Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Atlantica Online Crafting

As I said in my not-review of Atlantica Online, I want to look at some features of that game which are very different from better known MMORPGs, to show that there are different ways to handle things. I'll start with crafting, although ultimately I wasn't all that happy with crafting in AO.

In its most basic form, crafting in Atlantica Online is directly linked to combat. When you learn a craft, and there are very many different crafts, one of every type of item in the game, you get a first recipe. Like everywhere else, the recipe tells you what materials you need to craft that item. But when you gather the materials and start the crafting, absolutely nothing happens, except that the materials disappear, and a small icon appears at the top of the screen, showing progress stuck at 0%. Further examination reveals that crafting anything needs something called "workload". Depending on what you craft, and how many items at once, you will need more or less workload. And the basic way to create workload is by combat: At the end of a successful combat you will receive an amount of workload which depends on how many monsters of what level you just killed. Your crafting progress indicator will advance, and at some point your crafting will be finished, and you can click on the icon to receive the crafted items. Using this method you obviously can't have a crafter career without an adventurer career. But as you are most likely fighting combats all the time anyway, using the fights to simultaneously produce workload can't hurt. If you don't have any personal crafting projects ongoing, the workload of each fight is used for guild crafting projects if there are any.

Unfortunately crafting by fighting is relatively slow. By the time you leveled up your various crafting skills for armor, helmet, shoes, gauntlets, pants, shields, and various weapons, and made the weapons for the level you are in, you'll long have outleveled the equipment you just made. So either you limit yourself to one speciality, and get the rest of your equipment elsewhere, or you use the other two sources of workload: The auto-craft skill and crafting books. Auto-craft is an "action" you can craft yourself or buy, and then use to increase your auto-craft skill from an initial zero to as high as you can afford. Once you have the auto-craft skill, you can press "Z", and you'll sit down and slowly create workload. The higher your skill, the more workload you create (Workload per tick is 80 plus 20 per skill point). Problem is you can't do much else, except chatting and using the bank and market, while auto-crafting. You can't move, and you can't fight. And rather quickly the workload requirements to advance your crafting skill one more level gets so high, that it literally takes hours to craft something that way. When I started to install AO on my laptop so I could auto-craft on the laptop while playing something else on the main computer, I realized how stupid that is as game design to encourage people to be logged in but inactive. Crafting books are somewhat better, you buy them, click on them, and it adds an amount of workload to your current project. As books exist with up to 1 million workload, you can pretty much craft anything quickly, but it'll cost you a fortune, way above the cost of the materials.

Once you crafted something, you'll have earned crafting experience for that specific type of item, e.g. shoes. Crafting experience enables you to gain crafting levels, with which you automatically gain new recipes. But you don't just simply level up when you have the experience, you need a crafting trainer. Up to level 10 there are static NPC trainers for most basic weapons, armor, and consumables. After that you will need to find a wandering NPC to teach you, or have another player with higher skill teach you to gain a crafting level. Both of these are interesting concepts: To find a wandering NPC you first need to pay a small sum to another NPC who gives you the current location of the NPC you are looking for, and then you need to travel there. As there are lots of different wandering NPCs, and not only crafting trainers, there is always a reason to travel around even known places. It isn't like in classic MMOs, where a zone becomes depopulated once there aren't any players of that level around any more. Learning a crafting level from another player is often easier, but of course you need to find somebody to teach you first, with the help of a crafter's list. That makes high-level crafters quite famous, and fosters social contacts between crafters.

Many recipes, especially the basic ones, use only ingredients that are sold on the market in unlimited quantities at a fixed price. Which means it is easy to calculate the cost of making an item. Once you calculated that, you'll be disappointed to learn that the market value of most items is way below the fixed cost of crafting it. That is something that happens frequently in various MMO economies: People like leveling up crafting, so they craft lots of stuff nobody needs, and in consequence the crafted items are worth less than the materials. Crafting destroys value, which is counterintuitive. Of course the idea is that not everybody makes it to high-level crafting, and at some point crafting will be profitable.

Fortunately Atlantica Online has a very interesting system to get rid of excess items. If you have lets say two identical swords, you can use 1 weapon enchant stone of the appropriate level to combine the two swords into one +1 sword. Two +1 swords and 2 weapon stones give a +2 sword. Two +2 swords plus 3 weapon stones give a +3 sword, and so on. So making a +10 sword costs the grand total of 1,024 regular swords and 2,036 weapon enchant stones, providing an inexhaustible sink for junk crafted items. The thus enchanted items are quite good, even a +2 item is already better than an unenchanted item of the next higher level. So given enough money, you can equip your characters in highly enchanted gear which is much better than the regular gear they'd only get much higher levels. And after the +6 enchantment level, the items become "sealed", basically bind-on-equip, effectively removing them from the economy.

Monsters in Atlantica Online do not drop equipment, only crafting materials and boxes with random pieces of the same gear that you can also craft. So crafting is a major source of gear in this game. And probably by looking at all the prices, especially of the higher level and enchanted gear, you could find a way to make profit from crafting. Nevertheless I pretty much abandoned crafting, because of the high workload requirements. I dabbled in medicine crafting, which provided my character with quite good potions to regain health and mana, but getting that far in just one skill involved several sessions of afk auto-crafting over night or while I was at work. Which not only is not much fun, but also leads to your friends complaining that you never answer their whispers. Crafting by combat is an interesting concept, but rather slow, especially with me only being level 50ish (out of 120 possible). I could continue crafting by buying crafting books, but then I can forget about any hopes of making a profit.

So when looking at what Atlantica Online does well, so it could serve as example for other games, the system of enchanting gear by using many of the same type is certainly a good one, and alleviates the classic problem of the auction house being flooded with hundreds of bronze daggers. By turning your hundreds of items into one highly enchanted one, you'll find some twink as customer, and remove the crafted goods from the economy. The fact that most gear in Atlantica Online is crafted, so there is a player-based economy, is also a positive one. Where Atlantica Online fails is in turning crafting into an interesting alternative activity. Crafting systems which encourage you to go afk are just terribly bad game design.
So having a good economy doesn't necessarily mean it is fun to work in that economy. That's a bit like the real world.

Is there a grain of bitter truth in here? Could it be that it is impossible to create a thriving economy in a game where crafting is fun. If crafting is fun who is going to pay why pay someone else to do it for them?
You mentioned guild crafting in passing but it's a great way to gain crafting levels for free if you have a guild that is highly active with its guild crafting. The highest level crafting skills on my level 97 Axe were due solely from guild crafting and teaching XP. It's another great reason to join a guild in this game.

I covered some of this in my post
The grind associated with higher-level crafting is not exactly bad game design , but rather design to push you towards the cash shop. You'll find that much of AO's higher level content works in similar ways. Leveling gets painfully slow, go buy XP books. Gear gets very expensive, go buy cash shop stuff to sell. Character builds change at the higher levels, go to the cash shop to buy a respec, etc. If AO was a sub model MMO, you can bet much of the 'bad design' you find at the higher levels would be removed or minimized, and the game would be just as enjoyable at 90 as it was at 30. Sadly the RMT model does not work that way, and in order to play AO at 90 like you did at 30, it's going to cost you far more than $15 a month.
That is a possibility. But then even Asian games that have a monthly subscription business model, like for example the Lineage series, gets extremely grindy at the higher levels. So maybe you are just blaming a business model you hate for anything bad in the games that have that business model.
Lineage (and even L2) are rather old. EQ1, AC, even DAoC were also extremely grindy compared to what most players expect today.

But sure, maybe the devs don't know how to remove the grind and make their games better. And perhaps conveniently their only solution to the problem is to create paid items that help ease that grind. Anythings possible.
Or it doesn't matter what business model you have, because even with a monthly fee business model the game company profits if you progress slower and thus play longer.
Not if the grind makes you quit, like AO did for both you and I. Granted if everything BUT the grind in AO was amazing perhaps instead of quitting we would have been more willing to pay, but the fact still stands it was the 'grind to get them to shop' business model that cost them two players. We both stated we thought AO was a fun and somewhat innovative game until around level 50-60.

If 60-120 played like 20-50, and AO was $15 a month, I would still be playing. Would you?
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