Monday, February 20, 2012

Blanket of Sky: Wurm Online

Sandbox. Theme Park. Discuss.

I'd never even heard of a "sandbox" until a few years back. Sounds a bit like "litter box". Can't be that, can it? Nope. Turns out it's what we'd call a "sand pit" where I come from. Which doesn't really help much. Even a "sand pit" to me is where you land after a  long jump. I don't believe I've ever seen a pit or a box of sand put down for very small children to play in. We generally go to the seaside for that.

Then there's "theme park". We don't really have those either, although we do know what they are. I'm pretty sure I've never been to one. I've been to amusement parks and fairgrounds, we had those when I was tiny and we still have some left, but if they had a theme other than "spin round in circles, scream then throw up" I must have missed it.

So we're having this discussion based on two analogies that have no emotional resonance for me. The fine distinctions people draw just blur when I try to focus down. And anyway, when I read about  games like EVE or pre-NGE SWG the word that comes to mind isn't "sandbox". It's "simulation". Back in the 80s and 90s there was a whole genre of "sim" games, where you managed some enterprise like a city, a zoo or a football team. When I read stories about being a member of a Corp in EVE or being an Entertainer in SWG it often sounds more like being inside a simulation than playing in a sandbox. As an employee, not the owner.

What's all this leading up to? Well, I've been playing Wurm. Not much, but I have been playing. I thank Stargrace for that. She keeps writing about it and posting such pretty pictures. I tried Wurm before once, many years ago. All I can remember is wandering around in near total darkness for about an hour, occasionally bumping into a wall. The new player experience has improved a lot since then. They even have a tutorial, although for me that could be counted a mixed blessing.

I made that!
This time I've lasted a lot longer than an hour. I haven't built anything but I've traveled along the river valleys gawping at the work of others. Whole villages, even towns built from scratch. I've run away from crocodiles and lived. I made a tiny island just big enough to stand on and dug a small hole. I've built several fires, made and fired some pots from clay I dug myself and cooked some meals in those pots on that fire using herbs and vegetables I foraged. I pretty much have the hobo lifestyle down.

Wurm is very enjoyable. It's relaxing, except when a crocodile chases you or a lion roars very near in the dark. (It still gets dark but nowhere near as dark as I remember).  It's also quite compulsive in that drip drip drip of incremental rewards kind of way. I was getting drawn in enough to start reading Wikis and forums and planning ahead. Then I thought "do I really want to do this?"

To get anything done in Wurm takes ages. You have to construct everything from first principles and each act of construction pops up a timer. It's an on-use skill-based system, so the more you do something the better at it you get and the more efficiently (faster, less chance of failure) you do it. It's also a social environment reliant on trade and co-operation. In order to make progress you have to perform many repeated actions over extended periods of time while establishing social networks.

Erm, but not this...

It's like moving to a town where you know no-one, taking on a job about which you know nothing and sleeping in the park while you build your own house. Only with crocodiles.What's more, once you've put in the hours, weeks, months of real time and have your homestead all fixed up, you have to maintain it or it falls down. If you leave it too long, when you come back it will have reverted to wilderness and your neighbors and passing hobos will have taken all your stuff. Massively's Shawn Schuster wrote a piece that sums this up brilliantly, except he managed to be a lot more positive about it than I would have been in his shoes.

It was his article, in fact, that convinced me to stop reading Wurm Wikis and making grandiose plans and to settle for the hobo lifestyle instead. It also got me to wondering just why sandbox gameplay has to be soooo slooow. It's not like the simulation happens in real-time. I've lived near two people who built their own houses on an empty plot of land. One took over two years and the other about nine months. I've never seen anyone build an entire town but I'm pretty confident it would need more than three dozen people and take longer than a few weeks. Especially if they also dug a mine under a mountain while they were at it.

Hobo TV
Someone decides all this stuff. It's not handed down by the universe or Stephen Hawking. In an indie game like Wurm the pace is presumably set to the taste of the developer and it seems to be the kind of pace that would appeal to the same people who build model railway layouts or make models of the Taj Mahal out of used matchsticks.

Theme Park gameplay used to be like this too, relatively speaking. Travel took hours, fights took minutes, raids lasted all night. Then came WoW and everything sped up. Say what you like about WoW, it at least opened up the market to people who like to get something done in less than forever. And there are still slow theme parks. They survive. As I was commenting not long ago,it still takes a while to get something done in Everquest and you just try rushing through Ryzom and see how far that gets you. We themeparkers have a choice of pace now.

So where's my fast sandbox?


  1. That could well be the reason why my first MMO experience with SWG went nowhere. It felt to be honest like I'd have to devote my entire life to it to make any progress. Maybe the fact that the friend showing me it mostly focused on managing a score of crafting / mining operations didn't help endear it to me.

    Compared to that WoW was like a revelation as I could go and do stuff at my own preferred pace.

  2. Hm...

    A house should really only take a day or two to build. Maybe a bit longer if it's stone. The actual terraforming of a deed, setting up animal pens, and all of that can take longer though. I've been working on my spot for a few months, but it's a massive deed and I've done a LOT of terraforming, fencing, and other activities during that time.

    If you're looking for a faster sandbox experience, Minecraft (which was of course developed by one of the former co-creators of Wurm) is decently close to that, although I think it's too fast, IMO. I'd like to see a sandbox that's sort of between the two as far as far as speed goes.

    I do some Wurm coverage on my blog as well, What server are you playing on?

  3. @wildboarinn Just popped over and read a bunch of entries on your blog. Excellent reading! Wurm looks so great in screenshots, although they really need to do something about the circus riding.

    You are quite right, of course. If I was playing Wurm regularly as one of my primary MMOs then a day or two to build a house would be absolutely fine and so would a month or two to landscape an estate. I'm sure I could very much get into Wurm at that pace, which is partly what I'm afraid of!

    Minecraft looks fascinating in terms of what you can do but I have no affection whatsoever for the 8-bit graphic look. I lived through it and I no more want to go back to it than I want to watch movies on a 12" B&W portable TV.

    As to what server I'm on I think it's probably Exodus but I didn't pay much attention. I'd have to log in to be sure. I'm pretty sure I'd have remembered if I'd arrived in a town called Green Dog or The Howl.

  4. Excellent! I'm on Exodus as well. If you need any help with anything, feel free to PM me - name is Moxie in-game. :)

    They are working on new graphics and animations, we're seeing changes now with each update. I know that they are definitely working on new horse and player character models, perhaps once those go in they'll actually be able to let players straddle the horses properly. :)

  5. I've started a series on sandbox MMO's myself, and am taking them one at a time. I'm in Istaria for another week or so, and then I'm trying Wurm Online. I like the concept, but you hit the nail on the head with the difficulty in creating a character ex nihilo. I'm worried that that may be a deal breaker for me.

  6. Welcome to Wurm, Bhagpuss :) - It's all the things you said I guess, but it has more niches than most games. All the best as a hobo! And if you're on Indi, I am Nimba proud owner of the collection of sticks and shacks (limited playtime) known as Storm Light. I blog about Wurm sometimes too on Avatars of Steel. You know I'm really glad you're trying it... I laughed very much at the thought of you of all people doing the tutorial. Wish I could have watched!


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