Ever heard people talking about MUSHs or MUDs in the same breath as PBEM or PBP? They’re actually quite similar, and I was able to interview Wes Platt, the creator of OtherSpace, an original space-opera MUSH. He’s been running OtherSpace for 14 years and has a following of over 200 members.
So what is a MUSH?
If you like reading and writing stories in real-time, improvisationally, with other people, it’s the sort of thing you’d probably enjoy. It’s a lot of fun if you get a kick of developing characters and crafting dialogue on the fly, reacting to situations, and following chains of action and consequence toward not-always-predictable territory.
How does a MUSH differ to a play-by-post game?
I’ve dabbled in PBEM and play-by-post games over the years. A MUSH is a different beast, mostly in that sense of immediacy. Unless the entries are flying fast and furious in a play-by-post game, they’re just not the same as a MUSH. In a MUSH, you have a character object inhabiting the same virtual space in real-time, writing poses back and forth with other characters. You feed off each other’s creativity during the scene as it evolves.
The downside, in comparison to play-by-post, is that you have to devote attention here-and-now to a MUSH. Otherwise, you risk appearing rude by making people wait too long between poses. With play-by-post, that lack of immediacy can be a convenience.
Tell us about OtherSpace
OtherSpace is an original-theme space opera MUSH that I started back in 1998 when I was still a working at the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times). Ever since I was a kid, I had loved Star Wars and Zork – the old Infocom text adventure. About the time I began working on OtherSpace, I was also watching Babylon 5, and I really admired the work J. Michael Straczynsky was doing in crafting these season-spanning storylines. So, I developed a theme for this new text-based game around the idea of a broad-reaching universe with a variety of humans and aliens to choose from (sort of like Star Wars) and decided to run a series of major story arcs to drive the narrative engine along (inspired by Babylon 5). Word of mouth about our arcs really helped build the playerbase during the early years.
Is OtherSpace representative of a typical MUSH game or is it different?
In some ways, it’s representative, simply by the code base that it uses. Most people who play MUSHes are familiar with the basic commands. It’s also representative in that we’re an enforced RP game. That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not, really. All that means is that when you’re on the grid (as opposed to hanging out in the out-of-character area – our “backstage”), you inhabit the role of your character. However, like many MUSHes, we have some special commands that allow us to talk OOCly while on the grid when we need to sort things out during a scene.
I think we differ a lot in that we’ve persevered longer than most games, we put a lot of emphasis on chronicling what we do (thus a tendency to build big archives of RP logs over the years), and we offer some features that most MUSHes don’t: An achievement system that pays characters points each month, action cards that players can make to give themselves advantages in a refereed combat scene, a news system that gives a heartbeat and a sense of stuff happening to the game, a crafting system that lets you build everything from weapons to starships to a brand new universe, and veteran rewards as a way of thanking players for their commitment to the game.
We also offer the opportunity for people – players, staffers, and anyone else who’s feeling generous – to sponsor our game. I treat OtherSpace like a TV show that never ends (we’ve certainly lasted longer than most shows run), so it’s always great to have sponsors underwrite the expenses that are involved in hosting the game, promoting it around the Internet and out in the real world, and for the investment of time and effort that goes into making these story arcs happen.
How much time (per week) would a player spend on your game?
It varies. We have some very active players who spend at least 20 hours a week on OtherSpace. However, while many may be online to talk socially a lot, most of them are probably most active a few times a week when a major staff-run or player-driven event is in the offing.
Our busiest times are weeknights Eastern, and afternoons and evenings during weekends.
Why is a MUSH better in your opinion than a graphical RPG? (eg World of Warcraft)
I played World of Warcraft for about seven years. I enjoyed it for what it was. Without it, I certainly wouldn’t have found my way onto the Fallen Earth MMORPG project, which I worked on from 2006-2010.
That said, a MUSH is better than both WoW and FE in some respects. For example, with an MMORPG, the art style is dictated by the visuals provided by the design team. On a MUSH, how you look and how the world looks is all a matter of how you see things in your mind’s eye.
Also, no matter how a game like WoW tries to fake a sense of player impact with phased instance technology, it’s no substitute for the joy and adrenalin that goes with the opportunity of making a long-lasting impact on a MUSH where the feat can’t necessarily be repeated by anyone else again.
Finally, on a MUSH, you matter. Individual players come and go from WoW. They’ve got 10-million subscribers on a bad day. Many MUSHes are lucky to have 10-15 active at any given time. On OtherSpace, we’re blessed with a decent-sized (and growing) playerbase. When our really productive storytellers get called away by real life for extended periods, we feel it. We miss them. And when they come back, we’re always glad to see them. It’s unlikely that you’ll get that kind of love from an MMO that’s used to churning through subscribers, except perhaps on a guild/clan level.
How does the time work in your game?
Time’s a river that keeps on flowing. One real-life day counts as a day in the game. However, it’s not all that unusual for players on the MUSH to “back-scene” something. They can say time is frozen, or that they’re doing something that took place hours, days, weeks…even years ago.
Is playing a MUSH good practice for writing a novel?
Jim Butcher, author of the popular Dresden Files books, used to play on an Amber-inspired MUSH. So, it’s not impossible for a novelist to come from MUSHing. I’m not sure that MUSHing is actually something I would consider valuable as practice for writing a novel, though.
It’s great for getting practice writing dialogue. It’s great for practicing character development and fleshing out backgrounds. But the experience is so immersive and relies so much on collaboration, riffing with other people, that I’m not sure it does any justice to the solitude a traditional novelist feels when they’re writing.
So, MUSHes are actually more flexible than that: They give you practice in working with elements that would go well in novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays.
Do players in your game have direct control over the direction of the story or is this dictated by a GM or team of moderators?
It depends. At certain points in the evolution of OtherSpace, I’ve decided that specific plot points were imperative: The entire MUSH got lumped aboard the Sanctuary colony vessel, or everyone had to evacuate to an alien universe to escape spreading reality rifts, or, in the just-completed Down to Earth story arc, technology is released to make it possible to travel easily between universes.
But from a tighter-focus perspective, event-to-event, what the players do changes the outcomes. For example, in the Down to Earth finale, my plan had been to lure players aboard a ship that was crawling with enemy aliens and locked in a programmed loop to jump to faster-than-light every 15 minutes, so that they would have to work together with the aliens to stop the jumping and secure the starship for their boss. However, early on in the event, players shot the thrusters of the ship and effectively eliminated the vessel’s ability to FTL jump before they went aboard.
As a result, on the fly, I had to change up what would be happening on my end and that, in turn, had an effect on the choices they continued to make. So, instead of taking the starship home to Lord Fagin the Pirate King, they decided to blow it up to keep the vessel from falling into enemy hands.
I saw some of your YouTube videos about the “Cold blooded conquest” could you explain what this is?
“Cold-Blooded Conquest” is the name of the next major OtherSpace story arc, which I’m planning to kick off in April. It’s the follow-up to “Down to Earth,” which we just finished. Last year, I ran a Kickstarter fundraiser and backers gave $1,000 to support a three-month storyline. This helped pay for server costs, marketing and advertising, and went a ways toward compensating for the effort involved in putting on the show.
This time around, I opted with doing something Kickstarter-style without Kickstarter, simply because I don’t really like the all-or-nothing approach. I like the idea of setting a deadline, but the game doesn’t live or die based on whether we make that goal or not. Failing to hit the goal just means I don’t do as much advertising, because that becomes an out-of-pocket expense that I really can’t afford. So, whatever people can give, we’ll take it.
Right now, I’m in the middle of editing the chronicle of “Down to Earth,” which will showcase the big highlights from the arc in book format, pay tribute to the players who participated, and recognize the sponsors who supported our efforts.
People who give to us during the “Cold-Blooded Conquest” fundraising period will get similar recognition when I make the chronicle for that arc this summer.
OtherSpace goes on whether we get this support or not, but we’re blessed with some great sponsors who have given generously. Some are one-time sponsors, but several are sustainers, kicking in month after month because they think it’s a worthwhile investment.
It’s not enough for me to call this a living, but it’s enough that I don’t worry about the MUSH becoming any kind of a drain on my personal finances and I’m able to secure advertising on places like Facebook, RPG.net, and several other sites.
Thanks Wes for the interview!