Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Q&A: A Valley Without Wind Economies And Crafting

Thanks to some excellent questions by Flatfingers in our forum, I'm reminded to talk a bit about the economy in AVWW, as well as crafting.

Q: What will the process of crafting something feel like? Will it be a simple one-step action, or can it be a sequence of steps that benefit from knowledge and planning?

To craft something, you just open up the crafting menu for that type of profession (say, Weaponsmith), and then you have a list of the materials that you currently have in your inventory.  So if you have, say, Bronze and Silver, that's all you see in the list there.  When you select Bronze, you see a list of all the recipes that include bronze.  Any of them that you have all the components for show up as active, the rest are grayed out.  You can see what will be produced as you scroll past each one, and when you see one that you like and that you have all the materials for, you can simply press the Confirm key on that item, and it gets created -- that's it.

So there's not any sort of skill or dexterity to the crafting; it's not a minigame or a puzzle.  However, what there IS, in great abundance, is choice.  A hunk of bronze could be useful for traps, for weapons, armor, crests, and so on.  A ruby gemstone could be useful for crafting spell gems that cast a fireball, or it could be used as part of a trap, weapon, or crest to give it some sort of fire-related properties.  It can also be combined with certain other gemstones to create some things that are only tangentially fire-related (such as some of the stuff that has both properties of fire and light, and so uses ruby and quartz).

Q: Will source resources have different properties, and if so will the resource properties affect to some amount the characteristics of the crafted item?

Yes, many of the resources are basically tied to an ability.  Rubies have fire-related effects.  Quartz is related to light.  Other materials would lead to homing spells when combined with spells that don't normally have homing, and things of that nature.

Q: Will crafted items be unique, or will most items of the same type be identical?

Well... it depends on what you mean, really.  An iron rapier is an iron rapier and that's pretty much it.  However, that would be just the most basic recipe.  There would also be recipes for an iron rapier with slots, or possibly with something like a fire gem inside it or something.  And when you put crests or spell gems into slots, then you get other combinatorial effects such as a rapier with a speed crest to swing faster, or a fire gem to have fireballs shoot out when you swing it.  Or both, if there are multiple slots in there.

Given the same recipe and the same stuff put in your slots, you'll always get exactly the same result.  There's not any sort of random rolling of stats or something.  But our goal is to make it so that there are so many recipes that you have a real buffet of choice with any given thing.  Early in the game there are no slots at all, and so things tend to be more generic then while you're still just getting used to everything.

Then you start getting one slot on items, then two slots per item, and maybe more than that much later on (not sure yet on that).  And that's where you can get into some interesting stats-augmenting, which is basically what the slots are all about.  But unlike the core crafting system, the slots aren't currently planned to be irreversible (so you can make a speed-fireball iron rapier, and later change it to something like a strength-strength iron rapier or whatever)

Q: [Will AVWW] have a money economy anywhere or pure barter everywhere?

At present we plan to have no money whatsoever.  Mostly it's not even barter, either -- other characters won't have stuff that you can get from them, and you won't have anything they want most of the time, either.  In specific cases where somebody needs some of X resource, you might happen to have it or you might need to go get it, but that's more of a favor than a barter, because you won't get anything back from them in any direct sort of sense.  Instead, you've just helped them on to their own goals, and you may have improved their attitude toward you in the meantime.

Both of which CAN benefit you in very direct ways.  If they are sufficiently happy with you, then they are more likely to do YOU favors (like crafting stuff, etc), and they're more likely to listen to things like your suggestions that they come to X settlement or whatever.  For people that already like you fine, helping them further their goals quite possibly also helps you: making the settlement more protected might have uses of its own; helping a guy become a better weaponsmith means that he can make better weapons for you as well as anyone else he's making weapons for.  And so on.

This is a post-disaster situation.  I don't know if you've ever been through one of those, but I've been through several -- mainly hurricane and tornado aftermaths, though this has more in common with hurricane aftermaths because those affect everyone.  I've observed that in those situations there's a lot of neighborly help going on.  You have a chainsaw and I don't, so you come over and cut the logs off my driveway so that I can get my car out.  This isn't in exchange for anything, and I'm not obligated to you in any way after that.  You just were helping out because you had a chainsaw and I didn't.  And the power is out inside for everyone, so it's not like any of us have anything else to do, anyway.  Heh.  But later, it's perfectly natural for me to help me lug tree remains down to the woods if you lost a ton of trees and I didn't.  And so on.

So it's one of those situations like that, where we all have individual interests but are also willing to help one another out.  I wouldn't even call it altruism, it's just how everyone tends to come together in the wake of a disaster.  I'm walking down the street and see somebody I don't know struggling to get debris off their car, and I stop to help because I happen to be there and I have the time.  They'd do the same for me, unless they actively disliked me, were way too busy, were hurt or disabled, or were unusually selfish or whatever.

More or less... this is what we're modeling.  But it's something that is growing and changing, so three months from now that answer might not really be correct or all-encompassing.  I really doubt we'll move to having money, though, because it's simply not that sort of game.  There's not a shop that you can go to to buy... anything.  You have to go out and scavenge or discover everything, but those are also all just raw materials -- you aren't finding guns and swords like in Diablo or Borderlands.  So what we actually have is an expertise trade, where you give me the resources and I give you back a finished good because I'm able to and it's not that much work for me.  Assuming I don't hate you or mistrust you, and I'm not lazy or selfish.

Q: It's pretty refreshing to see a game that really wants players to focus on the post-disaster experience rather than on conventional gameplay. I'm just thinking that the economy-free approach could be a shock to a lot of today's gamers, who've come to think that games without certain features are somehow "broken."

Well, and I appreciate that.  Thing to remember is, we really don't want to do what other games have done.  And I really don't think that, once things are to a certain point development-wise, people will see the things we omit as a flaw -- because we're including so much else that's never been seen before. 

It's kind of like with AI War, where there are no civs -- basically unlike every other strategy game out there -- but I've literally never had anyone complain about that fact because the way we made it was basically "build your own civ" and works just as well or better.  In terms of not having any PvP in that game, despite the fact that's the RTS mainstay mode, there have been some folks that looked, didn't see that feature, and avoided the game I'm sure.  But that's a pretty easy decision to make when you're evaluating games; I've self-sorted out many games without co-op, when I'm looking for new games to play.

The other thing to bear in mind is that in a fairly literal sense there is an economy, in the same sense that AI War has civs without having them.  We just streamlined it.  Having an in-game economy is all about power, and options.  What are you able to do, and how can you become able to do the things you currently are not able to do. 

Having a currency is the least possible imaginative way I can think of to do that, because then the answer to any question is almost always the same: get more money.  Grind monsters, collect their money and loot drops, sell the loot you don't like, and buy the thing you want.  I used to really enjoy that in RPGs, but that's been done so many times since the NES days that now I'm really sick of it.

Here you're not bartering with other folks or buying things from shops -- that whole survivor mentality and all that -- but you are bartering your time against the types of activities you undertake.  You want a level III fire spell?  You can't just go grind monsters and then build it.  You'd better go find a level III ruby, which requires figuring out where level III rubies might be, and then going there and essentially going through the "dungeon" (to use the Zelda term) to find one or more.  Then once you have that level III ruby, suddenly you realize you can build a lot more than just a fire spell -- but you can only choose one of the available options per ruby you have, so that creates an economy of choice.

You could just grind away getting level III rubies to build everything, of course, but by the time you finish that you'll be leveled up enough that you might want level IV rubies to really keep up with the monsters that are appropriate to your level.  So just trying to grind is futile, you have to actually make choices.  And those choices have permanent effects either great or small, but they aren't irreversible -- if you make a level III fireball spell and find it not to your taste, at level IV (or even if you find another level III ruby) you might use your rubies for something you like better.

Anyway, the reason we don't have shops or money is because every other game does it, it's played out to us, and we have a more interesting and strategic way of handling things.  Even though I don't want to be labeled a "strategy game developer," both Keith and I do think along those lines when it comes to game design, and we're always looking for ways to add in interesting decisions rather than the time taxes that are common to RPGs.  I really can't imagine that someone will come and see this system and then be mad they bought the game because they thought there was going to be shops and money.

Q: At any rate, "it's not a sim."

Though the game is a "sim of a sim," if that distinction makes sense.  This is a game of Zelda or Crystalis in terms of most of its gameplay, but one thing those games have in common with each other but not AVWW is that their worlds are static and unchanging, and you can't really interact with NPCs except in really scripted, limited ways.  Here that's not the case, because you can interact with each NPC, and the overall world, in various substantial ways.

The game is not a sim, in the sense that the simulation isn't deterministic or high-fidelity, but we will have lots of "approximation algorithms" during the "fast aging" step that simulate what a sim might have done during the time you were away.  So if you've been away from some NPCs for two game hours, and you come back, then during the fast aging step it does two hours worth of stuff.  It looks and thinks "what were the NPC's goals, and what would they have had time to do during the time," and then approximates those things.

Thus you wind up in a world that feels alive and which is ever-changing, but it's incredibly light on the CPU and it's also easier to program in the sense that we don't have to be super-specific in detailed simulations of characters walking around, chopping wood, re-growing trees, and so on.  All of that stuff is off-screen and not related to you-the-player and how you play, anyway, you only care about the result.  It's much the same reason that with AI War I shortcutted the AI from having an economy.  As some players have put it, "the AI is playing Risk while you play AI War," and that's really true.  The combat AI is the real deal, but the AI economy in AI War is just a simulation of a simulation because it's stuff that happens offscreen and that you-the-player only care about the result of.

Put another way, my focus is always on the player experience.  What is fun, what is new and interesting, what twists your brain a bit?  To me, having a detailed simulation usually has nothing to do with any of those things: at the level that most games do it, it's simply a programming parlor trick.  "Look how clever I am," says the programmer, "that I could simulate an entire [whatever] to this depth!"  I like being a clever programmer as much as the next person, but I take that in small doses -- I like shipping games that are huge and fun and made by incredibly too-small teams even more.  So my attempts at cleverness manifest as ways in which to "simulate simulations" and thus cut out the boring behind the scenes work that nobody sees, anyway.

Thanks very much to Flatfingers for his insightful comments and questions!  He's also got a pretty cool blog about game design and other things, as well.

With anything like AVWW that is trying to break new ground all over the place, the proof is always in the pudding.  It's easy to talk about AI War because the game is out and people can play it and offer their own opinions; with AVWW, there's only half a dozen people in the world who have even seen it in person at the moment, let alone played it.  It's also still very much in a gestational stage, so some things are incomplete and others are so far missing entirely (like fast aging).

This is very much why we chose not to do a public alpha, because we wanted people's first hands-on experiences with the game to be with a more mature version that represents all of what I've said above more closely.  We're still looking at "sometime this summer" for the beta, and we're really looking forward to sharing the actual game itself with folks.  In the meantime we'll continue doing videos, blog posts, and so forth!

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