Crafting woes

I was recently skimming the LOTRO boards, and a post caught my eye. Rather, a post that shouldn’t have caught my eye, did. I should have just read the topic and kept going, simply because I have seen posts like that, with subtle variations, a thousand times already regarding different games.

It was a post complaining about crafting.

Why is it that, way more often than not, crafting systems all across the board feel hollow and unrewarding? Why is it that, going by that nebulous thing known as the opinion of the gamer in the street, we can only point at one or two more or less common examples of acceptable crafting systems (DaoC seems to come up usually), while the rest are generally determined to be crap? Just what the hell is it about crafting, and why does it seem that no one apparently can get it right?

I thought about it and came to the conclusion that it’s a complex problem. Many factors affect ‘crafting’, and usually interact to different degrees depending on the game. However, there are some common patterns, which are mostly conceptual.

a) The main problem I see is that, to put it bluntly, every Tom, Dick and Jane can become a crafter if they want to, just by talking to the appropiate NPC. Poof, you’re a crafter. (LOTRO even holds your hand and gives a quest with xp reward simply for vectoring you to the crafting area).

This just shoots the laws of supply and demand through the heart, point blank. It’s impossible to have on one hand every PC being a crafter, and on the other one pretend that crafting will be rewarding an profitable. It’s just out of whack. This is directly tied to one of the crafters’ main woes, which is that they can’t even sell their wares at cost sometimes. There’s always someone selling them cheaper, or even just giving the stuff away. Also, many crafters complain that for some of their wares, the mere cost of the materials makes it prohibitive for them to make the item, since there’s no way they can successfully make a sale at anything resembling a profit. So they just don’t make them.

You cannot have everyone in the game being a crafter and pretend to have a working system. As simple as that. Not everyone should be a crafter. Not every player should be given the opportunity. Not every player should be talented enough to be one. This, crafting, is the prime example of why sometimes making things fair ends up destroying things, or making them completely un-fun.

Ideally, becoming a crafter should be a huge undertaking. Not just a matter of talking to an NPC once, then coming back to learn new things every now and then. Just becoming a crafter should perhaps be this huge time investment. We can throw tons and tons of quests and trials to the players that want to undertake this path, first to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then to make sure that at the end of the rainbow, you’ll end up with those who are truly dedicated to the craft of their choice. With the added benefit, of course, of this number of players being comparatively small.

Look, it’s simple. Supply and demand. Imagine yourself in real life. You have the opportunity to become a shop owner, and have the choice of what kind of shop you want to set up. Would you choose being a grocer, knowing that there are 500.000 other grocers in town? Or would you choose, say, setting up an auto repair shop, knowing that there’s only two or three in town? Which would be more profitable? Which would be more rewarding to you?

The only way to keep something like this manageable, without going with an enforced caps system (“right, there can only be 20 armorers, 10 alchemists, etc…), is to make the process of becoming a crafter –any type of crafter– so long, involved and demanding that only a few would complete it.

“But aha!”, I hear you say, “Wouldn’t that create a small cartel of crafters? Players with all the money in the world because the whole server goes to them?”. To which I reply, once again, “So what”. Do you have raiding and raiding guilds in your server? Do you have a few number of guilds that are hardcore enough to be at the bleeding edge of content and itemization all the time? Do they not have all the weapons and armor that the rest of the server pretty much dies for? Haven’t they spent months and months going at it to get where they are? Having a small cadre of players with a grip on any particular section of the game is not necessarily a bad thing. And it happens naturally anyway in most cases and many sections.

b) Another common gripe is that crafting can be worthless. That is, many crafters feel that much of their “catalogue” is simply rendered irrelevant by the existance of identical or similar items that people just can find elsewhere if they decide to look. Sometimes it’s even better for players to just look for, or grind for these items, than to contact a crafter for it, considering the cost or rarity of the necessary ingredients to make the thing.
This is crafters competing with the game world itself, and there’s no easy solution. WoW’s crafting was initially maligned for this (and I assume it hasn’t changed). Crafters just throwing their hands in the air because all their work to get to a point of skill perfection and be able to craft something was rendered moot because of players running an instance for two hours and getting a lucky drop that was better.

If I recall correctly, at the time, the devs’ response was that crafting was intended to “fill the gaps” of itemization, and not to provide a complete itemization solution. Good answer. But, good enough? If crafting is indeed to be simply a gap filler, then it does not vibe well with the effort that it sometimes requires. In other words, if you design your crafting system to be a gap filler instead of a complete solution for items, you have to make crafting easier and give it up with the necessities of esoteric, exotic materials needed to craft some of the stuff.

This has no parallel to real life, so it’s sometimes difficult to visualize the problem. For example, auto makers in real life are able to stay in business (well, some of them at least), to a big extent because of something that seems nonsensical and stupid: Because people don’t go for a walk in the park, or to visit their aunt Ruth and find a Ford Focus on the way to make their own.

Well, duh, but that’s exactly what happens day in and day out in your MMO of choice. The game world does not support crafting. Rather, it competes with it. Players routinely find the items they need, so most have no need to contact a crafter for them.

Now, different games handle this differently. EVE, as I understand from my minimal experience with it, does tend to a large extent to be more supportive of its crafters for the high end stuff (EVE players, please chime in to correct me if needed). Others, like WoW, basically take a dump on their crafters. Sure, there are always a few items that crafters make, but by far and large, the vast majority of their catalogue remains untouched. Either unmade because it can’t reasonably be sold, or unmade because of being rendered useless by the world itself and its itemization.

Supporting crafting takes more than simply creating a crafting system. You have to love it too.

c) The curious case of Mr. Jekyll, Mr. Hide, his wife, his auntie, his uncle, his friends, acquaintances, etc…  who all happen to be crafters that support each other.

I’m talking about alts, of course. One of the things that LOTRO attempts, in an effort to support the crafting system, is to have their professions arranged in groups or tiers that, by necessity of design, depend on elements from other tiers. For example, Tailors need to contact a Forester for the boiled hides they need. Others need to contact other crafters/gatherers for some particular requirements.

This is a way to force dependencies and to have crafting, in a way, support itself. It’s a very good idea. However, it’s a good idea on paper only (and I’m sure the LOTRO devs are well aware of this, and if not they should be).

In practice, this does not happen. It’s much easier (and ultimately profitable) for crafters to simply roll supporting alts for their needs. So the armorer never contacts another player. The tailor never contacts a forester. Why go to all the hassle of, first locating the appropiate crafter, then making sure he can provide what you need, then argue about arrangements or pricing, then discuss the delivery, etc… when I can just make a supporting alt that does just that.

I mean, really, it makes no sense to deal with other players when I can do it myself. It’s almost stupid. There’s a huge disconnect here. If we agree that a player that can become everything in crafting would be a bad thing. If we can’t allow players to become all the possible professions rolled into one because it would be terrible… then why do we allow alts to do it? The problem is still there, we just pushed it a bit further away… it’s just a log/relog away. What’s the point?

Crafting alts kill the forced dependencies system while stillborn. As simple as that. It does not work. It does not achieve the intended, main purpose, which is for crafters to connect with each other and fill market needs. This doesn’t fill anything, other than the selfish player’s needs, and we’re all selfish players to different degrees.

This of course has no comparison, again, to real life. In real life I don’t have an army of clones, subject to my very whims, and well-versed and talented to make everything I can possibly need to satisfy my needs as long as I give them the materials. In real life, I have to contact crafters and makers, and exchange money for what I need, simply because I can’t do it all. It’s been the basis of every human system of commerce since the dawn of trading. And we just kick it in the ass to the curb.

The solution is simple, tragical and terrible: Only one crafter character per account, per server. You can have as many alts as you want, because we do want you to try everything the game has to offer. Only one of these characters can be a crafter, though. Sorry, but otherwise, it breaks things conceptually. And in practice, in the long run.

Real life does not have alts. Alts should be viewed as a convenience, not a crutch to get by or past designed systems. Alts must be limited.

I think I covered the big ones. I’m more than welcoming to comments and rotten tomatoes. From what I can see, most of these problems can be mitigated, or even eliminated, just by restricting the number of available crafters per server, one way or another. It all seems to boil down to that. That you can’t allow all your players to become crafters. You have to allow for a select few to exist, which is something I’ve harped about not too long ago.

I guess I’m an elitist, then. *shrug*.


7 Responses to “Crafting woes”

  1. 1 RawCode March 8, 2007 at 8:50 am

    In Eve, the entire economy is player driven. Only the bare essentials are sold, and those prices are high leaving plenty of room for the manufacturers to make profit. They use the NPC sellers as a top limit to control inflation.

    Everything though is made by the players. Ships, guns, modules, everything. The minerals that are used to make the items are mined in belts by players.

    You can attempt to control markets in specific regions with setting sell and buy orders. You can destroy a competitors profit by selling at a loss if you know that you have deeper pockets.

    Eve by FAR has the most developed market and manufacturing system of any MMO.

  2. 2 Julian March 9, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Ah, there you go then. I was in the neighborhood. Thanks for the info.

  3. 3 Zubon March 9, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Using an auction house rather than consignment merchants seems to increase the problem. I cannot be a full-service armorer; I can sell however many items I can fit in the auction house. I don’t really have an identity as an armorer, really; I am another guy auction metal pants. It takes a lot of out-of-game work to set up a role as an in-game merchant, since I cannot set up my shingle in Bree or Ogrimmar or Steel Canyon. In-game, I am stuck with whatever advertising channels exist, and that often seems to be spamming the broadcast channel or using an auction house.

    EVE’s solution with markets? Brilliant. Perfect. We are all there in a huge mall. Horizons? Also very good. Consignment merchants and can’t you set up your own shop?

    More fun: can we get a reverse auction on build orders? Let someone post the item desired, and we bid down the price to supply it. You can even have a buyout. EVE’s buy orders do that well, too.

  4. 4 Julian March 9, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Zubon, you point at another common problem I neglected to mention: Advertisement and the market itself.

    In most MMOs, crafters are basically on their own when it comes to getting their product out. As you point out, it’s either some sort of auction house or spamming the (hopefully) appropiate channels.

    I don’t think it’s an unsolvable problem, but it is an area that should someone decide to implement it seriously, will live or die by its UI. Can’t make it too complex to put products out and get supplies, but can’t be so simple that it lacks either.

    A while back I half-thought of a solution for this, and it revolved around the concept of agents. Players, as crafters, were not the actual guys banging at the hot metal, but rather they became the business’ owner. They would go to an NPC, which would be the store manager. On a player-drive, crafter-connected game world, ideally all transactions for crafting necessities and sales would not be done player to player, but rather NPC agent to NPC agent.

    Upon login (or whenever), the PC crafter/business owner would talk to his store manager NPC agent and see what’s new. If orders had come overnight, what supplies are still pending to get to fulfill current orders, and if more supplies must be ordered, inventory, pricing, etc. All from one NPC and one window.

    There wouldn’t be any player spamming, or an auction house (for crafters at least). The whole process would be done in the background between NPCs, as ordered by the crafters. There’s tons of things that you can automate with an NPC trading system that are helpful to crafters, but are usually not done because they’re cumbersome or time-consuming; like getting alerts when your wares are getting undercut on the market by a user-predefined percentage, warnings when prices for supplies are going abnormally up as to prevent losing money with purchases, etc.

    The PCs would just drop by the “store” (which could be a set location or not, depending on your game’s setting and environment), and deal with the crafting side of the game there.

    Maybe worth a thought.

    As for your final comment? Reverse auctioning on build orders? Very interesting, but aren’t you afraid of confusing the hell outta your typical MMO gamer? Come on man! Can’t see it already? “What! What?! I have to bid to sell something?!? What?!” 😉

  5. 5 Zubon March 20, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Julian, again, EVE is there for you. You have industrial manufacturing rather than making weapon systems by hand, and you can issue buy and sell orders that anyone can fill. EVE’s market is one of the best-designed systems of its kind.

    You may also want to check the Shadowbane economic model, where you hired a baker rather than doing the trade skill yourself. After all, they don’t play games to bake bread — they play to crush.

  6. 6 Julian March 28, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    People keep telling me EVE is for me. Then I log in, and the same people keep killing me, or making an alt to gain my friendship and then steal all my stuff or something.

    Nope. Carebear here.

  7. 7 Chris June 21, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    I’m working on an MMO for fun here, and one of the central aspects of the game is crafting.

    Frankly I believe SWG to be the best example of how to create a robust and useful crafting system.

    There are some key elements for crafting to be useful:

    1. It is okay to have excellent drops, however gear should not have an “epic” flavour to it – instead it should be customizeable when it drops, requiring “epic” mats to customize and enhance the item to a players liking. This not only allows crafting a viable role in drops but also provides the player with more options.

    2. There needs to be a decay system in place, preferably one thats not too severe and also allows for the ability to “renew” the item – this should cost 1/2 mats to build and require a crafter of sufficient skill (can pro-rate according to abiltiy).

    3. Lootable corpses can provide an excellent means of balancing the economy. The downside here is in how it affects character evolution, as this system tends towards plain/non-epic gear. This is more for a hardcore pvp centric game and not (without some adjustment) amicable to the casual gamer.

    4. Dynamic components is an important idea, the idea that you can create a “handle” which can be used in a number of recipes. This creates a low/mid skilled market so that its not just the “master” crafters actually making money in a practical sense.

    5. Supply contracts are an excellent idea, they can also serve as player created quests. Don’t want to farm the mats yourself? No problem, post what you’ll pay and what you want, if its reasonable someone can fulfill the contract and both sides win.

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