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The Making Of: A Tale In The Desert

[Since we've been right in the mainstream of the industry for the last few, thought it would be worthwhlie moving towards the periphery. A Tale In the Desert is the Kingdom-of-Egypt-'em-up MMO which people who don't really understand describe as a co-operative game. It's only a co-operative game in the same way the House of Commons is a co-operative game to run Britain as well as possible. With such an interesting game to talk about, Andrew Tepper gave a great interview, which I often mention bits of when interviewing other developers. This interview was done just at the close of the First Telling incarnation of the game, when they were about to launch its second. It's now on its third.]

From the first second you logged onto A Tale In the Desert, it was clear that it wasn’t just another massively-multiplayer game. For a start, it did the unimaginable in the videogame world and entirely removed direct combat. However, it wasn’t the Sims Online’s glorified chat-room. In this ancient Egypt challenges awaited for you to overcome. While initially it seemed to be about constructing in a grand co-operative venture – kind of a game of Settlers where you played one of the eponymous characters – players soon discovered that it was a far more political game than a world of simple, happy worker ants. Social puzzles abound, which had to be overcome, with personal gain faced off against group success. It’s a game that challenged its player base in a way that no other game was even attempting. “A tale in the desert was the game I always wanted to play – and it’s kind of ironic that it’s the one game that I can’t play,” ruefully notes Andrew Tepper, President of eGenesis, “Obviously, that wouldn’t be fair.”

“When MMO games first came out there was the promise of all sorts of things that had never been tried before,” he explains when asked about the game’s origins, “The first games that came out were really just taking a single player game and making them multiplayer. They didn’t have any social puzzles. Motor City online tried racing. Space sims. Lots of RPGs. But very few social puzzles… and I think that’s the most interesting thing in real life.” He references the American reality-TV show survivor’s interactive dynamic as an example of an exquisite social puzzle, and what he wanted to see in a game. “Nobody was doing it, and they’re still not doing it in the sense that we’re doing it,” notes Andrew.

An initial problem was actually devising these puzzles. “There are certain social puzzles that are well know – like the Prisoners dilemma – but what was commonly known at the time wasn’t very large.” One of A Tale In The Desert’s primary elements is the passing of tests, which pose a social problem for them to find a solution. An early example was the Test of Marriage. “A very simple puzzle: find one person you trust totally,” explains Andrew, “The person who you can marry, can use all your stuff – in fact, even log in as you. But in Egypt there’s no concept of divorce, so it’s the easiest test in the game to pass but it’s the one that can totally screw up your game forever. And that’s happened a few times. There’s been several high profile marriages that really did”. Similarly, the test of the Demi-Pharaoh. “The community has to elect one person they trust totally, who then has the power to ban – permanently exile – up to seven people at their whim, any time,” notes Andrew.

Altar? No, I prefer low emission cigarettes. That doesn't work at all.

Abstractly these are simple challenges, but its implications could lead to all manner of human problems. To see how players reacted to this, consider the Test of the bureaucracy. “A few people are assigned the precious opportunity to start a bureaucracy,” explains Andrew, “You do well in this test by growing it as big as you can. It’s an organisational puzzle. Anyone in the bureaucracy can take it over, and so gain its resources. It’s easy for them to do it. In fact, people who are lower ranked in the bureaucracy, so are giving lots of points for you, but getting few for themselves… and there’s the most of them, they have the most to gain by taking over, ruining your hard work and taking it for themselves. It’s a test to see how you manage a large organisation.”

“At the start they simply said “Most people in Egypt are trustworthy”, and threw it open,” Andrew notes, “They recruited friends. They told their friends to recruit friends. Let’s make it as big as you can. Of the first six, five were taken over by either Griefers or new players who didn’t realise what they were doing.” Obviously, time for a rethink. “The second reaction was that “Oooh… it’s a hard test. All the bureaucracies get taken over”. They started thinking of having a structure. Everyone has a different approach, but one is if you’re considering recruiting a new player into the bureaucracy the player has to have been in Egypt for at least two months, passed at least one test and get approval from the other two people at your own level. Each evolves its own rules, by the players, trying to prevent the organisation from growing out of control”.

While the social puzzles were at the heart of the design, it took a while for people to realise this, preferring to turn their attention to the more obvious. “It was a foreign thing to people at first,” remembers Andrew, “What they latched onto at first was building. It’s something everyone was familiar with, and we have hundreds of things to build and craft. Players learned to do this very quickly, and enjoyed it. At first it seemed the game was just about building.” Which, of course, it wasn’t. Purely, anyway. “ If I had to say what was were the failures of the game, teaching people to getting into the social side of the game was a little harder than I expected,” comments Andrew, “There’s so much to build that people burned out, and many people tried to do very large projects either by themselves or in a small group of other players. They didn’t try to co-operate region wide to get 100 people working on a project.”

Not for fans of graphicsability

Also, being a unique enterprise, makes reaching their audience difficult, especially when it’s hard to actually perfectly categorise what that is anyway. “I still don’t know the best way to reach people,” explains Andrew, “That’s the biggest problem we have. The game appeals to people who like building. We have a lot of women playing the game – 27% by accounts, 40% by hours played. Reaching women gamers? That’s a difficult group. We have academics and professionals… but I really don’t know who our “core” audience are.”

But there’s much to be pleased with. “The way the community has formed is everything I hoped it would be,” Andrew smiles, “When a new player comes into Egypt they typically get a very warm reception. You typically don’t encounter griefers early. The fact to make progress in the game you have to co-operate with other people and make them want to help you, that lead to creating a culture that does welcome new people. I see over and over again people who try the game, and maybe go and try another game… but come back. They always come back to A Tale In The Desert. I hear that there’s something about the community’s friendliness that isn’t there in most other games. I expected it in A Tale in the Desert and it worked out exactly as I hoped.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the game was the legal system, where the players voted on their own laws, which then would be enforced in the game. Which lead to some surprising results for the developers. “In real life, I’m a Libertarian,” claims Andrew, I prefer very little government – a very basic capitalism is my own philosophy, and people should be free to do whatever you want, even if you’re going to hurt yourself by doing it, and the Government doesn’t tell you what to do. What I expected in a Tale In the Desert… well, in real life, Governments tend to start off small and grow and grow and grow. I expected the same thing to happen in the game world. I expected Griefers to show up, people pass laws to deal with them… but eventually get a taste for passing laws. The Government would get out of control, and relatively oppressive. And that didn’t happen at all. They continue, even now, to be very wary about the kind of laws they pass. You don’t see that in real life. As a libertarian, I’m pleasantly pleased. Though perhaps it’s not as interesting as if they did really screw things up for themselves.”

A Tale In The Desert, somewhat uniquely, was a MMO game with an ending always built into the structure. This leads room for the second telling, which eGenesis took a time to fix some of the problems with the game. “Number one thing was traveling,” Andrew notes, “It’s much too time consuming in Tale 1. It’s a very big map, and you have to get to certain places on foot, and that tended to chew up a lot of your play time… especially for beginners. We’ve reworked how travel will work in the game.

Pharoahs used to ejaculate into the nile to ensue future fertility in the land. No, really.

“Another thing we miscalculated, because of the technical limitations of the server, we can’t put thousands of buildings on the screen,” Andrew continues, “We won’t be able to render them. We can’t push that much data to a client. We used something called crowding where you can only build to a certain density, which pushed people apart, so that on the screen in Tale 1, while there may be hundreds of player online, you only see a few of them. We’ve made a low-level technical improvement to the server, to give things much more of a city feel. Previously you had a camp that was a loose collection of buildings. Now you build a work-shop – but it’s expandable. You decide what shape, you build the workshop itself and then you build the components of the skills you need.”

What advice to give a game designer thinking of making a similarly co-operative game? Well, look a little closer and realise that it’s not really just about that. “The intent was never to make a purely co-operative game,” Andrew claims, “We give game projects that people have to co-operate in…. and then we give them reasons why they would want to act selfishly. The tension between those two, knowing that you have to co-operate to get certain things done, but also knowing that co-operating isn’t the personal best route to do things, it creates an interesting decision. Don’t try and do a purely co-operative game. Give reasons to co-operate and reasons to not, and to make each one of those meaningful. Co-operating doesn’t just mean creating a monster so big that you need fifty players to defeat. You have to be more creative than that. Also have rewards for individual accomplishment, so that there is a tension. Interesting things will emerge.”

“Actually, that’s a more general approach,” he continues, “If you set rules up where you as the designer don’t know the optimal way, very often it creates interesting behaviour. Not always. Sometimes the players are, as a whole, smarter than you and there is an optimal solution which you just missed. But very often you get all kinds of cool stuff that no-one ever thought of, and then all of a sudden they think you’re a genius.”

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.