A Tale in the Desert

A Tale in the Desert (ATITD) is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) set in Ancient Egypt, run by the independent company eGenesis. Most notably, the central focus of the game is, unlike most other MMORPGs, society rather than combat: in fact, this game is one of very few in the genre to boast no combat system whatsoever, although there is some equivalent in board games. Instead, the meat of the game is economic development. The initial software download and all new content are free, but there is a monthly fee of US$13.95 to continue playing after 24 hours in-game.

The playerbase, based mostly in the U.S. and Europe, is small (a few thousand players), but many of them are fairly dedicated to the game. In fact, Andrew Tepper, the president of eGenesis, takes a very active stance in the game, participating with players as the 'Pharaoh', which tends to result in a great deal of interaction between developers and players, as well as a closer-knit community.


A Tale in the Desert is rare among MMORPGs in that it lacks combat. Instead, a variety of social activities provide for the basis of most interaction in the game. Soloing players may choose to focus on a wide range of options, both personal and regional; however, most players choose a more social outlook, and participate in politics, research, and social advancement. To support this, the game's main focuses are building, community, research, and personal or group challenges, called 'Tests'.

ATitD also has a unique outlook in that the game itself has a global foregame, midgame, and endgame: on average so far, every year and a half the game ends, achievements are tabulated, and a new 'Telling' begins, with certain modifications requested by the player base. Within a Telling, players can write, introduce, and pass laws (including player bans), and make feature requests. Compared to other online games, many have noted a closer to equal ratio of male to female players, and a high level of civility and generosity, potentially as a result of the difference in focus.

Game mechanics

As stated above, ATITD is very much unlike the traditional MMORPG. While other MMORPGs focus on so-called hack 'n' slash gameplay, where the player gains experience points (or XP) by killing monsters and completing quests involving the killing of said monsters, ATITD involves no killing, turning instead to an economic focus. There is a substantial in-game economy, including a significant amount of regional or global trade; however, there is no official, backed currency for the most part, and efforts to implement them have met with little success. Additionally, there are sufficient activities to be learned and performed that it is considered exceedingly difficult to be a Jack of all trades: this too leads itself to a much more social aspect.

While there is very little in-game documentation, or indeed official documentation for the most part, the player base has constructed a wiki by which knowledge can be distributed, running on the third-party fansite Furthermore, because of that lack of documentation, a recurring theme is a 'newbie island' which established players can enter at any time: this allows them to train new players at their own leisure, and introduce them to the specifics of the game. After completing a series of tasks given to them, players may make their way to the mainland and begin the real game. When a new player exits the welcoming island, they may immediately begin trekking around to look for a suitable settlement location or community; the variety in different groups can be confusing, but due to the aforementioned training system (Mentorship), many new players already have some idea of where to go. Upon reaching the mainland, the first goal of most players is to begin the central challenges of the game (Tests), find public resources, and expand upon what knowledge they have while integrating themselves into the community at large.

Because the land is constantly changing, communities are too, giving the feel of a living, breathing civilization; a guild might relocate itself so as to be closer to a new mineral vein, or a lake. ATITD's strong sense of community is an acclaimed accomplishment, as the whole game revolves around this. While the vast majority of MMORPGs have a larger active playerbase, ATITD puts its community before everything, resulting generally in friendliness throughout.

One of the foremost attractions of ATITD is the legal system, a controlled variant on Nomic which is generally restricted by what the developers can code, as well as the nature of such a system. With the legal system, players have the option to create petitions of various types, from the redistribution of expired accounts' materials, the direct ban of a player, or even a change in an avatar's sex. The legal system as currently defined can only restrict players' options, alter ownership rights, or change a minor portion of a challenge; however, within those options, the possibilities have not been exhausted. Finally, the legal system also requires a great deal of cooperation between players, as a petition must be spread, signed, and returned with a certain threshold of signatures.


As mentioned above, the vast majority of ATITD's challenges take the form of 56 defined 'Tests', separated into several groups. Of these, the first in each group is a trivial request, intended to introduce players to the discipline - the group that challenge is in. Beyond those initiations, seven challenges exist for each discipline, arranged into themes:

  • The Architecture Discipline is based around building large and potentially ornate structures, such as a useful aqueduct or an exceptional burial temple. The secondary goal of Architecture is to complete these projects as simply and efficiently as possible, which can require substantial planning, trading, and cooperation.
  • The Art Discipline is primarily based around creative expression in a limited framework, with players building mosaics, breeding scarabs for colour and pattern, forming fireworks out of basic materials, or creating detailed sculptures.
  • The Body Discipline is focused around surveying the land, both socially and geographically, to determine where various resources are: some of the challenges within involve finding 28 different varieties of mushroom, or deducing the locations of cicadas hidden by other players.
  • The now-defunct Conflict discipline, removed in the third Telling to make way for Harmony, was centered around the pursuit of excellence in a series of games, generally with perfect information. These games, such as variants on checkers and euchre, are now played in weekly or biweekly tournaments.
  • The Harmony discipline, new to the third Telling, is generally focused around knowing one's fellow players; many of these were based on a discussion at the Ludium game developer conference. They include Marriage, where a player gives reciprocal access to their account and goods to another, as well as Mentorship, which requires players to enter the mentoring island and assist someone in becoming a citizen.
  • The Leadership discipline is much like the Harmony discipline in that the participant is required to know his or her fellow players, but rather than predicting their actions, one must influence them positively. One of the tests in Leadership, the Test of the Demi-Pharaoh, requires the player to be elected among all their peers; the reward, accordingly, is the ability to ban seven players from the game. Other tests include a Survivor-like game between 12 people, or the formation of a bureaucracy.
  • The Thought discipline is centered around the creation of numerous puzzles: the goal here is to make said puzzles simple enough that they can be effectively solved, but difficult enough to be challenging for the majority of players. Among those puzzles available are logic mazes and a modification on the popular Rush Hour.
  • The Worship discipline is centered around the need to please various deities, often through an organized group of players working in unison. The Test most characteristic of this is that of Festivals, which requires 100 players to act in unison within one hour, on a global basis.

Because many of the Tests in several disciplines above have a very limited rate of completion (passing), ATITD is ironically considered to be a PvP game by many: For example, only the highest ranked player can complete most tests in the disciplines of Thought and Art each week. This leads to substantial arguments over what is and is not acceptable within the limits of the game, and violations of these standards is colloquially known as 'gaming'.

Upon completing a Test, a player advances in rank for that discipline: the various ranks range from Initiate to Oracle, and determine one's proficiency in the discipline. At the Oracle rank, where the player has completed all seven Tests, they may build a Monument to celebrate that discipline: if 127 disciples are found to take part in it, the players may create a challenge for the next Telling, to replace one of those used before.

The ultimate goal of the game, therefore, can be summed up as 'having enough players cooperate and complete the Tests for every discipline that seven Monuments can be built before the end'.


The game is in continuous development and currently running the Third Telling, with the developers often releasing new content almost immediately after it is created. This does mean there are relatively frequent bugs, but they are usually fixed quickly. Neither content releases nor bug fixes usually result in server downtime.

The First Telling was released on February 15, 2003, after approximately three years of open testing. While considered to have more bugs than the others, it also had an extremely tight-knit community, formed in part by the crossover of various guilds during the beta. So far, this is the only Telling to have 'won' the game, by completing the main challenges; it lasted approximately one and a half years, and ended on September 2, 2004.

Kemet was a German server running concurrently with the first Telling, although released on February 1, 2003: while the international version was produced solely by eGenesis, much of the work on Kemet was done by MDO Games, an overseas publisher. Ultimately, due to the extremely low population of the version, it was dropped for the second incarnation, but the result carried over into the next international version. Additionally, the majority of MDO's translations from English to German were kept. Kemet ended at the same time as the first international Telling.

The Second Telling began on September 3, 2004, with a host of changes: one new challenge was released for each discipline to replace an old one, over the course of the game, as well as a second test for the discipline of Worship. This Telling implemented a host of changes to various technologies from the first, as well as an overhaul of the GUI; a different tutorial for newcomers replaced the old midway through. The players did not manage to complete the challenges in the second Telling, but did finish Monuments for the disciplines of Architecture, Body, Leadership, and Worship. The Telling ended on May 24, 2006, roughly 627 days after its inception.

The Third Telling, released on approximately May 30, 2006, has seen some drastic changes over the previous two tales. A relatively loose leveling system has been added, as a means to connect with gamers who are more familiar with mainstream MMORPG design. The Discipline of Conflict has been dropped for a new discipline, the Discipline of Harmony. Mining has returned to something more like the first tale, but with its own mysterious workings. The Test of Mentorship has been modified to fix an issue that made it more challenging for those who began to play late in the tale. Additionally, an in-game event calendar has been added, so that developers and players may more easily communicate events without the need for a third party website.

Changes in 'Tale 3'

By far, the most substantial change to ATITD in the third Telling is the implementation of a level system, following to a small degree in the footsteps of other MMORPGs. Rather than gaining experience for a given task, however, players directly gain levels by completing smaller, Test-related challenges. These levels give various advantages, such as the ability to learn new skills, take part in higher-ranked Tests, or research technologies.

However, owing in part to the restrictions placed on players who have no interest in various Tests, the level system is also one of the most widely-criticized features of the new Telling. The primary complaint in most cases is that players feel forced to take part in something they have no interest in, for the sake of doing something they do - a substantial change from the prior Telling.

Other changes in the third Telling include the implementation of an in-game Calendar system for events, small modifications to many existing Tests, new systems for basic materials such as firepits, mines, and glass, and a regional chat channel for anyone visiting that area of the game. Many of these have been lauded as excellent, where others have been considered to be pointless by long-term players.


Because of the social aspect of A Tale in the Desert, players tend to react more heavily to events which break or strain social mores, even when these events are introduced by the developers rather than rogue players. Because, in the legal system, players can implement punishments or bans against others, the effect is most often caused by characters played by eGenesis staff. Some examples include:

  • In the first Telling, a player named Knightmare and two others created a character to attempt to force players to use the legal system more responsibly. After one of those other players damaged a public facility by removing a vital resource, the character, Mafia, was banned.
  • Additionally, in the first Telling, the developers brought in a character named Khepry, whose actions caused depletion of resources and pollution to a great extent - indirectly.
  • Throughout the Tellings, skills have been released which provide a positive benefit to the user, and a detriment to everyone else. These 'Stranger' skills, named after the game's primary antagonist, have often caused a great stir.
  • In the second Telling, the events team created a character named Malaki. A thief from Persia, Malaki traded worthless chaff for worthwhile materials, but most problematic of all was the absolute disregard he had for any and all female characters - he made several references to slavery and subjugation, which eventually led to him being driven out of the game. The aftermath raised a stir on such websites as Slashdot and Terra Nova, though according to Andrew Tepper, the simple controversy brought in more players than it drove away.
  • In the third Telling, a series of mysterious chests washed ashore and opened by players brought Lung Spore Disease, which made particular tasks more difficult while players searched for a cure. Because the communicable nature of the disease limited social interaction, many players objected to this new game element and a number refused to log in until a cure was discovered.
  • The Test of the Demi Pharaoh allows players to ban seven people each, upon passing; roughly one pass is allotted per month, so the position is exceedingly hard to obtain. In the second Telling, only three people were banned by this method, each time creating a public outcry.


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