On the crisp, New York morning of January 20th, I rolled over in my hotel bed and groped for the alarm clock. Hearing it crash on the floor, I retreated back into my dreamy slumber, victorious. “Alarm clocks are overrated,” I said to myself. Suddenly, I was wide awake. Isn’t there a breakfast or something before the convention? With my lower body still in bed, my upper body lumbered around in search of the Paradox Convention schedule – Breakfast: 8:30am. What time is it? The defeated alarm clock read 8:16. “Hnnrrgghh,” I said, to no one in particular…
Straight out of Stockholm, Sweden, Paradox Interactive has staked its claim on New York at the Manhattan Hilton for two days (and nights) of chivalry and shenanigans. The general motto around here is, “Strategy is Our Game.” This could not be more accurate – the PC-based strategy game developer is revered for its eye for detail and its games are known around the globe for their deep game mechanics and gratifying challenges; something few in the medium can rival.
Would you like to rewrite history with the Hearts of Iron or Europa Universalis series? Or do you prefer the rich, fantastical worlds of Majesty 2 and King Arthur? Heck, maybe you’ve grown out of the whole “Earth” thing and would fancy an inter-galactic romp around the universe with Sword of the Stars. Paradox has you covered, and then some.
I know what you’re thinking, “What’s all this talk about strategy? Isn’t this an MMO website? Where am I?” Yes, you caught me – I was whisked away to the land of grand strategy and tactical depth, courted by the passion in the eyes of every developer at the 2011 Paradox Interactive New York Convention. But, hark! There is hope for us yet.
At around 8:45am, I found my way into the Nassau Suite in the Hilton. The smell of coffee quickened my pace, and the prospect of a blueberry muffin or two set me into a light jog. Upon entry, I grabbed a cup of joe (the first of many) and sat down at the nearest table. After about twenty minutes of game-talking around the table, we applauded for Fredrik Wester, CEO of Paradox Interactive, as he came to the front of the room.
With the launch of Paradox Connect, the developer has begun to reposition itself toward the online market. With Steam-esque achievements that reach across many of their games, as well as a fervent, tight-knit community, the future seems bright for Paradox. What does this mean for us? First off, we can expect Paradox to continue to branch out into non-RTS (real-time strategy) titles, as well as several new and exciting online games. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the massively multiplayer games that Paradox has to offer.
Developed by Lockpick Entertainment, Dreamlords Resurrection is an MMORTS set in a fantasy world rife with conflict. You are a recently awakened Dreamlord, who is tasked with conquering as much land as possible in order to survive. You are the leader of small band of struggling, “disillusioned” nomads; if you do not stake your claim of land and build a thriving city, you (and your followers) will surely perish. The general setup of the game is reminiscent of the RTS layouts that Paradox is known for.
I was presented with a zoomed-out view of what appeared to be a floating island. This island was divided up into regions and, in order to claim any given region, the player must move his/her Dreamlord onto the appropriate tile. Then, the attack begins. Players are effectively zoomed-in to the relevant tile, where they duke it out in traditional RTS fashion. In addition to your own personal Dreamlord avatar, you may train your followers to fight alongside you. They can be trained to use ranged or melee weaponry, magic, or several other hybrid-based archetypes. Players may select their individual units or entire groups in order to exercise the appropriate tactics for any given situation. Above all else, your Dreamlord must be protected. Upon victory, a tile that was once red is now green, signifying your new ownership.
On a PvE island such as this, the player must defeat any indigenous monsters to claim the land; conversely, in a PvP environment, one must defeat other players in order to progress. The two island types are mutually exclusive and you are not forced to enter a PvP zone. If you like to play with others cooperatively, it is heavily encouraged that you team up with others in Convergences (this game’s version of guilds.) The game world itself is comprised of several floating islands and the minimap displays these islands in a cluster, suspended indefinitely in a world of nothingness.
Turning my chair to face the man, the myth, the legend, Fredrik Wester, I sensed a sort of Zen aura emanating from him. Wester was relaxed and the general mood around the room was one of restless anticipation, (slightly dulled by the morning’s lethargy.) Wester began, “I’m not going to talk about our games because there are people that can do that much better than I can. So, what I will do is look back at the eleven years we’ve been in this industry.”
With loot and Gnosis, (the equivalent of XP) as well as varying types of currency, players may buy gear for their followers and their avatar, buildings for their city and research for just about anything. City buildings do not actually appear in-game, but they will have a positive effect on everything from regional defense to attack power.
The massive aspect of Dreamlords Resurrection shows itself when players interact with each other through PvP and commerce. Players share the world and so have much to gain by cooperation. Tom Söderland, Vice President of Business Development at Paradox, sat down with me to demo the game and detail how the idea of community fits into it. Söderlund explained,“The game allows for many different playstyles. If you are part of a convergence, (which is like a guild) with different types of players, some may focus on the empire building and management part of the game, while others take care of the RTS side of the game; fighting and looting on the battlefield.”
Söderlund then showed me achievements and sidequests that could be worked on as a group or individually. The sidequests were reminiscent of MMORPGs, with collection, assassination and exploration requirements not unlike those of World of Warcraft or Age of Conan. The process of pursuing sidequests is smooth and dynamic; that is to say, if you were a Convergence Leader and you delegated tasks to your fellow players, you could sit back and watch the sidequest tech tree update itself automatically, allowing you to keep track of your guildies’ progress. Impressed, I raised my eyebrows and looked at Söderlund, who smiled in agreement.
Wester turned to face my side of the room, “In 2001, the general perception was that the hardcore market is dying as a games market. Funny, how this was the year when Europa Universalis sold over 250,00 units. So, let’s move to 2003 – this was my favorite quote, and I’ve heard it a lot – ‘there’s no shelf space left for you guys. You have to do something else. PC gaming is dead, or will be dead in four years’. In 2010, we have already grown 45% since 2009, and we are up over 1,000% since 2003.”
After a preview of Paradox’s 2011 lineup, we were primed and ready for the convention to begin.
With all the depth and intricacy that anyone could ask for, Dreamlords Resurrection will keep players busy with gratifying micro and macro management. But your time is limited (so to speak.) The game progresses through “eras”, which are said to last as long as two months. When an era is over, the lands are wiped clean of any Dreamlords, and their ownership of any region(s) are wiped along with them. Effectively, the game restarts and we are all reborn as fledgling Dreamlords. With this interesting game mechanic in place, players are forced to rethink their strategies to fit within a relatively brief span of time. Era-specific achievements are also wiped clean; however, Söderlund showed me a separate category of achievements that last indefinitely. Seems like those are the ones to go for.
With auction marketplaces, individual and convergence tech trees, sidequests, achievements, research projects, advanced Empire management, crafting and much more, Dreamlords Resurrection is not just any old MMORTS. The staggering amount of options available to players are enough to keep even the most seasoned Civilization veteran busy for quite some time. All in all, this much is abundantly clear: Lockpick Entertainment is a creative and ambitious bunch, bursting with ideas for this innovative free-to-play series.
On the subject of Paradox’s entrance into the online market, Söderlund said, “Publishing Dreamlords: Resurrection not only gives Paradox Interactive the opportunity to release an MMO title with a perfect fit for our audience, but also to work closely with an experienced team in online gaming.”
Searching for my main attraction, Salem, I wandered the periphery of the convention, checking signs and eyeing monitors. “Where is the Salem table?” I asked Susana Meza Graham, the Executive VP of Publishing at Paradox. Glancing over her shoulder towards the corner of the room, she indicated an empty table with a nondescript laptop and monitor. “The guys are on break right now, they should be back any moment. The guy you want is Bjorn. Tall guy, hat, beard like yours.” she said. I thanked her and went to watch the Cities in Motion demo while waiting for someone who fit this description to turn up. A few minutes later, I caught a glimpse of two casually dressed fellows making their way to the corner of the room. One had a beanie and a beard. “Bingo!” I thought.
Set in a mytho-historical version of Colonial America, Salem offers players the chance to shape their world, literally. Running in the same vein as Wurm Online and A Tale in the Desert, Salem promises a crafting-centric experience for players who are tired of the traditional “theme park” approach to MMOs. This is free-form gameplay at its finest; in addition to quintessential professions such as smithing and farming, players will be able to terraform their surroundings in a “persistent and mutable” world.
While the art style may appear lighthearted and cartoonish, the mood and atmosphere I experienced while watching the gameplay was dark and foreboding. This is certainly an intimidating, gothic setting, and the open PvP and permanent death only serve to further that notion. During my time at the Salem table, I only witnessed a few aggressive deer, but the guys at Seatribe promise such creatures as “squonks”, “hidebehinds” and witches. (We’ll get into witches later.)
On the aesthetic front, the character avatar looks like something out of Animal Crossing. Granted, Salem is still in its pre-alpha phase, so I assume that they will continue to work on the model and refine its appearance. Despite this, character movement is fluid, and emotes are funny.
Speaking of fluids, Seatribe has come up with a unique, albeit disconcerting, approach to player health in Salem. Instead of your typical health bar, players are presented with a multicolored diamond that resides at the top of the screen. The top corner represents “blood”, and – get this – the other three corners represent phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each attribute is associated with a certain activity; getting attacked will drain blood, while participating in strenuous tasks may drain your phlegm. You’ll have to eat food on a regular basis to restore and improve the balance of your bodily fluids.
Similar to Darkfall, players will have access to skills for any type of activity. For example, a character with a high mountaineering skill will be able to reach higher elevations than those with low or no skill. Gathering and crafting skills such as farming, building, smithing, fishing, cooking, exploring and hunting (to name a few) will have subsets of skills that are relevant to the task at hand. Interestingly, there is even a tracking skill that can be used to hunt down other players. This is instrumental in Salem’s open PvP policing strategy.
Since characters will be permanently erased from the server when they die, the idea of free-for-all PvP is unsettling, to say the least. Seatribe hopes to foster a cooperative community, but there will always be a division of the player population that desires nothing more than a good gankfest. With this in mind, the devs have implemented a search-and-destroy mechanic that allows players to avenge the death of others by following a “scent” left by the evildoer. Anyone who happens upon this scent will interpret it as a token and those with a sufficient tracking skill will be able to follow a visible trail to the perpetrator’s current location. If said suspect is offline at the time the tracking occurs, their avatar can be systematically summoned and executed. How’s that for a good night’s sleep?
However, the scent doesn’t last forever and certain crimes carry scents of varying potency. The scent of murder (which is also a skill) for example, will last considerably longer than those of theft or vandalism. Ideally, players will band together and protect each other in times of crisis, but this contingency plan is unique and provides an organic take on law & order in MMOs.
The benefits of developing a certain area into a working community are widespread and numerous. The more “civilized” an area becomes, the more utility it brings to the population; crops have higher yields, build times are reduced, crafted goods are more valuable, etc. Bjorn Johannessen, game designer at Seatribe, warns us about the deep wilderness, “The further you get into the wilderness, the more dark and foreboding it may become. We call unexplored areas Mordor.”
“One does not simply walk into Mordor,” said Bjorn’s grinning associate, Fredrick Tolf.
Let’s get back to the witches. This game is called Salem, isn’t it? Drumroll… Players can be witches. (Gasp!) Since there is no class system in Salem, players define their characters by the skills they choose to learn. Certain skills are considered quite taboo. If you happen upon a book of witchcraft, learning what it has to teach is frowned upon. Using those teachings is a crime, which carries special consequences. Witch burnings are a very legitimate possibility in Salem, though neither Johannessen or Tolf revealed any details on the subject.
The depth of crafting was nearly impossible for Seatribe to describe to me during our time this week. Unlike World of Warcraft or Everquest 2, baking bread is not a one-step process. Would you like some bread? Well, get working on that dough first. When the dough is prepared, you must use an oven to bake the bread (better hope someone built an oven.) Don’t get too distracted while the bread is baking because it can easily burn if you leave it in the oven for too long (and no one likes a burnt loaf.) Upon finishing a wheel of cheese, the player must let it sit days, or even weeks. Because of the extensive work that goes into commodities such as these, the going price in silver (the game’s currency) can be astronomical. In Salem, one can easily imagine a living, breathing society of specialized workers who capitalize on their respective lines of work for the good of the community as a whole. Again, I am reminded of A Tale in the Desert.
Overall, my impression of Salem was a positive one; the backbone of the game is solid, both technically and conceptually. Johannessen and Tolf were all too eager to share their (as yet, unrealized) plans for the game and wanted to take the time to make the right decisions. The whole idea of an alternate history in colonial America is an appealing one and with Seatribe and Paradox at the helm I can rest easy knowing that a pioneering, inventive MMO is on its way. Hopefully, it is the first of many to come.
Though I was eager to continue my time with the Seatribe guys and Salem, the press “speed-dating” rotation was once again put into motion. Shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, we parted ways, for now…