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Frontier Psychiatry: Wurm Online Interview

As anyone who picked up the last issue of PC Gamer UK might know - it's the one with Starcraft 2 cover and the massively redesigned editorial - some friends and I have been playing a lot of Wurm Online. Since then I got in touch with developer Rolf Jansson, and you can read his answers to my questions below. But first I need to explain Wurm.

The best way to describe Wurm is as a high fantasy Eve Online, and it's interesting for exactly the same reasons as Eve and a few more besides. While Eve starts you off in a space-faring milk float with a mining laser, in Wurm you begin as a hopeless peasant with... well, this:

But without the lingonberry, or clay, or assorted wounds. And while in Eve you can one day hope to own this:

In Wurm you could look forward to this:

Or this:

Or, uh, this:

But really, Eve and Wurm run almost totally parallel. They're both games which eschew structured player experiences and clear-cut levels and instead provide a big fat single world where the 'game' is in living out a virtual life doing whatever you choose. Weirdly, both games also saw a release in 2003 and both have been enjoying the same kind of trial-and-error dynamic development ever since. They even both enjoy Scandinavian roots. Eve has Iceland, Wurm has Sweden. Brr!

At this point a not entirely unfair observation would be that Eve has that icy Nordic beauty about it and Wurm looks like a sick in a bag. And yeah, Wurm can look horrible. It actually runs in Java. But there's an eerie, human beauty to Wurm involving fog and flowers, and sunrises reflecting off of water, and cresting a hill to see a dozen plumes of smoke tumbling upwards from a peaceful village. It also features plenty of scalable options that'll let you tax your system in the name of making the visuals more palatable.

Anyway! The big, exciting thing that Wurm does that Eve doesn't is the freedom everyone gets to cultivate or break the world utterly. Anyone can take their shovel and dig pits, mines and tunnels. Anyone can equip a sickle and pluck flowers and seeds from trees and bushes to plant them elsewhere. But that's just the start, and more importantly nobody can avoid making this kind of impact on the world. If you want to make arrows... no, scratch that. If you want to do something as simple as cook then you need kindling for a fire, and that involves whittling away at something made of wood in your inventory or permanently chopping down a tree.

When the current Wurm servers started they contained nothing but virgin islands, and it was the players who designed and built the villages, forts, farms, shops, mines, roads and inns that are there now in various states of use, misuse and abandonment. This is important! This is /really cool!/ Not only does it give the layout of the world an intriguing, immersive plausibility, it adds an extra dimension to everything from the lowest level crafting to the highest level inter-kingdom warfare. The craftsman needs to think about where his material is coming from, the general needs to think not only about conquering castles but building, repairing and breaking them.

Or, to sell you on the idea using a story, when my flatmate and I first started playing we chose a home with amazing forest of dirty great trees a stone's throw away. Problem was, the trees were all up what turned out to be a total jerk of a cliff face that would always let me get within centimeters of the top before I ran out of stamina and went rolling back down the hill like a wheel of cheese. One day I finally managed to scrabble up through a mixture of luck and more luck, but this presented me with a problem. I couldn't get back up reliably but on the trip back down I'd only be able to carry a tiny quantity of the lumber we needed. Checking my inventory I found that as well as my saw I happened to have my hammer, a carving knife and a few nails. I knew what I had to do.

My flatmate didn't see me for two in-game days. When I arrived back home my character was exhausted, starving hungry and dragging an honest-to-God wooden cart loaded with 2 entire felled trees. The most complex thing I'd whittled prior to that was a mallet. I'd gone up that mountain a boy and come back down a man.

Course, the reason we needed those logs in the first place was that the place we were 'living' in was a ramshackle house built into the side of a hill that was so old the stone walls enclosing it had partly crumbled. Instead of going to the immense effort of building some crap shed of our own we moved into this guy's garden and patched up the holes in the wall with wooden fences. We lived out those days in mortal fear of the unknown landlord coming home and finding us sat in his garden roasting a batch of the crap casseroles we lived off in those days. We'd even had the gall to push his ornate fountain to one side to make room for a tiny corn field.

Don't judge us. Your first week or two spent playing Wurm are all about transcending this hobo status and becoming more of a craftsman/outdoorsman figure. This is when Wurm comes into its own, because that's when you start thinking about leaving the newbie island forever and migrating to one of the three gigantic grown-up territories. It's the equivalent of leaving Empire space in Eve and probably the defining part of Wurm. You step through the one-way portal with what you've decided are the bare essentials and are unceremoniously spawned in a strange land where not just your success but your survival is dependent on your skill as a pioneer.

There's a real energy to that moment, the same flourishing of optimism that's been documented in real-life frontiersmen. The first thing my friends and I did was go running up a hill covered in wildflowers to see if we could get a view of our new home right up to the horizon. It was beautiful. Never mind the fact that we didn't expect the cliff at the top and two of us came within inches of flinging ourselves to our deaths.

(I'm telling you man, the cliffs in this fucking game.)

Our search for some well-situated land to make our own was even more dramatic. Heading in a rough northerly direction (none of us had compasses and the only map we could find online belonged to the same school of meticulous cartography found in the original Thief) we found an impassable mountain. Next we tried pushing Eastwards, inland. We spent some 40 minutes trekking through a deep forest before finally emerging on the other side, which was lucky because by that point two of us had been slowed to a crawl by dehydration. Then it turned we weren't at the other side of the forest, not even a little bit. We'd somehow gotten turned completely around and ended up exactly where we'd gone in.

After hours of this type of crap we decided we were through with aggroing pathetic creatures then having to spend the next three minutes running away. Raising an assortment of bruised and broken middle fingers in the direction of this land we returned to the coast with the plan of swimming south, thereby pushing out of the overpopulated new-player zone while avoiding all creatures and obstacles. Aha! Didn't think of that, did you nature? The human spirit triumphs over all!

Needless to say we almost drowned. The shore quickly turned into a sheer cliff, and unlike a beach you can't just climb onto a cliff to get your stamina back. We had the option of turning back or forging ahead through the sea and hoping the cliff ended before we were too exhausted to swim further. In an achingly predictable turn of events we chose to forge ahead and the cliff didn't end.

But here's the neat thing- someone had made this journey before us and piled up dirt periodically against the cliff wall. Every seven minutes we found another tiny slope of dirt we could fling ourselves onto like beached whales, catching our breath before dropping back into the water like stones.

By the time the cliff gave way to a shore again there was only a mercifully short hike before we found some land we were happy to lay claim to. We'd stumbled across a forested hill overlooking the sea, complete with a mountain ripe for mining a two minute walk away. It was idyllic. It was practical. It was full of these goddamn fucking fifteen-foot wide spiders who if you aggroed them would spend the next ten minutes zeroing in on you with echolocation and sat nav. And the problem with running for your life in this place was that you inevitably bolted straight off a fucking cliff and then had these intolerable five seconds where you and your shattered legs look back up in blind terror at where you fell from and you just have to pray that the horrible animal you were running from isn't quite insane enough to throw itself after you.

Once we'd built a house we quickly established the most heinous crime an individual in our group was capable of was running for the sanctuary of our cottage when they were being chased by a spider. Yes, it was the safest thing to do. It was also a surefire way of depositing the thing into the dead centre of our camp, which is always a hilarious surprise for anyone coming home after a nice afternoon spent lumberjacking or foraging for berries or whatever.

(Pretty sure my encounters with those spiders has permanently screwed me up. While looking for pictures for this article I found this shot and once my eyes focused on what it's actually of my heart skipped a beat and I felt sick.)

Another fun surprise we had in those early days occurred when one of us went down to the shore to fill our water barrels. Looking up at the hill you could see a huge gap in the tree line from where we cleared the land, which was basically a massive sign to any foreign raiders passing by in ships that some peaceful people were hiding up there. As the most green-fingered out of the group I dutifully set about harvesting all the tree sprouts I could find, planting them in a neat wall along the hill. Job done, we all relaxed. A week later someone went down to refill the water barrels again and found the tree line, which was otherwise made entirely of pine trees, now had a section roughly where we lived made up of apple trees, olive trees, lemon trees, weeping willows, maple trees and cherry trees. Doggedly we passed out hatchets and tried that again.

It wasn't overly paranoid of us, either. Enemy raiders are something to be feared. As much as I make Wurm sound like a game about staying warm by smearing yourself with faeces while roasting beetles over an open fire, at high levels it gets plenty heroic. New players bent double over forges trying and failing to make fishing hooks over and over can look forward to making dragon scale armour one day (assuming they can find a dragon, which are believed by the playerbase to be hunted to extinction). That guy whittling away at a log trying to turn it into a plank might end up owning a dockyard and auctioning his own caravels. And every time you plant an onion you're inching along the long road to becoming a priest of Fo.

Most high-level play in Wurm is focused around warfare between the three kingdoms and, more excitingly, artifacts. These are items scattered around the world of Wurm that cannot be destroyed and if you log off with them in your inventory they're left on the floor. The Gold Crown of Might, for instance, can dominate any creature in the world utterly for three hours. The Glass Orb of Doom causes everyone in a small radius including the user to be brought right up to death's door, waiting only for a finishing blow. Getting these things out of the hands of your enemies and into your safest fortresses makes for a pretty intriguing end-game, especially when you consider there are some artifacts nobody quite understands yet.

My friends and I are still very much in the beetle-eating phase though. I mean, rudimentary mount functionality was added in the last patch and while the hardcore exploded onto the forums pointing out all the bugs in mounted combat I logged on to find my friend riding in circles on the camp's cow. Mighty adventurers we are not. A fun thing about the mounts is last time I checked there still weren't any sitting animations. Everyone just stands on the back of their animal.

If you're interested in trying Wurm, you're in luck. It's kinda free! The Newbie Island is, anyway, officially known as the Golden Valley server. New players all spawn there and get all the free steak they can eat for 24 hours to help soften their arrival. You really want to gorge yourself on that stuff, incidentally. That way you'll build up fat layers that'll come in handy in the lean times ahead. Aside from the free tasty steak, PvP is disabled in the Golden Valley and the monsters are all pansies. All of this is covered in the Wurm Wiki, which you should clutch to your chest like a bible. Seriously. Check it all the time, for everything. Ever. To start playing Wurm without doing so is to go on a first date with your penis already out.

The real disadvantage of not paying a subscription fee is that all of your skills and stats are capped, though even that won't be a problem for dozens of hours of play. So like I say, the game's kinda free.

A couple of things to keep in mind about subscriptions: No matter how much you might love the sound of all this, try Wurm before you spend any money. The last patch ripped plenty of holes in the game and caused lots of exciting incompatibilities that haven't all been fixed. Second, when you first pay the subscription fee you get a 'Referral' which can be given to any other player who's paid a subscription fee at least once. They can then cash in that referral for another month or five silver coins.

How Wurm got to the level of development it currently enjoys is a strange one that's probably better told by Rolf Jansson. Rolf made up one half of the original development team and now organises the band of volunteers and paid specialists who work on Wurm. Wurm's press department was only too keen to pester him into an interview with us.

RPS: Wurm Online has a fairly unorthodox structure for its development team, a mix of outsourcing and volunteer work. Do you think you could explain it for our readers?

Rolf: The team structure has risen from necessity and player demands. When we started out we were only two people doing everything ourselves and we knew that we needed help with sounds, models and textures. A lot of people offered to help out because they thought that the idea had potential and wished to see it succeed. We wanted the Wurm world to have a consistent look and one person to be in charge of that, since it is a major long term undertaking. Not many volunteered and a few failed, so we decided to share the revenue with the person we were satisfied with, then he could share it with those who help him out.

When the game was opened for playing the players saw the need for Game Masters. We let them elect a few and organize themselves. After a while the need for chat moderators was voiced so we implemented some functionality for that as well.

The issue of payment for these people is in most cases pretty obvious. We usually can't promise any and nobody asks for it. The internet is teeming with talented people who want to help out and be involved with their hobbies. We need that help and we like to let them contribute. We also have a client development team, a sound engineer/web master, and one person is trusted enough to have access to the server code. All of those work pro bono although some have purchased shares in Onetoofree AB [Rolf's development company]. We only offer credits and influence and expect everyone to help out for only as long as they have a fun time doing so. Basically, offering more would potentially get us into a lot of legal problems even though it would be nice.

RPS: Where did the decision to use Java Runtime Environment come from?

Rolf: When Markus Persson and I started the project in 2003 we knew Java and C++. I thought that Java was a lot nicer to program, had garbage collection and was platform independent and I think that so did Markus. It also proved to be fast enough in the right hands.

RPS: Okay. So, the most exciting aspect of Wurm is obviously the freedom each individual player has. Has that been difficult to balance? From the outside looking in it seems like you just threw a bunch of empty Wurm Online servers up and the players constructed a living, breathing world at the drop of a hat.

Rolf: You are very right in that putting up a new server is pretty straightforward once a proper new map has been generated. Then creatures start spawning, plants start growing, and the players come to tame and civilize this hostile environment. If this was a single player game this would have been pretty easy to code I believe, even though few single player games allow this kind of interactivity.

A lot of the features are somewhat self-balancing. If you can't tame that wolf or build that palisade yet it is usually just a matter of time before you can - if the skill level required is within a reasonable range then the players who care will persevere. The economy is supply and demand driven so there is no need for me to find exactly balanced trader prices for items either. NPC traders do not pay much for goods so as long as they have money or players are willing to pay more for an item the price is usually right. But other features do require quite a lot of tweaking before we get them right though, like the new fighting system which still requires some work.

Then the huge amounts of data handled, the processing power and internet bandwidth needed to distribute this information makes this an even more daunting task. Add to that the grief control and anti-cheat functionality that is needed for every feature and you have one of the most advanced server softwares out there, in my opinion. So yes in the end it is very difficult.

RPS: Are there any features or player freedoms you'd have liked to implement but feel you can't entrust the player base with, no matter the number of Game Masters and how high the skill requirement?

ROLF: No, I can't recall ever having made such a consideration. The things that usually limit what the players can do is code complexity and whether something should be unique or not. For instance I want history to repeat itself as little as possible.

RPS: A lot of Wurm fans (and I gather some of the development team?) were very upset at the patch this March which, among other things, added functionality for Wild Server players [the most lawless and violent of three kingdoms] to raid the Home Servers and in general took the game in a more war-like direction where nobody is safe. But you posted on the forums saying this was the game you wanted to make all along. Did the reaction of your fanbase disappoint you? And what, ultimately, are you trying to build out of Wurm?

Rolf: Naturally I realized that it was a dramatic change that would upset a lot of people and make them quit. I felt that it was necessary at the time but I probably should have offered them the PvP-free lands we are adding now instead.

PvP as a feature gives a lot of people bad associations and rightly so. More or less uncontrolled PvP as we see in some other games is evil - watching your back all the time from high-skilled gankers gets frustrating quickly. In Wurm PvP is mainly supposed to happen Kingdom versus Kingdom instead because then there is cooperation and heroic glory. But in my opinion PvP must exist inside kingdoms as well because if someone harasses you there must be a way to pay a price but get rid of that player. That price is high in certain kingdoms in Wurm when it comes to reputation and alignment losses.

The alternative to this would be to limit player interaction and have Game Masters available to handle the remaining harassment situations. Some players prefer that and although I personally do not I still understand that they love to play Wurm, so I will make these PvP-free lands available.

Another reason to allow enemy kingdoms to visit your lands is that it makes it more dangerous to go to sleep running a bot, which is good for the economy.

The Epic Wurm lands that will be released soon will be a tale where everyone may play a crucial part and feel that they contribute to something fantastic and jaw-dropping. The tale will be determined by what the players decide to do. Like many other tales I want this one to consist of slow buildups, dramatic changes, mysterious artefacts and creatures, beauty and heroism in epic situations by interesting players... ehh people. I think that soon we will have most parts covered. That tale requires PvP.

RPS: Yess. I've heard a bunch of scattered stuff about your desire to lay the outline of a story and get the players to fill all the roles. Do you think you could explain that in more detail for our readers?

Rolf: I am always a bit reluctant to speak about upcoming features because I think people have seen enough hypes fail already in all kinds of games and I'd rather not be part of that. But the general idea is that there are forces in Wurm - for instance the gods - that have agendas and usually they need the players to help them with this.

RPS: I've been told you guys are pretty opinionated on the independent games sector. Can you give me one of those opinions now?

Rolf: Actually I am not very opinionated, apart from that I don't see any of the big bucks gaming companies doing this kind of free-form game. I wanted to play the game that Wurm aims to be for over a decade and got tired of waiting. There are some independent companies aiming at the same niche with the huge world, skill based progression and sandbox type of play but for some reason they seem to fail. I can understand that a big game company attempting something like this would need a huge budget given the expected quality at release and I guess an independent developer has the possibility to try new ideas in the way that suits them best and with less expectations.

RPS: That's something we're seeing less and less of in the mod scene these days- people creating these things simply because it's the game in their head they want to play. It seems like today everyone's trying to second-guess everyone else, attempting to make something that'll get them or the game taken on by a developer. What did you think of A Tale In The Desert?

ROLF: I haven't actually played it because I read that it didn't have PvP. I got the impression that it was a skill based crafting game with a plot that reset once per year. It just didn't sound epic enough for me for some reason.

RPS: Touchy subject- are you making a living out of Wurm? Would you recommend your subscriber model of a generous free-to-play game followed by subscription fees followed by optional in-game purchases?

Rolf: Yes I work full time at Wurm and can usually lift a normal salary by most standards. I've had a lot of different jobs and this is not the best paid and is absolutely the most strenuous. Trying to run a company, keep game servers up and keep players happy 24/7 while developing an MMO and inadvertently introducing bugs is not something I would normally recommend. I need to earn a lot more before I can consider it worth the effort.

I like our endless free trial model. It gives people the opportunity to try the game and see it for what it is before they decide if they want to pay for it. I don't like time limited trials myself.

Apart from giving a steady, fairly predictable cash flow, subscriptions is a good way of reducing cheating on payment-only servers. Then there is always real money to be lost if you are caught, but I guess a one-time fee also does the trick.

I am not a big fan of selling in-game items such as swords and potions in web shops. To me it means that the rich win the game. I do however like that we sell in game coins to those who can afford which they in turn give to the other players for items and services they produce. Then all the players gain and we get our share as well.

If you can - make a game where advertising fits well in-game such as a racing game. Money is always good for a game.

The Wurm Online website is here.

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