Salem – A New Preview of a Colony-Crafting MMORPG

Björn Johannessen
A line of kilns, each puffing a different pastel color of smoke, rings Game Designer Björn Johannessen’s puritanoid character.  “The disco smoke – that’s probably not going to be there in the final version,” he jokes. Björn is showing me a brick production chain in Salem, his nascent studio’s second title, and the first done as a professional project, complete with funding and a fearless publisher, Paradox Interactive.

Brickmaking is serious work in a crafting MMORPG rooted in emergent and cooperative (or competitive) behavior. In Björn’s first project, Haven & Hearth, done while he and Lead Programmer Frederic Tolf were undergrads at a Swedish university, bricks became currency. “In Haven, bricks have all the characteristics of a good currency. They’re portable, divisible, and durable.” Not to mention, bricks are infinitely more useful, in an early colonial world, than bank notes.

Salem characters in greyscale.

If you find yourself wondering why Seatribe wouldn’t just layer in a economy, complete with its own currency, then maybe you haven’t discovered the magic, joy, and frequent frustration of emergent gameplay as popularized by Minecraft. The idea is to give players a framework (production chains, materials, etc.) and allow them to interact with their environment, introducing external threats and economies of scale to drive cooperative behavior.

While Seatribe’s Haven actually preceded Minecraft by almost a year, it’s top-down perspective and online-only, open source framework attracted only a niche audience instead of Notch’s comparative riches and fame. But that was enough to empower Seatribe’s dynamic duo to create Salem. Not a bad gig right out of school.

Character Art Evolved

In our January first-look, we revealed some of Salem’s most popular selling points – permadeath and character persistence through items (i.e. once your character is dead, he/she is dead, but his/her progress can be inherited through item ownership by a new relative just off the boat), it’s socio-economic sandboxy nature, and cultural repercussions of using magic, which is an “intensely individualized” way to succeed at a neighbor’s expense. The positive response Björn got from this article and other coverage, combined with Paradox’s support, allowed Seatribe to contract out for higher quality art for the game, as seen with the evolving character art below:

Evolving Character Art

Character Development Evolved

After Björn showed us how characters had evolved visually, I was curious about how these characters will evolve in-game. Details were sketchy at the January reveal, and Seatribe didn’t seem like a studio that would settle for a conventional RPG level-up scheme. They didn’t.

Food is central to progress in Salem, as befits its loosely historical bent, and character development revolves around the four slightly humorous “humours”, or bodily fluids: blood (hitpoints), phlegm (non-combat stamina – for chopping trees, digging clay, etc.), yellow bile (combat stamina, also used for advanced crafting), and black bile (used for intellectual pursuits, such as learning a new skill). For example, to learn the “mountaineering” skill to escape the steep inclines surrounding the newbie area, for example, you’ll have to spend some black bile. This can only be replenished by eating the right food.

Character Sketches

Learning skills is one way to progress in Salem. The other is something Björn calls the “gluttony system.” When a player’s humours are fully replenished, that player can activate the “god fork” to enter gluttony mode. This mode is a minigame, with the objective of pushing a humour past a certain limit by eating a variety of food.

But gluttony isn’t just an easy way to level up at the expense of your food stores. Björn explained: “The problem is, food replenishes individual humors randomly, and the random chance is based on the quality of the food. The time and benefit of each dish varies, and the meters recede over time… But the higher the quality of the food, the more predictable the humor it will fill." So what’s the secret? “Have a lavish meal prepared. The better the food, the more accurately you can plan the amount of food needed.” And the more you level your humours, the more work you can do, enemies you can fight, and skills you can learn.

Social Gaming Evolved

Björn’s character struck a “contemplative pose” as he placed an Under Construction sign for a new kiln, the seventh in the colored-smoke spewing lineup. Digging at a nearby claypit for the requisite 45 units of clay, Björn noted that the environment was deforming – the earth dimpled and ultimately sunk with each unit of clay removed. As he progressed, he pointed out how quickly his phlegm was decreasing. I quipped about how this could be a good thing on a pollen-filled, allergy-antagonizing spring day outside in New York City, but in Salem, phlegm enables work. Soon, his character had to take a break to eat.

My humours are fine!

I took the opportunity to ask Björn where the line is between work and play in Salem. Digging clay and chopping trees might not strike the average gamer as fun, but then, well, I can’t explain Minecraft’s success with that kind of logic either. Björn saved me from my reverie: “Building a work simulator is risky. At some point, it becomes work for real. We had to be wary of that - it can't be grindy, it can't be like work, so we had to abstract away some of the work aspects."

Some of that abstraction has to do with the transport of resources via horses, carts, wagons, and boats – but the biggest timesaver is that more hands always make lighter work. Resource gathering, like the mythical enemies lurking in the deep woods and countless other systems in Salem, is meant to reward those who work as a team.

PvP Evolved

But external threats such as the mythical squonks and hide-behinds of lumberjack lore aren’t the true threats in Salem. Bjorn hit me with a quote that could have come from a Stieg Larsson novel: “Man is the wolf of man, there's no monster we can make that's half as scary as a well-made village looking to take you out.” While the dark edges of the map (dark, because civilization rating controls the day-night cycle – “In Mordor, you need a torch,” Björn laughed.) contain the scarcest, most precious resources, even the well-lighted areas might spell your doom.

Maple trees.
Birch trees.
Yet murder, too, has a heavy price, given the game’s permadeath premise. Björn explained the rudiments of the “scent” system, by which friends or relatives of a murder victim can track the killer or killers. If a murder is particularly heinous or unjust, the scent will allow the avenging party to summon the offending player even if he or she is offline. Its an interesting concept, and I look forward to Björn showing us more about the PvP side of Salem this summer.

Final Notes

All this begs the question of how many players Seatribe expects to host on any given server. “We haven’t found the upper limit with Haven yet. The maximum we’ve seen is 1,300. With the hardware upgrades, maybe 2,000 to 2,500 is the true maximum, but we definitely want to allow for transfers between servers too.”

And how will that translate to competition and cooperation? What size or scale or building projects might we see in Salem? "I wouldn't draw any particular line. As big as possible... big is fun. We definitely want huge projects like cathedrals and whatnot, because that adds a cooperative effort to the game."


Salem is currently on track for a 2011 release. We at Ten Ton Hammer be sure to keep an eye on this innovative new title from developer Seatribe and Paradox Interactive, and we thank Björn Johannessen and the Paradox crew for the recent update.

Character Sketches

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