In our MMORPGs we expect goblins, a few elves, and some pointy swords. In later years we've innovated, moved with the times, and maybe, just maybe, we can now accept a space ship or two - but we totally draw the line at Firefly class frigates: You gotta' have rules. Indie-developers Seatribe however, are looking to mess with the status quo: their new game (Salem) doesn't have an emphasis on stabbing things, nor will it feature quests, and there isn't even a mention of the Elder race - oh, and if you die, you're pretty, well, um... dead. There is devil's play amongst us.
How do we know she is a witch?
Following up on Haven & Hearth, Salem is the latest sandbox MMORPG hailing from the land of Sweden, proving that they don't just make quality flat-pack furniture. Loosely based around Colonial Massachusetts in the late 17th century, this craft-based experience looks to be a surprise package that combines both Ultima Online and Animal Crossing, perhaps creating a new race of super MMO that will threaten humanity's very existence.
Initially the somewhat cutesy graphics might discourage a player that won't put up with any of that "child-like nonsense", I'm sure there's a sense of irony in that somewhere, but Salem infinitely wears its Mii influences on its sleeves. Character models resemble pilgrim bobble-heads, and the environments themselves also buy into an element of the cartoonish - even though there is promise that before release a lot of these will be changed and updated.
Like a hooker with a heart of gold, Salem's outward experience may be off-putting to some, but the meat and potatoes of its gameplay is what really stands out. Seatribe's title is an open PvP, full loot, perma-death, crafting-driven, settlement builder (or OPvPFLPDCDSB for short) that will have veterans harking back to the good old days of online gaming.
One half of its development team Björn Johannessen explains the origins of the pilgrim-em-up: "To be honest, I don't really play MMORPGs because I tend not to believe them; they are games, and not very immersive ones at that - people do the same things, complete the same quests, and basically run around on a very linear track." The Swedish developer definitely speaks for one section of our community.
He continues "When we initially started on what would become Salem we had three ideas, but the idea of 17th century Gothic America, all of the paranoia, the folklore, it just seemed like a great concept: and when we found a book by the name of 'Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, and a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts' we kind of had to do it."
This MMORPG will forgo the traditional monsters (sorry goblin homies) instead making use of the myths and tales in the aforementioned text. From Jersey Devils, to headless Horseman, and also the ever delightful Squonk - a miserable creature, convinced its skin doesn't fit - there's is a refreshing edge to this game that the genre has rarely seen for the past decade.
"In Salem players generally won't be doing the PvE stuff seen in say, World of Warcraft, but instead it is about creating, socializing, and in effect living in this world: we are just providing the tools for that to play out." Björn is keen to stress the importance of players adapting without too much hand-holding. Features such as over-head aliases can only be enabled once you have interacted with a player, bringing back the golden age of "hail", and there are no quest systems to speak of. The experience will be self-directed, which will be a boon for those craving such an adventure.
Björn elaborates further "We also have an open system where any player can attack another. Of course there are certain areas where this can't happen, but only newbie areas. To engage in this kind of activity you will have to learn the skill to do so first, but then it is up to you whether to abide by the law."
With a all-knowing smirk, Björn bats away the idea that players must be kept in tow. Once out into the virtual landscape, if you decide your role is that of a dandy highway man, you can do that. Any murder or theft perpetrated will leave a behind a "clue" which in essence will give would-be detectives and vigilantes an opportunity to find you, but that is the risk you take.
Of course, retribution for being such a "Pilgrim Bastard" can be swift. If found, you may be summoned, even if offline, to answer for your crimes, resulting in punishments and even the Chicago style "send one of mine to the hospital, I'll send one of yours to the morgue" type revenge. As mentioned, a death in Salem is permanent, so if you are killed, your character's next heir will come forth, resetting any skills or abilities you have gained. Seatribe hope that the risk of this will be enough to put off marauding bands of griefers, and also that combat can rarely be dominated by one person against many - safety in numbers as they say, is the way that this game is best approached.
"We are hoping that PvP won't be the only aspect of Salem, as we do have lots of features within the game" Björn continues. "Players can purchase town charters, and start to build their own villages, and begin crafting things and constructing". One of the biggest aspects of the MMO is the exstensive skill list which will allow you direct whatever experience you choose to have. From skills that allow PvP and theft, to those that will enable you to become a simple tanner or blacksmith, the developers want to be all encompassing.
Like any MMORPG worth its "ding" noise, Salem is equipped with a traditional system of gaining abilities. Doing the contextual activity such as hunting, will benefit that skill, and so on. After gaining so many points in one category, you can then gain special abilities which will roughly denote an overall level for your avatar. Interestingly, Seatribe have also opted to un-cap the system, so you may be proficient in every area, though maxing out a full character will take months of play.
"We want to add lots of cool little ideas to Salem so that players have this great environment to play in. Another interesting thing is that we allow players to become a witch - which isn't going to be something you will brag about". Like the game's namesake, the idea of magic, and fear of, will play a part in this MMO. By collecting certain items, and performing a ritual, it is possible to become a witch, giving benefits to your community, or likewise becoming a plight on the land.
"Not everyone will be a Jedi" adds Björn mystically. "Witchcraft can be good for a community, but all magic will leave a clue, and this can lead to other players attacking you for using such trickery". Like in Star Wars Galaxies, this highly specialised role will not be for everybody, and the developers are keen to stress that riding atop a broom stick and cackling with delight won't always end pleasantly. In keeping with the spirit of the time period, anything that may be perceived as devil's work can, and will be, punished. Björn and his team hope that this element will lead to a sort of virtual hysteria, with communities accusing one another of witchcraft so that they might attack and you know, steal their stuff all under the banner of "God's duty". Like a pint-sized Crusade.
"We will also cater for normal people too - you can farm, craft, create etc, and we want to encourage people to start their own villages; building as of yet can't be customized, but the land is fully mutable, not to MineCraft levels, but you can create natural fortifications and the like". The idea of having player-owned towns is one long tried within the MMO world, but one that is rarely successful. By approaching this aspect with simplicity, hopefully Seatribe can build upon this foundation and add in modifiable housing at a later date: Björn certainly believes it is a possibility "With this type of game, you can expand and add to it continually, and that's the exciting part of the genre. Hopefully we can keep refining, and our community can drive us into places we would have never thought of before".
Salem is shaping up to be an intriguing and refreshing concept. It's obvious nods to games such as Ultima Online will be enough to set any veteran into a fit of excitement, but perhaps the greatest strength of this MMORPG is that the developers aren't coming from years of jaded grinding, neither or they trying to please an audience that doesn't entirely know what it wants. In the purest form, Seatribe are attempting to create a world, unadulterated by what has gone before, in a way coming from the same perspective as Origin Systems way back when.
If it works as intended, if the griefers can be kept at bay, and if it packs enough gameplay to retain attention, Salem could just be the surprise package we are all waiting for. In a world of epic-budget online games from Guild Wars 2 to Archeage, this little indie-that-could might just be my most anticipated game of 2012. Optimistically slated for a Summer release, let's pray for witchcraft and F2P Systems.