Guest Interview: Lusternia, MUDs, and the evolution of MMOs

This guest interview was commissioned through Massively Overpowered’s 2015 Kickstarter campaign by donor Brett Richards, who interviewed Lusternia Producer Robb French in lieu of a Soapbox. Any opinions here represent the views of our guest interviewer and his interviewee, not necessarily Massively OP itself. Enjoy!

MUDs like Lusternia (official site) get little love in the MMO community but are still wildly popular among a select group of players as one of the last bastions of text-based gaming. I credit Lusternia for helping me survive and overcome quite a dark period of depression and self-doubt in my younger days. I believe that the immersive world and wonderful players I’ve met there provided me the freedom to experiment with and eventually express parts of my identity with an online persona that I couldn’t otherwise, not to mention improved my social and computer skills to no end. The self-awareness I developed through play has helped me become a healthier and more complete person in real life – or at least I hope so!

That’s why I’ve chosen to interview Lusternia Producer Robb French for my donated piece here on MOP. Let me slip into my alter ego, Elryn, to have a chat with Estarra, the Creatrix of the Multiverse known as Lusternia.

Elryn: What is Lusternia and your role in its development?

Estarra: Lusternia is a text based MMO, commonly known as a MUD, and is under the umbrella of Iron Realms Entertainment, which has developed five text based games. I’m the Producer of Lusternia and was the sole designer from its inception. The setting is mostly in the traditional high fantasy genre, though I drew a lot of inspiration from a wide variety of sources, from Tolkien to Lovecraft to my own many years playing pen and pencil Dungeons & Dragons. The original storyline revolves around an ancient, alien evil having devastated a thriving empire and corrupted much of the land. Players enter the game in the aftermath of this cataclysm. I’m very proud of the positive feedback the background stories still generate. The stories can be found on the website for those who are interested.

Elryn: Could you describe MUDs for any MOP readers who may not be familiar with text-based games, a somewhat niche subset of persistent world/MMO games?

Estarra: MUDs are the oldest of all MMOs and can be traced back to the ’80s. They are entirely text-based and are probably considered the most retro form of multi-user gaming still in operation. Their heyday was in the ’90s when some dialup providers, like America Online, offered MUDs in their packages for gamers. As the internet evolved, MUDs spun off on their own and spawned hundreds of text games by hobbyists using stock code. After the advent of graphical MMOs, only the most successful MUDs thrive now, still appealing to an eclectic group of players who prefer retro gaming or just enjoy text over graphics or are visually impaired and can’t participate in graphic games. They also still attract those who enjoy scripting or coding to develop combat systems. I should note that text combat can be much more intense and complex than what is found in graphic games.

Faeling 3_0Elryn: If I remember correctly, you launched the game over a decade ago in 2004. Have player expectations and demographics changed dramatically over that time?

Estarra: The demographics probably skew older than it did 10 years ago, simply because a lot of the original players that have stuck around have simply aged. If they began playing as a teenager or in their early 20s, those players are now in their 30s. Also, MUDs appeal to retro gamers who tend to be older. Of course, there still are teenagers who stumble upon us and never leave because they find the gameplay and social interaction to be unique and engaging. As for player expectations, I think that generally has stayed the same. Players have come to expect interesting storylines and events that we run every year, political alliances and conflict which are of their own making, and continued development of the skills system, though the specifics may change from year to year.

Elryn: What was it that brought you into text gaming as a player?

Estarra: During the mid-’90s,I was looking for a game to play on the internet and stumbled across MUDs. I immediately recognized the potential but was constantly disappointed as I bounced from one small MUD to another, not realizing these were hobby games using stock code. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if it’s done right, but these had very few players and nothing was really customized so they all felt the same — I had enough of newbie areas literally called mob factories!

I decided to bite the bullet and play one of the commercial MUDs, curious on what the difference was between one of the big names and the smaller games I was experimenting with. I found the commercial games were extraordinarily more developed, populated, and intense than what I had experienced with the small names. I attribute this to the fact that commercial games have more resources for development, more incentive to please the playerbase and generally more commitment over the long term as MUDs that are treated as a hobby often die when the founder loses interest whereas commercial games are better equipped to pass the torch if that happens.

Again, I’m generalizing very broadly as I know there are hobby MUDs that are very popular and have been around forever and commercial games that have issues. Anyway, once you get into an MMO and are drawn into the social aspect, which I think MUDs excel in over graphic games, it becomes more than just a gaming addiction but an important aspect of your life. Face it, any RPG allows for the ultimate fantasy of shapeshifting, where you can become anyone, exploring and expressing aspects of yourself that you may not realize hide beneath your skin.

Elryn: A number of intriguingly subversive themes appear throughout Lusternia’s world design and cultures: genderbending skills and matriarchal societies; divinity as an expression of mortalkind; transhumanism and purposefully altered evolution; and the interaction between the freedoms of civil society and government authority, to name just a few. Do you feel that challenging the preconceived ideas and values of a player is an important aspect of game design, or is this simply a result of interesting storytelling?

Estarra: Honestly, nothing was really implemented specifically to challenge the preconceived ideas and values of players. I always tell our volunteers that everything starts with a story when designing areas or quests or whatever. Look, I would just say that I simply don’t shy away from controversial themes and indeed try to push our storylines to sometimes unexpected places. In any event, I suppose if you find some of these storylines to be subversive or challenging, that probably tells you more about me than anything else. One thing you mentioned, however, genderbending, that was the result of player requests to change gender, and I thought how cool would it be not just to have a way to swap genders once but to have an artifact that allows you to genderbend whenever you want.

lusternia

 

Elryn: The business model underpinning Lusternia since launch has always been freemium, where access to the game is free and unlimited but there are significant extras and enhancements available to purchase through an item store or by trading in-game currency on a player exchange market. Do you have any opinions on why this model is becoming more widely accepted (and presumably successful) in the MMO industry?

Estarra: Iron Realms Entertainment actually pioneered this revenue model in the late ’90s with its flagship MUD, Achaea. Before then, commercial games generated revenue by charging hourly rates to play. Now, you see “pay for perks” used everywhere. I prefer this model as it allows players to play for free as long as they want and only purchase in-game when they can afford it or when they are sure this is actually a game they feel enough commitment to make a purchase. Certainly, there are many players who have never made any purchases who still are quite competitive — it just takes awhile. Matt Mihaly, the founder and CEO of Iron Realms, often points out that it is a choice between time and money. In other words, the player either spends the time to level up and increase skills or decides that purchasing credits to speed up the process is a better option. My own opinion is that this is superior simply because community is important and we want players to stay in the game whether they can afford to or not. Of course, we are a commercial game and hope that at some point a player will make a purchase, but that player contributes to the game just by playing the game.

Elryn: One of my all-time favourite systems in Lusternia is Aetherspace, where player-designed magical spacefaring vessels are operated by small cooperative crews to defeat both PvE challenges and engage in competitive PvP objectives. However, this type of design seems counter to most current MMO trends: It has rigid group roles, isn’t solo or casual play oriented, and to be successful requires significant time or money investment. While it might have helped me to finally realise my Star Trek bridge gameplay dreams, do you think these kinds of systems have much of a future in modern gaming?

Estarra: Aetherships were inspired by an old pen and paper RPG called Spelljammer, which I don’t even think exists anymore. I wanted to do a unique spin on a ship system, and thus came up with ships that have modules for different duties, like the captain’s chair for piloting, gun turrets for bashing, an empath grid for healing the ship, etc. Each module needs one player to operate so you really do need a crew to have a fully functioning aethership. I love that the design encourages cooperative grouping, but aetherships are a niche subsystem within the game — I don’t believe they could stand on their own as most players want to solo at some point. That said, they are very popular in Lusternia and I often hear players asking on channels for crewmembers to go aether hunting. Again, I really don’t imagine this would be very sustainable  as a main game feature, but it works, for us at least, as a secondary feature. I’m not sure what other games may have similar cooperative designs, but I think we’ve proven that it can work in conjunction with traditional individual gameplay.

Lucidian 3_0Elryn: Most text-based persistent world games tend to have much more intricate social and player political systems than their graphical descendants. Player-appointed nation leaders and governments, trade cartels, militias, family dynasties and religious orders are some of the most obvious examples. Do you think these more community-oriented features could work well in larger graphical MMOs if translated correctly?

Estarra: I’m not sure why you don’t see more advanced community-oriented organizations in graphic MMOs. Certainly, guilds and clans are popular, so it wouldn’t be a great leap to extend that to more complex organizations like government factions, political parties, family dynasties or religious assemblies. Humans are social beings and non-combat models like Second Life prove that some amazing social groupings occur if players are left on their own. My guess is that graphic MMO developers are so focused on combat, quests, and world-building that it just isn’t a priority.

Elryn: Finally, what do you think is the most promising aspect of the virtual world genre that you hope to see continuing over the next few years?

Estarra: Text games can more easily experiment with innovative game design than their graphic counterparts, and one thing we did in Lusternia that I haven’t seen developed as much in other games is non-violent combat or what we call influence battles. We devoted an entire skillset to being able to beg from mobs or seduce them or make them paranoid, etc. This opens up whole new possibilities for quest design as well as roleplaying. I think if other virtual worlds catch on that RP isn’t just about a new hairstyle but how a character interacts with the game world, roleplay could start to getting the attention that I think has been lacking in many virtual worlds. At least that’s my hope!

Elryn: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me!

Estarra: Thank you!

Interviewer Brett “Elryn” Richards began playing Lusternia in university and still considers it his favourite game of all time. We’d like to thank him for supporting Massively Overpowered!
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36 Comments on "Guest Interview: Lusternia, MUDs, and the evolution of MMOs"

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Oleg Chebeneev
Guest
Oleg Chebeneev

Metadirective Discworld. You can find things to do for thousands of hours without killing a thing

Ceder
Guest
Ceder

Some of my fondest gaming memories were playing on a few muds. Sadly 2 had admin that would cheat another up and shut down one with no warning to the players.  And the third, which still exists today and the dirtiest of them all, has a ridiculous encouraging people to pay upwards of 300 bucks for boosted characters or even monsters as characters.

paragonlostinspace
Guest
paragonlostinspace

Mark Jacobs paragonlostinspace GothicHamster       Yeah Overhead/Free Flag accounts always had that love hate thing going for them. You could play a lot more but you couldn’t do certain things that might imbede those who paid hourly fees. I recall with the Gemstone III players that they couldn’t attend the grand auctions and things like that.

EBreezy
Guest
EBreezy

Metadirective You can try topmudsites.com or mudconnect.com and browse around.  My personal favs are as follows.  The Imms are super active and add things to the game on a regular basis.

http://www.EmpireMUD.net has tons of exploration and building.  You basically join and existing empire,or build your own. There tons of buildings, sea and land vehicles and items to craft. It’s tile based. So, each tile can have trees, sand, dirt. You can gather sticks, stones, chop trees, or whatever makes sense for that particular tile. 

Dartmud.com –  My old favorite MUD. It’s RP only, though. But you can be a crafter only or mix it up with some combat skills.  Oh, there’s perma-death, but it’s pretty easy to avoid. Crafting is awesome, but a bit of a grind.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

paragonlostinspace Mark Jacobs GothicHamster Yeah, my handle was Gunsmoke. For many months me and another player (Stiletto) were at the top of the leader boards. I had to dial it back though since GEnie/Kesmai didn’t want internal accounts to be at the top. :)

Loved that game, I shudder to think what my bills would have been if I wasn’t a developer there.

paragonlostinspace
Guest
paragonlostinspace

Mark Jacobs paragonlostinspace GothicHamster  After listening to the podcasts last night and you talking about Air Warrior, it really made me miss those days. :) Even if I don’t miss the hourly charges at all. lol. I was more focused on Mech Warrior (MPBT3025) over Air Warrior and only dabbled off and on with AW. I love that you were cranking it up on AW btw.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

paragonlostinspace GothicHamster Mark Jacobs Yep, GEnie was so much fun and so far ahead of its time, as was CompuServe.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

Zaeja Mark Jacobs I played around some of them (I like the LPMud code base) but I really didn’t spend a lot of time on MUDs other than my own and Richard’s Bartles’ MUD for a year. There were a lot of interesting ones out that at the height of their popularity.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

EBreezy Mark Jacobs Yep. Aradath was my first MUD (PC server under QNX) and then it transformed in Dragon’s Gate on GEnie, AOL, and the Internet. I was inspired to write Aradath out of being pissed at local company that was running “The Scepter of Goth”. TL;DR they said they needed to shut down their local version of Scepter (to use on a nation-wide system called ProtoCall they were building) and all of us who had paid a lot of money per hour to play that game were out of luck. So, I bought a copy of QNX, taught myself C, designed and coded a better game, and then moved to a monthly subscription. Within a year, the other local sites were shut down and people were playing on my system (Gamer’s World). :)

So, unlike the words of Master Yoda, anger doesn’t always lead to the dark side.

breetoplay
Guest
breetoplay

Giggilybits Graphical MUD, I think is how they call them? I had some friends who played the many Gemstones… I think the cash shop from those games 20 years ago would blow people’s minds in 2016. In the ’90s, no one flinched really. :D Different world today.

Metadirective
Guest
Metadirective

I’d like to try a MUD, 
is there one which is not based on the vertical progression postulate? (grinding Health Points)
One not based on the Hero’s journey? (I don’t want to be another hero more into exploring/settling/building/socializing…)

Oleg Chebeneev
Guest
Oleg Chebeneev

While Im not playing Lusternia regularly, I did jump in there from time to time on my ninjakari (this monk guild has long history, list of rules, player run invitation and progression rituals. really cool). Its my favourite MUD of IRE games and in Top3 best muds Ive played overal. I particularly like how there are hundreds of challenging quests that make you think and structure of the world with different planes, underground land and awesome unique cities including my favourite Mandragora. But I never been a fan of complex combat with tons of debuffs you have to cure typing commands.

MUDs are dying on PC, they will always be a mere shadow behind graphic MMOs and soon VR worlds. But there is whole market for them on tablets if someone comes out with right UI, revamps combat to be fun on touch controls. Look at gamebooks genre. It was almost dead but Tin Man company revived it on tablets creating amazing Gamebook Adventures series and many people play them. Alot of people love to read, they just dont like to memorize all those hundreds of commands and overal complexity of MUDs.

magogjack
Guest
magogjack

Their is some scary stuff hiding in some of those MUDs, <shivers> Stay on the path, I wouldn’t go past the top ten or so, just saying…

Zaeja
Guest
Zaeja

Thanks to the Massively team for helping to make this possible – and to Robb for being such a great interviewee!
Lusternia wasn’t my first MUD or MMO, but it’s definitely the one by which I measure all other games now. It’s very difficult to find other worlds that are quite as well-sculpted or have so many fun systems (both in terms of combat classes and non-combat systems), so I doubt I’ll be leaving it behind any time soon! Plus, aetherspace! :D
One thing that I do find interesting is how many great designers that I respect a lot in the MMO world have really strong MUD backgrounds, even though it might not be well known, including Raph Koster, Matt Firor, and Mark Jacobs, not to mention Richard Bartle. It would be so awesome to see a MUD-Dev convention someday, a couple of decades on, celebrating both the origins and future of online worlds along with their creators. Would I pay through the nose to see that!

Zaeja
Guest
Zaeja

Mark Jacobs I must admit I never tried Dragon’s Gate when it was around, but I would certainly love to see more original, immersive MUDs out there on the virtual world landscape. :)

Did you ever dabble in MUDs made by others (Lusternia or otherwise), as a player? I’m always curious to know what developers play in their spare time – if they can still find the magic through all the mechanics, that is.

luxundae
Guest
luxundae

Mark Jacobs Hah, excellent!   :)   Thanks for the info.  Puts me in mind of https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/09/16/how-gog-com-save-and-restore-classic-videogames/ and how quickly things change and how difficult it is to bring some of these things back to a working state today.

Cyroselle
Guest
Cyroselle

Mark Jacobs luxundae Love that description, it actually paints a picture in my mind. I’m very sorry I missed it.

Cyroselle
Guest
Cyroselle

GothicHamster Mark Jacobs Oh wow, I used to rack up some crazy bills playing MUDs over telnet with some EU people, but I think your monthlies have mine topped!

Cyroselle
Guest
Cyroselle

I used to MUD! :) Wow!!! Always makes my heart feel warm an’ fuzzy reading an article mentioning them.

paragonlostinspace
Guest
paragonlostinspace

GothicHamster Mark Jacobs Hehe! Many of us on GEnie averaged a few hundred a month with the truly crazy going up wards of 1,000.00 a month in hourly charges. I tried to always keep mine at the upper limit of $500.00 a month max. This was from playing MPBT3025, Air Warrior, Gemstone III, Hundred Years  War, even a bit of Dragon’s Gate. :) 

I used to fear invasions in MPBT3025 or grand auctions in Gemstone. Man those would eat up hourly charges.

schlag sweetleaf
Guest
schlag sweetleaf
Baemir
Guest
Baemir

Mark Jacobs luxundae Very interesting.

EDekar
Guest
EDekar

Mark Jacobs luxundae Huh, I must have missed Dragon’s Gate… but then I definitely put some hours into Darkness Falls.  Poor old derelict Zombie guild… no one liked us or joined us, but dammit we were almost effective!  ‘course, my friend Shadimer put way too many hours into Werewolf.  Crazy bugger had a lot more tolerance for bashing than I did, heh.

lorenleah
Guest
lorenleah

I never played for long in any MUDs, but I have fond memories of the MU* scene in general.  Some of my greatest fun roleplaying as a teenager took place on MUCKs and MUSHes.

EBreezy
Guest
EBreezy

Mark Jacobs   I think my brain just exploded. I didn’t know you were behind that game! (I admit, I’m bad at keeping up with companies/CEOs, etc) Anyway,  I. Loved. That. Game.  The original Darkness Falls was my first MUD and Dragon’s Gate was my very first RP MUD.  Dragons were my absolute favorite race and I still remember my favorite Benevolent Golden.  He was so wonderfully over the top. :)

There is a group of us on Facebook and a there’s a  MUD up now that’s run by old players and inspired by DGate. I’m not active in either group or game, but I do drop by sometimes.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

luxundae Mark Jacobs Actually, the 80s originally. :) It’s written in C. The code originally ran on a PC using the QNX OS which I ported (with the help/aid/Save Me Spock from Darrin Hyrup) to C on the GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) on Mark III system to AOHell and then to Linux. 

A long and  winding road indeed.

luxundae
Guest
luxundae

Mark Jacobs  Source code from 1990?  Out of curiosity, what’s it written in?

dksmyles
Guest
dksmyles

My brother and I downloaded MUD running programs on our phones and played for about 6 hours straight once. One of the best gaming moments for me. MUDS are great!

SHIFTYMH
Guest
SHIFTYMH

Can’t believe it has been almost 25 years since I first logged in to JediMUD.

Giggilybits
Guest
Giggilybits

Would these games still be considered MUDs if they had art to represent areas or monsters? Tried Gemstone and few others but had a hard time getting into them.

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

GothicHamster Mark Jacobs Thanks! I still  have source code and the rights so I’ve been tempted from time to time. Maybe after Camelot Unchained launches?

And thanks for playing it. If I do so, and you’re interested, ping me. :)

GothicHamster
Guest
GothicHamster

Mark Jacobs My old $800 a month AOL bills are the only bad memories of have of that great game!

Vanblod
Guest
Vanblod

To be honest, the name of this MUD made me think it was for a… different, text experience. Checked the website, will probly try it out :D

Mark Jacobs
Guest
Mark Jacobs

<MJ sighs> 
<MJ says> Still wondering about putting Dragon’s Gate back into operation?
<MJ shakes his head>
<MJ exits the room heading south>

Armsbend
Guest
Armsbend

I’d press a ‘LIKE’ button on this interview.

Dixa
Guest
Dixa

TorilMUD best MUD

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