Crafting, Convenience, and Capitalism

Every WoW player should try, at least once in their playing career, selling [Ice Cold Milk] on the Auction House during the Christmas Event where you can often get up to 1g per piece. You can buy it from a vendor in unlimited supplies for 25c (1.25s for 5 pieces) literally 5s walk away from the Auction House.

You will learn a lot about the nature of people, consumers, and trade by making that one transaction.

Crafting for the sandbox

Crafting is pretty much the ultimate sandbox activity in MMOs. Player gatherers gather raw materials and trade them with each other, player crafters acquire raw materials and turn them into finished goods, player traders create and maintain a market in these raw and finished goods. That is the crafting way of things.

So why do themepark MMO devs feel they can’t ship without some kind of crafting mechanism in the game? Themepark games offer plenty of other ways to get gear and consumables. You can buy them from NPCs (either with in game gold or with various tokens) , they drop randomly from mobs, they might be rewards from minigames, and so on.

  • It’s partly for historical reasons: Ultima Online had crafting, DaoC had crafting, Everquest had crafting. Therefore every MMO in perpetuity will have crafting because players just expect it.
  • It’s partly because crafting is another avenue for progression, another progress bar to fill, another grind to keep players in the game.
  • And partly because a lot of players seem to really enjoy making gear for themselves and trading with other players.

While many (maybe even most)  players would be perfectly happy with a crafting system that only allowed people to make gear for themselves and their alts, the sandbox interaction and trade side of things has also proven incredibly effective at getting communities of players to interact. Usually via an auction house or trade channels. Where there is an actual in-game auction house, it often ends up as the social hub of a city.

In a very real way, trade between players   is the beating heart of any MMO community.

Eric at Elder Game argues fluently for the case against auction houses. He comments that GW2 and Diablo 3 both ‘suffer’ (in gameplay terms) for their huge global auction houses – the competition is so high, the barriers to entry so low, that prices tend to sink quickly to a stable floor.

Crafters have the most fun when they can sell items to other players and make a profit. It’s just not as fun when there are literally millions of crafters competing for customers.

He also discusses the different markets in luxury goods (ie. epic gear, fancy crafted mounts and pets, etc) vs everyday consumables.

Let’s say it even more generally: the transactions that let players play the game on a day-to-day basis should be fast and easy. The transactions for rarely-needed things, for luxury items, or for power-player goods don’t benefit from being trivialized like this.

I think the case is not so much against auction houses, although it can be fun to go browse player merchants if a game supports it. That was how crafters sold goods in DaoC. You could search the merchants from a central point to find out who had the best offer on the item you wanted, but you still had to go to their merchant and buy it. But the case against global auction houses in a massive multiplayer game on the grounds that it affects gameplay for crafters and traders is beginning to look stronger (to me.)

Consumers in the real world, as well as in game, will pay a premium for different types of goods and services. They will pay for luxury goods, they will pay for personalised goods, and they will pay for convenience. Part of the fun of crafting and trading in sandbox games is figuring out how to make your product or services more convenient for players, so that you can add your profit that way. In themepark games devs sometimes encourage this by putting products or materials in the game that might be inconvenient to gather or require some exploration by players to discover. For example, some item that is only sold by one vendor in a little town on a four hour cooldown, or a component that is dropped by a raid boss, or purchased with PvP tokens.

While this might be more inconvenient for customers, it’s a gift to explorers and to any trader/crafter who also likes the type of content which provides the material. You could actually make some profit just for knowing that the vendor next to the auction house sells ice cold milk, AND that ice cold milk is a component for one of the Christmas Event quests in WoW.

And if you can profit from that, you are encouraged to think about other ways in which you could use your game and world knowledge to trade convenience for profit. “Who are your customers, what do they need, and what would make their lives more convenient?” Now that is how a trader thinks. And where this is possible, it means there is a (possibly non combat) role in the game for players to pick if they choose. It is driven entirely by players and how they relate to other players. That is why trade is at heart a sandbox style.

Back in the day, we had to travel to different cities to pick up our goods

Back in Vanilla days, WoW had segmented Auction Houses. The Stormwind Auction House was not linked to the Ironforge Auction House. What actually tended to happen was that one city ended up as the hub everyone used and the others were much much quieter. Patch 1.9 was the one that linked the auction houses together. Up until that point, you could make some gold by working out if any items were cheaper in one city than another and trading between the auction houses accordingly.

It was inconvenient for customers, and not ideal for crafters (because ideally they’d want to have items for sale in every venue) but great for traders.

Vanilla WoW also featured rare(ish) recipes and components being sold by various vendors around the world, many of which were in limited supply. You had to know who sold what, where, and when or else pay extra on the auction house because someone else had known that and made the item available more conveniently for you. They continued this into TBC and you can still find useful recipes for levelling some of the crafting skills scattered around vendors in Outland.

It’s no accident that since Wrath, Blizzard have avoided doing this. On the one hand, it encouraged players to explore the game world and vendors, made the random vendors in various settlements more interesting, and was good for the trading play style. On the other, it was rather inconvenient. I’ve talked about convenience and inconvenience a lot in this post, and it is because whenever MMOs move towards being more convenient, traders and explorers lose out on rewards for their willingness to make a market and rewards for knowing the world well, respectively.

Maybe the convenience of a global market place with low prices is more important for players than the ‘fun’ of random loot, crafting for trade,  or having to depend on traders to fill up the local auction houses. But every time convenience trumps a playing style, people who enjoyed that playing style are turned off the genre, and that playing style becomes less attractive to newbies, and the genre itself loses some of the things that make it special.

I was thinking about this when I found that the latest WoW patch has removed most of the need for tradeskills to use special tools (eg. fishing rod, blacksmith hammer) and enchanters now only need one enchanting rod (the cheap low level copper one). Convenience is great, but I used to make a bit of pocket change from selling those enchanting rods on my blacksmith. They were one of the few useful things to make with rare metals from earlier expansions for which there was an actual demand. I don’t need the income from selling rods – but what will those metal ores be used for now? People don’t even need them for levelling. Any miner who finds some won’t be excited because it’s rare and will sell, it will just be trash. During TBC, if one of us who wasn’t a miner found a Khorium node in Outland, we’d tell our guild immediately so that someone could come out and get it. Now, it will be “Useless Khorium, what a waste of a metal node.”

And yes, I think when a trade good has no actual use in the contemporary game, the game world is diminished.