A Strange Tale in the Cracked-dirt Desert, Part I

A Tale in the Desert crossed the nine-year mark and there was no celebration. Rather, its inhabitants seemed unhappy and flustered in a time that should have reminded them of Tale’s solidarity in the MMOG genre. It’s a strange game, after all – one that doesn’t focus on the tropes of individual growth so much as it emphasizes group development – where a large portion of the game is spent investing resources (like lumber and stone, tirelessly gathered) into Universities so that other players are provided with free skills. In general, it’s something most of us aren’t accustomed to in our Western world, let alone in MMOs.

In the past few months, I’ve scoured reviews, features, op-eds – anything having to do with Tale or its standoffish lead developer, Andrew Tepper. Across the board and all the way back to its ‘03 inception, it was hailed as a marvel of social experimentation in MMOG form and Tepper was always its fireplace philosopher.

Tale, people say, is about creating a society. Players run around ancient Egypt and build pyramids and guildhouses and petition players to join their various causes. They impact the landscape with pollution and overbuilding and then pass laws about zoning restrictions to curb their impact. They grief and receive grief and pass laws to ban players and elect others to positions of power.

Now, though, I’m not so sure any of these things work.

Dialogue is rife with commentary on Tepper. People complain and, as a Tale player was wise enough to point out, people complain on the internet. A lot. Andrew Tepper’s  inactivity has driven players away and into disgruntled forums. Egyptian expats relish the good old days when building a community on the Nile wasn’t replete with the recent roadblocks.

From where I stood, out in the sidelines, Tale’s trouble seemed to stem from its well-realized, but collapsing system of player autonomy. For one, it’s a system that empowers players directly; anyone can vote in player elections and in the legislation of laws and anyone can suggest changes to be made to the game. Typical of democracy, if a suggestion passes with majority vote, it’s enacted and Tepper hard-codes it in. Unfortunately, Tepper – the Pharaoh – is listless in Pittsburgh and this major mechanic has stalled.

I started asking questions. Was this really the reason behind the dwindling of the community – a missing tool? Why do some stay, then? And why do the remaining players obsess over every little detail and every intrusion on their plots of dirt and muck? For the most part, the backlash was belligerent. I was an outsider and I was incapable of understanding their world. According to Tale players, it was none of my damn business either.

So I made it my business. I got an account, downloaded the client, and logged in to see ancient Egypt for myself. I walked for hours up and down the Nile and into the far-reaching desert dunes. I walked by deserted compounds, abandoned for 90 days… for 100 days… for years. I checked the voting booths to witness the laws in limbo. And then I found people: happy people, proud people, and welcoming people, and all offered me a helping hand in their daunting world.

Before anything else, they gave me a short list of rules to follow and I paid close attention. Common courtesy isn’t a suggestion. It’s a requirement. And they went:

Rule #1: Mind your space and mind others’ also. When it came time to find myself a home I was to abide by invisible lines drawn in the dirt. I shouldn’t build too close to anyone else and, like the no trace rules of the 70s, I should clean up after myself wherever I went. It became my job, just as it did for everyone else here, to keep the beauty of the desert pristine. And believe me, what the screenshots don’t show you is exactly that – the stuff behind the jutting, broken polygons.

Rule #2: Don’t ask, but give. Free-riders are unwelcome in the harshest, most sincere definition of unwelcome. The point of Tale is to invest in the creation of a community, not to become a superhuman jerk. It’s especially important now with an apparent lack of player autonomy, to foster a coherent community where players work together and not against each other.

And then they gave me tons of items and resources and pointed me in the direction of the nearest University. After, I wandered and looked for a suitable plot of land for my first compound, a staging point for my own contributions to the desert community.

And, while building its walls, I picked up a third rule, which seemed incessant and rushed as per current events: Identify yourself with the Tale community.

It took me a while to understand what was happening here. All at once, players were leaving and the community was strengthening. Players were loving and caring of each other and were full of malaise at anyone and everyone else. Again, I began to pour through articles and features set in the world of Tale, but this time, I stopped early and rifled through a sociology text instead.

I would find my answers in the theories of Elinor Ostrom, American economist and Nobel laureate.

This was the first part of an ongoing series on A Tale in the Desert and its community. Join me next week in continuing my look at Tale and its current state of affairs.


  1. NerdyPharmacist

    Interesting reading. Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Pingback: A Strange Tale in the Cracked-dirt Desert, Part II | Nightmare Mode