We’ve mentioned it before, but one of the challenges of trying to create a true Multiplayer Evolving Online World is guaranteeing a richness of experience for all players, whether they be classical combat-oriented players, crafting players, strategic & political players, explorers & trailblazers, or some combination of them all. It’s not enough to build a world that simply makes possible a breadth of experience; you must make that entire spectrum of experience deep enough to satisfy players, wherever they look, whatever their motivation.
When we spoke about Blacksmithing last year, we showed that one way we address this is by ensuring we offer something that is more than just “press a button and wait for the timer” for every aspect of the economic system of Chronicles of Elyria. We also explained our basic framework for production; the crafting paradigm of the game that uses raw ingredients to make components that are then assembled into final products. But, in that example we discussed how a simple ingredient, iron ore in our case, was turned into a sword. We didn’t describe a craft where the raw ingredient must be developed or cultivated.
Farming is a critical trade in a world like Elyria, where starvation is a part of the robust survival mechanics that affects players and influences trade. It’s also the perfect example of how a raw ingredient -- an apple seed -- is developed and nurtured to become the renewable source of that ingredient.
At the abstract, farming is simple: You take a seed, you put it in the dirt, you make sure it gets water and sun, and you wait. Eventually it grows into a crop of some sort and you harvest it to get your produce. And, indeed, there are some games out there that simulate the craft of farming with almost exactly that formula. However, it’s not a particularly accurate simulation of the experience on the one hand and it’s not a very robust participant of the world’s economic systems, on the other. For us, that means we must go deeper. Our first stop? Soil.
Elyria is a large world, with a rich collection of biomes, each offering their own advantages and challenges. This is true right down to the soil itself. In Chronicles of Elyria, we track the condition of the soil. Is it acidic? What sort of soil is it? How well does it hold water? The soil of every biome is tracked in this way, down to 16m2 plots of land. The seeds or plants you sow have their own thresholds that determine acceptable conditions for them to enter the growth phase of their life-cycle. If the levels in the soil aren’t within the acceptable bands for the seed you're planting, it won’t grow. But, if they are within that acceptable band, how close they are to the plant’s perfect values will determine how quickly, or productively, the plant grows.
One of the easiest ways to affect the soil you’re planting in is to plow or till. Doing so won’t change some things, the Ph level of the soil isn’t going to raise or lower in a meaningful way, but you will increase the aeration rate of the soil and change its density, among other things. It will make it much easier to plant in and is required to add some alchemic compounds to the soil, should you need them.
In Chronicles of Elyria, tilling can be done by hand: You can, with a trowel, shovel, or hoe equipped, approach a plot of land and use the tool on it to turn over some of the soil. But, if your farming goals are more ambitious than that, you’ll probably want to use a plough with a beast of burden to till the soil in even furrows, quickly.
If you suspect that the soil needs further work, you’ll have to mediate the soil in some way. Usually this means adding fertilizer or some other alchemic compound to adjust those Ph levels and provide vital nutrients, but it could mean that you need to adjust another, more esoteric, property of the soil. Also worth noting, I think, is the fact that the plants you grow have an impact on the soil itself, as well. What you raised last season leaves it mark, drawing nutrients from the soil and depositing different resources of their own. With clever planning, it's possible to mediate the soil through techniques like crop rotation. Learning what your plants do to the soil is as important as learning what the soil will do for your plants.
It’s easier to add things into the soil as you till it, so this is usually done at the same time. However, knowing what needs to be added can be tricky since the people of Elyria lack the technology we do. Discovering and measuring these properties may not be easy or even possible at first. This means in some cases that the only way to learn things about the soil is to observe how it impacts the growth of the plants you’ve already started.
Whether you’ve carefully troweled around the plants to loosen the soil around them, or you’ve just turned bare earth to plant anew, adding compounds to the soil is done in the world. As a player, you take one of these compounds in hand and use it with the tilled earth in the plot, spreading it out and mixing it into the soil. Behind the scenes, the compounds will adjust the soils levels and make it better suited for your crops, assuming you’ve added the right compounds.
As with most aspects of Chronicles of Elyria, the mechanics related to farming are also tied into the knowledge system. The region-specific soil conditions are knowledge that gets added to your knowledge base. This knowledge can be shared, or even gleaned from someone else, so that you can benefit from the knowledge base of your neighbors. Or you could, perhaps, find a secondary trade in teaching that knowledge to others. The conditions of an individual plot within a biome may vary, but regional knowledge is still useful in getting started.
Once the ground is tilled, and the soil prepared, there’s really nothing left to do but to place the seeds themselves into the loosened soil. Every plant has its own idea of what ideal conditions can be. Some plants want to grow their roots in between the root structures of other larger plants, while other plants like to have the soil to themselves, so they have room to spread their roots into large networks. While sowing seeds for harvest can be as simple as scattering them into the soil, throwing a handful at a time into the dirt, you’ll need to be more mindful of how far apart you plant your seeds for something like an apple tree.
As a farmer in the game, you plant seeds by taking a stack of seeds into one hand from your inventory and then interacting with the soil inside a farm plot using that hand wherever you want to place a seed in the soil. This manual level of planting is perfect for things that you want to spread far apart from each other, like our apple trees, but if you’re sowing a field of wheat or something similar, there are faster ways.
When it comes time to mass sow seeds, say if you were growing turf or the aforementioned wheat, you could also take an entire bag or pouch of seeds from your inventory into your hand. When you interact with the soil using that bag or pouch you scatter the seeds around you instead of placing a single seed in the ground. There are, likewise, devices you can purchase and use that make the process of spreading seeds a quick and easy one.
The spacing of your plants can also be impacted by the conditions of the biome, too. Dry farmers will learn, for example, that you need more space between your plants to ensure the soil can bank more of the scant moisture that collects in semi-arid and arid biomes. Likewise, under certain conditions, you may want to intermix plants of different types because of the way they can fix soils or moisture into the soil, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between your various crops, the soil, and each other. In some environments, or to grow certain plants, you may also need to employ entirely different techniques. You might need to build a paddy field so that semi-aquatic plants you plant have plenty of access to water and can be protected from certain pests and predators that would otherwise have easy access to them. The conditions of your biome and the types of plants you are growing will together dictate what methods and strategies are best for your endeavors. There's not a single "right way" to farm for any plant, but there are certainly optimal conditions and effective techniques depending on your goal and your available resources.
That said, it’s generally a safe rule of thumb to treat the size of the resulting plant as a guideline for how far apart crops should be planted. There are some exceptions; some plants like to be close together despite being relatively large but, if you consider the size of a mature plant and draw a circle around it and then just about double that, you’ll have a pretty good rule to follow for spacing. In fact, when a plant checks to see if it’s crowded, it does something similar. It checks first to see what is within a certain radius to determine if it’s too crowded before going into more complicated check into things like the root systems of nearby plants.
And, of course, not everything you’ll plant is a seed, but the process is generally the same even for tubers or sprouts; what changes is the action that occurs when one uses the sprout or tuber on the soil. And once that action is complete, your seeds are in the ground and ready to start growing.
However, there is no guarantee that your seeds will germinate and take root. In some ways, what happens next is outside of a farmer’s control. Every plant has a life-cycle and transitions through its phases starting as a seed in a dormant phase. From there a seed will, if conditions are acceptable, enter a germination phase where the seed transforms into a sprout. A sprout then, if conditions are right, transitions into growth moving towards full maturity. For some plants, simply reaching maturity is only the halfway point towards producing something a farmer can harvest. Some plants, many fruit trees, for example, must also be induced to bear fruit; but more on that in a moment.
Our apple seed must survive and thrive through the environmental conditions it finds itself in to get to that point. As farmers, our job is to make those conditions as hospitable as possible. Whether that means protecting our crops from infestations & blights, ensuring they are properly irrigated, or simply making sure they’re planted in a way to get them the sunlight they need, crops depend on farmers to see them through the unpredictable seasons on Elyria.
The most common way a farmer sees to their crops is by ensuring they are properly watered. Sure, you could literally take a can or a wine-skin or some other vessel and manually water each plant in your field, but anyone who wants to grow at scale will soon realize that watering in that way is just labor intensive. Instead, most people will build irrigation systems.
In Chronicles of Elyria, you can’t physically dig into the terrain – you can’t dig a channel for water to flow through – but this technological constraint doesn’t mean you’re unable to use these irrigation techniques. Instead, when you dig an irrigation channel, using mechanics like those used when you dig a road, you’ll be placing irrigation “objects” on the terrain that, as a connected system, “draw water” from your primary water source to your plants.
While there are a few notable exceptions in arid regions, almost every culture has their own methods of irrigation that play with this central premise, and in some cases, what you’re building isn’t so much an irrigation network as a shallowly flooded pool or pond. That said, everything works pretty much the same way; you can essentially automate the process of watering your crops if you have the know-how and the skill or know someone who can do the building for you. Provided, of course, that you have access to water.
While it is a critical concern, Water is only one concern for a farmer. Even in Elyria, different kinds of plants prefer different levels of light and darkness when they grow. How much sunlight a plant wants in a given day is compared to how much it receives each day and the result is used in the calculations that determine if the plant grows or withers. In some case, plants will want shade to live their lives beneath, others will demand the sunlight, drinking in as much light as they can every day.
There’s not much a farmer can do about how much sunlight is available each day, but you can employ other strategies; building shaded areas for the plants that need it, or perhaps clearing obstructions that block a plant’s access to the sky. Sometimes, dealing with the amount of light your plants need is as simple as knowing ahead of time what they might or might not want and planting them in the right place. Then again, sometimes it’s just a bad year and thanks to nasty weather there just isn’t enough light to go around. Some plants even demand total darkness, such as the glowing tubers found in the Lost Vault, offering a wholly different, but still light related, challenge.
There are other aspects that might encourage or discourage growth as well; vines need trellises to shape the path of their growth, for example. Some plants thrive when various types of insects, such as bees, can interact with them. For almost every crop you can plant, there’s a wealth of knowledge you can learn which will enable your character to do more and yield higher quality produce. Farming is perhaps one of the most knowledge intensive crafting experiences in the game, with knowledge not only expanding what techniques – what modes of interaction – are available, but revealing what needs to be done for your plants in the unique circumstances you find yourself in.
Without a doubt, there’s more to the well-being of plants than just soil conditions, sunlight, and irrigation. Plants can be stricken with diseases – blights – just as the tribes of Mann can, and they are susceptible to other infections, and the infestations of parasites as well. It depends on the plant, but a good farmer will take the time to regularly inspect their crops to see how they’re fairing. If leaves are yellowing, or holes are appearing, it could be a sign that something needs to be done to mediate the soil or remove a pest.
Inspecting plants is done by using the inspect action on the plants in the world. This will allow you to see the plant in a detailed view, looking closely at its leaves, fruit, or other features for signs of blight, infestation, or infection. Once you’ve found a problem, you’ll want to consider how you’re going to address it.
Sometimes, that will mean seeking out an alchemist for compounds to add to the soil or the water. Other times, it might mean finding a way to get rid of the pests in your field, such as introducing a natural predator for the creatures that infest your crops. In still other cases it could mean something else entirely. And, in fact, there’s almost always more than one way to deal with a problem as a farmer, and which approach you take will depend quite a bit on what services you have access to and the knowledge of plants that you’ve amassed as you ply your trade.
One thing to keep in mind is that what happens to your plants as they grow has a large impact on the results of your labors. It's possible to raise your crops in ways that make them more suited to one purpose or another. We've mentioned that you might need to use the products of an alchemist to help prepare or maintain your soil, but it's also true that what you grow can be more or less suited to different economic applications, such as alchemy, depending on the properties that the plant takes on as it grows. Farming isn't just about providing food for you and yours; many of the crops you'll plant will be grown for commercial or industrial purposes. Whether you're growing crops for an alchemist to turn into solvents, glues, or other industrial compounds, growing produce for consumption, or growing ingredients used in the production of medicine, you'll want to grow produce that has different properties, and what happens to your plant while its raised has a lot to do with which properties your plant possess.
Once you’ve shepherded your crop through its growth phase and it’s matured, you can begin to think about the harvest. If your crops are the type that die after they go to seed, you’ll begin the whole cycle anew once you’ve harvested the produce. However, in the case of our apple seeds, the tree can produce for years to come, assuming it's properly cared for. The trick with a fruiting tree is triggering it to fruit in the first in place.
For the plants that fruit, bearing fruit is just another stage in its life-cycle. Just as there are conditions that trigger a sprout moving into the growth phase, or attaining maturity, there are also conditions that must be met for a tree, or other such plants, to bear fruit. This might require pollination from an insect like a bee, or it might require environmental conditions such as a series of days in a particular temperature band at the right time of year. Every plant’s conditions are different and can consider multiple factors, including the size of the plant, the temperature of the biome, the presence of certain insects, the humidity level, and more. With apple trees it takes time, and for the tree to be over a certain size, first and foremost, but the presence of good pollinators makes a difference, too.
Once your tree is bearing fruit, it’s time to harvest. Just as with planting there are a few different ways you can go about this. The most labor-intensive route is to literally go tree to tree, using each apple with an open hand to pluck it from a branch before they fall overripe to the earth below. Alternately, a more efficient solution could present itself with a little research and ingenuity. You might even find a way to do your picking from the ground, catching the apples as they fall.
Some plants need to be pulled from the ground to harvest them and, as a farmer, you’ll find yourself moving down your planted rows using an open hand on each plant to yank them from the soil. Others' produce must be cut away from the plant, such as the grapes on a vine. Still others can be reaped with a scythe or similar instrument, cut down into sheaths that can be gathered in bulk to be processed later. There are always multiple techniques you can apply, and if all else fails, you can always literally pull the thing out of the soil or chop it down and harvest your produce from the plant’s now dead body. How you go about your work is somewhat up to you.
That said, every strategy has its own value; even though you may be able to get another season's yield from a crop there may be cases where it’s still worth harvesting your produce destructively. For example, you might want to plough the remains back into the soil to help replenish the nutrients that your growing plants have consumed. And, there is always the finished result to consider:
The methods you use, and the conditions your plants experience as they grow, indelibly change the properties of the plant and the produce it yields. Just as the techniques one can use in smithing can change the performance of the resulting item, the properties imparted to a plant as it grows can alter the desirability and in-game effects of its produce. You may have mastered a plan for growing your apple trees that allows you to pack them in densely and yields many apples, but that process may leave them sour and only suitable for certain applications, such as the creation of ciders, or as ingredients for the potions and other concoctions made through alchemy. This might limit their value. On the other hand, it might be that the cider business is lucrative in your part of the world, and sour apples are exactly what you need.
The point of our crafting framework is not to make those decisions for you, but rather to give you the freedom to decide what “best” means for you and your plans. There’s more than one way to grow an apple tree, and more than one kind of apple a tree can grow; only you can know for sure what success means for your farm and your crops.