Monday, January 31, 2011

The Role of Crafting (Part II)

In Part I, game designer Brendon Trombley looks at the various ways crafting adds to player experience in MMOs and how developers can use an understanding of these roles to build better crafting systems.  In Part II, he discusses the role of crafting systems from a developer’s standpoint, which can differ and even conflict with the player’s agenda.

So what’s the role of crafting for developers?

It adds legitimacy to the game

It’s a sad fact that many developers include crafting in their game simply because they are expected to by the outside world. This leads to poorly designed systems that are added seemingly as an afterthought and can end up dragging the game down.

When designing in a genre where player retention is vitally important, developers should think carefully about their audience while considering crafting systems. If the game is meant to appeal to a specific player type, for instance casual or combat-oriented players, it may be possible to leave out crafting but include features that create similar benefits. Otherwise, if it’s decided that including crafting is indeed required, it should have the proper attention and budget allocated to it or players won’t use it, making it a wasted effort.

It gets players to spend more time playing

The goal of any system in an MMO should be to engage players and keep them willing to play the game over a long period of time. Crafting offers a form of character advancement that, when combined with combat advancement, creates plenty of motivation to spend time in the game.

When taken too far, this concept may lead to the addition of artificial time-sinks to crafting systems. Unnecessary grinding, long progress bars, and harsh penalties for failure may require the player to spend more time crafting, but at the cost of increased player frustration. Too much frustration, and there’s a chance they will stop the activity entirely. Avoid this by ensuring there’s always a sense of progress for the player. Perhaps the items they grind are ingredients for recipes down the line or components for other tradeskills. Perhaps advancement is based on experience rather than random skill-point increases.

It creates interdependency between players

MMOs, being multiplayer games, should of course include mechanics that foster player interaction and cooperation. Crafting systems are an effective way to do this. They allow players to create and enhance items for others, and promote the sharing of resources and materials.

A great way to create more cooperation between players is to include recipes with rare dropped components or ingredients crafted from other tradeskills. However, these recipes should be special exceptions that produce extra-useful items. Don’t require too much collaboration for basic items and especially not for regular advancement in the skill, or players will become frustrated at the extra time and money costs.

It promotes a strong economy

A strong economy increases player engagement and, if the developer so desires, can be a source of income if real-money trading of in-game currency is allowed. Crafting is a major source of trade between players. Additionally, it creates value in all those skins, fangs, gems, and other drops that would otherwise be merchant fodder. Merchant-bought components can help remove currency from a mostly positive-sum money system, reducing inflation.

Use crafting to promote the economy by first and foremost making the results of recipes worthwhile for all kinds of players. Then, create a variety of sources for ingredients: merchants, drops (rare and common), resource nodes, and other recipes. Create demand by designing ingredients to be useful in multiple recipes, and maximize the number of drops that are useful in at least one recipe.

Final thoughts

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the ways to create a successful crafting system. Nor should all the tips here be included in the same game. Developers should instead prioritize their goals while thinking carefully about the goals of their audience. That way, they can craft a system that satisfies the needs of everyone as best they can, creating a stronger game in the end.

Brendon Trombley is a long-time player of MMOs and is currently a game designer for Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids in New York City that bases its curriculum around game design and systems thinking principles.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Role of Crafting (Part I)

In this article, game designer Brendon Trombley looks at the various ways crafting adds to player experience in MMOs and how developers can use an understanding of these roles to build better crafting systems.

Since early on, crafting has been a major staple in the design of MMORPGs. Without some sort of crafting system, most online worlds would seem empty, nothing more than hack'n'slash mechanics wrapped around a leveling curve. Yet, for such a peaceful pastime, crafting has a sordid history. Past games have been fraught with resource grinds, wasted components, forced participation in crafting systems, useless recipes, and sadly, sometimes even useless tradeskills entirely.

Crafting can even be a source of strain between player and developer. If the balance of power between player-created and dropped items isn't carefully calibrated, crafters and non-crafters can feel useless and neglected compared to the other and will blame the developer.

How can all this strife be avoided? A source of conflict is that crafting's role for developers can differ greatly from its role for players. Reducing this conflict by addressing the needs of both parties is a good step towards a designing a successful crafting system.

So what's the role of crafting for players?

It breaks up the grind

This is probably the single most important aspect for players. They crave variety, and if they get bored with fighting monsters all day and don't have anything else to do, they might as well just log out. Crafting offers a satisfying alternate activity to the regular pattern of kill-loot-kill by giving them a separate form of character advancement.

Keeping this in mind, developers should keep crafting accessible to all players. That means allowing players to take both combat and crafting skills without negatively impacting each other. Players shouldn't have to choose between the two. Crafting should also be kept engaging and include interesting choices, whether in the selection of materials, or the choice of product to make. No one wants to replace a grind with an even more tedious grind.

It's a source of items and cash

Players derive a great source of satisfaction earning a tidy profit from the items they personally created. Even better, if they can personally use the items, they get to feel self-reliant seeing their own efforts augment their combat skills.

For developers, this means of course that crafted items must be useful to convince players to spend their hard-earned cash on them. This is where the tricky balance must be struck between crafting and dropped items. A great strategy is to include non-equipment niches in crafting. For instance, crafted consumables like potions ensure a steady demand, and equipment augments such as slot gems or enchantments allow crafters to increase the power of items, dropped or crafted. In this way, the best-equipped character is one who has taken advantage of both styles of play.

It appeals to constructive and social play styles

Some players don't find rampaging around the world, destroying, killing, and pillaging everything they encounter terribly fun. Some would much rather hang out in cities, socialize, and create cool items. They enjoy the interdependency and community that crafting promotes, sharing or creating materials with their guildmates and friends.

These players are an important part of the player base, and retaining them should be prioritized properly. Developers should keep them in mind by creating a crafting system that is engaging and fun, but not demanding of all the player's focus. Some systems have included real-time combat-like actions to replace boring progress bars. This could be a mistake, because it forces the player to stop socializing while they craft. Instead, crafting should be more cerebral, taken at one's own pace. The interesting action should happen before the player clicks 'create', such as in the choosing and collecting of specific resources, materials, or recipes to use.

It creates greater customization

This is a feature of crafting that can appeal to different player types in different ways. For those interested in character-building, taking a tradeskill is a way to further differentiate their characters. For social players, making decorative items allows them to tailor the appearance of their characters and environments. For the combat strategists, the ability to customize their equipment allows them to maximize their stats and effectiveness in battle.

Fostering customization is a facet that is often neglected by developers, being as it tends to come with extra overhead cost. However, the loss of the potential benefits should not be taken lightly. When crafters can tailor the stats or appearance of their items, it greatly increases their engagement in the activity. Dropped items, by their nature, come as they are. When recipes also have locked-in stats, it seems to be a missed opportunity to differentiate those items from drops.

Brendon Trombley is a long-time player of MMOs and is currently a game designer for Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids in New York City that bases its curriculum around game design and systems thinking principles.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

February 2011 Poll

Please vote for the February 2011 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!  Look at the submission guidelines for Topics and Blog Entries.

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • Cheats
  • Sequels
  • Game Accessibility

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Makin’ stuff in MMOs (Part II)

In Part I, MMO developer Brian Green sums up the basic steps to crafting and takes a look at how different MMOs tackle the issue. In Part II, he continues his examination of various crafting systems.

Creating an Item

Finally, it's time to create the item. In most games, you click the button and wait. A random result can determine if the item is made or not, what the quality of the item is, or what bonus effects happen.

The design goals of creating the items are to limit the number of items that a player can make within a certain period of time. It is also to require a certain investment of time into using the tradeskill. Being able to make items while doing other things means that just about anyone can learn and advance tradeskills, making the skills less valuable overall.

There are a few interesting variations on creating an item in some games. EQ2, for example, had a very active tradeskill system: you had to provide input to a mini-game that affected the quality of the items produced. You also had to react to specific situations with specific skills to get a bonus. While the more active system is what many people clamored for, it had a disastrous side-effect: it made it much more difficult for crafters to chat while crafting items. Since crafting tends to appeal to a socializer type of player, it hurt crafting.

Interactions between crafters is also an interesting case. The original version of EQ2's crafting also required a lot more interaction between different crafters: one tradeskill to make one item, and another to assemble it into a final product. This frustrated a lot of people and was eventually removed in favor of a simpler system. Cooperating on that level seems to have high overhead in crafting just as it does in other areas.

Selling or Using the Item.

In some cases, the crafter ends up using the item. Or, providing it to a friend/guildmate at low cost. In these cases, there is little to examine.

Sometimes a crafter will try to sell the item. In some cases, the item is more of a service than a good, so the player must actively sell the item; an example is the Enchanting profession from WoW. In other cases, the item can be sold in a trading/auction system if they can't make a direct sale. Other times, items are merely sold to NPC vendors, usually at a significant loss.

Most game economies are built upon crafters selling their items. However, the costs of acquiring materials, or the overabundance of some specific crafted items can cause problems with the economic system. Part of this is because of the method of advancement discussed below.

WoW and the availability of plugins such as Auctioneer have turned trading and arbitrage into its own specialized game. In many cases, a crafter who wants to realize a profit on his work will need to become a savvy business person. This tends to conflict with expectations in games, because people expect to constantly increase in power. Business requires an element of investment and risk. In the offline world, businesses fail and that isn't really fun. Having the same possibilities in the game can be really unfun, which leads to complaints. In the early days, we called this the "hula-hoop problem"; it doesn't matter if the player is making an excess of an item that is out of style, they expect to make money if they put time into the game.

Advancing Skills

In the long run, the goal is often to advance a skill value so that the crafter can make more items. In many games, this happens on a semi-random basis as you create item. So, the player is encouraged to make a lot of a cheap type of item in order to advance.

The design goals here are the same as having levels or skill percents in combat systems: it allows the player to feel a sense of advancement, and have the ability to do things that other players cannot.

The problem is that if other people are making a lot of the same good, you will likely have too much demand for the supply, especially for goods that aren't consumable. Early UO had stories about people making the same good over and over again to get more points in a crafting skill.

The original version of SWG had an interesting system that gave you crafting experience as others used the items you created. This made it so that people did not have to flood the market with cheap crap, but it had a similar result result: the best thing to do was to undercut your opponents, even if it meant taking a loss, to make sure more people were using your items instead of someone else's in order for you to get more crafting experience. Only people that got in early or that were able to make very high quality items were able to charge a premium.

Final Thoughts

So, what makes a good crafting system? I think there are three important aspects to consider:
  • How much fun the system adds to the game, at least for a specific type of player? Does it require a lot of busy work or idle time? Does it require active input?
  • How the system works with other systems in the game? For example, does it provide useful things for combat-focused characters? Can these items compete with items obtained from other sources, such as quests or drops?
  • How does the system work within the game's economy? Is it a money sink? Is it a potential profit source? Is it only really useful for personal gain?
So, what do you think? How can crafting systems be improved? What new ideas help avoid some of the problems in current systems?

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog. A version of this article appeared there.   

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Makin’ stuff in MMOs (Part I)

In Part I of this article, MMO developer Brian Green sums up the basic steps to crafting and takes a look at how different MMOs tackle the issue.

What do tradeskills add to a game? What are some recent implementations? How are these implementations flawed, and what can we learn from them?

The Way It Generally Works

Crafting is typically broken down into the following steps:
  1. Learn a recipe.
  2. Collect resources.
  3. Create the item.
  4. Sell (or use) the item.
  5. Longer term: Advance your skill
Some games have interesting ways to accomplish each of these. Some are good, and some have caused lots of problems. Some have even done both. So, let's look at each area.

Learning Recipes

The core of a tradeskill is knowing recipes. The current standard is that you learn some recipes from NPC trainers (which are just vendors that sell skills you can't trade to others), and get others from special drops around the world. Most recipes have requirements you have to meet, such as having a certain tradeskill level or specialization. Often the goal is that each tradeskill user won't have every possible recipe, so that some can do things that others cannot.

Some games allowed players to make specific items with the skill, but there were no explicit recipes. Players were required to either get information from other players (or, more likely, a website), or experiment with different item combinations until they got a result.

What are the design goals of having recipes? First is to give crafters a sense of achievement: the more recipes you know, the more powerful you are. Even though crafting often appeals to the Socializer type of player there can also be a strong achievement sense to it as well. Recipes also give a player a way to organize their knowledge: What helmets can they make? What special types of items can they make?

Tabula Rasa has an interesting crafting system where recipes are temporary items found as monster drops. Each "blueprint" allows you to make the item(s) once, then it is destroyed. This was an interesting decision, although it was mildly confusing to me initially. But, this allows people to trade recipes, or sell them for low investment in the trade system.

Collecting Resources

Gathering the materials to make an item comes in different forms. Sometimes you need another specific skill to gather materials. Or, the items may come from drops. Another interesting way to get materials is from the destruction of other items in the game. Or, you could buy the items from other players that have collected them. Finally, some materials may need to be purchased from NPCs.

What are the design goals of requiring resources? The obvious reason is to restrict what a player can make. Being able to create health potions out of nothing may be a bit unbalancing. This also adds a gameplay element to crafting: you have to go out and do something in the world before you can create items, even if it's just buying items from a nearby NPC. The other reason is because this is what is expected: in the offline world you need materials in order to manufacture other items.

One interesting twist on gathering resources is how people compete for the resources. The simplest example is competing for drops: if one person gets it other people cannot. For collecting items in the world, there is often fierce competition in gaining access to nodes. In WoW, it's always frustrating to see someone come along to harvest a node you were going for but got into a fight. One of my former guildmates rolled a pet class just so that the pet can take care of nearby monsters while he went to gather items. In AoC, you have to wait for nodes to refresh. In some areas, the game will spawn monsters to attack you; I can only guess this was to simulate a PvP server. :)

It's also interesting to note that gathering skills are often considered a source of income, whereas crafting skills are often viewed as a drain on funds.

AoC also has an interesting system where in order to advance at gathering, you have to give items to the NPC. This is good for the economy because it prevents too many goods from flooding the market. Unfortunately, the next step to advance is to get a "rare" drop, which requires doing a lot of harvesting of the previous item. Since the drop seems random, you potentially have a lot of goods being dumped on the market.

In addition, it's interesting to note that Star Wars Galaxies has a very complex system of gathering resources, where a player tried to find high quality locations and planted automated resource collectors. The player had to keep the buildings powered up and collect the goods on a regular basis. Eventually only the highest quality resources were desired because it created the highest quality items, which were the only ones that would sell for any sort of profit to other players.

Finally, the game Golemizer adds an interesting twist: time is also a resource to be accumulated. Every so often, you get a point of "time" that can be spent. This currency is important for building and rebuilding the golems in the game. It's also the currency you use to purchase recipes in each discipline.

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog. A version of this article appeared there. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

January 2011: Crafting

This month, we'd like you to think about crafting systems in MMOs.  Just think!  All those months harvesting minerals/materials/ore/plants/resources haven't been put to waste because you can now write about your experiences and give us the benefits of your wisdom :)  

Crafting allows players to plug into a game's economy.  Ideally, this creates a form of interdependence since players may need resources or items from other players.  On the plus side, crafting allows for personalization and gives a reason to come back to the game every day as a player plies his/her given trade.  On the minus side, crafting can be a boring grindfest whereupon a player makes several items (that look exactly the same as the next guy's wares) in order to level up in crafting, only to find out that all the better recipes are dismally useless.
  • What do you like about crafting?
  • What complaints about crafting need to be addressed?
  • How can designers better integrate crafting as part of an immersive MMO experience?
  • What games have successful crafting systems?
  • What aspects of crafting can apply to other games?