What makes Simutronics' on-line games so addictive? Hint: it's not the technology

Tall, fringed palm trees sway overhead as 34 guests gather on the pristine beaches of Orchid Lagoon to witness the marriage of Breegan Gollding to Solondar Wolfstooth. Solondar's face brims with cheer as his bride moves slowly down the aisle and takes his hand at the carved-driftwood altar. Like brides everywhere, Breegan is beautiful: her ivory-watered-silk gown, set with rubies and embroidered with unicorns, does wonderful things for her long golden hair and crystal green eyes. Rehoboam, the officiating cleric, has barely begun the ceremony, and already there's rampant weeping. Now, as the groom turns to say his vows, his black-crushed-velvet pants catch on something at the altar, and--hello!--Solondar has just mooned his wedding guests.

But our collective amusement comes to an abrupt end when, minutes later, the matrimonial MC inexplicably goes AWOL. I fuss with the folds of my to-die-for red-velvet dress. The guests all seem to have a glazed look--until word gets around that Rehoboam's Internet connection has been cut off. He'll be back in a minute. Such, it seems, are the peculiar perils of a virtual wedding.

Or so I assume. That was my first such cyberceremony, which I attended as Judila Goulde, the smart, platinum-haired avatar I created in DragonRealms, one of the six multiplayer, interactive on-line games that Simutronics Corp. (#295), in Rockville, Md., has dreamed up since 1987. The company's offerings, which now attract 40,000 aficionados, used to be known as MUDs, which stood for multi-user dungeons. Now a better label would be MUSH: multi-user shared hallucinations. Fun as the games are, they also have an intensely trippy quality that can be disorienting.

It's the huge, frantically baroque environments swarming with an endless supply of monsters, magic, mayhem, and, yes, even matrimony that charm newbies into hanging around. Simutronics' own data show that its members have extremely "sticky eyeballs," meaning the average player spends about 2,300 minutes, or 38 hours, every month in its games. Dragon-Realms disciples rack up a whopping average of 4,656 minutes a month (77.6 hours) as they traverse the 15,000-plus distinct locations that compose the game's ever -evolving medieval world. No other on-line pursuit comes within a broadsword's reach of those user averages, according to Media Metrix Inc. of New York, a research outfit that tracks Web site traffic.

That's staggering, considering that all Simutronics games except CyberStrike, an action game with 3-D graphics, are entirely text based: just words, no pictures. The games are pure linguistic mind candy, at first baffling, then kind of distracting, and ultimately downright adhesive. Since there's no score to worry about and no such thing as winning, there's no overheated endgame strategy. It's not about slaying monsters and taking all their stuff. Far from it. Consider, for example, that Simutronics runs about 30 ultrachic in-game weddings each month, hugely popular soirees that can set the bride and groom back 200 nonvirtual U.S. dollars. The point of the exercise is to keep on playing, winning friends and forming partnerships as you build up experience and standing in the community.

Players get into the games with a credit card ($9.95 for a basic monthly subscription to the game world of their choice, then up to $80 more for souped-up memberships). It's common, if unkind, to assume this player populace is overrun by teenage boys, freaks, and geeks with cyberpunkish haircuts and pierced tongues, who fill up their formative brain spaces with complex battle strategies and cram their characters' knapsacks with treasure. But as I toured Elanthia, the mythical setting for DragonRealms, there was no way to make that countercultural scenario jibe with the people I met: savvy players whose characters helpfully showed me the ropes, smiled at and hugged me, and stage-whispered hints every now and then to make sure that Judila didn't suffer a premature demise. The game isn't what sucks you in; it's the people, who turn out to be its best feature.

From the beginning, greenhorns are nudged along by official "mentors," a platoon of volunteer in-character advisers. "We started the program specifically to help overwhelmed new players," says Melissa Callaway, 24, who began playing at 15 and now directs the entire Simutronics mentor program. But the guides also offer everyone, including veterans, a lesson or two in Netiquette. "Some people want to kill everything that moves," notes David Whatley, 33, one of the company's cofounders and its president and CEO. "Mentors say, 'Hold on there, Tex."

Published on: Oct 15, 1999