Monday, December 29, 2014

Crafting For Fun Not Profit : GW2, EQ2, WoW

Tobold's been scratching his head over crafting in Warlords of Draenor. It's the old conundrum: if crafted items are good enough to adventure with then why would you need to adventure? If dropped items are better than crafters can make, why would anyone want to craft? Well, there are a thousand reasons but only one I want to explore right now: fun.

For plenty of MMO players fun and crafting aren't words that naturally go together. Some  might well question whether crafting can ever be fun, even when what you're making is inarguably worth having. You might be able to stand at the forge in your racial capital and bang out twenty epic battleaxes in the time it takes forty raiders to wrest just one from the rigored claw of Paradox the Black and White Dragon but how long are you going to want to go on doing that before cleaning your oven starts to seem like a more rewarding and entertaining way to spend the evening?

Can crafting be fun in and of itself? That's the real question. Not "is it profitable?" Not "is it worth it?". In MMOs where tradeskills are a reliable way to get rich, or where highly-desirable items can only be crafted, even people who loathe crafting craft. We all understand how that works, but what makes people take up a craft when, even if they get to be really, really good at it, there's nothing they can make that they or anyone else much wants?

GW2 began as a crafting-optional game but swiftly transitioned over to crafting-mandatory mode. Consequently, now, everyone crafts and most of them moan about it. The days when we discussed the discovery method and wondered how it could hope to survive in the Wiki age seem hopelessly romantic. Does anyone still "discover"? Like Ravious I raised my first Chef from to 400 by randomly combining food groups. It was often frustrating but also hella fun.

Would I do it today? I should coco! Now I follow guides like everybody else. Inventing the wheel is fun. Re-inventing it not so much.

That doomed attempt to instil some mystery into what would inevitably become, for most if not all, a rote activity is just one in a long line of experiments hoping to make crafting fun. When I first came across crafting in MMOs with Everquest in 1999, however, I have to say that fun was the last thing on my mind.

My first reaction, in fact, was closer to outrage than amusement. I was under the impression I was entering some kind of 24/7 online robo-DM'd version of the tabletop gaming I'd given up on in the mid-80s. In the five years I'd spent rolling dice and arguing I couldn't remember one single dice roll that related to baking a batwing crunchie. I'd been an adventurer, godammit! I didn't do catering and I certainly didn't sew my own robes.

It took me a little while to get my head around the basic concept but once that mental re-adjustment had been made I ran into another barrier. Crafting in EQ was hard. Oh, not the process. That wasn't hard: click a hotkey, watch a progress bar, bingo. That was the easy bit. The hard part...well, there were a lot of hard parts.

Crafting Daily - No actual crafting required
Getting the materials, that was one. Random drops, finding NPCs hidden out in the wilds, completing long quest chains that sometimes started out solo and ended in a 72-man raid. Lots of ways hard. Then, when you had the materials, there was the skill check. Just knowing the recipe wasn't enough. There was almost always a chance to fail and in failing lose one or more of the pieces. And the subcombines. Don't forget the subcombines. At the high end crafting had the white-knuckle tension of Russian roulette.

WoW went with a much-simplified version and, as with most aspects of the hobby, WoW's take became the genre's dominant trope. Post-WoW the greatest danger wasn't to your mental health but your carpal tunnel. Now, according to Tobold, with the advent of garrisons the crafting process has been automated to the degree that you don't even need to be a crafter to craft some of the best gear in the game. Something to look forward to for the rest of us, then, when that innovation rolls out across the genre.

EQ2, Vanguard, Fallen Earth and a few others went in another direction entirely, turning
crafting into a quasi-self-sufficient game mode all its own, complete with questing, gear progression, faction, titles, currencies - the whole nine yards. It's the approach I've come to prefer although my 1999 self would slap me on the back of the head for saying so.

Crafting this way can be a lot more relaxing and certainly a lot less frenetic than adventuring, especially in these days of never-stand-still. That probably explains why I spend an increasing amount of time crafting not adventuring.

Crafters and adventurers may have mutual dependencies the sheepman and the cowman in the Old West never shared but in one important way their relationship still mirrors that almost forgotten conflict : whatever advantages one tends to disadvantage the other. For all the added value and "balance", under the surface nothing much has changed. Over the years developers have mostly learned to throw a sheet over the problem while players have learned to pretend they don't know it's still there, lurking, waiting to bite.

So, as long as crafters get to make some things adventurers really want and adventurers get to plunder some things crafters could never make, then the two tribes manage to rub along, just about. It's yet another thing for designers to balance, though: PvE vs PvP, solo vs group, casual vs hardcore, F2P vs Subs - there are so many of these contradictory pairings it's a wonder the cogs spin at all.

In the end you have to wonder how much sense it makes to cram all these special interest groups and their necessary support systems into the same box. If we end up clustering in our little corners muttering to our own clan while casting angry looks at the competing clans clustering in corners of their own, muttering and glaring angrily back, is that any kind of surprise?

This year might be the long-promised Year of the Sandbox. Might be. In theory that model better supports and nourishes these disparate desires than the Theme Park Worlds we've lived in for a decade or so. We'll see. Well, I probably won't, actually. Sounds like a lot of busy-work to me.

No, I'll stick with my progress bars and my whack-a-mole mini-games. I'll make weapons no-one wants so that I can level up then break them down for scrap and make some more. I'll do my "make 10 rat trap" quests, hot-swap my crafting macros and generally futz around in safe cities surrounded by the reassuring clank and whirr of the crafting stations.

Why? Because crafting, against all the odds, has become something I do, not to make things I want or need, but because it's fun. Not everything has to be for a reason. Or, at least, not for any reason better than that.


  1. I think overall crafting mechanics are pretty poor in the MMOs I have played. The only one I have come across that I like is FFXIV (people say it is similar to EQ2) because it is relevant and useful up to a point. It is minigame-esque but you do have to think about how you craft stuff with the abilities you have. They still have the problem of crafting gear not being top tier as they of course want everyone to farm for the top tier gear currency in various ways.
    GW2's crafting is awful and the game should have gone with just loot drops and NPC's selling tiered gear. It was slapped together and competes with loot drops and NPC gear. It was a waste of resources. Just have people farm their ingredients for ascension gear, carry to an NPC and done. Or introduce another currency to farm for that gear. Anet seems to love those.

    1. I wouldn't say GW2's crafting was awful to begin with - just mediocre. It has become bloated and cumbersome beyond belief in the months and years since then though. They are going to have to do a root and branch revamp at some point or it will just collapse under its own weight.

  2. I rather liked crafting (as it was) in GW1.

    You might say "there wasn't any crafting in GW1!" and be more or less technically correct. And yet, some of the things that you mentioned making crafting happen in EQ were true in GW1, except for the white-knuckle on losing mats in the combine. In GW1 if you wanted a specific bit of armor, you had to gather up the mats (which might be trivial and might be complex) and then take them to the correct crafter, usually off in some town somewhere, where he did the "gruntwork" of item creation.

    Several very good things, in my mind, about this. First off, it kept the most "adventure-y" parts of crafting. Go get those gems, those rare cloth drops, those enchanted bits of wood. Mostly you'd get drops and then salvage them. Satisfying in a grind or quest way.

    Second, they eliminated the "mini-game" part of crafting. Some people like watching progress bars, reacting to alerts, and working out sub-combines on a spreadsheet, but I have to question if this is a good use of development resources. If I want to play a mini-game, I'd rather pull out Bejeweled or Plants vs. Zombies directly, and have the company use development resources on the actual game part of the game. Or improving the UI.

    Third, they made it work with the world setting. You are an adventurer, not a master crafter. You want master crafted armor? Maybe you should talk to a specialist, and pay him! This really worked for immersion for me. Side note -- EQ2 also does this well, in my book, with the player crafting commission UI, where a player can become a master crafter and then sell his wares. I wonder if anyone actually uses that.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all of these items are vanity items. They look cool, but they have the same stats as the stuff you get from vendors. It's an optional subsystem in an adventure game.

    My bottom line: if the studio doesn't want to put the effort into making crafting a really fun part of the game, and doesn't want to market the game to crafters -- if they are just looking at adventuring players as their target audience -- then make something simple that works. GW1's model is terrific in that respect. If you want to go the other way, a la Landmark or EQ2, terrific, but set player expectations accordingly, and give it the development resources it needs.

    Enough mediocre crafting systems. And this goes double for mediocre crafting systems that are mandatory for advancement.

    1. Very good points. I agree with most of that, particularly the part about how crafting and adventuring should interact. When I played various tabletop RPGs the player characters would almost always get any specialist work they needed done by NPCs. Their job was adventuring not running a small business.

      I expected that to be how things were done in MMOs but GW1 is possibly the only example I can think of where it works that way. I used to enjoy GW1 "crafting" a lot back in my first run through not long after launch. By the time I returned pre-GW2 and ran through Origins and Eye of The North I was in too much of a hurry to craft but that was my loss. I wish they'd used a similar system for GW2.


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