Thought of the Day: On welfare epics, workers, and the industrial MMO economy

Once upon a time, in the pre-industrial age, life was simpler and easier to understand in the MMO world. People quietly got on with their own game and formed into like minded guilds, mostly for social reasons or to work on shared tasks. Some took a hardcore raiding approach and were somewhat respected as the server elite (by some people at least). But there was very little pressure on players to stress over their gear and play if they weren’t in one of those guilds. Raiding society put a lot of emphasis on which guild you joined, but outside this circle it was mostly unimportant.

As raiding became more accessible, there was a lot more pressure on regular players to buy in to the system. A system which defined players by the progression of their current guild and forced those who were deeply concerned with their status to put in more and more time, and keep jumping to more and more progressed guilds.

You could imagine raid guilds as being like production lines. The pressure on players to conform and gear and play to an approved style (with the use of external metrics like gearscore and damage meters to enforce) was like the work ethic that was imposed on pre-industrial workers in the real world. Lists of meaningless achievements replaced meaningless production goals set down by management, which in turn replaced meaningful individual goals from the pre-industrial MMO which people defined for themselves.

And the welfare epics? Well named, perhaps, because just as in the real world, welfare picked up some of the slack in that there were more workers than there were jobs; more players who wanted to be part of the endgame than there were guild spots.

So if that’s the industrial cycle, what happens now? Are we drifting into a post-industrial MMO age where raiding might become optional again, or at least less of a defining factor in how a player sees themselves?

Is crafting meant to be fun?

Some of the best fun I have had with crafting in games has been where it was unusual to be a crafter so people would come seek you out to make commissions.

I think this is quite close to the original concept for crafting in MMOs. It was based on the medieval idea of the crafter as someone who made items by hand and might become well known for their crafting skills. Fantasy literature is also full of famous weapons and the people who made them. And I think that back in those days, new subgames were put into MMOs as much for thematic reasons as for gameplay.

So there is this notion of crafting being something that you could use to make your character different. Something that you could possibly do as an alternative to adventuring. A rare skill that might make you useful or desired in a community. Plus you could make items that you could sell to make some gold.

It has changed a bit since then. Modern MMOs tend to assume that everyone will take a crafting skill, and point you towards trainers fairly early on in the game. They also often split the skills between making things and gathering thing. And it’s fairly common that gathering skills and selling materials via an auction house or vendor becomes a staple money maker in the game for players.

For me, crafting is a bit schizo at the moment because it’s actually two different things.

  • Making stuff. Possibly creative handmade crafting skills. Crafter can distinguish themselves by what they make. Possibility for both crafter and client to make their character more unique involving one of a kind or rare items.
  • Selling stuff, or running a business. Probably involves selling commodity goods, may also involve producing them, in a production line type of way.

MMOs do the second part tolerably well (it varies from game to game, EVE is probably the high water mark for would-be virtual industrialists.) They do the first part very badly.

Which is unfortunate because it’s the first part which really fits into the fantasy settings that are so ubiquitous in the genre at the moment. You don’t really imagine production lines in Tolkien.

The problem with crafting rare goods

Crafters being a rare breed is very interesting from an immersive point of view, annoying from a buyers point of view, and extremely fun from the crafter’s point of view. It’s nice to be sought out for your skills.

Problem is, why would crafting be rare? Only because it’s tedious, time consuming, expensive to skill up, dependent on rare drops or starting conditions (eg. 1/100 characters starts out with potential for crafting) or otherwise inaccessible to the majority of the player base. So if we want crafting to be rare, it probably won’t be fun and accessible for most players.

You could imagine a game where crafting is fun, but most people will find it more fun to go kill stuff. I think EQ2 toys with this design and it seems to work well from what I have seen. Both crafting and adventuring are time consuming, and you probably don’t have enough time to do both. Given that choice, most players will choose adventuring but the ones who don’t can become (rareish) crafters. That would solve the problem of how to keep crafting rare without making it needlessly dull and time consuming.

To make this work, devs need to really put more work into crafting. It has to be a complete game in itself. An alternative to the rest of the game, and not something that was just tacked on at the last minute. That’s a very tall order for something that is going to be a minority interest. Free Realms has fully featured minigames for crafting, which I thought were good fun. It’s just that there’s not much of a way to sell things to other players and you can buy stuff for real cash that’s better. So they got the crafting down quite well, but there’s no real reward for it.

But still, I think players would enjoy being able to make more unique items, even if the uniqueness was just in the look. It would be cool if particular crafters could build up reputations. I’ve been told a few times that Star Wars Galaxies had a really good crafting system that allowed for a lot of crafter customisation. I don’t have personal experience with that, but it’s something I’d like to see developed further.

I also think that a lot of crafters would enjoy it if the crafting side of the game could be less dependent on the adventuring side. It’s fine to buy goods from adventurers that can only be gotten in instances or from nasty monsters. But forcing the crafter to level and go get it themselves isn’t the way to make crafting more fun. Until crafting is more recognised as a separate playing style in itself, it’s never going to really take off.

And I honestly believe that there are a lot of players –- especially people who enjoy crafting in real life (yes this would include a lot of women, I expect) – who would be very open to trying it out in a game and might really enjoy it and produce some awesome virtual goods. But it’s going to need some brave devs who accept that not everyone wants to go kill monsters or delve deep  into coding (a la Second Life) to really make it sing.

How about those production lines?

The actual process of crafting is typically pretty dull. There are some exceptions to this but it really is usually a case of have the materials handy and click the red button. Then watch the green line. If you’re lucky you will be playing a game where you can get it to keep crafting the same thing until all your materials are used up (that’s the production line). So you can go get some tea and feed the cat, maybe read a chapter or two of a book or catch up with Torchwood while you are waiting.

This is not actually playing the game in any meaningful way. It would be better to let players do it offline. It’s more to do with resource management and trading than with actually crafting anything so it would be better to treat it as a separate minigame.

And allowing players to put a production line in place isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially if the alternative is going off to read a book while the game gets on with it.  But it shouldn’t replace the more intensive process of producing a rare, handmade item.

Crafting doesn’t have to be tedious

I don’t think crafting needs to be dull. We don’t need artificial game mechanics to keep crafters rare. And rare, desirable goods don’t have to be ones with potential for unbalancing stats. It might be enough just to focus on letting crafters … craft. And letting traders … trade. And letting industrialists .. err… do industrial stuff.

But treating crafting and the economy as a one-size fits all second thought is missing out on a huge wodge of players who would love to play that game.