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Dangerous Realism
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Dangerous Realism

by Scatter ///\oo/\\\

Many of today's muds seem to be striving for realism. Mud advertisements like to mention a 'realistic combat system', 'realistic trade', 'realistic medieval theme' or even 'realistic magic system'. However realism is not always a good thing - sometimes it can be positively dangerous as far as enjoyment of the game is concerned.

What kind of realism?

When someone talks about realism with respect to a mud they usually mean one of two kinds of realism. The first kind is true to the dictionary definition, meaning 'like the real world'. If something in a mud is realistic in this sense then it works exactly the same way you'd expect it to work in the real world.

The other kind of realism is probably better called 'believability'. In this sense, realism means that the mud world is consistant and plausable - that you can easily believe it to be a true place, somewhere else.

This distinction is not always realised and as a result people end up striving for the latter by chasing the former. The consequence is that the mud world ends up a jarring combination of real world detail and fantasy or sci-fi setting.

Chasing detail

One common problem that happens as muds are made more 'realistic' is that the implementors start chasing detail. This tends to lead to muds where the game becomes more and more cluttered with bits and pieces from the real world, which often don't really add any value to the game.

Spiders!

Deadly realism at its best.

For example, take food and drink. A believable world with believable living creatures almost always needs to have food and drink, and a way for people to eat and drink it. Congregating in a pub is a lot more fun if you can eat, drink and get merry. Some muds go further, though, and require people to eat and drink or suffer consequences like reduced stats, reduced healing rates, or even eventual death. This, they argue, makes the game more realistic.

Well, it makes life in the game more like life in the real world, granted. However, many people find this makes the game less fun. It's a level of detail that doesn't add to enjoyment of the game, but rather detracts from it - it makes a player do more work for no gain. It also encourages people to treat the mud as a game to play rather than a world in which to roleplay by effectively rewarding those who set up triggers. The eat/drink requirement often leads to triggers that watch for 'You are hungry' or 'You are thirsty' and send commands like 'cast create food; eat food' or 'get bottle from backpack; open bottle; drink bottle; close bottle; put bottle in backpack' - I've seen variations of both of these on several muds.

Somewhere a line has to be drawn as to how much 'realistic' detail is put into the game. This line is always arbitrary and every mud draws it in a different place. At one end of the scale is the mud that requires you to head to the toilet after drinking too much (or risk wetting yourself and having your armour rust), at the other is one that doesn't care if you never eat or drink.

It's not a straight line though. It's a curve that can rapidly become a slippery slope of detail down which a mud can slide - each addition of a detail leading to comments that another related detail ought to be added as well.

Another danger of making things realistic is that they become too complicated to be fun. A realistic trade and economics system is worthless if there are too many aspects to take in and analyse before you can do any trading. The more complicated something is to learn, the fewer people will bother to learn it - after all they are playing, aiming for enjoyment rather than study. There are exceptions of course, who love to master the intractible, but these are usually a small minority.

Enjoyable realism

The crux of the problem with realism is that it tends to clash with enjoyment. Adding features with the intent of adding realism needs to be done with care to make sure enjoyment of the game is not reduced - especially important when adding to a mud with an existing player-base. At best a new feature should always increase the fun of playing, at worst the ideal is not to make it less fun. Almost always increased realism means increased work for the players, so it is important to make sure that there is an increased payoff as well.

Adding dexterity penalties to large weapons is realistic, but is it going to seriously penalise existing players who decided their stats before this change came along? Adding sizes to doors is realistic, but is it going to unfairly keep certain races out of certain places and make those races less fun to play? Adding a new combat system with body-part based hits is more realistic, but is it going to mean players trapped in the forest with their legs chopped off and no way to get help, or having their arms chopped off causing them to lose all the items they can no longer carry?

In some cases the dilemma becomes whether the added realism going to attract enough new players to outweigh the existing ones who've left in disgust. The bigger the new feature, the higher the risk becomes.

Believe in the world

A lot of the time these problems can be avoided by tackling the second form of realism - believability. No one will expect a mud to model everything, down to the tiniest detail. Always it is understood that past a certain point, detail must be assumed rather than implemented. So players will often forgive lapses in real-world realism providing the game world is believable.

For example, magic as represented in most muds is impossible in the real world, yet how many players complain that having magic is unrealistic? None - or only a few being deliberately obtuse anyway. The key is that magic can be believable in a mud world, despite being totally implausible in real life.

Dangers like those outlined above are usually a result of trying to put too much of the real world into a mud. Features that improve the believability of the world are likely to attract more new players and make existing players happier. Usually they expand the things that can be done in the game rather than imposing restrictions them.

So why not make the world immersive and believable - and let the realism look after itself?