18 June, 2008
As I mentioned in the recent Weekend Design Challenge, the topic of tradeskills/crafting has been on my mind. So, let’s take a look at this from a developer’s point of view.
What do tradeskills add to a game? What are some recent implementations? How are these implementations flawed, and what can we learn from them?
I have to admit, I’m not a huge crafter. I generally try out the different crafting systems in games if I can, but I don’t have a whole lot of time to spend gathering special materials, recipes, or simply waiting for a bar to fill up.
In WoW, my Druid was a Skinner/Leatherworker. To be honest, I hated it with a passion. I worked up Leatherworking in hopes that one day it would be useful. Yeah, yeah, stop laughing. When I started, I thought it would be useful to be able to make good armor and help others make armor. The problem, as I’ll go into later, is that Leatherworking only made relatively durable goods, compared to disposable/consumable goods. The demand just wasn’t as high for the goods overall.
In EQ2, my Necromancer was a Sage, able to make scrolls to enhance priest and mage spells. It was a useful enough skill, but it wasn’t cheap. I was able to help others out, though, and that was nice. EQ2 had a very interesting crafting system that had some good points and some bad points.
In AoC, I haven’t picked any crafting abilities yet. I’ve gotten the quests to gather raw materials. From the sounds of it, the crafting system is incomplete and there’s no way to select a new profession. So, for now, I’m just going to wait.
The Way It Generally Works
Crafting is typically broken down into the following steps:
- Learn a recipe.
- Collect resources.
- Create the item.
- Sell (or use) the item.
- Longer term: Advance your skill
Some games have interesting ways to accomplish each of these. Some are good, and some have caused lots of problems. Some have even done both. So, let’s look at ech area.
The core of a tradeskill is knowing recipes. The current standard is that you learn some recipes from NPC trainers (which are just vendors that sell skills you can’t trade to others), and get others from special drops around the world. Most recipes have requirements you have to meet, such as having a certain tradeskill level or specialization. Often the goal is that each tradeskill user won’t have every possible recipe, so that some can do things that others cannot.
Some games allowed players to make specific items with the skill, but there were no explicit recipes. Players were required to either get information from other players (or, more likely, a website), or experiment with different item combinations until they got a result.
What are the design goals of having recipes? First is to give crafters a sense of achievement: the more recipes you know, the more powerful you are. Even though crafting often appeals to the Socializer type of player there can also be a strong achievement sense to it as well. Recipes also give a player a way to organize their knowledge: What helmets can they make? What special types of items can they make?
Tabula Rasa has an interesting crafting system where recipes are temporary items found as monster drops. Each “blueprint” allows you to make the item(s) once, then it is destroyed. This was an interesting decision, although it was mildly confusing to me initially. But, this allows people to trade recipes, or sell them for low investment in the trade system.
Gathering the materials to make an item comes in different forms. Sometimes you need another specific skill to gather materials. Or, the items may come from drops. Another interesting way to get materials is from the destruction of other items in the game. Or, you could buy the items from other players that have collected them. Finally, some materials may need to be purchased from NPCs.
What are the design goals of requiring resources? The obvious reason is to restrict what a player can make. Being able to create health potions out of nothing may be a bit unbalancing. This also adds a gameplay element to crafting: you have to go out and do something in the world before you can create items, even if it’s just buying items from a nearby NPC. The other reason is because this is what is expected: in the offline world you need materials in order to manufacture other items.
One interesting twist on gathering resources is how people compete for the resources. The simplest example is competing for drops: if one person gets it other people cannot. For collecting items in the world, there is often fierce competition in gaining access to nodes. In WoW, it’s always frustrating to see someone come along to harvest a node you were going for but got into a fight. One of my former guildmates rolled a pet class just so that the pet can take care of nearby monsters while he went to gather items. In AoC, you have to wait for nodes to refresh. In some areas, the game will spawn monsters to attack you; I can only guess this was to simulate a PvP server. :)
It’s also interesting to note that gathering skills are often considered a source of income, whereas crafting skills are often viewed as a drain on funds.
AoC also has an interesting system where in order to advance at gathering, you have to give items to the NPC. This is good for the economy because it prevents too many goods from flooding the market. Unfortunately, the next step to advance is to get a “rare” drop, which requires doing a lot of harvesting of the previous item. Since the drop seems random, you potentially have a lot of goods being dumped on the market.
In addition, it’s interesting to note that SWG has a very complex system of gathering resources, where a player tried to find high quality locations and planted automated resource collectors. The player had to keep the buildings powered up and collect the goods on a regular basis. Eventually only the highest quality resources were desired because it created the highest quality items, which were the only ones that would sell for any sort of profit to other players.
Finally, the game Golemizer adds an interesting twist: time is also a resource to be accumulated. Every so often, you get a point of “time” that can be spent. This currency is important for building and rebuilding the golems in the game. It’s also the currency you use to purchase recipes in each discipline.
Creating an Item
Finally, it’s time to create the item. In most games, you click the button and wait. A random result can determine if the item is made or not, what the quality of the item is, or what bonus effects happen.
The design goals of creating the items are to limit the number of items that a player can make within a certain period of time. It is also to require a certain investment of time into using the tradeskill. Being able to make items while doing other things means that just about anyone can learn and advance tradeskills, making the skills less valuable overall.
There are a few interesting variations on creating an item in some games. EQ2, for example, had a very active tradeskill system: you had to provide input to a mini-game that affected the quality of the items produced. You also had to react to specific situations with specific skills to get a bonus. While the more active system is what many people clamored for, it had a disastrous side-effect: it made it much more difficult for crafters to chat while crafting items. Since crafting tends to appeal to a socializer type of player, it hurt crafting.
Interactions between crafters is also an interesting case. The original version of EQ2′s crafting also required a lot more interaction between different crafters: one tradeskill to make one item, and another to assemble it into a final product. This frustrated a lot of people and was eventually removed in favor of a simpler system. Cooperating on that level seems to have high overhead in crafting just as it does in other areas.
Selling or Using the Item.
In some cases, the crafter ends up using the item. Or, providing it to a friend/guildmate at low cost. In these cases, there is little to examine.
Sometimes a crafter will try to sell the item. In some cases, the item is more of a service than a good, so the player must actively sell the item; an example is the Enchanting profession from WoW. In other cases, the item can be sold in a trading/auction system if they can’t make a direct sale. Other times, items are merely sold to NPC vendors, usually at a significant loss.
Most game economies are built upon crafters selling their items. However, the costs of acquiring materials, or the overabundance of some specific crafted items can cause problems with the economic system. Part of this is because of the method of advancement discussed below.
WoW and the availability of plugins such as Auctioneer have turned trading and arbitrage into it’s own specialized game. In many cases, a crafter who wants to realize a profit on his work will need to become a savvy business person. This tends to conflict with expectations in games, because people expect to constantly increase in power. Business requires an element of investment and risk. In the offline world, businesses fail and that isn’t really fun. Having the same possibilities in the game can be really unfun, which leads to complaints. In the early days, we called this the “hula-hoop problem”; it doesn’t matter if the player is making an excess of an item that is out of style, they expect to make money if they put time into the game.
In the long run, the goal is often to advance a skill value so that the crafter can make more items. In many games, this happens on a semi-random basis as you create item. So, the player is encouraged to make a lot of a cheap type of item in order to advance.
The design goals here are the same as having levels or skill percents in combat systems: it allows the player to feel a sense of advancement, and have the ability to do things that other players cannot.
The problem is that if other people are making a lot of the same good, you will likely have too much demand for the supply, especially for goods that aren’t consumable. Early UO had stories about people making the same good over and over again to get more points in a crafting skill.
The original version of SWG had an interesting system that gave you crafting experience as others used the items you created. This made it so that people did not have to flood the market with cheap crap, but it had a similar result result: the best thing to do was to undercut your opponents, even if it meant taking a loss, to make sure more people were using your items instead of someone else’s in order for you to get more crafting experience. Only people that got in early or that were able to make very high quality items were able to charge a premium.
So, what makes a good crafting system? I think there are three important aspects to consider:
- How much fun the system adds to the game, at least for a specific type of player? Does it require a lot of busy work or idle time? Does it require active input?
- How the system works with other systems in the game? For example, does it provide useful things for combat-focused characters? Can these items compete with items obtained from other sources, such as quests or drops?
- How does the system work within the game’s economy? Is it a money sink? Is it a potential profit source? Is it only really useful for personal gain?
So, what do you think? How can crafting systems be improved? What new ideas help avoid some of the problems in current systems?