Skotos is making progress on their ambitious plans, but many issues still remain. It's one thing to build a game around social interaction; it's another entirely to create a computer-moderated game. Graphical MMORPGs have been plagued with unbalanced gameplay, players interested merely in tearing down the game world, and even lawsuits from former volunteers seeking payment for the time they had invested in the world. Looming over all of this is the most important question from the point of view of Skotos: Will people pay to play an all-text online game?
I spoke to Brian Moriarty, the new Director of Game Development for Skotos. Brian was a game designer for Infocom, one of the best-known U.S. text adventure companies of the 1980's. At Infocom he wrote Beyond Zork and Trinity, the latter one of the most highly-regarded of Infocom's later text adventures. He also designed Loom for LucasArts before going on to co-found Mpath Interactive (now HearMe) and design online games for the company.
He left HearMe in April of 2000 and took some time off. During this time his life changed noticeably, as he moved and he and his wife had a child. As he tells it, "After several months of sitting in the hot tub I decided it was time to go out and find something useful to do with myself."
He settled on Skotos, in part because it was close to his new home and in part because it was working with interactive prose, a subject near and dear to his heart. "I never expected I'd find another paying job which would let me play with it again, but I did."
Brian views many of the traditional problems associated with online adventure/role-playing games as design challenges. For example, interactive fiction lies on the fault line that runs between interaction and storytelling. The more rigidly scripted the story, the less interaction is allowed. This is a fundamental constraint, and one which Brian, and by extension Skotos, will handle by having games with different balances between the two. Some games will resemble traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, with statistics and monsters to be slain. Others will have a less mechanical balance; some, like Castle Marrach, will be nearly entirely social-based.
One problem which plagues online role-playing games is the time factor. If I want to get the coolest stuff, or take part in the exciting events -- indeed, if I want to have much fun at all -- I have to be online a lot. According to Brian, this should not be the case. While you want to reward players for playing more, the base experience must be fun as well. "Let's talk, as an example, about the typical fantasy spreadsheet game, where you go in and you get a tiny little nub of a sword and crappy armor and you go out and you start slaying rabbits in order to get their skins and start selling them. If you haven't made that fun, if just going out and doing that isn't fun, and you have to wait until you get to level nine before the fun stuff happens, you have a design problem, in my opinion." Designers may want to spend most of their time on the exotic elements of the game because those are the most fun, but doing so short-changes many players.
Another issue is that of object permanence and changes to the game world. In many MUDs, there are quests for various items, quests which can be done over and over and over. That the quests can be repeatedly solved, of course, cheapens some of the excitement of doing it, but making one-time only quests with one and only one reward will result in most players missing those quests. Again, Brian expects his designers to design around such problems. One way of doing so would be to design quests that anyone can do, but that can only be done once by any one player. Take initiation in a secret society as an example. Once you're in the society, you're in, but other people can later come along and join. In addition, he suggests that designers try to create experiences where it is to the player's advantage not to talk about them.
He also feels that players must take an active role in creating the game, and that game creators will have to relinquish some measure of their authorial control. "Single-player interactive fiction is quite a bit about storytelling. I the author am proposing a series of challenges and paths that you can follow according to what I've given you, but I have a pretty good idea of where I want you to end up. In multi-player, it's almost exactly the opposite. The success of multi-player depends almost entirely on how good the tools are you give to make the players your authors. All you're providing is a context for them to tell a story. If you're doing your job right, you're giving them a context and computer-moderated mechanisms that let them tell a story. That's not to say that you don't flavor the experience by the decisions you make about what tools to give them or what you let them do or not do. Certainly you control the kinds of stories that can be told. The actual storytelling should be in the hands of the players."
Will players take part in making these games? Certainly the trend in entertainment over the last one-hundred years has been towards more and more passive entertainment. More importantly from my point of view, who is the intended audience for these games? Commercial computer games have moved towards fancier graphics and more whiz-bang technology; role-playing enthusiasts enjoy the face-to-face interaction that such games allow. Skotos's games potentially fall into a divide between the two groups, pleasing neither.
"I couldn't disagree with you more," he tells me when I bring up this objection. "Some of the most addicted [computer game] players are addicted to text MUDs." He compares what Skotos is trying to do with its text-based games to the classical music industry. "Compared to Cher or Ricky Martin, classical music is just a pimple on the record industry. It's less than 5% of total sales in US. Nevertheless, there are dozens of little record labels out there that are servicing that industry, and the people who buy those records are very loyal, they buy lots of it, they often buy multiple versions of the same music. There is a market there, and people can have profitable businesses and nice careers doing that. They're not going to be mega-stars, but is it only interesting if it's going to make you incredibly wealthy and you get to pose on the cover of Computer Gaming Magazine?" For the role-players who are used to playing with people who are sitting next to them, Brian says that Skotos's games won't be a replacement for that, but that with Skotos's games you don't have to get a crowd of players together before you can play. The crowd is always there.
There does appear to be a niche market for such games. One company, Simutronics, has been making money with text-based MUDs for some ten years now. It remains to be seen, though, whether the market is large enough for Skotos and what they intend to do.
Brian had much more to say on the subject of desiging adventure games and on whether or not it's possible to make money from traditional interactive fiction in this day and age. Since those comments are outside the scope of this article, I've placed them on a separate page.
Skotos has done several things which hint that it might be successful. For one, it has gotten a product online which can conceivably make money, a situation which many Internet startups never found themselves in. For another, they are moving to a model in which the players help create the content. Many online content providers have found that they simply don't have enough money to hire the number of creative people required to produce enough content. As Salon Magazine, ironically enough, hilighted in an article about a porn site called Voyeurweb, sites that are canny enough to cull content from their users can do well.
Still, there are large challenges, on both the technical and business sides, facing Skotos. According to Brian, Skotos could stay afloat if they can sign up and keep some 10,000 subscribers. No matter how good their technology, no matter how good the games the Skotos Seven and others create, if those users don't come, the company will fold, and take its next-generation text games with it.