A few days ago I made what’s probably a reasonably significant policy announcement – that when we patch to Epitaph 1.0, we’re going to have an age rating. Not just any age rating, but an 18 age rating. In the UK, 18 rating is about as high as it gets for mainstream content and it basically means ‘anything goes’. I hadn’t been thinking of an age rating, and it’s not something for which the consideration was on my todo list. I was just writing some text for the game and decided ‘You know what? I’m going to need some kind of policy cover here’.

One of the things I have found most liberating about Epitaph’s completely original[1] game world is that the thematic constraints are set by those of us developing the game. We don’t have a canon to which we need to adhere, other than the one we construct ourselves. Importantly, we don’t have our hands tied as far as demographics go – there is no existing fan-base to serve as the most fertile ground for our recruitment. That’s given us immense creative freedom to explore those elements of the apocalypse that appeal most to us.

For me, it’s always been ‘the slow (or fast) decay of organised society’. I’ve always been a fan of the old adage ‘civilization is only three missed meals away from anarchy’, and I think that world events bear that out in many respects. My vision of the apocalypse is a dark one, full of the strong preying on the weak, self-serving factional interests and an ‘us versus them’ mentality that is tribal in its outlook. Moreover, the supporting narrative we have around quests has allowed for me to explore not just a player’s actions within the game world. It also allows me to explore, to some extent, the reactions of the NPCs who are affected. Many of the quests in the game now have followup mails, and for a significant portion of these mails there are several that a player might receive.

This has made me reflect upon the possible parties impacted by a player’s action without having to architect a complex system in game for representing it. I can make references to the hidden majority of people who have survived the apocalypse – the mothers of lost children, the brothers of those who died, other survivors who you’ll never meet. In thinking ‘what might have happened after the cameras stopped rolling on this quest’, it generally opens up at least two possibilities – everything went well, or everything went wrong. Maybe things fell between those two extremes, but you know – little acorns. Eventually the number of random mails for each quest is likely to grow, because they’re fun to write. In the meantime, it’s either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the majority of them.

For the former, a little feel-good or melancholy mail might end up in your mailbox. For the latter, well – the actions you take within a game are likely to end up with one or more people being upset with you. Given that society as a whole has broken down, you might find that payback is more than just a bitch. If you cross the wrong people, there’s no police department to ensure your protection. It’s you, on your own, against the physical power of your enemies.

That kind of situation brings out the worst in people, and that will be reflected in some of the mails that you receive.

I have always been insistent when developing Epitaph that we’re not *gratuitous* in our representations of the dark side of humanity. We have all kinds of horrible content, but none of it is for titillation. We’re an adult game, but not because of the ‘sexual content’. We have no fuck command[2], we don’t have interactive sex bots or such. What we have is ‘violent’ content, and sometimes that violence is flavoured with sex and power fantasies. I make no apologies for this. I think it’s almost mandatory in a game of this nature that every dark side of the human experience is ‘fair game’ for inclusion. But it does mean that people need to be given warning as to the content of the game. Thus, the 18 rating.

Our rating isn’t accredited – it’s not a PEGI[3] rating or one that comes from any formal body. It’s just a warning we’ve put on the game. It’s now displayed on the website (at least over here on Epitaph Black Ops. It’ll be on the live website when we patch) and is mentioned prominently on our new login rules. It’s likely not a thing I’ll have the time or ability to actively police, but violation of the rule will make your account liable for deletion. I can’t tell what your age is, but if I find out at any stage that it’s below our required threshold – well, you’ve been warned. If you’re not far off it, a suspension until you are old enough might be the punishment. If you’re a good deal away, a deletion might be in order.

I’m not sure there are many MUDs that have taken this tack – there are plenty of ‘cybersex’ MUDs out there and they’re almost always at the top of any activity chart – see for example Shangrila Mush and Tapestries MUCK[4]. There are MUDs that are full of swearing and puerile references, but I know of very few where there is an explicit design decision to create a ‘mature content’ MUD. I prefer to think of us as a kind of Grand Theft Auto style MUD – the mature content is informed by the theme, not simply put in place because it entertains us. I don’t claim Epitaph is art, but I do claim we have an interest in creating a game that is *artistically consistent* in terms of its thematic content.

The 18 rating hasn’t changed the content of Epitaph, it’s merely put a wrapper around what I’ve always known it to be. There has been no point during the development of Epitaph where I’ve felt the need to ‘dial back’ the darkness, and as such it’s not as if the rating removes a restriction. It doesn’t change any of the policies we have regarding a welcoming game environment for newbies, or harassment or such. It doesn’t permit players to be dicks to one another without ramifications. All it does is signpost a reality – we are not a game that is suitable for children.

Since this has come about quite suddenly, and since we have a number of people here who started playing Epitaph long before this notion struck me, I’m willing to institute a kind of ‘grandfathering’ scheme whereby an exception is made for people already here. I didn’t know at the time Epitaph opened for its first ‘friends and family’ alpha that this would be the eventual direction we took. There was every possibility we would have gone for a more ‘zomromcom'[5] model as is evidenced by the fact that the starting area for the game is the Winchester from Shawn of the Dead. It’s possible we would have gone for a more neutral balance of good and bad. In the end though, it’s the darker side of the apocalypse that really fascinates me and so it’s no surprise that’s where the focus is. But my indecision at the early days of Epitaph shouldn’t punish anyone who was kind enough to give us a try back then, and certainly shouldn’t disadvantage anyone who has been loyal enough to stick around. If you need to be grandfathered in, send me an email and I’ll add you to my list and we’ll work something out. It’ll only count prior to Epitaph 1.0 – once we patch, there’s no exceptions for those characters created after Open Day.

I feel good about the rating – I think it sends the right message as to who should be considering spending their time here[6]. I think it makes a strong statement about what is ‘okay’ within our thematic content[7]. And I think it’ll serve as a useful signpost for pitching the game, which is something that will become important very soon.

We know what kind of game we are – we’re for *literate*, *intelligent* and *mature* people who enjoy reading and mentally inhabiting a world of endless despair and darkness. We’ve done a good job of signposting the first half of that over the years. Now we can show quite clearly that we’re catering to the second part also.


[1] Well, as original as you can get when your theme is zombie apocalypse, and you’re influenced by many other properties in that thematic area. Completely original in terms of ‘it’s not limited by anything else in the world’, as opposed to ‘genuinely new stuff you won’t have seen before’.
[2] http://hellmoo.wikia.com/wiki/Fuck
[3] http://www.pegi.info/en/index/
[4] http://mudstats.com/Browse
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaun_of_the_Dead
[6] People who are impossible to offend.
[7] Almost anything.