In The Primary Principle, I posited that the only way to deal the The Crafting Problem(tm) is to deal with The Economy Problem(also tm) by having crafters be the primary source of manufactured goods in the virtual economy.
This of course only dealt with part of the problem, namely the where does stuff come from and how does it find its way into players’ hands (or paws or whatever). Briefly, I suggested that crafting should be placed in the main economic sequence of the game rather than a non-essential and effectively consumptive add on.
Critical to this idea, IMHO, is the ability to create some degree of dynamic economy. In most MMOs, there is dynamic player driven portion of the economy (auctions and the bargained for redistribution of valuable items among players) and a static game driven side (player commerce with NPCs of generally two kinds: pure money sinks such as item repair and skill training and/or the purchase of commodity items such as food items, ammunition and other common consumables). To a lesser extent, monetary quest rewards are on the static side of the ledger too.
I posted a number of suggestions about reducing vendor trash and changing the static side of the virtual economy in Its the Economy, Stupid. So if vendor trash were seriously reduced or eliminated and commodity harvesting were modulated by actual demand for the items in demand that were manufactured from them, non-crafters should be able to earn coin to purchase that which they don’t choose to produce themselves.
With a gather inputs only economy, all those “necessities” such has potions, etc. risk being in short supply unless there are means of producing them. Enter the market-maker producer-for-hire NPC. Here’s how it might work: If you need health potions, you have three options: Gather the components and manufacture them yourself, purchase them from NPCs, purchase them from other players either directly, through an auction process or through the broker/market maker.
The key here is dynamic pricing. You could harvest potion inputs and exchange them through the producer-for-hire NPC for finished potions (i.e. trade x stout boar hearts and y essences of goodness and the NPC will manufacture them for you on demand) or you could simply purchase them at the current market price, if any were available. If players had not harvested enough inputs or produced and sold the the merchant enough potions, players would be out of luck. They would however have a great opportunity to go on a mission to collect those inputs and capitalize on the shortage.
The market maker or item merchant provides the critical buffer for time shifting and supply/demand balancing to help avoid overly wild swings in the economy. The key for this system is to unify the market with NPC producers and player producers relying on one source of inputs (player harvested materials) and responding in kind to player demand for the goods. Too many potions on the market, prices paid for inputs falls as does the prices paid by market makers for finished goods and pretty soon, peeps stop spending a lot of time harvesting those inputs.
So what can you produce and what happens to it now that crafters (or crafters for hire) are the sole means of production?
Crafted Items are Crap
As many have noted, the utility of crafted items has been a major issue. Simply, most crafted items are crap. This is for two reasons: one, the availability of superior alternatives from world drops and two, a perhaps uninspired approach to crafting generally.
Most crafting systems require several basic components: requisite skill level, knowledge of a recipe, raw materials collected from the virtual world (often processed into another or refined form) and the addition of some NPC purchased components). For the moment, I’ll set aside the Crafting Skillup Problem ™ because to some extent, if you increase the overall necessity and utility of crafted items, then there is at least an economic reward (or at least neutrality) for being required to produce a number of apprentice level items, etc.
Time and time again, item diversity seems to be the major complaint raised. There aren’t enough recipes, the items produced have crappy stats and they all look alike. Yes, in Lake Wobegon we all want to be above average.
The final piece to the limited utility problem is scalability. When I’m level 40, I’ve been slowing “outgrowing” my level 30 armor for 10 experience levels. To some extent, obsolesence can be forestalled by allowing a limited ability to upgrade an item so a Standard level 30 could be enhanced to a Heavy version at level 35 and finally swapped out for the next cool thing at level 40. Scale upgrade where you will, the concept is that the base item can be enhanced before being discarded.
The Secret Ingredient
A simple way to increase the utility and diversity of crafted items is to allow a range of variation of basic recipes based on special inputs. These wouldn’t necessarily require a player to go purchase or learn a new recipe, but just change the output based on a slightly different input. The notion of socketed items in WoW is one flavor of this. Another would simply be that if you added the essence of a Stout Boar Heart to a chainmail recipe you end up with Shining Chaimail of the Boar with one set of enhancements versus adding an Eagle’s Talon to produce Shining Chainmail of Vengeance with a different set of bonuses.
Each Chainmail recipe would require the same basic components and yield the same skill up benefit, but allow the crafter to customize the stats and perhaps the resulting appearance of the item in a way that would make the item more useful to a warrior than a paladin for example. If multiple secret ingredients could be added, increasingly diverse items could be crafted.
Styles, finishes and dyes
Visual diversity can be obtained by adding another overall dimension to crafting. There have been several half-hearted attempts in various games by requiring crafters to make specialization choices (i.e. goblin v. gnome engineering, armorsmith v. weaponsmith, etc.), but none that really result in alternative appearances for items.
LotRO has a number of items that are based on racial styles which have roughly the same basic utility: a dwarven mail shirt may perform identically to an elven mail shirt, but they look quite a bit different. Why not allow crafters to learn different “schools” of crafting? Go study with the dwarven masters, go study with the elves, if they’ll have you. Each school would have their own style, may require slightly different inputs and maybe even slightly different stats yielding visually distinctive results.
Likewise creating a tier of inputs for finish customization would provide additional visual diversity. LotRO has dyes which can be applied to items to change certain colorable parts which is a good start. I’d like to see the ability to add an ingredient into the mix at the manufacturing stage to give the item a different look or finish. Gold, silver, gems or other specials could be added to customize or diversify a basic texture (e.g., gold, silver, or black trim, etc.).
Appearances do matter otherwise we’d all be stuck in text MUDs. Lets face it, the ability to look cool would also drive the player economy.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
Crafters should be able to increase their skill by creating items of course but in the age old tradition of learning by example, skill should also be gained by deconstructing items which would yield a small amount of usable components. How is it made? Take it apart and see. Effectively giving the ability to “disenchant” manufactured items provides one means by which items can be removed from the economy (more on that in a bit).
Likewise, if items wear or become damaged, they should be repairable by an appropriately skilled crafter. Repairing items would also yield skill benefits. An armorsmith, weaponsmith or tailor should be able to effect field repairs to items to keep them serviceable. Not a complete repair, but something to keep everyone in their gear and something that would require some use of appropriate inputs. Blacksmiths could manufacture armor repair kits as could Tailors, Leatherworkers, etc. Who wouldn’t be glad to be able to do a field repair and finish a dungeon crawl rather than go red paper doll and have to pack it in?
Field repair basically opens up a two tiered “repair” system. Field repairs would be limited fixes and overall item durability would slowly decrease if only “repairs” were done. To restore an item to full durability, it should have to be “overhauled” or “remanufactured” requiring the addition of additional materials. If an item’s durability were completely gone, there would be no difference in making a new one or remanufacturing the old.
Down the Drain
Finally, to avoid the dread problem of mudflation where valuable items continue to flood the economy over time, never leaving it and subsequently being devalued as they become increasingly common. Most virtual economies have some system of “binding” or “attunement” such that when an item is equipped it can no longer be transferred to another character to avoid this problem.
There are really only two basic solutions to this problem: binding or finite (once and done) durability. Absent prohibiting trade among characters (and among a RL player’s various game characters which never really works) binding is a suitable alternative. If deconstruction only yields a limited amount of materials, deconstruction of old items wouldn’t create a significant source of reused materials and hence inflation. I think all but the most common of items should probably be bind on equip, saleable only to NPCs or deconstructable for a modest amount of materials.
Like all repairs and remanufactures, NPCs would be available to perform the same function at an indexed cost since those repairs would still require the input of materials which were only available to the extent players actuall harvested them. The same system acts immersively and as an anti-inflationary money sink. “Here Mr. Town Smith, here are 10 iron ingots and my damaged armor. Fix me please.”
The Mighty River
The resources of a virtual world are limitless. All inputs to the virtual economy, whether gathered or dropped, are simply a function of total hours played. More hours played, more nodes spawned and harvested, more mobs killed and items dropped. The virtual economy is a mighty river that looks something like this:
Game Gods (itemization, spawns) => Players (drops, gathers) => Crafters/NPC Redistributers (consumption, transmutation) => Players (consumption) = The Sea of Oblivion (destruction).
All rivers must find the sea eventually and value must flow from the world if any kind of dynamic equilibrium is to be maintained. When crafting is removed from the primary sequence, it is doomed to irrelevancy. There are only three roles in such an economy, creation, transmutation or redistribution and destruction. Since the game gods control creation (and ultimately need to dial up destruction to balance) the only rolls left are to transmute and redistribute value in game.
If crafting requires inputs ultimately controlled by the game gods, it can not be a source of “creation” and if there is no utility for crafted items then it is doomed to be merely a consumptive enterprise.
A New Economy
Of course, the wicked crazy nutso idea I haven’t mentioned directly is the notion of a merchant or trader “class” in the game which would be its own pursuit. An economic gameplay model rather than the heroic warrior model. Imagine if there was a game that could actually provide advancement models for Ferengi and Klingons… Of course, I was always the guy that liked trying to build Wonders in AoE rather than drive my opponents back to the stone age…
Ok, so I am probably nuts, but sure would be cool wouldn’t it?