The personal website of Chris Coyier

Why We Play (Gemstone)

I’ve mentioned over on ShopTalk Show a times (here’s one) that I’ve been playing (again) a text-based MMORPG called Gemstone IV. I wrote a nostolgia-powered blog post about the game over 10 years ago right here, so, uh, wow. It’s been a while. The game still inspires nostoliga-powered blog posts, like Elizabeth Landau’s I Had My First Kiss in GemStone III, published just this year.

On one hand, it’s amazing the game still exists. A text-based game is probably a bit of a hard sell for gamers these days. On the other, the game is straight-up amazing, and the ways you engage with it can be so rich (more on that later) that perhaps it’s not amazing at all that the game still not only exists today, but in many ways, is thriving (lots of live events, new areas, entire new mechanical systems, and post-level-cap development, all have been released in the last 6 months or so). The text-based approach might even feel fresh to some.

Ever since I first “rolled” a character, I’d play the game in spirts. I’d play somewhat intensely for a while (like, many hours every day) and then quit for months or years. The game requires a non-trivial monthly subscription per account (you need multiple accounts if you want to play multiple characters at the same time, which can be fun). So when you quit, you entirely deactivate and literally can’t play until you reactivate.

The reason I come back is always random. A discussion with friends inspired a spurt once where we all came back together. This time, I somehow stumbled across that the game had a podcast now. I love podcasts!

The podcast is called Town Square Central, named after an iconic location in the game. I can link to it now, but it didn’t really have a normal website home when I found it, so I offered to build that super basic one you see there. Thank god for how easy it is to toss up WordPress.com sites.

I was immediately hooked after listening to Stop and Smell the Kobolds. I reactivated right away. The host (who, to this day, I don’t know his real name), goes by his bard character’s name: Milax. This episode is a real love letter to how interesting this game is. Kobolds are level 1 creatures in Gemstone that have been around forever. Despite being so old and low-level, they are incredibly interesting. They are dumb, so they do dumb things like attack each other. But then they apologize to each other for it! But are they so dumb? They quote Shakespeare when they see a friend die. They are wonderfully interactive and creative and just the kind of thing that gives this game depth. And the way Milax introduced all this in that episode was just excellent.

The show has a Patreon, so I did that, as I wanted to support something that I was loving so much. That got me chatting with Milax, and, six months later, I had the pleasure of joining him on the show in an episode called Why We Play.

The idea behind that was that, as I was getting back into the game, I wanted to see if my web skills could be of any use. See, you need a client to play this game, and not only that, you need a Ruby-based scripting client you have to run locally to connect first, and the client works through that. There are official clients and third-party clients, and in my opinion, all of them are kind of bad. Not unusable, just not nice. One of the third-party clients runs right in the terminal, which I thought was a pretty cool approach to it. But I was hoping to do something a bit more visual and be able to use HTML/CSS/JavaScript. I thought Flutter might be fun, because it’s so cross-platform friendly, but maybe too ambitious for a first-project.

In fact, the whole idea was starting to feel too ambitious when I ran across someone else, Benjamin Clos, who was also interested in building a new front-end and was much further along. Illthorn, his baby, was already playable when I got involved. Benjamin has done by far the bulk of the work, but I was able to come in and do some of the design work and light functionality, which is where I feel most useful anyway.

I commissioned an icon for it:

And built out some themes:

The way I was engaging with the game was:

  • Figuring out all the mechanics of the game again. It’s so complex!
  • Learning about all the scripts and scripting that you can do. I write Ruby for CodePen sometimes, so I can leverage some of that knowledge.
  • Helping build this front-end (in Electron! Which is a great choice!) and using some of my web skills there.
  • Getting into the economy of the game a bit, looking for proper gear for my characters and getting that gear worked on.
  • Playing the game in the classic way: leveling up and improving my character.

Turns out, that combination of ways to engage with the game is unique, but no more unique than anyone else’s. Other’s I’ve met along the way are absolutely obsessed with the games mechanics. Even the point of having their own Patreon’s for building complex spreadsheets to help with character training choices. Some people are invested into the economy so much they make real-world money doing so. Some people, many people, come for the roleplaying aspects and could care less about anything else.

That’s what Milax and I got into in Why We Play. Perhaps most games in the world people engage with them and extract fun from them in largely the same way. Not this game!