This story begins in the year 1998 with a complex and addictive high fantasy RPG.
The game was called Utopia and took the form of a text-only (good for slow dial-up internet connections) RTS MMO in which you established a province inhabited by elves, dwarfs, orcs or your choice of a few other familiar fantasy races. Each race had unique play modifiers, military units and spell books that gave access to temporary bonuses in time of peace and special powers in times of conflict. The player also had control over what buildings were constructed in their lands and with carefully considered selection could define their own play style based on the perks each building offered. Even in its early, simpler days Utopia offered deep strategy and wide-ranging possibility.
Your province existed as a member of a larger kingdom made up of 20 or so randomly assigned players from around the real life world. Kingdoms had the power to elect a monarch, establish diplomacy and of course wage war. Those with higher activity levels and more experienced players achieved in-game acclaim and those without tended to become ‘ghettos’, gradually losing members and becoming easy targets for kingdoms on the rise.
I have to thank Will (the same Will mentioned previously in relation to the Civilization series) for introducing me to this game, and in the same breath blame him for the hundreds of potentially productive hours burned in subsequent years. I’ve quit Utopia many times, but something about its emphasis on imagination and simple numbers-based strategy has seen me return for ‘one more go’ just as often. This experience reinforces the way in which games like Utopia thrive on an age-old gambler’s fallacy…
…that is knowing a task is based on mathematical principles with just a dash of chance, and therefore presuming to be master of the system.
This of course breeds confidence in far greater measure than is necessarily warranted and keeps you coming back for more when you might otherwise cut your losses and move on. What really dug the claws in for me though was the then-unique concept of an interactive land of fantasy that would go on existing and waiting upon my lordship whether I was online or not. On any given day I could order the construction of new barracks and housing, steal some resources and make a ‘land grab’ on a random opponent. Logging in the following day I would find my buildings complete, my stealth restored and my acreage increased. This system proved so addictive that the local public library placed a ban on using their handful of PCs for online gaming as Utopia’s popularity and usage demands grew amongst our high school peers. Or maybe it was just Will and I that they were banning. Who knows…
And therein lies the hidden challenge inherent in so many RTS MMO’s that have followed in Utopia’s footsteps. Ongoing personal and team success relies heavily on your real life availability. If your exploration or military forces are returning on a 20 hour cycle then ideally you should be logging in exactly 20 hours later to build on the acres to maintain optimum population growth. If your Fertile Lands spell wears off after 13 hours and your building strat relies on boosted food production to feed your people then you will need to be online in 13 hours to recast the spell (or steal extra food from random provinces to create surplus, which requires scouting time and stealth to do). And if your monarch happens to live on the other side of the world and has set 3:00am as the time at which your kingdom will commence wave attacks on your next war target, you should probably be online at 2:45 in order to prepare, collect decent gains from an undamaged opponent and play your part in intimidating the enemy kingdom.
This is why I haven’t dipped a toe back into the Utopian sea for a few years now. The excitement of shaping my little province of Forrezenia into a massive, dwarven powerhouse is always tempered with the awareness that despite my best planning and intentions the game will eventually encroach on my family time and sleeping patterns. Sadly this isn’t the kind of commitment I can go on making to a video game, even one as rewarding, clever and imaginative as this.
I believe that there are certain games that are perfect for certain times in your life. I had Pokemon to fill the numerous small gaps in my work schedule when I was teaching at 16 schools each week and eating most meals in my car. I had Hearthstone to help keep me awake and avoid bitterness when repeatedly settling a baby throughout nights that would all too quickly end in having to get up and go to work again. Utopia would be perfect for someone with a strategic bent, who lived in a common timezone and happened to work at a computer all day. Ideally they would also have freedom in the way they allocated their time and could commit 10 minutes here and there to the ongoing upkeep of their province.
Even if that doesn’t precisely describe your daily life it is possible to play Utopia in a measured, non-obsessive and very enjoyable way. You may not climb to the great heights of the biggest, most powerful kingdoms but you can set your own growth goals and build whatever high fantasy province you envisage.
Play it if you like… High fantasy, low bandwidth, teamwork, maths!