Ooooh… every time I hear the words “smarter hearthlings” I get nervous – I’ve had a LOT of bad experiences with players in a variety of games who try to pin every problem they come across on “the AI is too dumb!!1!”; on more than one occasion it’s meant that a perfectly logical and predictable system got replaced with a convoluted and less-controllable system, but in most of those cases it did very little to solve the actual issues of the game having a different sense of priority to what the player held.
That said, I’m very pleased to hear about those smaller and subtler changes such as making the hearthlings prioritise required resources over resources in surplus. Part of me feels like I should be screaming “nnnnooooooo! Teach players that they have to manage that themselves!”; but then I remember how annoying it is to constantly watch the stockpiles and micro-manage the hauling by splitting the tasks up (e.g. instead of giving an order to haul all the wood, only selecting some of it and then selecting some stone from another site, to make sure a little of each is done rather than leaving it up to hearthlings to decide.)
It’s going to be interesting to see how the “improved dilligence” plays out though. I definitely do like the sound of dynamically changing priorities, that’s going to be a serious help for players who aren’t used to juggling so much information at once. At the same time though, it’s going to be even easier for players to work their hearthlings to death indirectly now – although with any luck, the dynamic priorities should counteract that to some degree; it may even totally prevent that situation if the game is able to prioritise the essentials over all else when things get desperate enough.
By far the best news IMO is the config file making it easy for advanced players to tweak their own priorities. Half of the learning curve in games like Stonehearth is figuring out how things work “behind the scenes” (e.g. understanding that given the choice between hauling and crafting, a hearthling will almost always choose crafting if they’re physically able to complete it), after that the remaining learning curve breaks down to understanding the challenges the game throws at you and applying your knowledge of the underlying mechanics. With the ability to tweak the hearthlings’ decision-making process, players will be able to more finely control their responses to some of the more common challenge situations, which takes the pressure off and frees up time to think about “big picture” stuff like how the town is going to be built. It also allows for somewhat faster completion of “chores”(obtaining resources and hauling them), again making more time for the fun stuff.
I still firmly think that no matter how smart you make the hearthlings, “garbage in, garbage out” is going to be the main factor of how smart they appear to players. But some of these improvements sound like they genuinely will help the hearthlings to sort garbage commands from essential ones, which could well take the pressure off of rookie players as they come to grips with how the hearthlings work. The cynic in me thinks that these changes will encourage more bad habits among new players, but if the systems are able to counteract them then it should mean an overall improvement in the gameplay experience.