The Design of Last Seed

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Hi folks,

I’d like to write a short article about what’s been going through my head lately regarding the development of Last Seed, my upcoming “primary needs” mod. I’d like to talk about my attitude toward these systems and where I think Last Seed fits into the grand scheme of things. This is probably going to be an unstructured ramble of what’s going on in my head, so, buckle up. There will be lists. Lots of lists.

Last Seed will be a bookend to my existing immersion gameplay mods, Campfire and Frostfall. It’s been rolling around in the back of my head for years now. It will focus on food, thirst, fatigue, overall wellnenss, and a range of diseases. Sound familiar? Chances are, you’ve already played (or at least heard of) iNeed, Realistic Needs and Diseases, Imp’s More Complex Needs, Basic Needs, and so on. So, why create “yet another needs mod” when there’s already so much to choose from? I hope I can answer that in this post.

(Please note: If I draw comparisons to other needs mods in this article, I don’t mean to disparage them in any way; I see Last Seed as a different approach to the same mod theme, and not a better approach necessarily. Please take what I have to say with that spirit in mind.)

Accepting Skyrim As It Is

Frostfall is successful and enjoyable, I think, because it takes Skyrim at face value. It acknowledges what kind of game it is, and doesn’t try to force it to become something else. Part of this acknowledgement is that hypothermia really isn’t that important when the player is busy slaying dragons or delving a dungeon; its place is in the “in-between” time. When the game is in that in-between space, Frostfall can fill the void and give the player something new and interesting to care about. It’s been described as (paraphrasing) “making the least interesting part of the game, walking around, one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.” When we enter a different “mode”, like dungeon crawling, we expect it to get out of the way, and rightly so. If the player gets into a bad situation involving the cold, sometimes these spaces overlap (combat penalties due to being cold, etc).

All of the above are lessons that Last Seed should continue to follow. So to do that, we have to talk about what Skyrim really is.

Skyrim:

  •  …is a “be who you want, do what you want” game. The game is fun because you can embody so many different styles of character and styles of play.
  •  …has the tag-line “Epic Fantasy Reborn”. It is an austere, fantastical setting. It’s about climbing mountains and killing trolls and casting spells and other equally cool things, and it doesn’t want to get bogged down in boring, repetative things.
  • …has terrible itemization balance. The only items that have any distribution balance are money, and things that have a direct impact on combat (armor, weapons, spells, etc). And even THOSE items still have serious distribution balance problems. Food is nowhere on that list. Food is handed out like candy in the base game.
  • …is set in a breadbasket. Skyrim is a land of abundance. Farms are everywhere. Food is everywhere. Clear streams and brooks are everywhere. Food items are used in levels as decoration, not a resource mechanic. Sure, they tacked on some minor benefits for eating food, but this was clearly meant for flavor and cohesion (“Oh wow, look, even this individual tomato has some effect in this game!”) and not a core component of the game.

So what does all of that mean for a “primary needs” mod?

  • Without serious work, food is going to be everywhere. There is at least one mod that helps reduce the amount of food in the game (and one that I had planned to do myself), but these efforts would require enough work as to be a separate mod, one that drastically changes the distribution of items in the game, and by extension, affects the look and feel of many spaces in the game (and not necessarily in a good way). Skyrim has this delicious, rustic, back country feel that is supported in part by seeing the cheese wheels on the shelves, the fish racked and ready to flay, the hard crust bread sitting on the table. I don’t want to change that aesthetic feeling; it’s part of the soul of Skyrim itself. So, I’ve decided to balance the mod around the base game, and not the game + some other mod. This is about accepting what Skyrim is, and not what I want it to be. Because of this, trying to make Last Seed a survival mod is, to me, an exercise in futility; Skyrim just isn’t built that way. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
  • Food management, getting hungry all the time, and being nagged about how hungry you are, is annoying. It’s repetative busy-work that doesn’t serve the rest of the experience. Same goes for thirst or fatigue. Some other needs mods try to offset the plentifulness of food in the game by requiring that you eat a lot in order to maintain some degree of “challenge”. If I were focusing on making this a survival mod, that’s what I would have done, too, but in this case I decided that requiring the player to eat in large volumes or very often doesn’t elevate the core experience of the game and it doesn’t stick close to the “be who you want, do what you want” mentality. It feels restraining, when Skyrim is a game about freedom.
  • There’s a bed in every town. With Campfire (required for Last Seed), you can plop down a bedroll or tent anywhere. So, beds are on-command too.

So in the face of abundance, what’s the point of a needs mod? Isn’t the point of a needs mod the possibility of starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion? Is that where the “fun” is? To be honest, I’ve been asking myself that same question for 4 years. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve come around to some ideas that can make the system work without trying to force Skyrim to become something against its own nature.

Good Stuff, Bad Stuff

Needs mods, as a category, have been criticized for a few things:

  • Busy work / tedium. You’re doing the same things over and over with no real thought behind it. You just have to do it.
  •  All negatives, no positives. In many needs mods, there is a perception that there are few benefits for being satisfied and healthy, other than not having penalties. You’re constantly trying to ward off penalties instead of striving for bonuses. The whole business feels psychologically draining and unrewarding.
  • Challenge for challenge’s sake. In many needs mods, you have to eat / drink much more than a normal, reasonable person would (even an athletic Dragonborn that spends his times swinging a sword all day).
  • Thoughtless. Every problem has one, right solution. There are no strategies or ways to feel clever.

They are also praised for the following:

  • Increased immersion. Something about knowing you have to eat, drink, and sleep to stay healthy draws some players deeper into the game.
  • More things to do. You have to engage in activities you might have ordinarily avoided, like picking berries and cooking. It allows you to experience more of the richness of the game that’s already right there in front of you.
  • More things have meaning. Food and beds now have a real, important role to play. This increases the game’s cohesion, and cohesion feels good. We want things to feel connected to each other. When things just exist out in space with no connection, they feel purposeless and pointless. (This is my chief issue with Fallout 4 as a whole, but, that’s a topic for another day.)

So, the goal with Last Seed is to do more of the good stuff, and less of the bad stuff. We want to increase immersion, give the player more things to do, and give more of the things in the game meaning, without creating tedium, meaningless challenge, repetition, or unrewarding gameplay.

To do this, we’re going to have to redesign the idea of a needs mod in order to create something a little different.

First on the chopping block is “survival”. In Last Seed, these are no longer survival mechanics; these are wellness mechanics. There should be a good number of bonuses as well as penalties. Chances are, if you’re not purposefully neglecting your character, you’ll be chasing after bonuses much more often than you will be warding off penalties. While some diehard survival game players might think that this will feel unchallenging, I think this is a good thing. Forget about starvation and dying of thirst; that will probably never reasonably happen and is no longer the point. There should be a big difference between unhealthy to healthy, and healthy to incredibly healthy (like, the difference between a normal person and an olympic athlete).

These ideas are very simply embodied by the meters on the screen. There are no hunger, thirst, or fatigue meters; instead, there are food, water, and rest meters. Filling them up is good, just like their associated attributes. It sounds silly on the surface, who cares if the meters fill up or drain as long as it works, but, for me, it’s pretty important as it represents this shift in ideology away from trying to stay empty of something, and toward trying to be full of something else.

Second, Last Seed should establish an easy-to-grasp paradigm that is interconnected with other systems. Each primary need will be tied to a primary attribute; hunger is connected to health, thirst is connected to stamina, and fatigue is connected to magicka. If you’re mentally drained, you won’t be able to cast spells as easily. If you’re dehydrated, you can’t run as fast or as far. If you’re starving, your wounds won’t heal as quickly. There will be other associated effects as well, but those are the broad strokes. These connections allow you to keep more of how Last Seed works in your head easily and the effects of the primary needs feel more intuitive.

Third, once the player has learned and played with these ideas (they’re happily trucking along, tending to their needs without too much effort, always fed and rested no big deal), let’s challenge and surprise them. This is where diseases come into play, and allows the interconnections between these elements to shine. Diseases will take a symptom-based approach, which can impact your needs. Food poisoning might make you too ill to eat anything else until it passes, increasing your hunger. You might be striken with insomnia, giving you no rest from your sleep. In this way, we can actually exercise some of the penalties of primary needs without it feeling too artificial or constant. It’s a very common gameplay trope; give the player a new concept, and then give it a twist. As a designer it gives me a space to allow you to deal with a difficult aspect of the mechanics I designed (being very hungry, thirsty, tired, or generally unwell) without forcing you to experience that difficulty constantly; tension and release, instead of constant tension.

Since diseases will have a symptom-based approach, we can do away with the “cure disease” potion and allow players to create specialized medicines, or eat ingredients that might treat some of the symptoms. Nightshade might dramatically increase the player’s fatigue, but also allow them to get a good night’s rest when they ordinarily wouldn’t.

On Food

Like we’ve already established, food is everywhere in Skyrim, and Last Seed won’t make assumptions about other mods you have installed. So how can we still keep things interesting?

  • Weight – The weight of most foods will increase, in some cases dramatically.
  • Spoilage – Food should spoil and eventually be dangerous to eat.
  • Container Distribution – We can reduce the random quantity of food in containers in a rather straight-forward way. It wouldn’t change the amount of food already in the world, but it would help reduce things a bit.
  • Cooked Food Benefits – Make cooked food more satisfying, and restore more hunger. This will help drive players toward the cooking activity.
  • Easier Cooking – Largely remove the salt requirement from most recipes. (CACO support will be maintained.)
  • Variety – Give the player diminishing returns to hunger for eating the same thing over and over in a short timeframe. Not looking to simulate carbs and fats and whatnot, just as long as it’s different, you get full benefit.
  • Preservation – Allow the player to preserve foods in different ways. If the food is salted, this could increase the player’s thirst when eaten. If the food is jarred, it weighs several times more than normal.

The cumulative effect of these changes is that making food heavier, more temporary, and less easy to find decreases hoarding behavior, and increases resourcefulness (hunting, actually buying food from taverns (has anyone ever actually done this on purpose???), perhaps even food summoning spells). Will the player still find lots of food throughout the course of their normal going around? Yes. And that’s OK.

On Drink

Water, like food, is also everywhere. And more than any other need, this one will probably have its presence felt the most as it fluctuates; as the player uses stamina a lot, so too will they increase thirst. Here are the things planned in order to keep things interesting.

  • Gathering Water – The player should be able to gather fresh water from all streams, brooks, wells, and other sources that make sense.
  • Dirty / Salt Water – As seen in other needs mods, water in dungeons might be dirty or not as safe, but could be made safe through boiling. Same goes for salt water, which would also yield salt piles.
  • Gathering Snow – You should be able to gather and melt snow.
  • Soups and Stews – These should reduce thirst, too.
  • Water Purification / Summoning Spells – Because why not?

On Sleep

  • Bed Quality – I’m unapologetically ripping this directly from Fallout 4’s survival mode because it’s a great idea. Different beds provide different levels of sleep quality. Perhaps through perks you will be able to sleep soundly on a bed roll in the wilderness, but largely, sleeping on a bed roll won’t be as restful as sleeping in an inn.
  • Threatened – This is a new concept that will represent the tension you feel when going to sleep; that sort of “sleeping with one eye open” feeling. If you feel Threatened, your sleep will be less restful. You’ll be able to reduce your Threatened status by sleeping in safe places (inns, houses), by traveling with a companion, or casting new warding spells. I may even try to establish a “taking watch” mechanic, where you each trade off sleeping for a few hours at a time (with the possibility of random encounters overnight on occasion). This idea is still fairly immature so I’m not sure if I’ll go forward with it (depending on how it’s implemented it could quickly become tedious), but overall I like the idea of the Threatened status effect as it gets you to think a bit more about where and how you sleep and not just “time to fill up the fatigue meter again”.
  • Hunger and Thirst – Going to bed on a full stomach and hydrated should increase the quality of your sleep. So, there’s another place for these things to play off of each other.

Vitality as a Performance Metric

I view Last Seed as a meta-level set of game mechanics that sit on top of, and serving, well-known mechanics you already play with. It’s not being designed as an “in the moment” set of mechanics. Some have said to me, “Chesko, a needs mod could never give me what Frostfall gives me, that sense of tension and release, that sense of being threatened by the environment.” Good, because that won’t be the point; Last Seed’s purpose is to provide a layer above everything else and not command as much attention. To that end, I see Last Seed’s mechanics acting in a sort of “performance rating” sense, kind of like the screen that you get at the end of a level in Devil May Cry or a host of other games. “AAA+!”, those games might say, or “Try harder next time!” In the end, you beat the level (that’s why you’re seeing the screen!) so you’ve already achieved something, but it serves to push you to try harder, or stroke your ego if you did a good job and maybe give a few ancillary benefits. But, that performance screen is just a layer on top of the existing game, it doesn’t dominate the entire experience.

To that end, there will be one more attribute that Last Seed introduces: Vitality. Vitality will, ultimately, be the primary attribute of Last Seed, just like Exposure is the primary attribute of Frostfall. Vitality will represent an aggregate of your hunger, thirst, fatigue, and any diseases you might currently be under. It is a measure of your overall bodily wellness. By looking at this one attribute, you can see how well you’re taking care of yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, this is also the thing that will kill you (however, I think you’d have to really, really try for that to happen). Hunger, thirst, and fatigue by themselves won’t kill you, but their effect on your Vitality could. Low Vitality also leaves you more open to diseases, so staying healthy keeps you healthy. (In this sense, Vitality in part acts similarly to Fallout 4’s immunity system.)

Vitality will take about a day to shift from one stage up or down depending on your actions; it may also remain the same. There will be “bonus” and “penalty” stages. As long as you’re at 60% or greater Vitality, you’re a reasonably healthy adult, and it won’t take a tremendous amount of effort to maintain that. Could be better, but could be a lot worse. If you want to reach for the bonus ranges, you will have to actively participate in cooking and other activities, quickly act to treat disease, eat and drink appropriately, and get decent rest. Since Vitality takes a long time to shift up and down, you won’t feel a constant, nagging pressure and should still be able to focus on the game itself.

Another idea I’m toying with is the idea of a “Stress” status effect. This effect would apply when in combat, and also when in a non-cleared dangerous interior. The effect of this would be that, since you’re focusing so much on staying alive, you don’t pay as much attention to your health and as a result your hunger, thirst, and fatigue rates are severely reduced. The end result of this is that Last Seed steps out of the way when you’re inside dungeons or in combat. You would still have any penalties or benefits resulting from your Vitality or needs, but the rate of change would be slower. I don’t want players to stress out over sleeping or eating when they’ve got monsters to take care of. Perhaps all of your hunger, thirst, and fatigue could come rushing back to you all at once as soon as you’re no longer “stressed”, allowing Last Seed to come back into the foreground after an adventure. Still thinking about this one.

Conclusion

And, that’s all I have for now. If, having read this, you find yourself disappointed and no longer wanting Last Seed because you were looking forward to a hardcore survival needs experience, that’s fine; Last Seed will not be for you and that’s why it’s good that we have many mods to choose from in this category.

I hope that Last Seed enhances roleplaying, immersion, and adds a nice layer of detail on top of the things that you already understand without burdening you or taking over your whole game.