The Role of Crafting in Massively Multiplayer Games

The role of crafting in massively multiplayer games is not clearly defined. In some games, it is a very important part of the game itself. In others, it’s more of a diversion from the game and doesn’t really need to be there (i.e. it’s not a core mechanic). In this post, I explore the role of crafting in MMOs and will elaborate on a previous post of mine, Crafting: Core System or Diversion?

You will also find posts by other Knights of the MMO Round Table, Moorgard and Aggro Me, on this very subject. We plan to write more of these Round Table posts to give you multiple perspectives on the same subject without influencing each other’s opinions (hence the simultaneous posting of all the articles). The topic this time: Crafting.

First, let’s look at some of the crafting systems that can be found in current games in a very broad scope:

Simple Systems: There are point-click systems, which essentially require the crafter to collect the proper components, acquire the recipe, and click a single button to combine them into an item. These are probably the simplest systems out there. There are systems that are slightly more complex that require you to interact while in the process of tradeskilling, but aren’t really more complicated or tedious. There are even systems that remove the player from the crafting equation for the most part that allow you to have an NPC or machine make items for you.

Complex Systems: Some systems out there are quite a bit more complicated. They may require you to craft your own components for items rather than simply harvesting the components. For example, you might have to make a blade, a pommel, a handguard, a grip, etc. then combine those into a sword. More complicated systems often necessitate greater interaction from the avatar that is crafting, requiring you to douse fires, correct a stitch, sand a knot, or perform dozens of other tasks. These systems are listed as complex because the process of creating the item is often difficult and takes a considerable amount of time (both in the act of making the item and the preparation for doing so).

Before moving on, I’m going to define for you some terms that I’ll be using in this article:

  • Adventure-centric: A game that focuses on combat.
  • Item-centric: A game that focuses on the acquisition of items (in which such items affect your avatar greatly).
  • Crafting or Tradeskilling: The creation of in-game items by players.
  • Spreadsheet Crafting: A tradeskill system that requires the user to maintain a spreadsheet or visit websites extensively in order to effectively craft
  • Point-and-Click Crafting: A tradeskill system that requires the user to acquire components then hit a single button to make an item
  • Automated Crafting: Crafting that is controlled by the computer (an NPC or crafting machine), in that the items are produced automatically. Players will generally provide parameters and supplies, then let such a system run.
  • Experimental Crafting: This type of system allows the user to guess probable combinations and produce a near-infinite amount of different items. Caution: Database intensive!

What role should crafting have in a particular game? That varies greatly between different games. In adventure-centric games, crafting can have an important role. In item-centric games, crafting can have an important role. The combination of adventure-and-item-centric, however, means that the role of crafting will likely be diminished. The question is, why?

In a game that focuses on combat, the player must feel rewarded for defeating his enemies. That can mean a number of things, from experience to coin to items and beyond. However, in a game that items have a major effect on your character’s performance in combat, players feel most rewarded when they get a great item. And how do they expect to get that great item? From the bloody grip of their fallen enemies, of course, because the game focuses on combat.

The unfortunate side effect for fans of tradeskills is that they can no longer be the creators of the best items in the game because adventurers expect to be rewarded for overcoming difficult situations with something that improves their avatar (in the case of adventure/item-centric games, that means items). You can circumvent this limitation to some degree by joining the forces of adventuring and crafting.

For example, a hero could slay the Mega Boldurgrun of Grendas and safely remove a powerful crystal from its cave. The hero takes the crystal to his crafter friend, and the crafter friend infuses the crystal into a sword, making a very powerful weapon. This is great some of the time, but most adventurers want to slay a formidable foe and directly acquire their uber item (even cooler is when they can see the item on their enemy, then pick it up from their rotting corpse).

That is not to say that you can’t have crafting in a game that is both adventure and item-centric. However, it is best not to have a complex system that requires a lot of time and effort if the items produced through tradeskills don’t measure up to items dropped in the world. No spreadsheet crafting in these games, but the point-and-click method or another relatively simple crafting system is usually good to go.

I mentioned that crafting can have a major role in either adventure or item-centric games. In a game that focuses on combat in which items have a relatively minor impact on an avatar’s performance in combat, it’s okay to make a somewhat complex crafting system, because crafted items can be as good as or better than items obtained while adventuring (the reward for adventuring isn’t really item acquisition, since they aren’t much of a reward). Similarly, in a game that doesn’t care much about adventuring but relies heavily on items, it’s fine to have a complex crafting system because that’s probably going to be the primary method of item acquisition.

Examples
So, what’s the best crafting system for an online game? As I said before, it depends. I’ve provided fairly broad guidelines on what I feel would work in a game, but specific games require specific crafting systems. I’ll provide a few examples and some generalized ideas of the mechanics behind their crafting systems in an attempt to drive my point home.

Adventure-centric, Not Item-centric
Let’s say you have a game that is focused on combat, politics, city building, PvP, and management. It might actually be best to go with an automated system as well as a hands-on system. Let’s see if I can explain what I mean in a few sentences…

The automated side of the system could be a supply line. You provide resources and direction to NPC crafters whom you have hired to do the dirty work. You watch the market carefully and adjust their production accordingly, then take the items produced and put them on the local market. Additionally, the player could make the very same items as his NPC counterparts if he so desired, but it wouldn’t be wholly necessary (although the player crafting process would likely be more efficient and would work great if you’re in a bind).

In addition, since the focus is in part on city building and PvP, it may make sense that players can attack enemy cities (i.e. your city) and could wear it down. The enterprising engineer (crafter) could dispatch his NPC repair forces to work on fixing up the city and could even get his hands dirty and manually help repair the city himself.

Since I didn’t mention this game as being item-centric (there are some items that are more powerful than others, but the disparity between run-of-the-mill and uber is fairly subtle), it’s okay to make the crafting system pretty involved. You might need to acquire schematics (recipes) initially to know how to craft an item, then you’d have to get molds with a limited number of uses, and you’d have resources that are near fully expendable (meaning, once they’re made into an item via the crafting process, the resources go away unless the item itself is reverse engineered). The true complexity of the system becomes resource management and playing the market, but the role of crafting is itself quite important in such a game.

Item-centric, Not Adventure-centric
This is probably the hardest type of game to define, because there are so few of them around. Basically, such a game would rely on players to create items that give other players enjoyment. They might build homes for other players, create dance floors with flashy lights, build vehicles for transportation, etc.

In this type of game, the items that players would be crafting would be non-standard in comparison to the majority of MMOs. That is to say, they wouldn’t be making weapons or other implements of war. Instead, they would be making the types of items that I mentioned above, which are sometimes functional (in the case of anything that can be used) and sometimes fashionable (in the case of anything that is fluff).

The crafting system can get pretty complex, because it is essentially the method by which everyone in the game has fun. The tradeskillers make the items that make the game, and they are the social hubs in the community. You could use experimental crafting in this type of system, allowing players to be extremely creative and to craft a plethora of different items. In fact, I would probably encourage an experimental crafting system in any game that is not adventure-centric, as crafting becomes an avenue for user-created content and almost limitless possibilities.

Adventure-centric and Item-centric
This is the category that most of the popular MMOs fit right now. They are games that focus on combat and the acquisition of equipment that can dramatically improve the performance of your avatar. In these games, the player must feel rewarded for defeating their enemies, and the greatest reward is a snazzy new item. As I already mentioned crafting’s role is generally secondary in these games because adventurers (the bulk of the population) want to feel rewarded for adventuring (and the greatest reward is an uber item).

I’m not even going to delve into the mechanics much at all here. Basically, you need to make sure the crafting system isn’t tedious because it becomes more difficult to make the crafters feel rewarded for tradeskilling. Because of this, it might be best to go with an easy to understand system that doesn’t overly burden the players who participate in crafting (that is, avoid spreadsheet crafting like the plague, but any simple crafting types will be okay). The side-effect of a simple crafting system is that it might even be used by players who normally adventure.

Final Words
I realize that most people probably haven’t even come this far in the post, so it’s probably as good a time as any to end it. The summary is that certain types of games can support deep crafting systems. Games that are both adventure-centric and item-centric will usually do well to avoid complex crafting systems, because you are either going to be slighting your adventurers by making crafted items great or will be alienating all the crafters completely by making a complex system that is not worth their time.

Games that are either item-centric or adventure-centric can have complex crafting systems, but don’t think the term complex implies that tedium is a good thing (as it is my belief that tedium is never a good thing, and tedium does not mean challenging). I will likely talk about other aspects of crafting at a later date about topics such as the importance of crafters as social gurus and alternate craftables (crafting item of a type that can’t be gained as a result of adventure, which could prove me wrong in claiming that you can’t have a complex crafting system in a game that is both adventure and item-centric).

As I noted before, be sure to head over to the sites of my partners in crime from the MMO Round Table, Moorgard and Aggro Me, for their posts on crafting.

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