A Tale in the Desert

The gamer’s complaint of “we want innovative games!” is one that the industry has learned, through experience, to ignore. Some gamers want innovative games. Most gamers say they want innovative games, but really the marketplace proves that – as a group – they want derivative games that carry the illusion of being innovative. This is doubly true in the tired and pretty much creatively dead genre of multiplayer online role-playing games, which combine the kludgy game mechanics of any mediocre game that is five years out of date with the social culture of IRC and the lousy user interface of a MUD. (As I speak, some commissar in the politburo of pretentiousness is marking me down for the next purge for referring to this technology as “multiplayer online game” rather than “virtual world.” History, however, will be on my side).

When innovative games do come along, it often takes us a long time to recognize them. I’ve been playing the A Tale in the Desert II beta lately – I played the original game last year, but never wrote about it – and I think it’s innovative enough that anyone who is interested in online games should at least try it. Whether or not one wants to actually pay to keep playing it is, of course, a matter of taste.

There are a few things I find intriguing about A Tale in the Desert. I like the mise-en-scene. I like that there’s no combat at all – not against other players, not against bad guys or monsters. I like the sheer size of the land (which, while not actually as large as the real Egypt, manages to feel like it is). I like the tech tree that punishes antisocial people (like me!) who try to build everything by themselves. I like that technologies are locked until enough people in an area cooperate to open them up. The theme of A Tale in the Desert is: you’re in Egypt, and there is stuff around you – grass, mud, sand, rock. You can pick stuff up and do things with it and build structures and devices. You can learn new skills from schools and universities (in some cases paying a tuition via barter) or from other players. You can teach skills in turn to other players. That’s basically it.

In the introductory part of the game, for example, you’ll learn and apply some basic skills. You’ll find a body of water and pick up some pieces of slate from the shore. If you bring some slate to the local school of architecture, they’ll take it in barter and in return teach you how to smack two pieces of slate together to make a stone blade. You can then make a stone blade, and use that and some more slate to build a wood plane. Gather some wood from trees, cut it into boards, and then you can make brick racks. You’ll pick up some grass and dry it into straw in the sun; then you mix straw, some mud, and some sand and dry them on your brick rack. Now you have bricks.

Small projects can easily be made by one person (creating a flax comb, for example, or a distaff for spinning fiber into thread), but the scale of projects rapidly mounts to the point where solo progress is impracticable: when a project requires 1000 boards, 10 people have a huge advantage over the solo player. And in the game’s tech tree, a 1000 board project is probably considered comparatively small. That being said, there’s no strict requirement for cooperation in most parts of the game. Just like in a real economy, if you’re happy living by the shore and growing flax, well, you can do that.

The game is glacially paced. This is not for everyone. I find myself simultaneously fascinated and repelled by it. On the one hand, I love the idea that for me to run – literally run -- down the Nile delta to the nearest bridge and a few miles away will take me many minutes of real time. And there’s pretty scenery to look at while you do it. But when I say I love the idea, you can also guess that secretly I hate the actual doing. I have these moments that hit me like a lightning bolt: “What the heck am I doing? I’m in the middle of a desert running seventy miles to find a mountaintop to dry some papyrus! Am I insane?” The game is full of places where – if you are playing by yourself or in a sufficiently small group – you have no alternative but to spend 10 minutes or more just running from place to place. That by itself is what drove me away from the first telling of the Tale, and it may yet drive me away from the second one.

Transportation is somewhat better than in Tale 1 in that a hub and spoke “chariot” system has been introduced, so you can run to the nearby chariot stop and hop a bus to another region many miles away, instantly. That helps alleviate some of the pain, but it really isn’t enough. Players can “earn” the ability to set waypoints that they can warp to immediately (by spending “accumulated offline time,” which fortunately isn’t in short supply), but it takes long enough to unlock those when playing “from scratch” that the impatient will have a rough time of the first week or so, if they want to explore.

The other interesting aspect of the chariot system is that it changes the way in which the economy is developing. More populated regions will tend to develop more quickly as they can unlock technologies at the local Universities faster. In Tale 1, the Nile Delta advanced the quickest, and there was a lag time before technologies reached the other regions (say, Lower Nubia). Intrepid explorers could, of course, run up to the Delta and learn the technologies there. But fundamentally the different regions had different qualities and different population densities. With the chariot system in place, there’s no essential reason to prefer one region over another, and what we see happening in the beta is that population density accrues and thickens around the bus stops, rather than simply around the resources. So the key question in terms of local economies and competitions will likely be not “how close are you to the Delta?” but “how far are you from your local bus stop?”

The other major improvements from Tale 1 include a revamped mining system (the idea of “veins” and the aggressive resource competition they brought have gone away, replaced with the idea that every mine can produce any sort of ore, but correctly smelting it is up to the player’s judgment) and a few additions and tweaks to the technology tree.

Pretty much all online games that have tried to design an economy have messed it up. The main reason for this, I think, is that the scarce resource in most games is rewarded in the form of treasure. In A Tale in the Desert the economy is complex enough that the scarce resource – as Andrew Plotkin pointed out to me the other day – isn’t any particular treasure, per se, but labor. So much labor is required to build, say, a Lesser Sphinx, that it doesn’t particularly matter how much richer one individual is than another. The richest individual in Egypt doesn’t have 140,000 straw, 33,000 clay, 31,000 silt, or the thousands of gallons of paint required. But the richest corporation might.

This has interesting implications. In the same way that City of Heroes solved the Gordian knots of economics and inventory management by just mostly getting rid of them, A Tale in the Desert solves the economic problem by making labor basically interchangeable. Sure, there are some subtleties – a more experienced player might have more endurance or be able to run a little faster, but these are differences of degree, not of fundamentals. To accomplish a goal in the game, you generally don’t need to own a smelting pot (or whatever the hard-to-build building of the day is). You just need the right to use one.

Tale also has a clever self-modifying nature. Any citizen can propose a rule change; rule changes are voted on, and any rule change that passes by a 23’s vote and is not vetoed for technical reasons by the developer can be implemented. This can dramatically reshape the land, or property rights, within the game world. While the prospect of a veto always remains, it’s still a bold move to put so much of your game’s future (and, to be frank, your development schedule) in the hands of your users.

I plan on signing up for A Tale in the Desert 2 once it gets out of beta. I can’t be sure that I will actually play it much or for a long time – look, between you and me, there’s only so much flax growing a man can bear – but it’s such a creative take on the multiplayer game idea, so completely devoted to crafting, exploration, and such a rebuke of the “kill monsters, level up” ideal enshrined in every other online RPG that I feel, at some level, “I want these guys to have some of my money, because I want to see what they do next.” Sure, it’s still a treadmill – but at least it’s a different treadmill.

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