Building Utopia by the numbers

A non-trivial aspect of computer games is watching numbers go up. The process usually goes like this: there is a resource (a number), which can be used in various ways. If used in the correct ways, the player can amass more of this resource (which is to say, a bigger number). This process then iterates, wherein the player uses the amassed resources to amass more resources, and so on until either the player or the game runs out.

This might seem like something of an oversimplification of the process. This is because it is an oversimplification of the process. For the player, things are more involved than it would appear from the outside. The increase of numberage is merely the mechanical side of things; if you had to describe the process in non-involved terms, this is what you’d end up with. Numbers used to increase numbers, and a difficulty to understand why players put hours upon hours into the activity of playing.

A more involved description would dwell upon the intent of the player. The intent is seldom to increase from a 2 to a 3 for the sake of the increase itself; rather, the intent is to further some other, involved goal. Sometimes it is to further a narrative, sometimes it is to increase the number of available options, sometimes it is part of a complex multi-stage process difficult to convey but pleasurable to experience. The numbers in and of themselves do not tell the whole story – the story is provided by the intentionality of the player. An increase from 200 to 300 means nothing in and of itself; it also means that one’s realm has grown by 50%, with all the implications that goes along with such an expansion.

It is with these things in mind one should understand online multiplayer browser games such as Utopia. On the surface, all that happens is that numbers increase. Once every hour (on the hour), the current set of numbers iterate and produce a new set of numbers. Or, phrased another way: buildings produce their goods, soldiers continue their training, thieves and mages recover their strength, and so on. Every hour, numbers go up; every hour, everything happens.

The game plays out very much like a spreadsheet. There are formulas for every aspect of the game, and if you are willing to crunch the numbers (or trust those who claim to have crunched the numbers), you can optimize for whatever purpose you might have in mind. Want to become the mostest mage possible? There is a formula for that. Want to become the mostest thief possible? There is a formula for that too. Want to become both a mage and a thief? It can be done, but by doing both you will find yourself not optimized for either. It’s all in the numbers; it is in fact all numbers.

Of course, what a player sees whilst playing is not a spreadsheet. The player is embedded in a kingdom with some twenty-odd other players, who talk to each other and help each other out – and occasionally go to war with other kingdoms. Understanding these interactions is the core component of understanding what the players are up to – whether it be the strategic preparations for war, the tactical sharing of information, or the more purely social exchanges. The point of seeing numbers increase – or of being the mostest mage possible – is to be able to contribute when things get hot. When things get real and the flames of war rise high, being able to bring numbers to bear and outmage the enemy mages is a valuable contribution to the shared effort.

The numbers do not mean anything in and of themselves. But they represent the idea of something happening, and are given meaning through the context in which they are situated. Any description of a game – or indeed any social process – that do not take these things into account, will find itself lacking in both accuracy and relevance. Going by the numbers will, with random precision, miss the point.

Addendum: upon writing this, I discovered that the game is (somehow) still active, rather than just being a nostalgic memory of a game I used to play around the turn of the century. Reading the changelogs of the most recent update (which took place a mere couple of weeks ago) brings back thoughts and associations from those olden days. There is a lot of social significance going into those abbreviations and percentages, to be sure.

Building Utopia by the numbers