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.   


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