Interview with a Legend: Dr. Richard A. Bartle on VWTV

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What makes someone a legend in their field?  Producing the origins of a species of thought would be one fine definition, and this man is responsible for our new way of talking.  He is  best known for being the co-creator of MUD1 (the first MUD) and the author of the seminal Designing Virtual Worlds. He is one of the pioneers of the massively multi-player online game industry, and a huge part of virtual world history.  For insight and answers into this medium, we were lucky enough to reach him for an interview.  Read, enjoy, and take notes; I have a feeling you will want to!

In any of your early MUD days, did anyone try to create a show or put on entertainment that other people could participate in — a sort of appointment MUD?

Sort of.  We had what we called “spectaculars”, pronounced “spec-TACK-er-ler” to mimic the Welsh accent of the player who proposed them. A spectacular (or “speckie”) was an extravaganza in which player characters fought to the death, last-man-standing style, and as we had permadeath, these were quite intense at times!  Later we had what we called “sorc wars”, in which 0-level characters were raised to the level of sorcerer so everyone participating could do so on an even playing field and not worry if their characters were killed off.

These were events that had gameplay purpose, but we also had events that weren’t to do with gameplay.  For example, we had quizzes (typically game-related). We also had MUD weddings, in which characters would marry each other in-game.  These were all organised by the players; I did used to officiate at weddings, but only when asked – they weren’t formal events and the game world didn’t “know” the characters had been married (ie. there was no record of marital status stored on their characters).

Did anyone ever record their in dungeon text because an exchange was particularly edifying or something like this?

Yes, it happened all the time.  The problem is, though, when you participate in a text-based event, reading the transcript is completely different.  The words are dead on the page.  At the time, though, they can be very intense.  It’s like the difference between reading a script and watching a film or a stage play.  I should mention that if you wanted to record your play digitally, you couldn’t go back and do so after what you wanted to do had happened: you had to start recording beforehand.  However, as we started with people playing on Teletypes, which entailed printing the game’s output on paper anyway, this made it easy to have physical copies – you got them whether you wanted them or not!

Which do you think comes first – the desire to engage more people than yourself or the tools with which to do this?

In my case, the desire came before the tools.  We had no tools: we had to make our own.  We weren’t making hammers then thinking what we could use them to hammer, we were making objects that we needed hammers to help us make.  I guess you could argue that a computer is a tool and we wouldn’t have made MUD without a computer, but even that’s not fully correct.  I was making worlds well before I ever used a computer; computers just made it possible to run a world’s physics automatically.

Were there any other tools you wished for the public to have readily available within the MUD dimension that hindered growth or activity, or were people happily adapting to that which they now could do? Or which they couldn’t do before – the concept of let’s walk before we run?

We didn’t really want for tools, we wanted for resources.  We didn’t have enough CPU power, we didn’t have enough memory, we didn’t have enough bandwidth, we didn’t have enough windows when games were allowed to be played.  We knew what we wanted to make, but we were short of the things we needed to make it out of.  It’s hard to make a castle when you only have enough stone for a guardhouse.

What element(s) have avatars given/added to formerly text-based platforms? Or in other words, has the use of a digital “other” helped people relate more easily or less?  And of course why or why not?

Characters in textual worlds are digital “others,” of course.  Graphics bring some good things and some bad things.  Pro-graphics: Immediate impact. You can see a picture and immediately parse it, you don’t have to do anything, it just happens; with text, you have to read it.

Pro-text: You can have non-Euclidean spaces.  In text, I can stand in my own mouth and look at my reflection in the mirror.  I can have a world of multiple dimensions.  In graphic, it’s Euclidean, 3-dimensions only.

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You can have non-visual senses.  A rose can have a smell in a textual world.  You can have more detail and flexibility.  I can have hundreds of commands at varying levels of abstraction and add others any time I like.  I can add new monsters in under a minute.  In graphical worlds, someone has to animate those monsters and create icons to click on for the commands, which if you displayed all of them would fill the screen.

Text talks to the mind.  Graphics talk to the senses.  The pictures you create in your mind are unique to you.  That scary dragon is scary to you because in your imagination you made it look scary to you.  With graphics, you have to go with someone else’s idea of what makes a dragon look scary.   Text can be used as free-form communication.  If graphics are so superior to text, why am I writing this down and not performing it?  How could I say it verbally in a virtual world without bringing in the real world in the form of my voice?

Text has huge advantages over graphics.  None of that matters, though, because the one advantage graphics does have trumps all the ones that text has.  Textual worlds are like silent movies.  Graphical worlds are like talkies.  They’re the same thing, just with different interfaces.

When virtual worlds began using avatars, were you surprised at the kind of things people created? And did you have any expectation that these environments would be used for a different kind of entertainment – one that might encounter and need greater production value than jump in, sit down, and start texting?

I wasn’t surprised with what people created.  People could create characters in textual worlds through their descriptions, so I’d seen what kind of ideas they had.  Apart from the preponderance of tall, thin, dark strangers with an unmistakable aura of power (men) and the green-eyed, vivacious redhead with freckles round her cute, turned-up nose (women), we got lots of variety.  In graphical worlds, the graphics reduced the variety somewhat, but paradoxically this could help.  If you have to combine a fixed number of components to get yourself a look, that’s sometimes easier than having to imagine a look from the infinite possibilities that words give you.  It depends on the individual.

We did expect that these environments would have different uses, because there were textual worlds with different uses.  Second Life was basically the same kind of animal as LambdaMOO, except with graphics rather than text.  The same things happened in it that happened in LambdaMOO.  The biggest difference was in its commercialisation, which we didn’t see in LambdaMOO.

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Do you think virtual world environments are a legitimate place for the co-opting of more traditional forms of entertainment?

Yes.  Why wouldn’t they be?

Many of the shows which are created in VWTV are often an offshoot of what we already participate in — with some stunning exceptions, such as the Giant Snail Races.  Do you think people are limited by their actual experiences, or why is it do you think that folks with the ability to create “anything” often chose what is familiar?

They choose what is familiar because they have to sell it.  Few people are going to buy something that they have no idea what it is.  It’s not that the creators don’t have the ideas; it’s that the audience has to learn the vocabulary of the medium before they can understand those ideas.  I expect shows will mainly develop in an evolutionary fashion, with the occasional revolutionary one that’s accessible enough to jump ahead and succeed.

What might you think is needed for a greater adoption and widespread use of virtual worlds and these kinds of environments for media type platforms?

The same old problem: more resources.  More CPU, more memory, more bandwidth.  Also, as it’s graphics, better tools.  Otherwise, it’s just too expensive for most people to make them.  Once it gets as easy to create an engaging experience in a virtual worlds do as it is to make a YouTube video to do the same, they’ll really take off.

How do you think things have changed with virtual worlds?

The real world has improved because of them.

What are your thoughts on new interfaces like the Oculus Rift?  And what will they do to and for virtual worlds?

They’re just another step on the long road to text. See: http://mud.co.uk/richard/vrfuture.htm.  Virtual reality is not the same thing as virtual worlds. VR is an interface; VWs are a concept.

If you could invent an avatar-based show, what would it be about?  Or can you tell us about what you might want to have in it?

As with every game design project, the first thing I’d want to know is who is your audience?  If I don’t know whom I’m designing for, I’m not going to give them what they want.  If it’s designing just for me, hmm, well I want more designers — so I guess I’d do it like a game jam (or, if you prefer, a cookery competition).  Here’s the subject: you have X many hours to make one.  Go to it!

Anything more you wish to add, sir?  Free space!

Not much.  I’m just generally frustrated that we haven’t seen virtual worlds reach anywhere near their full potential yet.  I expected us all to have our own, personal virtual worlds by now, but that’s still a long way off.  I don’t want to seem impatient, but I’m not going to live forever, and I would like to see some new developments rather than the same old retreads, especially when it comes to games and play.

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