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The Quinquennial (or sometimes more often)

Various thoughts on online gaming, often pulled from articles I've written for other sources.

Author: Quizzical

Either have a crafting system or else don't

Posted by Quizzical Thursday January 1 2009 at 2:11AM
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The title may look like a contestant for dumbest tautology, so perhaps I should explain.

I do not like crafting systems that are little more than something to grind levels in. You want to craft something, but need crafting level 83 in some crafting profession. To get to level 83, you have to craft a zillion lower level things that you don’t want. And you can’t just craft them and sell them to someone else who does want them, either. There is already a massive glut of the lower level crafted items on the market, because people have to craft them to level their crafting profession. So in order to craft items that anyone wants, you have to waste a lot of money and resources to level your crafting profession. This is a major nuisance.

If you don’t grind levels in a crafting profession but still want the items, you’ll have to buy them from someone else. That means you’ll have to track down someone who has and buy the completed item from him. This way, you’re not really seeing anything vaguely resembling content at all, but still have to put up with the nuisance. That’s not a system for crafting goods; that’s a system for harassing players.

If all that crafting is going to be is a nuisance, then why bother to have it at all? Such games would be better off scrapping crafting entirely and letting players buy what would have been crafted items from NPCs, whether for money only or for money plus materials. That’s not content, but neither is it obnoxious, which makes it better than a system that exists primarily to annoy players.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not against crafting entirely. A well-done crafting system can add quite a lot to a game. But it’s essential that the crafting system consist of something other than grinding levels. There are at least two ways to go about this, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

One way is to make the process of crafting something that is interesting in its own right, and not only done for the sake of the completed item. Click a button to craft an item is not interesting content. Perform well in some minigame to craft an item can be, depending on whether the minigame is any good. This can be a case of you complete the item or fail, or it can be a case of, the better you play the minigame, the better the item you get.

A Tale in the Desert has both systems in a number of places. Both have their drawbacks, however. If crafting only takes beating some particular threshold, there are problems no matter where the threshold is placed. Set a high threshold and many players won’t be able to reach it, which can lead to great frustration. Set a low threshold and the threshold is barely there at all, if virtually every attempt is guaranteed to succeed. For example, in the third telling, crafting a thermometer required at least 3000 quality or so. For someone who knew how to craft thermometers, a good run might get you 8000 quality, and a bad one 6000 quality. Falling below 3000 pretty much required an enormous lag spike, and a contest of avoiding lag spikes is not terribly interesting.

If better performance leads to better items, the problem is that some players will simply be better at the minigame than others. If one percent of the players on the server craft an item a lot and get really good at it, most of the playerbase may take much practice and many wasted materials in order to finally get something about as good as an average run from one of the top crafters. Crafting is thus reduced to a tiny handful of players crafting an item a lot, while everyone else on the server buys from them. This is what happened in A Tale in the Desert with hatchets, shovels, wine glasses, and some other items.

While having to be good at a crafting puzzle is certainly better than merely click a button to craft an item, the end effect on the economy is about the same here: a few players can craft an item, and everyone else has to buy from them. That may be great content for the few, but spending a lot of time designing content that most players can never properly access is not a good use of game development time.

Another alternative is having only a few discrete thresholds of the quality of the completed product. This only combines the drawbacks of the previous approaches. Players who can’t reach the top threshold have to buy from someone else, while players who get really good at the puzzle and can reliably beat the top threshold effectively have it not matter how good a particular run was.

The other way to give a crafting system some depth is via a deep economy. If players craft items to sell them, and selling those items is interesting in its own right, that can constitute an interesting crafting system even if the way things are crafted is not.

In order to have some economic depth here, it is vital to restrict the amount that one player can craft and sell. If lots of players on a server want a particular item and several can craft it simply by clicking a button, then the value of the crafted item will essentially be that of the materials that went into making it. That’s not an interesting system.

Some players may protest, but can’t the crafters charge a fee to assemble the item? Not if everyone and his neighbor’s dog can craft the item. Why should I pay you to assemble the item if I can do it for free myself?

Even if it’s only a small fraction of the playerbase that can craft an item, a crafter cannot charge a large fee. If he did, someone else on the server could slightly undercut him and take all of his business. Someone would, because getting paid quite a bit to click a button is tremendously profitable. Why pay a large fee to one person to craft an item if you can get an identical item from someone else for less?

The cost of the crafted item thus cannot exceed the cost of the materials plus a payment for the hassle of crafting small enough that most crafters don’t think it’s worthwhile. The assembling cost must then be minimal unless the actual process of building the item is a major pain.

All of this is avoided if players are sharply restricted in how much they can make. Pirates of the Burning Sea did this by giving each player a fixed labor pool from which they could craft items. Run out of labor and you can’t craft anything else without waiting quite a while. This means that one person cannot fill an entire server’s demand for a good, unless it’s a good for which there is only infinitesimal demand.

This has the benefit of making labor valuable, since it is scarce. If the total amount of labor that people would like to use exceeds the amount of labor that people actually can use, then labor is valuable. Even if you can make something yourself, it may still be worthwhile to buy it from someone else in order to get more than you can build yourself.

Puzzle Pirates takes this principle a step farther by letting players directly sell their labor. Rather than having to build shops, procure materials, craft items, and sell the finished goods in order to get the value out of your labor, someone in Puzzle Pirates can simply go to someone else’s shop (or stall), sign up to work there, and have his labor used by the shop, in return for whatever wages the shopkeeper offered when he took the job.

This lets shopkeepers compete with each other for labor, which adds some economic depth on that side. It also lets players opt out of the economic side of the game, without sacrificing the value of their labor. Indeed, the labor system works as an essentially passive source of income, and can provide considerable income to new players.

There are two big problems with this system, however. One is that new players often don’t realize that their labor is valuable. Veteran players can prey on newbies by telling them to work at a particular stall and saying they get free money for it, while not mentioning that the stall offers only a small fraction of competitive market wages. Sometimes this is packaged as, you need to do this to help the crew (guild), which is an especially despicable way to rip off newbies. Still, once a player learns that his labor really is valuable, he can immediately go get proper value for his future labor if so inclined, so this isn’t really game-breaking.

The other problem is that an average online game player isn’t a terribly good accountant. Many veteran players don’t catch on that their own labor has value, even if they figure out that there are costs to buying someone else’s labor. In pricing goods, they count their own labor as “free”, and so they think they are profitable, but after subtracting out the market value of their own labor, are losing money.

This leads to players crafting items and then selling them on the open market for below the market value of crafting them. And it’s not just a few players doing this; for many goods, this happens enough that the equilibrium market value of buying a completed item is less than the equilibrium market value of the materials and labor that went into creating the item. This perversely turns the crafting system into a way to lose money, rather than a way to make money.

I’ve spent a lot of time outlining the problems with various crafting systems, rather than the benefits. I don’t see a way to simultaneously avoid all of the problems. Even so, a crafting system where either the crafting process itself is interesting or else there is some economic depth to selling the completed item can be worthwhile in spite of the problems. Surely either approach (or a system that combined both) is vastly better than the systems that are nothing more than something to grind levels in, as so many games feature.

rounner writes:

In Vanguard you can make money crafting for the trainer. It doesnt fix the problem of a mini game being played for hours on end getting boring. IMO they should drop the pretence at realism and somehow contrive the crafting mechanics to be like tetris or a jewel game.

Thu Jan 01 2009 5:25AM Report
Relentless02 writes:

I took a look at your weapons and I think that they are awesome.

Thu Jan 01 2009 7:10AM Report
dcostello writes:

 Crafting shouldn't be a mini game.  Crafting should be crafting and if you don't like the crafting system in the game, then don't craft.  There is no great way to implement a crafting system because it's a pretty dry profession and I just can't see how playing a mini game is any better than a grind fest.  Playing mini games has no correlation to crafting, but making things for experience at least makes some (realistic) sense.  Maybe games should lower the amount of time needed to craft, but that won't happen any time soon (since companies want to hold onto you and your money as long as they can).

Thu Jan 01 2009 8:32AM Report
Pelagato writes:

crafting like in GW... u buy stufff from npc...

Thu Jan 01 2009 9:34AM Report
axlezero writes:

Not to mention you use examples in f2p games, so I doubt they are going to go above and beyond on a crafting system when their resources are going to go primarily to the adventuring side.

As stated above, Vanguard has one of the best crafting systems I've ever seen in a game.  It's still a grind, but I doubt you can avoid that with crafting, either way you are still standing in one spot starting at the same crafting table.  Short of having a bunch of quests that send you around places, I doubt crafting will ever be much more then a grind.  Even using a minigame technique will still get old and still become a grind.  So while new for the first couple of hours, gets old for the next 40 hours or so it takes to get to max level.

Thu Jan 01 2009 11:14AM Report
Amblin writes:

Well the solutions are available you know. Here's one off the bat. Craft a sword. Depending on the player's skill they can take a base template and modify it as they see fit, i.e. crossguard, serations on the blade, etc etc. or create a base sword as above then take out the grind by having npc apprentices etc and a contract system. As a time filler add quests to keep the player occupied.


It isn't difficult but it requires new thinking. Good luck with that one rofl, givwen that while we all cry sandbox etc. it is very evident that the mmo gaming masses only want repetitive grind. We may hate it but it is as familiar as home.

Thu Jan 01 2009 12:30PM Report
Quizzical writes:

dcostello:  "Crafting should be crafting"?  Without elaboration, that makes about as much sense as the title of this post.

The problem with not liking a game's crafting system comes if you need to get crafted items.  In many games, that makes the game's crafting system into a considerable nuisance, which is worse than not having a crafting system at all.

axlezero:  All of the games I cite by name have a monthly fee to play, though only PotBS makes you buy a box.  The derogatory "something stupid to grind levels in" description was more a shot at WoW than anything else, though my understanding is that many free to play games do the same as well.

What makes you like the Vanguard system so much?  I wasn't familiar with it, so I went and looked it up on the wiki, and most of the description looked like it was of the "something stupid to grind levels in", with perhaps only the caveat that it's something stupid but complicated to grind levels in.  If you think that sounds like a contradiction, consider the tax code.

The section on the crafting process looked like that piece might have more depth, but it was too sparse for me to make much of it.

Thu Jan 01 2009 2:56PM Report
Emeraq writes:

I have to say that your thinking in your more recent blog and this blog as well are very similar... In your most recent you indicate that a publishers first game is their best and i believe at the end of that blog you indicated that if their first game is crap that their subsequent titles will be crap..

I disagree withi both of these notions... Do you think an artist picks up a brush and creates a masterpiece that can't be bettered the first time around? How about an architecht, do you think they draw their best design the first day of learning?

You can't expect your smith, tailor, carpenter etc to be able to craft the very best and useful items right away, because as in this life practice makes perfect.

Sun Jan 04 2009 1:36PM Report
Ziboo writes:

 Having tried crafting in a few MMO's (EQII, WoW, AoC, WAR and LoTRO) I've found EQII's the most fun (LoTRO's is second- the rest far far behind).  You can make money at it too in EQII as I've paid for housing/mounts for mains and alts from cooking, tailoring and carpentry.  High end gear, spell upgrades, housing items, etc. can be extremely pricey.  

EQII has writs that you can do for xp and to advance faction with crafting guilds and for your own guild.  The recent expansion even has crafting instances and group crafting quest (I haven't tried those yet).  You also are not guaranteed to produce the item you are crafting (cooking you can but if you craft it perfectly you get two), so it's not just spam a button, although it's far from difficult.

There are even recipes/crafting that can only be done in certain areas (blood iron ore found on Zek can only be crafted with the proper recipes there for example) 

It would be great to build the perfect crafting system, but from what I've seen to give value to crafted items (armor/weapons) then the crafted item has to be on par with world drops.  

If what I can spend time harvesting rares, skill up and get that recipe for that super sword, while a better piece can be found in any instance/dungeon with minimal effort, you've lost the market.

If crafting is too simply everyone will do it or hate it either way its a lose.  If it's too difficult and boring (Warhammers) no one wants to do it.  

A player driven economy - where npcs can only sell what merchandise is sold to them by crafters is one idea (along with an AH or broker.  

Mob loot is equal or slighly less valuable than a crafted piece is another.  

Or more variety in crafting options -

- Farmers/cultivators for meat, eggs, etc., for cooks and sell the raw skins to leatherworkers.  

- Miners (actually have to find mining nodes in caves, along rivers, etc.)  

- Rare fabrics/metals from the other side of the world would only be available if people went and gathered them, etc., or a side to tailoring the weaver/spinnerthat takes the raws to a usable state.  

- Seasonal items not just holiday gear but 'winter/spring/summer/fall' availability (obviously on a shorter calendar than RL).

That way crafters can still craft and have a variety of things to do.  Those that don't can buy or raid or whatever!

Admittedly I like crafting for the economic reason as I've made money in every game doing it, but I hate easy and I hate overly boring.

Sat Jan 10 2009 7:55PM Report writes:
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