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Archfiend Interviewing Mehul Patel
Mehul Patel was generous enough to answer a large number of questions I put to him by email about the game we're all so fond of. We'll start off with a little background and then get into the nitty gritty questions about Utopia.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background? So basically tell us your life story in just a few sentences..hehehhe.
I was born. I then proceeded to grow a little every year and attended elementary/junior/high schools. I proceeded to go to UT and then start Echelon. That brings us to today. :)

Did you go to college? What sort of courses did you take?
Yeah, I just graduated last May (1998) from the Univ of Texas at Austin... I started as an Engineering major, but got really bored of that after my first year and got a BBA (Bachelors of Business Admin) in Finance.

What is BRE? I've heard people say that was the first game you made.
BRE was a game similar to Earth: 2025, except it wasn't designed for the internet. Five or ten years ago, Bulletin Board Systems served as a sort of predecessor for the internet, but there were hundreds of thousands of individual BBSes not linked together. BRE was my first successful game -- what made it unique was that it was the first to really bring those BBSes together into a single game.

How did Earth get started?
Earth was based off of BRE. With the growth of the internet and the quick decline of the BBS world (and my lack of interest in it), I wanted to see if it would be possible to take that same gaming formula and incorporate it into the internet. At that point, no one had done so on a large-scale,and I knew nothing about internet programming (HTML, CGI, etc), so it was an interesting challenge. It just kind of grew from there...

If someone wanted to create successful internet games as you have, what would you recommend they do?
That's a tough one. In our case, we had a lot of luck in that I had a decent audience from BRE to build off of. The main thing would be to provide a quality product -- if you do that, the audience will come naturally. Our biggest advertising medium has been word of mouth, and if you could create a -good- game, people will hear about it in other games and try it out. The challenge is to develop it to be playable, and not to simply incorporate all the features the players might want.

How many people are on your staff?
Right now, it's just me. This spring, it's become more and more of a burden and has stretched my limits, so that may change this summer. At least, that's the hope if all goes well.

Is working with Echelon Entertainment your only job?
Yep. There's so much involved -- the actual programming, site design, hardware, marketing, advertising, etc that there's plenty to do. And it gives me a good variety if I ever get tired of one area.

All of us who signed up for Alladvantage.com want to know, how many people do you have signed up? :)
I try to stay away from releasing our financial situation, but it's much lower than some of the estimates I've seen people posting. AllAdvantage is neat idea, and if it works, it will simply help provide a small but steady source of revenues for us. However, I have serious doubts about whether the concept is really viable, and I don't expect them to launch as smoothly as they seem to think. They appear to have a good management team, but I'm not sure they'll be able to sell enough ads. Fortunately, it's a no-lose situation... If they aren't successful, we haven't lost anything, so it's no big deal.

What's the most difficult part about getting a large internet realted game like Utopia started?
With a game like Utopia, I think getting an audience. With Earth, it was a little different in that 50 players could still play an exciting game together. Utopia is more the original vision I had, but it needs thousands players to work properly. When I first started, I didn't have the audience or the programming skills to make that work. In terms of just developing an internet game, it's really about coming up with a system that keeps players interested and isn't too complex or too simple. Utopia is unique in that it's best feature is the interaction -- which is actually created by the players themselves.

Do you notice a difference between the people who play Earth and Utopia?
Definitely. Utopia players tend to be more interested in the social side of the game, while Earth tends to be more of a see-and-destroy type of crowd. Where it's most noticable is in the gameplay -- Utopia players tend to be more interested in a balanced game with more elements of strategy, while Earth players tend to prefer a game that's quick and easy to play.

How much has Utopia grown from age to age?
Quite a bit. The biggest jump was from the 2nd to 3rd age, and that's where the server speed became a major issue. We shrank a bit after that because of the access problems, but have been growing quite a bit since then. I'm not really sure what to expect at the start of the 4th Age.

Does it amaze you that you have people from all over the world playing your game?
It's neat, especially in that we've been able to crack so many language barriers. We have players from 6 continents and dozens of countries, and Earth/Utopia gives them all a common way to interact that many people would never have otherwise. That ability is one of the wonderful things about the internet, but it's nice to know that we've created the medium that actually makes that into a reality.

Are you considering splitting Utopia into 2 games?
We did consider it, and that may work as a "testing ground", but I think it's a better game as one big world. We're slowly solving some of the speed issues, and it's just a game that's most fun when all the players are in a position to interact with each other, so ideally, I'd like to keep everyone together. At some point though, if we keep growing, the games will have to be split.

What do you think when people say on the Utopia forums that they spend as much as 5-7 hours a day playing Utopia?
I think that I wish I had that much time. :) On one hand, I'm thrilled that we were able to create something -that- addicting and interesting. On the other, I realize that I have to be very careful in how I manage it, simply because it is so important to so many people. For example, that's what's made the decision of whether to reset everyone's kingdom this next round such a difficult problem. From a gameplay perspective, breaking the kingdoms is easily the best choice, but people have much such good friends that asking them to start from scratch is tough.

How often do you read the Utopian forums?
Overall, I cover quite a few of the topics. It really depends on what else is going on here. Recently, I've been working on a lot of different things, both with Echelon and totally unrelated, so I haven't had the time I would like. I'll probably be reading them far more over the next several days as I start implementing most of the changes for the next round of Utopia. I tend to stay in the Bugs & Suggestions forum more than anything else when my time in limited.

Do you ever post anonymously on the Utopia boards?
Of course. :) Seriously, though, I post occasionally on there with random names if I want to post an opinion or comment, but don't want the "authority" of the Echelon name on it.

I believe your policy of not allowing province locations to be posted on the Utopia forums is a good one. Can you tell everyone why you chose to implement that policy?
We didn't actually implement that. The Moderators took the initiative there, and it made a lot of sense, so we have no problem with it. :)

Does it ever surprise you how vulgar and foolish some of the people on your forums are with the bad language and spamming that occurs?
Yeah, it's an unfortunately side effect of having so many players -- it just takes one to really get in the way. The good part of it is that it makes our software better as work to combat it. To solve those kinds of problems, though, it's mostly a matter of ignoring it. The more attentionthe poster gets, the more he or she will keep doing it.

Have you ever considered charging to play?
Never, for many different reasons. From a personal standpoint, that's against everything we've created... The idea behind Echelon is that we offer the best quality stuff (games, fantasy sports, etc) for free, simply so that everyone on the internet can take part in it. From a business standpoint, I think one of the big draws of the game is that it has so many people, and obviously you lose a large chunk if you start charging. It also adds an extra standard of service that I'm not willing to commit to. Right now, if the server crashes, we lose ad revenues, but players lose nothing. If we were charging, a server crash or other gaming problems would cost you money (in that you are paying for a service you can't use).

What do you think the biggest general issues are that Utopia needs to fix in order to improve gameplay?
I think there are three biggies. Cheating is the obvious one, and eliminating this as much as possible makes the game far more competitive. Informal Alliances need to be replaced by more kingdom cooperation and teamwork. The third issue is the "need to win" over the "need to have fun" for many people. That includes things like scripts, endless landgrabbing, newbie-bashing, etc.

Could you please repeat for people what will cause you to get deleted for cheating? A lot of people are under the impression that you will get deleted for cheating if more than one person plays off of your computer.
Essentially, there are 4 things that could get players deleted:
• Cheating
• Lying
• Playing on machines where other players cheat
• Trying to avoid our detection systems
Basically, if you just play one kingdom and provide honest information, you'll be fine. Out of the thousands of players we've deleted, I'd guess there's only a handful or so that were errors on our part.

Anything new that you're planning on doing to catch cheaters this round?
We're always implementing new ways to deal with cheaters. This next round, we'll have quite a few new systems installed, and for the first time, I may automate some of the player deletions. I'm testing some things out right now, and I can't really go into the details of -how- we catch cheaters, so I'll just leave it at that.

What's your thought on scripts? Does it suprise you that people are writing scripts to play Utopia more effectively?
It's not at what I intended, and next round, they will be grounds for deletion. What makes the game fun is the user interaction. Honestly, I'm not sure what the point of playing is if you start to automate more and more of it. It's unfortunate, but some people seem to think the only way to have fun is to win, and that's where the problem comes in.

Does it ever suprise you how much some people complain even though you catch them cheating and print the evidence on the forums in response to their complaints?
No. A lot of the complaints in the forums are made up, and many of those people are just angry at us for deleting them. Things like this started in email -- it's amazing how much trouble people will go through to create a fake cheater-report, hoping that I'll just trust them and delete the players. I've learned not to take some of the situation-specific gripes seriously.

Would you consider dropping operations like Arson or Rob banks that are heavily abused by cheaters?
Definitely -- those kinds of things will be modified this round, but we have to keep a balance of creating a good game with preventing cheaters. Those two thievery operations add quite a bit to the game for normal players as well, so they'll more than likely be modified instead of simply removed.

Why was Drug Armies dropped from the thief options?
Drug armies was based on the fact that the armies had a "readiness rating" that determined how good fighting condition they were in. Drug Armies simply reduced that. We took the readiness rating out to simplify things a bit, and so Drug Armies had to disappear as well.

Do you think that the game needs to be changed so that people can't stay at 200 acres and just build thieves until they have incredible ratios and then destroy anyone they want, even the top players?
People seem to think this works, but it really doesn't. The game already assumes far more land than that as a "base amount" when determining thievery operations. A thief province with only 200 acres (1) won't succeed all that much and (2) won't do much damage with the thieves they have, since damage is based on the # of thieves. However, there will probably be some more restrictions in the next game to get rid of provinces that do things like this.

You said on one of the Utopia days that there was a base amount of land assumed for thievery operations. Could you verify what that amount is and would you consider raising it?
I think it's set at right around 500 right now, and I think it will probably stay there. I don't want to raise it too much, because thievery is designed to be one of those features to help give smaller players a fighting chance against larger ones.

Comparitively, spells are significantly weaker than thief operations as a whole. Do you agree with that and was that your intention?
Yeah, it's designed that way. The reason is that when you fail a spell, you may lose a few wizards at worst. When you fail a thievery operation, you lose quite a bit more, so the rewards should be higher. Thievery is a sort of mix between magic and war, so it has some elements of each built-in. For example, thievery can capture things while magic can't. On the other hand, magic is the only protective-element in the game.. Thievery is based on hurting others, while Magic can also directly benefit yourself without involving an enemy.

Is there anything you'd like to put into Utopia but just can't because of the programming complexity?
Not so much programming complexity, but interactive-complexity, yes. Some features, such as kingdom-wide armies or team-attacks (several members of a kingdom working together on one attack) would be interesting to add, but they leave many, many issues to be worked out in terms of how we've optimized the game to minimize player accesses. Some of those features would simply slow the game down too much to add just yet.

Province distribution seems to be a tough nut for Utopia to crack. Have you got a plan to handle it better this time?
All we can really do is give it our best estimate as to the number of players involved. Last time, I thought we had a good set up to fill the smallest kingdoms first, but there were just so many new accounts that we started filling up new islands. Right now, we have over 30 islands of players, but I try to estimate a bit lower for the next game, because I don't want to have a bunch of 10 or 15 player kingdoms all over the world. Restarting all the kingdoms from scratch would help in that regard as well.

Why did you decide not to add any new races this round?
Right now, I want to focus more on balancing the game, rather than adding too many new features. With 7 different races, I think there's already a pretty good variety. At some point, you just start adding more complexity and more things to remember, while not really adding to much to the gameplay.

Would you consider adding a page for people to advertise their Utopia related links and homepages?
Yeah, I need to add something like that, but I want to establish a stronger security within the game first. I don't want to offer links to pages that turn out to be hack pages or cheats, scripts, and the like.

As a Utopia player, do you ever marvel at how good some people are at playing the game you created?
Definitely -- I did the same with Earth. When I do the programming, I try to create a simple interface and relatively simple options. What makes the game unique is how they fit together to create an array of strategies and styles of play. The one thing I don't know is what those strategies will turn out to be.

How did you come up with 2 months as the ideal length of the game? Have you considered shortening the length of the game?
I never really did. It just seemed to work and that's about when we start getting a bunch of "time to end the game" emails and forum posts. We try to reset when things start to slow down or usage begins to drop. We're always open to changing the game lengths and stuff like that.

It's well known that you play Utopia. How have you done in each round? What are some of your most interesting experiences?
I've never done all that well, and I've never really focused on that. I've been a part of a good kingdom, and we've sacrificed our own provinces quite a bit for the good of the kingdom or simply to stand for our kingdom's principles. It's been fun, but recently, I haven't had the time to really stay involved with the kingdom. Recently, our kingdom has moved away from Kingdom vs. Kingdom wars, which took a bit of the fun away for me, but that's one of those things that's a Utopia-in-general issue.

Have you considered simply letting people choose their own kingdoms?
In an ideal world, that would be great. In reality though, it would simply make cheating even more common, and it would really destroy some of the social interaction and meeting new players, which is part of the fun of that game. Players that want to work with people they know would probably fit into the Earth Clan system a little better. Choosing kingdoms also gives a huge disadvantage to players who don't know anyone else in the game.

So give me an exclusive, are you going to break the kingdoms up this round or let them stay together?
That's still to be determined. :) Personally, I would prefer to start the kingdoms from scratch, but there are alot of friendships and teams that have developed. To some extent, starting from scratch could be worse if it results in people allying with their -old- kingdommates and creating a whole array of small informal alliances.

Thanks to Mehul Patel for taking the time to answer all these questions. Good Luck in developing the new round Mehul!

- Archfiend (May 25th, 1999) - http://www.brassknuckles.net

Readers' Comments

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Unregistered User
(24-Oct-2000 04:59 pm)
Now that I&#039ve read the interview, it gives me a more personal perspective of the game and adds to the honour level for me.

As for splitting the kingdoms, I certainly hope it doesn&#039t happen. I&#039ve stayed with the same friends and Kindommates that I started with and I&#039d hate to lose them now.
Unregistered User
(27-Oct-2000 04:52 pm)
I just want to say that mehull would make a big mistake when splitting donw the kingdoms (*hopes mehul reads this*)
We players do not only loose our friends but we would also get demoralised and might forget about the game
I don&#039t think anyone wants that including mehul ;)
Unregistered User
(04-Nov-2000 03:00 pm)
Please keep in mind that this was done towards the end of round 3 boys and girls :)

The Electric Reel

and I&#039m shocked that Archfiend didn&#039t require you to link him off the main article...

As an official representative of Archfiends Brassknuckles Webzine I hereby post this link...

Unregistered User
(03-Feb-2001 11:29 am)
Have you ever thought of diving the game up into diffrent levels? For example. All the new kingdoms would start at say, level 1, once they get X amount of GC they move up to the next level where they can go under Protection for another X amount of days so that they can catch up to the rest. Then when they reach the next level the same thing happens. And so on and so on. Once they reach a ceartin level there could be some kind of prize(not like a cd player or anything of that sort) but like their name in a Hall Of honor or something. I think this would inspire people to strive more to play the best to their ability. Just An idea. Im sure there is a flaw somewhere in my suggestion and if their is could you please point it out?
Unregistered User
(16-Feb-2001 12:45 pm)
Do you notice a difference between the people who play Earth and Utopia?

"Definitely. Utopia players tend to be more interested in the social side of the game, while Earth tends to be more of a see-and-destroy type of crowd. Where it&#039s most noticable is in the gameplay -- Utopia players tend to be more interested in a balanced game with more elements of strategy, while Earth players tend to prefer a game that&#039s quick and easy to play."

Thats an insult to earth players, LOL
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