On One’s Own: For the Love of Community

March 23, 2010 | James Bishop

UrbanDeadPlayOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

The community that surrounds the indie game scene is one that leaves most mainstream titles with saliva dripping from their slack jaws. The same can be said of their publishers. But what makes the indie community so, dare I say, special when compared to the more mainstream audience? It is certainly a hard quality to pin down, but the kind of dedication that an indie game enthusiast has is most obvious when taking a look at independent massively multiplayer online games.

Which is a bit of a mouthful. But indie MMOs have been around for a long time, longer even than the term “indie” has been attached to any form of gaming. It all began with programs referred to as multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. They were the precursors to any form of MMO and almost universally designed, implemented and distributed by a single person. There were many variants and some were meant more for other utilities rather than gaming, but derivatives popped up over the years until someone finally made it into a commercially viable product.

But that has not stopped would-be developers from answering the call to make their own versions of whatever fantasy realm they have rocketing around inside their cranium. MUDs were just the beginning, but they showcased the ability of one developer to riff on the mechanics of another. This tradition continues to this day and has bred an entirely new kind of indie game: the browser-based MMO.

udnpWith our subject matter clearly outlined, it becomes only a problem of dissecting the reasons behind the unique community of gamers created around them. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. One thing that a number of indie browser-based MMOs do have in common in terms of community is the metagame that surrounds them. Which is exactly as confusing as it sounds.

The metagame is the sphere of knowledge from outside of the strict boundaries of any given game. As an example, if you play chess against your best friend ten times a day and he constantly uses a strategy that ends with a checkmate in four moves and you then deliberately attempt to thwart the same maneuver before there are any obvious signs of it, you are metagaming. Anything used in a game that isn’t expressly from the game, including knowledge, tools and other such things, are considered to fall under the metagame.

Urban Dead is one of the most obvious candidates for both being an offspring from the traditional MUD and for having a compelling metagame. The game is played out in a grid of maps which consist of more grids. Each building has unique names and there only so many malls located in certain suburbs which serve as hubs of activity. Did I mention zombies? The whole idea is that the city of Malton saw an outbreak of zombies which then lead to a quarantine. Not overly creative in terms of premise, but the game continues to be played five years later. Survivors kill zombies while trying to, well, survive and zombies attempt to bring the “barhah” and eat “harmanz.”

In true indie fashion, it was designed, programmed and implemented by a single person: Kevan Davis. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the stats certainly are. The frontpage tells us that there are “1,162,854 dead and rising” and Davis has briefly stated in his online resume that there are 40,000 or more human-controlled characters out there. The first is probably just a counter of sorts with the second being more of an active number, but either way the enormity of it is a bit staggering.

KoLMainScreen.previewPeople have played Urban Dead for years even though content updates have been few and far between. The last actual update to gameplay was months ago and it was almost certainly a tweak to preexisting code. It isn’t all that unusual in the game to wander around and spot characters sitting on thousands of XP because they are already maxed out. To a person new to the game, it might seem incredibly repetitive and not worth the time invested. While it might be incredibly repetitive, the time invested is really only worth what you make of it. The game isn’t that interesting but if you become involved in the metagame, your options expand drastically.

See, Urban Dead has been a simplistic experience since beginning in 2005. It didn’t take long for people to get tired of the old paradigm of shoot, kill, revive and shoot again. As is natural in these kinds of games, people began killing each other even when they weren’t supposed to do so. Player-killers, or PKers, began to manifest in greater and greater numbers. That is, until someone decided to beat them at their own game.

Players took it upon themselves to create a tool to track, kill and then ‘rehabilitate’ PKers in Malton. In a lot of ways, it is just a justification for other players to take part in the PKing but that doesn’t seem to faze those involved. The Rogues Gallery, as it’s called, is a tool designed to allow for players to report the slaying of innocents, their own bounty claims and track the last known locations for any of those on the list. Even though the tool itself is down at current, the forum is still going strong with reports for all such things.

And it’s not like Urban Dead is alone in its metagame. Other browser-based MMOs, like Dark Grimoire or Kingdom of Loathing, share its MUD ancestry and multiple projects being created by fans. The Kingdom of Loathing actually has a multitude of players who have since become developers after creating scripts, sites and various tools for the community. They vary in usefulness but, as an example, if you ever want to know what pop culture references are being made, there’s a site for that.

cow00Kingdom of Loathing is one of those rare sites that allow scripting, bots and other such shenanigans as long as it doesn’t produce any noticeable lag. As long as the bot clicks at about the rate a human would, all is kosher. So a number of amateur and professional developers have taken to building Greasemonkey, Java and Perl scripts to play the game for them. Machines that play games for us sure sounds like progress to me.

This, in a roundabout manner, is how we come to the conclusion that the indie community will often see a game and actually think, “Huh, I could totally do that.” This isn’t at all scientific and mostly conjecture, but I would wager that the majority of players actually have the game designer mentality and a smaller number actually have the ability to implement their own functions. This leads to a certain appreciation on a level that most mainstream audiences don’t have with larger titles: a peer to peer one.

So it’s not really a quality of the players but more of a mindset. They don’t view it entirely as a producer-consumer relationship but instead view it as one colleague would the work of another. This is also why there are so many derivatives of these games out there. Urban Dead certainly has its share of knockoffs, even though it is fairly derivative of an older vampire game itself, and Kingdom of Loathing actually has a number of fan-made games that experiment in the same style. Even if one out of ten is a success, the unique relationship will continue. And that’s what makes the indie scene what it is.

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