Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 26, 2010
The best mini-game in A Tale in the Desert

The strongest point of A Tale in the Desert is the huge number of different activities which actually have different gameplay, ranging from easy “click to gather” to extremely complex mini-games. I haven’t even seen all of the mini-games yet, as some are further down the tech tree. But from all the mini-games I do know, blacksmithing is my absolute favorite. It is not just a fun game, where player skill makes a huge difference to the result; it also is completely realistic / consistent / believable / immersive, or whatever your favorite term for that is: Blacksmithing in A Tale in the Desert consists of hammering a piece of metal into the right shape. That sounds like such a silly obvious thing to say, until you realize that there is no other MMORPG in which blacksmithing involves hammering a piece of metal into the right shape. Everybody else has some sort of abstract method to blacksmith, from just a simple click to playing a mini-game that has nothing to do with shaping metal. Only in ATitD does blacksmithing play like blacksmithing.

So I was quite happy that I finally got to the point in the game where I could swing a hammer again. The reason it took so long was that I started right at the beginning of the telling, and the technologies all had to be opened up first. But even if the tech is available, getting the skills, tools, and resources for blacksmithing together still isn’t trivial. You need a machine to transform wood into charcoal, another to transform charcoal and iron ore into iron. You need a casting box to make the various tools, and some of the tools require rarer metals, like tungsten and lead. And then you need to build an anvil. Once you got all this, work can begin.

Blacksmithing on an anvil produces various bladed tools, for example the hatchet for cutting wood that I started with. When you start, you have to choose what you want to make, and which metal you want to make it with. At the start you’re limited to either copper or iron, but other alloys become available later, and better metals allow you more hammer strikes before the piece becomes brittle. So I selected an iron hatchet, and on the anvil appeared a flat block of metal. Using the goal display shows how the final hatchet should ideally look at the end of the process. The game is to strike the metal with various hammers using various degrees of force to transform the initial shape into something most closely resembling the ideal shape. There is some (probably least square) algorithm which calculates the “quality” of your hatchet based on how close to the ideal shape it is. It is trivial to make a hatchet of the minimum quality of 3k, already tricky to make a better hatchet over 6k quality, and a true master can make a near-perfect 9k quality. The better the quality of your hatchet, for example, the more wood you get when using it to gather wood. If you make a carpentry blade the quality determines how many boards you can cut with it before it becomes dull, and so on.

You have 4 different hammers, each with a different size and effect when you strike the metal with it, and for each you can select a force level from 1 to 9. The total volume of your block of metal never changes. And in rather realistic physics, you can only hammer an area of your metal block down, which then causes the metal to move away from the spot you hit, and the areas around it to go up. The art is choosing the right tool with the right force. For example the wedge would create a large valley, the shaping mallet it great for moving metal from one area to another, and the ball pen hammer used at lesser force is good for the final touches. You have all the time in the world, but only a limited number of hits, for example 180 for an iron hatchet. If you run out of hits and you aren’t satisfied with the quality, you can start over without losing any metal. In practice you need to find a good compromise between wanting a good quality and not wanting to spend hours getting there, unless you enjoy that game for hours. There are usually some players who master that game very well and can make 9k quality tools, which are highly desirable items for trade.

Not having played this for several years, my first two attempts at making a hatchet were, well, a hatchet job :), and I scrapped them. But after having tried out the effect of the various tools, and looked up some advice on the Wiki, I made a hatchet with 6827 quality on the third attempt. I was quite satisfied with that for the start, although I’ll try to improve on that later. But first I’ll make other blades, like a carpentry blade, which holds up a lot better than the slate blades I’m currently using to make boards.

What I like the most about blacksmithing in A Tale in the Desert is that the result depends on the skill of the player, not some artificial skill value of his avatar. A player who is good at shaping objects in 3D can make great items in little time. An average player takes more time to make a not quite so good item. And the least talented are better off trading for the tools they need. That is very different from games like WoW, where you can smith an “epic” weapon with a single click and no player skill at all.
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This is really the thing about ATinD I admire most. I agree with you completely:
This is a near perfect minigame. In fact, it ist so good that you don't even realize it is a mingame anymore!

It is a perfect example on how learning from real life can help you create an interesting and credible gameplay mechanic.

It's easy to make the score to have no practical upper limit. This way it would always be possible to make an even better tool/weapon/part of armor. All you need is the recipe, the ingredients, dedication and bit of luck.

You can even use similar approaches for leather working and other professions.

This is clearly the way forward for all new MMORPGs that want to offer any kind of profession and trade.

And I am not even a crafter!
I probably wouldn't even craft in a game that features this. The reason I'd love it though, is that this mechanic makes the world incredibly more interesting.

As a consumer I will find tools/stuff of various quality. The very good quality will be ultra-expensive. Suddenly there is the potential for really epic weapons to be crafted by players.

Players will be able to say:
"This Greataxe has been made by XX. it took him 8 hours! He tried 3 times." And everybody will consider the axe to be a real masterpiece.

Todays systems do not allow this, because you cannot give an epic recipe to just one player for social reasons and even if you were able to do it, that player would just have to click a button to make the incredible axe. Silly. He could make hundreds, if there was no (uncredible, unimmersive, annoying) cooldown. If he stopped playing, the recipe would be gone.

The ATinD system allows every player to make rare items of ultra high quality, without flodding the market with it. It is a marvelous example for how copying real life can help make a really, really good game mechanic. It is also great to see you agreeing that credibility and gameplay flow not always interfere with each other, but, in fact, can complement each other in a wonderful way.

Smithing in ATinD is one of the most interesting gameplay mechanics in MMORPGs ever. And I don't say such things lightly.
I agree with Nils about this being a great game feature.

Another layer that could be added to this would be to have some minigame involved in making the metal - i.e. your skill at smelting iron would result in a more or less pure bar of iron. Thus the most epic weapons would require high-grade metal and a skillful smith, while that same excellent smith could possibly craft a better item with mediocre metal than a novice smith could with pure metal (just add scores from each to get the total, or make the smithing part a multiplier?).
Double-ditto -- I love this approach to crafting. I can see in WOW where patterns would be available by purchase or loot with levels of rarity on the different patterns.

But the pattern only allows you to build a great-axe; just how good it will be is based on your skill in trying to replicate the pattern onto some specific material(s) in a manner similar to Tobold's description.
You can even easily expand on this.
You could

1) allow different quality of tools (e.g. smithing hammer). The better the quality the less random the result of each swing will be.

2) allow players to forge their own tools.

3) add an expert mode, where you only have a specified time per swing. You could even allow the player to specify this time. The lower the time the player selected in expert mode, the better the potential quality of the created item will be.

4) More epic recipes would naturally be harder to forge, due to the level of detail on the pattern.

The whole idea is to allow every determined player to make a good item, but to only allow real experts to make the best of the best due to their skill.

I'm sure that people would invent quite some 'cheating' tools if the MMORPG is even mildly successful. Time requirements help with external Wikis and similar stuff.
I'm really looking forward to trying this out. Almost done building my charcoal furnace at my new compound in Sterope, though I'm running into a sort of brick wall at this point because I need medium and cuttable stones for one reason or another to build the further mining/smithing related buildings.

There never seem to be any digs going on when I'm online (as difficult as it is to keep track of chat while still being able to use keyboard shortcuts), and I'm too shy to ever get one started myself =/ Yes, I'm a non-social gamer playing an extremely social game. I realize this is my own fault, but this game is fun anyway.

I just like building things in my own compound and seeing how far I can get, but unlike practically every other material in this game, stones are something I can't even work slowly towards obtaining by myself.

Blacksmithing does sound like a lot of fun though!

Hey Tobold, just wanted to say I'm really enjoying reading about a tale in the desert.
I haven't played A Tale in the Desert but I've been toying with an idea for a similar crafting system for years. I'm very tempted to try ATitD now just to see how this works in more detail.

One question: does the finished model that you've shaped correspond to the item you produce and see in the rest of the game, or is there a standard "iron hatchet" model instead of your idiosyncratic production?
Sean, unfortunately you don't see your created item in game once it is finished. But then, inventory is in text form, and unless you drop them, you don't see any item shapes.

I've only just started playing, but I have found that digs usually happen on weekends. The best way to find out is to simply ask if any digs are happening soon in the regional chat.

I'm a lot like you in that I mostly just like building up my own compound. I like the agricultural/food stuff so I mostly work on that, but I have found the people in game to be very friendly whenever I have needed something and it's nice, it's much easier to come out of that shell from time to time when the community makes it easier.
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