Recently I’ve been interested in the news coming out about The Repopulation, an indie sci-fi sandbox MMO in development (with a Kickstarter that ends shortly, if it’s your cup of tea). It seems to have been something of a surprise hit at E3, and commentators are making much of its similarities to Star Wars Galaxies. Massively, in particular, quotes the devs as saying “if players do not wish to partake in combat, they can still be a successful crafter”. ArenaNet designers have stressed that you can level exclusively via crafting in Guild Wars 2. And even BioWare’s James Ohlen said you could be a level 1 crafter in Star Wars: the Old Republic (although, for the record, it’s not actually true).
This focus on avoiding combat for crafters seems to be grasping at the wrong end of the stick. I don’t know many MMO players who actively dislike combat and would prefer never to do it — and those who are in that boat generally care less about levelling and XP than they do about other aspects of gameplay anyway. 1 Being able to level up through nothing-but-crafting is presented as a sop to lovers of MMO tradeskills, but in fact it’s not really much of a selling point to me any more. It says nothing about the quality of the crafting system: the complexity, the reward, the fun factor — all it says is that it gives you XP. Well, guess what, farming for herbs in WoW gives you XP, too, and you can level all the way to the cap without combat just by mining, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re compelling gameplay.
I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes for an engaging crafting system. I talked about it with Dee over at 6D. I expanded on those ideas at Crew Skills, my SWTOR crafting blog. I’ve debated this with guildies, too, and for many people their measure of whether a crafting system is worthwhile is whether it makes useful gear at a range of skill levels. If it makes gear that’s actually useful as you’re playing, and continues to make gear that’s relevant at endgame, that’s enough of a success for most players. However, that’s not enough for people who want engaging crafting systems. It might be a good enough reason to invest time in leveling your character’s crafting skills, but it doesn’t make it a fun or engaging path of gameplay — it’s just an useful accessory to ordinary PvE or PvP.
So now I’m having another go at explaining my thesis on What Makes a Crafting System Fun.
- 1. Player skill should matter.
Dedicated and knowledgeable crafters should be able to set themselves apart with better crafting output, in the same way that the game rewards expert PvEers or PvPers with better gear and in-game recognition (titles, cosmetic rewards, etc).
2. Character skill should matter.
If I’ve got a character with high-powered crafting skills, I should be able to produce better gear than Joe Average who’s just starting out — not just higher-level gear, but better versions at every level. Otherwise there’s no incentive for a crafter to put effort into anything other than ‘endgame’ crafting recipes.
3. Crafting should have a barrier to entry.
For crafting to be an engaging activity in its own right, rather than just an accessory to gameplay, you need to not have a million PvEers mindlessly grinding crafting skills because they ‘may as well’. That devalues the skills of the crafters who are actually invested in crafting gameplay, it puts pressure on the devs to eventually simplify the crafting system (to cater to the ‘may as well’ crafters), and it almost always creates a glut of crafted items, the byproduct of a million ground-out skill points. This tends to damage the economy, making it impossible for crafting-centric players to support themselves. Crafting should always add value, but how often do you find crafted items selling for more than the raw materials? Not often, not in most games.
Instead, crafting needs to have a cost involved. Not monetary, but a sacrifice of other potential. In EVE, time you spend working on your industrial and production skills is time you can’t spend on training combat skills. In UO and (pre-revamp) SWG, skill points you spent on crafting professions were skill points you couldn’t spend on combat professions. And, as a result, the mechanics of supply and demand actually work; crafters’ skills become valuable to the community, because they’re not just something any Joe Average can run out and replicate with a few stacks of raw materials and a crafting skillups guide. 2
4. Crafting should not be tied to PvE or PvP play.
The classic version of this dilemma is when a crafter has to raid to get crafting materials or recipes. It’s fine if endgame activities are required to get these things, but they shouldn’t then be bound to the raiding characters. PvErs wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some herculean PvP objective to get into their raid; PvPers wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some epic multi-part crafting recipe to get into their PvP zones for the day. Let people decide how they want to consume their peanut butter and chocolate, rather than mixing it all before you give it to them. 3
5. Crafting should involve meaningful choices.
Meaningful choices are really the core of the issue, because they’re what make a game a game. You need to have the chance to succeed or fail, otherwise you may as well be playing Farmville. 4
There’s no choice involved in any aspect of the crafting system of most MMOs, beyond “do I grind the cheap recipe or the expensive one?”. Everquest 2’s original crafting system was an interesting example of this concept implemented in a themepark game. Crafting a single item was a mini-game that could take a minute or two; you’d have crafting abilities with different effects and you’d use them at various points in the minigame to affect the quality of the finished product. Now, it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a good example of how to implement meaningful, skill-based non-combat gameplay in a themepark MMO, which is a concept most people scoff at.
Unfortunately, most mainstream MMOs opt for the lowest common denominator and position their crafting system (if they have one at all) and player economy as an adjunct to their core gameplay of PvE and PvP content. WoW is the best example of this, where crafting is a homogenised, grindy and entirely un-fun affair with little to recommend it 5. I might be missing an obvious example but I can’t think of a single major MMO since WoW’s release with a crafting system that wasn’t, fundamentally, just the same as WoW’s. LotRO and SWTOR have the most differentiated crafting gameplay – both systems are deeper than WoW’s, in the sense that there’s more potential to spend time gaining access to rare recipes – but there are still no meaningful choices to be made, and no real way for a crafter to set themselves apart by greater knowledge or skill.
Still, who knows what the next crop of MMO releases will bring? The next wave of MMOs in development – including Funcom’s The Secret World and ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 – do seem to be diverging from the “WoW-clone themepark” model in more meaningful ways than most of the AAA titles of the last half-decade; perhaps we frustrated crafters and economists can finally find a niche somewhere. 6
- Admittedly, there are plenty of people who’ve bemoaned themepark MMOs’ tendency to restrict the crafting endgame to players who participate in the PvE/PvP endgame, but that’s a separate issue. ↩
- Heck, a sociology student even did his thesis on the way SWG’s division of labour mirrored the real world. ↩
- Not that I have anything against PvE or PvP. I’ve been raiding in WoW and SWTOR for seven years; I’ve got tens of thousands of PvP kills under my belt. I just don’t want peanut butter in my chocolate any more. ↩
- Not that there’s anything wrong with Farmville, for those who enjoy it. I still enjoy a casual Zynga game, Cityville – but it’s not a game, it’s a computerised Lego set with less freedom. ↩
- Obviously, this is a personal opinion, but I’d love to hear from people who think the system is engaging as-is. ↩
- Other than EVE. Which is interesting, and might be just the game for me, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about its crafting system yet! I’ve only got 1.5 million skill points; I am but the tiniest of minnows. ↩