Travian Under the Microscope

I’ve been meaning to write about a web-based MMO called Travian for a long time. Travian is, to my mind, the very embodiment of the phrase “so close, and yet so far.” It has all the basic components of a perfect low-budget MMO, but a few maddening design flaws make the game basically unplayable (in the long term) for most people. The following is a very long deconstruction of the game. If you’re interested in MMOs, read on. If not, it’s safe to skip this post. 😉

Travian in a nutshell

In a nutshell, Travian is a pseudo-real-time massive multiplayer strategy game. You build towns and armies, and use your armies to conquer and pillage other towns. I say “pseudo-real-time” because, while the game operates in real-time and you can take action whenever you wish, each action requires a variable but substantial amount of time to complete. (For example, building a granary might take 20 minutes in the real world; upgrading it might take several hours. And while you’re building your granary, you can’t build anything else. Likewise, sending your army on a raid could take as little as 30 minutes or as long as a day.) There is real genius in this — it preserves the feeling of a real-time game while effectively preventing people with tons of spare time from overwhelming competing players. The eleven-year-old who wants to can obsess over the world map and communicate with allies to his heart’s content, while the forty-year-old parent with twenty minutes to spare can quickly take his turns and tune out till the next day.

Escalating demands on your time

Or that would be the case, if Travian didn’t enable you to keep building towns, each of which require a fixed time to manage. By the time you reach four or five towns, the game no longer feels like a small commitment. Worse yet, Travian does not offer any meaningful way for you or your allies to auto-defend your towns, so players feel compelled to log in obsessively (in order to track and respond to incoming attacks.)

If Travian made player advancement more scalable (from a time-management perspective), channeled all excess time/energy of players into actions that don’t unbalance the game (like team communications, in-game personalization, optional micromanagement, etc), and made it easier for players to defend themselves when away from the computer, the beauty of the game’s basic design could have been preserved.

Alliances that live up to the term “massive”

Alliances are another (conceptually) great part of Travian. To be brief: you can’t survive Travian on your own. Players that don’t form alliances are quickly overrun by neighbors with friends. And eventually, single alliances are overrun by groups of alliances. Travian is by no means the first game to offer this sort of group functionality, but it fits very nicely within Travian, and players really don’t seem to miss the opportunity to play as a loner. (I’m one of those guys who always choose the best “loner” class in MMORPGs, so I can testify to this myself.)

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say there’s something amazing about the feeling of being part of a huge online team, and knowing that your participation really makes a significant difference. I always hated 40 man raids in World of Warcraft because I found it impossible to shake the feeling that (in general) my participation was irrelevant. 39 men were more than enough to complete 99% of the raid content. But in Travian, you can’t help but feel you count, even in a 500-man war. When your army hits an enemy town and you get the damage report back, it feels… substantial — in no small part because your army probably took one week or more (real time) to build, and losses on both sides definitely matter. And at the same time, losses are generally manageable with the help of a well-run alliance.

Dysfunctionally massive

Unfortunately, Travian doesn’t actually offer alliances any meaningful way via which to coordinate attacks or defense. Players are left to rely on external message boards and/or chat clients, which means obsessively logging into at least TWO systems (Travian and the comm system) if you want to play the game effectively.

You’d have to play Travian to truly understand what I’m about to write, but: imagine having to coordinate an attack with 50 (or even 250) people, all of whom need to take a precise set of actions at a precise set of times, without having any built-in communication or planning mechanism for this — not even something that helps manage the different time zones that players (from all over the world) are operating in. Suffice to say, in several months, I never managed to participate in a single, well-executed attack. Not one. And while my alliance may not have been the very best, it was by absolutely no means the worst.

With a simple set of tools, Travian could enable alliances to coordinate attacks and auto-execute defensive actions (so players wouldn’t feel compelled to login constantly, as mentioned previously.) Without those tools, participation in an alliance becomes (at best) a very necessary evil.

Conversion incentives for non-paying customers

I was also intrigued by the ways that Travian gets customers to upgrade to “Travian Plus” (the paid service). Travian is completely playable as a free game. Upgrading simply makes playing Travian more convenient; you can execute resource trades more quickly, queue build orders, etc. In other words, upgrading simply saves you time on a daily basis. Guys like me (with more money than free time) can pay for convenience. Personally, I much prefer that to casual MMOs that sell performance-enhancing items to my opponents, which feels inherently unfair and manipulative. But perhaps that’s just me.

Unfortunately, Travian ultimately turns into such a gigantic time-sink that the convenience of Travian Plus barely helps in the long-term. There’s a balance to be struck here, and I’m convinced that a “better” Travian will strike it.

Stickiness, or lack thereof

On one hand, Travian is relatively sticky (by virtue of the bonds you form with your alliance members.) And on the other hand, quitting Travian is relatively easy (as compared to World of Warcraft), because there isn’t much opportunity to personalize your in-game presence. You’re just a name on a set of villages. At the end of the day, if you’re on the losing side of a conflict (or just getting bored), quitting means saying goodbye to your teammates, but not to a carefully-constructed, lovingly-maintained image. Travian players who convince their teammates to try another game with them, in other words, have basically nothing to lose.

And despite all these flaws…

I witnessed some amazing things while playing Travian. Alliances planting spies in other alliances. Breaking into each other’s private forums. Political intrigue at the micro and macro level. Incredibly passionate groups of people, desperate to defend one another and climb the ladder to #1 alliance. Travian has many thousands of dedicated players, most of whom would probably agree that the game is deeply flawed.. but they’re still playing. It’s a testament to the power of a relatively simple game that enables many people to meaningfully join forces.

There’s much more I could write about the design of Travian, but this post is already too long. Suffice to say, I’m glad I played the game, and even more glad that I quit. I think I learned a few valuable lessons about MMOs in the process.

Last word: someday, a better Travian will come along… and when it does, it’s going to make a giant pile of money. You can bet I’ll be one of the customers tossing bills onto that pile.

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