Text MUDs are still popular; The Mud Connector lists over 1,600. Most are run as hobbies, but some professional MUDs pioneered a lucrative Virtual Asset Purchase business model. Matt Mihaly, CEO of MUD-runner Iron Realms Entertainment, posted a fascinating interview with a MUD player who paid $240 for a virtual cherry pie.

In boutique-scale science fiction, there's Outwar, with 75,000 active players, and Star Wars Combine, which has somehow survived since 1998 without a Lucasfilm license. The German space strategy simulation oGame has two million accounts worldwide. And Cosmic Encounter Online, though not technically an MMOG, is worth mentioning because the Cosmic Encounter boardgame is my favorite game ever, so there.

Games Like E-Mail
Perhaps the most interesting design technique we see at the small scale is the passive game. You don't immerse yourself in a passive game; you dip in sporadically, as you'd check your e-mail. Often turn- or tick-based, with asynchronous player interaction, a passive game engages you not casually, but lightly, like old-style play-by-mail games.

" Kingdom of Loathing is a simple browser-based fantasy adventure in which players spend turns (mouse clicks) to fight monsters and fulfill quests. The difference is in the tone - the art is ridiculously simple stick figures; monsters and items are chock full of pop culture references; and terrible puns abound. (There's a Fallen-Arch Devil, and the Level 9 quest takes place in the Orc Chasm.) Players have created over one million characters.

" Similarly, players of the bloodthirsty humans vs. zombies game Urban Dead have created over half a million characters, most of which hangs on for a few turns or days. The UD statistics page claims about 25,000 active players daily. Noteworthy UD imitators include Nexus War and Shartak. Players in all three games have created browser-side Firefox extensions that handle housekeeping tasks or collate data for real-time status reports.

" Travian, with over 60,000 active players, is sort of a real-time strategy game in very slow motion.

" In the same way, Netropolis is a slow, multiplayer SimCity - "an online multi-player strategy game where you match your wits as a corporate gangster/tycoon against other real people. Buy some land, set up a few businesses and watch the money roll in." Netropolis is one of several passive boutique business games. Others include Airline Online, Informatist, and ASX, an educational stock market simulation.

Show Us the Money
Most boutique games are free to play. How much do they make? It's hard to tell.

Boutique MMOGs can definitely make money, but each game must find its own path. Small games can try out revenue models quickly and easily compared to high-end games. Many, like Swirve's long-lived Earth: 2025 and Utopia, are ad-supported. Others use Virtual Asset Purchases. Kingdom of Loathing sells (for real money) a virtual item called "Mr. Accessory" you trade in at "Mr. Store" for limited-availability items. Several games have gained excellent results selling optional premium content - even purely cosmetic perks.

Some designers have other motives besides money; Australian novelist Max Barry started the offbeat political simulation NationStates to plug his 2003 novel, Jennifer Government. This is the most intriguing and encouraging aspect of boutique MMOGs: creators excited by an idea, or compelled to share a vision on their own terms and their own timeline. The boutiques that find success may, ironically, become more than their designers wished. Half a million people have played NationStates, which, according to Barry's bio, "is currently causing him to drown in e-mail from people who want new features."

But, you know, we should all have such problems.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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