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