TMC: Back to the Basics: Approach to Design of Descriptions

Back to the Basics: Approach to Design of Descriptions
by Author: _Tom_

Recently, while considering the design of my own MUD and reading a lot of MUD discussion, I have discovered some simple, yet forgotten, strategies for attracting and keeping different types of players through appropriate room descriptions.

The Problem: Descriptions Are Ignored

To be honest, I have at times been a ‘forget the descriptions, lets kill everything’ kind of person, and I suspect that a large portion of a MUD’s playerbase plays this way, too. The player turns on hush mode, or its equivalent, and ignores the descriptions of rooms and mobs completely. Not only is the player missing out on a significant amount of the valuable work that goes into a zone, but more importantly on a more immersive environment.

This, however, does not apply to all players. We must acknowledge, and applaud, the few people who enjoy reading descriptions as much as they love the gameplay. The artistic merit of the text is an attraction to these players, like reading poetry.

Still, what motivates a majority of players to ignore descriptions? The player is focused on things like reputation and status, which is not directly affected by the amount of text that he reads when he is out to improve his character. He is instead focused on killing the most mobs, collecting the most equipment and the gaining the most experience as quickly as possible. I hate to say it, but the text becomes an obstacle to his primary goal.

But, what if you could get more of your players to become interested in your descriptions?

Solution: Entice the Player’s Primary Objective

So, we have observed that players ignore the descriptions because they slow down the player’s ascent. What if descriptions provide information that assist his goals? Can descriptions include information that leads to faster development? Of course!

In essence, the default description should be quite simple, but, there should be a depth to the environment available through examination. The description provides a quick overview and interested players can find more detail. However, it’s not just that there is more text. When a player examines the environment in more detail, it should give subtle hints about the existence of unknown areas of that zone. When someone picks up on one of these hints, he gets a slight advantage, be it treasure, experience, or just the satisfaction of finding something hidden.

So what? Well, let’s see.

Results: Immersion, Replayability & Simplicity

First, players that wanted to blast through the zone as fast as they could, without regard to any descriptions would be free to do so. However, once these players found the first hidden ‘hint’ in one of these descriptions, I would anticipate many of them would change their approach and begin to read more of the descriptions. (This is a positive thing, because it leads to greater immersion in the game. They begin to think through more game structure.) If this change did not happen, then you have not provided enough of a reward through the hidden ‘hints’ and should make changes appropriately.

Second, this new complexity gives your zones more replay value. It is highly likely that a player will go through the zone the first time, just looking at the surface. The second and subsequent times they come through they may begin to look for hints about short cuts or hidden treasure. The player will be rewarded by finding more than he did the previous time. Also, he has potential rewards of fame for sharing his find with other players, or hiding it from them.

Lastly, a frequent problem with newbies in a game is overload. When someone initially starts learning the game, they can feel swamped by overly-long room descriptions and feel lost. Any negativity in the initial impression on a new player will dramatically drop your newbie retention rate. However, using this hidden complexity approach, the new player will not pick up on the complexity until he has developed more experience in the game and will therefore be more comfortable with the new information.

Implementation: One Solution

Ok so we want simplicity at first glance with hidden complexity. How do we do this? Let’s take a room as an example.

A room’s description should be concise and descriptive of the area, but should leave room for more detail. This description can include things about the room, information about adjacent rooms or information about visible landmarks. Tips that will lead players to rewards should be dropped ever so lightly.

In addition to this description, the room should include ‘extra descriptions’. These are available through the examine or look commands and provide richer detail about the surroundings of the room. Richness of detail is appropriate here. You have focused on a single item of interest and can provide any detail you like.

On a side note, I recommend having levels of subtlety in your descriptions so that some hidden rewards are obvious while some are downright opaque. The one player who finds such an opaque hidden area will be rewarded not only by the rewards contained in it, but quite possibly the fame of finding it when shared with other players.

Lastly, rooms need to contain non-standard movement commands like ‘enter building’. This makes a player have to read the descriptions instead of just looking at the auto-exits listed for a room. Note, I’m not saying that every room should contain something like this, instead it should be somewhat rare. Also, the zone’s main path should be playable without such tricks.

What do these things gain for us? Well, now we can use these tricks to provide the interested player with a reward for his search. There can be objects in the room, like chests, that are not listed in the standard ‘objects in the room’. Also, you can hide additional rooms through the ‘enter’ commands.

But why stop there? You can hide whole zones, provide shortcuts deep into dangerous territory and other creative routes for players. The opportunity is huge: Provide a way to sneak past a randomly generated wilderness ‘maze’ area; Skip some difficult sentries.

This being said, let us again return to those players that don’t want to be forced to go through searching for secret paths and areas. Most of your zones should be easily navigated using the standard commands. These people who skim the surface will sacrifice some of the rich rewards, but will not be forced through what feels like drudgery to them. And besides, once a secret has been found, it is unlikely to stay that way. These people will eventually learn the secrets from other players.

And the players that read for the love of reading? They find the depth of environment they crave provided by the rich descriptions of the area.

But, hopefully, we will attract more players to the joy of reading.

Back to the Basics: Approach to Design of Descriptions – copyright © 2003 by _Tom_ – All rights reserved.