Humanity ain't so bad. I mean it! As a species, we do alright for ourselves.
You could check out the latest Human Security Report if you don't believe me. Over the last 10 years the number of armed conflicts around the world has fallen by 40 per cent, and the number of fatalities per conflict is dropping too. If that's not enough for you, check out this video of a parasitic Gordian worm causing a cricket to commit suicide by flinging itself into a body of water, thereby allowing the worm's aquatic children to wriggle out into the world. Now there's an unpleasant species.
Or you could read on and learn a little about Wurm Online, which isn't really a worm at all but is in fact an indie MMO. Unlike the Gordian worm, this stuff is bound to put you in a good mood about your brother man without putting you off your dinner and every other dinner for the rest of your life.
Wurm Online is set a fantasy interpretation of the Dark Ages, but under the skin it resembles nothing less than a cross between EVE Online and the as-yet unfinished Love. EVE because Wurm is an unstructured experience where the "game" is in doing whatever you want and forging your own violent or non-violent path in a player-built world, and Love because players are free to build and tear down structures as they see fit, as well as terraform the world. Or, most likely, just terraform the tiny piece of it they've decided is theirs.
To get specific, players in Wurm start as hearty peasants with nothing but the wind in their hair, a full stomach and a bag full of simple tools such as a rake, flint, tinder, hatchet and so on. There's a simple tutorial that gives you the most cursory of explanations of crafting and resource-gathering and the like, and... that's it. From there, you're on your own in a land full of dangerous creatures, virgin terrain and player-built settlements both thriving and abandoned. Hey, things could be worse. That tutorial's only a recent development.
So what do people do in Wurm? Well, they build homes for themselves. They grow vegetables. They build ships. They train with swords or axes or bows, or dig caves. They make friendships and get into fights. Sometimes they fight big battles and build statues. They cut down trees, plant flowers, pick flowers and plant trees. They just exist. They are human, and they have fun being human while watching their skills and stats tick up all the while.
Or, in the words of Wurm's volunteer PR man and soundtrack composer Joss Sanglier, "It's the ultimate social game. Because whether you are a hunter, a fighter, a carpenter, an outlaw or anything else, at the end of the day you can look over a wall at another player and ask him how is pumpkins are. That is what real life is - an amalgamation of the inane covered by a thin veneer of unimportance."
The world that the small team behind Wurm has built has an undertone of the real that borders on the sublime. To put it another way, my flatmate's favourite memory of playing Wurm is the time he was slaving away, bent double over his forge, and lost track of time. With the Morrowind soundtrack playing in the background he caught sight of an unexpected sunrise over the mountains in the distance, its warmth searing away the pitch darkness of night. That's it. That's the end of the story. Having played the game, I completely understand where he's coming from.
While the intangible aura of realism in Wurm comes largely from all the hard work the devs put into designing the look of the game and the in-depth systems governing crafting, eating, fighting and so on, it also comes from something no other fantasy MMO can boast - the world built by the same real people that actually live there. And that's not just a reference to the gravitas of looking down at a dockyard or barracks and knowing it was set in place, plank by plank, by players. The positioning and design of everything in the world makes sense. To use one example, the villages you find in areas which are in constant danger from rival kingdoms are all painstakingly constructed high up on near-vertical mounds of dirt to make attack almost impossible.
The reason all this cheers me up is simple. Ramshackle and awkward as it might be, the people playing this game have built a world. They didn't have to do that. Nobody made them. Plenty of them even paid money for the privilege, forking out five euros a month for Premium subscriptions, or even more for the tokens that allow them to found official settlements.
This wasn't a foregone conclusion. There was potential for Wurm to devolve into anarchy the moment it opened, but it didn't, and it didn't because we're better than that. We build, and we help each other. Wurm has one of the friendliest communities of any game I've ever encountered, and while it has its fair share of violence, this almost exclusively takes place on the Wild server, where it's fostered by the developers in inter-kingdom warfare and skirmishes over powerful artefacts.
In fact, a recent patch that allowed Wild server players to send raiding parties to the safer Home servers caused the community to erupt so fiercely that an entirely new Freedom server was quickly sculpted, where PVP, stealing and lock-picking is disabled. Anyone who had a problem with the new patch was welcome to up sticks and sail away to their new home. As in, actually sail away. One of the many neat touches in Wurm is that different servers take the form of different islands, and travel between them is not just possible but encouraged. It used to be, before drowning was implemented, that you could even swim the gap.
You might have gathered from all this that Wurm Online enjoys somewhat chaotic development. That'd be an understatement, but it's also something you can forgive the game for. It was originally the pet project of just two Swedish programmers, Rolf Jansson and Markus Persson, back in 2003, and it still uses Java Runtime Environment. The reason Wurm continues to be developed to this day is that, as well as adoring subscribers, it's picked up support from an army of volunteers scattered across the globe who simply love the game and want to support it.
A few of the Wurm GMs spilled some details about who they are in real life for the purposes of this article. Blackout enjoys playing with vintage Bentleys, and keeps playing Wurm because he loves helping people. Oracle lives in New Zealand with his wife and family and has just retired from his job as an antique dealer and furniture restorer, and plays Wurm for the same reason Rolf and Markus started work on it - because there was and still is nothing else like it available. Diana, age 52, is the owner of a small organic pet food company. She talked about how she was present at the first in-Wurm wedding, back when there was only one player model and it was a man.
Pacer lives in Ohio and fondly remembers being lost up a mountain in Wurm with his buddy, lost and scared in one of those uniquely dark Wurm nights. Mithika makes stainless steel jewellery out of Vancouver, Canada, and is proud of succeeding at her in-game goal of owning a dragon. Niobe lives in Illinois with her husband and fell in love with Wurm when her neighbours helped her with the Lava Fiend that ended up wandering into her mine. Tich, 50, lives in Perth, and among his Wurmian achievements is designing and constructing a giant chess set.
All this adds up to the principal reason MMO developers should be paying attention to Wurm. It's blurring the line between players and developers. Players are free to create and alter the world, GMs are recruited from the players and are still free to play the game, anyone with the knowledge can contribute to development, and the development reacts to the player-base. And, amazinglyy, Wurm still works. More than just holding together as a competent MMO, it's infinitely more entertaining than any number of the commercial releases we're told to enjoy. It's the Wikipedia of videogames, a shining example that as long as humans are told to build something instead of just play along, we're pretty alright.
If Rolf's to be believed, the best is still to come, too. Before the summer's over the Wurm developers are aiming to get a new Epic server up, a land where players from different empires will compete in grand scenarios that'll last between three months and a year. At the minute we can't tell if details are under wraps or simply totally undecided, but what we do know is that Rolf's aim is to create a structure wherein the players themselves will tell the story, naturally filling all the roles in the cast and thereby becoming the game's future lore.
Wurm Online is well worth a look, especially when that look requires only the smallest of downloads and costs nothing. Subscription fees only enter into things if you want to get off the Newbie server or you start hitting skill caps, and it'll take at least 30 hours before either of those things happen. That said, the crippling guilt that you should be giving these guys some kind of money kicks in at about 25 hours. And that's because you should. Getting into Wurm, and then imagining what it'd be like with proper funding, is bound to make you a little weak at the knees.