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Edgar Allen Poe Meets Animal Crossing

Som Pourfarzaneh Posted:
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I love the idea of someone creating a peaceful homestead out in the New England wilderness, logging off to let her/his farm yield crops and heaps produce compost, only to log back in to find a noisy neighbor has moved in next door who periodically chips away at the homestead's walls or throws block parties that eat up all of the nearby resources.

Players will be able to cooperate with or irritate each other as much as they like with Salem, an upcoming crafting-based MMO being co-developed by Bjorn Johannessen and Fredrik Tolf, Creative Director and Chief Engineer of Seatribe, and published by Paradox Interactive.  Salem is a free-to-play, browser-based sandbox MMO set in colonial America, with a huge (25x25km2) game world and a graphical style that is a "cross between Edgar Allen Poe and Animal Crossing."  Players take the role of intrepid colonists who can go out into the world to gather and craft, progress in skills, build homesteads and towns, and work together or wreak havoc on each other.  I got to sit down with Bjorn and take a look at Salem this past week, and was intrigued by the amount of depth and polish that the game has to offer even in its current closed beta build.

We first took a look at character creation, which takes place on a dock in the Old World, where players' characters are meant to feel "naked, helpless and afraid."  I can attest to at least the first of those characteristics, and fortunately, Bjorn's character was clothed, bearded, hair-dyed, named, and looking like a charming, if creepy, pilgrim in no time.  In addition to the character creation process, many parts of Salem play like a traditional RPG in terms of how equipment and attributes work, with the addition of four humours, which are basic energies required to accomplish certain objectives in the game.  Blood, for example, represents your character's health, while Phlegm is your stamina, Yellow Bile is used for combat abilities, and Black Bile is an intellectual resource for acquiring skills.  Furthermore, Salem's tiered skill system plays out similarly to tech trees in games like Civilization, in that after you unlock a skill, you'll be offered several more skills to specialize in and so on.

We next headed to Boston, which is the starting area for all players and the only safe, non-PvP region in the game.  Boston not only serves as a central hub for Salem, but also has market stands where players can buy and sell items for silver, the in-game currency.  Incidentally, players can spend real money to buy silver and live it up in Salem, or grind out items to earn anything in the game.

Walking around to take a look at the landscape just around Boston, Bjorn's character found a bunch of items in the world like flint, stone, garlic, and the like.  He then used the game's first learned skill, Childish Things, to open up one of the game's crafting systems and create a Rock Maraca.  Using an item like the Rock Maraca - which consumes it - yields proficiency points, which can then be used to purchase the next skill in the tree, and so forth.  Using these kinds of skills will deplete your humour values, which can in turn be replenished by food.  The process of crafting is a simple click of a button, but the real impetus behind the crafting system is meant to rest on the acquisition of materials.  In this case, Bjorn's character earned the next skill after Childish Things, called Survival Skills.

This process of crafting earned us a complimentary buff to be transported to the Wilderness, so we headed back to Boston to do just that.  Doing so deposits you somewhere out in Salem's world at your newly founded homestead, and helps to ensure that not all players are simply walking out of Boston and clear-cutting everything nearby.  Now that Bjorn's character had earned Survival Skills, he built a pile of wood, crafted a Tinder Drill to light it on fire, and hit it with a collected snail to create a Sizzled Slug, one of the tasty forms of food in Salem.  Bjorn mentioned that some foods can actually level your humours further through "Gluttony Mode," in which the goal is to eat as much food as possible to level up.  Progressing further down the skill tree, we earned "Foraging," which allows you to create an edible item out of collected berries and makes it easier to spot herbs and find more nuts and seeds.

Then we jumped to a more advanced character with better gear and a pretty well-established homestead that had double walls, a small farm, compost heaps, a mining project, coal clamps, and a lot more.  We took a look at some of the very deep and interrelated systems of crafting, such as firing bricks in your homestead's kilns, planting and growing garlic, and refining cotton for larger cloth items.  Some projects will take much longer than crafting a simple item, so benefiting from coal clamps and compost heaps, drying hides and making leather, or growing potted and farmed vegetables can take several hours to a whole week of real time.  Fortunately, your projects will keep working while you're offline, provided that your homestead isn't pestered by ill-willed riff-raff that get past your domain's defenses.

Yes, other players can run amok on your property and steal from or attack other players, but there are some systems in place to de-incentivize criminal activities.  First, you'll need to earn certain skills to commit criminal acts, and it costs humours to do things like stealing or attacking other players, which is important because you can't use food on another person's property to re-supply your humour levels when engaged in dirty deeds.  Furthermore, when a player commits a crime, s/he leaves a clue at the scene that can lead their characters to be tracked and found.  If the offense is truly heinous, other players can summon their characters for judgment, even if their owners are offline!

Keep in mind that PvP is enabled everywhere in the game outside of the Boston starting area, with permadeath, so making friends and avoiding enemies is key.  Salem's combat is pretty straightforward and position- and movement-based, and while animals and other things in the game world can only  knock you out, other players can come along and execute a killing blow if they hate puppies.  Fortunately, your new character will inherit all of your owned land, but there's still a lot of incentive to making friends quickly and forming a protective cadre.

You can work together with other players in a number of ways, ranging from mostly informal to fully integrated in the game.  If you just want to invite other players to your property so they can build next door, you can give your homestead a password and share it with your friends so they can teleport there from Boston.  Or, you can help build a Town, which is more or less the equivalent of a guild, but allows for ownership of land and territories and the creation of "authority objects" like town bells.  There's a huge benefit from working with other players in such an establishment, particularly through promoting communal protection and the division of labor for harvesting and utilizing resources.  It's this social aspect which is designed to keep players around in the endgame of Salem, building cities together and getting involved in the factional and political battles of controlling resources.

A few other interesting tidbits that we covered in our preview included Salem's terraforming elements and persistence.  Players can dig to flatten areas of ground to build objects such as houses, and while they can't yet create their own ridges, the developers are working on it.  There are also a couple of types of terrain that can't be terraformed, including water and swamplands.  In addition, everything the players do is persistent, with some decay for certain objects, so feel free to build your coal clamps in the shape of a badger.

Salem is currently in closed beta with one server, but Bjorn and Fredrik eventually want to have one server for each of the colonies.  Interestingly, the game worlds are procedurally generated, which allows for some pretty neat randomization when a new one is created.  The developers also want to build in many more industries and much more content down the line, and are rolling out the closed commercial beta right now.  Their plan is to progressively open up the beta in stages, and will be ready to launch the game "when it's done."

Thanks again Bjorn Johannessen and Paradox Interactive for showing us around Salem!

Are you excited about Salem's deep crafting potential and social aspects?  Let us know in the comments below!


Som Pourfarzaneh

Som has been hanging out with the MMORPG.com crew since 2011, and is an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.