The Game Archaeologist spins A Tale in the Desert: A talk with Teppy

A Tale in the Desert
I have to say, I have nothing but admiration for lone wolf-style developers who decide to pish-posh giant studio teams and massive budgets and jump into the game-making mosh pit anyway. Andrew "Teppy" Tepper is one of these visionaries who had an idea for a unique MMO and took it to fruition. I mean, most of us come up with "totally tubular" notions for online games, but how many of us make it happen? Outside of a couple of doodles on a Post-It, that is.

In our second week covering the fascinating sandbox world of A Tale in the Desert, The Game Archaeologist had the pleasure of sitting down with Teppy to get his perspective on how one man bootstrapped his way into the MMO world. He also dishes on the team's next MMO project, which we'll be talking more about on Massively later this week.

So what's it like to create the ultimate sandbox in Egypt of all places? Teppy, take it away!

A Tale in the Desert camel farm
The Game Archaeologist: Hail, Pharaoh and well met! Can you introduce yourself and your position?

Andrew "Teppy" Tepper: I'm lead designer for eGenesis. We focus on novel MMORPGs -- our first Tale in the Desert first came out in 2003, and we're now gearing up for A Tale in the Desert VI. Our next game, Dragon's Tale, is a gambling MMORPG -- a blend between an MMORPG and a very nontraditional casino.

How did A Tale in the Desert come into being? Where did you get the idea for it, and what made you think of striking out in such a different direction than most other MMOs at the time?

I've always been fascinated by how society deals with tough problems. In real life we do things like have elections to appoint leaders; we socialize (or partially socialize) things like nutrition and health care; we appoint juries to pass judgment on wrongdoers. These solutions sort of work, and the specifics that we use have all sorts of unintended consequences. This is fascinating stuff to inspire a game. Social gameplay combined with really deep crafting was a natural fit.

What's the most interesting behind-the-scenes tale from making the game?

Players in ATITD can pass laws that change the rules of the game, as long as they can get enough support from fellow players. Early on, someone created an innocuous-seeming law that made it so that only those that had first joined the game in beta could wear purple clothes. It didn't mandate purple clothes, but left that one color as a sort of status symbol. The law passed, and veteran players did start to wear purple.

The playerbase was growing, and it was clear that soon new players would outnumber purple-allowed players. The new players would probably have repealed this "class law." To head this off, the law's author introduced another law allowing orange clothing only to those subscribed prior to passage of that new law.

The plan ultimately backfired, but it nearly succeeded, and if the playerbase had been less savvy, I'm sure it would have. It shows that political manipulation isn't that hard.

A Tale in the Desert temple
Most MMOs feature development teams of dozens if not hundreds -- what was it like being such a small start-up? Do you think it's possible for equally ambitious designers to pull off something like this today?

Absolutely. I think that selling team-quality members on just an idea is difficult, but if you can develop just a kernel of either great technology, fantastic art, or a tiny but super-polished demo, it's very doable. Some other things that we did that are still applicable today: We traded stock in the company for rent, lawyers' fees, and consulting. We licensed middleware on "pay when we raise money" terms. I maxed out credit cards for the few cash outlays required. It's hard, but it's doable.

Why Egypt as a setting and not, say, Asia or Europe?

The ancient Egyptians were great builders, and there are some things that they built (pyramids!) where we're still not sure how they did it. Since crafting/building is so central to the game, ancient Egypt was an easy choice.

Players go into the game knowing that whatever work they put into it will eventually come to an end when the Telling wraps up. How do you find that changes how people play and experience A Tale in the Desert?

It makes for an exciting and fast-paced start-of-Tale, but a slower endgame. Early in the telling the gameplay is hyper-competitive; later parts are more social.

What have you learned from a sociological standpoint that surprised you over the course of the game's life?

When I first conceived of the game, I was sure that players would burden themselves with an ever-growing legal bureaucracy, as we have done in real life. It surprised me how much of a laissez-faire society has formed. There are certainly social pressures to behave a certain way
in-game, but players have largely resisted using laws to force behavior.

In a way, that is my greatest disappointment with ATITD -- I thought I would have proof that all groups of people behave that way, and it really hasn't been the case.

What is your personal favorite Telling, and why?

I have favorite moments more than a favorite Tale. The laws described above were one favorite moment.

Several episodes involving Demi-Pharaohs' powers are favorites (a Demi-Pharaoh, once elected by fellow players, may permanently exile up to seven others from the game.) A
roleplay event a few years back where a misogynistic character offered seemingly valuable items for trade was another interesting event because of how the players dealt with it: They shunned him and ignored his wares!

A Tale in the Desert oasis
How is the current Telling progressing, and what do you have planned for the sixth one?

It looks like players will complete several monuments, and perhaps all seven monuments, which hasn't happened since A Tale in the Desert III. So that means that there will be up to seven new player-designed Tests in ATITD VI.

Looking at the current landscape, we see there's definitely a hunger for sandbox-style play, especially with titles such as Minecraft and WURM Online. With respect to that, what would you say to sandbox-loving players to convince them to give ATITD a go?

ATITD is unique because it offers deep sandbox-style gameplay with definite goals. Players can, as a group, win the game by completing all seven Monuments. This happened in Tales I and III and did not happen in Tales II and IV. By completing Monuments, players are able to make a real, meaningful, and permanent mark on the game by inventing new Tests for the next Tale.

What do you think is A Tale in the Desert's greatest legacy to the MMO genre?

Hands-down, the fact that players make meaningful, permanent changes to the game through gameplay. This happens visually, by building their homes ("compounds") and workshops, and it happens logically (code changes) by creating new Tests and Laws.

Thank you Teppy!

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 justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.