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Systemic gameplay is a very big topic recently. Even though systemic games have existed for a long time, nowadays there’s a lot of conscious discussion about titles that provide emergent situations by allowing the players to experiment with the rules and mechanics in place. A lot of those games feature a crafting system, and it just feels that it would be natural for crafting to also be expanded in a systemic way, and yet for some reason that doesn’t happen.
Crafting mostly is this direct exchange of a particular set of resources into a particular object. The exact nature of this exchange can vary – in some games you require a recipe before crafting something, in some you might want to experiment and figure out what the recipe is. There are games where recipes require not a concrete resource but a certain type, or where you need a particular skill before the exchange happens. Some games feature mechanics like sockets which you can imbue with something, customizing the item more. Some allow you to do a lot of things with what you craft, but at the core most crafting systems are still about spending particular resources to get a particular item.
And there actually IS a game which has implemented a systemic crafting system 18 years ago. And in this month’s edition of Farlands, a series about video games and video game design, I will try to propagate its principles into the world, as I believe they’re worthy of further exploration. My name is Stanislav Costiuc, and welcome to the video about Systemic Crafting of Evil Islands.
Evil Islands is a Russian tactical RPG that was released in the year 2000. Actually I was 9 years old at the time when I played it, and it is precisely Evil Islands that made me want to become a Game Designer. I can gush about it all day long. It’s got an interesting blend of mechanics, a gripping storyline, great characters, wonderful music and some of the best voice acting I have heard in my life to this day. Well… if you’re playing the original Russian version and not the English translation, that is. [Play Evil Islands English clip] … Yeah. And that’s the main character’s voice in the translation. My sincerest apologies.
Anyway. A lot of things the game was doing were very innovative for the time. Most may seem pretty standard now, but the way Evil Islands handles crafting is still unparalleled. At least to my knowledge – if you know a game that has tried exploring crafting in veins similar to Evil Islands, please let me know, I’ll be very happy to check that out.
So, let’s just go into the store interface. This is our main character’s equipment. We can actually take this fancy armor piece and just disassemble it. As you can see it is actually a combination of two component types: a blueprint and materials.
Blueprints are the foundation of every item, providing the baseline stats and also defining the applicable material category. Every material has its own stats as well that multiply the baseline item ones.
So, for example, there are six metal materials: bronze, iron, steel, mithill, admantium and meteorite. Bronze is the cheapest, but also the heaviest. Mithrill protects more and is very light. Meteorite offers the most protection, but you can’t find it in stores and need to acquire it from the toughest enemies in the game.
So, this armor requires 8 material pieces, and I can just replace all the iron here with steel that I gathered, press a button to assemble and whoala! I have steel armor piece now. Because materials act as a multiplier, the amount a blueprint requires is important – it means this armor would provide the most protection, but also have the biggest weight.
And let’s say an opponent dropped an iron. I don’t have to be sad that it’s made of iron, and I don’t need to worry about getting a recipe to make a steel version of that sword. If I have enough steel, or enough money to buy it, I can just disassemble this iron sword and make a steel one out of it. Pretty neat, right? This also means that you never actually spend any of the resources you have gathered, with the exception of money of course, you just reapply them where you see fit.
It should be noted that in Evil Islands you can’t combine materials in an item. So I can’t craft something out of 4 iron and 4 steel pieces, for example. Which can be legitimately considered as a thing that needs to be improved in the system, but also can be seen as a good thing as it allows to have a smoother learning curve. Things can in fact get quite intricate.
For example, each material has a weakness. All metal is weak against lightning, so if you’re in a region where a lot of enemies use lightning spells, maybe you’d like to craft some hide armor out of blue troll’s hide. All in all, in the game there’s 33 materials, 35 weapon blueprints, and 124 armor blueprints. By RPG standards that’s not THAT much. Until you realize that altogether there’s actually 686 possible crafted items in the game, that are fairly easy to grasp for the players due to a very modular nature of the system.
But. This is just the items we have talked about. There’s also spells. And just like items, spells consist of their own blueprint base, and runes. Though the difference is that you’re not limited to one rune type like you’d be limited to one material, so spell creation in Evil Islands is more intricate than armor creation. Which I think makes sense as the next step of the learning curve to use the game’s crafting system.
Just like with items, each spell has baseline stats that can be modified with runes. So, let’s take this lightning bolt spell as an example. You can put runes to increase the distance at which you can cast it. You can make it deal more damage. Or you can make it hit multiple targets at a time! You have to be careful though, you don’t want to hit your allies so you might want to put a rune that targets only enemies. This type of rune is also useful in area of effect spells. As you put in runes though, the spell becomes more complex and requires more stamina (as well as skill points put into magic), so you might want to put in a rune that decreases the needed mana usage. In the end, you can really finetune the spell the way you’d like. Which is also pretty neat. There’s 30 spells in the game ranging from offensive to defensive to stat modifying, and you can use them in a variety of ways.
So you can already see how by just framing the whole crafting system as separated into baseline and auxiliary components there are a ton of options that are pretty straightforward to understand – as you’re thinking in terms of modular chunks rather than the whole wide array of possible results, and that’s easier to put together.
But here’s where things get really cool in Evil Islands. A character has stamina which is used to cast spells. Items have energy, that is dependent on the base item and the material used. Why am I mentioning this, you ask? Because items can also cast spells – you can combine them together.
Would you like to make an armor piece that heals you every time you’re hit? You can do that. How about a helmet that permanently increases your line of sight? Yep. Put in a weaken spell into your sword to help you fight enemies? Why not, seems useful. An automatic spell machine gun that just hits all enemies around as you pass by? For sure. There’s also a special wand object type which you can use for activated or automated abilities that don’t require you to spend mana yourself. And you can come up with a lot of interesting combinations and strategies.
That’s the wonders of systemic crafting. Just like games focused on systemic gameplay provide you with a set of tools to interact with different rules and mechanics in emergent ways, so does Evil Islands give you a wide array of possibilities in terms of crafting by providing baseline entities and components that you can experiment with.
And to be absolutely fair, Evil Islands doesn’t do everything perfectly. Some materials can be weirdly statted, some items are useless because there’s little enemies they’re effective against, and there are things you might want to consider to add to this sort of system, like let’s say allowing to craft items out of different materials of the same category, for even bigger variety. But, the game provides a very strong foundation for this sort of thing, and as evidenced by the still active mod scene, by just doing some modifications to the existing components you can greatly change the crafting exploration space. In this type of system, adding a single component expands players options greatly.
And yes, there are a lot of games that are focused on layered crafting systems. But the way Evil Islands handles crafting in this systemic modular way is very elegant, easy to learn and understand and at the same time provides a lot of depth and possibilities. One day I hope to make a game that utilizes such a crafting system. But, until then, if you are already making a game with crafting, I strongly suggest to consider doing it in a systemic way like Evil Islands – there’s tons of still untapped potential there. Especially if you combine it with systemic gameplay principles.
Thank you all for watching. A special thank you goes to my Patreon supporters, Paolo di Stefano, Comissar Doggo and my newest patron: Iggy Zhuk. If you’d like to join them, feel free to support my campaign at www.patreon.com/farlands.
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