Imagine you are a level 30ish caster in World of Warcraft, and you want to tailor yourself some gloves. Even if you have all the existing recipes, that isn't as easy as it sounds. There are a couple of recipes for level 24 to 25 gloves, for example Truefaith Gloves. But then the next recipe is for level 37, Crimson Silk Gloves. You wouldn't want to wear gloves 10 levels below you, and you'll need to wait another couple of levels before being able to wear the next one. And then you might not like the bonuses on offer. What if you'd really like to have gloves with a stamina bonus? Sorry, no recipe for that anywhere below level 57. Finally, if you are aesthetically inclined, you might find that the Crimson Silk Gloves of course are red, and the color clashes horribly with your green robe. In short, your limited selection of recipes often prevents you from crafting what you really want.
There has been quite some discussion in the MMORPG blogosphere about crafting recently, for example from The Common Sense Gamer or The Ancient Gaming Noob or potshot, who comes up with some good suggestions in his second part. But all these seem to be welded to the principle that crafting is based on making items for which you have a recipe, maybe with some possibilities for modification, like the WoW jewel slots. But what if we just got rid of the recipes?
Why shouldn't you be able to make level 34 green cloth gloves with a stamina bonus? Or any other combination you wanted? The item level would determine how high the bonus is, and what materials are needed to craft it. This could be implemented in many different ways: In the simplest implementation there would be building blocks, so you make those gloves by choosing the gloves building block, plus the green building block, plus some armor class building block, plus some stamina bonus building block. In that case the armor class and bonus chosen would determine the item level. Once you have built your recipe, it would then tell you what ingredients you need, and then you'd go and gather them and craft your item.
But beyond simply choosing blocks, other implementations could introduce more game elements into the crafting process. How about instead of choosing the final result, you get to choose the ingredients? Besides the obvious need for cloth and green dye, some experimentation would be needed to find that Buzzard Wings give a stamina bonus which leads to a level 30ish item. For those who don't like experimentation, websites will soon have the effects of all ingredients.
Or what about some sort of real game of combining runes to create recipes? One problem of current crafting systems is that it is boring, once you have the ingredients. If you would need to play a game, arrange runes on some playing board to create a recipe before you can craft, that would add a whole new dimension to crafting. Crafting could be a mini-game by itself, not just a couple of clicks of the mouse.
Previous blogger have focused on the need of crafted items to be as good as looted items, to create a player-run economy. That isn't going to happen, crafted items will always be slightly less good, so players are still encouraged to go adventuring. But if there was a much larger variety in crafted items than in looted items, the crafted items wouldn't need to be strictly better to be desirable. Somebody always wants that one special item that looting can't get him. And by making crafting itself non-trivial, crafting wouldn't need to be the "easy way" to get items. If you design it right, crafting an item can be as long and interesting a game than killing monsters for an item.