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This article is by Adam Coster, one of the three brothers behind Butterscotch Shenanigans. It was originally posted on the Butterscotch Blog.
Crashlands (devlog) has a lot of things going on: its core progression mechanic is crafting but you can fight/tame creatures, battle bosses, harvest crops, go fishing, etc, etc. While we've put our own spin on each of these diverse gameplay mechanics so that they are uniquely our own, we knew there would be the inevitable, "nice clone of [insert crafting and/or cartoon-style game here], lazy devs!" We needed something new that would so completely separate Crashlands from games similar to it that people would actually play the game before passing too much judgment. That something is STORY.
Developer preview of the Crashlands Quest Editor.
Why story? Well, Crashlands was originally Sam and Seth's way of dealing with someheavy stuff; it's meant to be a purely joyous experience. But, while the developing game was indeed fun, it lacked JOYOUSNESS. Our prior games use "flavor text" for that purpose (e.g. the goofy words that explode on screen when you hurt enemies in Towelfight 2, or the nonsensical weapon names in Quadropus Rampage). Crashlands had that, too, in the form of goofy item/creature/recipe descriptions.
But flavor text didn't feel like enough, because after 8 hours of gameplay the inevitable crafting-game existential crisis would begin: "Wait, I'm just building things so that I can harvest/kill things so that I can build better things so that I can harvest/kill harder things... WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE!?" Other crafting games fight this with the existence of multiplayer (since groups of people can entertain themselves within a sandbox for much longer). We didn't have the time or resources to implement multiplayer, so fought this crisis by introducing new game mechanics at a steady rate. While that mitigated the crisis, it still wasn't enough.
And so we needed story. Then the problem was how to build a story into an a crafting game.
Water and Oil
"Crafting" as a genre falls squarely into the "sandbox" side of game types. Sandbox games provide a handful of overarching but loose goals (like "don't starve to death" or "collect/build/craft/see all the things") but then give the player immense freedom in choosing what to do at any given moment. In effect, these games tend to be environments for players to make their own games.
Narrative, on the other hand, tends to drive the player to the next thing they are supposed to do. Narratives can of course have complex, branching stories, but even still following one branch tends to trim access to others, so that the player is still driven along a few (of, perhaps, many) linear paths. Yet linear story seems totally antithetical to the free spirit of sandbox games. Further, crafting games already have a progression system: you keep working your way up the tech tree until you can build the most powerful things. How can a designer simultaneously balance progression through a story and through a crafting tree?
A good model for a sandboxy narrative/questing game that feels complex and branching, but that is actually quite linear, is found in Bethesda's Fallout 3 (and in many other games). In this game there is a core, linear storyline that takes the player from the start to the end while providing story-based incentives and reminders all the way. This story is relatively short -- the large majority of gameplay takes place between moments of narrative -- but it feels long because even while the player is not directly engaged with the story the story has provided the underlying motivation for everything else. In effect, players continue telling the story in their own minds.
So story just needs to interject every once in a while to remind the player why they are out adventuring (and stealing caps), though of course everything about the game and the narrative need to be coherent. Story also gates progression through the game now and then, so that the player achieves goals in a sensibly-balanced manner.
The apparent complexity of the Fallout narrative comes from the huge number of side quests. Those side quests are fun, introduce more world background information to the player, and give access to unique content that is not required for gameplay but that certainly makes the game more awesome (if sometimes unbalanced).
We love the Fallout approach to mixing a narrative with a sandbox, and decided that it was the perfect way to mix crafting and narrative into a delicious salad dressing.
A simple questing system can yield complex results
We were then left with the practical problem of actually building a narrative system. After an immense amount of brainstorming and abandoned ideas, we settled on something that is actually quite simple. The key was to come up with a fundamental (and minimal) building block that would allow us to tell stories of seemingly-endless variety and complexity. We call that building block the "Quest" for obvious reasons, though we use the term in a narrow, specific sense.
A Quest is a modular and flexible building-block for storytelling. It consists of:
A list of other, pre-requisite Quests that must be completed before this Quest is available;
Consequences of accepting the quest (changes to the game world, addition of items to inventory, etc);
A set of tasks to complete;
Consequences of completing all Tasks.
The above list is all that you need, though probably with bells and whistles like dialog, with an important caveat: those components can also be set to nothing.
Say you want to use this system for pure storytelling. In that case you can chain together Quests that consist only of dialog, perhaps with some Consequences thrown in to change the world as the story unfolds, and now you have a narrative-driven game!
Or maybe you want some classic achievements. Simply make a Quest that has no pre-requisites, but that does have Tasks for the player to complete. Once the Tasks are completed, the Consequence could include unlocking of the relevant achievement.
Finally, say you want stereotypical MMO-style questing. Add acceptance dialog, completion dialog, and use all the components of the Quest module, and you're good to go.
In any case, it is the particular set of Tasks and Consequences that will make the system interesting for any particular game.
Allowing for multiple pre-requisite Quests allows for complex storytelling. By allowing any number (even none) of required Quests you can chain your narrative building blocks together in as complex a way as you want. If one Quest requires completion of other Quests from multiple storylines, you'll have created a narrative bottleneck. If a Quest is a pre-requisite for several others, you'll have created a hub-and-spoke narrative (a la Moira Brown's quests Fallout 3). By chaining these together you can create an arbitrarily complex narrative web. Finally, you can make independent Quest-webs (side-quests!) simply by having one storyline never require Quests from another.
Putting Story and Crafting progression together
At baseline, every craftable thing in Crashlands has a recipe associated with it, and those recipes are discoverable out in the world. This means that, in the absence of story, you progress through the game purely as a consequence of adventuring.
We set up the Crashlands story system (which includes a few other components besides Quests; namely, Characters, Bossfights, and Outposts as shown in a developer video) so that if a recipe is used as a reward (e.g. from Outpost chests, Bossfight loot, or Quest consequences) it can no longer be discovered in the game. What this allows us to do is design a well-balanced crafting game at base that works without story, where we can then gate crafting progression as a consequence of story events.
By wrapping all of this up into a high-level web tool that anyone in our studio can use we ended up with a perfectly flexible system that allows us to rapidly create as much and as complex of story content as we want, and to rapidly deploy and test it for fast iteration. In addition, by using this external story editor to make game-downloadable story files, we can fix quest-related balance issues and bugs without having to patch the game code on every platform.
And so, Crashlands will have a core storyline that, here and there, blocks crafting progression. The player can mostly just play in the sandbox, but the story will pop in every once in a while to give a reason for the adventure and to bring story progression and crafting progression back into alignment. Finally, most of the questing will be in the form of "side quests," external to the main storyline. Completing these quests will yield access to awesome recipes and items that are not required for progression, but that do make gameplay more fun.