What makes a great MUD help system? 15+ ideas to improve your game

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By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill & Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    Someone recently asked the /r/MUD community about the features that make up a good MUD help system. I thought this was a fairly important question, as helpfiles are often one of the first systems new players try to interact with on a game.

    Help systems can be critical for onboarding newbies, but they’re also a significant resource for oldbies and an important accessibility tool, too.

    Below, I explain the purpose of a MUD help system and why such a system is always worth improving. I then get into the nitty gritty of what makes a great help system, with 15+ ideas that game implementors can use to improve their games.

    For a general overview of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), see this post. To learn more about MUD help systems, read on!

    What is a MUD help system?

    A MUD’s help system is its collection of tools and resources for providing useful information to players while they explore the game and the virtual world inside it. A typical feature of a help system is a set of helpfiles that can be accessed from anywhere inside the game at any time. Helpfiles are usually out-of-character (OOC) documents that offer help with everything from commands to policy to history and lore.

    Help systems can also include things like help channels, game hints, and coded tutorials, too!

    Many (if not all) modern codebases come with some sort of built-in help system, but the style and features vary from codebase to codebase, game to game.

    Why improve a MUD’s help system?

    As help systems are important for making games both accessible and user-friendly, there are good reasons to review them on a regular basis and keep any help documents up-to-date.

    You might also want to think about revamping your MUD’s help system if:

    • Players regularly have a hard time finding the information they need
    • New players seem overwhelmed or lost
    • The system wasn’t designed with screen readers in mind (or the helpfiles aren’t written to be screen reader-friendly)
    • The current help system hasn’t had an update in a long time

    You might also think about the last time you updated your tutorial and game hints, if you have any.

    How do you know if players aren’t getting the help they need?

    Unless you survey players who attempt to quit without completing your game’s tutorial, you probably don’t know exactly why they leave or whether their reasons have anything to do with your MUD’s help system. So how can you tell if players are having a hard time and need better help?

    1. One way is to keep an eye on your newbie channel. The questions that come up will clue you in on pain points and common frustrations. For example, if players frequently ask how to do X, there’s a good chance you need to update your tutorial or helpfiles to better address X.
    2. If you don’t have time to monitor the newbie channel yourself, just ask players who do! Many games have newbie guides and moderators. As these folks are already on board with helping out on the newbie channel, they’ll almost certainly be happy to provide feedback to you about the help system itself.
    3. Finally, you can always ask your playerbase for their feedback and suggestions. “What was the most difficult aspect of the tutorial?” or “Is there anything we could have done to make learning the game a better experience for you?” are great places to start.

    What makes a great MUD help system?

    Now that we’ve defined a MUD help system and laid out a few good reasons to give it some TLC, let’s look at some ideas for improvement. Most likely, your game already includes at least some basic form of help. If you can already check off most of the boxes below: awesome! Otherwise, I hope these tips will be of use to you in improving your current system.

    Here are 15+ ways to boost the effectiveness of your MUD’s help system:

    Include a search feature for helpfiles

    The ability to search is a common feature among modern knowledge bases. If you have more than a handful of helpfiles, your game could probably benefit from a search feature. Searches allow users to find files pertaining to a topic of interest without needing to know the exact name or number of the helpfile itself. Examples:

    help search <keyword>
    help -search <keyword>

    Build out an index and categories

    Also common features of knowledge bases. You can think of an index as a table of contents for your game’s helpfiles. If you have a lot of helpfiles, breaking them down into categories can be helpful, too. Common categories include things like ‘combat’ and ‘crafting’. Typing in the command ‘help combat’ might pull up an index with all combat-related helpfiles, for example.

    Category groupings can make it much easier for players to find helpfiles related to a broad topic. They also make it easier to browse helpfiles by category.

    Provide instructions to help players report outdated info

    If you have a lot of helpfiles, some of them will inevitably become outdated. Keeping helpfiles up-to-date can be a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be a stressor. You can help players help you keep your files updated by providing clear instructions on how to report outdated information. I also recommend rewarding players for doing so, if you can.

    Include “last modified” dates on helpfiles

    Adding a “last modified” date to your helpfiles is useful for two reasons. First, it can help you perform regular reviews of your files, especially if you can sort files by date last modified. You might do a review of any helpfiles that haven’t been updated in the past 24 months, for example.

    Second, it can help clue players in on whether a helpfile might be outdated. If what they’re hearing on the help channel conflicts with what they’re reading in a helpfile, they’re more likely to know that the file is probably outdated and may even submit a typo report about it.

    Provide clear instructions for getting help

    While looking up something minor and finding an outdated helpfile might suck, it’s probably not the end of the world. For things that are game-breaking, make sure your players know exactly what they need to do to get immediate help. This could be pinging an emergency channel over Discord, texting an admin, or whatever you prefer.

    For minor things, make sure players know they should be using the newbie channel or submitting typo reports.

    A toilet paper roll on the last square, with the word HELP written onto the cardboard tube in all caps.
    A poorly-maintained MUD help system can be very frustrating for new players trying to learn a game.

    Make it easy for admins to review and update individual files

    If it’s a headache to edit the files, your fellow game masters / staffers aren’t going to want to keep up with helpfile maintenance. And frankly, neither will you. If updating a helpfile is quick and easy, on the other hand, it becomes much easier to motivate folks to actually do it.

    Make primary help accessible inside the game

    The ability to access helpfiles outside the game can be useful to players who don’t mind extra tabs open or have a lot of browser space, but for many players, it can be frustrating to have to tab in and out, especially if they’re looking for help mid-combat, for example.

    Ensure your helpfiles are screen reader-friendly

    ASCII art, such as a decorative border, might look nice to sighted players, but it’s probably not great for players who rely on a screen reader. ASCII maps are often completely unintelligible to screen readers, as well. (For more advice on building out screen reader-friendly systems, read this post.)

    Another thing to be mindful of is helpfiles and systems with a lot of columns. Columns might look neat and organized to sighted players, but they can quickly become a frustrating memory game for non-sighted players.

    Include a separate section for syntax in helpfiles

    It’s perfectly fine to explain syntax in paragraph form, but I highly recommend breaking it out into its own section at the top of the helpfile, as well. That way, if a player is only looking for help with syntax, they don’t have to skim through paragraphs of text to find it.

    Pro tip: f you really want to make syntax accessible, have it print out using the first word of any multi-word command. That way, players don’t even have to pull up the entire helpfile if they only need to jog their memory on syntax options. Example:

    >bank
    Syntax: bank <account> <deposit|withdraw> <amount>
            bank <list|open>

    Present item-related help on examination

    Sometimes, players just don’t know where to start, especially if a game has many item types and skill-based commands. The ability to see what commands can be used with an item can be super helpful for learning the game.

    For example, the command to use a light source can differ from game to game. Providing the correct command on examination of the item can reduce the frustration of having to guess which command the game expects.

    Distinguish between IC and OOC information

    If your game focuses heavily on roleplay, it’s probably a good idea to differentiate between IC and OOC information as part of your MUD help system. If something wouldn’t be widely known in the game’s setting, either consider leaving it out of the helpfile or making a note in order to prevent accidental metagaming.

    Log helpfile search terms, especially “misses”

    Many MUD help systems have a built-in logging function for helpfile searches. Searches may even show up in a staffer-only channel, as well.

    If not, you should definitely consider implementing a logging function – especially for searches and lookup attempts that fail to pull up a helpfile. This will help you track what kind of help players are looking for so that you can provide it.

    Suggest related helpfiles and “maybe you meant” helpfiles

    At the end of a helpfile, suggest related helpfiles that players might also find useful. Also known as a “see also” suggestion. For example, at the end of a helpfile on combat, you might have:

    See also: HELP HEALING, HELP WOUNDS, HELP PK POLICY, HELP REPAIR

    If a helpfile cannot be found for a particular term, you might consider having your MUD help system suggest “maybe you meant” entries with similar names. This might be useful for typo’d lookups, where the player is looking for something that does exist but was off by a letter or because of a spelling issue.

    Make commands intuitive

    It was suggested in the Reddit thread that the best MUD help system is one you never have to use, and I generally agree with that. A great help system is there when you need it, but it should never get in the way of jumping in and enjoying the game.

    One of the most important things you can do is to keep your commands intuitive and consistent.

    For example, if you have a command like ‘give <item> (to) <player>’ but then add ‘take <player> <item>’, it can be confusing and difficult for folks to remember. It would be better to use ‘take <item> (from) <player>’ to keep your syntax consistent.

    Apply aliases and common synonyms to helpfiles

    This was another suggestion made in the Reddit thread. Similar to having helpfile suggestions, it’s useful if your MUD help system can support aliases or multiple keywords for the same helpfile. This allows players to perform a lookup with synonyms. Especially useful if your game calls something X but other games usually call it Y.

    For example, ‘help fighting’ and ‘help combat’ could pull up the same helpfile. ‘Help attack’ and ‘help kill’ might pull up another.

    Some codebases support command synonyms, aliases, and shortcuts, which can also be helpful. For example, you might use ‘money’ as a synonym for ‘wealth’ and ‘score’ as a synonym for ‘stats’.

    Bake your MUD help system into the game’s tutorial

    Last but not least, one of the best ways to assist new and returning players is to create a solid tutorial. Use the tutorial to walk new players through the basics in a step-by-step fashion and offer helpfile suggestions along the way for anything complicated.

    Pro tip: consider adding a branch to your tutorial for players completely new to MUDs as well as a branch that focuses specifically on concepts in your game.

    Many games also have a “hints” or “tips” channel that will occasionally print advice to new players. This is a great way to introduce new players to different commands and systems that might be unique to your MUD. Since tips are printed out over time, they can be easier to digest and feel less overwhelming than a mountain of helpfiles.

    Other MUD help system advice?

    And that’s it for my suggestions on what makes a great MUD help system. If I forgot something you think is important, let me know! I’m happy to add additional advice or link to other resources.

    UPDATE 7/25/22: Check out my new marketing how-to guide to learn how your MUD’s help system is important for marketing your game.

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