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Skotos Bets on Next-Generation MUDs

by Stephen Granade


To date most examples of "online interactive fiction" have been long on interaction and short on the fiction. They tend to be either text-based MUDs/MUSHes, which emphasize combat or conversation but not stories, or graphical games like EverQuest and Ultima Online, which are mostly combat-based with a smattering of role-playing thrown in.

Skotos is looking to change that. They are working on a number of new text-based online games; their first, Castle Marrach, opened for public beta-testing near the end of September in 2000. Skotos intends to create a wide range of these games, from conversation-heavy court intrigues to computer-run simulations of feudal economies and society. Think of them as next-generation MUDs, combining traditional MUD gameplay with some of the story aspects of text adventures.

A lot has happened to Skotos since I first heard of them in early 2000. They've licensed several traditional role-playing games: Og, Lovecraft Country, and Paranoia. Their first game, Castle Marrach, is currently available for beta-testing. They've gotten several independent game designers and authors to begin work on games for Skotos. To top it all off, Brian Moriarty, the former Infocom implementor and respected game designer, has joined them as Director of Game Development.

As Skotos moves forward, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, chief among them whether or not people pay $10 a month to play so-called "multiplayer interactive fiction." In this era of EverQuest and Asheron's Call, can Skotos make a living peddling their vision of what MUDs should be?

A Short History of Skotos

Though Skotos didn't officially exist until its incorporation on July 21, 1999, for all intents and purposes it was born on January 6th of that year, at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. There, Christopher Allen met with several acquanitances and talked to them about what he wanted to do next: a prose game company.

Chris Allen had made a name for himself with his work on the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), the technology behind encrypted browser communication. He'd been in the computer security business for a long time. And now he wanted to found a game company to make online text games?

He did. His first step was to license DGD, Dworkin's Generic Driver, a well-regarded Internet server which was first created as a replacement for the server used in a specific kind of MUD known as LPmud. Chris's next step was to leave Certicom, the security company where he worked, to shepherd Alacrity Ventures, a Venture Capital company. Alacrity Ventures's first investment? Skotos.

Skotos employees began work on developing entire worlds for players to play in. The first two were to be Alvatia, a fantasy world, and Golden Gate: 1849, a historical game based in San Francisco. In order to have a small demo to include with their developer kit, they began working on a small project called Castle Hightower, the Castle of Romance.

As time went on, though, the Skotos designers and programmers realized that worlds such as Alvatia, which required a high degree of computer moderation, would be a lot of work. In early 2000 they shifted their focus to Castle Hightower and decided to turn it into a full-blown game. Its gameplay was to be social-based: players would interact with each other and with StoryTellers, guides in the guise of major characters in the game world. They rechristened the game "Castle Marrach" and began pushing forward with its development.

In the fall of 2000 Skotos went to Gen Con, one of the largest game fairs in the U.S. There they recruited some 700 people who were willing to beta-test Castle Marrach, and received around fifty proposals from would-be designers. By the end of their open submission period, Skotos had received over seventy proposals. From those the "Skotos seven," the first seven external game designers, were culled.

Then, on the second of October, 2000, Castle Marrach opened. Since then the company has been refining Castle Marrach while moving forward on its other planned games.

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