Crafting in MMOs is an odd sort of activity; part time-sink, part economic driver, part cooperative endeavour, part mini-game, part character progression. It’s also one of the few parts of modern MMOs that didn’t evolve from MUDs.
There was no crafting in MUDs, at least not in any of the ones I ever played. What we had instead was the ability (when you were trusted by the people running the game) to help create new areas and coded objects in game. Creating an area was easier in a text based game, even if you didn’t like coding you could write some good descriptions and get someone else to code the exits.
It felt a lot more creative than clicking a button and watching a green bar. But most people never got to do it. It had to be carefully supervised and checked over to avoid crashing the server with bad code or upsetting half the playerbase with bad writing.
But crafting has grown up so organically and been so popular with players that I’m not sure anyone knows what the point of it is any more. People like making their own gear and gadgets, and creating items to trade with others. From an immersive point of view, people like to say ‘I am a blacksmith’ and have the skills to prove it. We see NPC crafters hanging out in the cities, and possessing non-combat skills helps players to feel part of that same world too.
Consumables vs Gear
There are two sorts of crafting skill, those that produce consumables (such as potions, food, and other items that get used up) and those that produce gear. For consumables to be successful there needs to be a constant demand, and that means players have consumable overheads for the more popular activities. ie. you have to buy buff food, potions, etc before you head off to an instance, or every time you get a new item, you have to buy talismans or enchants to stick in it.
So for consumables to be desirable, the whole player base has to bear an extra layer of ‘hassle’ in order to go out and do whatever fun activity they planned for the night.
Crafted gear has also been problematic to balance. If it is better than the stuff which you can get in dungeons then players wont’ be so motivated to go to the dungeons. If it’s worse then crafting is mostly pointless. I think games have been evolving to a place where crafted pieces have a niche, either as pre-raid gear (WoW) or as substitutes for specific gear slots but not enough to stop people from needing gear from other places.
Just reading those last two paragraphs makes me wonder whether crafting actually makes the game more fun for most people or not. However, when it works, it does a lot to liven up the in game economy. Characters are articifically forced to rely on others to fill some of their crafting needs. Tradeskills (I think this is probably a better name than crafting) can be forced to rely on gathered items, dropped items, other crafted items.
Gathering is often lumped in with crafting skills for convenience, and gathering skills have been genuinely popular. Mostly because it’s a purely money making activity, but gathering also fills a niche of giving players a way to make some gold that doesn’t involve killing monsters/ farming. Depending on how it’s implemented, gathering is also immersive. Having different types of plants and ore appearing in different areas can help the game world feel more real.
(Note: Having your nodes of ore glowing and steaming will PROBABLY not help immersion).
Being able to send items to your own alts killed the cooperative side of crafting. It became much easier to have a crafting alt to provide whatever your main character might need than to go find someone else to do it.
The response devs took was to make it increasingly difficult to have a crafting alt. Suddenly there were level restrictions on crafting, you couldn’t have a low level master crafter any more.
This is a confounded pain and I hate it. Maybe I wanted a character to RP with, potter around town, and do some crafting with on quiet nights. But no, now I actually have to play the dratted thing and level it.
And a perfectly good playing preference/ style got tossed out of the window. Bring back crafting alts, they still spend time in game.
What do we actually want from crafting?
One of the player hopes for crafting has always been that you could go out, figure out for yourself where to find the materials you need from the world around you, then come back and make something useful out of them. It’s a pure survivalist’s dream. Games have played around with the ideas and distilled them down into something which takes most of the fun and inventiveness out of this.
But crafting could actually solve one of the big current MMO problems — the search for endgame PvE activities that aren’t raiding.
A more creative crafting minigame would make a lot of people happy. Second Life thrives on players having the ability to design and make (and sell) their own stuff. In Tale in the Desert (when I tried it, a year or so back), you could make scuptures out of any materials you could find, you could design your own complex firework displays, blacksmithing involves actually trying to hammer a piece of metal into the correct shape, you could design your own puzzles and have other players come to try them out and vote on whether they were fun.
Players went to town with all of these crafting minigames. They created works of art that were funny, brilliant, and creative. There were a lot of attempts which weren’t, but the good ones stood out and it was fun to try anyway.
It’s not going to fit all games. Warhammer for example is a game that never really needed crafting, all they needed was the ability to fix up your armour and paint banners and shields (actually, given the hobby it sprang from, a painting minigame would have been inspired for that MMO). But there’s a lot of scope in crafting that none of the big MMOs have really tried to address yet.