357134 is a quasi-random number.

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: More Thoughts

November 20, 2004 review

There’s one word I’ve come across a few times in more sophisticated game design reviews that never really “clicked” for me. I’d have to look up the meaning, sorta go “oh”, and then immediately forget what it meant. Repeatedly. Now that I’ve played more of A Tale in the Desert, I understand fully what this word means. Furthermore, ATitD, I believe, suffers from a conflict between concept and execution. It’s ostensibly about building a society, but is, in effect, a micro-management game.

orthogonality

In Beyond Good and Evil — which I’m using only because it was my last review — you could switch fairly seamlessly between the main story, finding pearls, or finding animals. Doing one did not necessarily benefit doing the others (although, pleasantly, it often did). These were orthogonal design elements. That’s an academic froo-froo term for “perpendicular”.

ATitD doesn’t have this.

There are seven different tracks — jobs, more or less — in Egypt. You pass an initiation and follow down that path. You’re certainly not locked in place, and can, in fact, master all seven. This is unlikely, however, unless you are the android creation of Dr. Destructo and thus need no food or sleep.

You advance through each track via a series of tests. These tests are no small feat, and at times their completion is not guaranteed. For example, the initiation into Art requires you build a sculpture that is approved by some number of citizens and, I believe, not also condemned by some other number. This isn’t so hard, as Egyptians are not terribly finicky about art and you can usually just ask people to help out as a favor. But you get the gist; these aren’t just quests involving slaying the Ancient Dragon of Argokinoth.

Thus, it’s usually preferrable that a more casual player progress in one field, and not spread out too thin, otherwise he/she will not advance far in any field. Compound this with the massive amounts of item-construction that is required. An example for producing linen, a pretty useful item for “buying” certain skills:

1) Grow flax from seeds
2) Collect flax and rot it in water
3) Process rotten flax in a hackling rake in three steps to produce lint
4) Spin lint in a distaff to produce thread
5) Use handloom to weave thread into linen

Can you imagine doing this on your own, everytime you want linen? Keep in mind each step is not at all instantaneous. You need your guild(s) to help you. This is bad for unsociable people like myself. But I illustrate this point as a non-trivial example of the tedium, the micro-management, that this game necessitates. Moving linearly through one track can be such a time-consuming task for people who cannot spend over 20 hours of play a week that “orthogonally” taking a break from this tedium for something else — likely just as tedious — is not viable.

One solution to this is to provide a richer array of short-term activities that can both provide immediate enjoyment and add to long-term goals. Another solution is abtracting certain “tedious” tasks in a way that makes them more game-like (read “fun”). Yet another solution would simply be to make things happen faster.

micro-management

ATitD, lead design Teppy states, is supposed to be a game about building a “perfect society”. Not naively, he knows this is impossible but wants to see how a community will react when faced with long-term planning problems. So this lack of short-term goals is not, necessarily, accidental.

However, I have to take issue with the conflicts between high-level societal dilemmas and low-level chores such as growing cabbage and burning it to make ash. They are not necessarily in opposition, but the balance is very delicate. Simulations usually attempt this sort of thing. SimCity is certainly about long-term planning if you are trying to build a megalopolis, but you must resolve many low-level functions such as water and power management. ATitD’s flaw, I would say, has more to do with the extreme levels of and excessive time that needs to be spent on the low-level activites.

SimCity, and other simulators, will often provide instant feedback from your input; a change in city zoning could have immediately recognizable effects on traffic and population. But ATitD is not a simulator; it can rarely provide instant feedback. There is no immediate connection between time spent on one chore and reward for your efforts. A standard RPG will almost always give you experience points and/or gold for slaying an enemy. That’s instant feedback for a few minutes of combat. Was it worth it? No? Fight something else. But how do you know that gathering the material to build a mine, then finding a partiular mining location, then spending an hour or more excavating will produce sufficient results? Certainly you don’t know how this will better your society. Was it worth it? You don’t know. But you do need that copper ore. So you can smelt it. To make copper. For the copperwire. To donate to research.

One suggestion I have is to “tier” experienced players so that working the same amount of material will produce more results. This abstracts the process without changing it, meanwhile allowing players who have “payed their dues” to be more efficient.

wrap up

ATitD was my first MMOG exactly because it allowed me to associate with other players in a non-confrontational way. I found this to be important, as I was wary of games with newbies or elitists dragging down my gameplay experience. But these issues of orthogonality and micro-management, which overlap quite a bit, have made this game hard for me. Partly because I’m simply not social — which is a personal flaw, unrelated to the game — and because I simply don’t have enough time to be a very productive player and feel my monthly fee is being spent effectively. I believe the game is responsible for this.

I understand there are counterpoints to these criticisms. People say to join more guilds, especially those specifically suited to your goals. They suggest you find something you like doing, and stick with that, then trade with others for what you need. The first idea I find unworkable for myself; I do not have the time to organize or be organized by a guild, especially several. The second, I also find, would be much more workable if one had more time to play, and thus produce one’s wares, and had a bigger network of people willing to trade.

I believe that ultimately, I don’t dislike the system per se, but I believe it needs to be severely sped up, abstracted more, and needs to gain a better variety of engaging activities; not chores. I do feel A Tale in the Desert should be applauded for not being the same-ol’-same-ol’, but when exploring uncharted ground, you may not always arrive in friendly territory.


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