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.

Everquest 2: Crafting, and Taking Things Easy

We’re still playing Everquest 2, but we’ve slowed down a bit on progress for a couple of reasons:

  1. I got to the end of my trial period, so I forked over some cash for a month. The EQ2 launcher responded by wanting me to redownload the game. That kind of ate one of our sessions.
  2. While I was doing this, Arb decided to experiment with a couple of other classes she was interested in. A couple of hours later she announced that Warden was The One 🙂 (You can take the girl away from the healer, but you can’t take the healer out of the girl!) She then decided to reroll it so that we could both stay as fae.
  3. Found that we could both get some housing! Major excitement! Distracted us from questing for a while.
  4. New patch in LOTRO has been distracting for Arb. That basically gave me more time to get into the crafting in EQ2 (I think we both accept that if our main game puts in some new stuff, it’s likely that we’ll want to play that with other friends.) I do love that I can mess about with crafting without getting out of synch with xp.
  5. It’s been hot, so we haven’t been much in the mood for long sessions.

In any case, we’re all caught up now and the fae are at around level 12. So the fae starter area has been much slower for us than the Sarnak one, but we are both enjoying it more. The wings definitely help.

I definitely spend more time in EQ2 feeling puzzled or frustrated than I remember being the case in other games I’ve played over the last couple of years. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but the game doesn’t go out of its way to hold your hand, even when that seems to have been the intention. Once we got used to it, we enjoyed getting lost occasionally, having to stop to discuss what to do next, or figure out what was going on.

We’ve certainly had some quests where we had to spend a few minutes exploring or searching round and area to locate the specific place they wanted us to be. And quests themselves do a fairly good job of mixing up exploring (go to location X), with killing (and kill mob Y), and gathering (and pick up stuff Z while you’re there). We also finished the long quest line that ends up making you a citizen of the city, which was good fun. They get you to explore, to learn your way around the treetops, and you wind up by killing a mini-boss in an instance.

I’m also enjoying the 3D nature of Kelethin (the fae starting area), although I imagine it could be a pain without wings. For a start, we can easily jump off the fae treetop city without having to go via a lift. Now that we’ve spend some time running around it, the city is also growing on me. It’s a set of platforms linked by rope bridges and branches.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t seen many other low level characters around. There are chat channels for levels 1-9 and so on. People who talk on them aren’t restricted to those levels, but we do sometimes hear people asking for help (and generally being answered). So the chat channel gives the lower levels a sort of community … kind of. I like the basic idea.

A room without a view

Most exciting part of exploring the fae city was when I found that we could each get some housing. It starts as a cheap one-room acorn and you zone into your room via the housing area. So the rooms are instanced and you pay a weekly rent, which you can pay in advance. It’s like being in a hotel.

You also get given a few items of furniture to start you off, and you can place them wherever you like in the room. I put my mirrors at fae height so I guess anyone taller will get a good view of their own crotch. There’s a vault too.

I know that houses can get very big and expansive but even right from the start it’s obvious why EQ2 housing has been so popular. It’s accessible, it’s fun, it’s easy to customise, and it’s useful. Thumbs up. Now I just need more stuff to put in mine.

I dip my toes into crafting

I knew a few things about EQ2 crafting before venturing into it. It is more involved and complex than the typical ‘hit the button and watch the green bar’, you get separate crafting xp from adventuring xp so you can actually level up as a crafter in this game, and … that I regularly got killed in crafting accidents when I tried the game in beta.

So I started off by locating the crafting trainer in the Fae City, who gets you started with a quest – to go and gather lots of stuff. Gathering is similar to other MMOs in that you wander around the world looking for herbs, ore, fish, or rats nests which are nodes that you use to harvest the materials. Maybe it’s my WoW (and LOTRO, and every other game ever) bias showing but I’m still not clear why you’d gather leather from rats nests when there are perfectly good deer and pigs around the place to kill.

Eventually, when you are done with this, you go back and are allowed to actually use the equipment located in an instanced crafting area. Each type of craft has its own table/ forge/ oven etc which has cool animations when you use it.  The crafting itself stymied me at first, I made the mistake of looking at my skill list which instantly resulted in confusion at the very very extensive list of craft related skills with no clues on how to use them.

But I decided to press on and just try making something, and that worked out much better. When you create an item, a crafting window comes up showing various green progress bars. Along the bottom of this window (and bound to keys 1-6) are various icons. As the crafting progresses, icons will occasionally flash up on the window. When they do, you hit one of the matching icons at the bottom.

Crafting progresses as a series of ticks. On each tick, your progress has a chance to increase, but the durability of the item also has a chance to decrease. Your goal is to get to the end of the progress bar while there is still some durability left on the last bar. So it’s a kind of pattern matching game. There is a bit more to it. Each icon you pick at the bottom has a bonus and a penalty (so one might give a bonus to success but a penalty to durability or vice versa) so as well as pattern matching, you have to balance up your success/ durability.

It’s definitely a lot less complex than I remember from the beta (at that stage you had to make lots and lots of subcomponents too).

I found it quite frustrating initially. It feels very random. Sometimes you’re just going to fail but you have to keep going anyway because you need the skill ups. But after a few practice tries, I was more able to understand the long email of useful crafting advice that Ysharros kindly sent us. I made some stuff!! I’m feeling that this process is a little deeper than it seems at the start and quite enjoying EQ2 crafting now.

At the exalted tiers of crafting level 9 I now get to select a crafting skill in which to specialise. I can pick between being a crafter (can make furnishings, food), outfitter (can make armour and weapons), and scholar (can make potions, jewellry, scrolls). I have no idea which of these might be useful to us or work well for making some cash in game. But I’m not really attracted by the idea of Scholar –- I’d rather make stuff we can wear, eat, or put in our rooms.

In a typical example of non-handholding, the materials you gather from the first part of the crafting quest are not actually quite sufficient to let you craft all the items that they ask for in the second part. I decided I was too lazy to gather more so instead I checked out the broker who is also located in the crafting area. It’s not really an auction house so much as a combined player vendor. So players from all over the game can give items to a broker to sell, which he’ll do in return for a small cut of the profit.

So I browsed the vendor for my missing rawhide leather hides, and bought a handful of the cheapest ones. They were transferred immediately to my bag without needing to go via the mailbox. I think I much prefer this scheme to an auction house for commodity type goods. Auctions are great for rare or high value items where the actual value isn’t well known. But so often I just use it like a shop – I think I prefer having an actual shop in those cases.

And … the exit questionnaire

After I subscribed, I immediately unsubbed so as to avoid any kind of automatic resubscription. I always do this on MMOs, even if I know I’m in for the long term because I like to at least have the choice to get out at regular intervals even if I decide not to use it.

EQ2, like many games, sent me off to answer an extensive exit questionnaire when I unsubscribed. Most of the questions were very irrelevant, especially since I have every intention of resubbing as long as we’re still playing and enjoying it.

But I do give them props for including “I don’t like automatic resubscriptions” as a selectable answer in the first ‘Why do you hate us??111!!!!’ question. I like it when drop down lists actually include an answer that does reflect my thought process, it makes me feel less weird. I’m pretty sure that WoW, by contrast, doesn’t give that option and makes you fill out the ‘you must be some kind of weirdo’ “Other answer, please specify below” box.

If crafting is the answer, what was the question?

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).

Crafting alts

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.

Self help? Help yourself!

Happy Thursday, and now for a quick thought exercise. Imagine that you are playing a character in an online MMO and you are a member of a friendly guild. (I know, it’s a stretch.) Now, imagine that this game has crafting professions and characters are limited to how many they can learn. Imagine also that you know your friendly guild has friendly players who play characters who can make any recipe in the game and would be happy to do that for you for free, all you have to do is ask.

Would it be worth the effort for you to create a crafting alt and level it and its tradeskill from scratch, rather than to just find a friendly guild member when you want something made? Now, hold that thought because we’re going back in time a few years.

<twilight zone squiggle>

Back in the Dark Age (of Camelot), there was no ability to mail stuff to alts. And no auction houses. When you wanted to buy or sell anything, you had to arrange to meet up with the crafter in person and trade.  The big cities were always bustling, the areas with the crafting materials were full of crafters, and the political geography of the game world just made more sense. Of course the capital was where you went to trade, it was the easiest place to get to. If you wanted to transfer items from one alt to another, you had to find a friendly, trustworthy player to hold them while you swapped alts.

It was pain, there was lots of griefing. I’m sure that the enforced interdependence did lead to stronger communities but it was still pain.

In particular, there was one craft that was dependent on another. Armourcrafters needed tailors to make linings for their armour. And this was a problem because even the friendliest tailor might not want to sit around and make 500 linings while you tried to get that masterpiece chainmail hauberk (did I mention these old games were terrifically grindy?). So what people did was buy a second account, and level a tailoring alt. It was enough hassle to rely on another person that they were willing to pay double their regular monthly fee to avoid doing it.

It was the shape of things to come.

<twilight zone squiggle>

OK, so there are some people who have a pathological dislike of ever having to rely on other people. Or maybe just a strong aversion to risk. Dealing with other people is risky and they aren’t always around at your convenience. So even with conveniences like auction houses (what if no one is selling the thing you want at the exact time you want to buy it??) and being able to mail items around, a lot of people prefer to be as completely independent of others as possible.

I was thinking about this because my husband prefers to create his own enchanting vellums on one alt, mail them to another, write an enchant onto them, and mail them to a third alt rather than just ask another enchanter to sort his alt out. It’s not an economic thing, he doesn’t want to make gold out of it. It’s a minigame resource management challenge:  How can I make this without having to ask anyone else .

I think players in general prefer not to have to be reliant on each other. But game designers know that their MMOs need to be sociable because paradoxically, the ability to play with other real people is one of the big draws of the genre. So to make this work, random people need to want to play with other random people. Designing punishing interdependent crafting schemes hasn’t really worked — people embrace auction houses and mail and other conveniences which mean they don’t actually have to interact directly with others.

Raids and instances have worked a lot better, same with team-based PvP. But these are cases where you absolutely need those other players to be online and hanging out with you before the activity even becomes possible. I wonder very much how things might change if we had access to more intelligent NPC henchpeople or allies. I’m pretty sure I’d use them.