Some Assembly Required: I saw the wilds of Salem (and lived to tell about it)

Some Assembly Required - Salem dev tour

I spent an hour romping through the woods of Salem last Friday with Seatribe head honcho Bjorn Johannessen. The tiny indie company (current dev population: two) is hard at work on its followup to Haven and Hearth, an acquired taste of a sandbox game notable for its no-holds barred approach that includes permadeath and the ability to summon (and kill) criminal characters -- even while their lulz-loving puppet-masters are offline.

Publisher Paradox bills Salem as "the crafting MMO," and boy it's not kidding. Over the course of this particular dev tour, I saw crazy amounts of tradeskill functionality, all kinds of cool world-building stuff, and ultimately, more than enough reasons to spend time with the game when it launches later this year.

Salem concept art
Visuals and the newbie town

I also saw bobblehead-style avatars, and if there's one knock on Salem, it would probably be the visuals. They're not bad, in their own uber-stylized way, but they're also not my first choice when it comes to a title that demands a pretty large time investment. Much like it is with Minecraft and other gameplay-rich titles, though, complaining about Salem's graphics for more than 30 seconds is beside the point.

I met up with Johannesen, the game's creative director, in the newbie town of Boston. It took a few minutes to familiarize myself with the game's control scheme. WASD still works, but so does click-to-move, and I flailed around with that for a bit while simultaneously hunting for a way to spin the camera (pro tip: hold down the middle mouse button).

The game's perspective is quite enjoyable. You can zoom way the heck out for a top-down 2-D style view of the world or get up close and personal with your avatar and her surroundings in 3-D. Boston is the game's lone safe area, and Johannessen told me that it's wise for new players to take a few moments and navigate the city, not to mention train a couple of skills, before heading into the wild. Johannessen isn't a fan of tutorials per se, so Salem doesn't really have one. It's the kind of game in which you learn by doing, so fair warning to those of you expecting any sort of hand-holding.

Salem - rows of crops
Bodily humors

Your first goal will likely involve setting up some sort of homestead, and the lion's share of the gameplay revolves around building this up (and advancing the necessary character skills to support said building). Salem's skill system is something of a departure from the norm, even for free-form sandbox games. Before you can train a skill, you have to study something called an inspirational to up your point totals in a number of different skill categories.

You might discover an inspirational while crafting, foraging, or hunting, but for the purposes of this demo, Johannessen provided me with a couple right off the bat. Consuming an inspirational is as easy as right-clicking it in your inventory and selecting "study"; each time you do so, you'll get a certain amount of proficiency points.

Character management is done via Salem's bodily humor system. I know, that sounds like the lead-in to all manner of sophomoric jokes, but bear with me. Johannessen explained that he based the humor system on 18th century medical terminology, so you'll need to think in terms of blood (your health), phlegm (basically stamina), black bile (studying), and yellow bile (crafting).

Each of these four humors is visible on the monitor at the top center of your Salem screen, and various in-game activities consume various types (and amounts) of bodily humor. These pools can be refilled (slowly) by eating, and they can also be expanded by making use of the gluttony mechanic to overfill a single pool at a time.

Salem - farmers
Your place in the world

Once I had a basic grasp of the game's systems, Johannessen teleported us out into the middle of nowhere. There's a lot of nowhere in Salem, as the game world measures nearly 25 square kilometers at the moment. The map was initially randomized, but aside from that, it's exactly as the players want it. Trees are cut down, earth is terraformed, animals are hunted, and there are no resets or instances, just a persistent player-driven world.

Last Friday, the middle of nowhere was a pretty scary place, and Johannessen explained that the further you get from Boston, the meaner (and more fantastical) the critters become. As players settle and build, however, there will likely be pockets of civilization here and there, and plenty of trading, raiding (of player settlements, not instanced boss mobs) and emergent play is expected.

Next I got a tour of Johannessen's personal homestead. He said he's been building it up, mostly by himself, for the better part of two weeks. To be frank, I found so much crafting goodness on display here that my eyes started to glaze over. He took me into an extensive underground mine, showed off an anvil, dozens of neatly planted crops, a granary, kilns, ovens, and who knows what else. Each of these features its own dedicated construction process and dozens of potential sub-components. The farm itself was encircled by a substantial stone wall fortified with turret-like fixtures at each entry point.

When I asked him whether this would actually deter invaders, his answer was yes -- for a while. Endgame in Salem is mainly about PvP, and endgame PvP is as much about patience, leadership, and the ability to muster an efficient fighting force as it is about face-pwning reflexes and player skill. Individual PvP will surely play a part, as will high-level combat abilities, but I get the sense that the real action will be somewhat comparable to EVE Online's alliance metagame.

Salem - horsies!
Crime and punishment

What's to stop everyone from running around griefing one another for the fun of it? Well, technically nothing, but a life of crime is no easy feat in the world of Salem. For one thing, the game is pretty specific when it comes to criminal actions, and things like murder have dedicated skills that cost black bile. Recall that black bile is also used for studying (i.e., skilling up), so there's a definite trade-off that will take some time for players to figure out.

Crime also leaves evidence, and though I didn't get a chance to see this mechanic first hand, Johannessen did say that once enough evidence has built up against a certain avatar, that avatar can be tracked down, summoned, and summarily PK'd even if the player isn't online.

Here is where that harsh mistress called permadeath comes into play, and since both skill training and the building of a homestead take substantial amounts of time, Seatribe is essentially telling players to consider their actions (and their possible ramifications) carefully rather than acting on impulse.

Ultimately, Salem is one of the more fascinating games I've seen in a while. In fact, I hesitate to call it a game, as it's equal parts lifestyle and social experiment. If you're even a little bit interested in crafting and player-driven worlds (and you don't mind the prospect of occasionally starting from scratch), it's well worth checking out. The game will launch later this year with a free-to-play business model, and we'll bring you more details on that as soon as they become available.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!