Tibia is a 2D MMORPG released in 1997. It is one of the oldest MMOs still active. You can see their official screenshots page to get a sense of what it looks like. Tibia’s graphics improved since the game was released, but not much.

Although the game was pretty solid technologically when it was released, it was quickly surpassed graphically in the following years. Even with dated graphics, Tibia’s popularity peaked in 2007. For comparison, this is what World of Warcraft looked like in 2007. So what was going on in 2007?

Trough a mixture of cultural and technological reasons, Tibia was the only viable MMO option for lots of people in Brazil back then. By 2007, any PC could run it. It didn’t require a very good internet connection and, most importantly, it 100% free to play. Check out their servers list, almost half of the servers are in South America. I was one of these people in Brazil. Being their only option might get people to give the game a chance, but what was it that made them stay?

Asking players to do boring things was ok

I’m not talking about grinding here. Tibia has plenty of that too. I’m talking about spending hours and hours hitting self-cloning slimes with weak weapons to improve your fighting ability. When you made it to higher levels, it could take hours to go up a single skill point, and this skill point would not even make much of a difference in the damage you dealt. We called it training.

Mages were not exempt either, for a long time, Druids in Tibia would spend hours waiting for their mana to recharge to cast a cure spell in a rune so it could be used later in combat at no mana cost. That was it, really. You were supposed to just stand there and wait for your mana to recharge, only to create a rune and do the same thing over and over again.

Frustrating players was OK too

Tibia could also be incredibly punishing. Back then, when you died, you would lose 10% of your character’s total experience. In earlier levels, that would mean you lost one level, sometimes not even a whole level. But in higher levels, you’d lose multiple levels that took days or even months to recover.

Death could happen anytime. Even if you were just hunting weak monsters or simply travelling from one place to another, players could attack you. There were no level restrictions. Anyone could kill you almost anywhere, anytime.1

For example, it was standard practice to kill players who didn’t seem to be looking at their screen, and thus just idle. The game actively rewarded you for it. When you killed another player, you could take all the items they were carrying and, with some luck, even some equipment they had on. I still have not-fond-at-all memories of throwing my items in the water to destroy them just so my assassin wouldn’t have them out of sheer spite.

Check this hacker news thread for some more old school Tibia reminiscing.

The ability to inflict (psychological) pain

With PVP anywhere and great punishment for death, higher level players and guilds could cause real pain to each other. That is power in its most raw shape! Strong guilds could rule their worlds through fear!

Things could get wild in bigger servers. Powerful guilds would hunt players: Any member of the guild would kill the hunted player on sight or call for reinforcements. Sometimes guilds would have players guarding over the most sought after dungeons and demand money to use them. Yes, those were virtual gangs, with extortion, infighting, gang wars and all.

Why we can’t have old Tibia anymore

Times are different now. Players are not willing to deal with frustration like they were back then. Much of what made Tibia special were things that are generally regarded as bad game design nowadays.

The game rewarded you for doing repetitive things with no real challenge. Players were punished to extreme extents due to completely silly things like being AFK or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some high level player could simply decide they didn’t like your clothes and rook you. If there’s a word for it, there is a story behind it.

I’m not saying these changes are bad. If I was to start playing Tibia today without being influenced by nostalgia, I’m sure I would quickly drop it without thinking much of it.

Nonetheless, these game design decisions created a really unique virtual world that provided very meaningful experiences to a lot of people, like me. And I just can’t shake off the feeling our lives are a tiny bit worse because that world is gone and it seems like it can’t be created again.

  1. This was only the case in PVP servers, players also had the choice of playing in non-PVP worlds if they chose to. ↩︎