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Aira's Big Idea Thread: Prospecting, Metals, Progression


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So there's been some discussion about the prospecting mechanic. It seems most people are dissatisfied with it, but there hasn't been any consensus on how to change it, and it doesn't seem to be a development priority. On the other hand, to my surprise, it seems the most desired change to the game is different world generation. I have some ideas for how to overhaul the prospecting and ore system which might require some changes to world generation, so maybe this is a good time to get into it.

Drawbacks to the current system:

  • First off, the progression itself:
    • Stone tools wear out incredibly fast and knapping new ones is tedious.
    • Medium-long-term survival is not possible at the stone age level because farming is impossible.
    • The copper age isn't terribly fun because the tools wear out so fast the player has to spend tons of time mining more copper and making more tools.
    • Essentially, gameplay doesn't stop being tedious until at least the bronze level – but the ores to make bronze are infamously difficult to find.
  • Then there's prospecting:
    • Prospecting is overly complex and confusing for new players, and takes a lot of time.
    • Even success at prospecting is no guarantee of finding ore.
    • It's absurdly unrealistic – there is no such thing as a tool that magically tells you the mineral makeup of the ground deep below you.

Real "prospecting pickaxes" do exist, but they are a modern invention requiring modern technology. One type is just a small pick which scrapes minerals off of rocks which are then analyzed to try to find trace amounts of desired minerals. The other is a magnetized tool used for finding bits of ore in the water. Neither are realistic for the level of technology represented in the game.

I understand why the fictional magical prospecting pick exists. Players want to know where ore is before they spend lots of time and resources mining for it. But in my opinion, the problem isn't that ore is hard to find, it's that it's so necessary so early on. Gameplay could be improved and extended by extending the viable length of each technological era. And then prospecting can be made more realistic by having it rely entirely on environmental clues and real historical prospecting methods, rather than swinging the special tool that calls the ore fairies to whisper percentages in your ear.



The first step is reworking the ages. For the game not to be frustrating at early tech levels, each age needs to be fun in its own right. At the moment, the baseline for acceptable tool duration and speed seems to be set in the bronze age. Anything before that and the tools are too slow and wear out too quickly to be tolerable, leading to frustrated players doing nothing but searching for tin or zinc/bismuth for hours. If the baseline is moved to the stone age, and improvements are made from there, players can actually spend time living in the stone age before feeling the urgent need to advance. Then copper tools would be faster and more durable, and moving on up from there. There's motivation to progress without feeling punished for taking your time in the early game.

Stone age should include:

  • Stone hoes. I mean honestly, never in the history of the world has anyone said "oh no, my family will starve, for I have no metal with which to make a hoe". I've planted and grown vegetables from seed with my bare hands. Restricting farming to copper is just silly.
  • Longer tool duration. Personally, I'd favor a "chance to break" over a simple duration, for realism's sake.

Copper tools should also last longer than they do. I'm also in favor of the sharpening system that's been proposed elsewhere – that instead of simply disintegrating in your hands, the tools gradually get slower and slower as the edge dulls, and need to be resharpened somehow (losing material in the process so eventually they are transformed into a lump of scrap metal). Copper loses its edge pretty quickly, so tools would still wear out, but not quite at the rate they currently do. Bronze would hold an edge far better, and iron far better still.

And before anyone says "but if stone age tools don't break constantly, the player won't have any reason to progress!" - that's just a silly idea. Players inherently want to progress in a game, even if they don't have to. And higher levels of metal will offer benefits, just as they do now - but without making the player feel punished for taking their time at the earlier ages if they so choose. Making earlier ages more enjoyable doesn't detract from the later ages, it just adds to the overall content of the game.



For the generation of metal and the process of finding it, I propose a far more realistic, engaging, and intuitive method using environmental clues. Making the ores more realistic can make for far more interesting gameplay.

  • Copper veins can be less common, but larger and easier to find. Historically, copper was found because it was obvious. Lots of pieces of loose copper ore are just lying around on the ground in an area with a copper vein, concentrated by the source. The edges of the veins are exposed to the surface or only buried under a layer or two of soil - basically how it is now. The current system for surface copper works fine, but should be indicative of deeper copper ore in the same area. Tin, Zinc, Bismuth, and Lead can be found the same way.
  • The actual mining could stay how it is now, or be gated by type. However, the difficulty in mining in reality isn't tied to the type of ore, but the type of stone. For example, granite is almost impossible to mine through without explosives. Ore types could be gated behind specific types of metal pick (or even bombs) by tying them to specific types of stone (not necessarily realistic ones, for the sake of gameplay progression).
  • Gold and silver are kind of fine how they are. If world generation winds up including rivers, panning for gold traces in water sources could be another way of finding gold. Not in the grindy TFC way, but players could pan a river for as long as they like, with a small chance of finding gold IF it is present in the area. Historically, people would pan rivers for gold, then follow the river to its source, which is where the gold was hidden in the ground.
  • Iron is the most fun one. There are several methods for finding and refining iron.
    • Bog iron is probably the easiest. Peat bogs should form in world generation, which have red slime in places on the water and/or reddish soil around the edges of the water. This can be refined into iron, though it is labor-intensive and the return rate is relatively low.
    • The iron ores we currently have can still exist. Rarely, there will be deposits close to the surface, indicated by a reddish tinge to the soil in that area. They will give a higher return rate, but should be difficult to mine.

There can still be plenty of ores deep underground, but there shouldn't be any way to find those with ancient technology. Now and then they can be found by caving, or if a player wants to spend some time doing intensive mining, they can. Or if something like magic ever gets added, there could be some kind of ritual. The environmental clues should also be visible in caves, so for example, if a copper vein is nearby, there should be loose copper on the ground in the cave, there should be a reddish tinge to the stone near iron, etc.



And now there's the question of how to enforce progression. What's to stop a player from simply finding an iron bog and going straight for iron tools? There are two possibilities.

The one we're currently using involves forcing the player to use tools made of a particular level in order to obtain the materials for the next level. The other is to restrict the player by knowledge. The issue with a video game is that the player can already know about the higher levels of technology because of outside information. But the character in the game can be denied that knowledge, forcing the player to find it before they can progress. The Sevtech Ages modpack for Minecraft does this in an interesting way, for an easy example.

Example progression system based on knowledge for VS:

  • The player starts in the stone age, able to make stone tools. Critical to this style of progression is that the stone age is not intolerable. The player must be able to survive and their tools must last a reasonable amount of time, so that the game doesn't get too frustrating and tedious before they manage to get to copper. The same goes for copper, etc. Making an advancement to the next metal level would create obvious improvements, but that shouldn't mean the game is a slog until then.
  • If the player finds any metal ore samples during the stone age, they are simply labeled "shiny rock" and given a nonspecific shiny rock texture.
  • To learn what copper ore is and be able to make copper tools, they must find the knowledge of copper. This can be found by trading with an NPC for the information or finding a copper item in ruins somewhere. Copper items in ruins should be made a little more common for this reason. Alternatively, drifters could rarely drop bits of paper which might have this knowledge on them.
  • At this point, copper ore bits are revealed and labeled correctly. The player can now process copper and make tools from it using the process we already have.
  • Other metals are revealed and made usable via the same process.
  • For alloys, the information needs to be found, either in ruins, from traders, or from mob drops. Just looking at a bronze item doesn't give you the knowledge of how to make bronze. Trying to mix copper and tin in the right ratio in a crucible simply won't be considered a valid recipe until you've unlocked the knowledge.
  • For iron, the red slime and red dirt can be collected at any time, but until you find the knowledge, you can't build a bloomery to actually smelt it.
  • But then, what's to prevent the player from going straight to iron if they find that knowledge first? Couple of options here:
    • Require copper or bronze parts to make the bloomery (the tuyere is a good part to require metal for and was often made of copper – for the sake of progression you could say it requires bronze).
    • Allow the player to go straight for bog iron, but make the process labor-intensive and have a percent chance of total failure. There is therefore a tradeoff. Grind for iron early on, or follow copper/bronze first for more reliable tools. Then mining the higher-quality iron ore from the ground can require bronze tools.
    • Code in the bits of knowledge so that they spawn in order for each player, or if a player obtains some information beyond their current level, give them a message saying it doesn't make sense to them yet, and only let them use it when they're at the right level.


I'm well aware that all of this is very complicated and would require overhauls of several different aspects of the game as it currently is. But I do think it would be worth it.

Advantages of this system:

  • More immersive and interesting prospecting and metalworking.
  • Can get rid of the magic wand prospecting pick entirely.
  • The bits of knowledge found or dropped by drifters can serve as tutorial for the different metals.
  • Extended gameplay – the stone and copper ages can be longer instead of a mad dash towards bronze and iron.
  • Greater realism.
  • Distances the game a bit more from its Minecraft-inspired origins and makes it a more unique and original experience.


Thank you for reading. I hope at least some of these ideas have a chance of being implemented. A game that works the way I've laid out here would be a dream come true for me. Obviously there would be other factors to consider and some things might have to be reworked, but at least as a starting point, I hope this is helpful.

Here are some of the sources I found while researching that others might find interesting. There's a lot of inspiration to be found here! :D

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Some interesting points, while many mechanics you suggest would be better than vanilla, but there are still a lot of problems with your suggestions.

The progression system you suggest is where I see the biggest problems. You're basically suggesting a research tree, where research can be acquired in several ways. However because of this players may find research notes and therefore gain knowledge, that is placed much higher on the research tree, making it a plane rather than a tree. You suggest either fixing this by using the old progression system, which would render this new one useless, or force the order of gaining knowledge.

I really don't think the game needs a research system, as that can significantly hurt the flow of gameplay (for example when players fail to obtain the needed research) and doesn't really fix the progression, but adds new problems. Keeping the current tool and material processing based progression seems generally like a good idea, even if it isn't entirely realistic.

I think your ore and prospecting suggestions are quite good, but you have not mentioned and fixed one drawback of the current system with them: They don't encourage building mining infrastructure. My suggestion for ore generation and prospecting is quite a bit different:

Each stone type should only have one ore type. When you know which stone you mine, you know which ore you can find. The prospecting pick tells the player which stone types are beneath. Stone strata contain lots of long, snake like veins, often connecting with each other. The mining tier is obviously limited by the type of stone, making for a reasonably realistic mining progression. There would also be types of stone which have no ore assigned to them, preventing the underground from being littered with ores. Some alternate sources of ore could still be available, obviously surface copper is still a must, but I'm also in favor of some other ores having rare surface variants, which may allow a quick start into the bronze age. Bog iron could still be a thing, as it would still require a bloomery and a forge plus anvil, keeping the progression. Maybe even rare meteorites could be a thing, allowing for iron without a bloomery (but still a bronze anvil).

Alternate ways of gaining resources are always fun and panning for gold and bog iron seem like good alternate ways. I also think making some ores only mineable by explosives seems very fun, but I wouldn't apply it to stone types, as that could make mining through the underground very difficult and tedious.

One other thing that needs to be woven into the progression is caving. As deeper levels will have more difficult enemies in future versions, it makes sense to also provide better rewards, because the player won't need to go caving for finding ores (but he still can). I suggest adding geodes, which are special rocks containing ore or gems, to the walls and roof of caves, being better when deeper down.

Realism can be a useful source of inspiration, but gameplay should always be the deciding factor.

I'll will shortly proceed to write a comment about your tool progression, because I want to split up this wall of text a bit.

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Oh, I'm all in favor of a more complex (and realistic) mining system. Banging away at rocks with a pick is just video game magic. I was just trying not to introduce too many mechanics ideas at once. Generally, though, I don't consider it a problem that needs to be solved, that we're not forced to create mining infrastructure. For the sake of gameplay, I'm fine with the unrealistic use of a hand pick, though I'd also be delighted with a more complex system. 

I'm very much against the prospecting pick. If you want to know what's down deep in the ground, you should have to go look. Even with modern technology, it's still necessary to bore holes in the ground for samples. But it should be possible to find ore based on environmental clues, as was done in the real world, historically - I certainly don't think it should be necessary to dig aimlessly for hours and hours just hoping to find ore.

As for the knowledge-based system of progression, that is just a suggested alternative way to break up progression. It does have several advantages:

  • It gives the player more of a reason to hunt drifters (at the moment, there's not much of a reason once you've set your spawn).
  • The information can also serve as a tutorial.
  • The player can choose to either explore for the information or hunt drifters for it, which makes several play styles equally viable.

As I mentioned in my descriptions, to keep the progression, either the information can be coded to drop in order, or if a player finds an advanced one, they can just get a message like "you do not understand this information yet" when they try to use it.

It's not specifically a necessary addition, but it would have benefits if we went in that direction.

Thanks for the thoughts so far. Looking forward to your thoughts on tools as well.

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As I agree with many of the aspects of the game you have detailed here, let me see how I can actually help.
First I would like to say that most of these changes should be added to the Vanilla game. In that regard, my power is the same as yours, as in just to make suggestions.
Second, I got together with some helpful people and made a mod that strives to bring a lot more realism to the game. 
The Neolithic Mod brings the stone age technology to a more historically accurate level. 
It adds the hoe between other things. The mod also adds the burden basket, a quickly obtainable backpack to solve the initial frustration with personal inventory. We also added bamboo chests, that do not depend on metal, and recently increased the number of slots in all containers. 
We made the hunting experience more immersive and rewarding. 
The mod is not finished. Don't believe there is such a thing, but we are still introducing new features and expanding the mod.

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I really agree with your problems with tool progression, but I think some of your suggestions to fix those could also be very problematic.

Generally, giving the tools more durability seems like a good idea, as it makes the stone and copper age much less tedious.

I'm however against chance based durability, because there is no gain (other than a bit of realism) for using a chance based system in this case. I'm not entirely against chance based systems, as a chance based system can have very interesting gains, like critical hits increasing the tension of combat, and gambling mechanics with a high risk/high reward balance. The difference to chance based durability is, that the player either decides to gamble or/and that he can avoid it.

There are however ways to make chance based systems work with tools, like tools having a durability meter, but not breaking when it has reached zero. The tool could then be repaired, but the player can decide to use it without repairing, but having a chance (1% or something) to break. The player doesn't need to take the risk, but he might, as the chance seems somewhat low, but he could in return loose his entire tool.

I generally like the how being limited to the metal ages, as that provides further distinction between the ages and forces a nomadic playstyle in the stone age. It may not be realistic, but gameplay profits from it. I would even like to further extend this system:

When giving lower tier tools higher durability they automatically make higher tier tools less useful and therefore lower the benefits for age progression. I even like to see weapon damage progression to be less prevalent, the best sword should only be 50% better than the worst, for reasons of realism as well as promoting a more player skill oriented system of combat.

This however would make the problem of lesser age benefits even more prevalent, so my solution would be to limit certain types of tools to certain ages (and the ages after them). Hoes, shears, pickaxes can be made from copper and up, short-swords, saws, hammers and anvils can be made from bronze and up, swords, scythes, propicks can be made from iron and up, greatswords only from steel. This would make processing ages much more rewarding and new ages much more unique as well as provide new ways of progression.

You also suggest a sharpening system and gradual tool degradation. Tool degradation is something I really don't want, as it would make the game much more tedious and for little gameplay gain. I would rather like some way to repair tools, as that would fill the same niche, but can keep the current durability system and be created in a way to not be tedious (you wouldn't have to repair tools constantly, only when they are about to break). To further differentiate the progression ages, the methods of repair can differ:

  • Stone tools can't be repaired, but they have as much durability as copper tools.
  • Copper and bronze tools can be melt back into metal, having only lost a few units of it, allowing for casting them again (maybe having to add a little extra metal).
  • Iron and steel can be repaired at a sharpening stone and don't need to be reforged. However sharpening them, while increasing their durability, lowers their max durability, making them unable to be repaired at some point. Tools will keep their "quality" (Smithing will hopefully be extended at some point to introduce some kind of quality system) when repairing. Iron and steel tools like three times more durability than copper and bronze ones.
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Too many topics, and some had threads that would have been better to have contributed to.  I do want to talk about prospecting picks and how they are used irl.  They're not 'modern technology'.   A prospecting pick is nothing more than a lightweight pick/hammer/mattock that the prospector can easily carry with them, and use to pry loose rocks out of the soil, river beds, or cliff faces.   They are lighter than a normal pick and so cannot be used to mine, but that also makes them much easier to carry for long distances over rough terrain, which is what the prospector is doing with them.  The prospector is examining many small rock samples over a large area, to try and find the signs of the minerals they are looking for.    I'd actually call the way VS does them a decent approximation.  Granted, the exact percentages you get are not realistic.   But it's a game after all.   Shall we also hide the exact fertility level of the soil, because it's absurd that a person with primitive technology could know such things?

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I see. I did my best to research prospecting picks and the only ones I could find any reference to were ones used with modern technology. But if it's to just pry up little stones here and there, surely they should only indicate surface ore deposits and not deep underground stuff. That's the part that bothers me. The way they are used in this game (and were used in TFC) is video game magic, and I really believe there are better ways to do it.

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Depends on the goal I guess.   Extreme fidelity to reality is usually not my top priority, vs gameplay or balance.   So in that context I think that having a pick which lets you find more ores, even if deeper, is better than only having your eyeballs to go off of.   Just for reference, a couple past threads on propicking:  older thread, newer thread.  There's been several supplemental methods suggested in the past.  It doesn't necessarily need to be the case that the propick is the only way we ever have to find ores.  There's also been suggestions of ways to change the shape of ore generation, to make it easier to find.  I think there's many ways to arrive at the same ore gathering experience goal, whatever that may be.

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I really like a lot of the ideas here.  2 things that came to me while reading:

  1. what if we added a maul for splitting logs that had much increased durability but could be only used for that purpose, and axes were only for chopping trees? Also as far as I know no game has done the maul.  Mine sits right by my wood pile.
  2. if you have to trade previous resources to get knowledge of new skills that effectively gates them.  charcoal gates copper, craft a copper coin to get knowledge of bronze, cast a bronze widget to get knowledge of iron, cast an iron gear to get knowledge of steam...
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If I remember correctly, better than wolves or some such minecraft mod spawned different flowers on the surface to indicate what mineral types existed below that chunk. So something orange/red for iron, blue/green for copper and so on, I'm sure there are plenty of realistic examples to choose from. This would serve the same purpose as the prospecting pick but in a less clunky more immersive way. Couple that with different ores appearing in different rock types and prospecting with an actual pick could be useful as you see the indicator species then dig down to find granite, chalk or whatever, confirming the presence of a particular mineral in the area.

Personally not convinced by an enforced knowledge system. Gating content behind arbitrary skills takes all the fun out of discovery and could become tedious on replay. Unlocking new stuff just by getting hold of the right materials, while potentially sequence breaking, is a far more enjoyable method of progress. Well, for me at least. If hunting drifters is to be incentivised, it would be better through an actually useful drop (tools/materials) rather than an item that exists purely to unlock recipes. That way all playstyles are possible but not required to progress. Trading in previous resources just sounds like grinding to me when said resources could be directly used to make the next tier. Charcoal gates copper because it is required to smelt copper. Bronze gates iron because a bronze anvil is needed for forging. Iron boiler for steam etc.... This makes a lot more sense to me.

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