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Show HN: WrittenRealms – a modern platform for text-based games (writtenrealms.com)
198 points by teebes 4 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 67 comments

Hi HN,

I've been working on this project since 2013. It's a platform for building and playing text-based games (Multi-User Dungeons), both single-player and multi-player, on the browser. The layout is responsive to accommodate both desktop and mobile displays (including the world editor). Would love some thoughtful feedback!

MUD player for ~20 years, (previously) administrator/developer for ~5. First of all, great work on pushing this out and making a usable product, especially one built for people who aren't entirely familiar with writing software (which is often the big hurdle for starting a new IF game or MUD).

I haven't had time to play with it, but I do have three (or 2.5) pieces of feedback based off reading the documentation.

1. Service subscriptions are solid, and using them for multiplayer access is entirely reasonable here. $15/mo isn't actually very much for that, especially since hosting is handled, so that's an exquisitely low barrier to entry for that. That said, Patreon is a big turn-off for a lot of people (including myself, though I'm not necessarily your target audience either).

2. Lack of telnet connection on multiplayer worlds is a big hurdle. Most MUDs/MUSHes/MOOs are telnet-based, and by not making this a way to connect, you are effectively turning away ~30 years of software written, and a good percentage of the people who have grown used to this software. In the MUD I worked on, I still had players using zMUD because it's what they preferred and what they had things built for, despite it not having been maintained for years and not being able to use several features of the MUD as a result (xterm colour, MXP, GMCP and other telnet subnegotiation protocols).

2.5. VIPs (Visually Impaired Persons/Players) and accessibility. This is one of the largest userbases for a MUD or IF game, as other games that are accessible to them are somewhat rare. I cannot speak to how screenreader-friendly your web client is, but telnet access lets them use clients that already are compatible and integrated with screenreaders.

2.75. Players with terrible internet. Many countries have great internet. Many countries, and even parts of countries that would otherwise have great internet, do not. A lot of players I've met in MUDs played them not because they were enthusiasts, but because they were more friendly to slow connections with high latency. Throttling my connection to some test settings I used for testing data flow to a couple players so I could recommend settings to them and test things for them, your client and the initial screen of the game you have on your homepage linked to the "Play" button is 44s.

There is a chance none of these are concerns for you, and that is an entirely fair decision - you can't develop for everybody. But I hope this is useful feedback.

Not OP but somebody else who has worked on the platform. Thanks for the feedback! I can't give quite as good of a response as teebes but I'll take a crack at it.

- Patreon isn't the ideal subscription service but it was the most lightweight tool we could find for the job since some users wanted to contribute and it didn't make sense to integrate a full payment platform right now. Is there a particular reason that you find it off-putting?

- Telnet actually came up recently on the Discord. It's something we might do, but would take a fair bit of work and loses out on some of the UI we've incorporated to try to make combat a little more engaging like cool down timers and cast bars. That said, we're not opposed to it if there's enough demand and people would actually use it.

- We've actually had a few visually impaired players and gotten some very useful feedback! There is a 'Use Accessibility Layout' option that tries to optimize the experience for screenreaders, although there is likely room for iteration.

- That's a fair point and may be tough to optimize to the same degree while taking advantage of the more modern frameworks that make the platform (hopefully) more user-friendly. That said, there's probably some refinement that could be done there to at least help a little and I would imagine that once in-game, the packets going back and forth don't put too much strain on the connection.

Always good to hear from people who know the space!

Yeah, Telnet will definitely be a lot of work if you do decide to go for it. For cooldown bars and such, I'll recommend using a subnegotiation protocol for all that (GMCP is the one widely used these days, all the major clients support it to some extent and it's effectively just a 'string + json blob' payload), and my experience is often "if you make it available, it will be built" with MUDs.

I'm extremely happy to hear that visually impaired players are accounted for. It was always one of my personal 'hills to die on' in MUD development.

As for Patreon, it's just personal preference. I just want to be able to put in my card details and go - Patreon makes me juggle Yet Another Account and, if you aren't a Patreon user already, the time to get a subscription is highly increased. Anecdotally, I'm not the only one I know who feels this way. I spent years just avoiding anything that made me sign up for a Patreon account just to avoid the hassle of it, and only caved in to support a friend's project. I know some who will still just see Patreon and run the other direction. It also might just be me, but I have horrible luck with services that integrate with it - it won't link the patreon account or recognise that I'm paying, and I need to get manual intervention on getting the thing I'm subscribing to.

This is an exciting project! Been hoping someone would build a decent modern MUD creator - I played MUDs a long time ago but have been disappointed to see the medium largely stuck in 90s conventions. At least from my perspective telnet is an anti-feature because it limits design possibilities. There's already tons of telnet MUDs out there, I'd try to push the boundaries of what is possible in a web browser instead, and be willing to break some rules and expectations of MUDs. I'd love to see music, environmental effects and rich media, some focus on buttons > text parsing, and generally trying to adopt modern conventions and trying new things.

Accessibility on the other hand is 100% a good thing to implement. Text adventures are more than any other medium theaters of the mind, and any additions you make to them should fall back gracefully to that core idea.

> Lack of telnet connection on multiplayer worlds is a big hurdle.

I believe that MUD developers' fixation on telnet support has been a major contributor[0] to the ongoing decline in popularity of MUDs over the last decade. It's a terrible protocol on which to build a multiplayer game. Supporting it as an option requires some kind of server-side content rendering layer which can be inherently restrictive to your other client offerings.

[0] There are others, yes. Particularly licensing issues and gameplay norms.

It's not really the fault of MUD developers, more the obsessive nature of the players, who each have their own favourite client that is set-up exactly how they like it, and full of huge macros and plug-ins that only they understand. These players will not even try out your new MU* if it doesn't support their client.

I think it is the fault of the MUD developers, because they feel like they must support those players.

The group of people who play MUDs "traditionally" (with a dedicated, telnet-based MUD client) is small and shrinking every year.

The group of people who play lo-fi, retro-style games is large and growing every year.

Why give special treatment to the former group if it hinders your ability to appeal to the latter group?

> Supporting it as an option requires some kind of server-side content rendering layer which can be inherently restrictive to your other client offerings.

It should be no more restrictive than the concept of supporting text rendering at all--which maybe want to be able to avoid?--as, worst case, you could literally just run a text client on a server on behalf of the user.

It's restrictive in that it requires your content to be rendered as a continuous stream of text. That sort of rendering is not suitable for all text games that could be considered MUDs. It's not even all that suitable for the more popular MUDs that still exist.

Now, this is not a hard requirement of the telnet protocol, for sure. ANSI controls exist, as do various sub-protocols, but support for these is mixed across telnet clients and therefore can't be relied on (unless you're willing to say your game can only be played by a subset of telnet clients, I suppose).

I like the interface in general. However, as someone that has played some text-based games but is not super familiar with the genre, I think this log captures my confusion:

    kill spider
    You stab a small spider for 6 damage!
    stab spider
    Unknown command: 'stab'. Type 'help' for help.
    kill spider
    You're already in combat!
    attack spider
    You're already in combat!
I can see a floating box that says that I'm in combat, but it doesn't help me figure out what to type, because the only option is "FLEE"

If I try to flee, I get a loading bar that then becomes full and then doesn't do anything. If I try to flee again, it says I'm charging an ability.

I'm honestly not sure how to proceed. help didn't give me any useful commands.

Welp, that's definitely a bug! Flee is supposed to move you to an adjacent room on completion, which is, of course, exactly what it did until some time today. Working on a fix now!

Why wouldn't it allow the continuation of the fight? Either way, this is looking very good and interesting!

The last time this came up, it was an unhandled exception that basically killed the combat thread. Probably something similar this time. In any case, thanks! Hoping to get it back into a playable state shortly, haha.

Yeah, I found myself in the exact same position. Tried tapping and typing almost everything I could think of, got frustrated and quit. Not sure if its a bug, or just lack of useful tutorial information.

Sorry, looks like this is a bug with Flee that just popped up and it just stalls combat entirely. Trying to fix now.

I have no special insight about if this is a forever hobby project for you or not, but whether you have commercial plans doesn't really matter, it doesn't make what I'm about to say more relevant, only slightly more enticing, maybe.

Dungeons have a limited audience. Meanwhile, I am positive that the next evolution of chat platforms like Slack are going to be the ones that grow better features for building. Chat bots are a manifestation of this demand. The dominant platform in the future will be the one that has first-class support for crafting scriptable/interactive objects and creating virtual spaces that you can move between, reminiscent of online worlds like Second Life, except leaning more heavily on text. In essence, the future of chat are MUSHes/MOOs.

To really drive this home, look at the story of Slack itself. It was created when Butterfield was trying to make a game platform (for the second time), and then they pivoted when after productizing their internal tool and it became wildly successful. I'd wager you're using Slack, Discord, IRC, or something in that vein for coordinating development right now. When your primary focus at the moment is already the development of a multi-user platform for conveying text, that's silly. Consider scratching your own itch and experimenting with an internal build that is focused on facilitating broader social interaction than what MUDs aim for.

This is phenomenal work. A genuinely modern take on MUDs of old. Is multiplayer already implemented? I'm weirdly interested in starting up a good old MUD clan/guild again on an all-player killer server...

Thank you! Multiplayer is definitely implemented, and you can have all kinds of flavor of PvP. Free for all, zone restricted, with different death looting modes (some worlds let you loot all of your opponent's gear, others none).

Genuine question - what is the appeal of a text-based game? Is it that you can play async? Something else? Like why not just play a regular video game with regular controller and graphics?

It's much easier to support off-the-wall interactions and new game systems naturally in a MUD.

By that, I mean... adding a new race (for example) in a graphical game requires art assets, animation rigging, sound design, and ALSO the programming side of it. There may be follow-on work too, like producing equipment models that suit the new race's dimensions.

In a MUD, you just program the new race, and off you go.

This ability to iterate quickly, with a lower barrier to ideas, means that you can try all kinds of things on a very low budget.

These seem like good reasons to build a text based game. I'm wondering what the reasons are to play one.

Just take DF for example:

"The necromancer managed to raise both a skeleton and a hollow skin, which I'll keep because it makes as much sense as a walking skeleton"

"My adventurer fought through around sixty zombies in the tower, killed the necromancer, learned the secrets of life and death, and then raised various limbs (not my own). Then I talked to one of them, and it told me that it was peasant. It was flattered but had no need of my services. I imagine its little fingers were shaped into the form of a mouth and they flapped back and forth while it spoke with a high-pitched voice. I guess there's still work to do."

"Of course, you might prefer raining "blood", but we don't have generic blood anymore and I don't think it's proper to add it now that we've got real alternatives, though perhaps a slurry of some kind would be appropriate later. It didn't even work out right with the rodent man blood — the indexing was screwed up, and we ended up with "a dusting of rodent man skin"... dandruff snow."

Other bug fixes: https://www.pcgamer.com/the-most-ridiculous-patch-notes-from...

The same thing! Imagine getting new features, new content, and new systems at a far more rapid rate from a far smaller developer.

And most MU*s are free. The paid ones, like GemStone, are even better... though the subscription price might be hard to swallow for people who are used to AAA graphical games not costing anything (at least on the surface).

This seems like a fair enough value proposition i guess.

But, how do people get interested in the first place? Is it just one of those things you see your friends doing and do it for social reasons and then a few weeks later you actually enjoy it for it's own sake and the cycle continues?

I don't know how people discover MUDs these days. I discovered them in the mid 90s because I was bored and happened to find out about them on a Usenet feed.

Not a text-based gamer so maybe others can respond better, but this is probably similar to reading a book and watching a movie. Imagination has no limit.

The palpable trepidation arising from encountering the only other ampersand (that one is the Balrog)

The keyword / genre here is "Interactive Fiction"; MUDs fall in the same league as text based adventures of old (which later on started to add some graphics until they eventually evolved into e.g. the Monkey Island games), or even the choose-your-own-adventure (comic) books.

It's an older style of games, but honestly, I could have seen myself getting into this back when. It's tech that predates MMO's like WoW or Ultima Online. It's stuff that works everywhere.

And of course it's a different way to experience a game and its story. Dwarf Fortress also comes to mind, weirdly.

It's like the difference between a movie and a book, or photorealistic animation and pixelated ones. It's not that one is better than another, but changing styles is fun.

It is a different genre with different strengths and weaknesses. I think it is best to illustrate through concrete titles:

Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short [1]:

It is a parser based puzzle game. (Parser based means that there is a "command line" where you type in what you want to do.) In the game you play a smuggler who wants to steal some high tech plans from the island of Atlantis. You see, the Atlantans developed cutting edge tools in linguistic manipulation. They have devices which can change one object into an other based on manipulating the written form of their name. For example a d-remover can turn a playing card into a drivable car! During the game you solve a bunch of challenges with different creative application of such tools. If you like puzzles, puns, and word magic you should try this game.

Vain Empires by Thomas Mack profile and Xavid [2]:

"The memoir of a demonic spy in the Cold War between Heaven and Hell."

Another parser game. Here you are playing a devil, who is trying to prevent a global catastrophe. You cannot directly manipulate the world around you, but you can pluck motivations from the non-player characters head and implant it in others. Thus manipulating you have to steal secrets, negotiate a peace treaty and foil your heavenly counterpart’s plan for world domination.

And just to show that not every text based game is a pure wall of text. This one is a hybrid visual-textual one:

80 days from Inkle [3]:

It is a choose-your-own-adventure style story game. It is based on Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. You play as Phileas Fogg's manservant, who has to manage the whole travel. There are two different "screens" to this game. There is a globe interface where you can decide on your travel options. Do you take the Orient Express to Paris, or board a ship sailing southward? And then there are the "text" screens where you have to navigate all the unexpected adventures life throws at you. If you like a globe-trotting steampunk-ish adventure this game is for you.

So why interactive fiction?

These games were generally created by small teams or even by single creators. Such indies can invest their time making games which would be too risky for a big studio. So you will find many strange concepts and weird experiments. You can find many of the interactive fictions are off from the mainstream zeitgeist.

Another point is the economics: A single writer can create a whole word if they want. Text is a very efficient medium that way. The core concepts of the first two game in this list is a perfect fit for the textual medium. Would be very hard to transfer their mechanics into a visual game. The third one in theory could be a fully visual game. It would have just cost a lot more to create. All scenes would have an associated hefty development price tag, which in turn would have meant that the developers would have had to design the game much more economically.

Because of their medium the developers of 80 days can afford to have a crazy branching story structure. You literally can go anywhere on the globe and find different adventures! If each of those "scenes" were fully developed 3d game elements this would be impossible. Not even an AAA studio could afford to do that.

1: https://ifdb.org/viewgame?id=aearuuxv83plclpl

2: https://ifdb.org/viewgame?id=o2ghqa7oal5f3y0z

3: https://www.inklestudios.com/80days/

Another hybrid is Fallen London, whose graphics are mainly interactive cards with text, an image and some buttons, but the majority of the game is text. In it, they tell a number of stories set in the worldbuilding efforts done by the creators. This worldbuilding has also been used in other games by the studio, Sunless Seas/Skies.

So, boiled down:

The medium allows low cost creation. Low cost creation allows lots of experiments. Lots of experiments leads to some weird but wonderful concepts.

Perhaps throw in that humans seem to be good at abstraction and then the lack of graphics doesn't matter sooo much that it can't be overcome with a great concept?

Is that about it?

Sounds about right.

I feel a bit wobbly about your question though. Would you ask someone who is hiking in a forest why they are not surfing on a beach instead? Interactive fiction is not a faulty game where the graphics is somehow missing. It is a different experience. Some days you entertain yourself with this, other days with that.

a thought provoking question: why would you read a novel where you can’t influence what is going to happen? What is the appeal in that? :)

In my mind a graphics based game was strictly better. Your example is more obvious in that it has a choice but no one would say one is strictly better (even a surfer).

So I was wondering what I was missing. Because the graphics based game can't be strictly better if people are playing these text based games. My mental model and the evidence didn't match.

I think I have a better handle on it now, your explanation above was a good one.

To expand on this a bit, even when it comes to graphics, more complex isn't necessarily "better".

Sometimes a simpler presentation helps focus on what matters most. Sometimes leaving things to the audience's imagination is more impactful than showing them explicitly. Relying on "closure" from the audience is a common technique in horror, for example.

Sometimes interactive fiction can express abstract concepts or subtle detail through prose which would be tremendously difficult to convey visually. The IF titles "9:05" and "Spider and Web" do very interesting things with unreliable narrators, for example. Less can be more.

Thank you for asking the questions! It really helped me clarifying my thoughts too.

If you are interested in how these games look like / play, but don’t want to invest too much effort into it you can take a peek at a game play video: https://youtu.be/fFqg5gAbeAw

This one is someone playing Overboard. In this game you play an actress in the roaring twenties who just thrown her husband overboard from a trans-atlantic ship. Your goal is to get away with the murder before the ship docks in New York. (Perhaps by framing someone else.)

I love this.

Though, I apparently found a new bug. I got to Bluefinch with the boy, but then I'm unable to enter any commands and have to reload the tab. Still can't seem to do anything there.

I've known about this site for years and never really dug into it much but I have to say it's still the best MUD-on-the-web interface I've ever seen.

I can not get this to work. Tried with both Firefox and Chrome, and turning of the add blocker. I just get the "Entering world..." popup that just stays there. Occasionally I get the red popup with cryptic "World is clean" message. I tried registering, I tried different worlds, even tried it on my phone, but it just doesn't start.... :(

Sorry about that. If you try again now you might have better luck...

This is a great project and the most fun I had since playing around with ink as a basis - compliments and can't wait to see how it will develop :)

...one thing you might look into is the dual-use (less fun more business) side of branching narratives for (intranet) learning e.g. personnel onboarding, teaching, interactive manual design and so on... it might make it (more?) financially feasible while secretly financing our love for text adventures ;) shoot me a PM if you want to toss some ideas

I'm stuck in a vim like combat with a spider.

Sorry, really uh much higher than usual traffic is causing all kinds of issues. Looking into it...

Same here. But it looks very polished otherwise :-)

I'm surprised that there aren't more aliases: "take" didn't work, but "get" did, for example. Picking the right word from a description was odd, "get sharp sword" didn't work, but "get sword" did.

A built in thesaurus should be able to handle this type of issue.

If I click anywhere after play I get back to the screen where I can press play.

Turns out the system wasn't quite able to handle the traffic that came through yesterday. It should be working better now!

Me too. Does this game not work in Firefox?

Quick ps: gets stuck on "Entering world"

Should be better now. Sorry about that.

HN hug of death maybe? I have just tried and am not able to get in, stuck on "Entering World"

Definitely HN hug of death... Seems to be stabilizing now if you'd like to try again. Apologies for the instability.

Still getting this now btw.

Thanks for letting us know. Tried a different approach this AM and people are able to get on now. Hope it is the case for you as well.

happy to work on this too, played MUDs a lot in childhood and occasionally now. I believe the visually impaired will have to be accommodated as have met many friends on MUDs who are visually impaired.

Also the server might be down as I can not be able to enter a world with a new character

Yes it's restarting now, had a hiccup for a bit. Sorry!

Edit: Should be online now

Working now, much thanks!

when I click the "play" button on the landing page, it shows me some prose and says "click anywhere to begin," and then that just makes the prose disappear. sounds like a cool project though, I'm interested in checking out the editor later

sigh Looks like it needed a restart. It was getting hung up when trying to put you into the tutorial. Sorry about that!

FYI it's still happening for me

It just came online and I was able to get in. Is it still not working?

down again, it seems :(

looks good now!

This is awesome, I was just wondering if something like this exists.

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