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Interview with Dentin, Creator of Alter Aeon (Pt. 3)

This is the third of a four part interview with Dentin. The following three questions were focused on wider issues, including Alter Aeon's challenges, social dynamics, and the difficulties of achieving a better new player experience.

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Q1. What's the biggest challenges you see facing Alter Aeon. I'm thinking here in four major arenas: attracting new players, maintaining the high quality of coding and areas, regulating the game so that it's a safe enjoyable environment for players, and any other major concerns that I maybe didn't cover in the first three areas?

My biggest challenge for AA right now is how to make it more self sufficient. I need to be able to step away from it and let things run on their own. I need to be able to trust the builders, moderators, and players to largely do the right thing and to really only need my intervention for important stuff. We're making a lot of progress on this, but the stream of minor bug fixes seems never ending, and I pretty much have to just ignore them if I plan to get anything else done.

Regarding your specific arenas:

1) Attracting new players is hard. Really, really hard. It's so hard that I think the best approach right now is to simply be the best game out there, to get and keep our players, and to make them want to bring in friends. This kind of organic growth is slow, but it does work, if you have something really good to offer.

That said, the market for muds really is shrinking, no matter what anyone says. Alter Aeon, with an average of 70 or so players, is in the top ten, where 15 years ago, 70 players wouldn't even have garnered a mention. Part of the reason we've been able to do that is because I recruit outside the so called 'mud community', and go for true newbies who would never have seen a mud before. Recruiting outside the mud community is part of why why getting new players is so hard, but as the community shrinks and collapses, it also means we won't feel the effects nearly as much. That to me seems worth the extra work.

2) Maintaining the high quality of the game is actually getting easier and easier. A lot of the quality control of the last few years has been code based, not human based. In fact, most of the improvement in quality control is because we've removed humans from the checking process.

One improvement I have yet to make is a project based building management system. I personally have huge difficulty handling builders and figuring out what is going on and being built at any given point of time. Having a list of what is in progress, and requiring builders to send me periodic status reports would help me a lot.

3) The safe, enjoyable environment for players is something I've been actively working on the last year or so. I've been reading a lot of papers and articles about online communities and community culture, and I've decided that the old culture of negativity and asshole behaviour needs to stop. If someone is so unhappy with the game that they feel the need to badmouth it all the time, I'm ok with simply writing that player off and telling them that they're no longer welcome, that they need to find a new place to play. It doesn't do anyone any good to have players like that around, and hopefully they can find something they enjoy again.

I've also been cracking down on asshole behavior, and I've been trying to set a better example of how not to be an asshole. The new moderator system has helped a lot, not because it punishes people, but because it provides a quick and effective way for people to know they're outside the bounds of a channel. I maintain that most people have the potential to be awesome, positive players - it's just that we all need to be reminded of what that means and what is or isn't acceptable.

4) The only other major concern is how to add features without sacrificing or breaking long term game play. It's very humbling to think that a single minor change, allowing primary thief characters to be untrippable, completely destroyed the balance of Hidden Worlds in 1994.

I have to continually be on my toes, I have to watch, predict, talk to players, and think very hard before I do things - but even more importantly, I have to say 'wow that was a really stupid idea', and I have to dent things. I have to have the guts to face down the players and say, 'I know it sucks, but this cannot be allowed to continue'. I have to do those things no matter the short term consequences, because the tragedy of the commons spares no one.

Q2. You have striven for years to make A.A. more intuitive, user friendly, more fast-paced, and more enjoyable for new players. Do you feel that you have achieved those goals, and what problem spots do you still see with the newbie experience on A.A.? Are there any massive sweeping changes that you would have liked to make to improve the new player's experience that you maybe refrain from making because of the architecture of the game as is? Are there any problems that have been called to your attention with the play experience of established players that you might work toward changing?

When I compare the current new player experience to the old, it's like night and day. Players are dropped almost immediately into doing something, and pick up commands, spells, and skills along the way. We have much, much higher retention of true new players than we used to, so it's not just me that thinks the new setup is better than the old.

Unfortunately, I really don't see very many problem spots that really need or are worth fixing. We've already put a lot of effort into that, and the most obvious things have been taken care of. Now, it's a matter of getting improvements where we can and discovering new problems. Pretty much everything we know about has already been looked at or fixed. Finding the problems is the hard part, not fixing them.

From an architecture standpoint, there were a number of early decisions which turned out to be seriously dumb ideas. Off the top of my head, remaining things include the light/dark system, blind descriptions, underwater rooms, magic resistance, and the suppression effect. These were all bad ideas and need to be seriously reconsidered. The problem is that many of these are already deeply integrated into the game, and it's really just not worth the effort to remove them or fix them properly.

And naturally, there's always problems that are being called to my attention by high level and experienced players. I try to queue them by priority versus ease of fix, and from the outside I'm sure that process looks very chaotic. There are also things which have dependencies, which I intentionally elect to not fix: a good example would be the cleric sunlight and sunstorm spells, which I have intentionally not upgraded or improved pending their move to the druid class.

Finally, there are systemic issues, like the eternal concerns about class balance, pk balance, offset controllers, and objects which take advantage of some defect in the composite, and so forth. Once again, priority order, but with systemic issues, it's important that some things be seriously fast tracked (like composite problems), and other things be seriously slow tracked (balance changes should be slow, so you can see how they affect other things.)

Q3. One of the most exciting things about A.A. or any multi-player online game is the social dynamic. How would you characterize A.A.'s dynamics versus other games you've read about/heard about/played? Are there things that surprise you about the social dynamics? Do you feel like the player demographics have changed substantially over the years? How so?

I can't really characterize the AA dynamic against other games. I don't generally participate in them long enough to get a good feel for it. About the only exception to this was one of the larger muds, which seems to have the dynamic of 'most people are afk'. I've looked into that quite a bit and tried to avoid it in part by sorting the who lists and making idlers more easy to identify, but one of my biggest realizations came from an unexpected direction. Oddly enough, the biggest reason we have a low ratio of idlers seems to be that AA doesn't really encourage botting.

Perhaps my biggest surprise regarding social dynamics was just how corrosive the old, negative environment of the game really was. The pervasive negative attitudes were a big part of my problem with motivation. Few things are more demotivating than waking up to find everyone in an uproar over something completely inane, or having to deal with multi-person fallout from the questionable actions of one or two players bent on causing havoc. One of my biggest failings in handling these situations properly came from my misguided thinking that what those asshole players thought was actually important.

In the years since then, I've seen players like Tyrant removed, and the game has improved for many people. I've seen the destruction of several hate machines, and the game is better for it even though it resulted in the loss of several very old players. I've seen most of the screen reader crash channel players leave because the game was no longer fun for them or had the wrong atmosphere, and the game is better for that as well. I wish all those departed players the best, elsewhere, and I do not miss them.

Beyond the social environment being a lot nicer, I think people are in general a lot nicer to me specifically. I still log in sometimes, read the backscroll, and just want to punch someone in the face - but it's not every day, and it seldom demotivates me for the whole day.

Again, in closing, I'd like to thank you for answering these questions so fully. We appreciate your hard work and careful development of Alter Aeon.

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