I Talked to the Guys Who Bought ‘Utopia’

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Deana Ehrheart has organized her life around a text-based browser game nearly two decades old.

Utopia has been part of Ehrheart’s life for 17 years. If her kingdom is at war, she’ll wake up every two hours in the middle of the night to cast spells. At work she’ll hide in the bathroom with her phone to update her province. She might check in on the game five to 10 times per day.

"I’ve arranged my job around being able to play Utopia," said the 46-year-old, who works in a small health clinic in rural Illinois. "I have turned down jobs [because of it]. Whenever I’m looking at a new job, I think, ‘Am I going to be able to play Utopia?’"

Utopia is not on iTunes. It doesn’t have an app. The game, which first launched in January 1999, has barely changed since it was designed to be used on the browsers of yore, like Netscape. With its black background, framed layout, and lack of images, it looks slightly better than something a high school student might design in a coding class.

Yet the fantasy game, in which players work together online to expand their territory and defeat other groups over the course of ‘ages,’ time periods within the game that last 10-12 weeks in real time, is still active and being played by people like Ehrheart. They refuse to let a relic of the internet’s past fade away.

Two of those believers, David Cannata, a facilities manager in Boston, and Jeff Mahan, who heads up a product group for a health network in Washington, DC, bought Utopia from Scale Front Limited owners Sean Blanchfield and Brian McDonnell in February with the intention of reviving a game that is free to play, features no graphics or microtransactions, and only has about 3,300 active users. (They declined to say how much they paid for it.)

100,000 people used to play this regularly. Image: utopia-game.com

The pair sees something in the game worth fighting for. They are both long-time players and met online as teammates (and occasional adversaries). They’ve each played the game for over a decade and remember when Utopia was popular. But Cannata and Mahan have also watched its decline, and decided to save it during a period in which they say the previous ownership let the game stagnate with only minor changes and updates.

"It was disappointing to look at the last five or six years of the game’s history as it changed owners and entered a maintenance mode where all they were doing was making small tweaks every age and letting the game slowly die rather than trying to rebuild it and help the community out," Mahan told me.

Utopia may not be much to look at, but its gameplay is timeless. Players control a province that’s part of a kingdom. Each kingdom, which can have up to 25 provinces, goes to war with one another. The largest kingdom at the end of an age, a period of time that lasts roughly 10-12 weeks, wins.

Then everything resets and the game starts over again.

It was designed by Mehul Patel, who started programming games for bulletin board systems that predated the internet and worked on Utopia while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. He was just 22 years old when Utopia launched.

"I liked the idea of empire building, building economies, building relationships, building a social-type game," said Patel in a phone interview from Austin.

What set Utopia apart was its real-time gameplay, rather than the turn-based nature of the era’s browser games, a feature Patel remains proud of. It’s a system since popularized by mobile games like Clash of Clans, in which players manage clans and invade one another.

At its peak during the early 2000s, according to Patel, the game had around 100,000 active users. Patel gradually lost interest and sold the game in 2008 to Jolt Online Gaming, which in turn sold it to Blanchfield and McDonnell. Patel now owns an escape room in Austin, and says he hasn’t checked on Utopia in years.

He didn’t even know if the game was still active when I reached out to him.

"It’s pretty insane. I didn’t even know if it would last a year or two at that point," Patel said. He’d designed the game for dial-up internet and thought the advent of broadband would be the end of Utopia. "I am a little shocked that it’s still alive today. I would not have expected that."

If it’s up to Cannata and Mahan, Utopia will be around well into the future. Since they bought the game they’ve worked to bring back former players with an email campaign and have begun speaking with developers about possibly putting out an app.

But they admit that’s tricky, because if they change Utopia too much, it will lose the magic that drew them into it in the first place.

"A lot of the people who play now have played for a long time," Cannata said. "They play because of what brought them in to begin with, and that is the text-based game that you see in front of you. So to come in and just overhaul all of that would be a terrible, terrible thing to do."

Utopia’s community of 3,300 users is small, but it’s dedicated. One has a website devoted to archiving what happened in each age of Utopia. Another hosts a YouTube show about the game. Ehrheart said the community is the real reason she keeps returning to the game, no matter how obsolete it might seem.

"I know how to play it and people want to play with me," she said. "That makes me feel important and dependable. I’m sure that’s a lot of why I play it too."

Even if it means hiding in the bathroom.

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