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by Eric Heimburg on 01/09/14 04:43:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This originally appeared on my MMO production blog here.]

I’ve been working on fleshing out Project: Gorgon’s crafting. Originally (years ago!) I’d planned out hundreds of different skills for the MMO. They made a really cool chart. (I like games with those huge-ass skill graphs.) But when implementing these skills, I found them to be deathly dull. 200 very similar skills is just no fun. (And in practice, this tends to be true in other games with huge-ass skill graphs, too, sadly.)

I don’t just want mindless level-grinding; the crafting skills need to have that little spark of fun that comes from making interesting choices. I realize the distinction between “fun craft skill” and “boring craft skill” is a very personal one, so in this case I use myself as the baseline. If I find it deathly dull, it’s not good enough.

So I’ve ended up combining a ton of skills together to make each one “meatier” and give them more depth. But this means the rate of adding new crafting skills has really slowed down. It’s getting to the point now where I really need some new craft skills so that I can decorate dungeons better. (I want the world to be full of interactive stuff, not just 3D models that you can’t interact with… but to do that, I need more kinds of interactions implemented.)

I decided it was time to do a completely new skill. Nothing too major, though: I wanted to do something niche. I picked Cheesemaking, which is about as niche as they come. It has some unusual mechanics, like how you have to store the fancier cheeses in a cool damp place to let them ripen. But it’s nothing super unusual for an MMO crafting skill: you put the ingredients in, you get something back out.

The reason I picked it, though, is that it’s built on lots of other skills, so it gives me content to flesh those other skills out with. For instance, cheese is aged in casks, so I needed new carpentry recipes for casks, and the casks need metal hoops, which are made by blacksmithing. The cheesecloth will be made with tailoring, after gathering the cotton with Gathering. The rennet is made with mycology, using animal stomachs that are cut out of carcasses with the Butchery skill.

So you get the idea — a cascade of new skills and recipes were necessary to support cheese making. But it’s easy to go too far when “modeling” something like this. I mean, after researching how cheese is made, I naturally wanted to model all the steps of the process. This would be tedious and boring. (You could argue that making your own barrels is already tedious and boring, but you’d be wrong. So there.)

Instead, I’m trying to capture some of the spirit of each skill without slavishly modeling it. I decided that most cheese can be made instantaneously (just like any other crafting recipe, in other words), but a few special types of cheese require aging. You need to put the casks in a cool damp place (like a cave) for several hours before your cheese is ready. This is a pleasant kind of detail, because you have to make decisions. Not hard ones: crafting isn’t really supposed to be a brain teaser. But it also shouldn’t be a grind. (“Which cave should I put them in? Hmm, I wanted to hunt near X, so I’ll put them in Y.”)

Contrast that to the Tanning skill, which turned out to be pure busywork. There’s only one way to tan a hide, and you don’t really make any decisions. You buy the tannin powder and you tan the hide. The end. Yawn. I’ll have to redo that whole skill at some point.

So that’s why I try to focus on details that create a very simple sort of decision making. For instance, in cheese making, there’s whey. Whey is a byproduct of cheese-making: it’s cheese-water run-off. It’s gross, but it’s not completely useless because there are “whey cheeses” which use this byproduct to make new cheese.

This creates some resource-management decisions: “I want to make some Scamorza, but I need some Sweet Whey. Hmm, I could make some Munster to get it cheaply, but instead I’ll make some Orcish Pepper Cheese to use up my Muntok Peppercorns.” It’s not hard choices you’re being asked to make. It’s just not mindless busywork, if you see the distinction.

Side Note: Why Not Real-Time Crafting Events?

As a side note, I've had some testers ask why I don't make crafting more like combat: more exciting and engaging. A great example is EQ2's crafting system, where crafters have real-time events they have to react to. The reason goes back a bunch of years to when my wife Sandra was working as producer of one of EQ2's expansions. She relayed an anecdote from her boss, the EP of the game.

He said that he'd come to believe EQ2's crafting was flawed, because it didn't let you socialize. Players can already experience real-time action during combat, which is the majority of the game. Crafting is supposed to be a change of pace. Players tended toward wanting to relax and chat while crafting, but they couldn't, because they were constantly watching for those real-time events.

At first I found that a little hard to swallow: make the game more boring so that players aren't distracted by all that gameplay?! But then I played some more and realized he was completely right. Not all players want to socialize while crafting, of course, but a large percentage do, including me.

A good MMO needs to cater to a lot of different gameplay styles. (Even if you're targeting a very specific audience, those players will be in different moods at different times.) And crafting gives a great opportunity to change up the combat gameplay. That doesn't mean it should be completely mindless, though. Instead of real-time action, I try to make the crafting involve resource-management decisions. Mild ones. Enough to make you think a little bit while you chat.

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Jason Carter
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I feel like FFXIV nailed Crafting in a lot of ways. It's not a perfect system, but it felt like I could be "good" at Crafting. In fact it was really the only thing that kept me playing for a while. (I wasn't a fan of the combat which is a big minus in my book).

Crafting has to feel meaningful as well. If I'm making 10 of ItemX to level up but players can buy them from vendors for cheaper than I can make them, it doesn't feel worthwhile.

Crafting is one of my favorite systems in MMOs and isn't given as much thought or resources as it should oftentimes.

Anyway, great article, I used to think Real Time Events would be great, but it's true that the important thing is to have choices, and meaningful ones at that.

Ron Dippold
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I agree that making real decisions is a better way to go. There are two things that sound great in theory but not great in practice:
- Crafting QTEs/games. These are fun about a dozen times. Then you should at least have the option to skip it.
- Catastrophic crafting failure with a substantial chance for more expensive mats. I don't mind a 75% failure rate when just getting started (it makes sense, I'm no good at crafting), but if I'm a high level crafter and spend a month and untold gold getting mats for an item, and it breaks, losing the item and all the mats... well, I could decide to try it again, but more likely I just quit entirely.

Jay N
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Catastrophic crafting failure without any chance of redeeming the mats should never happen. An MMO is supposed to be a game, not a simulation.

Ardney Carter
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Disagree on both fronts. 1st, catastrophic failure serves the purpose of maintaining scarcity which, depending on what can and cannot be obtained through crafting, can actually serve to make the crafting profession matter. It isn't the only way, of course, but it has its place.

I also disagree that simply because a game is an MMO it needs to strive to avoid being a simulation. There's room for MMOs that skew towards the arcade-y and also for those that strive to be more 'serious' sims with consequences. Know which audience you're going after and tailor the product accordingly.

Jeff Alexander
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I have two excellent sources of inspiration for you to investigate. One is the crafting in A Tale in the Desert. There's simply too much variety to summarize. Glassmaking requires keeping a kiln's temperature stable by adjusting the venting and adding wood in realtime. Digging rock pits or grinding metals into powder requires a team because each person can only act once every minute or so but the activity must be performed every few seconds or it ends. Paint color recipes have hidden random variations for each player, so not all color combinations can just be looked up in a wiki, and some players need less-expensive ingredients than others to make the same paint. And so on and so on.

The other is harvesting in Ryzom. (summary at ) If you're solo and you simply dig, you'll make the site unstable (causing a damaging explosion or a DOT gas release) or collapse it before getting all the minerals out. You need to rotate between digging and maintaining the site, or work as a team and divide the labor, to get the most stuff out of the ground.

Robert Crouch
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Why do we want crafting really? I mean, it's been in existence for ages, but when has it ever been right?

When you think about why people like to craft, it's because they like the idea of something that they made themselves. Something very personal. But ultimately due to technical constraints (among other potential design issues) the results of crafting are not very personal at all. The iron long sword that one person makes is identical to the iron long sword that anyone else does.

The next question is where do these crafted items fit into the game world? Crafting is often a pretty personal endeavor. Crafting where you need tokens from hard to kill monsters is often looked down upon because a crafter can't go and do those things on their own, and crafting as a side show isn't a big enough investment to stop those monster killers from doing it themselves. When you need a dragon's toenail to make a shield, the person who gets the dragon's toenail can just level up his nailworking skills to make the shield, or pass it off to another monster killer who already did that. However, the career crafter often just gets left behind.

So in those circumstances, the whole crafting system is just busywork that stops you from immediately having the dragon toe shield.

A system like FFXIV is interesting because the actual act of crafting isn't intolerable, but the results are unimpressive. Nothing that can be made through crafting can't be outclassed by items from other avenues. There's a desire for players to do more monster killing and less iron bashing, so even after hours of leveling up your skills the items you get from token turn ins are superior.

So what I want to know is how can a player create something that is uniquely his or hers in a game? I think that would make crafting interesting. Give me a way to make something that is different. Give me a way to explore with crafting. Give me a way to improve. Give me a "secret" that I can find that makes things better. Give me a puzzle to figure out. Give me something that I can share with others or trade to others that isn't identical to the things they can make themselves or get from anyone else.

Gathering often gets lumped in with crafting, if you're considering gathering, let me manage my resources. Let me plant trees, let me protect them from poachers and animals. Let me manage a mine, maybe let me manage and hire workers. Let me deal on an administrative level with the denizens that my miners unearth. Let me hire mercenaries or players to help rescue the mines. Let me lead the charge if I choose, but don't make that the de facto solution.

The problem is that crafting gets tacked on because everyone else does it. The idea of crafting itself is pretty boring, especially when it's "Make 100 iron daggers and you will learn how to make 100 iron helms" and what's especially likely is nobody in the world actually wants the daggers or the helms.

Jay N
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A lot of good points here. In particular, how crafted endeavors are so easily outclassed in-game is something that cheapens a game experience so much. Broken by design, indeed.

Felix Adam
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I think the big thing is that like others said, why craft if you can get similar/better items by other means. I'd like to see a game where the type of items crafted by players can't be found anywhere else in the game. This would probably remove such long lasting crafting professions like blacksmithing (or just alter it to
actually modify an existing item's stats since you're not smithing from scratch but rather sharpening/customizing your sword for example). Have an equipment slot that can only be done by X profession. If the only potions available ingame are player made, it gives the community an incentive to have some alchemists.

I'd be curious to see how such a system would turn out.

Gerard Gouault
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Give me a game where crafting is necessary to progress anywhere.
Every piece of equipment is manufactured by players and gathering only gives the raw materials.
Monsters drops are only broken equipment that can be recycled to craft something usefull.
Stores only sell items manufactured by players.
I think that EVE Online achieved that in some way.

Yong Wu
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FFXI before the expansions that raised the lvl cap above 75 (stopped playing shortly before those expansion so I'm not sure what happened afterwards). Most of the equipment in the game was crafted by someone at some point.