A Walk Through the Desert
The other night I had the pleasure of venturing across Egypt with Staci "Rosethorn" Krause, the Community Manager for the indie MMO A Tale in the Desert. For those not familiar with the title, ATITD is a virtual recreation of ancient Egypt, in which players must work together (and sometimes against one another) to discover and utilize technologies, further the status of the nation, and ultimately construct seven pyramids. It very well may be the only MMORPG that has a distinct ending (when all seven pyramids are built), and oh yeah... there's no combat. A killer's game of choice, this is not. Instead what developer eGenesis has done is create a completely player-driven world that actually changes based on the will and accomplishments of its community. A new "telling" began on February 20th, and Rosethorn was kind enough to spend some time with me in order to help illustrate why now might be a good time to try out this unique and compelling game.
As mentioned above, on February 20th, a new telling of A Tale in the Desert began. When this happens, the entire face of the game world is wiped clean. Egypt becomes a blank slate for players to build upon and mold to their will in many different ways. All players must begin new characters, only the basic skills are available to learn, and well... you get the idea. The game is basically reset to play from the beginning. But let's back up a bit. A Tale in the Desert is probably one of the MMO scene's best kept secrets. In the event you (like me before my walkthrough) are clueless as to what makes the game a favorite of its loyal playerbase, let's give you the rundown.
The crux of ATITD has nothing to do with combat, unlike just about every other game in the genre. Instead, the core of the game is its extremely deep and robust crafting system, with an ample helping of exploration and discovery thrown in for good measure. As a new player you'll spend your first couple of hours in The Welcome Island, where you'll be taught the basics of crafting, gathering, movement, socializing, and character advancement. The whole process is how you obtain official "Citizenship" to Egypt. So before you can take a boat off the island and join the rest of the community in the real world, you have to complete the tutorial tasks. It may sound boring to some seasoned MMO veterans, but the truth is that ATITD is so vastly different from games you're used to, you'll be glad at the forced education.
After I'd learned how to gather materials, make a few stone blades and grow some flax seeds, Rosethorn showed up to take me on my whirlwind tour across Egypt while showing me the game's major systems. The first stop was one of the game's Guild Halls. Players of ATITD can and are encouraged to join multiple guilds. Rosethorn explained that while you may have one "main" guild of friends and like-minded folks, by allowing players to join multiple guilds they're able to find even more people to interact with and accomplish their goals alongside. Things like "Public Works" guilds are groups put in place to help new players by building extra tools and supplies to share with them. Think of the Public Works guilds like soup kitchens for newbies.
Something interesting to note that illustrates well the player-driven nature of the game is that one's guild rank can mean the difference between being able to and not being able to use different guild structures and tools. The more malicious players in the game can do plenty of damage to their guild's wares should they want to, and that's precisely why there is a system in place to restrict all but the most trusted players from having access to the sensitive areas.
Next I was whisked off to one of the game's several Universities. The central learning hubs of all the game's major skills and technologies, Universities are a prime example of player cooperation. There are a handful of different regions to Egypt and players are dispersed across the country at the beginning of the game. It becomes a matter of "Regional Pride" to see who can unlock what technologies first. To do so players must provide the University with enough of the proper materials. There are seven disciplines of learning in the game, and thus seven universities. Each University provides access to all of the game's more advanced technologies like Beekeeping.
Once a technology has been unlocked all players will have access to its use, but in order for a player from across the country to learn it from the University they'll have to travel quite a distance to get there. As an example, Rosethorn told me that it would take roughly five hours for a player with a basic speed rating to run the length of Egypt. So it's in your best interest, if you want a certain technology, to help your region provide the University with the appropriate materials to unlock it.
I mentioned earlier that the goal of the game is to eventually construct seven pyramids, one for each Discipline. In order to do this, players must advance along the Disciplines through a series of tests. The seven Disciplines are: Architecture, Art & Music, Body, Harmony, Leadership, Thought, and Worship. Players gain ranks in each Discipline as they pass tests. As an example, in the current telling that we were playing Rosethorn was a Journeyman of the Human Body (meaning she'd passed three body tests). There are basic levels to gauge a player's progression, and a level is gained for each initiation into a new Discipline, each test passed, and of course becoming a Citizen when you first begin the game. Levels themselves only serve as a basic restriction on some skills, and to offer a sense of achievement for players to go by.