A reader asked me to compare the crafting systems of EQ2 and LotRO two weeks ago. I haven't gotten around to answering that yet, because I was still exploring the EQ2 system some more. But now I'll compare, and I'll throw in the crafting systems of other games like World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, or Pirates of the Burning Sea (as far as announced). By casting the net a bit wider, I hope to arrive at a more fundamental understanding of crafting systems and the player economy.
To understand crafting systems, one must first understand that every "value" in a MMORPG boils down to a time investment. If you can get equipment by either doing quests or by crafting, it is important to balance the respective time investments. Thus a system where getting resources was trivial and fast, and then crafting the resources into an item of any level was fast wouldn't be viable, because then getting crafted items would be far too easy in comparison to getting them by adventuring. Either resource gathering, or the crafting process itself, or both, need to require some time and effort.
In Lord of the Rings Online, as well as World of Warcraft, the part requiring time and effort is the resource gathering. The crafting just involves choosing the recipe and clicking on a button to craft one item, or even several items. If you have the resources in WoW, you can go from zero to maximum skill in a craft with less than 375 clicks in about one hour. With crafting being so fast and easy, lots of people master a craft. But the added value of crafting is low, often even negative, with resources costing more than the item crafted with it. Earning money in such a system usually means forgetting about crafting, and rather concentrating on the resource gathering part. The only way to become valued as a master crafter is to find extremely rare recipes, but in WoW these drop from epic and raid mobs. So becoming a master crafter means being a guild crafter, and is related to your adventuring progress. In Lord of the Rings Online the rare recipes are random world drops, thus available at a high price in the auction house. But then you still need to kill some rare epic monster for a body part used in the recipe. And the rare recipes are single use only, which makes crafting such stuff prohibitively expensive.
In Everquest 2 the gathering works pretty much the same as in WoW or LotRO. But in direct comparison resource nodes are relatively frequent in EQ2. Each resource node has a small chance of giving a valuable rare resource, which is worth a decent amount of money. With people gathering resources to earn money on the rare stuff, the common resources often end up at very low prices in the auction house, and are easily available for anyone wishing to skill up his crafting. But in this case it is the crafting itself which requires time and effort. Crafting in EQ2 is a mini-game, where every couple of seconds you get a random result adding or substracting from your durability and progress. Progress is usually increasing, durability usually decreasing, so an average result would be +50 progress, -10 durability. But you have skills which you can use to modify the result, for example adding durability at the cost of progress, or using power (mana) to increase durability or progress, or reducing your success chance while increasing durability or progress. Plus there are random events, which you need to "counter" by using the skill with the same symbol. The whole process takes at least 1 minute, sometimes as much as 2 if you are trying to get a difficult item in pristine quality. Crafting items earns you crafting xp, which leads to you leveling up in your chosen craft, independent from your adventuring level.
The advantages of the Everquest 2 system are many. While gathering still depends somewhat on your adventuring level (higher level resources are in zones with higher level monsters), your crafting level itself is totally independent from your adventuring level. Thus as long as you can find cheap resources in the auction house, and are willing to spend a lot of time on a workbench, you can master a craft without reaching a high adventuring level. And as not everybody enjoys spending so much time in crafting, master crafters are much rarer than in World of Warcraft. Making a profit by buying resources and crafting them into some item is possible in EQ2. You can even earn status points for yourself and your guild by doing crafting quests, so-called work orders. Crafting is an alternative occupation and even career to adventuring.
But while the EQ2 is good, it isn't the only possible solution. All the systems presented up to now are based on time spent in game. Now we move to systems based on real time. Earliest example of that is Star Wars Galaxies, where harvesting was based on real time. Once a week all the resources changed, and you had to go out and survey the lands to find good resource spots. Then you planted a harvester there, and started gathering resources in real time. Whether you were online or offline, your harvester would gather the same amount of resources per day. Even crafting could be automated in the same way, by creating your own recipe and feeding it and the resources into a factory, which spit out a certain number of items per real time day. As far as we know about Pirates of the Burning Sea, the crafting system works in a similar way. You have a limited number of structures, and these either gather a specific amount of raw materials per day, or they craft raw materials into intermediate and finished goods in real time. The advantage of real time systems is that they are extremely friendly for casual gamers. You could imagine logging on only for half an hour once per day, collect the stuff your production units made while you were offline, put it up for sale, and log off again. The disadvantage of that system is that even if you want to invest more time in crafting, you can't. SWG solved that reasonably well by forcing you to move your harvesters frequently, and by encouraging you to craft stuff by hand instead of in a factory. The big advantage of SWG was that resources in that game had stats, and the stats of the resources were reflected in the stats of the item you produced. Thus looking for the very best resources to make the very best armor or weapon, plus the possibilities for experimentation in the crafting process, made crafting fun enough. The real time component just prevented you from flooding the market too much. We don't know yet how the economy of PotBS will work, apparently the idea is that gathering resources and crafting goods is less important, but transporting them by ship all over the Caribbean is more important. The player economy is not so much a crafting game, but rather a trading game.
I can't possible finish a comparative crafting system review without mentioning ATITD. In A Tale in the Desert every good in the economy has a unique process of gathering or crafting. Gathering wood does not work the same as gathering flax. Creating pottery is different from creating an axe. Some processes are simple, others are very complicated games, in which the skill of the player in playing a mini-game determines the quality of the output. Much fun, only that the adventuring part of the game is totally missing, which explains the limited success of this game. No monsters to kill, no weapons nor armor to wear, just production chains and competition in the form of "tests". As much as I love crafting, a pure crafting game is too boring even for me.
If you change from one MMORPG to another one, chances are that the combat system of both games are rather similar. WoW, EQ2, LotRO, and many other games have the same sort of auto-combat with hotkeys for spells and abilities. But crafting is very much different in each of these games and hasn't solidified into a gold standard yet. There is still much room for improvement and even more variety. The only cloud on the horizon is LotRO having more or less copied the WoW system, with my nightmare being that many future games will just do the same. While the WoW system is arguably the easiest, it also has the least depth, and the possibilities to pursue crafting as alternative occupation or career are far too limited. I sure hope that better game design prevails, and not everybody just clones the stupid one-click-crafting system. I'd love to see a system combing the real-time SWG resource gathering and resource stats system with the Everquest 2 crafting system or a similar mini-game based crafting.