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Building Upon Star Wars Galaxies' Crafting

Thomas Blair Posted:
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Crowfall has some mighty lofty goals for itself. The new MMORPG being made in Austin and helmed by Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton seeks to make the sandbox MMO less of a niche game. And they've enlisted the help of some serious talent to do so: namely Thomas "Blixtev" Blair and Raph Koster. Today, we learn all about Blixtev's design for the crafting in Crowfall to build upon the near perfection that was Star Wars Galaxies.

To get us started – who are you, and can you tell us a bit about your background?

Howdy! My name is Thomas “Blixtev” Blair. I have been building online worlds for over 14 years. I started as a Designer on EverQuest during the Planes of Power era, transitioned to the Star War Galaxies team during the implementation of Jump to Lightspeed and eventually became Lead Designer of the team, and was the Lead Systems Designer of DC Universe Online while building the initial launch game.

I’m a very “technical” designer, meaning I like to get my hands dirty in the underlying systems that make MMOs work. I’ve even been granted a few patents for my work on Star War Galaxies, specifically the Beastmaster system and the Entertainer “Build-a-Buff” system.

I have worked primarily on the systems side of design throughout my career: crafting, itemization, rewards, combat, PvP, stats, abilities, classes, talents, etc. If you ever played any of these titles I really hope you have fond memories, and I can say with certainty that you are familiar with my work!

Cool. What is your role on Crowfall?

I’m the design lead, which means that I manage the design team. It’s also my job to sit in on the brainstorming meetings between J.Todd Coleman and Raph Koster, and then try to figure out how to make their crazy ideas work in the eventual game. It’s kind of like herding cats!

Today, I’m going to give you a glimpse of that process in action: this is a system that came directly out of one of those meetings, and ended up becoming one of the central ideas behind crafting in Crowfall.   

Crafting is a central part of the player-driven Economy in Crowfall.  Open-ended economic systems are tough to pull off. The closest model to ours is probably Eve Online, though you can see the ways in which it ties to ideas that were originally surfaced in Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Shadowbane.

The most obvious goal of crafting in Crowfall is to enable players to create amazing items that tie directly into the different systems, like equipment, city building and sieging. The less obvious but equally important goal is to create interlocking behaviors that drive players to engage with other players.

The benefits of crafting are obvious: your name will be known, your items sought out far and wide, whispers from other players wanting you to craft for them will never cease, the AFK auto reply will be your only friend! That’s the goal of the crafter. It’s really an exploration game, testing and tuning and building a reputation (and product) that other players can rely on. A bold vision, with a long history of games before us, that hasn’t been attempted in the MMORPG scene in a long time.

In my opinion the MMORPG genre has been stuck in a rut with crafting systems for some time now.  A few games have tried it, but the “crafter” profession, as a play experience, doesn’t exist today like it did ten or fifteen years ago.

What do you think happened to the crafting scene in MMORPGs?

It really came out of the need to make sure that every player could be an island, and not have to rely on other players for his or her progress.

If every player can play the game completely independently, then it stands that crafting should be a “secondary activity” for everyone, not a primary profession for anyone.  If you wanted to be a master crafter, you had to do that in addition to gaining combat levels through PvE.

Since it was an optional secondary profession, the endgame “evolved” from dealing with other players (or beating on them and taking their stuff) to forming large groups and killing raid bosses for phat loot.

Thus began an eternal struggle between loot drops and crafted items. There can only be one! Crafted items better than dragon loot?! Preposterous! Take a boss drop to a crafter to craft it for you? No way! Of course, loot drops won out, because it’s easier to control the player experience by setting drop percent chance. In fact, loot drops won out so convincingly that crafting is mostly used to fill in equipment gaps while waiting for raid boss loot drops. How sad is that?  To relegate a primary game profession to a sad time-filling activity?

As designers in our desire to make killing big monsters worthwhile we killed the concept of having a crafting class as “the thing you do.” We have replaced depth and community interaction with clever and in some cases very good mini games. How you craft is where we have been focusing all our efforts, not why you craft.

Speaking as a player who made virtual fortunes in UO as a Blacksmith and in SWG as an Armorer, I’m bummed I can’t find an experience like that in the current marketplace of games. No one knows who the crafters in the community are, there is no debate on how to produce masterpieces in the forums. People think of the exploration game as “looking for new zones”, but it used to be so much more than that!

As a result, the crafting community has largely gone by the wayside. I’d like to see what Crowfall can do to change that.

What do you propose to “bring back” crafting?

I’m not claiming to have a silver bullet on this one, just some ideas based on years of playing and observation. There are a ton of lessons to be learned looking at games like Star Wars Galaxies and EVE Online which had and still have success with their crafting and economic loops. From a very high altitude, crafters need to be able to: craft unique items, explore new recipes and profit from the results of this exploration, and create customized items for all styles of play. Crafters must have an audience to buy their goods. The loop between crafter and combatant has to exist! And, ideally, crafters need to be able to “mark” their product so that they can build a social reputation and a following.

The very concept that players can and will lose their items at some point is required, otherwise the game loop breaks. It is a very controversial topic for those who don’t like the potential of losing their items, and we understand that.  But sometimes you have to embrace ideas that may not be popular at first glance, because they open up amazing areas of gameplay that are otherwise not accessible.

On Crowfall, we’re willing to take some of these risks, because we know that the payoff will be worth the effort.

How do you determine who can craft?

Every character has the ability craft some items, from the beginning of the game.  Further crafting requires the accumulation of recipes through gameplay and class specialization.

Do you have to use the crafting system? 

Of course not! Our goal is not to “force crafting on the masses.”  We just want to make crafting a viable profession, a core part of the player-driven economy. We do want to support it as a valid type of gameplay and crafters are very valuable members to any guild.

How are Crowfall recipes different than other games?

Most crafting systems recipes are very specific. 3 iron ingots and 2 wool cloth will craft an Iron Plate Helm. This recipe is repeated up the chain, mapping each tier of metal to a unique recipe. At the end of the day, the crafter has 500 recipes, most of them unused.

The recipe system is heavily inspired by the designs that Raph Koster created on both UO and SWG, the randomized enchantment system is more like Todd’s work on Shadowbane. The recipes are fluid; because the ingredients are not as strict, that leads to a higher degree of system exploration.

For example: You have a single 1 recipe for “Plate Helm”. The requirements are 3 metal and 1 cloth 1 Leather and 1 additive element. The player can choose which tiers of those resources to put in those slots. As long as the slots are filled with something valid, the recipe will craft. They can even add something special to the additive slot to alter the item in a significant way. This reduces our recipe count by about 90% and every recipe in the Crowfall player’s book remains useful. Moreover, the result is more varied and it’s going to be up to the player to figure out the “right” combination of reagents to produce the desired result.

In a nutshell, it is largely left up to the player to decide what items they want to craft, and how. Woot!

Though a shorter list it is still a limited list of combinations, correct?

While the recipe list is shorter, the possible outcomes from the Forging stage alone are much greater than a standard crafting system. Next, you add in additional stages before the item is done. For example, you might: Refine your alloys, Forge the blade, and then Enchant it by binding an Elven Blademaster Thrall into the blade.

The Refinement step alone varies greatly based on which Alloys are used.  We are showcasing a small sample of Metal Alloys in one of our illustrations released today.

Interesting. How do the Metal Alloys work?

Metal Alloys are made from combining various types of ores in the crafting process. Each ore combination produces either a Pure Metal or an Alloy. Pure Metals grant Attributes, while Alloys grant Attributes and Statistics. Ores from all resource tiers are used throughout the entire crafting tree to ensure that no ore becomes obsolete. The amount of combinations gives the player a gigantic palette of options to use when crafting.

Alloys sound like fancy Sub-Components?

I would say they are super-fancy sub components! The secret sauce they add to the system is the freedom they give the crafter to make customized items. To continue the example from above: the Plate Helm recipe has a resource slot which requires 3 Metal. The crafter can use any 3 Metal they want in the Recipe. Want to go all attributes? Use 3 pure metals. Want to go more statistics than attributes? Use 3 alloys. Want to go a mix of attributes and statistics? Use 2 pure metals and 1 alloy! This is independent of the Enchantment that you can later bind into the item, which really depends on the Thrall that you have captured.

The Smith can make his armor as custom or as simple as he wants to. One of the great parts of this system is that it is extensible to other materials: Leather, Cloth, and Thralls...

Wait!  What the hell is a Thrall?

Oops, I’ve said too much!  I was never here.  We never had this discussion. 

Is a Thrall what I think it is? And do you use them in crafting?

OK, fine. I’ll tell you. The Dying Worlds are filled with Thralls. They are basically the souls of fallen warriors and craftsmen, left behind and awaiting judgement before they can move on to the afterlife.

If you capture a Thrall, you can shortcut that process and bind them into your items. Todd likes to reference the demon imbedded inside Stormbringer in Moorcock’s Elric series, as a narrative example. 

If you bind a Thrall into your item, the properties of the item change in certain ways. I like the idea of a Smith’s Hammer that has the trapped soul of a Dwarven Forgemaster bound within it, and that his skill and life experience is being used to make that hammer stronger and more precise with every swing.

That’s probably about all I should say about it for now, except, remember: the system was designed to create reasons to seek out and interact with other players.

Or, you know, kill them and take their stuff.  That works, too.

Sounds cool anything else to add?

I’ve spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours playing crafting games… honestly, more than I should admit. I’m really excited what we have hammered out, pun intended. That said, we’re really open to ideas and we’d love to hear your thoughts on our system. Does it sound cool? How could we make it better? We are still working out the details of the system, and we would love to hear your feedback.

If you have ideas, please stop by the Crowfall suggestions forum and post them. They will be read and discussed by the team!

Thanks again for reading, and we’d love to have you join our community!


Thomas Blair

Thomas is the Design Lead on ArtCraft's upcoming MMORPG Crowfall. He's been in the industry for over 14 years. From EverQuest to SWG and DCUO, he's also patented the SWG Beastmaster and the Entertainer's "Build-a-Buff" systems.