The Network: only the finest quality programming

ko-fi Written by Andruid
A visual representation of a network, shaped round like a globe but giving the suggestion of an eye.

Clockwork, mastermind behind The Network MU, shares lessons learned from years of creating and running online roleplaying games.

Table of Contents

    Welcome back to Writing Games! Today, I have the pleasure of sharing insights from Clockwork, owner and creator of The Network MU.

    I first learned about The Network early last year and have since had several people recommend it to me as a game worth exploring. Unfortunately, by the time I started looking into it in earnest, I was already too late.

    As of January 1st, The Network began wrapping up its final story and is no longer accepting new players, but for those seeking ideas and inspiration, the game still has a lot to offer (example: Network Bingo).

    And after running it for over four years, Clockwork has plenty of lessons and advice to impart.

    I can’t wait to share some of Clockwork’s experience with you today, so without further ado, let’s dive in and get to know him and his game!

    Meet Clockwork, creator of The Network MU

    Based out of frigid Michigan, Clockwork works as a Corporate Trainer for an IT services company by day. By night, he likes to immerse himself in imagined fictional worlds, developing interesting characters and crafting compelling stories.

    When I asked him how he got started playing text-based games, he admitted to sneaking on to his first MUD while still in high school.

    “A friend of mine at a local university let me borrow his school account,” said Clockwork. “I’d played D&D as a kid, and I was always a reader and writer, but being able to create characters and stories with other people online was far more immersive and engaging.”

    He dove into his first MUSH in his freshman year of college and started staffing on World of Darkness games.

    “I’ve been doing it to some extent ever since,” he said.

    As far as his role on The Network goes, Clockwork sees his most important job as being an engaged and active admin with fingers on the pulse of the game.

    “Sometimes that meant knowing when a story wasn’t quite working out or when players were struggling, to try to give them various avenues of engagement,” he explained. “Being able to adapt, change course, or even wrap up a story and move on to something else was important to keeping the game going.”

    The Network: “only the finest quality programming”

    So, what was The Network, exactly? In short, it was an episodic, collaborative writing game set in an alternate, modern-day universe where a massive multimedia conglomerate provided “only the finest quality programming” to audiences around the world.

    Players roleplayed as actors who, after signing a mysterious contract, had their memories wiped and were relocated to a closed, secure luxury community populated by other such actors.

    Each season, these actors were wholly immersed in a new story. When filming was over and the season ended, they returned to the dome (the luxury community) for a hiatus. It was during these haituses that the characters temporarily regained their cumulative memory as actors contracted to work for the multimedia conglomerate.

    That conglomerate was named – you guessed it – The Network.

    For a more in-depth introduction to MUSHing, check out the AresMUSH primer: MUSH 101.

    Lucas Locke. Gender: Male. Hair: Dark. Eyes: Smug. Also brown. Played by: Actor Daniel Gillies.
    An example of a character (whose role was that of an actor) on The Network. If you’ve never played a MUSH before, don’t let the “Played by” line confuse you: a “playby” (or “faceclaim”, as it’s also called) is the real-life actor or celebrity used as inspiration for the character. In this case, the fictional actor Lucas Locke was inspired by real-life actor Daniel Gillies.

    “The Network was designed to be a game where players could explore different settings every season, immersing themselves in short-term stories that lasted several RL months within the framework of a larger meta-story of a global entertainment conglomerate that had established these communities of ‘actors’ to perform in their shows,” said Clockwork.

    A source of inspiration for the meta-story was the TV series Dollhouse. In Dollhouse, a top-secret organization erases the identities of attractive young people, turning them into blank “dolls” ready for imprints of temporary identities needed to fulfill missions.

    “While portraying a character in the season, the Network actors would have no memories but those of the characters whose lives they were effectively living. The memories they developed through the characters they played, and those they gained back inside the dome afterward, became a source of growth for some, horror for others. Reconciling those lives became a plot point for the times in-between seasons.”

    One of the nice things about this episodic+meta-story framework was that players had the freedom to focus on the parts of the game that most interested them.

    “If a player particularly enjoyed the season RP but wasn’t interested in the hiatus meta, they could skip it and vice versa,” Clockwork explained. “Some players loved both and the different levels of RP that it provided.”

    Inspiration and motivation for the project

    A quote from Clockwork, pulled from the text.

    As a storyrunner who prefers variety over long, drawn-out campaigns, I was intrigued by the idea of an episodic game with wildly different stories tied together through a mysterious meta-plot.

    How did Clockwork come up with such a clever idea in the first place? It’s certainly not something I would have thought of, myself.

    “I really enjoyed playing on HorrorMU, which is where the format got its inspiration,” he said.

    “HorrorMU had a similar premise where characters went through a series of horror scenarios and each time ended up back in a ‘facility’ where they tried to make sense of their experiences and figure out who/what/where they were as part of the metaplot.

    I wanted to do something similar but that wasn’t necessarily horror-themed. A friend and I were talking about a telenovela RPG that had come out and were laughing about how it would be fun to do something so over-the-top, but definitely not for a long-term game.”

    That’s when the idea of a seasonal game came up again.

    An overview of the game's Dome complex, including a few images designed to leave the details of the interior to the imagination.
    As part of their contract, Network actors were isolated from the outside world and required to live in a tightly controlled environment known as the Dome. The Dome offered luxurious accommodations, but its operation was an unsettling mystery for the inhabitants.

    “We decided what the heck, let’s build it. So we started putting it together in February of 2020.

    We had no idea that a pandemic was coming, so it was a little ironic that our alpha season was called Halls of Valhalla and was an apocalyptic tale of the coming of Ragnarok. Fortunately, we only ran that for about twenty people to test our systems for a month.”

    When The Network opened for beta, Clockwork made a point to anchor players in a tale that was a bit less grim and more of an adventure. It was called The Depths and was a story about the discovery of merfolk living in and around the Mariana Trench.

    Some of the seasons that followed included:

    • Curse at Ciprian College – a story about a curse that turned students and faculty of a small Vermont college into supernatural creatures
    • Pinnacle – an over-the-top soap opera-style drama set in a ski resort in Montana (side note: characters that season were awarded special points for accepting additional “plot twists” from storytellers; after browsing through some of these ridiculous plot twists, I can only imagine what a hilarious time this season was for players and staff)
    • Stranded – a tale about a cruise ship crashing on a seemingly deserted island, only to find a government facility studying a giant jungle basin filled with dinosaurs

    Stranded was The Network’s final season. As of the time of this post, the game is currently playing out its last hiatus.

    A table displaying a list of benefits players could choose from during the Curse at Ciprian College season, such as "Animal Empathy" and "Enhanced Reflexes." Some benefits come with bonuses to dice rolls, where as some are more for RP flavor.
    It’s not just that the stories were different each season; some stories came with their own unique mechanics. In Curse of Ciprian College, for example, players were able to choose a combination of benefits, such as “Flight” or “Enhanced Strength,” that represented the supernatural aspects of their character’s curse.

    I asked Clockwork what kept him motivated throughout the four-year project. After all, I know of several games that fizzled out once the pandemic ended.

    “What motivated me was player enjoyment and staff enthusiasm about the stories that we were telling – whether they were more serious or more silly at any given time,” he answered. “I had stories to tell and as long as people seemed to be having fun with them, I was willing to tell them.”

    Lessons learned as a game creator/runner

    Having built and run three other games before The Network, Clockwork has a fair bit of experience under his belt. He also admitted to having learned something valuable with each and every project.

    “You never stop learning,” he said. “I made some mistakes on Network, just like on each game before, and took some things away from the experience that I’ll consider next time around.”

    Advice from running previous games

    Some of the lessons Clockwork learned on previous games include:

    1. Be active and engaged

    “As a game runner, you need to be active and engaged, particularly in the early days of your game, in order to build momentum. It’s a huge time investment and commitment, but it will pay off in players sticking around.

    Once you reach escape velocity, then you can take a break. But you need to be focused and present to get there first.”

    If we take some lessons from the interviews with Spes and Jumpscare, I think we can add here that it’s important to ask for help when you need it. The last thing you want to do is burn yourself out or sacrifice your health in the process of trying to build that momentum.

    2. Choose trustworthy staff

    “Only ask people you really trust to staff. And once you do, trust them to do the jobs you gave them. If you can’t walk away from your game for a week and leave it in the hands of your staff, you didn’t bring on the right staff.”

    3. Spend your energy wisely

    “You don’t owe disruptive people extra chances, education, or hours of your time and energy. Just show them the door. There are other games that might suit them better. There are other players that will suit your game better.”

    A good point, and I’ll add: as game creators, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want our games to be and who we’re creating them for, but something we should be putting equal thought into is what we don’t want our games to be and who they’re not for.

    That might sound negative, but if you take the time to define – and share – those goals and expectations early on, it will have the positive effect of saving you and your players from a lot of disappointment and frustration later.

    4. Play your own game

    “Play your own game. You cannot truly understand and empathize with the player experience if you do not actually play within your own rules and systems.”

    This one might make some RPI players hesitate at first, especially if they’ve been burnt by staff PCs in other games, but I can understand where Clockwork is coming from.

    Staffers who are removed from the game often fail to realize it when the playerbase has lost momentum or when community sentiment has shifted. And when that happens, staff can end up making decisions that seem counterproductive or out-of-touch with players.

    Looking back, one of my primary frustrations on a game I played regularly for years stemmed from the fact that the game owner had long ceased to play the game. They frequently altered systems based on feedback from new players but swept aside the pleas of longtime players who were deeply familiar with the game’s pain points.

    New players came and went, but it was the devoted players that had to deal with the consequences of those changes, which often had to be adjusted – sometimes even reversed.

    To Clockwork’s point, if you don’t play your own game every once in a while, I think it gets a lot harder to prioritize and respond to player feedback in a way that’s constructive and satisfying for all parties.

    A quote from Clockwork, pulled from the text.

    Advice from running The Network

    These last two nuggets are more recent lessons that Clockwork learned while running The Network.

    5. Tell stories that interest you

    “I used to let the players choose the seasons that we would do through a voting system, and while it was fun to watch what got chosen and the excitement over the process, sometimes the choices weren’t really the stories that I wanted to run.

    And one season, the majority of the people who chose the theme didn’t end up making characters to play in the season. It wasn’t one that I really wanted to run, it wasn’t one that the majority of players who ended up playing in it wanted, and the season as a whole struggled as a result.

    The lesson there for me was: make sure whatever the options were, that they were all something I was enthusiastic about, because how could I expect the players to be engaged when I wasn’t?”

    6. Be willing to let go

    “Be willing to sacrifice your grand designs and ambitious story plans if players just don’t seem interested in them, in exchange for adapting to the things that they do seem interested in engaging with.

    Sometimes your players are gonna fall in love with the parrot. Give them RP about the parrot. Trust me.”

    This tip is similar to a lesson Ash shared during her interview about The Free Zone. If it resonated with you, you should check out that post next.

    Clockwork’s recommended resources

    Like Concordia, The Network runs on the AresMUSH platform, and like Spes, Clockwork had positive things to say about it:

    “AresMUSH is a great platform for modern MUSHing, accessible by both a web portal front end and a client for those who like either, or both,” he said. “It has a lot of great accessibility features built in and is constantly being updated and developed. It also has a low barrier to entry with the ability to run out of the box with no code knowledge whatsoever.”

    Clockwork added that while some basic Linux administration is required to install and maintain the server, potential game creators shouldn’t let that deter them.

    “Ares has a great Discord for game runners and an active, helpful community.” To join it, simply contact Faraday for an invite.

    What’s next for Clockwork?

    While The Network will be closing soon, it’s not the end of storytelling for Clockwork.

    “I’m going to be focusing on a bit of my own roleplay on games like Concordia and Silent Heaven,” he said, adding that he looks forward to taking a vacation from staffing while he begins working toward his Masters of Education degree.

    And of course, he’s already got a few game ideas on the backburner that he’d like to explore.

    “For my next project, I’ll be taking inspiration from one of Network’s more popular seasons, as well as the amazing work Jumpscare has done with Silent Heaven. I’ll also be returning to my MUSH coding roots to tinker with something a little bit different built on RhostMUSH. We’ll see how it turns out!”

    Wrapping things up, Clockwork expressed his gratitude for every single person who helped out as a storyteller on The Network over the years.

    “Your work is deeply appreciated,” he said. “Thanks to the players of Network, without whom there would be no stories. And special thanks to @uptoeleven for the conversation that helped it make the jump from idea into reality.”

    A big thank you to Clockwork for allowing me to pester him with an interview while he’s busy wrapping up a successful four-year term as creator of The Network. I wish him all the best with his degree and wherever his creativity and inspiration take him next. I have a feeling that whatever his next project is, the MU* scene will be all the more vibrant and interesting for it.

    And a warm thank you to Spes, creator of Concordia MU, for recommending Clockwork and putting me in touch with him for an interview. Until next time!

    Smiling blonde woman wearing glasses.
    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. “Be excellent to each other.”