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.