The Game Archaeologist spins A Tale in the Desert: The highlights

A Tale in the Desert
Readers of the ever-so-humble Game Archaeologist will recall that earlier this year I had the opportunity to exchange informative words with Dr. Richard Bartle, the creator of MUD. Since he was -- and is -- a highly opinionated designer, I asked him what he thought was the most innovative MMO from the last decade. The answer was short and succinct.

"A Tale in the Desert, he replied, then added: "Note that 'innovative' doesn't necessarily mean 'successful.'"

Right there is the crux of ATITD's unique position in the MMO industry. Instead of storming down a path well-traveled, it took a machete and made its own trail -- a trail down which few have followed. As Jef recently noted in Some Assembly Required, it is an "odd duck" of a game, skewing as far away from combat as possible to focus on two often-neglected aspects of MMOs: crafting and politics. Even though its population has pegged it as an eternally niche game, it's proven that constant fighting isn't the only thing that can draw an online community together.

This week we're going to look at some of the more unique features of this innovative yet diminutive MMO, which began telling its tale back in 2003.

A Tale in the Desert sunrise
The peaceful struggle

When an MMO has no combat, won't people get bored in a jiffy? Looking a the vast, vast majority of online RPGs out there, you'd think this would be the case -- combat comes as a factory default in most games, along with snide-impact dirtbags and hot air conditioning. But if nothing else, A Tale in the Desert proves that there can be more than just fisticuffs and fireballs to MMOs.

Instead of fighting mobs-slash-loot piñatas, players were invited to shift their game worldview and focus on achievements, crafting and socializing instead. ATITD put players in the sandals of ancient Egyptians tasked with building a civilization from a virtual sandbox. Players chose to pursue a variety of disciplines -- from architecture to harmony -- and accomplish a series of tests that each required. The tests encouraged players not only to build a physical infrastructure for the world but to bond together and form lasting cultural connections.

"Remember that 'no combat' is not the same as 'no conflict' -- the game, especially at higher levels, can be highly competitive," Lead Designer Andrew Tepper said back in 2003. At the highest level of the game's design is the struggle between the task-giving Pharaoh and the mischief-making Stranger, both of whom challenge the players in different ways.

The beginning... and the end

Endings are unheard of in most MMOs but quite common to A Tale in the Desert. Several of them, actually. Indie developer eGenesis decided from the start that the game would operate as a series of "Tellings," each one with a beginning, middle and end. While this would be horrific for most MMO players in typical loot-hoarding games, it worked to give ATITD players a sense of journey, a real goal, and a clean slate every two years or so to begin anew.

Each Telling isn't merely a server reset but an opportunity for change. New Tellings introduce additional or modified disciplines, tests, and social structures that the previous ones lacked. The current Telling, the fifth in the game's history, began a little over a year ago with a freshly elected Pharaoh and new game mechanics, such as aquaculture.

The ultimate goal, so to speak, of each Telling is for the whole body of players to rise up and meet great challenges as a community. To date, only the first Telling has seen the players accomplish all of these challenges, which typically end in constructing large monuments.

A Tale in the Desert tent
The great leveler

While leveling is a pretty routine feature for most of us, it actually didn't exist in A Tale in the Desert until the third Telling. Even then, this game's leveling wasn't so much about growing huge in power and numbers as it was signifying that you had advanced to meaningful stages in your development.

All players begin as level 0s, also known as peasants. Once a series of introductory quests is completed, the player moves up to level 1 citizen status and can work his or her way up to level 3. Each level represents the mastery of a principle chosen by the player, and with higher levels come more diverse skills and opportunities.

For players who enter the game feeling lost, A Tale in the Desert offers the opportunity to latch on to a "mentor" -- an experienced player who will help you as part of her own testing.

The political machine

Unlike some MMOs where you can craft and exist in a nice little bubble of one person, A Tale in the Desert makes it all but impossible to progress if you're incredibly antisocial. Not only are the crafting disciplines interconnected, but the developers instituted a widespread political system that affects each and every player.

Through this system, players can engage in many of the nuances of real-world political spheres, from electing representatives to voting on policies to even assigning punishments to those they see as rulebreakers.

Any citizen in the game may be empowered to create a law -- a defining rule that affects all in Egypt -- through a lengthy nine-step process. If the law is voted into being, the developers actually reprogram the game's rules to include it. There are limits to the types of laws that can be implemented (players can't be allowed to break the game's fundamental mechanics), but the system is flexible enough to allow for a lot of petitions. It's stunning to think of the implications behind such a system and how few other MMOs would even dare to put this much power in the players' hands, but it actually works well for A Tale in the Desert.

Every so often, great rulers are elected, and these demi-pharaohs are given significant power over the game's landscape. One of the perks of being a demi-pharaoh is that you become immune to being exiled -- and you can exile up to seven characters of your choosing.

A Tale in the Desert rocks
Standing on subscriptions

Why A Tale in the Desert has so few players -- even after being critically acclaimed by so many -- is a question with many answers. It may be that sandbox-style games always will appeal to a much smaller segment of gamers, and there's no way around this. The absence of hot-blooded combat and a total paradigm shift of how MMOs function could be another reason. But on top of this is the do-or-do-not issue of the game's business model.

While you might expect ATitD to be one of the world's bazillion free-to-play games, it's actually stood firm on subscriptions since its inception. The title has one of the shortest trial periods I've ever seen -- 24 hours -- after which you either have to pony up $14 a month or go elsewhere. For a game as deep and complex as A Tale in the Desert, the subscription might turn people away long before they have the chance to really get into the game's groove and see whether it's for them. Of course, that's just my opinion.

Sociology 101

All MMOs can be viewed in the light of sociology -- the study of societies -- but A Tale in the Desert's heavier emphasis on player-generated content and political control have allowed for a much more interesting specimen. When players can not only grief the system (sometimes with the devs' express permission) but be punished by others for these actions, a rudimentary system of justice takes shape. When the community develops a list of traditions and mores to be followed, new players are given the choice to acquiesce and integrate or remain on the outside of that group.

Sometimes the developers come up with game events that deliberately test the societies being formed, from threats to the whole community that must be addressed (such as a plague) or a deliberately provocative NPC that pushes players into either ignoring or acting against what they see as wrong behavior. At one point, the devs put a sexist character in the game that so infuriated the community that it caused a riot and a ban of that character through the game's legal system. While some thought the devs went too far, others saw this as the type of unique situation that A Tale in the Desert was built to handle.

In another instance, a GM who was playing a griefer of sorts -- a character who secured a monopoly on mining the only source of a mineral found in the game -- found himself in turn countered by players who used griefing tactics instead of turning to the legal system to break the monopoly. The player scheme didn't pan out in the end, but it showed that where there is a will, there are often 10 ways to achieve it -- and not everyone is willing to be civilized about conflict resolution.

What are your A Tale in the Desert memories?

As always, we want to hear your personal, first-hand experiences with these games, which is why I'm calling out all former A Tale in the Desert vets to submit their favorite memory and screenshots to for use in a future column!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.