More Than Crafting, We Saw A Virtual Society
Most people know A Tale in the Desert II as a crafting centric niche MMORPG. While, technically true, there is a lot more to it than is readily apparent from their marketing, or even if you just parachute into the game. A Tale in the Desert II, not technically a sequel so much as a second telling, is an extremely unique virtual society simulation that allows players to interact, and carve out their own world – for good or ill.
The heart of the game is “about building a perfect society,” says Andrew Tepper, the man who created and directs the title. While individuals advance in various complex crafting and social skills, the overall game asks the players as a group to complete seven tests in the seven disciplines (architecture, conflict, leadership, worship, art & music, thought and the human body). Once these tests are all completed, players build a monument for each discipline and “A Tale in the Desert II” would end. Literally, all characters are deleted and the game re-launches as “A Tale in the Desert III”.
One neat aspect of this is that as players build the seven monuments to complete one tale; these inspire seven new tests for the next tale. This is new content doled out over the life of the telling. At the time of our tour, Andrew was in the final stages of implementing the fourth test of seven for ATITD2. Inspired by events in the previous telling, the “Life” test was one of seven for the architecture line. In this test is asked players to seek out plots of blessed earth, build items to bring water to the plots and keep their vegetables growing on these plots. To throw in a community element, they also had to convince others to join them in cultivating this blessed land. Only then would the test be complete.
Although the game does not feature combat, it does have permanent death in an extreme manner. When you subscribe to ATITD2, you are not granted an account with a number of characters. You are granted a character. If your character is killed, exiled, or otherwise destroyed – your account is literally de-activated. Nothing prevents you from signing up again, but your person is dead. At this point, there are only two means to die. Players can overdose on drugs discovered by players and distributed around Egypt – apparently this happened in the first telling – or they can be exiled from Egypt.
There are only two forms of exile. The first is more akin to a ban in a typical MMORPG where conduct gets the player removed. That said Andrew was quite clear that the typical rules of MMOs do not apply. The game’s premise is that players must work together to build a perfect society. As a result, players will not be banned for swearing, forming a neo-Nazi group or other ban worthy offenses in most online games. Only if a player uses the game to deliver personal, real-life threats to other players or attempts to hack the game, can they be removed. The second form of exile is a bit different, unique and to many MMORPG players: shocking.
Players can be exiled – which is to say have their account deleted - by other players. Shocked? I was too at first, but after a long explanation, I am convinced that the mechanics that support this are perhaps the most interesting I have ever seen in an online game. Only demi-pharaohs can ban other players, each demi-pharaoh is given the ability to exile up to seven people at any time they wish, without notice. The concept of this kind of power in the hands of a player scared me, but in the history of both tales, there has only been one exile, over eighteen demi-pharaohs. The manner in which they are selected ensures that only players mature enough to hold this power have it.
Periodically, there is a test of the demi-pharaoh. This test takes all applicants and puts them into juries of seven. The seven people in each jury are given a set amount of time to converse, argue, discuss and pick the most worthy among themselves to advance to the next stage. If all seven cannot agree on one of their own to advance, no one advances. This whittling process continues until only one jury remains, at which point it goes to a global vote – the winner then becomes the demi-pharaoh. The entire process does not make use of “character skill” or any other game play mechanics. It is totally up to the people at the keyboards. If even one player dissents on the eventual decision, no one advances from that group. Only one player has ever been exiled by a demi-pharaoh and that was an important player who had gotten very angry with others and set out to destroy much of the communal work they had spent so much time on. The selection process ensures that demi-pharaohs use their power for the good of society, rather than ill.
Still, I was curious what would happen if the previously reputable demi-pharaoh decided he wanted to exile the seven most important players in the game. Andrew Tepper acknowledged this would be a tragedy to the game’s society, but there would be no intervention. These are the perils players face to build their perfect society.
The political systems of the game are another thing that truly sets this title apart from anything else on the market. Essentially, players are given the ability to help the game evolve. Players who have passed the quests and advance on the leadership track are able to write petitions at the University of Leadership. Then, if they can get enough players to sign it, it is put to a global vote in the game; the lone exception being Andrew’s use of “physics vetoes". As pharaoh, he disallows any ridiculous or impossible petitions – such as the addition of aircraft to the game.
These petitions come in two categories: laws and features. Features are things new to the game that players want. An example of a feature petition is a new machine to make a new kind of food. These often require art support and other work from the development team. To date, the community has passed twenty feature requests into development, with a total of sixty having been considered and thirty vetoed. The second kind, law, changes game play mechanics. For example, if there was a problem with players drawing pictures by building machines that would not decay, players can then request a law that allows machines to be destroyed by other players after a set number of days. To date, twenty-two laws have been passed.
For those used to the big budget games of the Sonys and Blizzards of the world, expect a bit of a culture shock in A Tale in the Desert II. The aptly named eGenesis currently employs three full time people and the game itself reflects that. Graphically it is functional over a work of art, and the interface is at times clumsy. However, given the dedication and access players have to the team, for once you may well enter the world and effect change. Nothing prevents you from pushing a petition to change something you do not like about the game’s interface.
Currently, A Tale in the Desert II has approximately one-thousand-five-hundred subscribers, with around three-hundred online at peek hours. This is a small community, but represents a twenty-percent increase over the first telling. The game has no initial cost for the software, and a twenty-four playtime free trial that does not ask for credit card information. If you do opt to play after your trail, the cost is $13.95 per month.
For a game of its size, there is a high level of awareness among the MMORPG community about A Tale in the Desert II, but many misunderstand what it is. One of the biggest challenges the team faces is to educate potential players what they are getting into. This extends beyond simply getting them to try the game, but also introducing them to the virtual society that exists within the world. Like a real world, the Ancient Egypt portrayed in A Tale in the Desert II continues to evolve. As the game exists on only one server, players of all types are forced to co-exist. This creates some very interesting results. For example, the town of Karnak has naturally evolved to be the home of the French community. These kinds of discoveries are not readily apparent to the average newbie, but if a player cares to seek it out, there is a lush and rich virtual society to be found.
We are anxious to hear what you think. You can let your thoughts be known in this comments thread.