There's an interesting site, http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/ with lots research on what motivates ppl to play these MMORPGs. As most ppl who've played them for a while know there's a lot of different niche play styles. It's hard for a game to satisfy all the niches especially as some are incompatible e.g total PvE vs total PvP. Games can aim to create a compromise between these niche play styles or instead try to set up sections of the game that appeal very strongly to each niche. I think crafting is a good example of this conflict.
One group of players *really* like crafting. A second group enjoy crafting *a bit*. A large group, maybe a majority *really* dislike it. If I had to make a wild guess I'd say the percentages would be around 10%, 20%, and 70%. A lot of the current games seem to think that the best way to do crafting is to dumb it down to the point where the 70% of ppl who *really* dislike crafting can just about stand doing it. I think this is the wrong way round. The crafters hate it and the ppl who don't enjoy crafting still don't enjoy it when it's dumbed down, they just hate it a bit less. I think, where possible, games designers should aim to give different player-styles their own niche and crafting is one of them.
So i think the crafting system in games should be designed around what crafting fans like--or rather, the dividing line should be set at the point where players who only like crafting *a bit* are right on the edge of being ok with the system. Players who don't like crafting shouldn't feel any need to get any more involved with crafting than gathering materials. On the other hand I don't really like completely player-driven economies in MMORPGs so I'd want a different kind of compromise. The crafting system would be designed around what crafting fans like but crafting itself would be no more than half of the economy.
I think almost everything in the game should be craftable but I don't think everything in the game should be crafted. I'd want NPC merchants as otherwise the world wouldn't feel right to me but everything they sold would have a recipe and could be made. (A few objects might not have a recipe e.g items that come direct from a God or something but almost everything else would.)
Mob drops are fun. One of the buzzes in these games is getting that item from a particular mob. (Personally, I think random loot lists spoil the fun and i prefer to know a particular type of mob drops a particular item.) So there needs to be a compromise between mob dropped items and crafted items. One is to just have mobs drop crafting materials but that is very boring. I prefer "beast" type mobs to just drop materials--boars dropping swords feels stupid to me, whereas a beetle dropping an antenna that can be crafted into a sword is fun. But humanoid type creatures *only* dropping crafting materials is boring imo.
The other problem with all gear being crafted (or all the best gear) is that it drives players who hate crafting into crafting. They don't enjoy it, it spoils the market for crafters and eventually the whines about crafting being too hard get the system nerfed to the point where crafters no longer enjoy it either.
My compromise would be something like:
1) I'd separate gear into imaginary tiers and then divide up the equipment slots in each tier so some of the best gear for that slot was mob dropped and some crafted.
2) I'd try and have crafted consumable items at various skill levels for each trade that sold easily to players..
3) I'd make crafting and selling to NPCs profitable. If a player of a certain level could bash monsters for an hour and gain 4 gold I'd want a crafter of a comparable craft level to be able to gather materials for an hour, craft for half an hour and also gain four gold even if it's just selling to NPCs.
4) I'd make crafting tie in with gear drops from mobs, for example:
A certain dungeon has goblin mobs that drop "blackened iron armour" pieces.
At the bottom of the dungeon there's some mining nodes that produce "blackened iron ore".
There's a goblin blacksmith that drops a book on "blackened iron armour".
A player with enough blacksmith skill can read the book and get the recipes for making blackened iron armour from the ore.
They also get some kind of research quest where they can learn how to improve the blackened iron armour into "burnished iron armour" (or something).
So crafters can learn how to improve the mob dropped armour.
Obviously it's difficult to get this sort of thing right over all crafts and all skill levels but i think the above is a good compromise to aim for. A crafting *system* designed in the way crafting fans like but with crafting as a whole slotting in with other players liking to get gear drops off mobs. Crafting should produce a decent amount of money even if just selling to NPCs while also producing various bits of gear that are valuable to players. The profits from crafting and the difference between crafted gear and mob-dropped gear shouldn't be so high that it makes ppl who hate crafting take up crafting.
Also, I think crafting should be woven into the backdrop of the game purely for immersion reasons. For example:
- village quest giver wanting "ten random whatevers".
- cooking recipe that turns "deer meat" into "dried dear meat", food vendor that sells "dried deer meat", vendor gives quest for ten deer meat.
- tailor recipe that turns "deer hide" into leather armour, village tailor sells leather armour, tailor gives quest for ten deer hide.
- blacksmith recipe uses "deer horn" for dagger handles, village blacksmith sells "horn daggers", blacksmith gives quest for ten deer horn.
The quests are still the same really, kill 10 whatevers and bring back 10 whatevers but to me they are more enjoyable when they fit into the world somehow.
Similarly a mage player going to a mage NPC to learn a new spell school and the mage NPC says go get me ten blue lizard bloods. If the blue lizard blood was the main component in the ink needed to write magic scrolls then it would fit neatly and for me that makes the quests better. Plus, if you have a mass of recipes and you make collecting components for various recipes be the reason for the quest then it gets very easy to make as many as you want. That leaves most of the big story-tellling type quests for the more heroic and epic type rewards.
Something else that I think is partly related to this is I don't think there should be any items in the game that are only junk. Every game item should have a purpose even the junk. So for example, "crappy goblin sword that no player would ever use" could be melted down into metal bits for blacksmithing.
Lastly, you should be able to craft something useful straight away. It doesn't have to be uber just useful. In a lot of games, if you only like crafting a bit then by the time you can craft anything useful you've already got something better. So for example the crafting progression of the lowest tier of gear should go something like:
--> Tattered leather (uses same materials as leather but low crafter skill, less protection than leather armour but better than nothing)
--> Leather armour (standard gear, sold by merchant NPCs but also craftable with a bit more skill)
--> Reinforced leather armour (improved version of leather armour, crafted, could use either the merchant, mob dropped or crafted version of leather armour because they'd all be the same)
--> etc etc up the tiers.
--> Rough hunting bow (uses same materials as hunting bow but low fletching skill)
--> Hunting bow (standard version, same materials as rough version but more skill, sold my vendors)
--> Quality hunting bow (crafted, improved version of the standard hunting bow) etc etc
Very lastly, I think sci-fi is better suited to a completely player-made economy. In fantasy games you want Chief Bluglug to drop a cool sword.