The quirky settlers MMO with permanent death for your character has changed a lot in its beta phase.
An MMO centered around being a settler in the New World, stepping off the boat in Boston into an unsettled land with equal parts opportunity and danger, tickles all my funny parts. Add in the mystical-Cthulu-witchcraft-occult stuff with the fact that your character can die - permanently - in Salem, and you've seriously got me piqued. The development of Salem has continued apace since I first heard about it back in 2010, and an open beta recently, erm, opened up earlier this year. I tracked down Björn Johannessen, the Lead Designer of Salem and cofounder of Seatribe, to see how the beta has been going. Of course, I asked him how the permanent death feature has been received and he surprised me by boldly stating that having a fail state is part of his definition for a game. In fact, he doesn't think most MMOs are technically games.
Johannessen feels pretty strongly about permanent death in Salem. "It was always intended to be a means of conflict resolution with finality, as well as establishing a definitive fail-state for the game," he said. "In a context where players can establish competing claims on limited resources, conflict resolution becomes important.
"I also feel that a game without a proper 'You lost!' state is more of an interactive movie than a game proper," Johannessen said.
Based on that definition, pretty much every MMO out there is an interactive movie - from Allods Online to World of Warcraft - and Salem is the only true game among them. I asked Johannessen to clarify his statement, because that's a pretty bold assessment of the genre.
"I wouldn't speak disparagingly of someone else's baby. It's more of a general trend in modern gaming than an issue I have with any particular title," he admitted. "I grew up with the old generation of NES and Amiga games - often times repackaged arcade games - that made you play through the entire game again from level one and scratch if ever you failed, lost the three lives you did have, or whatever, even if you had made it to the proverbial final boss. No save points, no anything.
"Obviously that school of game design grew out of the arcade context where players paid for games on a quarter-per-play type basis, so there was a strong, natural incentive there for the designers to provide replayability, and to make the games hard to actually beat. Save points are the bane of good gaming, and they lead to a very hand-held type of experience with 'success' nigh-on guaranteed for the player. There were some of those old games that I simply never beat because they were just too difficult, and a game like that being released is just nigh-on inconceivable today, at least outside of the more obscure platforms where arcade games still 'work', such as phones and pads and whatnot. A shame, really."
So what is it about a fail state like permanent death that a game needs? "I don't think a game is actually much of a game without one, it's a movie with different endings and interactivity," Johannessen continued. "At no point during an experience like that are your skills ever actually tested against some objective, definitive condition against the standards of which you can ultimately succeed or fail."
Johannessen likes to play games in which he feels challenged, especially by another player. "I much prefer multiplayer games in general for that reason, because where a single-player campaign may fail to deliver, at least multiplayer always offers actual resistance from someone who is actively trying his best to beat you," he said. "In my opinion, that is kind of the essence of what a game is, and also what separates it from a movie. Mind you, I'm not saying that a movie with a couple of different endings and a bit of interactivity is necessarily a bad thing, but it's not what I would be looking to build myself."
Like Ultima Online before it, the beta of Salem has polarized gamers down lines of morality. There's been a lot of player killing and PVP reported for a game that focuses on gathering resources and, with permanent death, losing all your hard work can be quite painful. How has the community responded? "The PvP is one of those things about the game that you either love or hate, so I'm sure it's a factor that both makes and breaks the game with various and respective crowds," Johannessen said.
Despite that, crafting communities and trade networks have formed and lots of great stuff has been built around Boston and Salem. The wilderness is still being populated with small compounds to collect resources like wood or grain. Johannessen doesn't know when the official release date will be yet, but I wondered what the end game for a unique MMO like Salem would be.
"The end game would be something like penetrating out into the farthest reaches of the uncivilized lands beyond the central colonies and hunting for Jersey Devils and such, maximizing the alchemical purity of your fully-slotted Admiral's Uniform, and also PvP, of course," he said.
Salem is set in a fantastical New England and offers free form massively multiplayer gameplay in a persistent, mutable and online world. With players taking the roles of intrepid colonists from the Old World seeking to make lives for themselves in the New, Salem provides them with unique crafting, farming and building systems inspired by 17th century alchemy.
Cast in a mold of cute-gothic Salem's lighthearted art style makes for the perfect contrast to the otherwise grim realities of open player-versus-player combat and permanent death. Experience Squonks, Hidebehinds, Witchcraft and the fullest freedom of a sandbox conceived in Liberty.
Jersey devil? Sold!
For now, Johannessen is content to let the beta run its course without having to shoehorn in anything artificial. "We've had a fair amount of work cut out for us in trying to balance the siege and PvP systems, but that was also always to be expected. Also, some of the more complex crafting interactions have taken a fair amount of effort to establish meaningful feedback-loops for, and that is still a work in progress," he said before stating the value of listening to his players. "I keep rediscovering, or trying to rediscover, the value of communication and player feedback. It's impossible to build a game like this in a vacuum without testing."
Part of that testing will be figuring out exactly how the free to play model will work for Salem. "There are a series of offers in the in-game store where players can purchase gear, in-game currency and whatnot to have a bit of an easier time in the game," he explained. It seems every MMO is adopting that model, so I asked Johannessen if he thinks that bubble will burst any time soon. "All flesh is ultimately hay, but for the foreseeable future, sure I believe F2P can be a nice business model if it meshes well with the particulars of whatever game it is you're building. The model offers a huge amount of flexibility for both customers and developers in that the people who support the game can vote it up by spending more money on it, whereas people who ultimately don't like it can get to try it out without having to put too much into the game."
That's the beauty of free to play, you pay what you want to support the game you love or move on if you don't. But not all games fit that scenario and Johannessen admits there's a lot of games trying to crowd that market right now. "I don't believe in centralization of solutions, and success is, for that matter, usually where the crowd isn't," he said. "If everyone is doing something then that is usually a good cue that you should try something completely different. Also, a lot of free to play games are just really needy and can't be discrete about the fact that they work the way they do, so the model does come with a bit of a bad reputation. That is unfortunate, because I think the model - if implemented correctly - can really work to the benefit of everyone involved."
He also doesn't believe the subscription model or even boxed retail copies of games is a smart way to operate. "There's a part of me that finds it downright incorrect to be charging money on a one-size-fits-all basis when wallets, interest and time spent on a game quite clearly vary vastly in size," Johannessen said.