A Tale in the Desert VI and VII

Ravious and I met back in the First Telling of A Tale in the Desert. The Sixth is winding down now, and subscription fees have been waived until the end so it really is free to play. If you are interested, you have the chance to jump in now.

A Tale in the Desert has been sold to Pluribus, our old friend who has been with Egypt nearly from the beginning. This could be a good thing for the game: new management, new life, and a Pharaoh less likely to shake the ant farm just to see what happens (we love you, Teppy). You can sign up for the newsletter if you want notice of when VII starts.

: Zubon

Shifting Priorities

I have written previously about storyline paths differing between development and live teams in MMOs. I find myself looking at recent Guild Wars 2 updates and wondering whether there was a change in development teams or the same team deciding to shift directions. One could easily look at the first year of GW2 and say, “Wow, we made that way too zergy. Let’s dial that back.” But recent content has been not just dialed back but punishing of zergs, which means either they wanted a hard break with the past or someone different took over the reins of design.

On the one hand, some content encourages zergs, other content discourages it. Yes, not everything calls for the same strategy; that’s good design. On the other hand, almost everything did, for the better part of a year, call for the same strategy, so current players feel punished for doing what they’ve been taught to do, and it is not as if a huge wave of players loving non-zerg content will sweep into GW2 because a few updates were not pure zerg. You need to upset the apple cart atop your current playerbase for a long time and hope they stick around while you right it and turn it in a new direction. On the gripping hand, as I said of “punishing,” quite a bit of content did not encourage zergs so much as require on the order of 100 people to have a reasonable chance of success. The content being rebelled against still requires dozens of people but now requires you to herd those cats in multiple groups before the tools to manage that have come into existence. To say nothing of the switch from the original “show up and do what you want” approach of GW2, where content requiring synchronized dancing was hidden in a few instances.

Also, the boss blitz is just bad.

You have certainly seen that changeover in design philosophy, usually coupled with a changeover in design teams. The original GW1 was very different from the final game after the expansions. City of Heroes under Statesman was very different from City of Heroes under Positron, and I am not sure who was helming the switch to Incarnate content around the time I stopped playing. “Trammel” and “NGE” are famous design shifts that veteran MMO players will still debate in some forums given half a chance. A Tale in the Desert saw quite a few design shifts under the same management, but Teppy was always an experimenter; I have no idea where the game is headed under its new management.

Ingress has had a shift in emphasis over time from a geocaching-like game that focused on walking to rewarding car-based play. If you can’t see why that transition could be rocky, remember that my job was analyzing traffic deaths when I started blogging.

: Zubon

Wow, we don’t even have a post category/tag for Ultima Online. Then again, we don’t bring it up enough for me to want to create it.

The Test of the Obelisk

Returning to the topic of simple mechanics with big impacts, consider the Test of the Obelisk in A Tale in the Desert. Most of you have never played, so let me explain. Some particulars may have changed between Tellings, so I am going with the one I remember best, from the original ATitD.

To pass the Test, you must build an obelisk. It must be at least 7 cubits tall, and it must be at least 1/7 larger than any obelisk within 1000 yards, and it must remain the tallest for a week. The building cost of an obelisk increases geometrically, mostly in bricks and boards but also involving ash, linen, and other materials.

It is the first and simplest Test of Architecture. The devil, as ever, is in the details. Continue reading The Test of the Obelisk

Estimating Difficulty

When A Tale in the Desert introduced barley as a growable crop, they also added a technology that could be unlocked by donating 100,000 barley to a university. How did they get the number 100,000? Nekhmet (one of the developers) grew a bunch of barley, they figured that the players would learn more efficient techniques (ATitD uses player skill-based crafting), and then they multiplied to get a large but not ridiculous number of hours of work. It turned out that Nekhmet was a prodigy at growing barley, at that technology was unavailable for months until ad hoc additions to the game allowed barley output to double and triple.

When Guild Wars 2 introduced pumpkin carving, a few hundred pumpkins were hidden around the world. It was an exploration achievement: find 150 to unlock the title. A technological problem let the same pumpkins respawn after carving, and they spawned on a per-character basis for a per-account achievement, so you could get the title without leaving Lion’s Arch.

When The Lord of the Rings Online introduced Mines of Moria, the dungeon fights that were its endgame were a mass of bugs and exploits, some of which were obviously unintended (stand in a doorway while a door closes: your weapons are on one side, your body is on the other, and the boss cannot hit you) while others surprised the players when they were declared “unintended” (kite the boss around his throne so that it is between the two of you when he uses his devastating area effect attack).

When City of Heroes introduced the Hamidon raid, players found a variety of ways to beat it, ranging from sniping it from beyond its range to capitalizing on teleportation and invulnerability to avoid damage. For months, every technique used was patched away as an unintended exploit. Some developers claimed that there was an intended way to beat Hamidon, but the players never seemed to find the “intended” one, and it is not clear whether it would have actually worked. Hamidon was later reconfigured into a fight with a more obvious “intended” approach.

Guild Wars 2 has a pop-up warning when you start the cooking crafting skill, telling you that it is more expensive in terms of time, silver, and karma than the other trade skills. Cooking is the fastest, cheapest, easiest craft to take to 400 skill, notably having the last points available for a few hundred karma worth of peaches where other skills require dozens of drops or even globs of ectoplasm.

Can you cite a dozen examples from your gaming history where “hard” content was trivial while “easy” content was literally impossible at release? Can you see why I am suspicious of any player claims about how hard something is supposed to be, what the developers’ intent was, or who this is for?

: Zubon

Shopping By Customers

I recently read An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen. Much of the book is advice on finding quality ethnic food (and barbecue) at reasonable prices, whether in the US or in their home countries. Don’t eat in the tourist district, do eat where there are several restaurants of the same type in the neighborhood (until I visited DC, it never occurred to me that you could have a half-dozen Ethiopian restaurants in one block). Being an economist, his insights focus on where the restaurants have the right incentives and efficiencies. A place with great atmosphere is selling that, rather than the food; the tourist district does not worry about repeat customers; American shipping systems are great but really fresh seafood and produce is only available close to the source.

Yes, this is one of those extended metaphor posts that takes an example from another setting and applies it to gaming.

The simplest guide is to look at the customers. If the restaurant has the right people eating there, the food is probably good. Who are the right people? The ones with interests aligned with yours. Continue reading Shopping By Customers


Now in its 10th year, the most hardcore PvP MMO out there is A Tale in the Desert. How many other MMOs do you know with permadeath? I remember a couple from the First Telling, where the wife was using poison to get around the problem that Egyptian marriage really was ’til death do you part. Good times. It is now in its 6th iteration; the developer is actually willing to end the world and start over periodically. (I have not checked in with Teppy lately, but its hardcore PvP status was maintained through a mix of encouraging cooperation for the community to advance and then actively shaking the ant farm and providing incentives to act against the community.)

Setting aside the social experimentation, another MMO seems to be interested in following the path that ATitD has blazed rather than making Yet Another Fantasy Theme Park: Salem. The little info I have (scroll about half-way down) sounds like ATitD meets Darkfall in colonial New England. Heartless introduced me to it, and as I said there, I have immediate concerns about a F2P game where the Goonswarm could conceivably visit for a weekend and completely despoil an area, a cross-game version of Burn Jita. You need a way to welcome new people but let existing players protect the game from them. (As much as we want players to be able to make meaningful decisions, we do not want players to drive themselves away through bad decisions that undermine the game.)

At this point, I need an RSS or something to subscribe for Salem info. I stopped actively paying attention to game development years ago. All MMOs should be assumed to be vaporware until you can log in, and maybe then you should wait for them to be live a few months before getting emotionally committed. I assume I should check back in a few years or something? I avoided paying much attention to GW2 before the past couple of months, and my friends & family had already pretty much told me I was buying it.

: Zubon

Chat Windows

A Tale in the Desert was the first game I played that used multiple chat tabs. It worked differently than most games: non-customizable, and each saved recent message history so that it effectively included the game’s whisper and mail systems. A Tale in the Desert also allowed multiple guilds, and each guild got its own tab.

CoX and LotRO have good implementations: send whatever chat you want to whichever tabs you want. I can have a “guild, alliance, and whisper” tab to make sure I did not miss anything during a fight, then another for narrowing information during raids or dungeons.

Guild Wars has the interesting addition that it uses !@#$% as a first character to let you indicate which channel you’re speaking in. It also uses what looks like tabs (but are really chat type/channel indicators) for that purpose. They combine to a suitable way of maintaining the last channel you talked in and indicating it visually.

Guild Wars also ties its party search and chat systems. Adding yourself to LFG (or for trade) sends a message to the chat window. It facilitates trade spam, which is unfortunate, but it neatly solves the problem of how invisible LFG is in most games.

: Zubon


I drove to Chicago yesterday. I-90 splits to local and express lanes once you are in the city. Ideally, you stay in the express lanes until the next opening back to the local lanes is the one before your exit. For that to work, you need to know when the lanes re-merge. The signs helpfully explain that the next exit from the express lanes is at Pershing Road. Great. Is Pershing before or after my exit? What number is the Pershing exit? This sign is a helpful reminder for people who already know where they are going, but not if you are just coming into Chicago and do not know what order the roads are in.

Our friends at Language Log define “nerdview” as “writing in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader.” This is probably their best example, while our friends at Popehat present this gem that looks incomprehensible, becomes clearer through the comments, and then becomes fully comprehensible but completely useless after an informed commenter explains that the somewhat-reasonable explanation is not the true one (assuming he did not make that up).

In gaming, we might call this newbie-(un)friendliness. This has been a theme in the recent Guild Wars posts, both about the game and the community: the explanations of what to do assume that you know what you are doing. The developer or experienced player may have great difficulty dialing his knowledge back to the newbie, and then there are tiers of newbie because some people are completely new to the genre and some have experience with similar games, and then the experienced players need to unlearn what they have learned elsewhere.

Some games and communities do this intentionally. Developers usually would prefer more customers, but some like to keep their community small. Some players just don’t like to bother with newbies and want to keep casuals, trolls, etc. out. It is a form of initiation or hazing: if you are not willing to put up with X, we do not want you here. The original A Tale in the Desert was an accidental example (great community, strongly self-selecting), and I don’t know if Dwarf Fortress is intentionally that hard to get started on. Rogue-likes tend to like to have a painful introduction. Or, as was said about D&D as it left 2nd Edition, “THAC0 kept the riff-raff out.”

: Zubon

[GW,SW:ToR] Inversion

Many of the design oddities I am citing in Guild Wars arise from its development path. It was not built as an MMO, but it has accumulated MMO elements over time, grafted interestingly but sometimes awkwardly onto its frame.

Everything I read about The Old Republic suggests that oddities arise from its developers. Without having played, my sense of the internet consensus is that this is a wonderful, brilliant, elegantly crafted single player game with excellent polish, story, and voice work. And that it completely lacks anything that attracts and retains MMO players except for having WoW-like gameplay.

Personally, I am quite happy with the notion of a game that has an intended finish rather than an eternal grind, but that has gotten about as far as possible from the old notion of an MMO as a virtual world, and it does not mesh well with a subscription model. But what do I know? I am not the target audience for “WoW with lightsabers,” and those are not my hundreds of millions of dollars invested.

: Zubon

Comment Spotlight: Fun Economic Activity

sid67 comments at Hardcore Casual:

My criticism here is that [developers] usually don’t try to make the getting or the making [of items] itself very fun. For example, EVE has a great economy but the *doing* of it is about as fun as pissing on a flat rock.

This is the other reason I do not play EVE. I could have a merry time being a middleman and playing the spreadsheet. You see a 20% price differential between stations five jumps away, and you can capitalize on that. The actual gameplay involved in that is filling a cargo hold, waiting for a half-dozen jumps, and emptying a cargo hold. I decided not to pay to pretend to be an intergalactic trucker (in an environment where pirate attacks on your truck are surprisingly common).

Before that, I was drawn to the notion of mining. It sounded like a rarefied version of the MMO crafting I often enjoy, being the backbone of the economy, and potentially going from the very rocks to final production. The actual gameplay involved in that is activating a mining laser and waiting for the hold to fill. I decided not to pay to be mostly AFK (in an environment where pirates make a hobby of harassing miners).

And I have paid to pretend to make charcoal, flax, and linen in A Tale in the Desert. The actual gameplay of Facebook games often rivals the crafting in most MMOs.

: Zubon