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.