It Takes A Village: Wurm Online And The Value Of Tedium

This was my house; it took someone else to plan the frame.

Wurm Online is a tedious game. Even now, when open world survival, player-driven multiplayer, and fantasy-world frontiers are in vogue, the game is off-puttingly obtuse. For starters, every action is performed via context-sensitive right-click menus. Want to chop down a tree? Right-click and click ‘chop’ on it twenty times. Want to do anything with that felled trunk? Then right-click on it twenty times more to turn it into logs, then do it again to turn logs into planks.

Then do it again and again, because it takes twenty planks to make a single segment of a building wall.

Wurm Online is a tedious game, but I also once loved it like no other.

My relationship with the game began due to another RPS alum. Quinns wrote a feature about Wurm for PC Gamer (later re-published on these pages), which paired explanation of its systems with deadly PvP assaults, thievery, and other moments of human-created drama. This prompted a small PC Gamer community to spring up on the game’s then-free server.

By the time I decided to join them, they were already established, with a settlement not far from the new player spawn. Everything in Wurm Online is player-built, from the houses to the stone paths to the signposts that tell you where to go. To reach PC Gamer’s village – secured by a purchased deed for the land – I had to follow a guide in a forum post. Walk down a hill near the spawn; turn right and walk straight till you reach a lake; follow the left-edge of that lake till you spot a series of low walls built in twenty-feet increments up a mountainside, then walk up that mountain.

The low walls, I would discover, were there because Wurm Online has a punishing fatigue system. As a new player with low stamina, you couldn’t climb to the top of the mountain without needing to rest. The walls gave you something to stop and lean against.

This is from the official Wurm site.

As I leant against one of those walls to catch my breath, I could see a colossal stone statue at the top of the hill. I’d later be told that it was built by players, in honour of Zephyr. Zephyr lived on an island he built himself in the center of the lake I’d just walked alongside, an island upon which he kept tame bears. Zephyr was the only player with tame bears on the server, as they had been removed once the developers decided they were too strong for the level-capped free players. Zephyr was allowed to keep his.

I imagined Zephyr much like his statue; a colossal figure who built islands, wrestled bears and inspired people to build statues to him. No normal player would ever reach these accomplishments. For the rest of us, it was a hard, tiring life. If you were lucky, maybe you’d build a little shack, be able to farm enough to stay alive, and take up a nice, quiet skill like puppeteering.

The PC Gamer settlement was consequently more modest than the statue it sat under. There were a few houses, some cobble paths between them, and a soup kitchen from which everyone was allowed to take food. The town’s one grand project was a mine they were digging underneath the town which would create a one grid-square wide tunnel from the top of the hill down towards the spawn point, making it easier for new players to find the village. It had taken months when I arrived, and stretched barely a quarter of the way towards its eventual destination.

Yet the tedium had its benefits. The difficulty of accomplishing anything meaningful within Wurm Online bonded people together under a sense of shared suffering. We were all in this together because we had to be; it was either too hard, or too lonely, to do anything by yourself.

After arriving, I quickly began to help the village where I could, by cutting down trees, digging in the mine, carting around materials, and trying in my feeble, low-levelled way to pay back the community for the generosity of the soup kitchen, without which I would likely have starved to death many times over.

I could never do enough to match the generosity others showed me, though. When I stumbled upon a nearby camp of NPC enemies – some goblins or orcs or imps, I don’t remember – all I could do was run and hide and watch as the elders came to my rescue. When I decided to build a modest shack with a mountain view, half a dozen people came to raise that 3×6 barn with me. The result was that I bonded with strangers on the internet over long hours of manual labor: right-click, chop; right-click, hammer; right-click, dig. Hours became days, days became weeks, and soon I had been logging into Wurn Online every night for months.

When the dank tunnel was finally complete, the village’s ambitions grew. This wasn’t like Minecraft though, where players rushed off to start building as soon as they felt the cold air of inspiration. Every action was hard work, which meant that efficiency and planning and organisation were necessary to save time, and which meant that everyone who pitched in had a say in the future direction of the village.

Although low-poly, Java and often slow, Wurm could occasionally create a dreamy beauty.

When it was obvious that our expansion would require greater reserves of wood, people thought ahead and started a forestry commission charged with foraging and re-planting two trees for every one that was cut down.

On a forum and blog I created for the village, democracy took hold. A village member called KGB mapped the village out using Google Sketchup, both to help new visitors find their way around and so residents could vote on how and where we should expand our borders. When we outgrew the space available to us atop that hillside, scouts were sent out around the world and reported back with screenshots of possible new locations. When it finally came time to move, the whole village worked together to build carts, train animals, and drag the most important equipment across the world.

Eventually I drifted away from the game, owing to a busy work schedule and the loss of connection to that original home. In the years since, I’ve experienced the intoxicating thrill of putting a mark upon a virtual world a hundred times, but Wurm Online remains the only time I got to experience that feeling alongside the subtler joys of cooperation, and of community.

Wurm Online is a tedious game, and nothing brings people together like tedium.

This used to be part of the in-game Wurm soundtrack.

As an experiment, I’ve recorded an audio version of this article which you can listen to below. The background audio track is Long Summer by Tom E. Morrison, from the more recent Wurm Online soundtrack. This is the first time I’ve done anything like this, so please be kind – though any constructive feedback is appreciated.

41 Comments

  1. Kelron says:

    Great to read this. I founded that village with another member of the PCG forums, and started digging that tunnel by myself. Can’t remember if we built the wall-stairs up the hill or if they were already there. I think the tedium of the tunnel digging is what drove me to quit, it’s nice when you’re getting established but everything takes so much work.

    I knew the village grew after I stopped, but I never really paid much attention so it’s nice to hear how successful it was.

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      Ah! Hello. I wondered if anyone from that village was here, but didn’t expect it so immediately. Thanks for starting the village!

      I’ve lost the blog and all the materials that were made from that time, but my favourite was that someone made a PDF newspaper with stories from the village. I drifted away shortly after the move to a new server, though I did go back and visit and – oh! I just remembered I uploaded a timelapse of some ground being flattened.

      • Hammerzeit says:

        That video is super enhanced if you play the village work song at the same time!

  2. Melody says:

    Never even heard about Wurm before, but I thoroughly enjoyed the article.

    I’d dare generalize your central point a little bit and say that challenges make things more meaningful in general. A challenge is certainly not the only thing VG can or should offer, but high (not overwhelming) difficulty always adds to the enjoyment of the kind of games that rely heavily on mechanics.

    There’s the saying that “nothing worth doing/having in life is easy”, but I believe you can also say that things that are worth doing/having are worth it at least in part because they’re not easy to obtain.

    p.s.: The audio version of the article is great, and in general it’s a good idea ^_^

    • SheffieldSteel says:

      Tedium is far from being the only challenge in Wurm. Starvation (and to a lesser extent thirst) are an ever-present issue until/unless you become adopted by a village. And even though fresh water is relatively easy to find, it tends to be guarded by one of the game’s most lethal adversaries, the Arboreal Submarine Bear.

      The good news is that other Wurm players tend to be the most friendly and generous people you will meet. There is almost always a village to be found that’s actively recruiting new members, and if you’re willing to do something often enough to get any good at it, you can become a valued member of the community. (Be warned though, you can’t do that as a free player).

  3. Bradamantium says:

    Hoo, that audio version is actually pretty great. Like a bedtime story of games past. Also led to me imagining the scenes described in exaggerated pantomime, which is pleasant all of itself. I’d call your experiment a great success.

    • Rizlar says:

      It’s like listening to the weirdest ever episode of Coast.

  4. Premium User Badge

    ErraticGamer says:

    Guys I love the supporter posts so much but please, please, a supporter RSS feed. If it ain’t in Feedly (RIP Google Reader), I don’t see it unless I get lucky visiting the site.

    • Sam Atkins says:

      What I do is keep link to rockpapershotgun.com open in a tab, and check it every day or two. A proper feed would definitely be nice, though.

      • Diziet Sma says:

        That’s my momentary solution too, it works fine but a feed would be much appreciated.

    • falconne says:

      I subscribe to the main RSS feed link to feeds.feedburner.com and that includes all articles including Supporter Posts, is that not good enough?

      On a related note, I used to use Feedly but then moved to The Old Reader, which I found faster, cleaner and more akin to Google Reader. If nothing else, the fact that it uses the full available width unlike Feedly that artificially restricts the content column makes it better.

      • Martel says:

        You sure you just aren’t seeing the newly opened to all but previously subscriber only posts? I thought the same thing for a brief moment and realized it was one of those and I just hadn’t read it yet.

  5. harvb says:

    I always really wish I’d tried Wurm Online, but I just don’t have the time to invest in it. God I wish I did.

  6. Comptess says:

    Read this and it made me miss my own WURM community and my humble home in the woods. Such generous people in that game! Up until a week ago my desktop background rotated through a gallery of screenshots I had taken all over my WURM property. That place gave me such a feeling of personal pride, knowing I had hewn, chopped, planted, mined or nailed together every single brick and plank myself. I ran out of steam though once my big project was completed. Couldn’t bring myself to sink months into something new, what with all of the other games out there I had to play. The WURM devs have made some real decent investment in the game in the last year though and I hope to make it back again one day and see how far it has come along.

  7. neofit says:

    I just quit Wurm after another 2-year stint. This time I finished a project AND hang around for an extra year :). Too many chores to do though, I couldn’t take it anymore.

    “Want to chop down a tree? Right-click and click ‘chop’ on it twenty times.”

    Aw, come on, you lived in a village where nobody ever read the Wiki nor the forums? ;)

    link to wurmpedia.com

    There were there when I played back in 2009 and 2011.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I was having the maddest deja vu just then reading this, before realising this was a story on Crate & Crowbar :D

    My worlds are merging into one glorious PC soup.

    Edit: Just spotted the audio version, more of that kind of thing I think! It’s great.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Tkrens says:

    I really like the audio reading of the article. Maybe you guys can do this more often! The article itself was also great. Thanks.

  10. heretic says:

    Really liked the audio version Graham! I put it on while doing the dishes lol, multitasking woot!!

    Though as someone else mentioned, I missed it initially as it didn’t come up in my RSS feed :( I guess the weekend will be the time I get to catch up on supporter posts for now :D

  11. Tom De Roeck says:

    Please fellow supporters, remember that we have our own little Life Is Feudal (A WurmALike) community set up, and the game is very enjoyable, even if not fully functional. (Functional enough to enjoy, mind) and it definitely is less of a slog than Wurm ever was.

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    The game is quite expensive right now, but there are deals happening every so often; I got one for 23€ not too long ago. (regular price is somewhere around 35€)

    Looking forward to seeing you ingame!

    • notenome says:

      Not only is it a wurm-a-like but its basically billed as wurm 2.0, being as the devs are all former wurm people. Its sort of wurm meets mount and blade, the earliest of alphas.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that the purchase also includes a free character when they release the life is feudal mmo, which makes it a more palatable deal.

  12. Molay says:

    I really like the audio version! Was relaxing voice, makes one want to sit back in the chair and just paint the images to go with the words… Hopefully this audio thingy can be done more often in the future :)

    • Person of Interest says:

      Yes, more of this! And when possible, please continue to use background music from the game being discussed, since it gives such great context.

  13. Sc0r says:

    I also liked it a lot, but the monthly fee system to be allowed to truly advance scared me off after some time.

    I hope Life is Feudal will be as complex but without the fees.

  14. communisthamster says:

    Haven and Hearth is a similar game that taught me the value of tedium (and the flaws of libertarianism/anarchism, and economics, and game theory). Price: 600 hours.

    • Sc0r says:

      true, true.
      but what H&H teached me most was the value of a life. More than ANY other game.
      And that a community can crash to pieces if the devs don’t tend to major bugs.

      Also, Salem from the Same devs.
      Its similar but it shows that being good at programming in Java does not mean, you are a good gamedesigner.

  15. Bobsagoth says:

    Got some fond memories from this game aswell, altho i never was much into village life tho i went ways to help others. First “achievement” from old Jenn-Kellon was monument that i built alone until the end when rl friend pitched in on hauling dirt. Took around 10000 dirt to make it if i remember right with several weeks of digging and terraforming. Needless to say i learned how to dig during that time.

    On new server i relocated on top of the mountain south of Dragon fang and built fence steps on top of it (long gone now) and before that i made road to Freedom market from said location (still there but changed in places). Last bit of the road adjacent to Dragon Fang required quite big ramp which i’m afraid didn’t finish. Magnificent game but can’t force myself to start a new knowing what it takes to have any deacent skills in there.

  16. robby5566 says:

    I recently logged back in to Wurm to see if I loved it as much as I used to.
    Had an interesting surprise waiting.
    There’s a tutorial world. Used to be that you could just explore it after said tutorial. However this was later phased out. Players left out in the wilderness were just… left there. You could choose to migrate, but it was also possible to just stay.
    I was inactive so long, *everyone* had swapped over or abandoned their accounts, and I found a world where everything’s durability was running out, houses were falling apart, walls were crumbling, and I was completely, totally alone against the elements.
    Turned Wurm into some post-rapture sim.

    • SheffieldSteel says:

      That was my first experience too! Street after street of abandoned, bare-framed houses, with almost nothing left other than stoves and chimneys (and for some reason looms). It was such a haunted place, such a shocking world to be dropped into… I’m still not sure whether my strongest reaction was one of awe, or profound depression.

  17. DarkMalice says:

    Was completely addicted to Wurm for four years, so glad I broke free of that monotonous grindfest.
    Although to begin with the world was amazing and I made some life-long friends, Rolf (the developer) did not have a clue (or he’s a genius at concocting addictive gameplay).
    Life is Feudal seems to have taken the best elements out of the game and made it its own.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Hmm, I’d be interested in a game like this where, instead of hitting “chop” and seeing an animation play, you have to motion-control your axe to fell the tree. You control your hammer driving nails into a board.

    It’d be much more interesting, until the point my hands fell off from RSI.

  19. sinister agent says:

    Wurm really was lovely, and one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had. I only met one person who was unpleasant (some arsehole who stole my clay bowl while I was fishing to provide food for everyone), and many who were kinder and more patient than most people in real life.

    I mostly wandered alone, tinkering, making little crafts for my own amusement, or being a ninja repair samaritan when I found damaged buildings or unkempt farms in the middle of the night, occasionally helping dig a farm or chop some wood in exchange for a safe place to sleep when camping seemed too dangerous. Didn’t really achieve much, but appreciated the quietly beautiful, peaceful ambience.

    When a new land opened up I did the same, and stumbled across the embryonic RPS settlement quite by chance, after a frightening and arduous trek across the Desert Of All The Terrifying Deadly Things That You Should Always Avoid. Thoroughly enjoyed taking care of everyone there, gathering herbs and fishing, making pots, and cooking decent food for the clan while they worked on a farm and building a boat. After a while I made an agreement with the neighbours – they’d shared their herbs and vegetables and in return I’d bring them them hot ghoulash and stew and roasted fish.

    I hit the usual “this is a time sink” moment and stopped after a couple of weeks, but I’m glad I had that experience.

  20. Lone Gunman says:

    You have a very soothing voice Graham. That plus the music made that sound snippet relaxing to listen to :p

  21. Feet says:

    Any chance could you add the audio track to the podcast feed please? Just so it will automatically download to my phone so I can listen to it tomorrow on the way to work. :)

  22. veerserif says:

    I remember that! I was in the original village, then moved over to the paid server, where I specialised in making cheese, which was possibly the single most useless skill in the game. But goddamn did we have good cheese.

    I kinda miss it. I’d be up for another village to jump in and be a part of.

  23. Chicago Ted says:

    Ah, Wurm. I used to play, way back when. I had a dusty shack and a small yard where I kept my little cart smack dab in the center of Brohalla, on Golden Valley, the tutorial server. Used to be you could stay for as long as you’d like after doing the tutorial, and as skill-capped free players we lost nothing by staying. I labored alongside the rest of the Bros, I helped build the walls, I helped dig the mines, I helped farm the fields. I eventually left because, well, the game was tedious.

    Some years later, I rediscovered wurm, and reinstalled to see what was left of Brohalla. I spawned in the wilderness and was promptly killed by a cougar. There had not been animals at all, as they had been disabled due to being too buggy, and I had no combat skills to speak of. I spawned in an unfamiliar location, and had to use the very bad maps google produced against my fuzzy memory of where Brohalla was. It was a trying journey, long and difficult, and I died many times to mountain lions and the like, but eventually I came upon familiar scenery. The neat terracing was gone, the peninsula returned to a more natural hilly incline, and there were no buildings, but the streets remained. I walked the streets of what was once Brohalla, I studied the crumbling statues preserved better than the rest by being in the mines, I marveled at the docks, and I climbed the steps to the platform that supported the mighty Brolossus, and once I arrived at the top, I sank to my knees in despair. For where there once stood the mighty Brolossus, the labor of dozens, including myself, stood only an empty platform where He once stood, and a sign proclaiming His existence.

    I had to uninstall. The grief was too great, the loss too keen.

  24. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    Wurm Online: Smurf Communism Simulator.

  25. Cvnk says:

    Wurm and Netflix go very well together. Mining thousands of tiles is so much easier when you can be watching TV at the same time. Some people even play other games while they play Wurm.

  26. Bassem says:

    It was the context-menu driven actions that pushed me right off the game in a matter of 15 minutes. I was very interested in the idea of the game, and tried to have a go with the RPS group, but I just couldn’t take it.

  27. PoulWrist says:

    Playing a bit of WoW again with the new patch, it strikes me how my babysteps in to the MMO world with Anarchy Online colored my expectations of what an MMO is. The, possibly absurd, level of tedium that were involved with leveling and acquiring gear, the difficulty of doing anything alone. This brought meaning to community, and it made sense to band together in organisations/guilds.

    I’ve stuck with AO for more than a decade, but as time progressed, and the popularity of MMOs skyrocketed, the formulaic version that WoW presented us with has influenced development in all larger projects, including existing ones. Turning them more “streamlined” making things easier, and over time turning what was once a strength into a weakness. With these older games, like AO, DAoC, AC, EQ, UO, which were sort of systems-driven, with the system relying heavily on the tedium of lvling/acquiring gear, when you decide that this is now a weakness, the game starts to crumble.
    But the tedium of grinding did not feel as tedious as many people today like to bemoan, because, as the article says, you shared your “suffering” with others. Also there was no other way; no “do this easy singleplayer questline and get 15 lvls + great gear”. No, growing out of gimp status and attaining uberbuff highlvl was an accomplishment, both for the individual player, but he shared the accomplishment with his guildmates and friends, because it would be impossible to do it alone.

    Some might say that this accomplishment is nonsensical in the light of modern MMO design doing away with the shared grind and replacing it with hundreds of singleplayer quests that are all “kill 5 of this 10 of that”, “pick up 8 of these”, etc., interspersed with group-events like a dungeon, and cutting away any waiting time to get friends together to go do it by introducing automatic group matchmaking. Including teleporting you straight to the dungeon interior.

    I can’t help but feel that this all becomes far more meaningless than the old grindbased system. Sure, maybe it took you 50 hours and 20 tries on a dungeon run to get a couple items and a few levels, but you spent that time interacting with your group of friends. Grouping up, feeling a share of the accomplishment as everyone in your circle of friends get slowly upgraded to all that phat loot that only the best of the best would parade around in.

    Now you just run via a questmarker and gain your lvls, click “i want dungeon run” in a game interface window, and you get a bunch of random people to try your luck with, that you will probably not even chat with during the 30 minute stint you’re all in for, and after you’re done, your group will dissolve and the players will be teleported back to the server they play on, to continue doing their own thing.

    Bemoaning the loss of tedium? Absurd, some might say. “You focus more on gameplay now”, which may be true. But I can’t help but think that if the only focus we’re talking about is that of guild raiding and mass pvp, then why does the game contain all the openworld fluff. Why don’t we have a much more focused title, like what we’ve seen with Left 4 Dead and similar titles. A focused, supersharp and enjoyable experience. It shouldn’t be all that hard to couple that with progression….

  28. Mackeriah says:

    I really liked the audio rendition Graham. Not something I can recall ever having seen done before, so look forward to seeing/hearing more of it.

    I do wonder whether any of our American readers will struggle with the accent though! ;)