A game that cannot be played with integrity

Travian is a massively multiplayer game that joins thousands of players on one of many realms to form alliances and compete in battle, until finally an alliance wins, over the course of a year.

The universe in which the game is played is a map of 400 x 400 squares. Most of the squares start out empty, but each one of them can contain a settlement. One of the ways players compete is in building settlements. A higher developed settlement produces more resources, which can be used to build an army, or to develop the settlement yet more or found a new one. A player can use an army either to defend against other players' attacks, or to attack settlements of other players. The aim of attacking is either to rob resources from other players, to take over another player's settlement outright, to destroy another player's settlement, or to kill their army to prevent them from doing these things.

The authors of Travian make money by allowing players to bribe the game, using real money, to give players boosts in resources, in battle, and to gain the ability to develop settlements without having to wait a long time for each level of each building in each settlement to complete.

The long duration of a Travian game creates a need for some sort of throttling of how many settlements a player can create. If it was limited only by resources, growth in the number of settlements would be exponential. This would be problematic in that a devoted player would be able to completely dominate a realm, driving away other players, harming the authors' revenues in the process. To prevent this, settlements have a finite maximum production of resources, and the number of settlements a player can have is severely handicapped with a throttling construct called "Cultural Points". A player needs more and more Cultural Points for each additional settlement. The scale imposed is such that a player's empire can grow no faster than on a sub-linear scale resembling a logarithm more so than an exponential.

Having made these design decisions, the authors of Travian are naturally faced with the following problems:
  • A player can open multiple accounts and use them cooperatively to gain an advantage over players who use only a single account.
  • A player can use a third party program to automate parts of their attack or settlement construction actions, gaining an advantage over players who don't use such tools.
Sadly, instead of modifying game design to render such strategies ineffective, the authors of Travian have imposed rules which lead to the title of this article.

Instead of removing the incentives for undesired behavior, Travian keeps these incentives, but imposes a variety of rules, enforced by a volunteer police force that tends towards the unreliable, corruptible, and/or draconian.

As a result of these rules and incentives, players still use multiple accounts, and they still use third-party software to gain an advantage in building settlements and attacking. The nature of the internet is such that Travian police cannot truly enforce the rules that are in place. As a result, most successful players violate the rules in various manners. Especially popular is Travian Beyond, a browser extension that provides an enhanced view of settlements and makes mundane tasks easier; while close behind are third-party programs that automate the tedious parts of mounting an attack.

I just recently resigned from this game because, without resorting to software which the authors of the game do not allow, the game is tedious. (I had a top #2 account among 5,000 players, so a shortage of success was not my reason for leaving.) It is sad to see a dynamic taking place where the authors design a good game with shortcomings; then the market solves those shortcomings with workarounds; then the game developers outlaw the workarounds, and try to ban their usage. As a result, you either walk away from the game because it's hard to play without the workarounds, if you are principled; or, you use the workarounds and enjoy the game, but know full well that your fun is over if you so much as slip up in a way that they can tell. You cannot have fun in the game, as well as maintain your integrity.

Would it surprise you to learn that the game developers are Germans? I find it ironically stereotypical how they think that fundamental design issues can be patched with police and rules.

This, incidentally, is a microcosm of social-democratic states. For example, the onerous tax system in Slovenia makes it impossible to be successful in business, as well as maintain your integrity and pay everything due. In fact, I don't know anyone who is like that. Instead, you have two choices: you either leave; or you cheat, as everyone does who remains.

I chose to leave Slovenia, just like I chose to eventually quit playing Travian.

The sad thing is, most people choose to stay and cheat.

That tells you something about most people.


Daniel said…
Certainly, an interesting analogy of state policies.
But I disagree with you in the following conclusion:

"The sad thing is, most people choose to stay and cheat.

That tells you something about most people."

You're contemplating the situation solely from your perspective:
fluent in English and running a software company where Internet is your main distribution and communication channel.
But there is a lot of enterpreneurs here in Slovenia who lack the needed skill in English and are engaged in a business that is tightly integrated in this surrounding.

Now don't take this as if I'm trying to belittle your endeavor- studying CS myself and having some experience with software development I have high respect for your achievment of organizing your business in such a manner that Internet is your only channel of communication with other employees. But you need to take into account that we in software business do have some very precious predispositions that allow us being independent of our environment of operation. Of course the gap between having and using them is one of Grand Canyon magnitude. Kudos for gaping it.

To what are you referring to when you say everyone brakes rules here- tax embezzlement or something else?
denis bider said…
To some extent you are correct that software is an exceptional business in that it is more geographically unrestrained than others. But people in other professions can also leave. Granted, you can't move a whole company once it's been founded, but you can find employment or found a new business somewhere where things are better.

The best time to do so is right after graduation, and I actually see this happening a lot with my generation. It seems as though nearly every other schoolmate from my generation is studying and/or working abroad by now, particularly among the brightest. Several others who have remained in Slovenia for now are contemplating leaving. The EU makes that easy now, as moving and working abroad is trivial, and young people with potential are taking advantage.

It is of course more difficult for people who have not had this chance when they were young, and already have established careers or companies in Slovenia.

Those people cheat the tax system. All of them. I have only heard of a single person who reports all his income and pays tax on it, and he's not doing so well.

People use a variety of schemes. The simplest scheme used to be "student" work. Up to some amount of student work used to be taxed by only 10%, so as a "student", you would use up your own quota, and then ask fellow students who have not used theirs to help you out.

People who own companies and have children would "employ" their kids and pay them the maximum they can up to the student quota. The kids, of course, would give the money back in cash.

People who have businesses that involve direct sales of expensive things to consumers (dentists, larger home equipment, etc) will ask the customers if they need a receipt. If no receipt, then no VAT is charged, so the customer benefits, and the income is not recorded, so the seller benefits as well. Only the greedy state fails to get its share.

This is thoroughly widespread and is a major contributor to undermining the rule of law. The law cannot be respected if it is draconian, attempting to confiscate more than half of your earnings. In such circumstances, people evade the law, and there is no law as a result. That is not a well functioning state.

Laws should be reasonable; complying with them should be easy, and should not be onerous; and laws should be respected.

But no one understands this in Slovenia. The people who least understand it are the very same people who cheat the state.

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