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Free for All: A sit-down with WURM's Rolf


If there is one thing I have had to grow accustomed to over the last year or so, it's my ever-increasing independent game snobbery. While some people maintain a beer-snob lifestyle and spend their time recommending way-too-pricey ales that simply taste like dirt, I spend my time trolling around forums and fan blogs looking for the next tiny game to spend my time in. I want the game to be duct-taped together, I want it to have a long history of tests and reboots, and I want it to come out shining on the other end -- a testament to the good ole' nerd drive to make a world both large and virtual.

WURM Online is my current indie poster-child, an example to flaunt in peoples' faces when they insist on boring me with discussions of the same old classes and mechanics that have been used since the dawn of, well, '99 or so. I love to puff my chest and tell people about my virtual survival stories, forcing them to pretend to be riveted by my tales of farming, sawing lumber and getting lost in the woods. WURM, and its creator Rolf, are my version of Elvis Costello and Donnie Darko: an independent badge to wear proudly on my pocket protector.

Join me past the jump for a brief history of the game, and some words from Rolf himself.

WURM Online was started as a basic map with moving creatures back in 2002, nearly 100 years ago in internet development time. The idea was to create a "full scale skill-based MMO, with terraforming," something that Rolf thought EverQuest was going to be. "This is the first game I have made, I wanted to make a real MMO." Rolf told me. "Frankly I did not think Ultima Online or EQ or even old MUDs were really doing what they could when it comes to player influence. I wanted the player to have this kind of influence. It's more about terraforming and road-building, the real core of the game."

While such mundane tasks are an integral part of the game, the tension truly rises when a wolf or colossus comes stalking out of the night. Animations are pretty basic, but still very effective. I have had some of the scariest and most stressful moments of my gaming career in this strange little game. Still, the graphics can turn off new players. Fortunately, the graphics should be updated "all the time, but it's a matter of resources." Even then, it's "more about the gameplay, at least initially until we have resources and time to help the artists." Even then, night time in WURM is something to behold: you can quickly lose your way if you are not careful. Very careful. Once you do find yourself stumbling upon some random campfire, the relief you feel with have nothing to do with state-of-the-art graphics.

But, how about a graphics update? "Yeah, yeah absolutely," Rolf reassures me. "It's being updated all the time I think. The engine needs more support and we're working on that as well."

Now, fair reader, take a moment to imagine the pressure you might feel when you make a game, especially one that is as "hardcore" as WURM is. With that description comes a very particular and demanding playerbase. I was surprised at how easy-going Rolf was about the demands. "I generally feel when a complaint is valid or not, and can put myself in the player's position. I can tell when they are overreacting and when it will be solved sooner or later. Most often, it's a valid complaint." So, why continue making this indie, hardcore, sandbox, virtual-camping type of game? "I still believe the initial idea holds: that players should be able to affect everything and become the epic roles in the history of the game."

Essentially, there are three servers: Golden Valley -- a free server, Freedom -- a PvE paid server, and Wild -- a paid PvP server, with paid travel between Wild and Freedom. "The idea was to have one free server where players were taught the game," Rolf explained, "The rest would be PvP with three kingdoms and home servers for those three kingdoms." So would WURM be considered free-to-play? "Well, we're going to move Golden Valley to merge with the Freedom server. It becomes more of a ftp, an item shop game, unfortunately." Hang on a second, did he say unfortunately? "No, I don't want an item shop," he continued, "but the silver coins make it an item shop game."

To explain a bit, a player can buy monthly access or in-game coins to use for trade. No, this does not mean that a player can simply buy herself into greatness. First of all, the game is unforgiving and will not permit instant anything. Getting lost is common, and becoming dead is as well. Once you learn something great, you realize that you must learn more. If you want to simply buy a boat instead of building one, you first need to learn how to steer a ship. Next, you need to arrange the purchase. Then, you must get to the seller without becoming lost and dead again. The world of WURM doesn't care how much money you paid for.

The cash shop gives Rolf another way to make some much-needed cash, as well. Independent developers need money, just like anyone else. Releasing a game that is not ready for release is "very common in this business." But being honest about your game's beta state can be harmful, causing you to attract less players. "It's a tough decision, because I want people to know we are not considering it a finished product." So the independent developer can be honest about the state of his beloved product and can lose money, or he can forget to tell players and lose money after they decide that the game is too buggy for their tastes. For me, WURM strikes a very delicate pose, down on one knee asking for cash while dangling the keys to an amazing world. I appreciate Rolf's honesty and sense of humor: "It's gold in the sense that we charge money for it, but that's mainly because I want to survive."

Can you blame him? I want to survive too!

So what does the future hold for this amazing little Java game? Rolf is currently working on accepting SMS and telephone payments, and stepping closer to "1.0", a true release of the game. Right before the game gets there, there will "be dramatic events on the epic servers. It is the last thing before 1.0, what I am going to work on after these mobile payments." These include deity events: a series of tasks handed out by the mighty gods themselves. When one goal is fulfilled, it might very well change the entire world. I jokingly asked Rolf to let me play the part of a giant dragon, attacking and murdering entire armies of players. After all, what's more world changing then that? He laughed and seemed to consider it before I let him go.

When you sign on the dotted line to play an independent game like WURM, you should take the time to get to know the creators, if possible. More than likely they are just an individual or two, sitting in some rented office somewhere, busily tapping away at keyboards. They don't always have time to play their own game (an ironic rule of developing) but they are generally in love with the process.

Or, of course, they are insane. One or the other.

So, try to dive in and get lost in the woods. You will not need a class guide or the latest graphics card to run the game, but you will need a sense of adventure and a willingness to take your time.

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