Here’s a bit of thesis I wrote (don’t mind the footnote shit, ill sort it out later):
MUDs and Utopia
So in the great scheme of all things, where does Utopia stand? Is it a MMORPG, or a MUD? I would say it’s neither and both. First of all, Utopia does not feature characters as we know them in role playing games – the player manages a province, and although s/he is deemed the ruler of this province, there is no equipment or exploration or leveling or monsterslaying involved in the game play. Nor can Utopia be called a MUD – there is no space to navigate or manipulate, nor does it have the demographics of a MUD – whereas 2001 MUD participants are considered to be a solid playerbase, Utopia currently numbers at least 27,000 provinces, and likely a comparable number of actual players.
Utopia can however be understood in terms of a MUD, in that it is totally textual. Aside from little images decorating each page, there are no graphics whatsoever. The only way in which the graphics play any kind of meaningful role towards game play is in the paper section, where little icons aid the player in making sense of recent events. The game can be understood in terms of a MMORPG regarding its large player base. What MUDs, MMORPGs and Utopia all have in common are that they are multiplayer games based online, fulfilling the social needs of its players.
Utopia’s lack of spatiality is important. Space does exist on some level, in the way values in a database are separated from each other in their respective cells. While the game uses geographical concepts such as islands, kingdoms and acres these appear as fluctuating values in a variety of tables, eroding the illusion of space. One could of course argue the same in the case of MUDs which consist entirely of scrolling text; however the illusion of space is more easily maintained during game play. MUD players continually move between spaces by typing commands (i..e. Move East) and each time they arrive at a spot, there is a description of the surroundings. A MUD space can be mentally mapped out, whereas imagining Utopia as a continuous space poses a challenge to the imagination.
Picturing space during Utopian play is strange indeed. Consider for example the act of capturing new lands in combat: players send out their armies on an assault on another province, and if the battle goes successful they will generally take roughly between ten and twenty percent of their target’s land mass. These lands will become available after seven to fifteen (roughly) hours, after which buildings can be built on them and population space will become available. However, during an age players will sometimes make hundreds of such attacks as well as receiving similar amounts. If we assume that these conquered lands do not move an inch from their supposed in-world location, one would have to imagine his or her province scattered through the entire world, tiny bits of it located on each island. This quickly poses a problem for the imagination, since the same would hold true for every other province in the game world, resulting in a strange world where every twenty-five acres or so would be owned by another player. At the same time provinces are centrally ‘located’ on the Kingdom page with the total number of acres written next to their names, suggesting geographical coherence and proximity. Players cope with this conceptual problem mainly by ignoring it, although occasionally as seen near the ending this kingdom banner by making fun of it:
Spatiality is a taken for granted in MUDs and MMORPGs. Online games involving fantasy characters always feature a space which is either displayed or imagined, but always clearly described. The size of these realms limit the movement and exploration of its inhabitants. The geographical game world is a fundamental part of the game, and traversing it a fundamental part of the game play. Social interaction and co-operation are always firmly founded in space; for instance waiting with others at the ferry terminal to travel to a distant isle, travelling with team mates through dangerous areas, searching for group mates in densely populated locations; all of these are not unknown to the MMORPG player. In Star Wars Galaxies, spaces like the Cantina and the Starport1 form social hubs where players congregate in order to sell wares or services or to look for people to group with for a hunt. In EverQuest, certain locations formed hubs for players where they could find refuge, buffs and transportation to different parts of the world.2 Basic strategies, such as ‘tanks’ (heavily armoured melee warriors), healers (such as clerics) and damage dealers (such as wizards and archers) require space to thrive; whilst a monster attacks the tank, the cleric heals him and the tank and damage dealers focus on besting the creature. This only works in a spatial arrangement, with the warrior positioned between the monster and the other characters. Utopia provides no such shelter, nor does it provide spaces for players to congregate for trade and the likes. Every province in Utopia is at all times (except when a province is in freeze mode) able to attack, thieve or cast spells on any other province in the game and vice versa. As such, every province is vulnerable at all times, and the options fellow players have for protecting or helping their team mates are very limited; direct co-operation in Utopia limits itself to gathering intelligence for team mates or sending resources via the aid page. The Elven race used to be able to cast beneficial spells on other provinces in the kingdom, but Swirve removed that ability at one point arguing that it made each race ‘less unique’. Utopia players cannot use space in a strategic way; one cannot, for instance, park one’s army in front of a team mate’s province to help fight any invading hordes. Each province is ultimately on its own; yet co-operation manifests itself in different and inventive ways.
1Mortensen, Torill Elvira. WoW is the new MUD
1Ducheneaut, Nicolas and Robert J. Moore. The Social side of Gaming: a study of interaction patterns in a massively multiplayer online game.
2Taylor, T.L. Play Between Worlds. P 60-61