Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Tale in the Desert is a rather odd game. It's a MMORPG based in ancient Egypt. There aren't any monsters to fight. Instead, you perform tasks like gathering, mining, farming, weaving, fishing, and so on. You use the materials you gather to make equipment, which you can use to make more complex materials and objects. Eventually you can build sculptures, buildings, and monuments. The game has a story to it, with a beginning, middle, and end. You and everyone else in the game is part of that story. The ending depends on the actions of all the players.

It's quite different from anything else I've seen. Although games like World of Warcraft have gathering and crafting tasks, the focus there is combat, whereas in this game, it's all about gathering, crafting, building, trading, and socializing. The tasks you need to perform can depend on what others have done. For example, you may need to build something larger than what anyone else nearby has built. Once you build it, your object remains in the world, visible to everyone. As I wandered around the game world, almost every object I saw was something created by a player. As a new player, I needed to find areas that weren't already occupied, so that I could set up the equipment I needed. Some of the basic resources (wood, sand, mud, grass, stone, etc.) are shared, so it helps if you set up a workspace away from others. As far as I can tell though, workspaces have a short lifespan, so you work in an area for a while and then move on.

The tasks you need to perform can also depend on other players. For example, you may need to build an sculpture and leave it out in the open so that passers-by can vote on whether it's attractive or an eyesore. Or you may need to talk to people and convince them of some cause. Or you may need to get people to join your guild. The social aspect is important; other people aren't there only to help you fight monsters. There's also the ability to propose new laws and get signatures/votes; if the new law gets passed, the game developers will implement it (remember LambdaMOO?). I didn't explore that aspect of the game.

The graphics aren't great, although they didn't bother me much. There's very little sound or music, and that hurts the game a great deal. Sound effects are incredibly important. The UI is awful. It looks like it was designed by programmers: there's lots of abstraction and generality, like scrollbars, arbitrarily sized dialogs, deep menu hierarchies, and an attempt to make everything vague so that it's reusable in other contexts. For example, to dry out grass and turn it into straw, you need to Drop the grass. This is “cool” in that it reuses an existing function, but I think the UI would be better with the task explicitly listed. The UI also offers very little feedback about objects and actions. There are lots of objects around. Some are usable and some are not. You won't know until you click and get a menu. There are lots of places where you can't do something, but it won't tell you that you can't until after you've attempted to do it. For example, when planting flax seeds, it allowed me to plant a second seed too close to the first, then it told me it was too close. Mark the area in red or something to give people early feedback about whether their actions are going to succeed. Don't let me do something that's not allowed.

Another problem with the UI, at least for a beginner like me, is that it doesn't really give you any hints about what to do. There's a huge list of tasks, but no way to learn how to perform them. For example, I was supposed to learn Carpentry. How should I do that? I have no idea. There's no tutorial as far as I can tell. I ended up going to the web and searching for the information. How was I to know that I should find the "SArch" building (whatever that stands for) and click on it?

I played for several hours and got through the ~30 starter tasks, with a lot of help from the web. That opened up new possibilities of projects I could do. However the game felt rather tedious and uninspiring. Let's see... I need 100 bricks. I'll collect mud, straw, and sand, then stand around for 10 minutes making bricks. Boring. There's no challenge in that. It's not interesting. It's likely that the social aspect makes up for it (the crowd I talked to was much friendlier and more mature than in any other game I've been in), but I didn't stick around long enough to find out.


1 comment:

Richard wrote at July 09, 2006 10:00 PM

What's disturbing is that while the game isn't much fun, I found it very addicting. I just had to do -one- more thing before I left. It's kind of like Civ in that regard. (ONE more turn, and I'll go to bed. I just want to see what will happen.)

I'll probably keep playing. What Amit didn't mention (or try, apparently) is that there's a mentorship system. I didn't try it either, but I did ask people online for help rather than going to the web. It seems to be a very socially oriented virtual world. And while I think it's not very much fun, I find that aspect of it very interesting, at least.