Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about church consultants — those specialists that church leaders hire to help them revitalize their dying churches, among other purposes. The attempts that don’t fail immediately might succeed for a little while, but very rarely do their effects last for the long haul. Revitalization efforts tend to fail because once a group is solidly entrenched in a particular way of behaving and thinking together, it’s almost impossible to create lasting change in its members. Long ago, I learned that lesson in spades on an online game. So today, let me recount for you that time someone tried — and failed — to revitalize a game we played.
A Quick Introduction.
Long long ago, in the Before Times, Yr. Loyal &tc Captain was extremely active in the world of online gaming. Specifically, I played MUDs (Multi-User Domains). They’re like today’s multi-player video games like World of Warcraft and Black Desert Online, except done all in text. Also, they’re almost always free. Thus, MUD staffers and developers volunteer there as a labor of love and a hobby.
Sometimes, if the developers of the MUD feel really wacky, you get color in the text. Or pictures drawn in ANSI letters. Otherwise, that’s it. It’s just words. You read others’ words, you react and interact with words, and you type out commands in word format.
Obviously, I fit into that environment like a duck in water. Originally, I just built new stuff for these games — areas/zones, equipment, etc. Soon enough, though, I drifted into the world of softcode. That’s code written within the game’s code. With softcode, players can accomplish small things ingame like crafting armor, cooking food, or emoting in special ways.
Back then and in that neck of the MUDding woods, not many people could write good softcode. So I found myself courted regularly by new MUD developers.
The End of Time.
One of these developers was a guy we’ll call Shane. In the mid-1990s, he started a new MUD using code similar to the games I liked to play. Soon after, he asked me to check out “The End of Time” (EoT) to see if maybe I’d want to do my thang there.
Yikes, this game was a nightmare. Awful backstory (medieval-ish Catholicism vs. ZOMG DEMONS), no real worldbuilding, and a playerbase running wild. Half the game seemed to revolve around how coooool human sacrifice totally was, man. The other half revolved around illicit drug use. The game felt like a teenage house party thrown while the host’s parents were away.
I graciously declined Shane’s offer and wished him the best.
Some months later, Shane vanished from EoT. Yes, he actually up and vanished. Nobody knew where he’d gone. Nobody could raise him on any other communication channels either. His staffers went into a complete tailspin. Almost none of them were what I’d have considered even halfway competent, so none of them felt up to helming the project in his absence. Many quit.
Luckily, the game itself was hosted on a paid commercial server and it was paid for way out into the future, so its staffers had some time to decide what to do. Even more luckily, Shane’s staffers had the password and whatnot to the game’s account there. That meant that someone could run the game — as long as it wasn’t them.
My friend Drake stepped in at that point.
He was a longtime MUDding colleague of mine — one whose work, roleplaying skills, and attitude I admired and respected. He’d been watching this game from afar and taking notes on how it could be improved and what could be done to turn it into a playable and enjoyable game that’d appeal to more than just a tiny niche of players.
The very few admins remaining quickly accepted his bid to helm the game.
And the first thing Drake decided to do was to revitalize EoT.
The Process Begins.
Looking back, this revitalization process reminds me so much of what happens in churches.
First, Drake started an official website for the MUD. He rewrote the game’s backstory from scratch, creating noble houses, maps, countries, alliances, and more for EoT. Much of what Shane had created was mercifully binned, though Drake incorporated some of it in various minor ways into EoT’s new timeline. The wider MUDding community soon took note of these changes.
Next, Drake began bringing the game itself into line with his timeline and worldbuilding. This is about when I came onboard — he invited me in to help clean up the lackluster room and equipment descriptions, write softcode, and get rid of all the druggie stuff.
And finally, Drake began enforcing roleplay to fit into the revitalized game.
By this time, EoT did not even resemble the madhouse I’d visited long ago. It attracted a large number of new players — multiplying the playerbase many times over. And it drew back a lot of players who’d tried the game briefly before and left in disgust for the same reasons I had. Its roster of staffers were now largely all Drake hires — Shane’s admins had almost all left by the time Drake stepped in anyway, and most of the ones remaining saw the writing on the wall and left once he took over.
Everything seemed great for a while — at first. As predicted, Drake’s changes appealed to a huge number of people, who made their enjoyment known to others still.
In retrospect, though, we really should have foreseen what would happen. We knew what gamers were like. Heck, we ourselves were gamers. And we’d ignored that reality to our own detriment.
As the old-school pre-Drake players realized what was happening, they grew increasingly uneasy.
As the final touches to the “new” game came into play, however, they outright revolted.
They did not like not being able to play cackling demonic priests dragging human skins along behind themselves down the game’s Main Street (an analog of Rome) just to freak out the weenie religious characters in the game. They hated not being able to play sneaky thieves and organized criminals who never got caught.
Most especially, they hated that we removed all the marijuana plants and paraphernalia from the game’s publicly-accessible spaces.
Through it all, the old-school EoT players never, ever actually got on board with the changes we made.
We thought they would eventually. We did everything in our power, or so we thought, to help them adapt to the new and vastly more immersive and detailed gameworld.
But they never stopped wanting “their” game back. In trying to revitalize EoT, Drake had taken away the kind of play they loved best. Sure, it was Snidely Whiplash levels of gratuitous eeeeeeeeeeeevillllllllll, but dangit, they loved every second of it.
They hadn’t joined EoT to be contributing members of a rotating cast of characters immersed in a very cool, fear-reaching plotline exploring the intersection of politics, magic, faith, and religion.
And they always resented Drake for changing the game on them.
Perhaps because of their anger and disappointment, the old guard made life extra-hard for the new players who actually enjoyed the game Drake had made. They tried hard to undermine Drake’s staffers.
The game soon polarized into battle lines.
Now, you’d be fairly excused for thinking right around here, Why didn’t they just go find another game to play? But there wasn’t another game like the Shane version of EoT — for good reason. Certainly, none of them were up to the work required to create, host, and maintain a MUD. So it was EoT or bust, really, for them.
Maybe you also ask, Why did y’all not ban them? To that, I can only say that back then that cluster of MUDs operated with very specific rules. Back then, admins didn’t like banning people unless they ran afoul of those specific rules. So it was actually easy for trolls to slide past them to violate the spirit of the law while not violating its letter.
I really don’t know what their victory conditions looked like, or if they even had one in mind.
You’d also be fairly excused for wondering, Why the heck did y’all not close EoT and go make a brand-new game? Sunk-cost fallacies ahoy, I guess. It sure crossed my mind fairly often, especially as the shortcomings of Shane’s coding became clear (I was dating a professional coder myself at the time and he graciously rescued EoT many times from Shane’s code).
In retrospect, that really would have been the best option. Clearly, we were not up to the task we’d set for ourselves. Also clearly, we made a lot of mistakes in the revamp in handling those older players. I’m not even sure experienced managers could have untied that Gordian knot, but we were far from that level.
However, Drake didn’t wanna start over again. He’d put a lot of work into his worldbuilding and timeline and maps and whatnot. He was positive that sooner or later, the old guard would relent.
It never happened.
On the game’s forum, the old guard Shane-era players got more and more acrimonious. Ingame, they acted out worse and worse. Newer players began to complain. The months passed and all that happened was that the MUD’s playerbase deteriorated further and further.
Things were coming to a distinct head.
And then suddenly Shane returned from his absence.
As it turns out, Shane had, uh, been in prison for the past year or two.
For some serious drug-related charges. It’d all been very sudden. He hadn’t even been able to make bail, so he’d been without internet access ever since his arrest. Once we knew what to look for, we easily located verification of his claims.
I gotta say: nobody felt surprised at all by any of this news.
Now Shane was back (from outer space), and beaming with delight that someone had so kindly kept his game running in his absence.
He thanked Drake profusely for all his hard work, with the very, very clear implication that he was ready to take back the reins again and immediately undo everything Drake had done.
The old guard celebrated with wild abandon. The newer players stressed to pieces over what would happen to the fun characters whose lives they’d been acting out for years by then.
At that point, we all had a decision to make.
Drake could have fought Shane for ownership EoT, sure. The game was way more a Drake creation than a Shane one by then.
However, Shane had a good excuse for having vanished. And technically, EoT wouldn’t even have existed without him.
Instead of fighting about it, Drake quit. Shane immediately became EoT’s new head admin.
Along with Drake, most of the other staffers left. A couple remained — including me, for a brief time. (Hey. The sunk cost fallacy was once my very, very favorite way to sabotage myself.) But even we left too, as Shane began doing exactly what Drake had feared.
And with us, most of the newer players left as well. Thankfully, by then another interesting MUD had opened up — so almost all of us gravitated there. I soon became one of its lead admins. There, I built stuff for the game and wrote softcode to my little heart’s content for the next bunch of years.
Drake ended up on a completely different gaming network doing stuff for a very large science-fiction MUD using a totally different codebase. At least one of my other colleagues ended up in the video-gaming industry doing big stuff for shooty-uppy games you have almost definitely at least heard about.
As for EoT itself, it fell apart in short order. Shane was left playing with himself, some new and poorly-chosen staffers, and a decimated playerbase full of people who just wanted to play hardcore members of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW). But without a ready supply of victims to victimize, the game turned out to be nowhere near as fun for them.
Eventually, Shane tried to revitalize EoT into a second edition game, and then a third. These efforts never panned out. Eventually, EoT folded for good, it seems. Its website isn’t even active anymore. I have no idea what Shane’s even doing nowadays.
Gosh, who knew? For most people, a game full of Snidely Whiplash villains doesn’t create the cohesion needed for a decent roleplaying experience.
And if you try to revitalize a game consisting of a group of people who solidly love being puppy-kicking jerkweeds, they won’t step into line — even if the revitalization means the difference between a playable game and one nobody decent wants to be involved with.
If you run a group containing a lot of people like that, it’s probably best to just walk away and make a new game rather than try to convince them to become different players. They’re in that game because it resonates with them and speaks to them.
I learned something else, too.
Change, Change, Change.
Change comes hard to a lot of people, but perhaps to some more than others.
As a result of this debacle, I began to perceive in my gaming community a very distinct unwillingness to examine themselves, much less to question their behavior, much less to ask if maybe there’s a change that needs to be made, much less to actually put such a change into action. At the last MUD I staffed, the head admin and I used to joke that at the merest hint of change, gamers would run around in circles with their hands in the air like their hair was on fire.
And we included ourselves in that assessment, because of course we were also gamers.
Much later, I’d think about my old tribe of fundagelicals and see a lot of similarities there with the gamers I’d fallen in with after my deconversion.
I think recognizing those similarities helped me learn to overcome my fear and dread of change — and maybe helped me learn to examine my own behavior and reflect on my flaws in ways that helped me overcome them.
NEXT UP: Evangelicals don’t like cancel culture, huh? Well that’s weird — and massively hypocritical to boot. Let’s look at why. See you tomorrow!
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