Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Gathering ore and herbs

Through discussion with readers I realized that sometimes it is hard to explain what you are actually doing in a MMORPG, because we tend to take descriptive shortcuts. For example you might say that you spent an hour gathering ore and herbs in a MMORPG. But unless the person you talk with knows that specific MMORPG, he doesn't know what gathering ore and herbs entails. And the same activity might be very different in different MMORPGs. Thus for demonstration I'm going to compare gathering ore and herbs in World of Warcraft and in A Tale in the Desert.

In World of Warcraft both ore and herbs spawn in nodes. There is a fixed and limited number of such nodes in every zone, but even if left well alone not all of these nodes spawn a resource. There is some maximum number of resource spawns. Gathering ore and herbs in World of Warcraft is exactly the same activity: You turn on the search with a button on your mini-map, move through the zone, and see the nodes with spawns as golden dots on your mini-map. You then go to that location, click on the node, and receive your ore or herb in your inventory. Sometimes you also find secondary resources, like stones or gems in ore nodes, or a second herb in a herb node.

In A Tale in the Desert ore and herbs are two very different things. Ore doesn't spawn in nodes, but runs in veins under ground. You find those veins by dowsing, based on your perception score, and then can build a mine on top of the vein. In the 5th telling mines and veins don't deteriorate from use, thus people often put their mine to be useable by anyone. So if you don't want to go through all of the trouble of dowsing a vein and building a rather expensive mine, you use a public mine. In front of a mine you will find 7 curious stones of different colors, with different shapes, different decorations, and different crystals growing out of them. That is a mini-game with which ore is produced. Each mine has a different game, even two iron mines can have different stones in front of them. First you need to figure out which attribute of the stones is important; it might be the color and the shape of the decorations, or it might be two other attributes, like the shape of the stone and the shape of the crystals. Lets say in our case it is color and shape. Then to produce ore you need to select 3 stones which all have the same color or all have different colors, and which all have the same shape or all have different shapes. Thus three blue stones with different shapes would work. Two blue stones and a red stone will not work, regardless of shape. Sometimes you can even find a combo with 4 stones all being the same or all different in shape and color, and that gives you a much better ore yield. You can use each combination only once, but one stone can be part of several different combinations. And if you use the same stone several times, the stone can crumble and release additional resources like coal and gems. As several people working the same mine use the same stone more often (each player can use the same combinations once), the chance to crumble stones and get gems is higher if you mine with others. Once you run out of combinations, you click on the mine and get a new set of stones.

Herbs in A Tale in the Desert are more similar to how they are in World of Warcraft, in as far as they grow in the wild and you need to run around and find them. Only there is not helpful radar to see them from a distance. And they don't glow with sparkles, so unless you come close enough to click on them you can easily confuse herbs with regular plants. Herbs in A Tale in the Desert aren't sorted by zones, and there are over a hundred different herbs. Once you find one, you get two options: Eat or forage. Eating the herb destroys it, and gives you some stat modification. The same herb always has the same stats, but there are negative stats as well as positive. Thus you'd better know what you are eating. But herbs aren't labeled with names, you need to identify them by their color, shape, stems, and leaves. Pretty much impossible to remember all, so players organized herb-identification websites. Identification is also important if you want to forage the herb, for later use in cooking or smoking. The forage window has a dozen or so different options from cutting the leaves to digging out the roots, with only one being the correct one for each herb. Choose the right option and you get a small number of those herbs in your inventory.

As you can see, saying "I gathered ore and herbs" in two different games can be a very different gameplay. By design World of Warcraft is made for maximum accessibility, so activities like gathering or crafting are not very complex. A Tale in the Desert is an extremely complex game, and comes with little in-built explanations. Explanations or data from other players, in-game or via the Wiki, are frequently necessary to do an activity, and there is a much larger selection of different gameplay activities. But while blogging about it, of course I'd rather say stuff like "I made charcoal", than to explain every time the (quite fun) mini-game you need to play in ATitD to turn wood into charcoal.
That is most interesting, although careful readers of your blog already knew that there are many different mingames in ATinD.

My two cents are these:

1) I welcome variety in activities, especially between activities that seem similar.

2) I am not a fan of abstract minigames. A minigame should always have a strong connection to the activity itself in my opinion.

Point (2) is what worries me about mining, while I think herb gathering (or smithing it seems) is done really well in ATinD. This is just from reading this blog entry. I haven't played ATinD so far.
I was always grateful to Blizzard that they didn't over-complicate crafting and gathering in WoW to be honest. If crafting consumes half your playtime or ruins you financially, then it's not for me. I see that as a side feature of an MMO, nothing more.

In Age of Conan crafting and gathering is somewhat dull and tedious, in FFXI it was downright horrible. In AoC you can stay away at least, but in FFXI it was a real turn off for me (among other things). Picking these two examples as it' two games I have played for a longer time.

I can say that WoW was the first MMO where crafting - although somewhat straightforward - didn't frustrate me to no end.
I have had a look into Ultima Online back in the 90ies and from what I remember they had the perfect authentic feel to crafting there.
I don't think i ever saw a succeful (as interesting and balanced) crafting system so far. Half success would be EQ2 and Horizons. Wow just didn't tackle the topic imo, as they implemented crafting like a minigame in wotlk. An interesting evolution thou, as it was hardcore (TBC legendaries) at some point. Now dumbed down :)
The herb gathering mechanism is a good example of a mini-game that may look cool in theory but doesn't work once implemented. As you said, players have listed the method to use for all plants. So foraging herbs just means finding an herb, opening the wiki page, finding the herb on the page to see what to do and get the herb. You don't need to know the herbs, that skill is replaced by the wiki. Thus the mini-game becomes pointless and tedious (open wiki, browse wiki) without adding anything to the game.

The issue with mini-games is that they are fun at the beginning when you're still learning ho to play them and are getting better at them. But once you've mastered them, they aren't fun anymore. Like Syl said, I prefer the WoW approach where you just have to press one button rather than going through the charcoal mini-game for the 1000th time.
The problem with the herb gathering in ATitD is that is all trial and error. If you want to learn it all on your own you have to spend hours doing random trials and write it all down since no normal human can remember all of it. Thus people will combine what they found out with the knowledge gathered by others and put it on a Wiki.

If you do not want your minigame trivialized by an outside knowledge base you have to make so there are patterns people can discover and thus can works things out 'from first principles' without having to create a database.

The charcoal minigame is all based around learning the 'moods' of the operation. The operation has patterns and if you can spot them then you can avoid the bad outcomes and maximize the good ones. No wiki can give that to you.
If you do not want your minigame trivialized by an outside knowledge base you have to make so there are patterns people can discover and thus can works things out 'from first principles' without having to create a database.

What might work is this:
Make every player see a different, but for him consistent, form of a herb.

For example, every player gets some random seed in the beginning of the game. For him herb X always looks the same, so does herb Y, etc.

But since the random seed is different for every player, herb X looks different to every player, so does herb Y, etc.

While this does reduce immersion somewhat it also increases immersion, as a wiki is completely impossible. This is especially so, if there are a lot of random seeds and players don't know their own random seed.

Otherwise other players could calculate what form will be what herb for you and make a wiki.

Since the entire random seed could be determined and used server-side however, that is no problem.

I think that system would be very hard to reverse-engineer.
The ore minigame sounds like an implementation of the card game Set. Nice that they didn't go for the obvious and ubiquitous match 3 minigame.
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