A few years back a group of friends convinced me to play a game called Haven & Hearth. It was touted as “the ultimate crafters MMO” where anyone could do practically anything. Specialization was paramount because the game mechanics were such that any one task exhausted your character for hours of real-life time. In fact, it aimed to be something akin to a real-life pilgrimage where groups of players were expected to band together, each specializing in something that allowed them to contribute to the larger group’s survival. In the tradition of long gone games such as Ultima Online and Everquest, players seemed doomed to a long miserable life as part of the working class. On the surface, it was a proposition that seemed inherently not-fun. As if my actual life in the miserable working class was not bad enough, I was going to log on for hours each day and grind in some game world?
Oddly enough, I played it more than I ever would’ve thought possible. I invested long hours slowly edging my character’s carpentry skills higher and higher until I could do quickly what new characters might take hours to achieve. The addictiveness surprised me, as did the pleasure I gained from being part of a larger community whose overall goals I suddenly cared about. What the hell was going on? Shouldn’t I resent a game that requires the same mind-numbing grinding of my real life? It’s a concept that, with a little embarrassment, I still can’t quite come to terms with.
That’s why when I heard the announcement of Haven & Hearth I had an unusual feeling come over me. It seemed to be a mixture between dread and excitement. The promise of a “3D Haven & Hearth” was something I knew I would have to check out. Yet I feared the time sink Salem might become if the game was anywhere near as addictive as the original. Not only that, but I was genuinely happy that Seatribe, Haven & Hearth’s developer and now creators of Salem, finally “made it big.” Having a decent sized publisher behind them was just icing on the cake. I figured I had to give it a go, apparently my inner explorer’s excitement overruled any reservations I had about the long hours of grinding I knew I was about to endure.
That publisher, Paradox Interactive, has become widely recognized for their various real-time strategy offerings. IPs such as Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings, and Victoria are known for complex gameplay that boasts real-time economy simulation, large scale country v. country warfare and an in-depth political system. Unfortunately Paradox also became known for their tendency to release games as final, when the sheer volume of bugs and gameplay issues might make many gamers consider them still in Beta testing phase (at best). For some, Magicka’s famous bug-ridden release was a tipping point that made many consider waiting to purchase new Paradox games, if not pass entirely.
Yet Paradox seems to have learned from their mistakes, opening a beta testing phase that seems fairly large-scale in an effort to get Salem not just “good enough” to be released, but fully playable and bug-free. It’s an effort that is not lost on me, or any other gamer I’m sure, and should illustrate to detractors that they are learning from past mistakes. While it may be too early to tell for sure, there is definitely promise in this move on their part.
The game itself is colorful, running on a limited palette that seems to make the game feel like it’s caught in some perpetual fall. The player models are somewhere between Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and Disney’s Pocahontas. Their sleepy eyed, sallow faced expressions seem pulled directly from portraits and prints during the Age of Exploration. This kind of conceptual forethought reeks of seasoned publisher, and is exactly the kind of polish I was hoping to see from Paradox getting involved.
Yet while the style seems well defined in the concept art available online, the trickle down effect has not quite happened in game beyond the player models. There seems to be a disconnect between those elements that Seatribe brought over from Haven & Hearth and the various 3D models that Paradox designers are undoubtedly supplying. Hopefully this inconsistency is something that Paradox will work to remedy before the final release. They would do well to check out the evolution of Valve’s Dota 2 icon sets. Valve has shown an admirable desire to rework and rework towards perfection, and Seatribe should do no less. In a game dedicated so wholeheartedly to immersion and world building, the in-game representations of this world must be stunning to ensure the long-term success of the game.
The skill tree is expansive, and interesting. There are indeed hundreds of possible paths you could take through the skill tree in your quest to specialize, generalize or do a little of both. The basic system works not unlike the real world. Players study things and then apply that knowledge to acquire new skills. These skills allow you to impose yourself ever more effectively on the world around you. I think the skill system is generally in line with the concept of the game: conquering the wild new land in which you find yourself.
Now while I love the sheer variety of skills, I generally found the “Study” screen confusing. It is not unlike Haven & Hearth’s screen, but then I wasn’t a fan of that either. The skills on the left of the screen only have the most general description, and the skills on the right are not graphically linked to anything on the left. For new players it seems as if the skill points you spend and the specific skills you learn are completely unrelated. In short, their skill UI does the trick, but it is ugly, confusing and clunky. Sadly, “ugly, confusing and clunky” is a critique that could be leveled at the entire user interface. Paradox and Seatribe should be careful they do not take the existence of Haven & Hearth for granted, shoehorning art, concepts, and in this case interfaces into the new game merely because it’s easier than starting from scratch. User experience is everything in a game that is already extremely difficult and time consuming.
I did, however, find in-game interaction with world objects to be fairly well done as of yet. To interact with objects you simply right click on something to open a menu of actions you can take. It may seem trivial that a right click menu works smoothly, but as I mentioned before….the immersion of the world is central to this game’s concept. If player interaction with objects is responsive, and easy, players will enjoy doing it. If they enjoy doing it, they will play the game. The only issues I can mention were occasional wayfinding problems, and an inability to interact with items that spawn on hills. I’m sure these are issues that will be remedied soon.
One of the most common interactions players perform is eating. Players must eat constantly. Eating and foraging will take up a significant amount of your early game. Consuming different types of foods will allow you continue learning, moving, climbing, crafting and building. It may seem daunting at first to spend most of your time looking for food, but with luck you will find a community to join in the wilderness relatively quickly. These communities allow others to focus on finding food, freeing you up for other things. They will also offer you a modicum of protection in the fairly wild, lawless wilderness in which you find yourself.
This need for protection is something unlike most other MMOs, and therefore I feel compelled to mention the huge potential for griefing. Unlike other MMO’s in the market today, Salem does little or nothing to discourage new-player griefing. The fact of the matter is that if someone has the right skills, they can kill you in the wilderness without a second thought and there is little you can do to stop them except run. In game communities are not just nice, they become an outright necessity. Stealing becomes quite difficult later in the game when fence gates and doors are able to be locked, but at present most players will be sleeping under lean-tos and storing possessions in baskets that can be easily raided.
The double whammy of murder and stealing, much like the time intensive grinding quality of the game, will scare away many potential users before they have time to become good community members. If you spend hours of real world time collecting food, then log back in the next day to find yourself robbed of everything, you may decide to quit the game entirely. I’ve seen this happen four times in game, and it was a pretty common occurrence in H&H as well. In an MMO where, even at high levels, item acquisition is difficult and time consuming, theft has as much potential as anything to drive players away from your game. If too many players jump ship, especially experienced ones, it becomes difficult to maintain a good community within the game world or in the forums. A good community is something considered a mere boon for most online games. In Salem, however, community is almost everything, and is in my opinion tantamount to success.
I hope that the developer and publisher realize this as they move forward in the development of Salem. They must understand that while the game is certainly for a niche market of hardcore online gamers, there is a potential for a much greater audience that could give Paradox its first mainstream online success since Mount & Blade went multiplayer. More PCs means more and better communities in game and out. So far it seems they understand this, and seem bent on making every players experience a good one. They even jokingly issued a warning against a pack of “naked Russians” who were griefing players in the woods. This kind of personal touch shows me they care about their game, and the community their game is going to support. Success is certainly within their grasp. From here on out, however, success will also hinge on their ability, or perhaps willingness, to be critical with the leftovers from Haven & Hearth. They must not be afraid of doing some things over from scratch to the betterment of the overall experience. I for one, am very excited to see if they can pull it off.