolutely be a World of Warcraft today even if there had never been a MUD or DikuMUD. Certain elements of WoW would likely be very different, but I think we’d still have MMOs in much their current form.

Second, I want to talk about the notion that MMOs are failing to evolve, which is a common theme in Old Guard rhetoric. I totally agree that many new big-budget MMOs are evolutions of the genre rather than revolutions; what I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter, and moreover it’s not even a bad thing.

We have a whole new generation of players who don’t know anything but WoW and the games that followed it, and guess what: they like this kind of game. When the next mega success comes along that matches or exceeds WoW’s numbers, that generation of gamers won’t care when WoW players insist that the new game is living in the shadow of the older one.

It’s the same reason that people can still write fantasy novels after Tolkien and make science fiction movies after Star Wars. The audience is constantly changing, with new blood coming in all the time. It doesn’t take a revolution to entertain these folks; they just need an experience that is relevant to their generation. This process will result in both revolutions and evolutions, and that’s okay. A healthy mix is nice, and MMOs are getting there even if it’s not at the pace that the Old Guard would like.

Let me make clear that none of this rambling is intending to diminish the history or importance of people like Richard Bartle. His name is going into the history books regardless of what the new generation of players and game makers says or does. But at the same time, we have to recognize that this industry and the gamers who enjoy it are evolving, and questioning what came before is a natural aspect of that evolution. The Old Guard would do well to try nurturing the New Guard rather than lashing out like an old man who wants those damned kids off his lawn.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

17 thoughts on “Sacred Cows”

  1. Everquest, which I seem to recall you having a certain fondness for, is a direct descendant of DikuMuds (specifically Sojourn), with identical game mechanics at release. World of Warcraft, being a child of EQ and DAOC, thus could be said to be a grandchild of DikuMUDs.

    Second Life is LambdaMoo with graphics and lag.

  2. “Everquest, which I seem to recall you having a certain fondness for, is a direct descendant of DikuMuds (specifically Sojourn), with identical game mechanics at release. World of Warcraft, being a child of EQ and DAOC, thus could be said to be a grandchild of DikuMUDs.

    Second Life is LambdaMoo with graphics and lag.”

    I don’t see how that addresses the point that MUDs didn’t invent the concept of using computers to simulate hypothetical reality, nor did they popularize the idea of virtual reality. MMOs in some form would exist without MUDs, even though the shape of them might be very different.

  3. I actually agree with the theorem, though it’s the sort of philosophical argument that can go on forever (and has). Recalling philosophy 101 I think it has something to do with Platonic forms — does the thing always exist and just gets discovered by whoever is in the right place at the right time or is it truly created by the inventor? I think MMOs were inevitable just as first person shooters were — they may all be seen as Doom/Wolfenstein derivitaves, but if Carmack had been hit by a truck in the 80s we’d probably still have gone down the same path; it just might have been 20 years later.

    As for old versus new guard, I think the defining characteristic is that while a lot of us in the old guard were coming of age as gamers we routinely saw the creation of new genres. It seems that for offline games things have stabilized, but there are so many directions MMOs could be but aren’t going that it’s frustrating to watch. It’s OK to write fantasy novels after Lord of the Rings, but when the first question an author asks himself is “what should I name the hobbit in my book?” and publishers say things like “we didn’t want to chance funding a mystery novel when the market clearly is demanding more fantasies” I think audiences have a right to agitate for a bit more. Marketing is as much about telling people what they want as asking them. I do agree that MMOs are getting there, but I’ve gone from hoping to see something new in the next big game to hoping someone figures it out before I retire.

  4. I appreciate that he wants to know why a game or its mechanics evolved the way that it did. I didn’t get a sense of “you whippersnappers” so much as he’s curious why a game’s designer chose to do something a particular way.

    I must’ve missed the parts where he was dissing on New Guard things. Was that in one of the earlier articles linked in the Massively interview?

  5. Scott,

    Ultima Online is a direct descendant of what MUD? I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just saying that I don’t know what particular MUD had a profound influence on that game. It seems like the MMO industry was born of different influences; EverQuest from DikiMuds, Ultima Online from Ultima games. Not all MMOs have a lot of direct comparisons to MUDs, so I think he’s right that they’d exist whether MUDs did or not.

    I propose the following:

    P&P RPGs + personal computers + Internet = MMOs
    P&P RPGs + personal computers + Internet = MUDs

  6. I get what you’re saying; it’s like saying Rock music would have happened with or without the Beetles. That’s a likely truth – it probably would have (we could never know for sure without a time machine, but the probability seems really high). But that still doesn’t mean that the Beetles didn’t have a huge impact on the emergence of Rock; they clearly did. At the same time, did the Beetles have a huge impact on Metallica, or Alter Bridge? Not likely. Once you get so far removed from the source, the source becomes less relevant.

    I think the more interesting part to all of this is the clear arrogance of Bartle. He’s incredibly concerned with letting people know “I’m a designer! Hear me roar!” and “People pay me for my opinion!” He comes off like a total jackass (which is not uncommon for very bright people it seems).

    All I have to say is: when you’re knowledgeable about something, and when you’re opinion does matter, you don’t have to shout it. People looking for that knowledge will actively seek you out. The only thing Bartle achieves with his attitude is making himself look like a dope.

  7. “What this boils down to is that you have the Old Guard protecting their sacred cows, and the New Guard (many of whom have World of Warcraft as their primary or sole point of reference) questioning their elders.”

    Then you have those of us who have been around since the old guard first surfaced and recognize that the sacred cows (and their guards) have their place… out to pasture where they may live peaceful and happy lives NOT trying to hinder the forward motion of this growing industry.

  8. Lumness – Ya, I know EQ is DikuMUD and WoW is EQ. I’m a baby boomer in this whole timeline, remember! But if Brad et al hadn’t done it, someone else would have made EQ without DikuMUD ever existing. It would be a different EQ, but we would have had a 3D client for a D&D-like universe. And WoW would have been inspired from that.

    Keen – I serve up the metaphors just to let you take a swing.

  9. I’m sure we would have had a game called something with Warcraft even if there were no prior MMO or MUD history. However, I doubt it would have been Massive Multiplayer.

    We would probably have had more games like Neverwinter Nights too. That type of game is the logical progression from tabletop RPG to multiplayer game.

    Most other multiplayer games have evolved from single-player games either by allowing cooperation (perhaps extended with PvP dueling) or letting other humans play the opposing forces: Diablo (8 player max, coop or pvp), first person shooters (8-64 players PvP or team-PvP), real time strategy (4-16 players coop or opposed), RPGs – e.g. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights (6-8 player story-based coop).

    It’s a testament to existing MMO’s that people have used Neverwinter Nights to create MUD/MMO-like persistent worlds. It was not a given from the game design.

    The step from game to virtual world came with MUDs: Unlimited simultaneous players and, more importantly, a persistent world. A game world that exists even when I’m not in it.

    The rest has been slow evolution. Looking at the text-commands in Everquest (e.g. /emote) shows a direct line of evolution from MUDS. Meridian 59 was even closer. WOW was hevaily inspired by Everquest (and by other games inspired by Everquest), just as Everquest was inspired by what came before it. It has been a slow evolution, with most of the DNA of MUDs still present in modern graphical MMO-RPG’s. The games today are more alike than they are different, and most of the “fancy new features” of MMOs can also be found in modern muds.

    The only real quantum leap was the shift to a persistent world, and that came from MUDs.
    The rest are details.

  10. Ultima Online was being considered, if I recall correctly, back when they were developing Ultima 6. This was in the 80’s. I don’t know if Garriott had played MUD by then.

    With that in mind, I would tend to agree that MMOs (as we know them) would have arisen without MUDs (as we’ve come to think of them). It’s like the Beatles analogy. Rock and roll did, in fact, evolve out of jazz and blues and what have you, almost spontaneously, from multiple sources. Elvis was already rocking before Paul or Ringo.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that someone would inevitably make a MUD on their way to making an MMO. The first MMO would have been prototyped with a text-based interface, and then the designers would say “Hey this is actually pretty fun. Screw the graphics. Let’s ship this and see how well it does.”

  11. The way I see it is similar to this: would we have had MMOs as we know them without MUDs? Probably not. In general, the current MMOs, or at least the highly marketed and popular ones, are MUD derivatives, at least in part; they share a lot of similarities, they’re very combat-oriented for the most part, they use much of the same terminology (which derived from yet further back), they have classes…well, et cetera, you get the picture. But that’s sort of a meaningless statement: surely we’d have something similar to Dungeons and Dragons if Tolkien had passed away in his youth, or if T.S. Eliot had never written a word, or if the legend of Beowulf hadn’t been writtensung.

    The harder question, I think, isn’t whether or not we’d have them at all, but what changes would have come as a result of removing one link in the chain. Without Everquest or Ultima Online, would the genre have exploded the way it did? In fact, looking back further, the removal of either Meridian 59 or the original (AOL) Neverwinter Nights would have changed a ton. Taking out Rogue from the history of computer games would pretty much guarantee a change in virtually every hack and slash game out there, even if they were still around in a different way.

    I guess that to put it in a simpler light, my view’s that MUDs – and P&Ps, and wargames, and even more ‘real’ aspects of history, are all somewhat essential links to the genre of MMOs _as we know them_, if not in entirety. MUDs didn’t cause MMOs, but they were a link in the chain leading up to them.

    And as for persistent worlds, now I’m trying to remember what Legend of the Red Dragon was like…

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