Help Systems Suck
Most online text-based role playing games (ORPGs, muds, mu*s, and so forth) have Help Systems that are awful. I am not talking about just the DIKU-based games, which stand out as prime examples, but also games using other code bases such as the various LPs, MUSHes, and MUXes. We all know that Help Systems (and game handbooks) are universally poorly written, lacking in information, or even contain invalid information. I think it is time for us in the mudding world to step up and do better.
A quick note on terminology: I use administrator to represent the owner, imp, wizard, god, builder, administrator, angel, coder, or other person who is in charge of the game and in particular the Help System. Quite often this is the head administrator since no one else is interested.
Rusty Angel, I wonder is they need help?
So what is so awful about the Help Systems? I am going to give some examples and explanations of the seven major problems I routinely run across:
Problem 1: Poorly Designed
Help Systems are typically designed in one of two approaches: hierarchical or shotgun. Individually, both designs have some nice features and offer advantages to players of different knowledge levels. The format for ORPG Help Systems would be greatly enhanced if the owners used a combination of both Help System approaches instead of relying on just one or the other.
A hierarchical Help System is one in which the player is given a set of keywords, typically 20 or so, that cover the main categories of documentation when they type "help" or "@help". The player then selects one of these keywords ("help keyword") to get the documentation for that category. Often times this category contains a further listing of keywords which break down into smaller chunks of documentation. This continues until the player has run out of sub-topics or found the information they are looking for. (This should not to be confused with those Help Systems that do give you a general overview when you type "help", but then the rest of the system is actually the shotgun approach.)
Of course, players can jump ahead and guess at the keywords, but they will not always find the information they are looking for. Often these keywords are not obvious. Instead of "pkill" or "rules" you will find obscure keywords such as "rules_about_pkill" or "rules8". It is highly unlikely that anyone will guess these keywords.
The advantage of this type of Help System is great if you have a new player (one who has never played on an ORPG before) who does not yet know the terms or keywords that you would be typically be using. In addition, the references to other sources of related information (via "see also…" text) can be of assistance to any player, long-term or new.
This type of system can be quite frustrating to use if you have no idea about how the information is organized and can only guess at a reasonable keyword. If you already know the detail you are seeking, it may be very difficult to guess which branch of the tree to go down. Or, in other words, you have to use the hierarchy.
It is even worse when whole categories are not kept up to date, or you are told "no help available" when you select a keyword from the listing the game has provided you.
The other standard format is what I refer to as the shotgun approach. If you imagine each definition or documentation written on an index card and then scattered together in a shoe box, you have the Help System. Sometimes you get suggestions for further helps (related keywords) to view, but not always.
This system is extremely difficult on new players who have no idea what the keywords would be. Ask most five-year olds what a "neuron" is, and they will have no clue. Ask them what a "brain" is and they typically have the idea that it is in their head and helps them think. If the words to get at the help documentation are jargon used within the mudding world, new players may never find the help they are looking for.
Problem 2: Very Few Topics
One would think that many administrators would love to write a ton about their game and how it works. Many have spent hours and given up many real-life opportunities in order to get the code together, build cohesive areas, rationalize the equipment in the world, add classes and races and skills and spells and socials, and so forth. Why is it that they omit to write the helps for all those nifty features?
Writing a help for "rules" or "policy" or "laws" seems to me the first thing a game administrator should do before the game is open to the public. People will need to know that information. This is especially true when you tell them "ignorance is not an excuse" or "you are required to follow the rules". Without the help to give them the rules, ignorance is not an excuse so much as a state the administrator has forced upon the poor player. I must admit that this is a personal pet peeve of mine. If you tell me I need to follow the rules or else, and then do not give me the rules or an obvious way to find the rules, I am not too likely to have a good attitude about your game or the administrators who are trying to enforce these invisible rules.
Even the most basic helps are missing from too many games. What happens when I die ("help death" - no help, "help corpse" - no help, "help me" - no help)? What does "PTL" mean in my score? How many levels are there? Why does it keep saying I am hungry and what should I do? What is the difference between trains and practices? What should I know about stats, abilities, skills, and spells?
Problem 3: Often Not Updated From Original Code
This is one that I generally find quite amusing. It is a sign of really poor maintenance, an administrator who does not care, or a game that went up a week ago. You often find that when you type "help rules" or some other quite obvious keyword that instead of the game being named as Mud XYZ in the documents it is named as ABC Mud. You would think the owners would have the sense to do a global find and replace on all instances of other ORPG names before opening their doors!
This is especially bad when the opening screen that shows up when you login does not have the proper ORPG name. How many times must we hear a new player globally ask "Hey, I was looking for Mud XYZ and my friend swore this was the right address but the opening screen said it was ABC Mud… which game IS this really?"
Another I see quite often is a placeholder help that the code base distributors intended to be replaced ("put your title screen here"). Perhaps the programmers did not include information about updating that particular help in the README file, but certainly the first time you have logged onto the game and seen that, you would hope to change it. (For those of you curious, check out about 70% of the SMAUG-based games out there now. You will see what I mean!)
Problem 4: Few Keywords For Each Topic
This is not as much of an issue when the game has an excellent parser, but even then it can be a problem. Is the help I am looking for going to be "pk" or "pkill" or "playerkilling" or "player_killing?" Is it "help death" or "help dying"? Even when the code for the help command will match partial words, "death" will not bring up "dying" unless the administrator has added both as keywords to the documentation.
Adding multiple keywords can be such a trivial addition to the help files and such an enormous difference to players. I am not talking about going to extremes; certainly "help Joe killed me" is not rationale, but having the help available via a multiple of similar words would be great.
An additional reason for having multiple keywords is that different games will refer to the same type of help documentation or commands using completely different words. Why not have typing "help chat" work just the same as "help gossip" does? Or "help rules", "help policy", and "help laws" be the same help.
Problem 5: Parsing
For the games without even mediocre parsing built-in, finding help documentation can be a nightmare. Help "pk" will not necessarily bring up information that is labeled with just the keyword "pkill". Frustrating! It is even worse when the user asks for "help rule" and the information is under "help rules" and the function in the code is dumb enough not to return the rules documentation.
Although this can be thought of as partly a subdivision of the earlier problem with lack of keywords, the addition of an "s" should not be enough to make the help documentation hidden from the player. Perhaps it is too much trouble to add parsing for all commands or names, but it can be built into the help code to handle user requests in a more elegant manner.
Problem 6: The Evil One Topic
Some Help Systems will return one topic when given a keyword, even if more than one topic could be found if the function looked for it. It makes it difficult to get helps that are further down in the alphabetical list, or that have a matching word embedded at the beginning. For example, typing "help magic" may result in the information about magic darts but not magic missile, magic refresh, magic demon, and so forth. Getting help on many skills or spells can be difficult when they all begin with the same start.
Even if the administrators have been patient enough to fill out helps on all spells and skills, rules and other topics, players will not know about it if they cannot get to them.
I should make mention of Help Systems at the opposite extreme of what I just described. These systems should be applauded for the step in the right direction. When you have asked for help on a word, and that word is listed as a keyword in multiple files, you are given a list of possible help files and their hierarchy and can choose which file to view. Sometimes, the next thing you type if it is a number matching that list, you are shown that help file. Other times you are shown the actual help file names so you can view them directly.
Problem 7: Poor Spelling
Why is it that so many administrators do not seem to have access to a spell-checker? Yes, you cannot always write the documentation in a word processing program that has a spell-checker, but it seems on some games that every fourth word has a typo or is completely misspelled. Extremely annoying in game play, I tend to find it just as painful to read help files that are filled with misspellings.
I find it interesting that many administrators will say "it is my game and I do not care about the players!" If that were really the case, why in the world would you be running a publicly available game? Turn it into a private game and be done with it. I think we can safely assume that if you are running an ORPG you have an interest in the players and how they like the game and what frustrates them about it.
Most players will turn to the help system as a "last resort". This is fairly universal with games, other programs, VCR directions, and so forth. People do not like using help files if they can help it. However, if there is nobody online to ask, or if no one knows the answer to the question, the player will be forced to use the help documentation. People would rather try things than look for an answer. When they get to that point, and then are frustrated with finding the information, they sometimes become abusive or quit the game or just seethe until they can chat globally about how awful the system is.
Why are Help Systems So Bad?
The first thing many new game owners do is add a new class, some new spells, or new socials. These are often easy things to add to the system. For some reason they forget to add in help files. They will announce it on the message of the day (MOTD) or on game boards or on the mailing list for players. They will even post it on Usenet ("13 more classes to choose from! 34 races! Socials galore! Come play NOW!").
Then, the programmers get involved and enhance the game system. Builders get involved and add new areas. Nobody wants to add the help text. They often do not think about it, especially if the owners have not thought of it.
In the eagerness to put out really interesting, or fun, or unique code and game play, the help system gets overlooked. Of course this happens all the time in the "real world" and programming projects - because obviously it does. Anyone who works in that field knows how awful documentation can be.
There are numerous easy fixes and other more time-consuming ones that can enhance a game Help System. Some ORPGs even have a wizard/immortal who is solely in charge of the help files and keeping them up to date. I think this is an excellent start and can improve the quality of the game and game play enormously.
So now for a few pointers and suggestions:
Content That Should Always Be Present
The following help files and documentation should always be present on the game, hopefully with multiple keywords and obvious ways to get to the information:
- about the game owners (who are they, what are their game names)
- rules/policy/laws including specific notes on player killing, multiplaying, harassment, language, etc.
- about your character (for instance, how many levels are there)
Some games have limited logging when a person uses certain commands. For example, on many game systems a player can type "bug I just made 3 levels from killing a snail… maybe something is wrong?" and that information is logged into a file that the administrators can review at any time. The information is mostly something the players see as going wrong in an area, or a skill, or how they just gained experience.
So why not log your help requests? At first you can log both words that match and also words that do not match. Each time someone types "help keyword" you log the word "keyword". After you have a good idea of what information your players are routinely looking for and finding, or not finding, you can remove the logging on the "matched" words and only do it for the ones that there are no helps for. Occasionally you might find a keyword that you really ought to have, or a similar word to use on an already existing help file. Let your ability to track information become a way for you to fine-tune your game.
Before you say it can not be done or should not be done, we did it. I was the head imp of a game that was online in 1994-5 (until demands and pressure of the rest of my life prohibited time to be spent). We did just what I describe above and it was a great success. When a player typed "help keyword" and that word was not in the help file, we had the message display to them that it was being logged. The response was good at first, and then quite positive when they saw that the help file was actually added or amended.
OLC for Help Systems
It is common these days to hear about the online creation system (OLC) that was just added to a game, or for many game systems to come "out of the box" with a built-in OLC. These systems typically let area building, object editing, and monster creation to take place. Obviously this is built right into what even the players can do on many code base types (Mush, Mux, etc.).
So that you will not think this is some obscure idea that is not useful, we implemented such as system on my old game. Based on the ideas of the edit commands that were floating about, we created a system that let the administrators add, edit, and delete help text while logged into the game. We could also add, edit, and delete the keywords - simple to do when it only takes a few seconds to add a new keyword (now PK, PKILL, PLAYERKILL, PLAYERKILLING, PLAYERKILLER, PKILLER, and PKILLING all get you the help you need). Finally, we added a system of keywords that were always placed at the end of the help file. These "see also" keywords were added to make the help system more robust and to help players find the information they wanted.
Replication of the online Help Systems is sometimes useful. Certainly, it can be more visually appealing to use HTML to display your help. A lot of game websites have minimal content right now, so adding the important files would help flesh them out.
Assign a Help God
Have one of your administrators/wizards be in charge of keeping the help up to date. Providing them with easy tools to do this is always good if you want them to actually do it. Pick someone with a good attention to detail and an actual interest in seeing them improved. Someone who thinks they are fine already is not going to improve much!
I hope that I have convinced you that the current state of most help files is awful as well as given reasons why that is the case. There are numerous ways to improve a Help System, from coding to simple text additions and updates. Perhaps many people use help files as a last resort because they know just how awful most of them are. Would not it be fabulous to surprise someone and actually present them with just the help they were looking for?
October 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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