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Like many of the people reading this, I am obsessed by the development of my own little slice of the Internet. Epitaph has been a long-term project for me, on which I have greatly enjoyed working. I discussed the process of going from an empty MUD to an open MUD in the first issue of the resurrected Imaginary Realities, so I won't hash over that again. Instead, I want to talk about one of the ways in which I made sure my private obsession didn't end up costing me professional opportunities.

The way I came to be a MUD developer is typical; I encountered my first MUD in the first year of my degree program. It was a game called Valhalla MUD, and while I can't remember anything about it now (except, for some reason, grinding deer for silver coins), it sparked a fascination that has lasted my entire life. When I tired of Valhalla (it was a pay-to-progress MUD as I recall, and I wasn't very keen on doing that as a poor, struggling student), I moved on to Discworld MUD, which an Internet friend told me about. We'd been having a discussion about Terry Pratchett and I was enthusing about how much I enjoyed his books. She said Oh, I have something to show you then!

Deep in my addiction to Discworld, I found out very early that the British telephone system wasn't great for allowing me to play to my heart's content; we were still paying per minute back then, even for local calls to an ISP. I found myself spending more and more time at university, staying late in the labs so I could satiate my lust for mudding. When I stepped up to become a developer for the game, most of my development work was done in the university labs.

People didn't realise at the time that I wasn't the studious, dedicated student that I seemed to be. The computing facilities there were for me to indulge my obsessions. Group work, assessments, all of those things were secondary to getting my developer projects done and dusted. I had friends who were similarly obsessed to begin with, but as they fell foul of the rules, found other things to do, or moved on, I persisted.

Once upon a time, “MUD” was jokingly said to be an acronym for Multi-Undergraduate Destroyer. Luckily, I managed to get through my degree without ever having spent much time focusing on it. A large part of that was taking on a role as creator: I learned everything that actually mattered about coding and software engineering from my years at the codeface.

A slightly different temperament, a slightly different set of personal circumstances, and I would have squandered one of the best opportunities of my life. That degree led to various teaching posts, eventually a research studentship, and then proper lecturerships in various universities. I'm coming to the tail-end of one of those now, and moving on to a new lectureship in March. It's ironic that one of the reasons I've managed to acquire a degree of free mobility within this very competitive sector is my obsession with Epitaph and the related work I have produced on the side.

There's a great blog by Chester Bolingbroke (a pseudonym) called CRPG Addict. In one of his early posts, he explained his life predicament: he can't stop playing RPGs. He is very earnest about the word 'addict' there; it's not hyperbole, it's something that has seriously caused him problems throughout his life. He tried to quit, tried to control it, but in the end understood that there are some demons you can't quiet. So instead he tried to make his obsession work for him by starting a blog and working those blog posts into the text of a book. He and Matt Barton (who does the excellent Matt Chat series of YouTube videos) are probably the two most important digital historians of computer games. A treasure trove of commentary, criticism and analysis are available because of throwing a saddle on a personal demon and riding it somewhere that matters.

MUDs for me have been a similar demon; there's something seductive about the development of a game over which you have full control. Text opens up opportunities that graphical games don't because there is no limit except what you can imagine and what your technical abilities permit. In the end it doesn't really matter if anyone begins playing it. People work on these things simply for the love of it.

I understood early on that I need a creative outlet for my nervous energy. That creative outlet has changed from year to year. Sometimes I write books. (Then give them away. Except for my novel, which is so bad that it outright kills 25% of the people who read it and is thus banned under the Geneva Conventions.) Sometimes it's software projects or a blog. More regularly, it's been MUD development. But, as life moves on and priorities change, it becomes harder and harder to justify to yourself why you're doing it. Every hour I spend writing code for Epitaph is an hour I'm not spending developing teaching material or writing papers. The latter two things directly influence my career prospects. It's important to have a project to work on for fun without getting burnt out, but it's also important to work towards achieving your life goals.

So, I threw a saddle on my demon.

Instead of Epitaph being just my own personal obsession, I mentally recast it as a research project. My twin research areas are video games and accessibility, and specifically accessibility within video games. I've written reasonably extensively on the subject of Epitaph[1] and my interests in accessibility, and the last issue of Imaginary Realities had numerous views on that topic so I won't retread that ground. Epitaph gives me an opportunity to actually research elements of accessibility in games that are very difficult for others to do. Much of this is inherently about the accessibility of text games of various kinds,[2] but some of it is about how to marry accessibility to graphical gameplay. I've been working on a graphical front-end for Epitaph. In the long run it will offer an opportunity to provide many different game interfaces to people, and that itself opens up a whole new range of professional opportunities.

Along with that, I have what very few games researchers have available: a game where the parameters of the environment can be changed as needed. Games researchers make do for a lot of things, looking to existing data sets or analysing behaviours in games such as World of Warcraft. What they can't do is throw whole new systems into a game to see what happens. I not only have a game where these things can be researched, I also have a game engine that allows me to build self-contained environments where various concepts can be tried out. I have three or so small projects planned for this, each investigating issues of ethics, empathy and self-identification in game play. This in turn helps me develop Epitaph proper, because the functionality I need to explore these concepts can be folded back into the main game. It may not be development into exactly the areas that I'd invest my time if I had no other considerations, but it's still a lot more satisfying than the work might otherwise be.

Likewise, Epitaph is a useful topic for teaching topics such as creative writing and critical analysis of texts. More than that, it's an example I can use in several of my teaching modules. Epitaph is around 1.2 million lines of code and has a storied history that stretches back for decades through its association with the Discworld mudlib. It has code in it that's over twenty years old, working side by side with new code which leverages modern technologies. It is, in short, a fascinating software engineering case study. All of the things we teach as theory (revision control, the importance of documentation, the trials of collaboration) don't have to be abstract any more. If I ever have a student who wants a few side programming projects to hone their skills — well, guess where I have an endless supply of them?

My to-do list of research projects is huge, and a lot of them involve using Epitaph as a springboard into an interesting topic. It's certainly not the only thing I do, but time I spend on Epitaph now is no longer entirely self-indulgent. It's actually growing into an important part of my professional life. I may never earn a living directly from Epitaph, but the living I earn and the future prospects I have are enhanced by leveraging the game.

Not everyone is going to find quite such a snug fit for their hobby in their real life, but there are always opportunities. They're not necessarily where your life is now, but perhaps where you would like your life to go. I've always been a big believer that success in life comes from doing the job you want to have, not the one you're being paid to do. It's all about seeing where the opportunities lie and working out how to make the best use of the resources you're building.

I won't say that these kind of games will lead to success in game development as a career because game development is an incredibly over-subscribed niche. (This isn’t to say that it can’t happen; I know a few people in the games industry who credit at least part of the opportunities they were offered to the work they did on various MUDs.) It's not necessarily about a direct link between what you're doing and what you'd like to be doing. The real opportunities come from exploiting unexpected connections. If you're studying a subject, try to see if there are ways that you could combine busywork course responsibilities with progressing your projects.[3] If you're handling teams of people, try using your MUD as a low-budget remote telepresence environment where people can quickly hack out simple projects as proof of concept. If there are no convenient ways of doing this, then consider what you're doing to be deep research and write about it. If you're a player rather than a developer, document your experiences and let us read about them. Compare and contrast — build up your critical faculties and you'll be surprised how much easier and better other parts of your life become. Turn the expertise you're accumulating into something more: synthesise it, editorialise it, and then package it up and let people at it.

The rebirth of Imaginary Realities in particular has given everyone an opportunity to turn a private obsession into something productive and get that something in front of people who are likely to be interested. You're bound to have done something genuinely worth talking about as a part of building or playing these games, so write an article about it. Eventually you'll find that you can put together thousands of words in readable order largely on cue, and then you've got a real skill that will work in all aspects of your life.

I'm not arguing here that time spent purely developing MUDs and the like is dead time. Hobbies are valuable even if the only person who gets any enjoyment out of them is you. All I'm saying is: be aware of the worth of what you're doing. In my experience, almost everyone is an expert in something,[4] and almost everyone has something interesting they could produce about it.4 Your side project can be a lot more if you spend a little time considering where you could leverage its qualities for your professional betterment. You're doing something legitimately creative, and pouring hours into honing your ability to do it. You're an expert in your own little corner of the Internet, and you're very likely worth listening to as a result.

Drakkos (Michael Heron) is the lead developer of Epitaph.

References

[1] For example, http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=813; http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=594; and the Accessibility section of http://www.drakkos.co.uk/patches.c?type=consolidated&id=1.0.1.

[2] Which are more common than people tend to realise — see my paper, “Likely to be Eaten by a Grue”.

[3] Personally, I'm always delighted when someone asks me if they can do “something real” instead of an arbitrary coursework exercise. Good teachers will absolutely work with you to ensure you get the most out of your education.

[4] Almost everyone.

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