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"Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving." -Thoreau, "Life Without Principle".
"You British prisoners have been chosen to build a bridge across the River Kwai. It will be pleasant work, requiring skill, and officers will work as well as men. The Japanese Army cannot have idle mouthes to feed. If you work hard, you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard, you will be punished! A word to you about escape: there is no barbed wire, no stockade, no watch tower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die. Today you rest. Tomorrow you will begin. Let me remind you of General Yamashita's motto: be happy in your work. Dismissed!" -"The Bridge on the River Kwai".
If MMORPGs have earned a reputation for being grindy time-wasters, then Wurm Online, a sandbox/homestead-building game, has carried this to an extreme; the game has been called "as demanding and frustrating in its way as Dwarf Fortress can be" by a writer at the Terra Nova website, and it remains notorious for its high newbie turnover rate. The game is anything but mainstream: it was launched in mid-2006, after three years of work, by Swedish programmers Rolf Jansson and Markus Persson. The latter curtailed his involvement with the game the following year to focus on the development of a little-known game of his own called Minecraft; upon being asked whether Wurm was going to fold following his resignation, his response was that "Wurm's not going anywhere". Based on what I have seen, it might well be that under the tenure of Jansson, known to all by his first name, the game indeed hasn't gone anywhere. Or maybe, as one guy put it:
"[06:00:31] minecraft COPIED wurm and took all its glory"
I have a knack for writing long reviews, so brace yourselves.
I first played Wurm, on what was called the Golden Valley server, in late December 2009, after drifting through a series of sandbox games that did not hold my interest for long: EVE Online (dreadfully boring), Haven & Hearth (a community scraped from the bottom of the barrel), and A Tale in the Desert (not bad, but the trial did not convince me it was worth a subscription). Golden Valley was, at the time, the permanent server for players who were meant to be temporary -- that is to say, a free server on which one was expected to either stop playing the game or buy a subscription and move to one of the pay servers. As an incentive to become a premium member, free players' skills were capped at a low 20, and decay on structures was tripled. My experience at the time was underwhelming, and I tired of the game after a few weeks. In a post on the game forum, I detailed that the greater problem of the game had been a classic case of the tragedy of the commons:
"I had been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I had never found the time or the motivation to write it until today. Nor had I been sure how to begin it: What was the best way to write critically about a game which still is the most promising of all those I have tried in recent memory, but ultimately undone by too much of a good thing? Mind you, I'm still not certain, but let me try to put it in one sentence: What good is it to promote a game as one where you can "leave your mark" (to use the words of PC Gamer, quoted on the Wurm website) if your mark is altogether so quick to vanish?
I tried to look for a master plan behind the development of roads on Golden Valley, but I saw none.... There was nothing in the planning that seemed to extend beyond the purely selfish; it was as if the average player of the game had thought to himself: "A road ought to serve me, and it's all that matters." Any grand plan seemed to have been thus thwarted by the pettiness of those players, most of whom had probably left long ago, with any trace of their presence on the server obliterated by that insane decay rate, except for their indelible legacy: useless slabs of pavement standing in as a testament to the futility of sustained or cohesive development on Golden Valley.
I used to wonder why no road map of Golden Valley existed.... Looking at this mess of a server, I can understand why: How can you map something that is omnipresent and makes no sense? How can you produce a record of worthy collective achievements when there are few? What is the point of recording the selfishness of players past, when it is bound to be replaced by the selfishness of players present?
Wurm Online is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons, where selfishness inevitably takes precedence over the public interest, and where a public good invariably becomes one which is ever in danger of being taken over by a petty-minded player if it is of any usefulness, or to be ignored, right until it disappears (thanks to decay) if nobody can be found who cares enough. I have seen examples of both.
What you get in the end is a wasteland marked by the complete absence of a collective memory, especially since the server is seen as little more than a gateway to the premium servers and not provided with much of an opportunity to exist in itself. Furthermore, the turnover rate on Golden Valley, the result, I suspect, of most players being defeated by the rewardless grind, is such that nobody seems to stick around for more than two months, with their efforts systematically undone in short order except in their least appealing and most jarring aspects -- and where, if anything can be done to correct it (as you can't remove fences, even those you put up), it is always the duty of someone else to do it. If only repairing were easier, but even then, that seems to be actively discouraged."
The responses, from what I can find of them (as a forum change seems to have erased all the older threads, including mine, and only the cache of the first page is still accessible), ranged from "It's GV what the hell did you expect?" to "Move up or walk already". My friends had already quit the game, so I chose to walk, even though I kept an eye on new developments. Interestingly, and not without some measure of schadenfreude, "move up or walk already" soon became irrelevant, as Golden Valley was closed to new players and turned into a tutorial server, at the end of which tutorial all newbies, freeloaders and premium members alike, were whisked to a PvE or PvP server of their choice -- the very servers that used to be exclusively premium (only one PvP server is still reserved for subscribers).
I tried returning eight months ago, shortly after the introduction, in quick succession, of two PvE forums, Deliverance and Exodus, but my computer could no longer play the game. When I finally upgraded and went to Exodus, most of the waterside spots had been filled, and I decided to pass. Then, last May 31st, a new PvE server, Celebration, was launched, and I made the decision to join the land rush on opening day.
(Map of Celebration.)
New Server, Same Old Faces
Celebration could be accessed in two ways. If you were a new player who had just gone through the (unskippable) tutorial, your character first appeared at the central developer-controlled town, which was here called Tap Dance. If you were an old player, and had a ship, you could sail across from the previous servers (and return there if you wished). My previous character having been stranded, without access to a boat, on Exodus during an abortive attempt at returning to the game, I chose to begin a new character.
My Golden Valley experience had taught me two valuable lessons: The first was that the area around the spawn town would soon become a barren mess of half-finished houses and crooked roads; the second, that to venture too far from the spawn point, as a newbie, meant encountering wild animals, hence certain death and rebirth in Tap Dance. Hence, I took my light newbie starter kit (which would for the most part respawn with me if I died, unlike later items) across the water from Tap Dance, and settled on the first spot I could reach, a little island on which there were very few trees, no easily accessible rock, and a large patch of marsh.
When I explored the area around Tap Dance two weeks later, it was exactly as I had predicted it would become -- a mess where instant gratification was quickly defeated by the patience required to achieve anything in Wurm (a one-tile house alone requires eighty planks, with a 40-second action to nail each one) and a flurry of transient newbies cutting down every tree they could find (and never replanting any, as this required a sickle, not included in the starter kit). I spoke to someone who had been, informally, the mayor of a gathering of houses near Tap Dance called Silva, of which the two definining features were a dry fountain and a flooded mine; even he had moved elsewhere, and the place -- a Byzantine network of roads, stone walls, and decaying houses -- had died in his absence. This was Golden Valley all over again.
(The tragedy of the commons, in one picture.)
Less than a month after launch, this was now the prospect of newbies in Wurm; they could not venture inland, yet coastal real estate of any significance in the area was quickly occupied by more experienced players, and now newbies had to be content with scraps. Indeed, there is an imposing chasm between their experience and the experience of veterans, who sailed to Celebration en masse as soon as it opened, even though a large part of the existing community opposed the opening of a new server, for fear it would spread out an already thin population. A few high-level players came from Chaos, a PvP server -- also connected to the network -- and quickly disposed of the unique monsters on Celebration before returning to their original hunting grounds. A few others created alts for the new server, perhaps trying to relive the experience of playing the game as a newbie. More brought in their main character, quickly ventured inland, and built on top of the best mines they could find. In effect, the same old guard quickly took over the direction of Celebration, and will probably remain on it right until Rolf opens a new server.
In Which Money is Spent
For the first time, I went premium: two months for 10 Euro. I also wanted a settlement deed, which offered a few advantages, such as a reserved minimum area of 11 tiles by 11 over which I alone could dictate what would be built, plus a limited-control perimeter of five tiles around it; guards automatically refilling and lighting the lamps at night; and, above all, no decay. (Placing a settlement requires an active subscription.) That was 10 silver coins (1 silver = 1 Euro). Deeds require a monthly upkeep; at the minimum size, the money left over was enough to cover four months of deed upkeep. Any expansion requires the owner to buy the additional tiles, and the upkeep is raised accordingly, with a minimum upkeep fee of one silver coin per month. Even if I did not renew my premium time, I would have found myself obliged to buy more coins off the cash shop -- unless I found another way of earning them.
This coin system (1 gold coin = 100 silver; 1 silver = 100 copper; 1 copper = 100 iron) is at the heart of the game's economic system and is the currency used in most transactions (including the postal system and bed rental services), but here is its disconcerting peculiarity: coins cannot be earned through the game environment, and there is no other form of currency. In Wurm, with one exception (more on this later), every coin in the game economy was bought at one time or another from the cash shop, forcing those who have no interest in doing so to interact with other players to obtain coins, with predictable results.
Back in the day when Golden Valley was still the free server, offers of, let's call it what it was, indentured servitude -- time on the premium server in exchange for labour -- were creeping up on the forum. The changes to the PvE servers quickly disposed of this particular calamity, but now picture yourself being a free-to-play newbie on one of the current servers. Your only way to take part in the in-game economy and earn coins is to trade with other players; but trade what? Your skills are low, and still capped at 20 if you never switch to premium; what can you offer experienced players who have money to spend? You guessed it -- the same back-breaking work you would have done as an indentured servant, but here as a journeyman.
The pay, not surprisingly, is a pittance: 500 stone bricks for 1 silver, which require you to have mined enough rock shards that you must chisel into bricks (at least 400 shards if you have not a single failure converting them to bricks, while the real success rate is around 50 percent; so calculate, with wastage, 600 shards times 20 seconds per mining action and 1,000 chiselling actions each taking 10 seconds) through an annoying interface that requires to right-click and move across three menus (highlight chisel, right-click rock shards, create > miscellaneous > stone brick). Digging 1,000 clay pays 1 silver, because, as was independently confirmed by two people, "you don't have to move around" (it still takes around 4 hours to collect it, though). I remember a player saying that he was looking forward to the day when his skills would be high enough that he would be the one giving the orders. Poor guy; he did not realize that he would be the one giving the orders only if he bought coins, and that this would happen even if he were still the perfect newbie. (I remember hearing that, on the PvP servers, where I understandably refused to play, it was not even wage slavery but just plain slave labour that was the norm, undoubtedly in exchange for not getting killed.)
At some point, I cannot really remember how, I came across one player, a woman by the name of Kajmir who had been playing the game since 2006, offering such work; for some unfathomable reason, I accepted. I think it had more to do with the opportunity to level up my skills than with the pay offered. At first I would only consider goods as my salary -- that is how I obtained a suit of armor (which I never used) and a few high-quality tools -- but I eventually came to accept coins because that was what everybody else was doing. After a few days of such labour, the relationship soured. It began with my offhand mention that I might place "one or two merchant stalls" at my settlement, while Kajmir and her husband already had ambitions, before coming to Celebration, of creating a major trading hub at their location, Amish Paradise, and evidently regarded my "one or two merchant stalls" as competition. It did not really matter that their location was unsuited to such a purpose, as it was remote, at the bottom of the main lake and practically inaccessible from the starting area unless you had a boat (an item which very few newbies would own); all they had to do was to use their high skills and personal connections, place their personal merchants in Amish Paradise and declare their town to be a major trading hub for it to be so.
The next day or the one after that, the alliance to which Kajmir had invited me was suddenly disbanded because someone had stolen from Amish Paradise. It was not anyone from my village -- all were present and accounted for when the theft was said to have occurred -- but it was nonetheless the last of the alliance; I also learned that Kajmir had dismissed every villager they had recruited whom they did not know personally. There was, as far as I know, not the slightest investigation, no attempt to give anyone the benefit of the doubt; they were all dismissed without so much as an explanation. In the meantime, I had an arrangement with her according to which I provided her with medium-quality lamps which she then sold through her merchant, with a split in profits. The day after the alliance was disbanded, she contacted me to tell me that the lamps had sold. I knew this would degenerate quickly when I expressed my surprise that the lamps had sold, which she thought was an accusation that she did not know what she was doing in asking for the lamps in the first place. At the same time, she had used her contacts (without my asking for it in the first place) to find me work digging 3,000 clay for a player whom I had never met before.
I saved the last part of this conversation:
[06:19:45] (Me) just curious, how much did the lamps sell for?
[06:19:59] (Kajmir) you earned 9c each
[06:21:39] (Me) by the way, I didn't want to imply you didn't know what you were doing; I was genuinely surprised that there would be players too lazy to make those lamps themselves
[06:21:54] (Kajmir) Some people hate smithing.
[06:22:24] (Kajmir) And when you are making a deed...with all there is to do and you have no smith skills it's not THAT simple.
[06:23:46] (Me) do you want more?
[06:24:02] (Kajmir) What's your bs now?
[06:24:37] (Me) 17,52
[06:24:59] (Kajmir) 5 to 25ql.
[06:25:05] (Me) ok
[06:25:19] (Me) and what about those anchors?
[06:25:57] (Kajmir) I'd rather buy lead in bulk.
[06:26:11] (Me) fair enough, and simpler
[06:26:50] (Kajmir) especially when I am not sure what anchors are worth....I know what lead is worth.
[06:27:38] (Me) what about copper? we got a mine
[06:27:52] (Kajmir) need to know the vein ql first
[06:28:53] (Me) I'll have to ask, my prospecting is too low
[06:29:44] (Kajmir) (husband) will come over...
[06:29:53] (Kajmir) and prospect for you and pick up some lead?
[06:30:08] (Me) the mine isn't at my place
[06:30:22] (Kajmir) where it at?
[06:30:58] (Kajmir) well either way he can go to your place and you can show him
[06:31:03] (Kajmir) yeah?
[06:31:05] (Me) I think it's up north, past Isilinde on the map
[06:31:51] (Kajmir) who's mine is it??
[06:32:24] (Me) we opened it
[06:32:58] (Me) as I told (husband), we have someone who can tell, but he's busy elsewhere at the moment, so he needn't trouble himself
[06:33:24] (Kajmir) if it's decent would like about 50kg
[06:33:52] (Me) I think we had some of QL 44, but I wasn't the one mining it
[06:34:26] (Kajmir) I'd need about 55ql to make it worth while.
[06:35:21] (Me) I can't mine that high anyway
[06:35:24] (Kajmir) As for the lead...I can offer 20c per 100kg.
[06:35:45] (Me) okay
[06:35:58] (Me) we just opened a tin vein too
[06:35:59] (Kajmir) that's smelted.
[06:36:50] (Kajmir) no interst in tin
[06:37:03] (Me) not even bronze?
[06:37:08] (Kajmir) nope
[06:37:36] (Kajmir) but I'll buy 200 lead as soon as you have it.
[06:38:41] (Me) ok
[06:39:04] (Me) I know I keep 50 in stock, but I'll get more
[06:39:14] (Kajmir) if I am not online...ask (husband), hll pay you
[06:39:27] (Kajmir) And btw you're welcome ...
[06:40:40] (Me) I'm welcome to what?
[06:40:55] (Kajmir) (Clay buyer) pm'ed you didn't he?
[06:41:04] (Me) yes
[06:41:15] (Kajmir) how do you think he knew to pm you..
[06:41:29] (Me) he mentioned you
[06:42:39] (Me) 3k clay...
[06:43:30] (Me) is he reliable?
[06:44:05] (Kajmir) quite
[06:44:21] (Kajmir) why do you think I had him pm you if he wasn't realable -.-
[06:44:49] (Me) dunno, I just wanted to make sure
[06:45:20] (Me) too many bad experiences in online games make me cautious
[06:45:52] (Kajmir) I might not need lead after all. We just found a vien.
[06:46:06] (Me) yeah, (husband) told me
[06:51:20] (Kajmir) I don't really want you to kiss my ass....but I'm using spaces on my merchant to make you money, I find you a job with someone digging to make some silver....and you don't seem to care.
[06:52:18] (Me) what makes you say that?
[06:53:08] (Kajmir) because rather then a thank you for the job with (Clay buyer) all you can ask me is if he is realiable....
[06:53:48] (Kajmir) because rather then a thank you for having some space on my merchant..you just ask if I want an order...
[06:54:07] (Me) if you had just been asked to produce 3k clay for someone you've never met, wouldn't you be asking questions too?
[06:54:31] (Me) I don't know how merchants work; I don't know how limited their space is
[06:55:50] (Kajmir) limited or not...could say thanks...the same with mentioned for a job...sure ask if he is realiable...I can get that but not even a thanks..
[06:56:37] (Me) didn't I thank you?
[06:57:07] (Kajmir) not that I remember...when you got paid...yes ..always...but..
[06:57:46] (Kajmir) and like right now...you stil can't even say thanks.
[06:58:44] (Me) I think that's implied
[07:00:09] (Kajmir) Nope not really.
[07:01:30] (Me) then sorry about that
[07:02:49] (Kajmir) I think I'll take the lmaps...pay you for them myself...and just cancel the lead order. I'm the kind of person who needs a "thanks" once in a while and I don't want to have to fight for it.
[07:04:13] (Me) do you thank your boss at the end of the day for having a job?
[07:05:09] (Kajmir) I'm not your boss...I was a player trying to help you out. I suggested and offered space on my merchant. I made nothing from it and you don't see to understand it was a kindness, not an oder.
[07:05:36] (Kajmir) So now keep the lamps too. Come pick up your money when you are ready.
[07:06:34] (Me) keep the money
[07:07:43] (Me) and I've told (Clay buyer) he can find someone else
[07:08:07] (Me) I'm not going to become sick of this game by treating it like work
[07:09:50] (Kajmir) I never asked you to. You wanted to earn money I only attempted to help. But because of other games and players you can't seem to understand someone just trying to help.
[07:10:31] (Me) all my friends once quit this game because they couldn't stand the grind
[07:11:06] (Me) I don't want to end up like them, because I like this game
[07:19:38] (Me) come to think of it, I don't think I'll last long here either
[07:19:57] (Kajmir) Your money is at token.
[07:20:12] (Me) thank you
Within two minutes of my typing this line she had tried to wrest from me, I was added to her ignore list.
Such is, you see, the Wurmian sense of generosity, where it's not the employer who should thank you for spending time doing work they avoid doing by paying you (oh, but how they like Wurm because it requires effort!), it's you, the labourer, who must always be grateful of being provided with a rewarding role in Wurmian society, because all employers want to do is help. This is how charity is at its crassest and most condescending, where the only purpose is a perverse desire to exert power, and here it is worse than charity because there is none; this is noblesse oblige with neither the nobility nor the sense of obligation. You're playing Land Bridge on the River Kwai, and you will be happy in your work. I have offered ferry rides to drowning people without ever asking for payment because that was the decent thing to do; I have provided low-quality tools without expecting anything in return because I was glad to be of service; but in this game, people like me are evidently in a minority. (Much later, I saw Kajmir and her husband ask for reliable workers in general chat -- reliable, because they were going to pay them in high-quality tools, with the expectation that those workers would continue working for them after receiving them; the return of indentured servitude?)
It doesn't take one long to realize that once one is past the stage of building one's homestead, Wurm Online turns entirely into a trading game, with someone's real money as currency. Most of the server chat is made up of people seeking to buy or sell stuff, always in coins, where the ostensible aim is to avoid as much as possible paying Rolf any money. (After falling out with Kajmir, I had a look at what they were selling in Amish Paradise; the prices made me doubt whether they had to spend money on the game recently.) This raises many questions, the first among them being: Who keeps this game afloat? With few newbies staying around, let alone subscribing to the game, and the top players being able, through a rigid skill hierarchy, of avoiding payment altogether once they are established by selling goods to others, who ends up paying for the game?
The robust referral-buying market provides a clue. Every new subscriber is granted two silver coins as well as a referral, which can provide, among other things, 20 days of premium time to any account that had once been subscribed (except, it goes without saying, your own). The restriction was necessary to prevent abuse, but it made the referral useless to people who, like me, came to the game without knowing anyone who had paid for premium; hence established players bought referrals for 6 silver coins from players such as me and had them bestowed on their alts. Now, to buy a monthly subscription from the store costs 5 Euro, but to buy the same length of time in coins costs 10 silver, or twice as much. Who, then, would buy 20-day referrals at 6 silver to save 1 silver per month off the coin price, instead of buying a subscription in the regular manner at half of that cost? Who, but someone who never buys coins off the cash shop and earns them all from other players? It is therefore, I suspect, new subscribers such as myself who provide the bulk of Rolf's money; people who can't -- or won't -- earn enough through the community to join the ranks of the freeloading elite, yet still seek something a notch above the newbie experience. Yep, you're Wurm Online's middle class, and you pay for it.
The other question is: How did the in-game economic system not collapse entirely on itself already? This is the part I never understood, because I hoard my coins, and I cannot imagine anyone doing otherwise; all my money goes towards deed upkeep at the settlement token, and I expect every other deed holder to do exactly the same. It is difficult for me to picture anyone who actually bought the coins spending them on anything except one's own deed; this would run counter to the overwhelming selfishness that prevails in Wurm Online. There are plenty of drains (upkeep, mailing services, beds) but the supply is almost entirely based on players buying coins off the store; what if they stopped trading coins? Apart from the obvious exclusion of newbies from the economic system -- unless they embark on a course of wage slavery -- who would want to buy anything in this game, in full knowledge that their money is pegged to real money? Subscribing provides no coins beyond the first time, unless you take a hybrid package of 1 month and 5 silver coins for 10 Euro, and even then the same question applies: If you have a deed, why not put the entire 5 silver coins in the bank? And if you do not have a deed, why not take the two-month package, with no coins included, for exactly the same price?
(And if you thought you had it easy on one of the PvE servers, here is what happens on the PvP servers: "On the Wild and Epic servers, citizens of the enemy kingdom can drain your token once all your deed guards are dead. An enemy draining your token will remove 15% of the monthly upkeep cost from the upkeep fund, of which the drainer receives half. Upkeep cost is treated as always being at least 5 silver, which gives a minimum drain of 75 copper (37.5 to the drainer). A drain can occur once every 24 real-time hours. Every time a deed is drained, the drained amount will increase by 50%. This is reset if the deed is not drained for 2 days. Enemies can drain from an adjacent tile and do not need to be on the same tile as the token, even if there is a wall or palisade in the way. " Drain the other guy of his money, and Rolf gets half; now that's hardcore.)
If not deed upkeep, two other coin-only expenses (even though there are more) are likely, each as selfish as the other. If you want to sell goods directly to consumers at a stall, you must purchase a merchant contract (10 silver); since their inventory is limited, some players own more than one. There is also a distinct NPC trader that players can buy, but which features a key difference from merchants: whereas merchants only sell, traders also buy, with the coins in their buying pool -- the sole exception alluded to above -- being provided by the game itself. From the wiki: "Traders will buy almost any item, unless he considers it worthless, it cannot be traded, or he is broke. Every item has a Base Price, which is modified by the trader according to local supply and demand. For each transaction performed by the trader, a small portion is added to the village upkeep fund as a tax. The tax is settable on trader creation, 40% maximum. The remaining money goes to the seller. " As you can predict, this is a magnificently broken concept: public traders are always drained of their money by people unloading as much garbage (that no player would ever buy, but assigned an arbitrary value by the game itself) as possible, and people rarely buy from them except the usual deeds or contracts (another money sink from which the trader retains nothing). Traders are expensive (50 silver, or 50 Euro, if you prefer), and it is customary for their owner to keep them under lock and key in the middle of a house measuring three tiles by three, to prevent anyone but the owner from trading with him, creating an infinite loop whereby the wealthy players of the game get wealthier.
Suffice it to say, then, that there is no working economy in this game, or at least none that is based entirely on the game environment, but the older players seem oblivious to this fact, or do not care. It would be futile here to talk of the sanctity of the game world, and the old Golden Valley server -- where nobody, after all, owned coins -- was a far more satisfying place to play; newbies made a mess of the landscape, true, but players seemed genuinely willing to help one another, and trade often took place in the form of barter. Celebration brought the worst of both worlds: newbies still made a mess of the landscape, and veterans exhibited their usual greed.
The Refined Art of Post-Apocalyptic Suburb Design
Terraforming is one of the major selling points of Wurm, which still tells players to "leave your mark", but, truth be told, very few marks are worth leaving. For every player trying to develop his settlement organically by respecting the terrain, there would be five whose only ambition was to dump dirt in a deep part of a lake until this man-made island would have all the aesthetics of an oil rig, or content that the land be flat enough to enable them to build their 1-by-1 shack. As far as architectural eyesores go, Wurm's magnum opus is undoubtedly the abomination known as the land bridge. As the game lacks real bridges (a long-promised update), every enterprising islander thinks it's perfectly fine to block sailing traffic to have a permanent link to the mainland. In the case of Celebration, the most contentious case was a channel that provided one of the two entrances to the inner lake; the population was divided between those who supported a submerged land bridge connecting both sides (blocking access to the heavier ships) and those who supported a deep channel. After seeing a player push his cargo ship across the submerged bridge, I sided with the sailors at the expense of cart owners (as anyone else could just swim across).
Because of my bad memories of Golden Valley, I nonetheless supported the construction of roads; hence while I supported the channel at the expense of the land bridge, I also backed the road builder in his decision to build a highway from the northern side of the channel to Tap Dance. Perhaps 30 tiles from the channel, he ran into his first, and by the looks of it, insurmountable, problem: existing deeds. As mentioned above, deeds came with a settlement area, into which only the owner and authorized persons could build, and a limited-control perimeter meant to act as a buffer zone between deeds; and this particular area was comprised of three deeds as close together as possible, making it impossible to avoid crossing one or the other. The most crucial of those three was placed on a narrow strip between the water and a mountain, and its owner wanted no road in her vicinity. She started building stone walls around her perimeter and even put the road builder on her guards' kill-on-sight list while offering him no viable alternative. In the real world, she would have been expropriated; in Wurm, she can put a veto on an entire collective project because her "not in my back yard" decision was final. Nothing could be done without her consent, and it became obvious, as soon as I inspected the situation, that there never would be a road there.
Her logic was implacable by Wurm community standards: without a road, newbies would not be allowed to spread out in her direction and make a mess of the landscape. Instead, newbies, thus hindered, would be expected to stay near Tap Dance, destroy the terrain, cut down all the trees, and leave after three days, and the state of the area around Tap Dance sadly proved her right. The game is harsh and is not to everyone's liking -- this is obvious enough -- but the Wurm newbie in his usual state is a sad creature with zero aesthetics, no concern for sustained development, very little self-reliance, and practically no endurance. The more promising ones may end up finding a village willing to help them; others might tire from the moment they finish placing the last plank, if not before. But leave their mark -- this they always do.
(View of the newbie area from Silva.)
Wurm rewards the patient and dedicated; if you are more resilient, you may achieve more, like build a guard tower (500 bricks, 500 clay, 100 planks -- a weekend of solid work) or a rowboat (one day), or go for the tacky grandeur of a colossus, the ultimate achievement of the compulsive grinder (1,999 clay and 1,999 special colossus bricks). But it did not know when to stop: Wurm relies on a glacial pace to make player achievements seem more worth while, but in the end, after a few weeks, you find yourself standing in the middle of your settlement, wondering what is left to do that you haven't done already, and getting annoyed at the drudgery of harvesting your crops every three days lest you lose them, or repair structures that are not on your deed. The building options are so limited that everywhere looks the same (wooden walls, sometimes dyed, or bricks for premium members), hence there is no real point to exploring the server, and projects for the common good are likely to end at the gate of someone else's deed; from this, it is easy to reach the conclusion that you are the only one to care about how much effort went into your place. Games, even those where you can "leave your mark", are ephemeral; carpal tunnel syndrome lasts forever.
As a friend told me, quite correctly, I was attracted more to the promise of the game than to its actual realization; and how promising can it still be six years after launch with little improvement to show for it? In some aspects, it was made easier. It used to be, during my time on Golden Valley, that failing to make, for example, a plank with a log caused you to lose the entire amount used for the plank, making it necessary to cut down entire forests for a lumber-intensive project such as shipbuilding; worse, farming in those days involved, until a higher level, planting one seed to harvest one seed. At least those have changed, but the interface is still the same awful right-clicking and window-opening menus. Want to transfer rock shards from a pile on the ground to your cart? It would be too simple to just drag them from the pile to the cart. Wurm has you first open the pile window, transfer rocks to your inventory (another window, and only as many as you can carry), then transfer those to your cart (another window), and repeat the operation until all the shards are in your cart. (It may also happen that your cart becomes too heavy for you to haul, so you must do the same operation in reverse until it is light enough.) Skills could be earned through improving tools, a painstaking process requiring an array of tools where you could end up damaging -- and repairing -- the item while attempting to improve it. For example, wood products require logs of a higher quality than that of the item, as well as a mallet, a file, a pelt, and a carving knife, while metal items require metal lumps, water, a whetstone, a hammer and a pelt -- there is no pattern, but every action except repairing takes around 15 seconds to complete.
(The game interface.)
Then there is what is widely known as "Wurm Logic" -- the kind of logic where a hammer might be required to finish smithing a hammer, or dirt crumbling to dust. On June 20, Rolf made another contribution to Wurm Logic which divided the community. As I mentioned above, guards automatically refilled and lit the lamps on a deed, which could be done using tar (commonplace and easy to obtain) or olive oil. Nobody uses olive oil for this purpose because it is labour-intensive, requires olives to be in season (three real-life days every month) and a decent beverages skill level, and is more useful in the making of high-quality compasses. Rolf however decided that guards would now use only olive oil in automatically refilling the lamps, even though tar could still be used manually. Why? "Now, tar isn’t _really_ supposed to be used in lamps but it will still be possible to use of course since it would be too much of a nerf to remove that. Olive oil finally has the use and value it was supposed to from the very beginning." He quickly added an oil barrel to allow players to decide which olive oil was used (keeping the best stuff, as usual, for compasses), improved olive yield and made the lamps last longer; but that still pales in comparison to the simplicity of tar. Not surprisingly, some Wurm players (including Kajmir) welcomed the change, while others, either because they objected to the change or wanted to corner the market, set about cutting down every olive tree they could find.
This perhaps explains why Minecraft -- a game often denigrated by the Wurm community -- may have sold as many as nine million copies across all platforms, while Wurm remains with a player base of less than a thousand concurrent users at any given time and a stagnating number of premium players at around 3,400. Wurm's supporters claim they love the challenge and effort that goes into achieving anything, but it is, as we have seen, a game built around the concept of paying someone else to do the back-breaking work, where multi-client users proliferate, and where selling high-skilled character accounts is tolerated. (I have even been told, very candidly, that Rolf did not even object to third-party gold selling -- which, if true, begs the question: Why?) The promise my friend mentioned vanished quickly -- less than a month into my subscription -- thanks to the questionable business model, the despicable economy, the whims of the designer, and all that is always forthcoming and never delivered. The absence of PvP on my server also offered a clear insight into the larger failure of the sandbox genre: the selfishness of players who see nothing greater than themselves. There are great people in Wurm -- the guy living across the channel, or the veteran I'm allied with, and one of the better features of the game is its emphasis on local play --but what is lacking is a communitarian spirit to the game that should exist among such a small player base.
Wurm, sadly, is a failure, but never have I more wished for a game to succeed.
Postscript: More Ventured Certitudes
This review was previously posted at another site, where the effect it had on readers was succinctly described as "fascinating, mysterious, and a little bit frightening", exactly my own impression of the game. Shortly after posting the review, the following exchange happened in Celebration chat:
The red name, interestingly, is Kajmir's husband; the blue name was the clay buyer. ("70ql", "90ql" indicates quality.) And I think it summarizes why I am increasingly uneasy about this game. Because of the way it is designed, it is practically impossible not to have a second premium account to play a priest (priests are excessively limited -- some can't mine, others can't dig or cut trees, etc.), but seven? One of my villagers must also have three or four accounts, but not all premium. In the last days, I myself, even though I abhor such shortcuts, started dual-clienting mining with a second, free account because I could not stand the grind anymore. "Self-reliance" becomes rather stretched a concept when you can be said to contain multitudes, but this phrase really encapsulates the failure of Wurm: whereas a communitarian approach should be the optimal approach to the game, self-reliance instead becomes its main virtue.
Henry David Thoreau, at his most benign, describes the "self-reliance" involved here in its noblest form, namely, the satisfaction of having spent so much effort on achieving something (even though it's not quite healthy, not quite sane to do so within the context of a video game); but Kajmir's husband was not making those tools for his own use, but rather to sell. He evidently did not like the task, felt he was compelled to go through with it just to hope not having to do so again for a fortnight. Just as it was possible to draw a direct line between Thoreau and laissez-faire economics (where whether you like doing the most degrading work becomes irrelevant), it is possible to see through Wurm's praise of "self-reliance" -- which, for all I know, might go against Rolf's business model because it allows players to denigrate coin buyers, even though someone has to buy coins to keep the in-game economy rolling -- and realize that it involves not only a sickening approach to the game ("this is life"), but also a dismissal of any attempt at helping newbies because newbies are expected to catch on very quickly if they deserve to play the game at all.
Veterans, needless to say, do not expect newbies to stick around because the game is unnecessarily cruel, so they rarely help them (well, except maybe "help" in the Kajmirian sense). Newbies are seen as freeloaders who cannot get involved in the game's economy except as manual labour, so there is no urge to take them on and help them settle. Meanwhile, the old guard complains that newbies destroy the landscape. Well, I can understand this last part; I tried replanting trees near Tap Dance, and even put a sign urging them not to cut the trees if they could not replant them, and newbies cut them anyway before they could yield enough wood. Newbies are made helpless and a nuisance by the game's design, but where are the people who should be teaching the newbies and alleviate this? Instead, newcomers are all seen as a lost cause, so nothing is done.
Some villages recruit newbies, but not all. Read this recent recruitment message:
"I'm looking for players with 45+ skills and active
priest are always welcomed
skills I'm really looking for are taming, animal husbandry weapon smith, armor smith
also masonry helps as then you can help build your house
the only skill I'm not looking for is farming ("my job")
my deed is 41 by 41 so there is plenty of room
my deed upkeep is 3s and 36c
ill pay for a majority of the upkeep until there 3-5 players there then upkeep will be divided evenly or depending on how much land you take up
also I'm making a market there so their are some merchants stalls ready for a merchant I will be adding more i have just gotten a little lazy doing so"
He not only wants recruits to be established premium members possessing skills he can use, but also expects them to pay part of his rent. I posted a reply in this thread saying that what he offered rhymed exactly with "a ventured certitude", and worse, a variety that whoever joined had to pay for. He sent me a private message, which I, gentle readers, could not withhold from you.
"why dont you shut up
well i will need help with the upkeep and i don't think asking 20c-30c a month is that much when i will be providing a home,crops to grind skills such as hot food cooking cloth tailoring rope-making a place to sell there goods, iron from my mines access to horses and cows also there is a vynora priest that enchants tools on the deed also i have a high level blacksmith living there that provide high ql tools to citizens so it sounds pretty damn good to me
So how about you shut the ###### up and stop posting on my god damn topics when you don't have anything good to say or any knowledge of whats going on"
I think I know very well what is going on, but what good is it to argue? If you like this, you keep on playing Wurm, trying as much as possible to get someone else to soften Rolf's latest blows for you; and if you find this repulsive, chances are you will soon quit the game (or have quit already). I can see my own interest in Wurm having considerably diminished in recent days, even though I knew this was the game's seamy underbelly even in 2009; but I thought that this seamy side could be avoided, or ignored. Instead, I now know that this permeates every aspect of the game. I also know that some coin items bought from traders are excessive in their pricing, culminating with the "declaration of independence" on the premium-only PvP server (which allows the creation of a player-made kingdom), which costs 1 gold, or 100 Euro.
No thanks. I think Wurm Online, in its basic, happy-go-lucky newbie form, is fun (in the way losing in Dwarf Fortress is fun). Golden Valley was a structural mess, but it was fun. A Wurm funded only through premium time, with none of this coin nonsense, could be fun. But I do not expect to play for long a game that features a laissez-faire capitalist trading model that you have to buy into just to be part of the losers, and which the player elite gladly, unquestioningly, encourages; because -- amazing, isn't it? -- this is not fun.