Text-based Games: An Untapped Genre

Text-based RPGs hold a strange position when compared to other game genres. We are under-represented on virtually every game website, design blog, and sale platform. The reasons for this woeful state can be roughly boiled down to a stagnate community, a lack of innovation, and an almost non-existent advertising culture. With those three factors working against the community, it’s no surprise that people don’t believe we have room to grow, but we do. Text-based games have qualities that appeal to a growing demographic of gamers and it can be argued we’re the best genre to provide those specific qualities.


It can often feel like there isn’t much hope for the text-based gaming community as a genre these days. Our largest community sites have seen diminished discussion and activity. New games often fail to gain traction or sit in the 20 player range for decades. Older games can sometimes feel like they have passed their prime and are simply maintaining the status quo without actually evolving. It all comes together to impart a pretty discouraging state of affairs. To begin to beat stagnation we need to understand it and I think that it can be broken down into three points. Firstly we have the reality that text-based games are very retro and gaming has somewhat progressed past us. Secondly, there is the fact that the majority of our community is volunteer hobbyists because of the restrictive nature of the licenses our games operate under. Finally, we have the simplest reason of all, a lack of outreach and promotion to draw new members into the community.


There can be other factors at play and certainly no issue as complex as a failing social group can be perfectly defined in three bullet points but we’re going to get there if you can stick with me. Let’s address the fact that text-based games are dated. For those of you who do not know text-based games basically pre-dated the point and click adventure and the isometric RPG (Planescape: Torment or Fallout 1). From the creation of text-based gaming with Zork to 2017 we have had minimal innovation in the genre. Not only are we retro but we haven’t progressed our specific style of game like other genres have grown, just look at point and click adventures evolution from Zork 2 to Walking Dead Season 1. The most obvious reason for this is that the majority of our codebases are under non-profit licenses because they are derivative. This non-profit nature has led there to being a very limited number of monetized games which used their own custom engines. This rarity in profitable text-based games means that our best and brightest designers and innovators end up leaving the community eventually. There is no other genre of game with such a low potential for financial success for innovation as ours. To use a famous term, text-based RPGs have a “brain drain” effect occurring because of disincentivized creators.


Let us briefly touch on what I mean when I say that we lack innovation in our game design while other genres have evolved. In the early day of video games when they were still figuring out what game design was they used to provide player manuals with the game. It was almost required to read these things to understand how to play. As time passed game designers learned how to teach players how to play the game via level design and gameplay. I pick this example specifically because text-based games have (generally speaking) terrible newbie accessibility and tutorials. It’s one of the drawbacks of our medium, but teaching newbies the command sets and making it intuitive is a pretty big hurdle and it’s not one that has been addressed for the majority of the community.


Even with the lack of evolution in our genre and incentives to our creator, there is an even more fundamental problem plaguing our community. The almost non-existent promotion, advertisement, or out reach to other forms of gamers to infuse our community with new players. I want to stress that I am not claiming there is no attempt to bring in new players. I am saying that it is not a concerted or professional effort to bring in new players. Text-based games aren’t on steam in any significant numbers, they aren’t on indie game websites, they aren’t part of game design discussions. Where is our presence? I have seen players and staff for text-based games dedicate and passionately support their games for years despite low player numbers. Yet you don’t see these struggling games put out google ads, advertise weekly on our large community sites, or consistently advertise on gamer websites. Lets look at Evennia as an example. While Evennia is not a game it is a codebase and arguably one of the best things to happen to the text-based gaming community in years. It is in a modern coding language with a supportive license agreement and a very active development community.


Pointing out a problem is helpful but not as good as providing some options to solve the problem. With that in mind we should examine some simple steps that can be taken to broaden the reach of our genre and your games. Promotion is not a one-shot deal and you need to have thick skin for people not wanting you around, it’s just the nature of the beast. You should have weekly or monthly updates across multiple sites with additions to your game, storylines that have been run, incentives for new players, and whatever else you think people might be interested in. You need to plug this consistently and on a predictable schedule because every time you update a promotion that’s another opportunity for someone to notice it. It may seem shameless or annoying but you have to swallow that and accept that the key to reaching people is repetition. Don’t believe me? Go look at every movie and major game release where the developer has money. What do they do? They plug it everywhere and constantly because it works and people respond to that.


Being persistent in your out reach isn’t enough though. Like all marketing campaign you need to identify who your target audience is. My longtime girlfriend, Giller, is involved in marketing and branding. She will often tell me, you have to envision an amalgamation of your perfect user. You then need to understand where your perfect user can be reached. You then need to go there. So what is the perfect user for text-based RPGs? Well the obvious answer is gamers of both traditional and video variety who like story and are open to roleplay. This would be your Dungeons and Dragons players and your point and click adventure players, for example. These kinds of players have their own communities and often these communities have “off-topic” sections where it is perfectly acceptable for you to post about your game or the genre as a whole. If you feel uncomfortable doing this just shoot a PM or e-mail to the forum mods and check first!


Now that you’ve committed to a consistent promotional campaign, identified your ideal user, and where they can be reached it is time to look at other avenues of out reach. Advertisements are a good start to reaching new users but you need to keep them when they arrive. This is where community building comes in and I will be using Optional Realities as our example case here. Optional Realities advertises across several communities including an indie gaming community and a tabletop RPG community. Once they get to our website we need to give them a reason to stay beyond discussions on the forum. You will also need to give people a reason to stay in your community beyond just your game. The reason for this is that users can be burned out on one form of content and by providing multiple hooks you give them a reason to remain part of your community beyond just one and thus increase user retention. On Optional Realities we have weekly articles and our monthly contests. Both of these regularly released content sources give users a reason to visit us beyond checking the forum but both of them feedback into forum participation in a natural manner. Thus we cater to the non-forum participation crowd and give them an avenue to easily participate whenever the mood strikes then. For text-based games you can have similar methods of out reach. You can have game nights where the players do cards against humanity or board game online or maybe Team Fortress 2 together. This allows members of your community to continue to form bonds together and have a reason to interact with each other outside of your game which reduces the chance of losing a player completely. As long as the player continues to check out your website there is a chance they will return playing and that is what you want. In addition to game nights you can do contests or perhaps create a method for players to contribute new game content and ideas outside of just playing. It’s really whatever you feel comfortable with and can maintain over time.


The final portion of community out reach is legitimizing our genre. There should be a text-based game on steam. We should have gaming articles written about us. We need to modernize our presence and remind people that we still have something to offer them, because the truth is gamers want us. You may not think so, they might not know it, but text-based gaming offers things that other games are still struggling to provide.


I just claimed text-based games have something that gamers want but they don’t know it. I should probably clarify this a bit since it’s a big assumption and shouldn’t be believed just because. Lets downsize gamers to people who like story and lets specify that some people don’t know what they want until they get it. Case-in-point I present Spec Ops: The Line. This is an FPS (First Person Shooter) which dominated its genre which is built on the back of game mechanics and multiplay viability. This game came out of no where and filled gaming articles for months with its powerful narrative that made a commentary on shooters as a genre and used its gameplay to immerse players before questioning their decisions and motivations via the story. Yahtzee from the Escapist said it was the most interesting thing to happen in game narrative for years. It was also widely critically acclaimed, much like our next game. The Walking Dead Season 1 by TellTale Games. This point and click adventure is all about player choice and the story. It currently has a 97% positive review rating on Steam and launched TellTale Games into a power house of the video game industry where they have since produced a Game of Thrones title, Wolf Among Us comic title, and even a Borderlands title.


You may be noticing a theme here with narrative and immersion being prominent. Lets take a look at the indie gaming scene with Bastion. This game was a break out success that was initially distributed by the developer and then got picked up and released under a big name publisher. This game doesn’t have groundbreaking mechanics or even multiplayer. What it has is great voice work and music which bring the player into the game world and conveys an interesting and engaging story. So that’s FPS, Point and Click, and now indie adventure games all having break out successes which rose on the pillars of story and immersion. Ignoring break out games lets look at the story based games that are produced and sold on the backs of their narrative and player agency. We have Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Pillar’s of Eternity, and the Witcher series. Often these games are focused on player choice affecting the narrative and the narrative being compelling. The gameplay in these titles is normally polished but it’s normally not the biggest selling point either.


I think we can all agree that story, immersion, and player choice are a viable facet of game design in the video game industry and there is certainly a demand for it. There is even a demand for it in genres like FPS which have been dominated by narratively barren entries for years to the point that it was becoming a joke that the genre had become a shooting brown people simulator. In addition to an identifable demand for story, immersion, and player choice there is also a trend in the video game community towards retro styles when the product quality is good. We have Shovel Knight, NEStalgia, Pillars of Eternity, and even Sanctuary RPG. These all present a lower graphical spectacle and are still widely enjoyed and played. It is titles like these which make me believe that text-based games still have the ability to compete despite our decidedly retro presentation.


If we accept that there are games successfully marketed on the back of being “story rich” , which is an actual tag on Steam, than I think we can entertain the idea that text-based RPGs still have a place in gaming. Text-based games are uniquely positioned to provide the most player agency possible because we don’t have the overhead expense of rendering graphics or producing art assets. In the same vein we are positioned to provide the most complex and indepth narratives either allowing total sandbox freedom or targeted railroaded meta-plots because we don’t have the same overhead and expenses associated with producing content on our games that other traditional board games or video games have. We have the freedom of imagination and the allure of a truly player driven experience.


Now I can already hear people pointing to the differences between a hack and slash MUD and a MUSH or an RPI versus an RPE. The differences in our community is a strength and not a hinderence. Even within the FPS genre you have games like Half-life next to Quake or Doom or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. We don’t have to provide a unified front, but we do have to recognize our strengths. The areas of game design, story, and player agency that we can out perform other games. Only then can we create an experience that can draw in new players from outside the community, with a little promotion thrown in to let them know that we exist.


If you think this can’t be done than I have good news. It already has been done. There are roguelike and adventure MUDs that are monetized and have solid numbers (not all the listed games are monetized). They have more ad presence than many of the games on MUD Connecto or Top Mud Sites and they also have tried to evolve and progress the genre in their own ways. Lets take a look at Aardwolf which has 290+ users during a weekday in the afternoon. Aardwolf even provides banners to its players, here. These are well done, allow people to support the game, and also promote the game itself. How about one of the Iron Realms Entertainment games. They are many players first experience with text-based games and they have produced several different types of settings to maximize their player retention. Achaea has only 80 players online during the afternoon on a US weekday but keep in mind these people are likely spending money to play this game and IRE provides several selections. They advertise themselves are a professional MUD experience and provide very polished custom clients for play with music too! It’s a very small leap for video gamers to try out an IRE game because of this visual add-on that gives them some form of graphical support. There is also BatMUD which is a roguelike and currently greenlit on steam. It also has a custom client, a competently run promotional campaign, and sports 106 players during off peak hours. Finally you have Threshold which has 67 users online during US offpeak but once again it is a monetized game and even ended up spawning an indie game company with successful kickstarters.


There is no reason that with the right engine, the right promotion, and the right quality of game that these levels of successes cannot be reproduced for text-based RPGs. You just need to have a vision, polish it, and be confident enough in it to promote it to the world. I know I’m making it sound easy and it’s not, but it is possible and there is a path to success that has been tread by others that can be followed by us. Optional Realities is a good example of going for something that a lot of people didn’t think there would be any demand for. You can grow and so can our genre as a whole. It just takes a little faith in what we have to offer the gaming community. Something that the gaming community has clearly shown there is a demand for and something I believe we have in abundance.


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