The key sticking point (as I see it) between your argument and mine is on the definition of “sandbox” – as far as I’m concerned, sandboxes don’t have a defined end condition. Sometimes they have a lose condition, but Stonehearth definitely doesn’t have a “win” you can achieve within the game. In an RTS, it doesn’t matter how you get to the win condition, as long as you get there. You can either use really skillful strategies, or you can use the most basic one and just have more patience than the opponent does… however you do it, as long as you win the game you win it. In a sandbox, though, nothing is going to serve as that “victory trigger”, so there’s no objective way to measure success or failure. All you can do is compare your performance against other performances – and while that might seem like a good way to see whether you’re improving, it actually fails to take into account all the random factors, and all the “hidden” metrics. For example, one player might have trouble with feeding their hearthlings early on, so they move a bunch of berry bushes close to the town and that gets rid of the problem… until their town expands, and they’re back where they were, because they’ve moved all the berry bushes and can’t get any more food from them than they currently are. They haven’t actually got better at feeding the town, because they haven’t learned to recognise the town’s food needs properly or weigh up the pros and cons of different food sources. That’s why learning in Stonehearth is not actually measured by simple numbers, it’s about rates and ratios.
What you can do to quantify your success comes from outside the game; the things you bring to it as a player. And that’s what makes it really hard to give new players the kind of guidance you describe. You can’t really teach people creativity, problem-solving or experimental methods; and those are really the core skills that Stonehearth asks of its players.
You can teach players a 5-step process to build a specific building… but in a game like Stonehearth, there’s no guarantee that things will unfold according to that plan. Sometimes the RNG is nice and helps you out, sometimes it has no impact, and sometimes it will straight-up laugh in your face. So, teaching novice players a “step by step” approach to the game is actually counter-productive – it teaches them to expect certain “rules” which aren’t actually there, and doesn’t prepare them for the times that RNG or their lack of knowledge will force them to adapt.
So, what we need is a tutorial which teaches rookies how to adapt, experiment, and plan. And believe me, I want to see that in the game ASAP! Unfortunately… it’s very hard to figure out how to write/create such a tutorial, especially in light of the fact that it needs to be translated and made accessible to players of all levels of education and literacy.
I’ve been making suggestions which, I hope, will help to create that kind of tutorial. The main one I want to see is for hearthlings to directly communicate with the player, explicitly telling them what is and isn’t working. Most of the time, “bugs” are actually a mixture of expected behaviour and unexpected player input… i.e. something which is perfectly logical to the game, just not to players. The perfect example here is the “bug” that @sdee describes where the carpenter is unable to complete their task, so they do low-priority tasks instead. As far as I see it, the game is working perfectly behind the scenes; what’s actually not working there is that the problem isn’t being communicated to the player. Now, as a player who is well-versed in this genre, I can spot that problem because I know that the socialising tasks are (or should be) a lower priority than the construction tasks; and I can deduce that there’s a problem somewhere with the more important tasks. I can then back-trace and find the problem, once I know to look out for it.
However, obviously new players won’t have that knowledge, so it looks like their hearthlings are just being lazy. I can sympathise with that, but I refuse to see it as a problem with the engine. It’s a problem with UX, i.e. a communication issue. And yeah, something totally needs to be done to improve that! Trying to change the back-end (e.g. the hearthling AI) won’t fix it, it’s the players who ultimately need to make a change in themselves in order to get rid of that problem.
In case it’s not clear (because I have waffled on a bit, hahah!), what I’m saying here is that situations like the one you describe can’t be solved with a simple step-by-step guide, or a tutorial which shows players how to perform basic tasks. It requires a more abstract/“higher level” of learning to show players how to diagnose problems and figure out a way to get around them. I’m really hopeful that Stonehearth can be the first game to properly pull that off in the sandbox/city-building genre, because there’s a desperate need for a game which can!
In the meantime, here are a couple of hints/advice for the specific problem of “lazy” hearthlings:
usually, it means they’re unable to find or reach something; so if you see a hearthling standing around all day it’s a good cue to check their supplies, trace their route to work, and check their tasks (they might have had their job disabled for something else, and it just hasn’t been turned on again – it’s more common than you’d expect!)
if all of the above didn’t show you a problem, it might actually mean that they’re too busy to complete the “important” tasks. The game can only track a certain number of tasks at a time (it depends directly on how powerful your computer is), so if the hearthlings aren’t taking on new tasks it might mean that the game is too busy trying to figure out old ones for them to try something new. This shouldn’t be a problem for you, but if you’ve been playing for a really long session or have a massive number of hearthlings or buildings, it may happen.
Ultimately, I do sympathise with your position – you want to learn the game’s rules, and you want the game to make that easier. And I think that’s totally fair! However, we keep getting “requests” (they’re often worded as demands) to make the game itself easier, and that muddies the waters on what players actually want. At the moment, Stonehearth isn’t particularly challenging when you understand it, the challenge comes from learning to understand it. I definitely want to see the UX improved, and more interactivity between hearthlings and players to be added, so that players have more “windows into” the world of Hearth and thus more opportunities to understand how it works.
However, if people keep asking for the game itself to be made simpler, we’ll lose what makes Stonehearth so awesome. What we need instead is for players to clarify what they’re not understanding about the game, and to elaborate on where their expectations don’t meet up with what’s actually happening. If everyone can do that, the devs will get a much better idea of where the UX fails to communicate what’s going on “behind the scenes”, and they’ll be able to fix it so that rookie players can see what they need to do to fix it. For example, if the carpenter keeps having conversations with other hearthlings because there’s no wood available for them (maybe because the blacksmith is using it all for forging, as an example), then there should be something happening in-game to make that clear to the player. The carpenter might get into an argument with the blacksmith over who gets to use the wood first, or they could simply inform the player directly that they’ve been trying to do a job for a couple of hours but can’t get any wood for it. Either of those things would get the attention of even a completely new player, and the solution would be pretty clear.
If Stonehearth can get to that level of interactive UX, it’ll be an awesome game and really easy for new players to pick up and understand – so I agree with you on the core point that the game is a bit difficult to understand right now, I only disagree about how it could be fixed. I don’t think that explicit tutorials can do much here, and that’s mostly because I’ve seen a lot of other games try it and not really succeed. What Stonehearth needs, IMO, is to bring its puzzle/problem solving elements more into the spotlight, and give clear hints rather than specific instructions.