Ryan Thomason

WPR Interview with Eric Latham Producer for GemStone IV

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In case you haven’t read the article MUD Gaming is still alive and well for those of use who value a tight knit community of true character building players. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking back and forth with Eric Latham, Producer for Gemstone IV made by the Simutronics Company. A game that in my opinion the only MUD game worth playing on the internet. And, the only MUD game I’ve played on the internet, ever. Eventually, we finally took the time to have a serious chat, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

WPR: As a company that has been around since 1986 but always stayed with it’s core, MUD Gaming, what do you think is the key to your sustainability?

Basically, I think we succeed because we do it right. Many of the things you see in other MMOs are things we came up with first and the reason you see them in other games is because several of our staffers (both in-house and off-site) and countless numbers of players have gone on to successful careers with other major game companies and they know what works because they’ve seen it in action. What I hope is that we continue to be “on the ball” and make sure that we’re still doing it right. In most cases, I think we are, and in others, I think gaming industry has evolved and revealed areas where we can improve.

WPR: With so many MMO games moving to free to play have you ever thought of incorporating that in your games?

It’s definitely something we’ve looked at. The Micro-transaction model is proving to be the direction things are heading, but swapping our entire IFE (Interactive Fiction Engine) side of our company to that model in one fell swoop would be a huge roll of the dice. What’s more likely to happen is that we’d either slowly implement various aspects of Micro-Trans into various aspects of the games, or we’d try it with one of the smaller games or instances and see how it was received.

WPR: On that subject, subscription fees are always a sour point with customers, where games like WoW if they made any change in price there would be a massive uproar. Yet, aside from a basic account with standard fee, you guys have a Platinum Account that is $49.95 a month, and a Premium Account that gives users ‘extras’ for an added $25. Obviously people are willing to pay them for their benefits, what do you think that says about the players/community that still flock to your games?

I think it says a few things. First and foremost, it says we’re giving people what they want. One thing we hear a lot from our players is that they may have left to check out one of the graphical games, but they always ended up coming back because they simply can’t find a community that has any amount of roleplaying, much less one that encourages it. Most of them join “RP” servers with the hope that a tiny bit is better than none, but then they have to deal with the trolls who join those servers just to grief the RPers. Another reason is that the graphical games quickly boil down to non-stop grinding and while it’s true that all games have some amount of grind, ours included, there’s always the chance for something “different” or unexpected to happen in our games. You might get caught up in an invasion, you might run across a mysterious merchant, there may be a festival going on, and there’s almost always some sort of storyline running with the chance to actually make a difference in the world. “Events” in those other games usually just mean “riding the rails” in a dungeon instance that’s always the same, but you never know what might happen when you play with us. Some of the newer games are adding some of those aspects to their games, or at least trying to, but I am not sure any of them will ever come close to being able to offer what we can.

WPR: What is one of your favorite moments playing a MUD

I was involved with a lot of storylines back when DragonRealms first opened up on AOL, but I’ll always remember the one night when I was travelling up to Riverhaven from The Crossing and when I boarded the ferry, somehow a swamp troll had managed to climb on board and was attacking a young Bard who had no idea what was happening and was doing everything she could to keep herself from being smashed into pulp. I’d never fought a Swamp Troll and I was notorious for being overly cautious (ok…I was a chicken), but I didn’t seem to have a choice once the ferry pulled away from the dock and I couldn’t run away. Lots of spells were slung and I was actually pretty close to dying, but the Bard jumped in and did her best to help, even if her help consisted of shouting, “Kill it!”, and we eventually killed the thing. A week or two after that, I ran into her in Town Green and she told me she was so thankful and impressed with my heroism, she had written a song about me! Then, much to my shock, she proceeded to sing it front of about 20 people. We became friends and she eventually became a Mentor, a Host, and eventually a GM and always told me that her spur of the moment adventure on the ferry was what “hooked her” and proved to her that this wasn’t “just another game.”

WPR: If you were to ask anybody under 30 what they think of MUD gaming, you’ll most likely get a blank stare. What do you think brings you new subscribers that keep you from having to shutter your doors? Do you mostly rely on your community word of mouth or has there been an outreach to bring in the younger crowd?

Without a doubt, our best advertising comes from our current subscribers. Even when they’re cheating on us and playing other games (we really don’t mind…it’s an open relationship!), they invariably start talking to their friends about “this other game” they play and eventually their buddy wants to check it out. Catching the younger crowd is a tough one, though. You’d think that growing up in a world where text messaging is becoming the main form of communication would make them more receptive to a text-based game, but that’s also the biggest barrier, since their version of “text” is saying as much as possible in as few words (or letters) as possible. The fact that you not only have to read, but also type in (mostly) complete sentences, means “text-based” is a bit of a hurdle to the T-9 and Swype crowd.

WPR: On the cost of creating games, we all know the huge bankrolls that high profile titles get when it comes to cost, and then their profit when the game launches. Does MUD gaming offer publishers as yourself a better margin on what it costs to maintain and create your games and then the profitability after release? Isn’t it all just Text anyways?

Well, it’s certainly cheaper to create a new text-based game than it is to produce a graphical game and along those lines, the maintenance costs are certainly scaled down, but it’s still not cheap. Sure, it’s all “text” anyway, but the graphical games also have the advantage of CDs/DVDs worth of data that they install locally on your machine to help speed things up.

WPR: What is it like to be a staffer at Simtronics? Does everyone report to the same office every day or are you guys able to be able to work from home?

Well, we all used to work in the same office with office hours and all the “normal” baggage that comes with a normal job, but we actually implemented a system called R.O.W.E. (http://www.gorowe.com/) this year and things have changed pretty dramatically. R.O.W.E. stands for “Results-Only Work Environment” and it’s pretty cutting edge. Several large corporations are adopting it and it basically means that it doesn’t matter where or when you do your job, as long as it gets done, since that’s all that really matters in the end. Yes, in the past at Simu like most other workplaces, we were required to be “butts in seats” for 40+ hours a week. Any time you were out for any reason, people would assume you were slacking off. Vacations had to be scheduled and coordinated weeks or even months in advance. Appointments to the doctor or dentist or things like that had to be requested and approved, and for folks who had kids and families, “emergencies” were the worst because they ended up eating into your vacation and sick days. In my case, I had to be at work the same hours as everyone else, but since our GMs are all off-site contractors who mostly have jobs of their own during the day, I’d have to go home and get *back* on the computer for more email, staff/team meetings, and to be available for them when *they* had the time free to GMing.

Now, because results are all that matters, I pretty much exclusively work from home with the freedom to effectively “set my own hours” as long as I’m getting the job done. I have unlimited sick days and vacation days. Sure, I still go in to the office for certain key meetings, but Skype works just fine for the bulk of them. If I decided I wanted to go on vacation, I could basically just pack up and go anywhere, any time, for as long as I wanted. I could answer emails as usual and Skype in to any meetings that came up that I felt I needed to go to if I wanted to be “semi-available” or I could just be “unavailable” and relax. The key is, I’d have to make sure my responsibilities were being met, either by getting things done ahead of schedule or by working remotely. Along the same lines, if it’s Tuesday afternoon and I decide that I want to go see a movie or get groceries or go to the gun range, I just go. Or if I just want to sit on the couch and watch TV or play on the Xbox or PS3, I do it. I don’t have to try to plan all that stuff around my work hours and cram my “life” into a weekend. One of the key “rules” with R.O.W.E. is “Every day is a Saturday.” and it truly is. The funny thing is, I think I’m probably putting in more hours and am more accessible now that I was before, but it doesn’t feel like “work” because I can take a break or a nap or go do whatever I feel like doing any time I want/need. I’ve actually had a few situations where I literally had no idea what day it was because the concept of “weekdays” and “weekends” just doesn’t matter anymore.

WPR: I bet you guys play a wicked game of Dungeons and Dragons (assuming you’re not you know, playing in one of your games)

That we do! At one point, we had something like 5 separate tabletop campaigns going on, one of which ended up running for something like 5 years. Another was incredibly fun, but we had so many people playing that we almost dreaded the inevitable encounter, because one round of combat would take 30-45 minutes to go around the table. We are all born and bred gamers though, so it’s not just D&D. We have game days/nights at work and folks are always bringing in some new box of something to try out. The fun thing about R.O.W.E. that I mentioned before, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon people just decide “It’s Pathfinder time!” and head to the big table and start playing or someone will fire up Team Fortress 2 and the next thing you know, everyone else is loading up Steam and logging in, too.

WPR: With the great changes in technology, are you guys ever planning on moving your MUD games onto Mobile devices? (Smartphones, Tablets, iPhone, etc) or are you leaving it up to the games like TinyHeroes (iPhone) and Fantasy University (Facebook) as your reaches into more social gaming platforms?

We have had an increasing number of people ask for some sort of client for smartphones, but man, I just can’t see how anyone could play that way! Having said that, it’s certainly something we’re looking at, though.

WPR: What would you say to someone who has never played a MUD before and wanted to just give it a try, is it something that you think people either love it immediately, or they sit there waiting for the graphics to load and then quit because they think it’s broken?

The way I “sell” the games to everyone I talk to about them is simple: How many times have you heard (or said), “The movie was good, but the book was *so* much better.”? People say that for a reason. With books (or text), you make the pictures in your own mind. You “see” things in amazing detail and you never run into a situation like in a graphical game where the first thing you have to do is figure out how crappy you have to make it look in order for your computer to run it. If someone is inherently a reader or writer at heart, I think those folks get hooked harder and faster than “normal” gamers, but I think any real gamer will get hooked if they just give it some time. Our games have always had notoriously steep learning curves, but we’re always working to make it easier for true new players to learn the ropes quickly and the overwhelming majority of our community has *always* flocked to help newcomers get acclimated. They should give it a shot and not be afraid to ask for help! Heck, with the free trial offer we have, they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

WPR: It seems like even MUDs can’t avoid the issue of scripting, how have you been trying to combat scripting, especially with a program like Lich that seems to be used by a majority of your players in some form or another in Gemstone IV.

Well, one thing to point out is that scripting isn’t against policy. You can run scripts all you want. Our policy just stipulates that you need to be responsive to the environment when you do it. I’ve always said if you want to pay to have a machine play the game for you, that’s certainly your option and as long as you’re paying attention to the game, you can certainly do that. My question is, though, why would you want to? Why would you want to miss out on everything that you’d be missing out on just to get to the “end” of the game faster? part of the draw, in my opinion, is that there’s a LOT of “life” for a normal character in all of our games. There’s so much to do and so many things to explore and try out, you can effectively have years and years of enjoyment. We want folks to focus on their own character and have fun playing the game and worry less about someone else’s character who has more experience or higher skills. If you focus on “beating” that other player, two things will happen: You’ll miss out on a lot of stuff and then you’ll discover another player who’s still better/more powerful than you are and then the cycle will repeat over and over until you hit the level/skill cap and won’t have anything to do.

WPR: With a smaller community of players do you find that theories of letting them police themselves would be effective or do you think that every community, not matter the size and scope should have an effective “police force” combing for scripters and money farmers?

Well, here’s the thing some people need to realize: No matter what you do, no matter what rules you put into place, no matter how much effort you put into it, you’ll never stop people from scripting or farming gold. There’s simply no way to manage that without making your game unplayable (unless of course you’re making a single player game). Another thing to remember is that the only folks who should be enforcing the rules are the GMs. Any time you have players trying to play ‘policeman”, it’s just going to end in chaos and conflict and problems. Sure, it would be really easy to just say, “Ok, from here on out, anyone you think is AFK is fair game. Have at it.” and let the masses handle it, but eventually things would just deteriorate into rampant, non-stop PVP and while that might be fun for a small crowd of folks, that’s simply not in the best interest of the game as a whole. If someone wants to live in that sort of world, we have DragonRealms: The Fallen and GemStone Shattered where that sort of lifestyle is encouraged.

WPR: From my time diving back into the world of GS: IV I’ve found one thing that almost everyone agrees with, a hunger for more players enjoying the lands with them. Do you think there is a next step in the evolution of MUDs to get peoples attention again or is it a gaming platform that will have to rely on a more grassroots growth with players and good word of mouth pulling people in?

As I mentioned before, the absolute, hands down, time-proven, best way we get new players is by word of mouth. We’ve tried just about every advertising option available over the course of the past two decades and the fact of the matter is, none of them are cost effective. The amount it costs to buy the ad or expose the link is overwhelmingly higher than the revenue generated by the folks who sign up. For example, if we spent $10k on an ad for GemStone, we’d need roughly 650 folks to sign up for at least one month just to break even and from experience, that’s just not something that happens. I’d love to be back in a situation like we were in when we were featured on AOL and had thousands of new players giving the game a shot per month, but even the concept of something like AOL is a thing of the past. Now even though we have no plans for a Superbowl commercial or a full-page spread in USA Today, we’re certainly getting new players and we’re also regularly getting old players coming back so it’s not like we’re going anywhere any time soon! We’re also always looking for new ways to get the word out. One of my current projects is to look into implementing the capability of sending out “highlights” of your character’s accomplishments through social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook. Finding new ways for our community to get the word out is always something I’m thinking about.

Again, I’d love to thank the awesome people at Simutronics for helping get everything setup for this interview and Eric for taking the time out of his busy, wait, he does whatever the hell he wants because of ROWE…his…day that I envy, to talk with me and give some great insight!

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