Updated Wed, May 16, 2012 by Ethec
Ten Ton Hammer met with Björn Johannessen, Creative Director, for our first ever hands-on with Seatribe’s early colonial crafting MMO, Salem.
While most MMO players know Salem as one of the few MMORPGs to embrace permadeath (a no-extra-lives system that emphasizes player persistence through goods rather than characters), we had an in-depth look into the game’s intricate progression and crafting systems, which concluded with a quick tour of a working player claim and a large player village.
Boston is the first stop for those fresh off the boat from England. The town and environs function as a safe place for new players to gain a few skills as well as the silver needed to stake a claim, though Björn noted that silver will also be available in exchange for real money. Later on, Boston is where you’ll go to sell your goods and also perform some industry tasks (like grinding flour in the town’s windmills until your village can build its own windmill).
Unlike every other MMO in existence, no nameplates appeared above characters in Salem. Instead, you’ll have to right click and “memorize” every new person of consequence, giving them a name of your choosing in the process. This came in handy later in the demo, when I found myself surrounded by members of what we’ll simply call the hostile nudist colony. More on that later.
A player’s first goal is to establish a homestead. Just about all the game’s industries depend on owning property, and Salem is first and foremost a crafting MMO. But before you can spend some silver for a gray-faced NPC scout to drop you in the wilderness (AI-controlled vendors have gray faces, AI controlled enemies have black ones – not very PC, but that’s how pilgrims roll) you’ll have to forage some marketable goodies like Indian Arrowheads and pick up a few skills along the way.
Speaking of skills, Salem’s level up system works like no other. Skills are arranged in trees and each skill might have multiple prerequisites – this much we’re used to. But in order to train a skill, you’ll have to study “inspirationals” (like a smooth stone or beautiful seashell that you forage or other items that you craft) to increase your points in one of ten categories (Hunting and Gathering, Arts and Crafts, Sparks and Embers just to name a few).
Each skill requires a certain number of points in multiple categories, but once you purchase a skill, all categories reset to zero. The other twist: some skills require more than your current limit of category points, so players have to fill that category bar completely, then click the bar to raise the limit by 100 points. Doing so, again, resets all counters to zero.
The long and short of this process is that it took me several hours of foraging and studying before I could do things like hunt small game, swim across deeper water, or climb a small cliff. Frontier life is harsh!
We reached the edge of Boston town, and Björn explained that things might get a bit hairy from this point on. “This is as far as our intervention into the game stretches. Boston covers an area of a few square kilometers, and the idea is to provide a small starting area where newbs are safe from player killings because, as you might be familiar with, Salem features permadeath.”
Bound by cliffs that must be climbed and deep water that players must swim across. These activities require phlegm, one of the “four humors” - black bile (used for studying), yellow bile (used for crafting), blood (health points), and phlegm (used for physical exertion). Players can increase the size of their humour pools in a manner similar to increasing skills, by clicking on a full "humour diamond" at the top of the screen and using the gluttony system to overfill one humour at a time. When one humour is increased by a small amount, the diamond resets.
Permadeath was the one system in Salem that I was in no hurry to try out. It takes a lengthy amount of time and effort to train up a character and begin producing goods that I imagine the loss of a character would be pretty frustrating. As such, woodland creatures and certain poisons (curse you, Devil’s Wort, and your “Eat” option!) knock you out if they reduce your Blood humour to zero, and you’ll wake up with only the clothes and equipment on your back (no inventory) in Boston. Other players can, however, kill you. Björn explained that your kin can exact vengeance by summoning the murderer online, and your earthly goods (which is what much of the game’s progression revolves around) are passed on to your next of kin.
With our business in town concluded, Björn used a scout to create our homestead somewhere out in the wilderness. He had no idea where we were at, but explained that all players have a travel ability to move between their homestead and Boston.
The surroundings were fairly bright and sunny, meaning that the area is reasonably civilized (Björn explained that building density drives the civilization level of an area). The nearby fauna were relatively normal and tame – beavers, deer, bears, and some particularly scrappy crickets. The farther we go from Boston, however, the map becomes darker and the creatures-- with names like squonks, hide-behinds, and jersey devils (not the hockey team)--become more fantastical and aggressive.
“The wilderness is quite huge. I think it’s 25x25 kilometers right now,” Björn noted. The entire map is randomized once, but after that whatever changes players make (digging out clay pits or cutting down trees, etc.) are permanent. For Björn, that’s a big part of the game’s charm. “You don’t play Salem for nice graphics; you play it because it’s badass to be able to affect the world, because we’re all playing in the same world.”
To illustrate his point, Björn expended a fair amount of phlegm to cut down a tree, then chopped some wood blocks from the fallen log. He used the wood blocks to build items like a baking table, a coal clamp (used to create charcoal), and other items.
Rather than building a base camp from scratch, he ported us over to his private claim – something he’s been building for about a week and a half. Ore Smelters and a mine dominated our view, and Björn invited us down into the mine. No Minecraft-style picks here, folks. In order to break apart the solid stone walls, Björn built a small fire to crack the wall, which yielded a boulder, which in turn yielded ore and other goodies. The ore we stuck in a smelter along with a ton of charcoal to produce a bar of iron and dross (the failed outcome).