Saturday, November 25, 2006

Retrospectus: A Tale in the Desert's Crafting System

I had originally intended to give a rundown of my thoughts on ATiTD in one post, but then I started writing it, and the crafting section became long enough to warrant it's own post. So, here is Part I of my ATiTD Retrospectus.

Well it's definitely a good thing they got this part right, as the game consists of 90% crafting. But let's talk a little about what is right about it. For one thing, it is entirely possible (and actually required at the beginning of the game in order to become a citizen), to bootstrap yourself up from nothing. You can gather grass and wood with your bare hands, then dry the grass into straw, then combine the straw with mud and sand (readily available in unlimited quantities) to make bricks. Then use the bricks to make a wood plane, which can then be used to make boards, and so on.

Another amazing aspect of ATiTD crafting system is the introduction of player skill. For many productions, you don’t simply gather the necessary materials, hit the create button and then watch a little bar fill up. Certain creation processes are simplified along those lines, but many others require that you actually get your hands dirty, so to speak. For example, when making charcoal, you are presented with a little pop-up screen displaying the level of heat, oxygen, wood, water and danger, as well as a progress bar. The hotter the furnace, the faster the progress bar fills. However, if the oxygen level or heat drops to 0, your fire goes out. If the danger bar hits the top, your entire batch burns up and you have to start over. You can manipulate the bars by adding wood, adding water, and opening or closing the flue. It takes some experience to learn to operate a charcoal oven. I failed on my first 3 or 4 tries before I finally had a successful run. And then I went ~50/50 for a few runs after that before I got the hang of it. And even then you still get better, learning to use less wood as well as learning how to run it hotter (and thus closer to the danger line) to complete the task more quickly!

Let’s use blacksmithing as another example. You gather metal and place it on an anvil, choosing from a list of what you would like to try and make. You are then given a flat slab of metal and shown what shape it needs to be in. You shape the metal by choosing from one of four different tools, choosing how hard you wish to strike the metal with that tool (from 1 to 9) and then selecting where on the slab to hit. The metal slab is then deformed (in 3 dimensions) based upon your selections. The closer you can make the slab resemble the desired shape, the higher quality item you can make. I spent a few hours trying my hand at smithing, and learned how to make a halfway decent sawblade, but was never able to master anything else. Smiths who can consistently make high-quality hatchets and shovels always have a demand for their services and goods.

These little crafting interfaces are sometimes a mini-game in of themselves, and not every player can master every skill. There are no real hard-coded limits here. If you want to try your hand at blacksmithing, glassblowing, charcoal making, beetle-raising, winemaking, and everything else, you can. The odds of you being a master at more than one or two skills, however, are slim.

The thing that I find most fascinating, and a complete breath of fresh air, is the interactivity of the crafting system and the involvement required by the player. Crafting an item is not simply a number comparison; it's the player interacting with the game in a meaningful way to create useful objects. This is what MMO crafting should be like, not number-crunching in a spreadsheet.

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