Friday, December 22, 2006

A turn for the worse

Gradually over the last few months my discontent with Harshlands has been waxing and waning, but generally increasing. During the last few weeks I've been nearing a turning point. My character has a caravan trip he's been trying to make happen and I'd pretty well decided when it was done (one way or the other) I'd be deciding whether it was the last.

One of the reasons I put off the end was that something my character's been planning for almost five game years had finally come to fruition and involved a lot of other characters. That feels something like an obligation -- those players got involved, and I don't know if the whole thing will hold together without my character. I'd try to pass it off so it wouldn't wither, but things like this often wither anyway once the creating force leaves. That's happened with similar things in other MUDs.

But I was increasingly finding myself wondering, why bother to log in today? And having no better reason than habit. About all I've been doing the last week or so is trapping rabbits once an hour to build up my stock of rabbit meat... something I've done literally a thousand times before, and which completely lacks any pleasure. Even bashing mindlessly in Lusternia is more fun somehow, if only because of the pace. Otherwise, all I could do is wait for the few other players I needed or wanted to see, most of whom rarely log on.

What else did I hope for? Adventure? The only real adventure possible for a character like mine is caravanning, but after almost a year and a half of working towards becoming a caravanner, the admins had still not even decided how caravanning should work, let alone put it into place. All my last round of trying to get them to decide had accomplished was to make them change some of the rules midstream on me -- for instance, my wagons suddenly held about 1/8 as much as I'd originally been told, and the main cargo I'd built my plans around (and built up a hefty stock of) was suddenly not worth enough to make any profit on. From the bare skeleton of a caravanning system with only one workable trade, instead of getting a fleshed-out system with multiple trading options, all I got was a big step backwards to where caravanning was impossible again. After 5-6 game years of struggling through unpleasant things in hopes of finally being able to be a caravanner, instead of finally getting the payoff of all that work, all I was getting was more unpleasant struggle, but I did manage to tentatively eke out a means to make it just-barely-work. Again. At least until the rules got changed against me again.

But the continued failure to address caravanning, and the tendency for my suggestions and ideas to go unanswered about how to do it (along with my offers to code whatever was needed for it), was only a small part of my discontent. I kept telling myself, I love the setting, I like the codebase, and I like most of the players. But the way the game is set up, you simply can't participate very much without admin cooperation; too many things depend on it. And every time the admins got involved, I felt like I was being spit on. Most of the time I was ignored. Not even a "we're thinking about it", just nothing. I was usually denied the simplest requests for the worst reasons, and then often found that someone else had gotten the thing I was denied without any problem, with no real reason for the difference.

One of the worst examples was dogs. My character has a skill to breed dogs, but nowhere in the trade city of Tashal, or the highly agricultural nation of Kaldor, or the adjoining kingdom of Azadmere, or in the freetown of Trobridge, or the nearby city of Heras, was there a single dog to buy. Not one. I pursued IC and OOC methods many times over the course of two game years and could not get a dog for, literally, love nor money. Never was I given a reason why; it was just as if dogs were incredibly scarce, which makes no sense. Eventually, after travelling hundreds of leagues, I was able to buy one single dog. This dog very soon after died due to a combination of stupid code limitations, and a single misplaced keypress; and of course, there would not be another dog available (though by this time I was so sick of the subject I didn't even want one anymore).

I forced the issue at a player/staff meeting, at which point I was told that we can't have dogs because we might use them as combat machines -- which is patently absurd, both because mob dogs are barely strong enough to beat a duck, and because the dogs used in breeding aren't even mobs anyway, just objects, and besides which, plenty of people walk around with a retinue of NPC guards and none of them has ever tried to take over the world. Personally, I've had an NPC I can control for more than 3 game years and I have never once used him to do anything more twinkish than helping me carry grains he would then sell. Once. Yet I still didn't have the trust to be entrusted with a mob dog that can barely kill a duck. And I wasn't even asking for one; I wanted an object dog to breed, for the purely-RP-motivation of wanting one to guard my caravan (even though due to the way travel works, you never really need guarding while you sleep on the road, since you never do) and one to guard my wife at home while on the road (even though she's never logged on so there's nothing to guard).

Recently I found out that another player, who the admins like, created a new character and within the first few days he had dogs for breeding. Just like that. He asked and they gave them to him.

This is just one example; dozens of others could be listed, equally absurd, equally making me feel like I was being pissed on. Like I had to fight for even the most simple of things and always, even when I got them, feeling nauseated for having to go through pointless mind games to get them. Most of these times I came away feeling that if someone else had asked, they'd've just gotten it, no problem.

So with things like this piling up and my mood growing more and more sour about Harshlands, my wife decided to try a gambit to getting things fixed. She contacted the guy who used to be head admin when we started, to ask if maybe he could shed some light on the problems with the new head admins, or even help with it. He flat out admitted to some of the problems: that the admins has long had a habit of not answering harder questions and just letting them fall through the cracks (how hard would it be to get some kind of issue tracking system put into place?), and that the admins very often tended to fall into a habit of treating everyone like a twink because they'd been burned by a few twinks, even when someone had proven themselves repeatedly not to be one. But he offered little that would help directly, apart from his willingness to chat with the current head admin.

This leads us to today. We ended up having a very productive conversation about the considerations in making caravanning work and what would need to be done. Why we didn't have this conversation years ago I don't know, but it was nice to talk through and some good ideas came out of it. And then the subject changed all at once, and became very painful, ugly, and angering.

See, my character has been working towards being a caravanner, and carvanners are part of the mercantyler's guild, but because there were no PC caravanners, he had to put in his 4-5 years of apprenticeship and journeymanship as a peddler. Caravanning is (or at least was) a trade with a high profit potential, and correspondingly, a very high startup cost -- 5000p for the license alone, and another 5000p for wagons and cargo for your first trip and other costs. Just like in any world, you need big money to make big money. Trouble is, for various reasons, some of them codebase limitations, peddling is a desperately poor profession. Hardly anyone else ever made it through, because you make so little coin, that it's hard to get by, let alone flourish so well as to be able to make up those incredibly high startup costs. I put in an incredibly huge number of gameplay hours doing desperately tedious and unfun things to scrape out every penny, no doubt giving a lot of people and possibly the admins the impression I was actually money-hungry, when I was really being an overambitious skinflint just as a means of bridging the gap between peddler income and caravanner startup costs. I endured it all in hopes of getting to the payoff -- to be a caravanner finally and not have to do that kind of unfun struggle.

When my journeyman time ended, the admins just let things sit there. They had no caravanning system yet (despite more than a RL year of warning I was going to come to this point one day) so they just ignored my comments about my mastership coming up, and my inquiries. I was sitting on 8800p, the cumulative earnings of 4 game years of scrimping and working 2-3 jobs, which I kept in the form of silver so it would be liquid enough to pay my license fee when the admins finally gave me the goahead -- I kept thinking that was any day now, for months. To keep that huge amount of coin safe, I kept it double-locked in the most public place on the entire island of Harn, a spot constantly patrolled by guards as well as what the roomdesc describes as a crushingly busy crowd even in the middle of the night. Even the most sneaky thief would be unable to take the time it takes to pick two locks in the middle of this huge crowd, and if they could, how could they carry off a jingling pile of more than 8000 coins through the crowd entirely unseen?

So one day there was a scare involving undead in the city. A couple of game days later, my coins were still there just fine. A few days after that, they were all gone. Every penny.

I cried foul. There was no way, and I still see no way save magic or divine intervention, that someone could carry off that theft realistically. But codebase limitations mean it's actually remarkably easy to pull off... if you don't mind twinking. Ignoring room descriptions, pretending NPCs are insensate, etc. The game is always full of twinks who'd do that; half the coding things I'm asked to do are geared towards stopping twinking.

My concerns were dismissed. The admins mostly just trivialized them rather than answering them. The first answers were that it must have been done during the undead scare, which wasn't possible; and that I'd been asked to pay protection money to avoid this and ignored it, which I hadn't. Hearing the first two answers for why this theft was just fine and not twinking and having them both be factually wrong did not do much to bolster my confidence that the admins were evaluating this fair; the casually dismissive, accusatory, and downright insulting and rude way they worded these responses was extremely offensive and angering. Later answers suggested things like that the square isn't always full, which contradicts other things I've been told; that I should have kept my money in the form of certificates, which I could have, if I hadn't been being kept on the hook by the admins waiting for my mastership for months; and finally, one of the admins admitted that they fudge in favor of the thieves because of a number of codebase limitations that make life hard for them (similar to the ones that made it hard for me to earn those coins in the first place). All of these things were both insulting and hurtful to me, and entrenched my sense that I was being treated unfairly.

I responded in anger and hurt, and at one point, my answer included the word "bullshit". I apologized the next day for the tone, but I did not, and still do not, retract my two concerns. First, that they treated my concerns in an insulting, dismissive, and rude way; and second, that I remain unconvinced that the theft was really fair.

I also planned to retire the character. There was no way I could go through another 4 game years trying to earn that coin back the painfully hard way. Even if I wanted to start over from scratch, my situation had changed; it was no longer possible to earn it the same way, nor could I count on a few strokes of good luck that had gotten me that far in the first place. The admins laughed off this agony and insisted, not in so many words, that I was being childish and I should just take my lumps, further adding to the insulting tone. At no point did they apologize for any of these bits of rudeness, nor did I expect them to.

Instead, I pursued the matter by IC means and I soon found that, while the admins swore up and down that the theft was fair, the thieves themselves had their doubts. They went to great lengths to find an IC way to reverse it as far as possible, and in the end, they gave me back almost 6000p in exchange for nothing at all besides a public statement that I should have paid the protection money (which my character would have said anyway). They bent over backwards to undo the mistake the admins insisted was not a mistake... again, further undermining any confidence I had that the admins hadn't made a big mistake.

Making 10,000p by starting with 50p is impossible in a way that making 10,000p using 6000p just isn't, and I was able to get through a few more months of incredible, unpleasant struggle and recover from this still awful, but no longer crippling, blow. And I put the whole thing behind me. After a few weeks, I didn't even think about it anymore. Eventually I even got my mastership and my wagons and did two caravan trips, though more than a half game-year late.

So today I got asked, after that fruitful conversation about coding caravanning, if I had ever thought more about that and considered apologizing for it. I was truly stunned, and the conversation went from bad to worse. Essentially, I got told that at least one of the admins was still upset about that, four RL months later, and essentially refused to be involved in any petition or issue involving me as a result, for fear I might say something like "bullshit" again.

That I apologized was completely ignored -- apparently my apology means nothing, so long as I still am not convinced that the theft wasn't unfair. They seem to be completely unable to separate the two concerns: whether the theft was fair or not, and whether the way they answered me was rude and insulting. So four months later, they take the entirely unprofessional tack of simply ignoring me because I said a bad word -- as if it's more important whether the word can be used on primetime TV than what the words mean, as if it doesn't matter how rude you are as long as you don't swear while doing it.

More importantly, the fact that I had gotten as much insulting, trivializing, rudeness as I gave out, and then some, was not only denied but not even comprehended. There's a sense that both of the two head admins still don't see that anything was even there to apologize for. Such deep denial that it completely prevents any possibility of resolution.

On the whole, the conversation made me angry, gave me a pounding headache, and reopened a long-scabbed-over wound that made me almost sick to my stomach. And clearly, there's nothing I can do about this. The problem I worried I had with the admins treating me like crap was true: they are, and I can't stop it. I can't do a thing about it.

I'd already been inches from quitting for weeks now. Several times during this conversation I was already clicking to post my departure on the forums, and moved the mouse to close the chat window, and then stayed my hand. When you're angry and hurt and suffering a pounding headache, that's no time to make major decisions. It's been a few hours, and the hurt is fading, and the anger finding its way to the background, but the conviction to leave is still there.

My decision is to give it a few days in case the admins go over the discussion and have some kind of change of heart. Maybe go back and look at the emails and chat logs from that time, and conclude that yes, they were rude and insulting, and an apology is owed. Maybe talk between each other about this and reconsider if the apology I gave maybe means something, and it's time to put the grudge aside. Maybe review the two years of interactions with me, most of which have been entirely sensible, and decide to finally forgive one understandable moment of anger and frustration. Maybe rethink whether I contribute something to the game that's worth preserving. Maybe take that first step to where I stand and look at things from my perspective and see that it's not that ridiculous to doubt that there might not have been a mistake made -- or realize that thinking one mistake got made is not some irreconcilable gap in trust, that they can learn to live with me thinking they made one mistake.

I am not too hopeful about any of this. In a few days, I expect to start trying to find ways to wrap things up. The scale of this possibility is daunting, so many things still to work out, but I don't see how I can keep going like this, knowing that the problems I've had and the fun-draining threats have no hope of being resolved. There's a time to say goodbye already.

1 comment:

HawthornThistleberry said...

After the discussion referred to in this post, I ended up chatting with the admins more, about stuff that should have been talked about a long time ago.

In the email where I apologized, I was making the point that swears were immaterial: rudeness is rudeness whether couched in smiles or sneers, and I'd rather have it up front. Somehow, I'm being told, this got mistaken as me saying I was averse to excessive friendliness, and that this is the reason why my requests have been ignored, because one of the admins didn't know how to relate to me in an impersonal way and found the prospect of doing so uncomfortable.

There are still points about which we have to agree to disagree. That's no problem for me -- I already agreed to disagree and put it behind me four months ago. What matters is if there's been the same agreement on the other side, and thus, I will be able to look forward to being treated fairly as much as anyone else in future.

Based on that promise, I am provisionally deferring yet again my departure, while I see if that does indeed happen. My discontent has been rocking closer to and farther from the quit-line and for now it's being nudged back a step. If that promise fails to be delivered, though, it's a step that'll be crossed quickly.