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Blade Warrior Interviewing Mehul Patel
Utopia has become more complex over the ages, and many new players get confused and give up before learning how to play. Have you considered creating an interactive demo of how to play Utopia?
I'm not sure Utopia has really become all that more complex, at least not in the last year or two. Utilization certainly was an added complication, but for a new player, Happiness is no more complicated just different. Certainly, a player that tries to micromanage his or her province will struggle with it, but a new player should find it easier than trying to manage more numbers. Similarly, other things have also changed, but I think those things are more confusing for experienced players used to doing things one way, rather than a new player that has never played the game before.

That said, I'm not against an interactive demo of the game, but it would not be on my priority list of things to create. I think a major part of learning the game is experimenting, and in that respect, kingdoms giving new players orders is not helpful. The best way for a new player to learn is to try different things and fail, while getting supporting advice from their kingdom. Players who are told how to play will never really understand why they are making the choices they are, and they'll never grasp the game the same way as someone who has experimented and learned through trial and error. So from my perspective, any demo would simply be about navigating the game and understanding the functions, rather than offering strategy or anything of that nature.

Old players who are coming back to Utopia can really feel the difference and changes that have been made to the gameplay. What do you think is the biggest difference between Utopia around age 5 and today?
I think the biggest difference is the audience and the atmosphere of the game. Ultimately, Utopia is simply a gaming environment the interaction of the players is what makes the game successful or not. Whatever rules changes we make have limited impact in the overall scheme of things. On one hand, we have a group of far more experienced users than we did several years ago. That offers deeper strategy, more cohesive kingdoms, and that type of thing. On the other hand, the more serious gaming also takes away from some of the atmosphere and roleplaying that used to occur. While many people see this as cheesy, it is also what creates the overall ambiance of a game and gives a user that experience of being in a different world. Unfortunately, that's simply the nature of a game that matures and grows older.

Over the ages you have always tried to get a balance between the races and personalities, but they are still not all on an equal level. Do you think you will ever get the balance right, and if so will you stop changing their attributes?
I don't think there can ever be perfect balance not with the number of variables currently in the game. Even if we were to have a round with perfect balance (however you define that), changing buildings or other aspects of the game would impact each race differently and create imbalance again. Keep in mind also that our goal is not to give each race an equal chance to succeed, but to give individuals options to play different styles and to be able to be competitive in them. Certain races may be harder to manage but with more potential for success. If good players choose that race, it may seem that the race is too powerful, but in reality, we're OK with that.

During the third age you stated that you would like to introduce more "group features" into Utopia, such as "kingdom-wide armies or team-attacks". Is this still you view, and if so do you feel you will ever be able to introduce such features?
Ultimately, I think it would be a great addition to a game and take teamwork to a different level. However, at this point, I'm not sure Utopia is the ideal game for that. It has developed its own style and flavor where I don't think it needs any additional kingdom functions. The Conquest Attack was really our solution to the need for smaller players to be able to challenge larger ones when necessary, and I think it has done the job fairly well. After looking more at it, I think a group attack would be best implemented at the beginning of a new game, rather than being added to Utopia.

In our last interview you stated your intention of introducing a third server for "experimentation". Since then you have introduced the Genesis server for this purpose. Is Genesis working out as you foresaw it would?
Absolutely. The Genesis Server gives us a server to play with that we don't have to take as seriously. We can do strange rule changes and just see what happens. It also gives users a chance to play a completely fresh game each round, with new kingdommates and new opponents. The last age or two, we haven't been looking at major changes to Utopia, so the rule changes have been more subtle, but the option is always there for us to really throw things up in the air with that server.

You also stated that this experimental server (Genesis) might be temporary. Will Genesis be around in 3 ages time?
We don't have any plans to remove the server right now, but that can always change at any time.

There has been much speculation about whether you will allow players to play on both main servers (WoL and BF). Have you decided whether or not you will go forward with this idea?
We decided against this idea for now. One of our big concerns was that having too many provinces could lead a player to take each province less seriously, which would contribute to a weaker kingdom environment. When we opened the possibility to discussion, this was also a concern for many of our users, and thus we chose not to go this route at this time.

Many people use proxy servers to allow them to have multiple accounts trade and in general cheat. Have you ever considered using an open proxy blacklist to help prevent scripting/multing/cheating in general?
We actually have blacklisted thousands of open proxies over the past year. However, there are always more, and people will always find them faster than we close them. Ultimately, a player who is desperate to cheat will always be willing to spend more time and effort than we can put into stopping them. I'm not sure what satisfaction they get out of succeeding only by breaking the rules, but given the limits in a free, easily accessible game, I think we've made substantial progress against scripting and other forms of cheating over the past year or so.

IRC has become a major communication medium for Utopians. What are your thoughts about providing an official IRC server for players to meet and for kingdoms to better organize their kingdoms and further communication?
Ideally, I would prefer all communication to come within Utopia. I think it helps users who are less comfortable with technology or those who don't want to mix Utopia with their other IM activities, and I think that portion of our userbase is very important to our long-term success. That said, it is inevitable that people will use mediums such as IM or IRC to improve their kingdom organization and get more involved with Utopia, so we don't try to discourage it. I don't foresee us going the other way and supporting or encouraging it, though.

Would you ever consider doing a live interview over IRC if it was properly moderated?
One of the concerns we have with a live interview is that pretty much anything we say is dissected and overly analyzed, word by word, and then used to make arguments for or against change. It is similar to what politicians deal with everyday, I guess. I'm not comfortable with a live interview of that sort because I tend to say things "off the cuff" and that is problematic if people are then going to use those statements out of context.

Beyond that, there are other technical issues with a live interview like that. In a situation with thousands of users, very few will actually get their questions answered, and that's a bit disappointing to me. In the end, for most of the users, it will be similar to a posted interview, as they will simply be reading questions and answers very few will actually have a chance to be involved. In the end, I feel that email-interviews are easier on me as I can do them as time permits around the rest of my schedule, and they provide the same general results and information that our users would get from a live interview.

In recent years, Utopia players have arranged to meet each other outside of Utopia. What is your opinion about Utopian meetings in real-life and stretching players' ties beyond Utopia?
I think this is great! Ultimately, our goal is to develop games that contribute and influence peoples' lives as much as possible in a positive way. That's one reason our games are designed with such a focus on the teamwork and social aspects of gameplay. If users take advantage of this environment and create real-life friendships, that's a big bonus for us. However, we prefer to stay out of that realm that's something completely independent of us.

Are you happy with the direction Swirve is heading? Has it evolved into what you originally envisioned for it?
I'm not sure I really envisioned any particular direction for Swirve. It has really been taken in whatever direction seems interesting at the time. For a while, we tried to become a portal-like site with a variety of secondary services like email, weather updates, a search engine, etc. That never really caught on for us I don't think that is where our strength lies. Soon, we'll be launching a new look for the main site as we try to refocus on being a content provider. We'll see how that goes and move from there. Overall, Swirve has definitely surpassed all my original expectations of what we would become, but my expectations were also quite low since I didn't really know what I was doing.

Where do you see Utopia heading from here?
My vision of Utopia is similar to that of Swirve. It's a game, and there's no real definite direction except change. Utopia with Utilization vs. Happiness isn't really better or worse, just different. Some users will prefer one, some the other. We just try to make changes to keep things interesting so people aren't playing the same game all the time. Even that is not really a necessity Earth: 2025 functions the opposite, where the game stays the same, but the users keep it interesting and changing.

That said, I do think Utopia is maturing as a game. It has been around for nearly 6 years now, and is well beyond the lifespan of a normal game. I think it's not particularly surprising that things stabilize a little and the growth-phase of the game is over.

Do you feel you will ever be fully satisfied with Utopia the way it is?
Yes and no. The game can always be improved. It can be made more user-friendly, better against cheaters, etc. However, no matter how good a game is, that will always be the case. So I'm happy with the game, and I think our popularity across the web shows that we've managed to create an enjoyable product. However, that does not mean there are not more things that can be changed or developed further.

- Blade Warrior (24-Aug-2004)

Readers' Comments

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Posts: 445
(11-Oct-2004 07:20 am)
I like it. Good luck mate! We love Utopia.
Posts: 58
(11-Oct-2004 07:28 am)
Whoo. nice report, especially the last reply. i think its pretty awesome. hail da man!
Posts: 7
(11-Oct-2004 07:36 am)
nice report...
with the last reply, i guess we can look forward to a more-user friendly utopia then :P

hmm... *wonders what it'll be like*
Posts: 6
(11-Oct-2004 07:36 am)
well the real things we wanted to know you didnt ask.
Posts: 9
(11-Oct-2004 07:49 am)
excellent report! best news I've read in a while ;)
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