Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Tale In the Desert

It's often remarked that MMOs, unless deliberately scuttled by their parent company, pretty much never die out. They limp along as wastelands haunted by a fanatical clique of subscribers constantly validating and reinforcing each others' inertia. Though I still hold fond memories of A Tale in the Desert from a decade ago, I must regretfully admit it's been stuck in that lamentable state of MMO undeath for years now. The verdant hills lining the banks of the Nile, once bustling with activity and so cluttered with player structures that space was at a premium, have now reverted to their naturally barren state. In itself, this both reveals the desperate dependence of a true MMO on its playerbase and qualifies ATITD as one of the few true MMO experiences to have existed. As the game is currently free-to-play during an extended interregnum (being handed off to a new programmer) this would be the perfect time to jump into the sandbox. Pun intended.

Given that much of ATITD's decline was due to its developer's waning interest and attention, new ownership might bring hope to some old fans. Unfortunately, there's very little to work with. Graphics ca. Y2K fail to immediately catch the eye. No combat. No physics. Yet still...

See that wood plane? That's mine. Know what makes it different from all those others in the background? It's mine! I chose a spot and plopped down a structure, and everyone who passes by that spot passes by my structure. And I pass by theirs. Thus, at its highest point during the first tellings, ATITD's otherwise barren landscape was transformed by player activity into what you'll never encounter in a theme-park MMO: a true community. Entire cities sprang up out of sand and mud. Though manifestly centered on great communal projects, the game achieved this through individual player efforts. It was up to you to decide who you were in that ancient world. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, all had their place. Some raised rabbits and sheep, planted vegetable gardens, grew flax and papyrus, mined, built monuments, etc. Me, I went off into the desert to find a little oasis and built my home far from the crowds. I collected herbs and mushrooms, raised bees and camels and once in a while took trips into town to drop off some goods and pick up the textile, metal and other goods I couldn't or didn't feel like making myself.

Where ATITD failed worst, I think, was in never truly capitalizing on this aspect, on building personal and guild identity as part of a community. Player avatars were never quite as customizable as in other RPGs, either through facial characteristics or clothing (though they used to look more authentic than that Office Space extra in the screenshot) and what's worse, the player compound, your home and chief mode of expression within the game, looked pretty much the same for everyone. There was no visual way to "hang up a shingle" and publicly advertise some service.

Instead, a level system was implemented pushing players through various challenges to build up their characters. Player suggestions for new mechanics, structures and features were implemented on a "wouldn't-it-be-cool-if" basis with little thought to how they'd fit into the game's aesthetics. What the griefers couldn't accomplish, jaded old-timers trying to maintain their excitement for a moribund world did. The playerbase shrank beneath critical mass and what were originally various regions competing with each other for glory became a vast empty ... desert, appropriately enough, dotted with small clumps of players struggling to meet arbitrary, largely self-imposed challenges which have little to do with the original concept.

Not that there weren't problems with ATITD's basic concept as well. From the start it couldn't decide whether it was a game with the rule-governed type of activities this implied, or merely a meaningless, aimless, more malleable social setting. This tendency toward freeform content (like the art or puzzle tests) which could not fit into a coherent game context made it easy prey for Second Life, which, let's admit, simply did that better. Its researched, low-key quasi-historic setting attracted many nerds who wished to stop and smell the roses, but who felt somewhat bulldozed by the rush toward higher technologies and a big finish. Wiping the slate clean every year or three certainly wasn't for everyone. The subscription cost was always rather steep for such a technologically outdated game, especially once the project stagnated. Its attempt at democracy always had to be curtailed, one step from mob rule.

Yet even though ATITD has been dead for years, its zombified corpse has a great deal to teach much richer games which have much less of a claim to the "MMO" badge than it does. For several years around the launch of World of Warcraft, thousands of players wandered the desert of old Egypt doing exactly what the game industry as a whole denies is possible: building their own homes, altering the landscape, harvesting and working finite resources and feeding them into a thriving player-driven economy, cooperating on great monuments.

You killed a dragon? Well big freakin' deal, these guys over there built the goddamn Pyramids!

No comments:

Post a Comment