DT: Exploration Prototype Part 2

Hey Everyone, welcome to another Stonehearth Desktop Tuesday! This week, we continue work on A23, whose goal is to make all items in the game contribute gameplay. This means touching crafting, including an appeal system for craftables, and lots more. In the meantime, let’s use today’s DT to wrap up last week’s conversation about how Designer Richard is investigating large, open-ended, potentially game-changing questions in Stonehearth by making fast prototypes to test specific gameplay questions. Before we start, let me be SUPER clear: prototype means: fast, janky throwaway code and gameplay crafted to answer a specific question. Please understand everything you’ll see here today, including art and gameplay, is placeholder meant to give us a broad overview of the problem and potential solutions. If we really like a placeholder system, then we’ll create a more nuanced and sophisticated version for the final game.

Exploration Prototype Part 2

Recap from the video:

So last week, when we left off, Richard, Engineer Max, and Engineer Angelo were examining the role of exploration in the community-building genre. Specifically their questions were:

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?

After the first prototype, we’d discovered that though the act of exploring was exciting–it’s always interesting to reveal something new–that placing loot around the map that was replaced after some time by new loot, created artificial pressure on the player to grab everything before it disappeared. This in turn cause players to find their towns and hearthling communities a distraction, rather than the focal point of the game.

To balance this out, Richard and Max’s second prototype start players on a relatively small forest biome and tasked them to collect town upgrades and a a mcguffin–a placeholder quest item–from elsewhere around the map. To preserve the feeling of suspense, these items were still guarded by monsters, though less intense ones, and instead of creating variability in the terrain by introducing new items every 6 days, the Mcguffins could be used to summon a neighboring biome, which in turn, would offer different treasure. This treasure, when harvested, would again unlock a new biome, and on and on. To account for the fact that these biomes were super big, and that it’s exhausting to have your footman comb the entire landmass for loot, Max created a rudimentary, placeholder watchtower system: with enough materials, players can make giant fortresses that will over time, reveal all the monsters and treasures around them.

At this point: I’d like to give a special shout-out to Bruno Supremo who created the amazing canyon biome, which we appropriated for this high-speed prototype. Look at the drama in these cliffs, and the picturesque arches! Just seeing it was such an incredible motivator to want to move in! Also, shout out to RepeatPan and Froggy, who provided a winter biome as part of Frostfeast. And finally, Vargbane, who made a beautiful Anorein biome with fall colored trees! We had a great time stitching these biomes together, though the abrupt lines of demarcation between them is something I’m positive Allie will figure out how to smooth out if we ever implement something like this in our actual game.

This prototype went immediately better than the first one: people didn’t feel nearly so urgent about collecting all the treasure around the map, and so were able to focus on their towns between expeditions with their footmen. Footmen could rest in town between trips. The watchtowers allowed people to slowly expand their foothold into the fog of war, and the different biomes were a pleasure to explore. Speaking for myself, discovering metals in the rocky wall of the canyon biome made me immediately want to create a mining outpost.

Still, this prototype too, revealed a number of issues. First of all, given our focus on small communities, is it appropriate for Stonehearth to encourage players to make chains of outposts, each only inhabited by a few hearthlings? Does that really further our goal of making a community-builder? Furthermore, we believe that people care most about the monuments and landmarks that are closest to their cities. If people went into other biomes solely to collect resources, would they ever attach to those biomes, or come to see them merely as land to be stripmined? And what happens when you exhaust all the biomes near your town, and have to go ever further out to find new places to explore? Will all your time be spent navigating from one space to another?

This last issue–the vast spaces involved in the prototype, also brought up a technical hurdle. As I’m sure any of you who has created a mine far from your banner knows, hearthlings are awful at traversing long distances. Footmen would get halfway to a target before going home to sleep or eat. Combat or conversation can easily distract hearthlings transporting crates and supplies. People do not always choose to eat near their beds. These problems, which Richard had already encountered in his mainline designs for happiness, traits, conversations, and now crafting, were so acute that we paused development on further iterations of this prototype so that he, Max, and Albert could get back into the AI, and solve these issues for the game at large. More on this in some future Desktop Tuesday!

And that’s where we’ll wrap up on exploration prototypes for now! In the long term, we’re very excited as a team to see if, through prototypes, we can find a way to include more elements of exploration in our game. We’d love to hear what you think here in the comments!

Other Announcements

Desktop Tuesday on Hiatus till Nov 7th: Due to a combination of work related and personal travel, I will be in the office only intermittently through the month of October, meaning that Desktop Tuesday will be on pause through the month and return on Tuesday November 7th. I’ll miss you all, but while I’m traveling the rest of the team will still be working super hard on Alpha 23.

Streaming! Streams will continue as normal through October. Find them on at 6:00pm PST. This week it’s going to be Malley so bring all your animation and vfx questions. In his free time, Malley is also learning HTML/Javascript/CSS so that he can put VFX manipulation fields into SHED without bothering an engineer about it so… for those of you who know, come and commiserate.