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.