Sunday, August 15, 2010
A Tale in the Desert as social experiment
This weekend in A Tale in the Desert the technology was researched which opened up the Test of the Obelisk. Tests in ATitD have two parts to it: A simpler list of tasks you can do to "demonstrate the principle" of the test, which makes you gain a level, and thus opens up new skills and technologies for you. And a far more difficult way to "pass" the test, which gives you a new title and in some cases other advantages. There are 7 disciplines, each with an initiation and 7 tests. Doing all the principles is feasible; passing all the tests would require a huge effort for over a year, and isn't really necessary to advance. But of course players would like to pass the tests if they can, and that sometimes puts them in conflict with each other and causes drama.
Demonstrating the principle of the Test of the Obelisk and gaining a level is really simple. I did it in less than an hour, and most of that time was spent running to the university where I had to pick up the technology and get the test. I simply needed to build a desert obelisk of at least height 7 out of common materials. A height 7 obelisk doesn't cost all that much to build, and after you gained the level you can disassemble it and get the materials back.
But to "pass" the Test of the Obelisk and "win", you need to build the highest obelisk in the region, and have it remain the highest obelisk for a virtual week, 56 hours of real time. If somebody builds a higher one during that time, you have to start over. And the cost of that isn't trivial, the resource requirements go up exponentially with height. So one way to pass the test is gather a huge amount of resources, build a really high obelisk, and hope that nobody comes up with more resources in the next 56 hours. You are basically competing with the whole region you are in, or potentially even with whole Egypt, as players can travel and build their obelisk in a different region. When two or more players get into a pissing match, constantly outbuilding each other, nobody wins, and a huge amount of resources is wasted.
So another way to pass the Test of the Obelisk is to set up an orderly queue. Everybody not interested in winning build height 7 obelisks. The first person in the queue builds a height 8 obelisk, everybody else patiently waits 56 hours for him to pass the test, then the next person in the queue builds a height 9 obelisk, and so on. Overall that lets the maximum number of players pass the test with the minimum amount of resources spent. But of course that method has its own pitfalls: Is it really fair that the first people to sign up on the Wiki site get to build their obelisks first, and at a lower cost than those who for some reason come later? And it takes just one queue-jumper to ruin the whole set-up.
So in Sterope regional chat the discussions were rather heated, and when I visited another region the same discussion was raging there. In Sterope the first guy to build an obelisk stupidly chose to build it height 20, instead of height 8, which negatively effect everybody else, as even if they queue up orderly they'll have to use more materials this way. In Celaeno the first builder built his obelisk in height 7, so now everybody has to wait 56 hours before they can even build their small obelisk for the principle. In Maia somebody started at height 7, got jumped by somebody with an height 20 obelisk, who in turn got jumped by somebody from a different region with a height 21 obelisk. As you can see, there is a huge potential for drama in this simple test.
Now many other MMORPGs are specifically designed to minimize drama between players. We still use terms like "kill-stealing" and "ninja-looting", but while in Everquest you could actually steal somebody's kill, by dealing more damage after the other guy had pulled, in modern games the guy pulling a mob "locks" it. And in modern games you also can't loot mobs somebody else killed, which wasn't the case earlier. Systems like the need/greed rolls for loot are specifically designed to have the smallest amount of fighting between players, even if they can't totally eliminate it. A Tale in the Desert does not try to minimize drama, just the opposite. Many activities in the game deliberately put people into conflict and competition with each other. The highest obelisk passes the test, the highest amount of straw on offer gets a free camel, and so on.
The reason why A Tale in the Desert is designed for conflict and drama is that this creates a huge social experiment, and this social experiment is the design basis of the game. There are two main non-player characters in the game, controlled by the developers: The pharaoh, who believes in a civilized society, and the mysterious stranger, who is always out to foster egoism and strife. Each telling of ATitD is the tale of this fundamental social conflict, and each time players have many opportunities to either be civilized, which involves compromise and being considerate of the needs of others, or to be selfish and hurt others for personal gain.
Don't be fooled by the lack of combat in A Tale in the Desert. The possibilities to harm your fellow players in ATitD are huge, and make EVE look like a game for wussies. Have you ever noticed that all the big stories you hear about EVE aren't actually about PvP in the form of ship combat, but involve things like infiltrating guilds, betrayal, and bank scams? A Tale in the Desert eliminates the combat part and goes directly for the throat, forcing players to interact with each other socially, with the stakes being higher than in any other game. In A Tale in the Desert players can even be voted out of the game, being banned by the demi-pharaoh, a player elected by the other players. And it is exactly *because* players have such huge potential to harm each other that A Tale in the Desert often plays so much more civilized than other games. If being a jerk can have serious negative consequences for a player, then he might be thinking twice about it.