Some Things A Tale in the Desert Did/Does Right

Today, we head far far outside the mainstream to a game that many of you know little about. A Tale in the Desert is often cited as a niche game, usually serving a population of 1000-2000. eGenesis’s Egypt is certainly an unusual place, where the head developer might respond to your bonfire problems and Pharaoh himself could pop in to for a glass of wine or a puff on your hookah. It is an Egypt knowingly in continual beta, where citizens work out the bugs in new technology as it is implemented on a daily or weekly basis.

It may or may not make sense to speak of A Tale in the Desert, as the third telling of the tale approaches. ATitD is designed to work in cycles: the tale starts, it winds to its conclusion, and it ends. After the end of the world, the world is reborn again. You bring into the new Egypt your experiences and your connections but not your previous wealth. It is a land where knowledge and networks are worth more than gold or blood.

I will be speaking mostly from the First Telling of A Tale in the Desert, since that is the one I played through. I saw little of the Second, and I have no idea what is happening into the Third. This is your chance to educate us all in the comments!

Trade Skills Unleashed

A Tale in the Desert is best known as the crafter’s paradise. Check out the tech tree sometime; there are as many objects in this little game as you might find in any of the larger MMOs, and they all work with some sort of building.

Most of your time in the sand is spent building Things. You collect slate and wood to build a plane to make boards from wood, then use those boards to make a frame for bricks. You collect grass, dry it into straw, and collect mud and sand to mix with the straw in the brick racks to make bricks, which you can collect after they dry. Learning to do that is more or less the tutorial for the game. If you love a rich economic game with manipulation of resources, you can see how this could work well for you.

There are skill-based trade skills. The more cerebral ones I will mention later, but there are real-time activities like keeping your charcoal oven running efficiently; if you are good, you can use less wood and run multiple ovens at once, and if you are bad, you will burn a lot of wood learning. A blacksmith gets a hunk of metal and a hammer: make the best axe head you can!

You can brew beer, collect herbs, grow vegetables, mass-produce bricks, create fine tools, cultivate flowers, design fireworks, blow glass, prospect for minerals, mine for ore, raise silkworms, weave cloth, drill for petroleum, hunt wild animals, cut gems, design sculptures, mint your own currency, contribute to university research, pollute the watershed, and fish. You can do a lot.

A Social Game

Once you get a grip on the mechanics, you come back to the main point: this is a social game. Working with others is a key to success. You can solo, and you can accomplish most goals eventually soloing for a few hours per week, but the social aspects are where much of the meat of the game is.

The Wealth of Nations book one, chapter one, page one, first sentence: division of labor is what increases productivity and wealth. If you specialize and become good at something, you can trade with others. Most people want to be self-sufficient, so they learn to be at least okay at everything, so they need not trade much. Other people exist almost entirely as traders and bankers. A few specialists produce things that are difficult or tedious, and they trade well (Quizzical was famous for this in the First Telling, as one of Egypt’s great producers of glass). Why make everything yourself if you can trade for it? Of course, this is a game, so you may want to try all the mini-games, but if someone else is a fan of one you dislike, trade with him for that stuff.

There is an entire Discipline of Leadership, which at times is better called politics or backstabbing. You are explicitly encouraged to get ahead by getting others to do what you want. Can you find mutual interests? Can you bribe them? Can you threaten them? Do you have any friends at all?

Worship tests were collective activities, things you worked together to do. Find six friends or strangers and take a Pilgrimage around Egypt. Spot the mystic altar and get two people to perform a complex ritual. Work together to keep your sacrificial fire burning with the gods’ increasingly demanding fuels.

At the simplest level, why build every building? Unless it blows up, there is little harm in letting someone else use yours. If you can trust them with it, permit them to use it. Some people spent a great many resources setting up public camps where anyone could go to use expensive or just introductory buildings.

Multiple Guilds

There is one specific element from the social game that every game should replicate: membership in multiple guilds. You can sign up for as many guilds as will take you or found as many as you like. Anyone can see who is in which guild. Each has its own chat channel, which is organized through built-in tabs that light up when a new message is sent.

Do you keep tabs on multiple guilds through shared chat channels, voice chat, message boards, whatever? If you regularly play with several groups of people, why not be allowed to attach yourself to all of them? If they are comfortable with your shared loyalties, no problem. Make a neighboring guild’s leader an initiate in your group for easy contact. Set up a regional communication guild. End guild monogamy!

This is a great example of emergent gameplay. When multiple guild-membership was proposed, the expectation was that people would sign up with a few groups. Aren’t you suspicious about new people, people with two masters, etc.? As it turns out, no. Instead, people formed and joined hundreds of guilds. It was like de Tocqueville all over again as a new guild was formed for any activity. Guild halls were cheap, so why not form a separate guild for running a Pilgrimage, building a Megalopolis, setting up a café? Your list of guilds was like your credentials. Some people had to quit guilds because they ran out of screen space from having too many tabs. Given the chance to form associations, people did.

It is the one feature of A Tale in the Desert that I miss most in many many games. Why can’t I be a member of the king’s knights and the armorsmiths’ union and the travelers’ society and the sisterhood of the traveling pants? I guess I can, but that is an entirely out-of-game arrangement or an in-character affair that the game does not help. When people run out of friends to play with they quit. I understand that people quit in groups to go onto the New New Thing, and more groups gives me more chances for that, but is there more risk from that or from my leaving because 80% of my supergroup quit to play WoW and EQ2? The more I have access to people in-game, the more chances I have to form bonds that will keep me paying another month. A guild is just a chat channel and a guild logo in most games anyway; give me more of those channels and a way to handle them.

One Character

A Tale in the Desert did one character well. There are games that do it badly, but in ATitD, the only reason you would want more than one is because you want to be in more than one place at a time (or want to do something inappropriate without getting caught).

Having just one character removes many design issues. You can let things happen while players are offline without worrying about how they will exploit it across multiple characters. You can link all the guilds and chat channels to one spot. You reduce aberrant behavior by tying all the consequences to one persona.

You are you. It creates more of a sense of “you” when it is just you and not “Hey, I will get my healer.” This does contribute to a reduced sense of immersion, as you think of yourself as yourself rather than as Zoltar the Cobbler, but it does make everything a bit more personal.

Player Control

It is Teppy’s sandbox, but you can carve out your corner of it. In Egypt, the players are given tools and allowed to go nuts. Have you not heard about this?

  • There are almost no rules. The code of conduct when you enter is that “start” button. Instead, everything is run through player-written laws. Think things are getting to cluttered? Write some zoning restrictions. Need to remove eyesore sculptures? Your new law says that anyone can vote on a sculpture and anyone can tear it down if there are 20 more “bad” than “good.” Should the communist revolution start now? Propose making all mines available for unrestricted public use. Want Bob banned? Put it up for vote.
  • Let’s talk about banning Bob. Every month or so we have a Demi-Pharaoh election. You pass a test if you can get Egypt to elect you Demi-Pharaoh, and your reward is the unrestricted ability to ban seven people. Game over, bye bye, it’s good to be the king. Of course, if you upset Egypt, you can be legislatively banned as well. Until then, you get to hold onto those bans in case you ever need them. Oh, and every time there is an election, someone is going to become Demi-Pharaoh, so this is a test of all Egypt, not just you.
  • Want to set up a camp? Go ahead. No one sells you a deed to property (unless you have a law that says that). Build as large a camp as you want. Trouble with the neighbors? You’d better work that out amongst yourselves, since no GM is going to stop your squabbling.
  • Griefing? I hope someone wrote a law about that. You can legislative prevent certain behaviors, since a ban on a particular action makes it physically impossible to perform, not just illegal to do. Maybe you can call a Demi-Pharaoh to threaten the griefer.
  • All currency is player-created. There are no gold pieces. Anyone can set up a mint and print things, and society decides when they have value. Counterfeiting was physically impossible

Player control did not become to onerous, significantly because laws and code restricted behavior absolutely. No one can break into your chest and steal things — the chest only opens if you have permission to open it. No one can stab you. No one can pull monsters on you. There is no tyrannical enforcement because it is impossible to break the law. One reason for the periodic reset through multiple Tellings was that Pharaoh expected problem laws to accumulate gradually into something that needed to be wiped clean. In practice, very few people have been banned, and Teppy has needed to shake the ant farm himself to keep the ants fighting.

Willing to Take Risks

And shake it he does. Teppy and eGenesis are nothing if not willing to take risks and piss people off. “What happens if we do this?” Why not try out a gameplay innovation, when you are going to re-start everything within the year? Why not indulge your whims in social experimentation, if you can keep enough players going to keep the company afloat? What is the point of being god-king of your own little world if you never indulge a bit?

The first risk is going to be setting up your own MMO that caters to an audience smaller than a WoW server. Egypt’s population in the First Telling and early Second followed a fairly consistent downward trend after the initial spike. You could chart on any given day “I have this many days until the servers stop showing a profit unless I can find a way to re-excite people.” Oh, and the game will have no combat whatsoever.

How about giving players complete control over the laws and economy?

How about a new skill that lets someone clearcut any tree he can find? That one went through quite a few legislative restrictions.

Want to play with drugs or addiction? If you drink enough beer and wine, you get better at finding minerals. Hookahs were added in the Second Telling to let you smoke whatever herbs you gather. The First Telling gave us the serpent’s cocktail, which gave you some teleportation time but required you to drink an antidote every so often or die, permanently and forever. You could drink and benefit from more than one, but each reduced the amount of time between antidotes. The body count gradually increased over time, as people quit, forgot, or committed suicide. I recall someone’s dying at least three times due to a bug.

How does in-game marriage work in your game? In Egypt, Marriage is one of the easier tests to pass, and you receive this reward: you can access anything your spouse can and you can log on as him/her. There is no divorce, so you better pick someone you can trust until the end of the world. There were high profile bad marriages. There was at least one attempted murder via serpent’s cocktail.

What happens if you send in a dishonest trader selling previously unknown items, expensive but worthless upon investigation? Let’s give him offensive beliefs, too, and have him refuse to deal with women, who he refers to as slaves. Wow, that lit up the forums.

If you give people the chance to hurt one another and benefit from it, will they? How about with no benefit? What if we structure incentives this way… or that way…

Even if you hate the latest experiment in Teppy’s sandbox, you must give some respect to someone willing to experiment with new ideas in gameplay, and he is literally betting his livelihood that it will work.

The Community

ATitD has had a great community. The entire thing would have died a horrid death without a group of people willing to work with each other and the game’s limitations to make a great experience.

There has always been someone to help a new player. If you really and truly need something that you cannot get or make on your own, someone will help you or just give it to you. Some people spend all of their time helping others. Others do so indirectly, by developing the game’s economy so that all this trading and helping can go on.

People get together to hold festivals, work out the game’s problems, or just to chat. If you have a spare spot at the wine-tasting table, you throw it open to any random person you can find, giving away several weeks’ worth of work on wine.

Some parts of the game are structured to encourage this. Some are neutral and it arises anyway. Some are downright hostile to cooperation but much cooperation still arises in the face of problems.

It is a self-policing community in a game that probably bore anyone likely to go around making trouble, anyway. You can see some of the things the community does at the ATitD wiki or on the boards.

Real Math Puzzles

Ending on a quick note, many aspects are a thinking man’s game. Designing gearboxes was a mix of math and spatial design within strict limitations. Discovering how wine flavors worked, along with the details of fermentation, required months of careful testing. Stressed breeding allowed folks to design better seeds for more productive plants. Paint-mixing was one of my specialties, working out how to make various shades of off-white or to make things more cheaply. I can now easily tell the difference between Alice White and Ghost Blue, between Salmon and Clay.

Have you spent any time in the desert? What did you enjoy while you were there?

: Zubon

(Please remember, comments may be moderated for Shiny Happy Week posts. This is a festival of joy, not complaints.)

11 thoughts on “Some Things A Tale in the Desert Did/Does Right”

  1. I loved the community, particularly when things turned sour.

    A lot of people come for the crafting, then a few weeks into it, they find the crafting start to take a backseat to the politics and social strife. This is something a lot of people aren’t ready for, because they see ATITD as a cooperative warm fuzzy world. One glimpse into the seedy underbelly of intrigue is enough to make people cancel and never come back.

    I also love the experimenting that goes on, and you don’t need a degree in advanced calculus to figure it all out. There’s a lot of math and spacial stuff and science and whatnot, but…if you want to be an artist rather than a scientist, you can do that too. Your results in paint-mixing or mushroom-hunting won’t be as precise, but they’ll definately be just as interesting.

  2. Can’t mention enough how cool it is to have multiple guilds. And I met some really great people there. And I found it can really make you think about things. For example: In Real Life there are things people do that can get them killed, like take drugs, in Egypt (Sorry, “In ATITD”), you could actually outlaw such a thing, and people couldn’t do it. The question becomes “Should you?” not the current “Could you?” Anyway, it’s a free download, if you haven’t tried it you really should.

  3. The whole idea of a combat-free MMORPG is goddamned fascinating. And since I can’t get Seed to work on my machine, I’ve really got to check out the third telling of ATitD. Sounds like it’d demand a seriously huge time investment to properly enjoy, though.

  4. Playing during the first telling of ATITD forever changed my view on MMO gaming. It’s a shame that this game is so frequently labeled and pidgeonholed as “a crafting game”, when its true essence is hidden on a deeper level. You’ve done a fine job at bringing some of the more interesting bits to the forefront in this article. Thanks!

    To echo what Kir said: If you’re interested, give it a try. Tale 3 will be starting right away, and the game client is a free download. Even if you end up hating it, knowing that ATITD exists and understanding what it tries to do will make you pay attention to aspects of many other games a little more.

  5. I played on and off in T1, T2 and T3Beta. ATITD is the sort of game that, to me, is a perfect half-a-game. They get crafting, they get collaborative world-building, they get player policing, they get staff involvement. Many things are so well designed in ATITD that I suspect they were not so much “designed” as “accidentally discovered”.

    I know this is Shiny Happy Week so I’ll keep the complaints to a minimum, but ATITD is still stuck in the “grind”. There is not a lot of difference between gathering 100 pieces of slate and killing 20 kobolds. I also did not find, in my limited experience, a lot of conflict in the game. Egypt would have been a perfect setting for conflicts between rival tribes, cities or geographic areas. I have seen a sense of nationalism in the game, for example when your local university researches a skill before the other areas do, but there is little support in the game’s mechanics to allow for more direct forms of conflict. I think that extra spice would make the game a lto more exciting.

    These two things – the repetitive grind, and the lack of conflict – makes ATITD just half-a-game for me, but a darned good half-a-game. A fun experiment is to show the game to a traditional fantasy MMORPGer or gamer and see them instantly dismiss it as too repetitive – and then point out that while it is definitely a grind, it’s a far more appealing grind than your standard KillTenRats fare. After all, you can switch to a different type of grind at any time (grow leeks, plane boards, harvest flax seeds), while in other MMOs you really just have killing, killing and more killing.

  6. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly I enjoy of in ATiTD more than any other aspect in it… Crafting, the near overwhelming freedom to do whatever you want to (resources, building, the tests, general hanging around, exploring the landscape while looking for the elusive desert rats, etc.)… But first and foremost – the most striking “feature” of the game… or should I say social experiment in search for a perfect society, as it goes… is the society/community, all the people who form it – all the guilds and friends you’re bound to join and meet (and you probably can’t avoid that, unless you’re a very anti-social hermit who never ever even communicates with others) – along competition and possible adversaries too, but that’s life.

    Required: an open mind which doesn’t fear at times mindnumbing number of opportunities and things to do (or to not do) is quite essential :-)

  7. So many of the great things about ATITD have been pointed out already, and so eloquently, that I can hardly add to them. But I’ll make this additional observation. Searching the ATITD official forums reveals that, as of today, it’s been nearly a month since the word “nerf” was used, and even then it was actually in reference to WoW. For a MMORPG’s official forum, that all by itself is a miraculous and unique thing.

  8. A Shiny Happy Thing:

    The ability to contribute to a world (not just a game) which will grow, or shrink, or mutate, or maybe even implode as a result of your actions, alone or collectively. This is sorely missing everywhere else, and it is one of ATITD’s great strengths. The older I get, the less I want rats and the more I want the ability to create something meaningful, even if it’s “only” transient entertainment.

  9. On the tail of T3 and the nose of T4, I have to say playing this game does have its ups and downs. I have been playing since the T2 beta (off and on) as the ups and downs of a Tale happen. Plans of T4 are already in the works for my home guild and a lot seems to be still highly socially oriented.

    As a fan of hybrid (kill/craft) MMOs, I came to Egypt first and still stick with it. I also play FPS games on multiplayer servers, and find that the socioeconomic niche of Egypt keeps my attention more than the shoot em ups. This is definitely a game to try if you like intellectual conversation, and a laid-back atmosphere.

    Compared to the highly competitive (and loud) atmosphere of a game like WoW or Team Fortress, ATITD is a “chat with tasks” and fosters cooperation within the community… whether a small home guild or a community of all players in Egypt at once. Global chat channels help all Egypt keep in touch and up to date. Regional chat channels let the regions of Egypt keep in touch in an unmoderated channel, as do guild channels.

    My biggest challenge in this game has been learnig to work in a group, and I think it has actually helped me learn to function in a community at large, and on large tasks (example the Architecture Test of the Megalopolis or the Discipline Monuments that herald the end of a Tale).

    It is a great way to see Egypt not necessarily as it was, but maybe…as it should have been. See you in Egypt!

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