Happy Birthday, MUD2.COM!

[The sysop and the systems he's opping]Yes, it has been a whole year now since I loaded up the player database on my Linux test machine and opened the system up to players. This was a fulfilment of my promise made only a few months earlier, when I assured players that if the "Kesmai" site ever closed down, I'll make sure that they won't be stranded without a new home. Of course I didn't exactly expect that I may have to live up to that promise only a few months later...

But hang on, I am making it sound as if running MUD2.COM was a chore of sorts. Well, sometimes it is a chore, when I have to do the monthly billing thing or when I have to discipline the odd misbehaving player (who are thankfully few and far between.) Most of the time, though, MUD2.COM is fun to manage, and its success is a great source of pride for me even if not (yet) a great source of revenue.

MUD2.COM, you say? But doesn't this site actually have a name?

Well, not really. Unlike most previous MUD2 sites, ours is run by an individual, not a business. It was also set up in great haste, and finding it a proper name was the last thing on our minds at the time. Since then, players have begun referring to this site by its Internet address, MUD2.COM, so this "name" stuck. I'm not entirely unhappy with it either: however Spartan, this name is highly practical, as it is also the Internet address of both the game proper and its Web page.

I just stated that MUD2.COM is not run by a business. This should not be taken to mean that MUD2.COM is not run as a business. It has always been my intent to run the game as professionally as possible. This is (hopefully) reflected through the significant events of the past year. Given that this is an anniversary issue of the Chronicles after all, I trust you won't view it as an abuse of my privileges as system operator and newsletter editor if I recount some of the successes and trying moments of these twelve months on this page.

January 31, 1997 was a mad scramble. Having received news of the imminent shutdown of Kesmai's MUD2 site just the day before, my priority was to get the game up and running as soon as possible. I knew that this was important for a number of reasons: being able to fire up the service practically immediately demonstrated my commitment to provide uninterrupted service using whatever means are available, and also helped establish a degree of trust with those players who decided to set up accounts here. However, I knew that things could not go on without some investment into equipment: on this first day, MUD2 shared a server of limited capacity with other software, and it also used a shared modem line for its Internet connection. Except for a brief transitional period, few players would tolerate extended periods of extreme lag while I was transferring a large e-mail attachment or viewing a RealPlayer movie. Even fewer would be willing to pay for such a service. I also had other problems with this temporary solution: the modem line in question also served as my FAX line, as it was never intended to be used for an Internet connection on a continuous basis. While it was used for MUD2, I was unable to send or receive FAXes.

So the initial battle plan was clear: get a server, get a separate telephone line, get a high-speed modem, get a separate Internet connection. All this was actually completed within a couple of weeks. By mid-February, MUD2 was running on its dedicated Pentium-class machine and connected via a modem line reserved for its exclusive use. By this time, I also managed to reserve the symbolic name MUD2.COM.

Because of the expenses involved, it was increasingly important that I be able to start charging for the service as soon as possible. There were two fundamental questions that needed to be resolved: what, and how?

What to charge? MUD2 actually has a built-in facility that allows charging by the hour. However, I always preferred a flat monthly fee. Charging by the hour introduces a lot of administrative overhead. It can also be very expensive to dedicated players who're often likely to spend several hours a day in the game. It also discourages players from staying in the game to chat or just linger in the tearoom, leading to a game that's more often empty of players... and it's difficult to attract new players with a supposedly multi-user game that has no players on-line! So a flat monthly fee it was. Setting the amount was actually quite easy, given our known expenses and revenue expectations, and my desire to keep the price as low as possible (yes, as many MUD2 old-timers can tell, USD 25 a month is a very low fee compared to what they had to pay elsewhere in the past.)

The second question concerned the mechanics of charging. With players from half a dozen countries on three continents, this isn't a trivial question. Payment by mail may not always be practical, especially as the purchase, or deposit, of the applicable financial instruments can be quite costly. The most obvious answer is to use credit cards of course. Unfortunately, conservative creatures that they are, Canadian banks don't even want to hear about the idea of providing a "merchant account" to an individual (and I wasn't quite prepared to incorporate a business just to satisfy their bureaucrats). Fortunately, my friends at InCAD Corporation came to the rescue: this small Ottawa company that I worked with in the past was able to set up the required arrangements and by March 1, we were ready to accept credit card orders. Or, to be more precise, VISA and AMEX orders: for some inexplicable reason, all local banks that deal with MasterCard had some impractical requirement that we were unable, or unwilling, to comply with. One didn't even want to hear about Internet transactions; another wanted to inspect, and approve, our secure Web server (as if we had any); yet another wanted a deposit that amounted to several times MUD2.COM's projected monthly revenue. Yet they repeatedly assure the public that large Canadian banks are strongly pro-small business... yeah, right.

So on March 1, charging began. Although a number of players decided to terminate their subscriptions once the free trial was over, a surprising number actually opted to take advantage of the discount I offered and prepaid their subscriptions for a whole year. I considered this a sign of trust; I felt honoured. Thank you!

With all the basic elements in place, it was time to let MUD2.COM run on its own a little and focus on other issues, such as creating a Web presence for the game. My intent was to create a Web page of distinctive appearance, and also over time to place most, if not all, material from the game's Library on the Web. Initially the Web page was set up under my personal home page, but the plan was to bring http://www.mud2.com/ into existence as soon as possible. In fact, after some time only one obstacle remained: undue delays at MUD2.COM's Internet provider. Although I didn't know it yet, this was a sign of things to come.

As finally everything appeared to run smoothly, it was the perfect time for Murphy's Law to strike. One dreadful day, just hours after I installed a new version of MUD2 that I received from Richard earlier, the system began to misbehave seriously. Spurious resets and freezes, corrupt files, inexplicable game crashes: the works. At first I suspected the new code, but the problems continued even after I restored the previous game version. Things were getting progressively worse, actually, until the point was reached when the operating system didn't even boot anymore. By this time I began to suspect the system's motherboard, and I immediately ordered a replacement, which was due to arrive the next morning. I admit I did not have a pleasant night's sleep while MUD2 was offline.

The next day, with the new motherboard installed, the system was back up and running again, and the problems disappeared. (Lucky guess!)  After a few days of smooth running, I again upgraded to the new version, and this time the new code worked without any problems. Once again it was smooth sailing time. With invaluable help and inspiration from Starquest, we began working on the first issue of MUD2.COM's newsletter. Everything was going well... until Canada Day.

Canada celebrates its national holiday on July 1. On this beautiful summer day we had a unique experience: from the balcony of our new home that my wife and I moved to the previous autumn, we actually saw the horse-drawn carriage of Queen Elizabeth II on its way towards Parliament Hill. Too bad that only a few hours later, our lazy day was rudely interrupted by the repeated, unsuccesful attempts of the MUD2 system's modem to redial. What the... well, I picked up the phone and dialled the mobile number of the president and chief guru of this small Internet provider. Grateful that he picked up the phone, I asked if he knew that his service was down. I was somewhat unprepared for the answer: yes, he said, but he cannot do anything about it because he's locked out of his own company. Locked out??? Just what on Earth is going on here?

Well, to make a long story short, there was an ownership dispute. One party took matters into their own hands, with apparent complete disregard to the convenience and well-being of their customers. The day's events unfolded like a cheap soap opera. By late evening, I was determined to switch to another provider, at least for backup purposes. This seemed also the perfect time to implement a long-planned upgrade and replace the analogue modem connection with a high-speed digital link. By the second half of July, MUD2.COM had a brand new 128 kbit connection to UUNet Canada's high-speed backbone in Ottawa. Which, as if to prove that good old Murphy never sleeps, promptly went dead for over seven hours two days later, because of a fire alarm in the building where UUNet Canada's Ottawa equipment is located. Did I make a horrible mistake, switching to this provider? For a while, I had my doubts, but fortunately there have been no significant outages since (currently, the link has been continuously up for over 101 days with close to 120 million packets transferred.)*

The new connection also allowed me to "repatriate" the MUD2 home page: setting up our own Web server, that is. Direct control over the server and its features also allowed me to experiment with services that were not previously possible. By the fall, the Web page was in such good shape, it was time to seriously think about commercial advertising. I received an offer earlier from the infamous MUD Connector, and I was hoping to start there with a small ad-run: sadly, they have sold out their advertising space by this time. However, the advertising agency that they were associated with had other offers, so by November, I was able to place an ad on another game-related commercial site. It was pretty much on a trial basis, to see what, if any, increase in traffic it will bring: as it turns out, the "click rate" was higher than I expected (the number of people who actually clicked on our ad after seeing it was in excess of 1% whereas I only expected a fraction of a percent) but fewer people decided to actually try out our game or sign up to play. Still, the expense is easily recovered. It was also an educational experience.

And this brings us to the present. MUD2.COM is running smoothly with a small but devoted population of players, but it is in serious need of newbies. Bringing them to the game, getting them to sign up and stay is just as hard a task as I imagined back a year ago. I have a number of plans (see this column in the previous issue of the Chronicles); I can only express my hopes that these plans, with the help and trust that I receive from you, MUD2.COM's players, will make MUD2.COM's second year even more successful than its first.

But before we set on with all that, it is time to celebrate. Without a doubt, the highlight of this weekend will be the attempt by Tethys and his friends to slay the dragon using brute force in the place of brains.  I can hardly wait! From the wiz perspective, the event will be highly entertaining regardless of the outcome. (Seeing mortals fail miserably is always amusing.) However, it is success that I root for: may these brave (if foolish) mortals' victory serve as a sign of things to come for MUD2.COM in its second year!

Viktor the arch-wizard

*Shortly after I wrote the above sentence, UUNet Canada's Ottawa node went out of commission for several hours. Apparently the cause was the failure of a hardware part that needed to be shipped in from Montreal, some 200 km away.

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This Web page copyright 1998 Viktor T. Toth
MUD2 is copyright 1998 Multi-User Entertainment Limited
Page last modified: January 31, 1998