[Mathew Kumar is continuing his excellent work on our sister online worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, and in the course of compiling the Worlds In Motion Atlas has had reason to check out Ikariam, which is a browser-based Civilization-ish type thing and it... well, interesting, for lack of a better term.]

Here's an overview of Ikariam. Online worlds are usually avatar based, and if they're games, they're normally RPGs. Developer GameForge bucks the trend with a browser based real-time strategy title that is most usually compared to Sid Meier's Civilization series.

2008_08_13_ikariam.jpgName: Ikariam

Company: GameForge

Established: February 2008

How it Works: Ikariam is browser based and runs in HTML and Javascript. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_08_13_ikariam2.jpgOverview: In Ikariam, users create a town on a randomly assigned island. On their island are up to 15 other players, plus a sawmill and a unique resource. The aim of the game is for the player to create the largest and most prosperous city by accumulating resources through production, trade or warfare, and developing new technologies and buildings as a result.

Payment Method: Ikariam is free to play, and earns revenue via "Ikariam Plus" a system where players can purchase "ambrosia" which can be spent to receive in-game bonuses.

Key Features:
- A massively multiplayer real-time strategy title
- "Always on" - players' cities are costantly working, even when they're not logged in
- Players can not only fight with each other, but perform diplomacy, forming alliances and trade agreements

Ikariam: In-Depth Tour

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When most gamers think “real-time strategy” they tend to think of games like Command and Conquer and Age of Empires. However, Ikariam is a lot more leisurely paced, but can also be (perhaps surprisingly!) more stressful!

You see, Ikariam is a “real time” title in that after you’ve founded your city (in my case, Arx Prosperitas, which I hope means “Prosperous Fortress”, but I’m not particularly good at Latin) you simply set your townsfolk to some tasks -- usually researching discoveries, working at the island’s saw mill for materials, and constructing new buildings.

And then you wait in real time.

This is a genuinely surprising thing when you first begin to play Ikariam! The first time I began building something -- an academy, to make research possible -- being told I had to wait 15 minutes for it to be completed was a shock!

However, it’s fairly quick to get into the groove with the game, but what it does mean is that you’ll (certainly in the beginning stages) be leaving the browser window running for a long time while you perform other, non-game related tasks (catching up on e-mail, work, etc.) while you wait to be able to build your next structure, as you can’t stack building orders.

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Once you’ve built your town up to at least a basic level -- with an academy, barracks, trading post and port -- you can start to take part in the larger game. A little earlier I mentioned “your island’s” saw mill, and in fact you share your island with up to 16 other players/towns, and all use the same resources. Each island has one saw mill and one luxury to mine (either sulphur, marble, grapes or crystal) and though there is no limit to the amount that can be mined, players are advised to work together and contribute building materials to the improvement of each resource to allow them to mine as much as possible -- especially as players can attack other players on the same island if they feel they’re not pulling their weight.

But the majority of the play is formed through trading and battling with the inhabitants of other islands. A great deal of the game is based on trading across the free market using cargo ships, but if you’re of a more warlike persuasion you can also choose to pillage other cities with your units too.

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All of this takes time, of course! It can take several hours for cargo ships to reach their destination (it isn’t instant!) and even time for them to load goods, so Ikariam is a game that requires a lot of patience -- and trust, because the situation on your island, or with your trading partners, can easily change in a few hours while you’re away.

Due to the game’s heavy requirements on patience, it actually takes a very long time to get into the position where you are going to feel like you’re able to compete/interact with other players across the world (rather than just with the inhabitants on your own island) but once you are ready there is plenty of potential for taking part in the game’s social aspects, such as alliances, trade agreements and more.

Yet the question remains – is this a game that benefits from being massively multiplayer? Is the resulting community interesting from a social worlds stand point? I’ll take a look in the upcoming conclusion.

Ikariam: Conclusion

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Ikariam is an odd one. Not just because of the way it’s chosen to be a Civilization-styled title in a MMO market dominated by RPGs, but in the way it has chosen to be that. There are a lot of odd design decisions.

The most obvious first -- the complete inability to stack building projects. Want to build a trading post upgrade, then a hideout, and then a embassy? Well, you’d better be prepared to log back in each time you want the next object built, because your townsfolk can’t be given a list of things to do.

I can see why they did it -- without this restriction, the beginning stage of the game would consist of setting up your townsfolk a huge list of things to build, and then coming back in a few days once they’d done it all. But even then -- why is it fun, or at all interesting, to have to build all of these essential buildings anyway? There are few (if any!) you can get away without building, so in your first town at least it’s a slog to get to the point where you can play the game.

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This is made slightly worse by the complete lack of any usable tutorial -- in the end I simply resorted to using the beginner's guide on Wikariam, which details, by and large, roughly the only way to progress in the early stages of the game. The initial Ikariam experience is complex enough that I’m sure it puts most casual players off.

Once you get over that hurdle though there’s a strange sort of addictiveness to the basic play -- trading and mining materials to build and improve your city (and, indeed, your empire, once you’ve reached the point where you can colonize other islands.)

But notably, there isn’t very much drive to interact with other players inherent with the game. It does have an economic model based around trading and pillaging which is at least slightly interesting, and there is both power and meaning from taking part in trade agreements and alliances, but it’s very unlikely that you will “socialize” with them at all. Certainly in the early stages, when it comes to trading, you may as well be trading with NPCs.

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Now, a game doesn’t have to have socialization as an important part of its gameplay to be a virtual world (and in its way, Ikariam very definitely is a virtual world) but it’s rather interesting how quiet a world it is despite all of the hustle and bustle of trading.

Not to say that Ikariam isn't a good game -- one that is very addictive even if you’re only able to spare a few minutes each day to play. I’m not sure if GameForge have a particularly excellent handle on why it is good though, nor how to improve it. As the game continues to have basic interface flaws, they recently began offering an Ikariam Plus premium account, a new interface upgrade that you can pay for on a weekly basis.

It’s only of particular use to high level players, unfortunately, and also doesn’t fix any of the most obvious problems (like not being able to list orders in advance). In addition, they’ve created Ikariam Plus bonuses, which allow players to pay some real cash to receive some instant bonuses to their trading values of specific luxuries for a week or so.

This is a genuinely weird decision as it unbalances the game somewhat -- unlike many developers who have sworn that their paid-for content isn’t going to allow some players an unfair advantage, and this very definitely does, and seems like something less useful to players in general than the aforementioned interface changes.

But Ikariam soldiers on. Though its social aspects are underdeveloped the game’s economics make it a virtual world of interest, and it’s a very playable game. And in particular, by choosing to do things differently, it opens up the virtual world market to gamers who wouldn’t normally be interested in the genre, and for that reason has a place here.

Useful Links:
Ikariam Board - Official Forum
Wikariam - Unofficial Wiki
Ikariam Tip - Unofficial tips site