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DT: Exploration Prototype 1

Hey everyone, welcome to another Stonehearth Desktop Tuesday! A22.5 is now on Steam Stable, and the team continues to move forward on A23, which is focused on crafting. In the meantime, for the last couple weeks we’ve talked about building prototypes, and how sometimes there are so many possible answers to a design question that it’s more efficient to find the answer by writing multiple janky prototypes to test out possible solutions than it is to write one beautiful final version that you know you’ll have to fix later.

This week I’d like to show you a similar kind of prototype, but one that was built to address an even larger question than building. As you may remember from previous weeks, I’ve mentioned that Designer Richard is on a long quest to address high-level game design questions that are so fundamental to gameplay that their solutions have the power to dramatically change Stonehearth’s core interaction model. Since it would be irresponsible to radically alter Stonehearth without first checking if the alteration is any good, Richard is working through these questions via fast, developer prototypes.

Exploration Prototype #1

Recap from the video:

The first of these prototypes, which I’m super excited to share with you today, is about exploration. Stonehearth is a community builder–a game about a small group of people who must optimize their environment to thrive–and community builders tend to be set in one place, around the town that your hearthlings are building together. However, you all keep asking us questions like: “Will we ever see other biomes on the same map?” or “Where do I go once my whole map is explored?” We thought these questions were worth exploring, so Richard, Engineer Max, and Engineer Angelo built a prototype to answer the following two questions.

Question #1: What would a community-building game be like if exploration were part of its core loop?

Question #2: If exploration is part of the game’s core loop, and since cities don’t move around in space the way protagonists in exploration-based RPGs like Skyrim do, how can we make sure there’s always something new to explore?

To answer the first question, Richard reasoned that exploration would only be a core part of a community-builder if it was an integral part of gaining items that unlock town progression. Since there aren’t very many things like that currently in the game (something Richard and Luke will be fixing as they revisit existing systems), he decided to create a prototype in which the job hierarchy is flattened and job talismans are no longer craftable, but instead distributed throughout the world in chests that are protected by monsters. In order to find them, you’d have to send someone–in this case, our only directable units are combat classes–to do battle with the monsters and win them for the town. If this worked, he reasoned, then in a final version of the system there would be lots of items (not just talismans) that would require exploration to discover, and lots of different kinds of challenges (not just combat) to overcome as you tried to collect them.

To begin to answer question 2–how to keep your environment constantly interesting–in tandem with question 1, Richard stipulated that in this prototype the world around your town would be dramatically altered after 6 in-game days with new content and terrain, simulating a major environmental change–like a buffalo migration, seasonal patterns, or some sort of magical terraforming or calamity. He also requested that Max and Angelo implement a very hacky, developer-art version of “true” fog of war so that, as a player, we’d only have clear vision around the sight-radius of our hearthlings. Spaces we hadn’t been to would be black, spaces near our hearthlings would be fully colored, and spaces that hearthlings had been to, but were not in currently, would be dark gray. If monsters moved into the gray area while the world was changing, players would not see them till their hearthlings were nearby, adding renewed suspense to even explored areas.

The whole team then played the playtest. The first thing we noticed was that exploration lent clear excitement to the game! It’s naturally suspenseful to clear fog of war from terrain, and everyone attached deeply to their footmen, because they were spending a lot of time carefully shepherding them around the map so they could react immediately if there was danger.

That danger, however, made the game about 10x more stressful than it had been before, because you can’t get another sword until you find another sword, so there was no way to build up an army before engaging the enemy; each combat was close. Furthermore, the stakes were really high: losing the footman meant you would have to restart the game.

On the flip side, the tension meant that each talisman and armor upgrade was imbued with meaning; one problem Stonehearth has right now is that, once you unlock a recipe, there’s no sense of scarcity; each hoe or shield is much like every other hoe or shield. In this prototype, people were thrilled each time they unlocked a new class, and were even thrilled each time they found a duplicate talisman, which enabled them to have a second farmer or fighter.

Another thing we noticed was that exploration correlated with a trivializing of the time spent on our towns; the new goal instinctively became to get as many of the items as we could before they disappeared. Creating templated dining halls and sleeping quarters became a bother as people began to attach far more to their footman than all the rest of their townsfolk. As Tom said, “Usually, I feel like the hero of my game is my carpenter. This time, the hero was definitely the footman, and everyone else was just there to support them.”

Finally, we noticed that that “true” fog of war successfully lent mystery to the surroundings, though we wanted it to be prettier, something more like Allie’s drawings from her edge of the world studies. We also wanted a way for it to be permanently cleared so that we could feel like our safe-zones had expanded.

Ok, so clearly we learned a ton from this prototype, like the fact that exploration was undeniably exciting, and that moments of suspense with the footmen increase our attachment to them in a way that is mostly missing from current playthroughs of Stonehearth, and that scarcity gave items narrative weight. At the same time, we saw that exploration can create early game stress, and distract players away from their towns. How can we retain some of the best parts of exploration, and still make a community-focused building simulation?

Next week, we’ll take a look at what Richard, Angelo, and Max did next to continue to explore these questions. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this prototype and on exploration in general! As you do, please remember that everything in these prototypes was written to address two specific questions and was thrown away thereafter, that even gameplay things like the talismans and the changing loot are placeholders for more complex concepts, that sometimes prototypes are most useful when they show you what NOT to do, and that only our learnings will be taken back into the main game.

Shoutouts to Bruno Supremo, Froggy, RepeatPan, and Vargbane for your awesome biome mods!

Other Announcements

Chris is streaming this week on Thursday, 6:00pm PST. Find him on www.twitch.tv/stonehearth and bring all your building questions!

Also, due to four weeks of work and personal travel I’m doing in October, there will be one more Desktop Tuesday next week, on 9/26, and then DT will be on break through October, to return on Tuesday, November 7th. The rest of the team will still be around, though, and working hard on A23, building, and other prototypes. Throughout DT’s hiatus in October, streams will continue to happen on Thursdays at 6:00pm PST. See you then!