An interview with the Master of Shadows

Editor's Note: Troy Dreier told me about this iOS game he was hooked on, and the rather weird character who seemed to be at the center of it all: "GiantDong." It's interesting to think about the people behind the games we play. In World of Warcraft, say, players might get to know one another a little more, but in the mobile space such connections are fleeting, and yet here was a public, constant figure, greatly changing the shape of the game. Troy reached out to Dong, and this is what we found out.

They call him GiantDong, and the Architects fear him.

He is one of the master strategists of Shadow Cities, an addictive MMORPG for the iPhone and iPod Touch. In a game where many players seem to be focused only on the immediate mission at hand, GiantDong plots far-sighted strategies that ensure the Animators (the green team) triumph over the Architects (the orange team) every time.

A streak of campaign victories for his New Jersey battle group stretching back months speaks of his success. Read on to meet a player who not only helped define the fun for a whole group of players, but who contributed to changing the very rules of the game.

Shadow Cities is that rare iPhone game that breaks out and manages to find a loyal audience. The glowing review it got in the New York Times helped, but so has its simple, yet surprisingly nuanced gameplay. Players assume the roles of mages, and they level up as they complete missions and defend their turf. The hook is that it uses the iPhone and iPod Touch's GPS features, so the turf players are defending is where they actually live.

Play is organized into weekly rounds, where teams win by gathering the most energy. They do so by creating dominators — structures that harvest energy from the Earth — or by going into battle to banish enemy mages and destroy their dominators. A player's arsenal includes a few useful spells, such as the ability to create beacons and call for assistance.

GiantDong might not seem like your typical iPhone gamer. Outside the game, he works in finance and trading from his home office in Jersey City, New Jersey. It's a conservative field, so he didn't want his name used in this article. He's able to play during the day as he works. His wife is also a top mage, so they play Shadow Cites all night, as well.

A tip from a gaming friend got GiantDong started with Shadow Cities. It appealed to his love of military strategy, something he's read up on since childhood. When he started with the game, the New Jersey battle group wasn't a cohesive team, but as he and other dedicated players took an interest in the game, they started to build a mighty group of mages. Now, thanks to his strategy and his dedication to helping out lower-level players, mages around the world know the name GiantDong and rush to help him when he calls.

"You never really know what kind of obsession something is going to become," says GiantDong.

Troy: How did the Animators become such a fearsome force?

GiantDong: "There's a group — we don't actually talk about this — there's a group of eight to ten regional battle group commanders. And who these people are wouldn't surprise you… and we maintain an out-of-game email list where we exchange ideas and develop some strategy. We had some discussion where — and I think this is why green is dominating all over the globe, for the most part — we really kind of took the game apart into its strategic elements."

T: How does the game work?

D: "It's interesting because of its simplicity. If you think about it from a role-playing game perspective, you don't really have character specialization… You do have a tremendous difference in skill level. There are level 11s, level 10s, who can challenge level 15s and win pretty much every time.

"There's no terrain, there's no cover. In some ways, as we thought about the strategy, we realized that a lot of the comparable strategy is actually naval strategy, where you don't know where your opponent is, and once you find out where you're opponent is, then it's a pretty simple task of getting the most firepower to the game as quickly as possible."

T: How do you harness the power of the group in Shadow Cities?

D: "When we have a problem, people are very in-tune and very responsive, so when you have a problem and you call for help, a lot of people show up. We know the only way to really truly effectively compete is if you have superior numbers. And we do.

"It's not that we have more green people playing the game, but green people [fighting for the Animators] are more willing to show up to battles, they're more willing to stay at battles. They're more persistent. A lot of orange players [on the Architects' side] will get banished once or twice and they won't come back. A lot of green players say the battle's over when there's no way we can get back. When the last beacon, the last link to that conflict is gone and we can't get back, okay, then it's over. Either we win or we can't get back."

T: Is it all about mage battles?

D: "The game is interesting in its simplicity, but you can play a lot of different games. You can be a relatively peaceful farmer, you can be — like I tend to be — a little more interested in focusing on the player vs. player. So that brings a different dynamic and a different kind of conflict."

T: You've branched out to help battle groups in other states and countries, right?

D: "The green teams who have things pretty well in-hand at home will then go and basically do organized shows of power in specific other regions. It's a little bit of momentum: if you look at my medals, that's the story of momentum. Green lost every round and then, all of a sudden, we win one and then we don't lose any… That's what we see in these other regions: all you have to do is steamroll the opposing team for a couple rounds and then the home greens become strong enough that they can keep it going, for the most part."

T: Why are you so dedicated to helping new players?

D: "I think the senior players in the game — if you want to keep a good team, keep a strong team — you have an obligation to transmit that knowledge, to kind of hand the spirit of the game down to the new people. We do an okay job at that; we could do better."

T: Does playing Shadow Cities with your wife make for a happy marriage?

D: "If you think about it, it's kind of the same thing as being at home with somebody and sitting at opposite ends of the couch and IMing each other, which we also have done in the past. So it's still a little isolating... I wouldn't play as much, I think, if we didn't play together."

T: Why "GiantDong"?

D: "The name's a problem. The name is absurd, the name is just sort of a throw-away game name. It's a little bit of a dick-head name, no joke intended. I just kind of threw it in there. Once the game became important, I had built a persona around that. Frankly, I have the respect of most of the top level orange and green players. It's a little bit ironic if you think that a guy named Giant Penis has some actual legit respect in the game… I've heard orange players say how angry it makes them when they get the message 'You've been banished by Giant Dong.' So there is a little bit of that, and hopefully a lot of them get to see that on a regular basis."

Addendum: After this profile was written, GiantDong posted to the game his decision to leave Shadow Cites, citing personal reasons and real-life commitments. The posting drew hundreds of anguished responses. His friends and players gave him tribute by lighting dozens of green beacons on his old home turf in Jersey City. A few months later, he returned to the game, although he's no longer as active. Shadow Cities no longer offers battle groups defined by state.