Online MUDs: An Interview with Matt Mihaly, CEO of Iron Realms
I recently had a chance to Skype with Matt Mihaly, the founder and CEO of Iron Realms Entertainment, one of only two real companies still operating text MUDs (there are quite a few pure hobbyist or hobbyist-making-some-pocket-change MUD developers though). Though I intended my article to be a piece on the history of Achaea - Iron Realms' oldest game - the chat session ended up being a load of fun and we talked about a ton of online text game related topics!
Tony Celentano: Let’s start at the beginning in the early 90s.
Matt Mihaly: I’d been playing MUDs since early ‘91 or so and after college I found one called Avalon out of the UK. I was actually their first US customer. They had just opened up to the internet because before then you had to dial into a bank of modems in London. Obviously, Americans didn’t do that because that’d be really expensive so I played that for a while and became friends with the owners of it. One was Yehuda Simmons and the other was Daniel James, who now runs video game developer Three Rings. Yehuda moved to Chicago where I lived and we ended up sharing an apartment. I became an administrator on his game, but there was a point where I was like, “you know, I really want to make a living making games, or at least pay my rent” you know? So I licensed his engine from him which was this really horrible thing called Hourglass. It only ran on RISC (reduced complexity instruction set)-based computers, which meant we had to use these Acorn computers from England. The scripting language didn't support subroutines or local variables, nothing. It was a nightmare of a game engine.
Tony: How’d you get your first team together? Matt Mihaly: I was the only coder for Achaea, initially. I brought in a guy early-on (Daedalus) to help do some writing, and I also brought in the original Phaestus to help code. Neither of those guys were with us very long though.
Tony: How'd you plan to make money with a MUD? Matt: We went live in September, 1997, which was the same month that Ultima Online launched, and we actually planned to charge by the hour. That was the business model connected games had used for the previous 15 years. Avalon charged 80 cents an hour which got really expensive, I spent a lot of money on that game *laughs*. This was back when companies like CompuServe or early 90s AOL charged an hourly fee, so most online games did too. You’d spend maybe a couple bucks just to play for an hour. As soon as AOL went flat-rate in ‘96 and started charging a monthly subscription, we knew the game for hourly charging was over and weren't quite sure what to do. I felt that nobody would want to pay a monthly subscription to my game at the time. The barrier to entry that whipping out a credit card to subscribe represents was too high for us.
Tony: Is that how you came up with the virtual asset sales model? Matt Mihaly: I decided to try and just auction off some custom in-game items to make some money. I figured they’d go for $20 bucks, but people bid them up considerably higher. Some, in fact, sold for a few hundred dollars in that first auction. One of the things we sold was a custom house which had a balcony you could leap over and end up in the main room, a room where you could spar without dying, a room where you could hear people in other rooms, that sort of stuff.
Tony: That same house is now a bar in the Mhojave Desert, yeah? Matt Mihaly: Yeah, that’s the one. The auctions became really popular so we started doing more, mostly clones of items because coming up with unique, balanced items is really difficult with the complexity of Achaea’s combat system. Eventually we moved from auctions to setting up in-game shops (what you'd now call a cash shop).
Tony: How did Rapture [Iron Realms's proprietary engine] come into being? Matt Mihaly: Aside from the fact that the Hourglass engine was a piece of crap, we discovered that Yehuda (who wrote the engine) had stuck a backdoor in it, allowing him to remotely monitor communication coming into and out of the engine. Very sleazy, and completely unacceptable. I was fed up with Hourglass by then anyway and luckily there was another admin on Avalon who had written an engine called Vortex that was mostly backwards compatible with Hourglass, but ran on normal computers and included basic programming elements like subroutines and local variables. We licensed the engine and then spent a painful four or five months fixing everything that wasn't backwards compatible so that we could run on Vortex. That worked ok for awhile, but the license terms for Vortex dictated that we had to pay a monthly fee equal to some percentage of our revenue. I didn't like this at all, so we bought Vortex from its owner. Soon though, we started to run into performance problems with it. Around 1999, the person who would become Aeyr started playing and quickly became a volunteer. He was one of the first volunteers I let touch the code as though he was just an undergrad he was a far better coder than I was - not that there's a high bar to overcome there. I'm not much of a coder. As Aeyr had quickly proven his worth, I struck a deal with him to write a new software engine in exchange for a chunk of the company. And that's what became Rapture, the engine we still use today.
Tony: There was a point where you offered to license Rapture? Matt Mihaly: Yeah, we tried that for a little while. We had one guy license it but, he stopped paying so we just yanked it. It’s been solely used for our stuff since then. We still get inquiries about it, but let's face it - there's not exactly a lucrative market for text MUD engines out there. It's not worth the hassle to license and support other people at the small scale the market would support.
Tony: There was also a point where you offered God characters for purchase? Matt Mihaly: Yes, we did it once. It was a mistake even though it actually ended up working well. The person who paid to become a God was a very popular character with the players. We chalked that one up to luck because really, you want someone who’s going to become a God character through passion and loyalty to the game, not by spending money. The volunteer system works out well because it’s a place to go after you’ve felt like you “mastered” the game. That’s the great thing about our volunteer system - every single person who is an employee of IRE has started out as a player. The only two employees we’ve ever had who didn’t start out as players were Clementius and the guy who originally opened Aetolia (who hasn't been with Iron Realms since 2005 or so). Tony: What’s the burnout rate on volunteers? Matt Mihaly: I'm not sure we've ever quantified it actually. The Celani [volunteer] program works out because it weeds out the people who are going to flake out anyway. You have to put in a lot of hours to make it to Godhood. It’s a lot of building, writing room descriptions, scripting encounters if you are the sort of person who can script, etc. We mostly try to find whatever the person is good at and let them do that. Tony: What started the idea for Aetolia? Matt Mihaly: That’s easy actually, what sparked that was Achaea couldn't handle any more players on Achaea with the Vortex engine! We didn't have the Rapture finished yet, and unlike modern MMOs where there is virtually no player impact on the world, you can't have 10 Achaea shards without sacrificing the ability for developers to react to what the players are doing. So I thought that if we can't shard the game like Everquest or Ultima Online or other MMOs, lets just take the code base, fork it, and create a new world. We did an event where another God from an alternate reality had come in and was disturbing our reality, so our God characters fought and the universe ended up branching into 2 universes. We just kind of ripped the Achaea code base and added new classes and areas when Aetolia launched. Aetolia is now very different from Achaea but when it launched it was very similar. Tony: Let’s talk about something totally unrelated. I heard about an incident where some player acted in such a crazy manner, that any players acting in a similar manner were referred to as “Kimberlys” by the admin? Matt Mihaly: Oh God, I vaguely remember that player now! We've had some pretty crazy users over the years. The thing with running an online community is that its impossible to spell out ahead of time everything that’s acceptable, so inevitably there’s going to be strong differences of opinion between players and our admins who decide whether they've broken the rules or not. And then there are players who are just out to be assholes and know they're being assholes. I’ve had people send me death threats and I’ve gotten the police involved too. We had this one player - Xianty. He was a very avid player, playing Achaea pretty much full-time. I don’t remember the disagreement anymore but he sent me a bunch of emails about how he was going to show up at my door and kill me. I knew enough about the kid to know he wasn’t a serious threat, but I wasn't going to let him get away with that, so called the police. They took it way more seriously than I did. They tracked him down to where he lived in Wisconsin, showed up at his door, and scared the hell out of him. I was told he looked like he was wetting himself. After that, I only got emails from him asking if he could be let back into the game (fat chance), since he had been banned after the death threat. Tony: So on the topic of the crazy actions of players, did you ever get wind of the whole Qashar situation? There were forum threads and Maya was getting emails about this group of players going around ganking other players. Maya left IRE shortly after that whole situation, was there a correlation? Matt Mihaly: I'm not overly familiar with that situation I'm afraid. Maya left the company because she wasn't really passionate about Achaea anymore and not because of a specific event. As I understand it, the deal was that there were a bunch of players who were pushing the rules as much as possible to bully people in any way possible - mass killings, locking them in rooms, crippling them, etc. My problem with that kind of roleplay is that it's just an excuse to do what they already want to do. I don't have much tolerance for the idea of "roleplaying a mass murderer." At the end of the day, roleplay is not the end-all-be-all. Having fun is what matters, and if their roleplay is causing other people to not have fun then they need to find a new way to roleplay. I always used to tell players like that that if it's ok for them to roleplay a mass murderer, I will choose to roleplay an angry and vengeful God who will take away everything they have. I sort of chuckle because that's the kind of player I was when I played Avalon - the administration literally encouraged me to drive people off the game....which is really dumb. I'd never tolerate that on our games. Tony: Unrelated question, what was your favorite event in Achaea? Matt Mihaly: It wasn't very successful in the end, but I really enjoyed the Vertani invasion. What I underestimated, and this is naive in retrospect, but I really underestimated the willingness of people to just say "eff it, I'm just going to kill this thing". I remember we were trying to play it straight and kind of non-linear. We were seriously staying up late and trying to write code and content in response to what players were doing. We had roughly planned out the first part of the event, but we were going to make it up on the fly in order to better be able to react to player actions past that. We even added a language-learning system so that when you first encountered the Vertani you had no idea what they were saying, but the more time you spent talking to them the better you'd be able to understand what they were saying. Eventually you'd learn to speak Vertani yourself. Unsurprisingly though, early on a player walked up to the first group of Vertani that had been discovered and just killed them. He had no reason to do it, and was just being a jackass, but we couldn't pretend it didn't happen. The Vertani are not the sort of people who take kindly to being abused like that. We were kind of dismayed by this, as clearly this event was going to devolve straight into an us vs. them war, which it did. I had a lot of fun regardless because I was personally heavily involved with running the event. It was a failed experiment though because it was an enormous amount of work and it just boiled down to players killing NPCs. Boring. Go play WoW if that's all you want to do. Tony: The Achaea today is probably very different from the way you left it, as far as all the new areas and skills and stuff put in over the years. Would you ever come back as a God or mortal character just to check it out? Matt Mihaly: Part of me wants to get back into it, but I don’t want to be the CEO who comes in and says "oh you guys should change the color of this button" without being involved daily. I try to stay out of the actual game stuff. I know they added a continent to the south which is pretty cool. I had sketched out that continent a long time ago, but I think they diverged pretty significantly from my early plans for it. That was one of the things I had to get over when I passed Achaea to Maya to run day-to-day five years ago. Achaea was my baby compared to the other IRE games. Occasionally I get an email from a player who is upset about something and tries to go over Jeremy's [IRE's President], and I’m just like look, Jeremy has the final call at this point.
Thus was the conclusion of our chat session! Maybe the next time you get textpwned in one of Iron Realms text games, it will have been by the hand of the creator himself!