bscotch adam head

Adam is one of the three brothers making up Butterscotch Shenanigans. He is the resident scientist and data nerd, and the developer of BscotchID.

Crashlands 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, 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 or cartoon-style game here] lazy devs, HURR HURR!" 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.

(Miss this week's Podcast? Go give it a listen!)

Why story? Well, Crashlands was originally Sam and Seth's way of dealing with some heavy shit. It's meant to be nothing but a joyous experience, and while the game was fun as f**k already, 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, or the nonsensical weapon names in Quadropus Rampage). Crashlands already has 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/kills harder things... WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE!?" We fought this crisis fairly successfully by introducing new game mechanics at a steady rate, but we wanted more depth.

And so story. Then the problem was how to build a story into an adventure-crafting game.

Water and Oil

"Crafting" as a genre falls squarely into the "sandbox" side of game types. Sandbox games provide a handful of over-riding but loose goals (like "don't starve to death" or "collect/build/craft/see all the things") but then give the player an immense amount of freedom to decide what to do at any given moment. In effect, these games tend to be tools for players to make their own games.

Stories and narrative, on the other hand, tend to drive the player to the next thing they are "supposed" to do. Narratives can also have complex, branching stories, but HOLY CRAP are those hard to keep track of and balance with respect to other game mechanics. Yet linear stories seem totally antithetical to the free spirit of crafting 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 possibly balance both crafting and story?

A good model for a sandboxy narrative/questing game that feels complex and branching, but is actually quite linear, is found in Bethesda's Fallout 3 and New Vegas. In these games there is a core, linear storyline that takes the player from the start to the end, providing story-based and in-game incentives all the way. This story is relatively short, and the large majority of gameplay takes place between moments of narrative. Story, in this case, interjects every once in a while to remind you why you are out adventuring and stealing caps, and to gate your progress through the game so that you achieve goals in a sensible manner. Otherwise the story gets out of the way and lets you continue adventuring.

The apparent complexity of the Fallout narrative comes from the huge number of side quests. Those side quests are also quite linear (though many may be spokes from the same hub a la Moira Brown). The 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 (and 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 system like the one in Fallout. After an immense amount of brainstorming and abandoned ideas, we settled on one that is actually quite simple. The key was to come up with a fundamental building block of story that would allow us to then 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 the Tasks.

The above list is all that you need, though maybe with bells and whistles like dialog, with an important caveat: any of those components can 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 blocked at various points by Tasks that the player must complete. Chain those together, perhaps with some Consequences thrown in to change the world as the story unfolds, and now you have a narrative!

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.

Which is to say that a unique and diverse set of Tasks and Consequences are what makes 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 a Quest requires completion of Quests from multiple storylines, you'll have created a narrative bottleneck. If a single Quest is a pre-requisite for many others, you'll have created a hub-and-spoke narrative. 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 described in a previous 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 without directly earning that reward. 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 using story elements wherever we want.

By wrapping all of this up into a high-level web tool that anyone in our studio can use (and any Crashlands player will be able to use) we ended up with a perfectly flexible system that allows us to create as much and as complex of story content as we want. In addition, by using an external story editor to make automatically-downloaded story files, we can fix quest-related balance issues and bugs without having to patch the game code on every platform. (You can discuss the Crashlands Creator on our forums).

And so, like in Fallout, Crashlands will have a core storyline that blocks crafting progression behind quests here and there. 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, also as in Fallout, 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.