In the online MMO Tibia, there's a door with a simple message: "You see a gate of expertise for level 999. Only the worthy may pass." This week, a player named Kharsek passed through that door. It took him nine years to build up enough experience to hit level 999. But once he passed through the door, Kharsek disappeared, and took the secrets with him.
This mysterious door has been one of Tibia's more reclusive secrets since it was added into the game in 2005. For a long time, the developers told me, there was nothing behind the door. It was a joke shared with the community, an amusing "what if?" meant to remain unsolved.
"The main motivation clearly was to tease players because the creators honestly did not think that anyone would actually reach that level," said Tibia lead project manager Martin Eglseder.
Then, one person did.
This is the door that people have been wondering about for a decade.
Tibia, one of the oldest MMOs on the internet, launched in 1997. Nearly 20 years later, people are still actively playing it. As of this writing, there are 12,701 people playing Tibia. It's never been a game for the timid; Tibia is a hardcore online RPG, one that regularly kicks players in the teeth. When you die, the game docks a percentage of experience from your character, potentially rolling back real-world days worth of progress. That edge is what keeps people coming back.
"The combination of the extremely harsh death penalty and the hardcore leveling curve is what makes the game fun," said Mathias Bynens, the owner of TibiaMaps, a blog chronicling the ongoing changes made to the world of Tibia. "It makes gaining another level feel like an accomplishment and successfully escaping from a dangerous situation feel like a relief."
Tibia started as a hobbyist project by four German computer-science students. The game's unexpected success prompted them to form CipSoft. The game's almost two decades old, but CipSoft told me the game still commands roughly 500,000 active players from 200 countries.
That Kharsek reached level 999 is impressive. That he did it in a little under nine years is outright incredible. -Mathias Bynens
"As one player once put it, 'Tibian friendships last a lifetime,'" said Eglseder. "This is one of the main reasons people stay in the game or come back to it after some time of 'retirement.' Many players have accompanied Tibia throughout the years and so the game has become a part of their lives. They are Tibians."
Tibians are often obsessed with knowing everything about the game. A true secret is hard to find. That's what makes the locked door so alluring: For once, everybody is truly in the dark.
There is no level cap in Tibia. If players truly wanted to, they could level forever. But the reason a door demanding a player reach level 999 was so daunting is because leveling up in Tibia, especially as you reach into the hundreds, is a draining and time-consuming task. That didn't stop Kharsek, who first joined the game in 2007. He's the first player to reach level 999.
"That Kharsek reached level 999 is impressive," said Bynens. "That he did it in a little under nine years is outright incredible."
The developers agreed, telling me nine years is "considered quite fast by many Tibians."
Kharsek is a reclusive player, one who's become more hermit-like since his accomplishment began attracting wider attention. "All I know is that he's a Brazilian player who keeps to himself," said Bynens, "which is perfectly understandable seeing as he's probably getting spammed in-game 24/7 by fans, especially now, with all the hype going on." I didn't have any luck trying to get in touch with him myself.
So what does it actually take to reach level 999 and open the mysterious door? Well, let's put it in perspective. Going from level 19 to level 20 requires 15,400 experience points, and the most you can get from a single enemy is a high-level boss that drops 35,000 XP. For level 49 to level 50, it's 112,900 XP. At level 50, you've acquired a grand total of 1,847,300 XP. At level 100, it's a massive 15,694,800 XP.
Moving from level 998 to level 999, though? It requires the equivalent number of points as leaping from level 1 to level 145: 49,650,700. According to a website tracking Tibia player data, there are only four players above level 900. The closest player to Kharsek is 60 levels behind.
Even with a team of people helping him with buffing, healing, and other tactics, Bynens estimates Kharsek was earning roughly 5 million XP per hour. At that pace, it would take roughly nine hours of constant grinding simply to move from level 998 to level 999.
And he's not the only one who's been keeping tabs on Kharsek. His level progression has been closely monitored and celebrated, as the milestones stacked, with videos shared on YouTube.
Eight months ago, Kharsek was only on level 930. Three months ago, he was on level 968. And remember, any time that Kharsek was killed would send him spiraling back down in levels, taking him further away from his goal.
The level 999 door has vexed Tibia players for years, but it drew wider awareness when a Reddit post predicted Kharsek would soon reach level 999, drawing interest to a fever pitch.
"I've never heard of this game in my life," said one commenter, "and the most important thing I have right now is this stupid bastard opening that stupid door."
The developers have been preparing for this moment, long before Kharsek hit level 999.
I've never heard of this game in my life, and the most important thing I have right now is this stupid bastard opening that stupid door. -Reddit comment
"A secret that has existed and been nourished by players for so many years cannot be lifted without disappointment," said Eglseder. "You cannot fulfill all the different hopes and expectations that players have attached to it. No matter what you do, you cannot satisfy everybody."
In terms of deciding what would actually be beyond the door, they went with something they feel is "best for the game as a whole and in the long run."
In today's streaming culture, it wouldn't have been a surprise if Kharsek made a big deal about walking through the door. He could have built up the spectacle and drawn attention to himself. But that's not what happened. Instead, earlier this week, Kharsek did what no other player in Tibia has done before and quietly walked through the door that demanded a player be level 999.
... And that was it. The outside world hasn't heard from Kharsek since. It's been radio silence.
"Maybe there are chests with rewards inside there," reads a forum post by a player that watched as Kharsek walked through the level 999 door. "Maybe there are NPCs there... Maybe levers and hidden stuff... We don't know... Kharsek got out... and logged off."
As of today, no one knows what's behind the door. The developers are keeping quiet, too.
"No, we won't spoil what's behind [the door]," said Eglseder. "We could verify this, but we leave it up to the player to tell whatever he wants to share about the door and the secret behind [it]."
The most Eglseder would say, perhaps to calm players worried they're missing something amazing, is "there's not a whole feature set or package of 'end game' content behind it."
Or is there?
It seems possible that Kharsek was upset about the way Tibia players have been treating him. On his quest to level 999, people would track him down and screw with his leveling progress.
"A group of people liked to consistently invade the spawns Kharsek was hunting in and kill as many creatures as possible, just to lower his exp/hour rate," said Bynens. "Other times they'd lure hordes of strong creatures on Kharsek's healers, forcing them to run away or die, causing Kharsek to be left without a healer, which is dangerous even at his level. Bullying at its worst. I don't know what Kharsek did to deserve this. Maybe people just got jealous at his high level?"
And now, there's another reason to be jealous: Kharsek is the only one who knows what's behind that door.
Follow Patrick Klepek on Twitter.