Before I get to the part where I rant about one of the strangest exchanges I have had with an independent developer -- and I mean that in a fun, gasp-y sort of way -- I will cover the basics to give you an idea of how Salem the MMO works. You know, just in case you have never been privileged enough to witness the glory that is hardcore PvP, full loot, and permadeath. Yes, I'll cover permadeath; don't worry.
The game is set in that funny time period when people wore Pilgrim hats, ate turkey, and killed bears. I have to admit that I was never expecting a game set in this time period or one influenced by early America, but I asked Bjorn Johannessen, Creative Director for the game, about the design choice during the livestream that is always embedded in this column. If there is one livestream of mine you need to watch, it's this one, for many reasons. Warning: It might not be safe for work; cursewords appear on the screen. You know, because it's hardcore.
I love Salem's setting. After all, it's set in a time of harsh realities. It was a tough time when people could die at the drop of a hat, disease could wipe out your entire family, and humans were often clashing with other humans over harsh landscapes. It's actually a brilliant setting for a hardcore MMO. What do I mean by hardcore MMO? For the sake of the uninitiated who didn't attend the blood ceremony, I'll expect: It typically refers to an MMO that tries to represent real-life happenings like death, full loot, wounds, disease, realistic travel, crafting, slow skill growth, and others. Basically a hardcore MMO is trying to make you feel as if you are really participating in combat, living off the land, and many other things that we avoid doing these days.
Hardcore MMOs often have skill- or used-based systems for character growth. This means that your character will learn skills over time in a more "realistic" fashion. If she wants to become better at chopping wood, she either chops woods and raises skill or gains levels and then puts points into that particular skill. It can happen in all sorts of ways, but the general rule is that it takes more effort than just wacking a few mobs and dinging.
Salem is neat in the way the designers have provided skills to level, but gaining enough knowledge to learn a new skill is done through an "inspirational." These are basically objects that the character studies (like a neat-looking rock) that give the character enough inspiration to become smarter, thereby opening the character's mind. It's a pretty unique system that fits in well with the environment. Skills are pretty basic, at least at first; they teach different crafts, recipes, and abilities. One of the themes with Salem is not that it is 100% unique, but it's pretty darn unique. The skill system is proof of that.
Your character needs to watch how hungry or weak she gets by keeping an eye on bodily fluids. Once again, I think the designers were pretty clever by using such descriptions. Sure, the different fluids represent basically standard stats like how hungry your character is or how tired she has become, but the descriptions nod to the time when people thought some really funny stuff about why and how a person became weak or ill. Again, more points here. Bear in mind that I'm simplifying and did not become fully immersed in these odd systems I am describing.
So you have open skills, neat and gross descriptions, and a wide world that needs to be conquered. Players can attack each other, openly, in pretty much any area of the world. Once your character dies, she drops all her goods, period. The enemy can grab it all and run. Open, FFA PvP is not new, and I still find it goofy. It's almost always featured into a "hardcore" MMO, maybe to represent some fraction of reality, but it always ends up feelling more like being tripped by a 12-year-old instead of being savagely murdered. Why? Well, seconds after you "die" you are not only magically reborn but magically transported to a new zone! So hardcore!
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It's different in Salem. In Salem, your character dies when she dies. She is no longer. She cannot do anything but go away. All of her skills that she learned, all of her wonderful memories... they're all gone in a poof, and you must simply make another character in order to keep playing. I will need to verify to make sure, but the only thing your new character can "inherit" is the money in the original character's bank and any homesteads (player-owned areas) previously acquired. Otherwise, your character is gone.
I love the fact that a pair of indie developers finally made permadeath exactly what is should be. When your character dies, the character is permanently dead. It's so simple and possibly so striking that, at least in my case, I look forward to the day when my main character dies (again). I actually wrote a set of immersion-centeredgaming rules years ago that included permadeath, so in my book, the developers get so many points for implementing it that I could almost set aside my next complaint.
See, here's another kicker about FFA PvP MMOs: The developers often want players to feel as though they are in a harsh environment. They have dark, ugly websites with red or white text on a black background. There's blood and stuff! Some of the music can be scary! Luckily, Salem doesn't really go for that and instead goes for an almost cutesy art style. I love the juxtaposition of cute and permadeath. But Salem well makes up for the lack of scary blood and death metal fonts by having a developer who comes on a stream with me and talks about defending "free speech" when asked about enforcing community rules. Watch the embedded video around the 36:00 mark and you'll see the exchange.
After my character was murdered and held in place by a group of players spewing cursewords (hardcore!), I asked about the possibilities of reporting or stopping harassment beyond game mechanics-based stuff. Bjorn said,
Seems kind of strange to enforce standards of speech when people can attack and kill each other. Then speech seems like the minor insult in that context.
I went on to give some examples, and free speech was again touted. Let this exchange be a good example to any would-be or indie developers out there: When someone is interviewing you and asks about racism, harassment, and community enforcement, don't try to sound like you're standing up for a political principle in your videogame when you admit you're allowing such behavior. Not only does free speech not apply in every single situation, but there is a difference between allowing your players to express their thoughts and feelings -- even by cursing -- and not having any sort of enforcement against extremes.
The first thing he should have said was, "I want my players to speak their minds, and this is an 'adult' game, but I will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, abilism, or other things that push past the line. Salem welcomes all players."
"While I welcome the information, claiming that 'free speech' has more value in your game than stopping racial slurs is a surefire way to be seen as supporting those things."
Someone hire this team a PR department. I had to go through an entire thread before a volunteer moderator suggested that if things got bad, a player could write to firstname.lastname@example.org or send the community manager a private message on the forum. While I welcome the information, claiming that "free speech" has more value in your game than stopping racial slurs is a surefire way to be seen as supporting those things that push over the line. I also later asked whether underaged players were allowed to play, whether there'd be an age gate to enforce that, and how the game developer's local laws on online harassment apply to the game. What does the EULA say? While it might not be very hardcore to ask about these things, I think developers on a scale bigger than a two-person operation know exactly why I ask.
I haven't even touched on the fact that during this closed beta the developers are selling actual in-game currency that can be used for trading (hardcore!) and sets of skills for newbies to get a leg up from the very beginning (hardcore?). While I had no problem donating my $15 to the game by dying and thus losing all of those freshly bought skills and some of my paid-for silver, I'm not sure that having no obvious warning on purchases is a good idea. People will already flame the idea of selling cash and skills in a sandbox, but doing it in a beta? Soon, people will call "scam" because they were killed and looted but were never warned in-game that this would happen.
If Salem gets a PR department, drops the punk-rock developer act, enforces rules against all those 'isms, and puts plenty of warnings all over virtual purchases, it might have a great game. As a matter of fact, I have seen what players can build and accomplish together by hanging out with a guild, and it is potentially a great game. If we can get rid of some of that "hardcore" silliness and remember that these are just games we're playing -- with real people -- it might make for a nice, scary MMO.
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!