Begone, Crafting!

Conditioned as we are by MMO design, when we talk of alternatives to combat-based activities we tend to immediately think of one thing: crafting. But crafting isn’t the only thing one can do when not bashing skulls — some games have already tried to provide more choices, like Vanguard’s diplomacy sphere or EVE’s mercantile (not production) activities.

I’m starting to think we should throw the term “crafting” out the window, because it makes us think of a particular kind of activity as portrayed in current MMOs and that’s just not all there is to it. Gathering resources doesn’t have to be a single type of activity (why is chopping down a tree just like mining for gold?); making things doesn’t have to be a single type of activity (fill hopper, press button, watch progress bar), and so on. I understand why it is a single type of activity in these games — because it’s much easier to design that way — but I don’t think it’s an approach that’s good for games or gamers.

Ease of design doesn’t necessarily mean good design. It probably does mean getting a design in somewhere vaguely within budget and on time, but for all the soaring costs of making MMOs these days I, as a consumer, am not seeing much improvement in terms of base systems, underlying activity principles, or really anything other than maybe graphical quality. I’m seeing a lot of gimmicky systems that purport to be new and innovative, but that are really just a new spin on the same underlying mechanic: press button, wait, press another button.

ideasAre we that limited by technology that we can’t even imagine any systems better than “press button, wait, press another button”? I’m not a designer, so I’m not being disingenuous: this is a real question. We don’t get to play in virtual reality yet so our modes of input are pretty limited: keyboard or mouse. Nonetheless, it seems to me that click-wait-click can still be improved on for all MMO activities.

This post was originally going to be about breaking “crafting” down into far more than the current MMO implementation/definition allows, and trying to figure out all the activities one can do in games that aren’t about bashing something’s skull in. (The latest link in a long cloud & chain of posts around the Blogosphere is Wolfshead’s post, Must We Always Kill? — I heartily recommend it and not just because he mentioned me.) I then realised that if we can do that to “crafting” we can do that to “combat” too, and that I need to be less snobby about combat in general — I’m pretty sure combat itself could benefit from an infusion of new ideas, and I don’t mean just new monster skins. I didn’t intend to tangent off into design, design costs, and the realities of trying to make MMOs, but it may not be as unrelated as I initially thought. (What, a relevant tangent? Am I going to lose my Digressor’s badge?)

I’m no industry insider (sadly) but from the outside it sure looks to me as though, consciously or not, most of the people trying to make AAA-MMO titles out there are trying to emulate WoW. The designers may not want to, but I’m pretty sure the un-MMO savvy but stinking rich investors do want to, because as far as they can see, WoW is what works. However, I’m not convinced there ever will be another WoW. WoW was the perfect storm — Blizzard knew what they wanted to do, how they were going to do it, and what it was going to achieve — they had a ready-made fanbase to some extent — and it came out right around the time when the MMO crowd was ready for something new and the home-computer crowd was ready to try these weird online games their colleagues were talking about. (And let’s not forget the opening up of the Asian market, which had a huge influence.) Like WoW or not, it’s inane to deny its success; it’s also naive, I suspect, to try and replicate it, because the conditions will never be the same.

(It’s like television though. I suspect someday there will be a dozen games with 5 million subscribers and counting; I just hope those dozen games aren’t all DIKU-clones, no disrespect intended to that venerable genre.)

As others have said, if you don’t start out thinking you have to make WoW, maybe you can do with a slightly smaller budget. Finding staff and funding are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, but this is armchair design so I don’t need to worry about it right now. Let’s just assume that if we could lose the must-make-WoW! mindset, we might start seeing many many more smaller, “indie”-type ventures and games. That’s what CCP was to begin with and they’re not doing so badly (ok ok, don’t bring up Iceland’s economy). And to be fair to WoW, it didn’t invent the way games are designed now; Blizzard followed an existing tradition which itself followed a tradition which itself was rooted in D&D (and D&D is rooted in strategy games like Risk… and so on into infinity). Much though I loved all of those traditions, it’s time to break out of that damned red box with the dragon on the cover and the dice rattling around inside.

When we’re not trying to make WoW/EQ/DIKU/D&D, it becomes possible to imagine other ways of doing things. Collaborative crafting projects. Collaborative combat projects (no, not raids; I’m not sure what I mean, but I’m sure it’s possible). Collaborative SOCIAL projects. The point about collaboration is, it takes a lot longer to achieve — but it also achieves far greater goals. But wait, you cry, nobody LIKES to work with anyone else in MMOs! I don’t think that’s exactly true: nobody likes to work with anyone else in WoW-style MMOs because cooperation isn’t part of the game design, with the exception of very narrow goals like getting through a raid instance.

We’re more than smart enough to be able to design games with strong cooperative requirements/elements while still taking into account the fact that people also like to achieve things by themselves and/or in smaller units of time. Why has game design become such a dichotomy? Combat OR crafting; solo OR grouping; raid OR not-raid; casual OR hardcore — whatever happened to seeing players as people? People aren’t all about one thing OR another, and even while we do have a tendency to think in opposites and symmetries, we *are* capable of thinking and acting beyond it. Let’s integrate that into basic game design paradigm — it’s not either or, it’s AND.

Players have a responsbility to look outside the box too — but ultimately, we tend to play games the way they’re designed, and our playstyles are influenced by the way games are designed (more than the other way round, I think, but I’ve no data to back up my opinion). So if we want to change how we play and what we are offered as choices, we need to change how our games are made. It is a loop, to some extent, but you have to start somewhere. A dozen people with brilliant new design ideas will — for better or worse — have a far more immediate impact on how we play than 100,000 people all trying to go against the playstyle flow in whatever game they’re playing.

Idealist though I am, it worries me that nothing but WoW-clones seems to be able to get funding, at least as far as the “standard” fantasy-MMO genre goes. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to get rid of fantasy-MMOs — fantasy is very important to humans (whether it’s trolls and witches or elves and dwarves) and I think it has a lot of good, archetypal, important stories to tell. I just don’t think it all has to be Azeroth.

23 thoughts on “Begone, Crafting!

  1. “Collaborative SOCIAL projects. The point about collaboration is, it takes a lot longer to achieve — but it also achieves far greater goals.”

    I’m trying to dig in my memory banks – wasn’t this part of the original design for the Diplomacy sphere in Vanguard? The ability to have a team or group of Diplomats working together that could sway NPC’s in such a way as to provide bonuses for crafting, adventuring, merchants, etc?

    I remember having some of those kinds of bonuses in VG, but it never seemed like there was teams of Diplomats running around, perhaps because the influence was residual and only needed to be nudged over the line so long as it was done regularly (hello, macros…)

    Anyway, it’d be nice to see it taken a step further. Convincing tribe A to attack tribe B’s village to provide a distraction while your rogue friend slips in to put a knife in the back of their head elder would be quite the gaming moment.

  2. @Harb — yes, it was, and it was more or less implemented. The whole diplo thing in Vanguard really was rather innovative, though I think they chopped it off at the knees in fear that people wouldn’t get it or like it or for financial reasons. I’m not in the know enough to know why, but it was a shame.

    Basically each geographical area had “levers” (metaphorical) that could be tipped by “talking to the right people” (diplomacy playing) and that could grant various bonuses. Crafting bonuses were very popular. The levers’ “level” of tippitude would decay over time and the bonus (implemented as a sort of buff) would also go away, unless one or more diplomats moved them again.

    Part of the problem in this context is that “solo” diplomats could tip levers just by themselves — a logical choice in a standard MMO, because of the “restrictive” nature of cooperative play. But the buffs weren’t huge, either — if you upped the scale of everything, you could legitimately (to my mind) REQUIRE cooperative effort to achieve whatever end was to be achieved.

    Hope that made sense.

  3. The thing about diplomacy in Vanguard was the chat channel. You could be in various parts of a city with someone on regional chat leading all the diplomats. You never really got that feeling of a room full of diplomats having it out with the local government because you didn’t have to congregate in one place. Players, again, found the easiest way around the intended system.

    All good points on the alternatives to crafting and skull bashing, Ysh. And yes, there are a lot of ways that things can be changed to make systems much more interactive. I was actually disappointed in SWG’s crafting system. We were promised so much, but it turned out to the be the same old.

    However, I did appreciate that they tried and continue to try to take a different perspective on entertainers. Really, no other game has tried to build on the idea at all.

  4. I’d love to see some kind of crafting that felt more … well, creative, than just pushing a button as if my character was a one woman assembly line.

  5. One of the interfaces for crafting I designed for my MMO was a more “My Sims” type building interface. You have the basic design where you need to put block A into predetermined spot B to make the structure work, but then you can add on to it to make it unique. It’s done in a 3D space, rotating and manipulating your resources.

    It really only works for things you can build though. Tailoring and harvesting are some areas I haven’t yet looked at, but the answer to one of your questions is : Yes. Game designers design systems to be easy for the player to use, but that usually dilutes their genius or innovation.

    I’m full of ideas on how to do this and perhaps we can change “crafting” to “industry.” You can take an industrial path in an MMO instead of or in addition to a combative one.

  6. Hiss… crafting, it burns us! Burns us!

    I really do not like crafting in any MMO. In my personal opinion, if I wanted to “craft,” then I would get off of my lazy backside and re-finish the kitchen (which I have been putting off for a year). One of the big selling points to City of Heroes upon release was that there was no crafting.

    If there absolutely, positively HAS not be crafting in a game, then I would support it being done like a tabletop RPG. Every rank, level, or whatever you call it, you get some skill points to spend. If you want to put them into a crafting skill, then go ahead. Thus, you get to play the game instead of standing around and clicking on the crafting icon all night.

    1. And this is why I believe crafting needs to be developed alongside the combat in an MMO instead of tacking it on to the main game at the end. Some people just don’t like crafting. They’ll buy the wares and whatnot, but the idea of harvesting / making products doesn’t interest them in the least.

      1. Absolutely — and vice versa! Nothing irritates me more than a crafting system that requires me to have combat levels. WoW is a well-known example of course, but is by no means the only one.

  7. An alternative to combat? How about running away?

    Seriously, I’d love to make an entire game about staying alive by avoiding, outrunning, and outsmarting creatures and people.

    As an MMO? haha, I’m not sure I can picture that. But it would be fun to a have a macro for “Rung for your lives!!”. 😉

  8. Wasn’t “Run Like Hell” supposed to be like that? I’m sure it had combat maneuvers in it and eventually you picked up weapons (even Mirror’s Edge did that). Close, but no cigar 🙁

  9. Crafting in real life fulfills a few basic needs I’ve discussed before, including the artisan impulse and customizability, both of which lead to product uniqueness. It’d be nice if game designers took this more into account.

    I definitely don’t like the necessity of leveling up through quests and combat in order to improve as a crafter. After all, the reverse isn’t true in any game. That’d be interesting though, wouldn’t it? “Well done, brave squire! You’ve defeated the bandit chief and saved the village. Now, in order to continue your martial training as a warrior, you must first become a journeyman blacksmith.” 😛

      1. Fixed it for ya Fool — you need to use html tags and not bbcode ones for links. It also marked them as spam — WP is pretty watchdoggy when it comes to links in comments, heh.

  10. There is at least one MMO which do address this in a way and has been around for a few years now – A Tale In The Desert.

    It has been a while since I played it, but it it has some neat ideas. And it has an end. Currently it is in its 4th run.

    http://www.atitd.com/

  11. I’ve played ATITD, and it’s not the perfect “alternate crafter’s haven” it’s often portrayed to be. Different, yes — though ironically, the 2006/7 telling brought in character levels and limited what characters could take part in according to their levels (tests-wise and skills-wise).

    It may sound as though I’m knocking ATITD in several places this week, but I’m not (or I wouldn’t have sprung for a t-shirt and pre-sub and whatnot 😉 ). It is *not* however what I would call a 3D MMO and neither does it have what I would call crafting in a more traditional sense.

    What it does do, if nothing else, is try to break the mould in many ways, and that’s worth supporting and mentioning. One of its best features (IMO) was the support for multiple “guilds” or interest groups per character. Actually, in a game like ATITD that’s almost a requirement.

  12. Pfft Final Fantasy XI has multi guild per character support 😛 I almost found the crafting to be ok in FFXI until I went to level it up.

  13. @ Ysharros: Thanks! I did it in HTML in the initial post and it didn’t go through, so I resubmitted it in BBCode. Didn’t mean to clog up the filters. 😉

    I’ve been interested in ATITD for some time now, but I’ve not yet taken the plunge. It seems, like most MMOs, not to be very casual-friendly – I read some examples of newbies who were unable to sell goods because the cartels forced them out. Maybe I was just reading the wrong bitter commentary, I dunno.

    Also, frankly, I love the idea of crafting in games (though rarely the execution) but don’t want that to be the enforced core of my gameplay. I’d rather crafting be a viable option for progression, and not a sideline, but not the be-all end-all. If I just want to create things, I have a real life for that, and leveling up there has other benefits.

  14. Well arse! I had a huge response all typed out, and I hit some kind of key-combo by mistake and Chrome closed itself out. My kingdom for a Firefox browser without Firefox’s bloat and memory leaks!

    So yeah — for every cartel in ATITD you’ll find a competing one, or a bunch of independents/smaller groups you can do business with. The Nile is a BIG place in ATITD, or used to be, so it’s not always as sewn up as it seems. (Unless things have changed a lot in the last few years.)

    It can be very casual friendly, but it has some ridiculously repetitive activities (getting clay to make bricks, getting grass to feed camels and sheep, and many many more) that people end up AFK macroing and that, to me, is a bad sign. If you spend more time AFK in a game than ATK, something is very wrong in the basic design. Even some of the tests were more of a grind than an intellectual exercise.

    Another thing that bothered me, personally, was feeling like a lab-rat in the designer’s little experiment — where systems were created more to see how they would be played than to be actually played, if that makes sense. But I’ll admit it’s a very personal thing and many other players didn’t care a jot about that.

    I’m somewhat ambivalent about ATITD, but I certainly recommend trying it out if it’s not expensive (and it didn’t used to be). Just be aware that it isn’t your standard MMO by any definition, despite the recent addition of levels. (Which makes me wonder whether they still exist — they caused a LOT of controversy in the telling where they were introduced.)

  15. I found myself agreeing with your post, but then I got to the end and said… well, if I was designing a new MMO, what would I do differently bearing this in mind?

    Try to distill your idea down to provide a basic example of how this concept could work for me? I know you say you’re not a designer, and you may not be by trade, but you certainly seem to be at heart ^^

  16. I’m not a designer — I’m good at discerning what I like, why I like it, and why something might not be working, but I’m not much good at creating mechanics in the first place.

    All I do here (and I’m really enjoying it) is throw out subjects for discussion and let people gnaw on them. Sure, I have opinions, but it’s how all our opinions work together (or argue with each other :D) that I find fascinating.

    I’m firmly convinced that we’re all adding to the MMO-design collective unconscious gestalt movement — sooner or later, through the sheer weight of thinking and brainstorming, MMO design will begin to shift. Hell, it already has.

    If there’s one thing we hooms are good at, it’s adapting and evolving.

  17. During Phase I of my WoW career I always thought the crafting system seemed lacking, but having played no other MMOs I didn’t have any basis for comparison. Having tried out both AoC and WAR since then, and then re-upped to WoW, I think WoW might have the best* crafting of the three. I, too, would like to see something a bit more involved and complex than gather+click+wait. One of the problems I think the designers face is what I refer to as the “Ideal Gas Law” as it applies to MMOs. Probably not a unique or new insight, but it seems like there are enough people playing these games that the instant one aspect of the game becomes more useful or powerful, then that mode of play or set of equipment quickly becomes the dominant one. The designers also have to face bridging the divide between Ritalin-addled kids with no attention span and people who want more involved systems. I could go on, but this is my first foray into a MMO blog where the usual suspects seem to have done much more thinking in this vein than I have, so I think you all get the picture. My point is that game designers have an incredible minefield of balancing and that simplicity of design isn’t so much a matter of laziness as it is a phobic fear of making design decisions whose consequences cannot be adequately forecast.

    Anyway, enough for my inaugural comment. Ysh, I like your thoughtful take on these issues. Keep it coming.

    -Semerkhet

    *best by no means being a whole-hearted endorsement.

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