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  Mechanic #210 - Idea Crafting
Posted: Jan 15, 2015

Lots of games have crafting systems where you combine wood and stone to create weapons. This entry is about combining ideas to create inventions.

  A New Kind of Crafting

Crafting systems are hardly uncommon in video games, but by and large, they all tend to work exactly the same. They are exercises in logistics. You know what you want to create (a recipe) and you just need to collect the proper ingredients in the most efficient manner to make it. The challenge of crafting systems is not creative. Instead, it is more, what steps can I take to make this process less tedious? Some games, like Star Wars Galaxies, take great strides in combining the tedious with industry. Most, though, a kind of crap.

I wanted to create a crafting system that captured the spirit of invention and the compromises that come with implementation. To that end, I've devises a crafting system that is based on the concept of collecting ideas and inspirations, combining them to create inventions, and then trying to solve the puzzle of taking the invention and making it real.

I can think of only one game which has a similar system, Dark Cloud 2. In it, you take pictures of things in your environment to collect ideas, which you then combine to create inventions. But like most ideas in Dark Cloud 2, they stopped halfway, creating a system that does not make any sense. A parasol + a pipe + Clown Robo's Attack... makes Clown Arms? That's not really invention. That's random guessing.

The idea present below begins in the same place, but puts some controls in place to make the system make sense, and then adds a few extra steps on top of it, to really drive home the idea that brainstorming isn't design - as I've been told repeatedly (and even had articles written about me on Gamasutra).

  Inspiration - Collecting Ideas



Fig 210.1 - An idea just fill with inspiration.

Alright, take a sandbox style game like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, and whatever else they have out there now. You start from nothing, and it is through your creativity that you survive and thrive in a hostile world.

The first part of this system is that you collect ideas from around the game world. Basically, everything in the game world has a series of "inspiration"-based attributes belonging to them. A vein of copper might have the inspirations "copper vein", "copper material", "hard surface", and "material source". Not all inspirations are known at the beginning. Some begin as "????" and only reveal themselves through experience or experimentation.

At least initially, you can only hold a limited number of ideas (and their associated inspirations) in your notebook at a time, so you must carefully pick and choose what ideas you keep. Once you've used an inspiration in an invention, it becomes permanently part of your notebook, so you could remove the copper vein once you've used each of its inspirations and come to own them. The more inventions you make, the more inspirations you have available to you at any one time, the more inventions you can handle.

One special category of ideas are simple machines. You may remember these from physics class: lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. These simple machines represent the backbone of invention, and their inspirations represent things you can do with them ("pull", "lift", "separate"). For instance, a pickaxe is a lever ("pivot force") + wedge ("separate"). Combining simple machines together allow you to create complex machines. If you wanted to make a bicycle, you need to create pedals (pulley + lever) and a bike chain (pedals + wheels). Every physical invention you create will ultimately be a combination of simple machines put together in a specific way towards a specific purpose.

  Brainstorming - Combining Ideas



Fig 210.2 - Inspired by ideas, the player designs a pickaxe.

Now you have a notebook full of ideas and each idea just brimming with inspiration. Now it is time to invent things. To put it simply, you combine two inspirations to create a design. Designs are also ideas with inspirations, and thus can be combined to create other, more complicated designs (such as the bicycle above).

Limiting combinations to two and making complex designs out of simple designs is intended to limit the amount of guesswork needed to invent new designs. When you require a different number of inspirations, you never know if two inspirations work together and you need another one, or if you are barking up the wrong tree. My solution to this is to limit the number of ideas you can combine to two, but then the player chooses what inspirations on those ideas to combine. If the two ideas work together, but the inspirations chosen didn't, the player will get a message like, "That's not quite right, but I may be on to something."

A design is not an invention. It is a potential invention. And more often than not, you'll end up with a design in which you have not yet invented the elements that go into it. For instance, you could invent the design of a pickaxe, but have not yet invented a design for a handle. In this case, you deconstruct the design and attempt to design its pieces from the top down. You have the end in sight, and now it is up to you to figure out how to reach it.

Designs can not be used as ideas until they are fully invented. So you could come up with the idea for a pickaxe, but until you have fully invented it, you can not then use the design in further inventions.

  Design - Deconstructing Invention

You have the final idea for a design, like a table, but you have not yet invented the things that a table is built from. When you do this, you will be told the things you need to invent to finish the design. In this case, you'll be told that you need "some sort of surface to put things on" and "supports to elevate the table". It will then be up to you to figure out what ideas you need to combine to make the table surface and legs.

You have a destination in mind, but how to get there may not always be obvious. It would be no fun for a player to design a table, but never be able to implement it because he can't guess the right ideas to combine to design the legs. For this purpose, there is a system for sort of reverse engineering designs called brainstorming.

With brainstorming, you have a sort of mental bag of ideas associated with an incomplete design (like, say, table legs). You can throw ideas filled with inspiration into the bag - as many as you want - and over time, the brainstorming process will attempt to go through all the permutations of inspirations in an attempt to find the right combination of inspirations to build the design. This takes time, and you can have only one brainstorm bag in progress at a time, but at the very least, it should help the player feel like he doesn't need a wiki to perform simple acts.

The brainstorm will let the player know how many combinations it figured out from the ideas in the bag, but it won't tell the player what they are. It will only explicitly tell the player the ideas and inspirations needed to finish the design. Otherwise it will say something like, "Out of 12 ideas, 5 new designs were discovered"

  Implementation - Crafting an Invention

Here is where things start to feel more like a traditional crafting system. You have a completed design for a table, which is made up of completed designs for the pieces that make up the table. Now you need to apply a style. Do you want a wooden table or a stone table? Styles are similar to inspirations in that some items have styles on them when you collect their idea. Collect a piece of wood? Get a wooden style. See an ornate Egyptian box? Collect Egyptian style. And so on.

Once you combine a design with a style, you'll know what ingredients you need to make it, as well as what crafting steps need to be taken, and what level of difficulty the design is (a simple wood table is much easier to built than a jade table, using less resources and requiring fewer steps).



Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.