You might have noticed that doing crafting and tradeskills is often something I explore early when starting a new game. I love crafting. Unfortunately in most MMORPGs the crafting system is badly designed, and ends up being less and less used. This is because apparently game designers design tradeskill systems without even taking into account the most fundamental basics of economics. Lets have a look at what is wrong with tradeskill systems in MMORPGs, and how we could design a better system.
To see what's wrong, you first need to define what right is, what the goal of a tradeskill system is. A tradeskill system in a MMORPG has two goals: A) It gives players something else to do than just killing monsters all the time. And B) it offers an alternative way to advance your character, focused on gaining money and items instead of xp and levels.
Now this second part, offering a way to gain virtual gold and items, is often conflicting with the alternative of gaining gold and items by killing monsters. Some people argue that crafting should not be allowed to be profitable, because otherwise players would have a way to earn money without risk, offering a better reward / risk ratio than adventuring. That argument is obviously hogwash. There is no risk involved in farming mobs, the gold farmers carefully select targets that don't pose any risk for them to be killed. Especially bots are farming gold without any risk, unless they are on a PvP server in WoW where concerned players of the other faction sometimes kill them.
Risk doesn't really exist in a MMORPG, because even if you are killed, that "death" only translates into a loss of time. Time is the only real scarce resource in a MMORPG. Therefore instead of looking at reward / risk ratios, you have to look at reward / time ratios. More precisely you have to look at two reward / time ratios: The instantaneous one, how much gold you are making per hour right now, and a cumulative one, how much profit you make with one activity over the complete life of your character.
A level 1 character in a MMORPG usually starts without a single copper piece, and earns his first virtual currency by killing level 1 mobs. Killing level 1 mobs only gives very little money, but it *is* profitable. The higher the mob level, the higher the profit. Depending on the way that the game handles repair costs, you might make a loss if you die repeatedly trying to kill monsters that are too high for you. But generally there are always some mobs somewhere in the game which are extremely unlikely to ever kill you, and which you can "farm" for gold, whatever level you are. Lifetime earnings are always positive, and growing faster with time, as you level up.
Ideally a tradeskill system would work in a similar way. You start crafting the lowest possible items, and earn a few copper pieces with that. You also earn skill points, "level up" your tradeskill, and your earnings grow with time. Curiously game designers never thought of this simple system. Instead in most existing MMORPGs, crafting *costs* you money. You create items at a loss, paying more for the ingredients than what the crafted item is worth. Even if you gather the resources yourself, you still pay an "opportunity cost", because you could either have spent the same time farming mobs, or you could have sold the gathered resources instead of using them for crafting. In World of Warcraft the price of resources on the auction house is nearly always higher than the value of the items you can make with those resources, thus there are very few opportunities to buy resources, craft, and sell the product. My WoW herbalist / alchemist often gathered herbs, sold the herbs, and bought the potions he needed in spite of being able to make them himself. Making the potions myself would have destroyed value.
So if crafting loses you money, why do people craft? Well, point A) still applies, it is something else to do. And if you consider lifetime profits instead of momentary profits, at the end of the scale crafting can be profitable. At the highest skill levels, with the rarest recipes, you might be able to make good money by selling your goods to players in World of Warcraft. As I already reported, in Lord of the Rings Online you can even make money by selling to vendors if you reach a certain skill level of farming, although you lose money before that.
In most cases selling crafted goods to an NPC vendor occurs huge losses. Game developers often work based on the ideas of other game developers, from their experience of earlier games, and the silly idea that you shouldn't be able to profit by buying resources from vendors, crafting them into a product, and selling that product back to the vendor, is unfortunately very solidly established in the world of MMORPG design. But this concept is based on the flawed assumption that players will be able to get more money for their crafted goods from other players than from NPC vendors. Unfortunately this is only true for the rarest of crafted goods. The way tradeskill systems are designed, everybody skilling up needs to craft a large number of lower skill items. That tends to totally flood the market with that item, making it impossible to sell at a profit. As the immediate purpose for the crafter is not the profit, but the skill-up, he is often willing to sell his crafted good at a loss.
A better tradeskill system would be profitable from the start, just like farming mobs is profitable from the start. The trick is to make crafting just earn a handful of coppers at the lower levels, just like farming mobs at the lower levels only gives little money. Over the complete lifetime the profits from crafting should be roughly equivalent to the profits from farming easy mobs. Thus after 50 hours of crafting you should earn about the same per hour as you would after 50 hours of leveling up and killing monsters. And that profit should come from selling ordinary items to a vendor, without having to rely on other players buying the goods. Now when adventuring, if you don't just farm easy mobs, but take an extra effort, for example by finding a group and going to a dangerous dungeon, you are likely to get much better rewards. In crafting the equivalent would be a way to craft rarer items that other players would actually want to buy. That would require extra effort, for getting the recipe or gathering the resources, but would be potentially more profitable, by selling to players instead of vendors.
Once the economics of crafting is fixed, the next important point is fixing crafting as an alternative way of spending your time in the game. In very many games, from EQ1 via DAoC to WoW and LotRO, crafting consists of pressing one button and waiting for some progress bar to finish. That has a number of negative effects: First of all it is boring, especially if the progress bar is slow and you have to craft many items. For example processing a farmed plant in LotRO needs 15 seconds. But as one field can yield up to 12 plants, and you usually plant several fields before going to the workbench for processing, you might end up having to wait 15 minutes for all the plants to be processed, without any interaction from you as player. You can't move during that time, you can only chat. Needless to say that players in those situations start to go away from keyboard, read a book, or watch TV. I've even been playing WoW on my laptop to check auctions there while my LotRO character was crafting. That is obviously less than optimal.
A better tradeskill system makes crafting a more interactive process. Very simple interaction exists for example in WoW fishing or the growing of plants in LotRO. Even better interaction exists in games like A Tale in the Desert or Puzzle Pirates, where crafting is a real mini-game. EQ2 and Vanguard have crafting mini-games, with the EQ2 one being more fun than the Vanguard one. An ideal game has the crafting process being an interesting mini-game or puzzle, with your skill in the mini-game affecting either time to completion or the quality of the result. The crafting process *should* take a certain amount of time, because if you could make several items simultaneously on a single short click, you could never balance the reward / time ratio. But it would be a lot better if that time was spent interactively, instead of just having to wait. The more interactive crafting is, the less of a problem you have with people trying to "bot" crafting to make money while afk.
With crafting in WoW being relatively effortless, the limiting factor for the crafting process becomes the gathering of the resources. Different games have different resource gathering systems. Unfortunately some of these systems are unnecessarily competitive. Herb and ore nodes respawn relatively slowly, thus requiring a lot of traveling around to gather them. And the more people are looking for these nodes the further the returns of gathering are diminishing, driving up the prices. It is hard to say how this will work out in the long term in LotRO, but right now resource nodes seem relatively abundant. By far the best resource gathering system I've ever played was in Star Wars Galaxies, where resources shifted only once per week, but then you went on an interesting resource hunt, using a scanner to pinpoint the highest concentrations, and testing many different spots for the quality of the resources. Then you just had to plunk down your harvesters and come by once in a while to collect. With resource fields being relatively large, even if somebody else was faster than you to put his harvester on the highest concentration point, you still could plant yours next to his and just get a few percent less yield of the same high quality resource. Advances in computer graphics can make gathering more interesting. For example one of the good points in Vanguard was felling trees to get wood, because there was actually a falling tree animation.
Gathering can be fun, depending on the system and the scarcity of the resource nodes. So our better tradeskill system might well have resource gathering as a component for at least some of the crafts. I'm a lot less in favor of using crafting components that drop rarely from monsters. In EQ1 you gathered metal by killing the goblins that carried it, and wood by killing treants. As we defined the goal of crafting to be a different occupation than killing, a drop component beats the purpose. I'm more in favor of vendor-sold components, at least for the simple items you just make to skill up. They have the advantage that it is very easy to design crafting profits per hour, if the resources are sold by vendors, you know how long crafting takes, and the product is sold to vendors again.
Finally I would like to remove some traditional restrictions from our better tradeskill system. One restriction is often how many crafts you are allowed to have. This wouldn't be so bad if crafts didn't often depend upon each other, one craft needing components made by the other. That is supposed to get people to work together, but most players prefer crafting as a soloing activity, and hate running after others for components. Thus restrictions just lead to people making several crafting alts and spending stupid amounts of time on sending goods between them. If we design a better tradeskill system, which is interesting to play, and where the rewards get better the more time you spend in it, there is no reason not to allow players to take several crafts. Thus they could either specialize and become very good in one trade, or be more of a jack of all trades, literally. The other restriction I'd like to remove, which exists for example in WoW, but not LotRO, is the connection between your crafting skill and your adventuring level. Again it beats the purpose of an alternative to tell somebody that he has to level up to 60 to be allowed to craft pass a certain skill level.
In the end it all depends on how well all of this is implemented. When people talk for example about the great potential of Vanguard, one aspect of that is there is an obvious design idea of allowing players to advance in different activities, adventuring, crafting, and diplomacy. That is a great idea, the more alternative ways you have to spend your time in a MMORPG, the longer you will play it. But for this to work, the different systems need to be roughly equally interesting and rewarding. Given the choice between an interesting adventuring system which gives lots of rewards, and a crafting system with long wait times that is losing money, only the most diehard crafting fans will spend their time crafting. None of the existing MMORPGs is anywhere near having a really good crafting system, although several of them have sub-features of crafting that are very good. It really is time to make a game with a better tradeskill system.