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Scott Jennings: Crafting Gameplay

Column By Scott Jennings on March 31, 2010

A topic that doesn’t really get discussed much regarding MMOs is that of crafting, or the art of taking parts you get from other parts and clicking a widget and having something theoretically valuable pop out, like candy. Maybe. Also, a line should move from left to right at some point.

I’m only being a touch sarcastic here. Crafting has traditionally been one of the most tedious parts of MMO gameplay, and there are actually some fairly good reasons why.

First off, why does crafting even exist in MMOs? Like most other things in MMOs, there are different reasons for different people.

  • Because some players want to be budding capitalists and run a profit from taking raw materials and turning them into candy. These are what I’ll call the merchants. To them the buying, selling and trading of the crafting game *is* their game. It’s why they play.
  • Because some players want candy and may happen to have raw materials laying around. These are the hobbyists. They don’t really want a profit from what they do. They just want candy.
  • Because some players are members of guilds or other large groups of players and have been designated as responsible for supplying players with whatever consumable items the group needs to play the high-end game. These are the quartermasters. They see crafting as a means to an end - making their team 3% more efficient.
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So, historically, how have these groups fared? Interestingly enough, the game that did the best job of meeting all their needs was also one of the first - Ultima Online. UO’s crafting system was designed specifically to drive the gameplay of both hobbyists and merchants - wandering around the landscape and chopping down trees and killing the odd bird to make your arrows was perfectly viable, as was spending an unbelievable amount of time and money to set up storefronts for your merchant empire. There also was a place for quartermasters as well, since gear would often trade hands during PvP battles (UO being a game with full looting of player corpses) so large guilds would need a supply of equipment to remain in the field. Despite the relative simplicity of UO’s game systems, all of these archetypes were kept fairly busy for years.

After that it started to go sour.

Everquest, for example, was a game where crafted materials just weren’t that important - unlike UO, where crafted items were among the best equipment that players could acquire, most valuable items in Everquest came from monsters. The few consumables in EQ were so limited in use that most players just didn’t bother to use them. And just in case crafting in EQ wasn’t moribund enough, later expansions introduced quests that required a high level of crafting skill to complete - introduced to reward people for having to that point underutilized crafting skills, instead they simply ensured that everyone, now effectively a “hobbyist”, had those skills, thus being able to make what few items that could be made themselves. This didn’t help.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, went firmly down the road of the quartermaster as opposed to the hobbyist. Although crafted materials in World of Warcraft could be quite valuable, WoW designed its system of raw material availability such that someone who lives off the land as they level up, as is presumably intended, is always crafting material designed for someone 10 levels or so lower than they are. Thus the budding WoW crafter is either crafting his work for resale or simply collecting raw material for a profit (to be bought by someone else levelling up their crafting skills). This shifts once a player reaches maximum level (which is also around the point that they can afford to reach maximum level in crafting as well) - at this point the player is likely either in a guild, or is creating items to sell to people who are in guilds.

World of Warcraft also shifted the merchant game, and did so in a user-friendly way that may not have been the best of ideas. Specifically - the auction house, where players can browse and search through everything that players on their server put up for sale. This is great for players! They can see at a glance what’s out there, what they can afford, and take the candy they don’t particularly want to eat and dump it out there and turn it into shiny silver. However, it’s not so great for merchants. It essentially turns every merchant into a commodities broker, where the only service is that of price. There is no concept of storefront, or place in World of Warcraft - the only identity a merchant has is the brief player name tag that almost no one pays attention to. Instead everything is driven by cost, and that cost analysis is often even automated through the use of third party addons. There are some merchants who find joy in simply working the auction house and drawing out a few extra platinum pieces through their speculation, but in the main, it is simply a mathematical equation - items traded for value.

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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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