Game analysis: A Tale In The Desert

I’ve been meaning to try A Tale In The Desert for a while now, since it’s a fairly successful MMORPGs with a truly deep crafting system (the other one being Star Wars: Galaxies, which won’t install for me anymore). I just downloaded and played the starting-island portion over about three hours. Unfortunately the UI is really annoying so I won’t put more time into it.


  • The crafting system is indeed deep. Basically the entire game is about making stuff. You gather resources (modeled nicely and placed throughout the world) and build tools (also nicely modeled) to transform them into ever more complex products. The starting-island tutorial is basic but I read some fascinating things about advanced crafting on the wiki. For instance, you can grow grapes and make wine, but first you can try cross-breeding grape strains to get seeds with better growing properties, and during the growing season you take a series of actions to “tend” the field, which affect the final quality of the wine produced. (“Product quality” seems to be a good way to add depth to crafting – SW:G uses this too – but obviously it complicates the server since it can’t treat all instances of an item type as fungible).
  • No combat, although there is PvP in the form of competing for achievements. ATITD proves that there is actually a good middle ground between purely social “chat rooms” and purely combative PvE/PvP games.


  • It’s a grind.

The resource-gathering system is cumbersome. For example, early in the demo you have to gather slate to make stone blades. Slate is found dotted along shorelines, but there is no indication of exactly where a slate node is located, except for an icon that appears only when you are standing right on top of one. Gathering slate is a process of walking around randomly until the icon flashes up, then backtracking to find exactly where to gather it. There should be a visual display of some kind to show where the slate nodes are.

Another resource you need early on is grass. You can pick grass anywhere the ground is green, but each time you pick up a handful you have to wait a few seconds for the character to animate, then move aside and click again. The gathering animations should be interruptible. Or, if the goal is to limit the rate of gathering, then you should be able to “batch-gather” a large amount of the resource with a single mouse click, like WoW’s “make all” button. (edit: apparently there is a way to automate grass-gathering during times you are offline, but you first have to gather 2500 units by hand!)

Along the same lines, there is no automation for “processing” steps like cutting wood into boards. You sit there clicking, waiting for an animation, clicking, waiting for an animation, etc. Worse, the blade breaks every so often (for no apparent reason), sending you on another shale-finding quest. I can understand exposing players to these mechanics temporarily, but not on a long-term basis. You should reach a skill level that allows some automation or batch-processing, or at least invent a little point-and-click game (with decreasing difficulty as your skill increases) to control the frequency of success and failure.

  • ATITD uses its own widgets and controls for the GUI, but implements them poorly.

Here’s my take on implementing your own GUI widgets, as opposed to using the native widgets in Windows or OSX: it’s like asking for a bout with the heavywweight title-holder: the rewards are good if you succeed, but you’d better have the skills to back up your challenge.

If the native widgets aren’t ideal for your intended use, then go ahead and write your own custom widgets, but be careful and design them well (good examples are the custom GUIs in certain 3D apps like Lightwave and Houdini).

Just keep in mind it’s incredibly tough to correctly handle all of the corner cases and behaviors that users expect from modern widgets. Sure, your homemade button works when I click it, but what about keyboard focus? How does it move when I scale the containing window? Does it work well on a tablet PC with a touch screen? A PDA with a stylus? Does it handle Unicode text rendering? Right-to-left languages?

Widgets that get this stuff wrong feel unpolished. Like, for example, ATITD’s windows, which you can only resize by dragging a pixel-wide line somewhere in the interior, or the super-annoying pop-up notifications, which appear directly under the mouse cursor, preventing you from clicking nearby until you dismiss the pop-up.

It’s a shame the UI is so annoying, I was really looking forward to seeing some more advanced features. For instance, check out the ATITD wiki page about plant genomics!

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