Testing has been going very well (albeit with a somewhat slow rate of fixes since the demands on my time are greater at the moment than they have been for a while), and the time has come to start thinking about what we need to do before the game goes all the way live. I think in terms of game systems we’re pretty much there – there’s a pile of depth that people haven’t even begun to touch on yet despite the fact we’ve been in open alpha for months, and that strikes me as promising in terms of how rich and interactive the core game is. However, where I think we fall down at the moment is in terms of the game world.
Don’t get me wrong, by any objective standard for a new MUD we have a big game world. I’ve outlined in previous blog posts my philosophy on area development and the paucity of complaints I get about how that has worked out has convinced me that our rationing of creative energy is basically sound. Unique, interesting areas get unique, interesting descriptions and quests. Workaday areas (streets and roads) share descriptive content unless there’s a reason to vary it. I think it works out pretty well and lets us concentrate our development where we can spend creative energy rather than grind away at endless variations on the same features on a street.
However, the world we have *feels* very compressed because everything is concentrated in a single city – that city has a lot of hidden features and content, but it is nonetheless a very constrained location. In some respects, that’s very good – it creates tensions over resources, ensures people continually bump into each other, and introduces the area design philosophy in a neat package. However, the more I think of it the more I think that while that’s a solid core of a newbie experience, it’s not enough for what comes afterwards.
I have been mulling over different area development plans for a long time. For pretty much all of the initial development phase I was convinced that our main city was going to be the only real location – that when we expanded, it was going to be by adding in new regions to the city. We’d add in the suburbs, and a fully residential zone. We’d add in the rich, affluent part of the city and the slums. Each of these would be essentially like welding another city onto the core we had. I’d still like to do that, but I have become increasingly convinced it’s a bad way to sustain interest because it creates a very ‘samey’ experience. It should very much be part of our development plan, but it can’t be the entirety of it. People need to experience new kinds of locations, and we need to be able to set the zombie apocalypse in all kinds of exciting contexts. Why not an area aboard a submarine? Why not an oil rig? Why not an arctic research centre? Hell, why not the international space station? If we can create the reasons, we can ensure that the game experience is not all urban desolation, all the time.
I’ve spoken a lot on the blog about factions and how they are intended to fill major roles in the game. In phase two of our game world development, this is going to become an obvious part of the play experience. Where you go after you’re done in the city will be a direct consequence of which of the major factions with which you allied yourself. The rest of the game will be locked off to that character unless they go through the torturous job of regaining confidence with a faction they have previous alienated. That means that people will get access to different quests, different NPCs, and a different set of configuration options. They will also, and this is important, get access to different bits of the game story told from different perspectives. You will experience the narrative from a perspective that is mired in prejudice and assumptions, and unpicking the truth will be difficult, if not impossible, without a lot of investigation and contemplation. In that respect, I want what follows to be like Echo Bazaar where it is possible for people to come together and collaboratively unpick a mythology.
Being a new MUD (over two years old, but new in the great scheme of things), one of the things we must work hardest to do is provide enough content for people to meaningfully engage with. Now that the bug reports are diminishing in both frequency and severity, we can start to think about what happens next and what we need to make it happen.
For the first time then, I am going to put out a call for developers for Epitaph – I have previously indicated I would be prepared to consider people coming aboard, but this is the first time I am actively encouraging it. It’s not because we desperately need people, but because I think for the first time the game is in a sufficiently advanced state that people can come on board and get a clear idea of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and where we’re going. All of that is necessary before people can meaningfully offer their assistance in development.
However, Epitaph is a very idiosyncratic place and there are certain things that I want to put out there before anyone wants to offer their support…
First of all, you must be all but impossible to offend. Our creator channel is pretty friendly, but that is something that an outsider would be forgiven for disbelieving entirely if they saw a log of a random conversation. The insults, put-downs and tasteless jokes are all just par for the course, but none of them are meant with malice (most of the time). I put that out there as the first point because I think it’s the one that is most likely a deal-breaker for people.
Second of all, the drive to contribute has to burn in you – I am very hands off, which is great if you have plans for what you’d like to do and just need a sounding board or technical assistance every now and again. It’s dreadful if you need someone to ‘manage’ you – I’m just not that guy. There are expectations of contribution (as outlined in the Notiques Doctrine at http://drakkos.co.uk/help/tutorials/creator/notiques_doctrine.html), but nobody is going to be looking over your shoulder to make sure you meet them. All that will happen is that some point I or someone else will notice and bring it up, and if that doesn’t fix things then we’ll part company. The upside of this though is that you get a tremendous amount of creative freedom. I hardly ever assign projects, although I will make plenty of suggestions if nothing comes to your mind. I expect people who are creating here to contribute as much to the game story and ethos as to the code – you have a lot of leeway in bringing whatever you’d like to develop on to the game. If you can come up with an in-game reason for why something should be so, we’ll make it game canon and include it.
Third of all, I don’t expect anyone to have any coding experience to begin with, but I do expect everyone to be willing to learn. That is inevitably going to be a self-directed thing – we have a textbook (http://www.monkeys-at-keyboards.com/epitaph.pdf), and I am always available to answer questions, toss around ideas, and point you in the right direction for examples. I will even give suggestions for exercises or projects you can take on to master the language. But in the end, I can’t learn this stuff for you and even if I could I wouldn’t be doing you any favours by doing so. You have to be willing to take on the commitment to learn a complex topic in a niche programming language. Again there’s an upside though – I learned everything important about programming from developing on a MUD, and that’s despite my having done a degree in software engineering. It’s a great environment to learn how to do this kind of stuff, and the ability to program is a real, marketable skill. In the end too, you don’t need to be a code guru to be an excellent creator – you just need to know enough to make your vision come to life.
Finally, this is a time consuming hobby. If you can only devote a few hours a week, you’re not going to be able to make much progress on anything. You have to have time to burn, and you have to be willing to burn that time on Epitaph. I can assure you it’s so much more rewarding than sitting slumped in front of a TV, but I also have to assure you that it’s hard work for which you don’t get paid.
For new creators, I would be anticipating a primarily (but not exclusively) area development role. On some MUDs this might be considered as a ‘builder’ position, but here it’s a lot more than that. Area development here involves a lot of writing, it’s true – but it also involves developing a game story, creating interesting characters and interactions, and it involves the development of interesting and involving quests. If you have a particular kind of game system you want to try out, that’s well within your wheelhouse. If you have unique functionality in mind, then incorporate it into the area. It’s not at all sitting in front of a word processor describing the same stone in twenty different ways – it’s interesting, varied work that offers every opportunity to excel and shine.
Now, I’m sure that is TLDR for a lot of potential recruits – it’s probably a good thing they left us when they did because one thing I don’t do is shut the hell up. Those of you who survived to the end, aren’t discouraged by how I described the role, and think that they have what it takes should do the following things:
* Log on to Epitaph (if you haven’t already) and play for a bit. This is a mandatory first step, because if you don’t know the game you don’t know the game design philosophy. I’d expect a day or two of playing time before considering anyone.
* Read the Notiques Doctrine and have a skim over the Epitaph survival guide. The former will tell you what would be expected of you, the latter will show you how you go about doing it. Don’t stress the code too much – as I say, I am perfectly willing to help you with mastering it as long as you are willing to put in the work.
* Throw an application into http://drakkos.co.uk/secure/applications.c – that way we all get to see it and have a think about what you have to say. We’ll get back to you very quickly if we possibly can.
If you want an informal chat about all this first, feel free to grab me online when I’m not idle. Or you can drop a mail to email@example.com (remove the nospam) or even send me a message on G+ or Facebook if that’s your bag.
As a final aside, I am also willing to consider people who don’t want to actively develop but feel they could contribute in some other capacity. I won’t give any examples of that because I don’t really have many in mind (I’d quite like someone who would be willing to handle the rules and punishments side of things), but if you have skills or experience you’d like to lend to our efforts, I’d be very happy to discuss the possibilities with you.
Oh, and a final final aside – this is a special pitch I’m making to people who read the blog for now, because you guys are the cream of the crop as far as possibilities go. If I don’t get much interest from this, I’ll make a more open recruitment pitch somewhere else. But for now, mum’s the word eh?
 I think we even fall into the ‘large’ category on the various MUD listing sites.
 If I said the conversation was often full of tasteless, hateful, racist, sexist jokes I would be very much putting a positive spin on it. It’s so much worse than that. There is no topic off-limits for jokes on the creator channel. Just, you know, make it funny.
 In real life, I have been a teacher/lecturer of programming for about ten years, and there’s even reason to believe I’m not bad at it.