The MUDdy Hobo got a chance to barrage Lasher@Aardwolf with a heaping list of questions. And, whaddya know: He came back with a feast of answers!
MH: How did Aardwolf come about? Had you played other games before developing your own? What lessons did you learn and then apply to Aardwolf?
Lasher: I played my first LPMud in 1993, it was the original “Valhalla” MUD and I found it via a games link on “gopher.” Amazing how much the internet has changed since then.
Anyway, it was down for a month so I went checking out some other MUDs and found a small ROM mud called “Aardvark.” It was a completely different style and didn’t have the depth of Valhalla, but was fun in a different way. After playing that MUD for a while I talked to the owner of it about doing some coding for them, and became an admin.
I’d never actually planned to run a MUD. If I had sat down one day with a plan to start one and thought about what I wanted to do I’m sure it would have been quite different.
How Aardwolf came about is basically that “Aardvark” was hosted on a University site in the Netherlands and became very unstable. After about a month of constantly being up and down, I moved the mud off-site expecting it to go down one day and never come back up. That is exactly what happened a couple of weeks later so we decided to rename the MUD (leaving open the option for the original to come back up) which is how the name became “Aardwolf,” really just to having something similar to Aardvark. I’ve seen many comments over the years that “Aardwolf” was a play to be listed high in alphabetical lists, but really was never a consideration, although it might have been why the original Aardvark was named so.
So, many of the design decisions you go through when opening a MUD never happened on Aardwolf, we just took what was there and worked on improving it. In terms of lessons learned outside of the MUD world then applied to Aardwolf, really, none. I had about 10 years experience as a software developer, so was used to considering ideas, weighing priorities etc, but in terms of running an online community it was trial by fire. The basic premise was “create the game I’d want to play.”
MH: How many active player accounts are there? How many are online at your peak hours?
Lasher: Active I would define as “logged in in the last 30 days” and I honestly don’t know. There are just over 36,000 pfiles in the game right now, but all that means is they have logged in within the last couple of years.
Numbers peak at just over 400 in the week and get up to 450 on the weekends. Our busiest period was probably 2004-2005 where we’d average around 500 in the evenings.
You can actually see stats by the hour over the last 24 hours by typing ‘online’ in the game and see can average over the last year per day by typing ‘online 2’. You can also see who is online at any given time at http://www.aardwolf.com/aardweb/livewho.php
MH: What steps did you take to build awareness about Aardwolf in its earliest days?
Lasher: Really, none. We didn’t advertise anywhere. We had a listing on TMC and that was it. The best form of advertising for MUDs always has been word of mouth, and probably always will be. When the mud moved and become “Aardwolf” it averaged around 10-15 people online and just grew from there.
MH: How has your playerbase been affected, if at all, by the advent of popular MMORPGs?
Lasher: Definitely, I think most MUDs have. Our average is down around 100 over the past few years and mostly it is due to people leaving for games such as World of Warcraft. You also have the dynamics of a generally older player base leaving for a variety of reasons such as marriage, career, etc. This has always happened but you always had an influx of newer younger players to replace them – I think that’s where we all struggle now, getting younger potential players to give a text-based game a chance.
MH: Have you added features to Aardwolf specifically to compete with MMOs?
Lasher: We haven’t added features to specifically compete with MMOs, but we’ve learned from them and added some features to make the game more accessible.
For example, 10 years ago it was very rare for MUDs to publish maps other than world maps. The “average” MUD player was quite comfortable finding a client, finding scripts and plugins for it, customizing their scripts to meet their needs and tweaking it all to work just right. Most game players today don’t have patience for that, they are used to clients that are made specifically for the game they are playing and everything just works.
We have built some things into the game itself such as speedwalking to areas and “spellup” scripts. Having a built-in speedwalk command (you can “runto [area name]”) would have been unheard of 10 years ago, but we added it, the users love it, new players aren’t frustrated trying to find areas and we feel like we don’t lose much because there’s enough to explore and enough puzzles to solve within the areas without making finding them itself a challenge.
MH: What do you feel sets Aardwolf apart from hundreds of other text-based games?
Lasher: I wish I knew. Whenever you see a MUD post an ad there’s certain things you always see, almost to the point that they’re cliches. Such as “We listen to player ideas,” “We apply the rules fairly.” Obviously we strive to do the same. Any kind of admin abuse is absolutely not tolerated and I think over time, the players see that. Most of our best ideas came from players and our job is to integrate them in a way that is fun and adds something to the game. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always taken the basic premise of “create the game I’d want to play” and, over time, we seem to have attracted a good number of people who seem to have the same tastes.
Beyond that, I don’t know why Aardwolf grew so much. For a very long time it was just your average ROM mud. We weren’t featured highly in any voting charts and didn’t even list on TMS until 2003 when we were already close to our peak, so it wasn’t that either. Having a big enough player base to vote us up today definitely helps with exposure, but how and why we grew that player base in the first place is still a mystery to me.
MH: Aardwolf features familiar MUD aspects like hack-and-slash monster killing and quests. What gives Aardwolf depth? What makes players keep coming back?
Lasher: Aardwolf is definitely a hack and slash mud. It has very little roleplay (some clans do a very good job of roleplaying internally, but that’s it) and doesn’t even have a good overall plot / story.
I think if Aardwolf proves anything it is that hack and slash does not have to mean “lacks depth.” While the game is based on leveling there are many side games and things for people to do. The Lua scripting system has been excellent for us and since implementing that, it is probably the first time I have ever not regretted starting out with LP on day one.
Some of the quests (“goals”) in areas are extremely deep and affect how areas will interact with you for the rest of the life of your character (which, btw, is forever, we never have and never will pwipe). There’s also little touches most people will never even notice, but those that do notice enjoy them. For example, when you kill something, the description of the corpse is unique for pretty much every ability that can kill something. That “feature” itself isn’t particularly exciting, but there’s hundreds of little touches like that through the game.
MH: The Academy provides an automated comprehensive introduction to the game. How long has it existed? Does it take the place of seat-of-the-pants newbie helping? How has it been received, in general, by new players?
Lasher: The academy is getting close to a year old now – it was actually the original reason the goal system was written, to track progress through the academy. While working on that I started to think “we could really use this everywhere” so it became more of a generic questing system. The academy itself is almost 10,000 lines of Lua code.
In general it has been very well received, some people feel it may be too long (and it probably is), but there’s a lot to cover and people can leave/return at any time. They can also entirely skip lessons and just review the notes.
I think in a future version of the academy we’ll add more “actions” early on the academy to break it up further. It absolutely doesn’t replace the regular “newbie helping” and there is still a very active “helper” team available to help new players get familiar with Aardwolf. However, if someone asks a series of questions that are all answered in the academy they will be encouraged to go through it.
MH: What prompted the implementation of a "speedwalking" system?
Lasher: We touched on this a little earlier, but Aardwolf is now close to 40,000 rooms almost all unique. None of these are auto-generated. One of the things people enjoyed with the old ROM mud was familiarity – they knew where a good portion of the areas were immediately. So, this is one reason.
The main reason was that we’re re-organizing some of the world and every time we changed something people would be frustrated because the speedwalk scripts they had acquired from wherever stopped working. It basically came down to “If these speedwalk scripts are going to be available to everyone anyway, they might as well be accurate and up to date” so we built them into the game. The continents are 10,000 rooms in total and most areas are linked to the continents – making people search within that to find areas really isn’t a fun experience. Not all areas can be speedwalked to within the game – some of them are harder to find and they are excluded.
I think it turned out to be a good compromise overall. Some of the quests and player competitions involve getting to an area as quickly as possible, before others get there. The built-in speedwalks will get you there but if people take the time to build their own they will get there faster. The built-in speedwalks have to be “lowest common denominator” and can’t take shortcuts through clan portals, higher level areas, etc that players can build for themselves.
MH: What games besides Aardwolf have you been playing lately?
Lasher: I don’t get much time to play games lately, which is unfortunate. I haven’t played another MUD or MMO in years – what little free time I have I like to work on the MUD itself. I actually have Bioshock from Christmas two years ago,4 unopened. This Christmas I got Fallout 3 and Gears of War 2 – maybe I’ll even play them one day. The only game I really play is Guitar Hero, because I can pick it up, play for a few minutes, and put it down. I fear if I start something like Fallout 3 I’ll disappear completely for 3 months.
MH: Got any favorite books? Movies? Television shows?
Lasher: Books, I usually read what you’d expect from a MUD player – Sci-fi/Fantasy and programming manuals. My favorite author is Orson Scott Card. I made a point of reading something out of style recently and read Pillars of Earth by Ken Follett, very interesting book set in Medieval times. Movies, hmm, I have a hard time watching any movie more than once – when I already know how they end it’s less interesting, so there’s really no movies I watch over and over. Some of my favorites from the last few years are Gladiator, Vanilla Sky, Dark Knight, Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down. The only TV shows I watch are Heroes and Lost. Our TV is rarely on other than the Nickelodeon stuff my daughter has on. The last series I watched before that was Jericho, which turned out very disappointing the way it was cut short and finished in a hurry.
You didn’t ask about music. My musical tastes are all over the place but with a strong lean towards alternative, maybe even “emo”. Long term some of my favorite groups are Pink Floyd (including the Roger Waters solo stuff), U2, Iron Maiden and Nirvana. Some of the more recent groups are Blue October, Ludo, Toxic Airborne Event, Avenged Sevenfold, Muse and System of a Down.
MH: How much of the creative work - room descriptions, monster emotes, tutorial text - is your doing? Do you have a large admin team helping you?
Lasher: Most of the tutorial text in the academy was written by me, but the descriptions were written by others. I can code all day long and write helpfiles/tutorials no problem, but when it comes to actually describing something I hit a wall. If I wrote descriptions they would all turn out like “This is a sword”, “There is a wall here”. Even when I’m reading books I skip that stuff – I just need to know there’s a church the main character is about to enter, I don’t need to read two pages on the architectural style of its roof.
MH: Which works better for you: Fishing blindly for staffers in tried-and-true MUD forums or recruiting from within the ranks of Aardwolf's playerbase?
Lasher: Absolutely within the ranks of the playerbase. We’ve never recruited a staff member that wasn’t from the playerbase. In fact, at the time of writing we have only 10 active imms in total including myself and a handful of those are mostly just logging in to keep up with notes while they are busy with offline commitments. We’ve always operated this way and kept staff to a minimum by automating as much as we can. It’s worked out well for us, I find it much easier to keep a smaller team on the same page.
Keep in mind that builders are not considered “admins.” What makes a great quest coder and/or builder is not necessarily what makes a good person to deal with player questions and rule issues. All building takes place on another port. Many of the quests are player written – the Lua system is fairly easy to use and we have a handful of players who love to make new goals for others.
MH: What's the key, for you, in managing a staff on a text-based game, which is often volunteer-oriented and spread across the country, if not the globe?
Lasher: The key is finding the right people in the first place, making sure they know what is expected of them, then it just kind of runs. As they come from the player base and have usually been around a long time most of them already know how I feel about things and want the game to be run, and they’re motivated enough to have stepped up to imm in the first place. There’s no real “power” in being an imm on Aardwolf and no benefit to your player character, so people have to want to genuinely help improve the game and keep it running smoothly to take it on in the first place. We often joke that imms are monitored as much as players think the players are monitored.
MH: What's been the highest point for Aardwolf, in your mind? The game's greatest triumph?
Lasher: A player asked me this recently in an interview they did for an online broadcast and I really struggled to answer it. We’ve had our high and low points like every MUD but nothing jumps out as significantly above other events. One of the main ones would definitely have to be finally going live on a unique code base. We had so many false starts on that. It was rewritten in Java and about 80 percent done in 2000-2001 then the MUD grew to the point that Java simply wouldn’t support it (on the technology at the time) plus there were bugs in the Java implementation of Zlib at the time and MCCP is critical to us. It was started again in 2003 then put on hold when my daughter was born. Started again in 2005 then put on hold again later that year. In 2007 I was temporarily unemployed so took the opportunity to finally get it done – even then it took from August 2007 to March 2008 working in it pretty much full time and with dozens of players testing it to finally get it live. Nobody should ever underestimate the effort required to rewrite a MUD that is already running, it’s like rebuilding an airplane in mid air.
Perhaps the highest point of all that was when Hans Staerfeldt (one of the original authors of Diku) agreed to review our code when it was complete. Given the history of Aardwolf and challenges other MUDs have had with questions raised about whether or not their code is Diku, it was very nice to be able to do that. Receiving the email from Hans where he stated it was clearly not Diku and was also very complimentary on the code itself was the end of a chapter for Aardwolf that I’d have preferred never happened.
MH: What's been the lowest point? The game's biggest snafu, glitch or misstep?
Lasher: The lowest point, ironically, was during the development of the new codebase. One of the things I think people do enjoy about Aardwolf is the constant stream of changes and improvements, even after being online for so long. During that last 9 month period almost nothing got done so the game itself felt very stagnant to me. Players were also very concerned about the changes that were coming, we had to kill numerous “player wipe” rumors, etc.
The rewrite wasn’t just “convert exactly what we have today” but also incorporated a lot of changes. The look and feel was still the same by design but the game itself was quite different so naturally, when we actually went live some people didn’t like the new game as much and we took a hit to the playerbase.
Other than that, in 2004 we were down for just under 2 weeks when Hurricane Charley took out the power in Orlando. Two weeks after we came back up another hurricane took us out for six days. Two weeks after that, the third hurricane to hit Orlando that year took us down for another three days. The only comfort was that Florida Power were obviously learning on the job and getting faster at restoring power each time.
The server now, btw, is in a data center in Dallas (SoftLayer) and the building/test/backup server is in a data center in Wisconsin (LiquidWeb). The next hurricane to hit Orlando might take me offline, but not the MUD.
MH: What do you miss most about the smaller, more intimate playerbase of a fledgling game?
Lasher: Very little. I really enjoy that there is always something happening on Aardwolf, always a good group of people to talk to. The way the MUD runs there is the global population but when you break it down between clans and the “friend lists” everyone has (which includes a ‘friendtalk channel”) the MUD really doesn’t lose the intimacy because most people do most of their chatting on their friend list. It sounds like that could lead to “isolation” for some players, but it doesn’t, it works out quite well. The global channels are still active, but don’t have the insanity that you have with 400 players online and only global channels. The real concern there is for new players, obviously they haven’t met people and added them to friend lists yet, which is why we have a very active “helper” group and encouraging chatting / getting to know each other on the newbie channel.
If there’s a downside it is of course much more admin time and a lot more notes to read. I wouldn’t change it, but sometimes when you only have an hour or two to get something done then spend that time reading notes instead it would be nice to be smaller. I’d actually like to grow the MUD more (who wouldn’t, right?). A larger player base means you can add more games and global competitions that require player involvement and usually always have someone around to take part. It opens the window for new clans without diluting the existing ones, which always brings some new dynamics to the game as each clan has its own theme, skills, allies and styles of pk.
MH: What do you like most about a larger, broader playerbase now that Aardwolf has grown and prospered since 1996?
Lasher: Answered most of this in the question above – the fact that with so many people there is always something going on, the forums are active, it’s easy to get feedback (understatement), and lots of people interested and engaged in the game. I don’t know if “ego” is the right word, but there’s also a lot of personal satisfaction there too – to see so many people playing a game that you’ve had such a large part in creating. We’ve lost count of the number of offline marriages and children born to people who met in Aardwolf.
MH: When a new player experiences your game for the first time, what do you want them to feel? What do you expect them to take away from their introduction to Aardwolf?
Lasher: Most of this we already touched on, but the quick version would be that they leave feeling that while the game is “hack and slash” based there is enough depth and other things to do besides level that it is fun and doesn’t suffer from not having a more serious theme.
Even players that have been on the MUD for 10+ years will find things they didn’t know about – either side effects to their actions within areas themselves, or just commands they weren’t aware of. It’s always nice to see people comment “I had no idea that was there!” after being on the MUD for almost a decade.
We also have lots of hidden little “easter eggs” that are fun to find. Hint to Aardwolf players: some have never been found.
We do put a lot of work into making the community overall as friendly and helpful as possible, but we walk a fine line here because we try not to be over-bearing in the rules too and not everyone wants to be “friendly and helpful”. I think whether they like the game or not most people do leave with the impression that the game/community genuinely want to help new players get started and they’re welcome on Aardwolf. It is a place to hang out, chat with friends, join some games, level if they like, do quests and just take it easy. As with all online games, most people’s first experience really comes down to who is online at the time and whatever else is going on.
As a side note, this is where I struggle with MUD reviews in general – you can’t really review a MUD in depth unlesss you play it for weeks/months. Many MUDs have content and dynamics that you never even see until you’ve played them for a long time and Aardwolf is no different in that respect.
MH: You've got forums in-game, but not on the website. What motivated that choice?
Lasher: We’ve always had in-game forums so that is the “standard” for Aardwolf. I’ve never wanted to have split forums where some are on the web and some are in-game. What I’d really like to do is integrate the in-game forums with something like SMF so that posts on one automatically appear on the other.
We’ve actually taken some steps to work towards this recently – the behind the scenes structure of the boards in Aardwolf have changed to support threads and work in a way that lends itself better to integration with a webforum. The ‘who is online’ URL I mentioned briefly earlier was really just a test of the web interface in the MUD itself that will be necessary to support that.
So, this is more a matter of finding the time to do it properly rather than a policy decision to not have our forums on the web.
MH: What keeps you focused and in tune with Aardwolf? How do you renew your enthusiasm for a project that's into its second decade?
Lasher: I actually have the opposite problem – one of my biggest frustrations with Aardwolf is finding time to work on it more. After the three things I won’t give up (raising a young family, my career and working out/playing racquetball) there isn’t a whole lot left unfortunately. Every time we implement an idea, it spawns multiple new ideas and there is so much room for improvement / so many things we could do it’s frustrating not being able to get to it all. Development on Aardwolf is usually an hour or two here and there.
Occasionally, I’ll get a full day to work on it and those days are awesome. So, it’s not hard to maintain enthusiasm for it.
MH: Are text-based games doomed? Or, perhaps best to phrase it this way: How do you think text-based games can evolve and avoid extinction via natural selection?
Lasher: I wouldn’t say “doomed,” but I don’t think any of us can ignore trends over the last few years.
MMOs and the mass of other things to do on the web has definitely had an impact on text-based MUDs.
Even for those of us that have not seen their averages drop too much, you have to consider that as a “percentage of total internet users who play MUDS” or even the more specific “percentage of total internet users playing RPGs online who play MUDs.” If we plotted those on a graph rather than actual players online you’d see a much sadder looking picture.
I think this is partly because of the text interface itself and partly because some older MUDs tend to be stuck in a paradigm of “figure everything out for yourself”- MUDs need to make themselves more accessible.
There’s also the variety of these. If you can get an MMO player to try a MUD at all, they may only try one. If someone looking for immersive roleplaying stumbles across Aardwolf as their first MUD, or someone looking for hack and slash stumbles across an “RPI” MUD as their first MUD, they may never try another. It’s all so hit and miss.
We did some work with Nick Gammon (the author of MUSHclient) last year on making a custom version of MUSHclient for Aardwolf. There’s nothing custom in the MUSHclient code itself, btw, just a series of plugins. This came from me constantly seeing people new to MUDs struggle with configuring a client. Our reasoning was that if these scripts are all out there anyway we might as well accept that, standardize them and make them work. I emailed Nick to see if he was okay with me putting together a custom install of MUSHclient that included a bunch of scripts. We exchanged a few emails and he got interested in the project itself.
Overall, it was a great collaboration, many improvements were made both to MUSHclient itself (the miniwindows, hotspots, etc) and Aardwolf as a result of that work. Nick was awesome to work with, btw, highly recommend it if you ever have the opportunity.
Our experience since then has proved beyond a doubt there is definitely a demand for a game-specific client preconfigured where everything just works. MUSHclient is still a general client and still has that “tech” feel to it – as with any MUD client, you need to be somewhat comfortable technically to really get the most out of it. But even with what is there we’ve heard from many people who wouldn’t have played the MUD at all if not for the client.
We’ve seen a trend over the last few years where lots of MUDs have aded custom clients and after our experience with MUSHclient I’m starting to really understand the value of that.
MH: How do you think Aardwolf will change in the next five years? Ten?
Lasher: This one is hard to say. If you’d have asked me five years ago I wouldn’t have a good answer either. Short term, we have a project under way to built out 28 “subclasses” and add unique abilities to them. Most of these abilities are things that really change the balance or dynamics of the game so they take a long time to test and get just right, that is going to be out there for a while. I’d also like to have that forum integration completed eventually.
Thinking strategically/longer term, I do think we’ll end up with some kind of custom client. I’m torn between using Java or something else web-based and creating a more robust client that would more than likely require an install and have to run on Windows or a Windows emulator on other environments.
I do think we have to consider at least some kind of graphics at some point. Our map would lend itself very well to an overhead view and it would make the game so much more accessible. I’d never do that at the expense of being able to play the game via a traditional telnet based client, but it can both, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There’s varied opinions on this on MUD boards. One argument says that people who really care about graphical games are already playing graphical games and those that don’t care, well, just don’t care.
I think there’s a middle ground where a certain amount of graphics will be enough to make the game accessible to a group of new players. Not the group who buy a new Gforce Ultra-Mega-Turbo-18 card three times a year to get 2.3 more FPS out of Call of Duty, but they’re at the other extreme end of the scale. There’s a lot of room in the middle.
Beyond that, it will be just doing what we’ve always done – reading ideas, designing quests and listening. I have lists of ideas that could easily consume several years to complete and I could lay out what I think we’ll implement in 2009. If past years are anything to go by (and there’s no reason to think they’re not), at least 50 percent of the things that will get added to Aardwolf this year aren’t even ideas yet.
I’ve always felt that if we could make potential players really try the game for a few hours then enough of them would stick around that we could grow again. Most players now find us by word of mouth or from MUD sites (TMS and TMC). Other than by asking people to vote for us, we’ve never been big self promoters on other sites and probably need to fix that. People will often ask me “When are we going to advertise more?” and I usually respond with “We will only get one chance to get folks to stick around, we’re not ready yet.” But really I don’t think I’ll ever consider it “ready” so maybe it is just time...
Thanks to Lasher for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to visit Aardwolf when you get a chance!
My AGC talk on Retention and Systems Math
1 hour ago