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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