Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 25, 2009
Design principles for crafting and economic systems

I got a mail from Verilazic asking me what my ideal MMO in terms of the crafting and economy would be. Well-timed question that, recently Jeff Hickman from Mythic listed at the GDC Austin what he thought were WAR's three biggest mistakes, and the lack of crafting and economy made the list, if only on spot 3. Now I could pull half a dozen nice crafting systems out of my hat, or link to the excellent discussion from Ixobelle (who is currently digging a secret tunnel into the Blizzard building, after the security guard didn't let him to apply for a job there, and camping outside the building with a big sign didn't work either. Please, Blizzard, give the man a job!). But when you discuss specific designs, lots of energy gets wasted in the discussion of details, perceived peculiarities and flaws. Thus instead I'm going to list what I think would be the design principles *behind* creating an ideal crafting and economy system for an MMO.

That starts with talking about what the purpose of a crafting and economic system is. Curiously it appears as if that discussion doesn't always take place during the design phase of an MMO, developers sometimes seem to just add a crafting system to check another box on the list of features every MMO has. But generally speaking, the objective of a crafting system and economy is twofold: How to design a good crafting and economic system derives directly from these objectives. When discussing any detail of a proposed crafting and economic system, it is necessary to check whether that detail helps to achieve these objectives, or whether it hinders getting to them.

The objective of enabling indirect social interaction necessitates that the crafting system results in players buying from and selling to each other. That means that at least a part of the raw materials for crafting has to be gathered by players and be bought and sold on whatever auction house or market system you have. It also means that the resulting crafted goods need to be attractive enough to be sold to other players. The latter isn't easy, because it puts crafted goods in competition with items acquired by questing or looting. Players tend to take the way of least resistance to any goal, so if crafting a sword is much easier, or buying a crafted sword much cheaper, than getting the same quality of sword by adventuring, you end up hurting the adventuring part of the game. Nobody wants that, not even the crafters.

Fortunately the solution to the problem lies in the second objective, providing an alternative mode of gameplay, a different activity than combat. If the act of crafting is non-trivial, and requires both time and skill, it both provides this alternative activity, and prevents crafting goods from becoming too cheap and common. The worst possible design is unfortunately the most common in existing games, where crafting is rather trivial, with either no gameplay at all, or an uninteresting, not challenging gameplay requiring no skill or thinking at all, but then requires players to craft hundreds of items to advance their skill. You end up with players buying tons of materials, auto-crafting lots of worthless junk, and then just selling it at a loss, flooding the economy. It is better to have a system where skilling up is done with cheaper "practice" crafting, which doesn't actually produce any goods.

Some smaller, niche games have much better crafting systems, a prime example being A Tale in the Desert, where for example forging a blade is a highly interesting game of its own, requiring both time and skill, with the result being directly proportional to the amount of time and skill invested. If that is too hardcore for some, a more mass market viable approach is the one of Puzzle Pirates, where every craft is a different puzzle mini-game. Just don't use the same cheap Bejeweled clone for every single craft, to be really successful a crafting system needs to offer some variety. I think sometimes developers of big triple-A MMORPGs look down on the developers of casual puzzle games, and end up underestimating the difficulty of designing a good puzzle game with endless replayability, and the correct mix of chance and skill elements. Meanwhile the devs of casual puzzle games are laughing all the way to the bank, because with good game design and a small budget they end up being more profitable than many a MMORPG.

Once we have a crafting system which requires some effort, time and skill-wise, we need an economic system to trade the raw materials and crafted goods. At least for a US/Euro market, a system with a public auction house or similar market is preferable, where players can post their goods and be offline while they are sold. Adding bells and whistles to that system is much appreciated by players. An auction house should not only enable you to find the goods you are looking for, but also provide you with some price history of past sales, so players don't need to use addons for that purpose. Having the option of buy orders, and not just sell orders, is a big bonus for crafters.

But probably the biggest design question on creating an economy is whether you want a localized economy, or one that is uniform throughout the virtual world. The uniform system, where players can put an item on the auction house in one city, and other players can buy that item in another city, is obviously easier. It fits well with virtual worlds in which traveling by teleport is common. If however you have a world in which traveling is an important part of gameplay, and teleporting isn't possible, then localized economies can be used to enhance that. For example a typical crafted good could need two resources, A and B. In one part of the world A is common, and B is rare, while in another part of the world A is rare and B is common. Thus buying common raw materials in one location and transporting them to where they are rare and thus more expensive becomes an important part of economic gameplay. The catch of that is that you then need to make traveling interesting, and there appears to be a lack of ideas in that field, beyond having traders robbed by other players in PvP while traveling.

So there you have it, some design principles on how to make a good crafting and economic system for a MMORPG, based on two simple objectives. As this post will undoubtedly evoke lots of responses in the form of "my favorite game X already does all this", let me already assure you that I did play game X, and it fell far short from ideal, for any given value of X. Of course nothing I discussed here is completely revolutionary, but any existing game I've seen lacks parts of it, and has flaws like uninspired crafting mini-games, a badly designed auction house, boring traveling, or some crafting grind where you need to produce hundreds of items.
I don't really know how to make a static outside world feel interesting while traveling from A to B for the 7th time.

But .. what about a dungeon, like "the underdark" connect various cities? This way traveling between distant cities would be

- faster than via outside world
- interesting
- different, because you just need to survive the passage.

Make it unpredictbale if you want ;)

Might be more immersive than an unpredictable outside world.
I would like to see that end-bosses drop important materials for crafting. not "normal" loot.
I would like to see that end-bosses drop important materials for crafting. not "normal" loot.

I am not convinced that this is really a good idea. I have the impression that the average crafter is a very different player than the average raider. One of the advantages of crafting is that it is solo, and can usually be done in short blocks of time, thus it allows players who simply don't have consecutive blocks of hours at prime time available for raiding to do something else. Thus I would prefer not to link crafting success to raiding success. Although of course the crafting materials dropped from bosses could be traded.
Great post! I think you pretty much nailed things. Just a few thoughts:

I agree that an interactive crafting system is a good idea, and that Puzzle Pirates does a particularly good job. The systems in some other games (like EQ2 and Vanguard) don't require much skill and tend to get grindy after a while.

It is better to have a system where skilling up is done with cheaper "practice" crafting, which doesn't actually produce any goods.

I think you need to be careful here. That's what Vanguard did with work orders, and it did help to remove the flood of goods from the market. However, "practice crafting" can turn into a real grind unless the crafting game itself is really fun. A lot of the fun comes from making items to sell to other players.

Some alternative ways to prevent item flooding might be
(1) focus on increasing demand, e.g. by including item loss or destruction,
(2) make crafting quests of some sort as a venue for practice crafting, or
(3) don't require actual crafting to advance, e.g. use an offline advancement model like EVE or some other model.

One other thing that is curiously absent from most crafting systems is the ability to customize items you create. In most games everyone creates identical goods, so there isn't any creativity involved and also no way to distinguish the items you make. Since many games already include ways for players to customize *their own* items through dyes, enchantments, etc., it seems like it would be a simple matter to incorporate customization into the crafting system.

a crafter should do the crafting
a fighter should do the fighting
a trader should do the trading.

in SWG we had a crafter who just "created" missions for us fighters to get certain items for a certain price. so he got the mats, we got money and could buy other stuff again.
"let me already assure you that I did play game X, and it fell far short from ideal, for any given value of X"

I'm curious in what manner you find Eve Online "[falls] far short from ideal" as that game is often praised for having done manufacturing/resource gathering/market right.
Like SWG in Mafti's example, Eve has adventuring and crafting supplementing each other: If you clear a deadspace complex or a wormhole site, you might get blueprints or items that can be converted to blueprints via reverse-engineering. Because these blueprints can only be used to craft a limited amount of items, there's always a need for an another adventure, and at no point does adventuring make crafting useless.

One possible solution to grinding skillpoints by crafting useless items is to make the first items commodities: For example, an upstart leathercrafter could make patches that are used by an experienced leathercrafter to repair leather armor damaged in battle. Or an intermediate blacksmith could make a breastplate, but only the expert has the knowledge to make joints and thus build a field plate set around the breastplate. Also, the item could be repaired for X amount of damage before it breaks for good, with some bonus to get cheaper maintenance costs for regular checkups. A swordsmith maintaining his own sword on the road would save money compared to the hapless adventurer who only goes to the blacksmith when his sword is too dull to cut anything.
I'm curious in what manner you find Eve Online "[falls] far short from ideal" as that game is often praised for having done manufacturing/resource gathering/market right.

Hehe, as predicted the last comments were all of the "my favorite game X already does all this" type. Note that I'm not saying that certain games aren't more advanced in this respect than others, but Verilzic asked for an "ideal" system. I agree that both SWG and EVE are doing a lot of things right, but:

- EVE falls very much under my description of "The catch of that is that you then need to make traveling interesting, and there appears to be a lack of ideas in that field, beyond having traders robbed by other players in PvP while traveling." Traveling in EVE is either extremely boring, or you'll get attacked by PvP pirates, in which case it gets extremely exciting, but usually with a rather bad sort of excitement and you losing everything. Furthermore mining in EVE is far from ideal, it is so mind-numbingly boring. In fact mining in EVE is the reason why I wouldn't play EVE even if they offered PvE servers. But the localized auction houses and buy orders of EVE are far ahead of the competition.

- SWG in contrast has a much, much better resource gathering system, with resources having stats, and better resources resulting in better items, giving rise to interesting exploration and resource gathering gameplay. But at the time I played it (pre NGE, so I'm not sure how valid this still is), I remember that I needed to craft 1,600 of the same armor to finally get to Master Armorcrafter. And the crafting gameplay was boring, just put together the resources and click.

Basically the ideal crafting and economic system would take the best parts out of many different games. Too bad people seem so often unable to leave the "fighting for my favorite game" mindset, which prevents them from even considering the possibility that something better could exist.
"Players tend to take the way of least resistance to any goal, so if crafting a sword is much easier, or buying a crafted sword much cheaper, than getting the same quality of sword by adventuring, you end up hurting the adventuring part of the game. Nobody wants that, not even the crafters."

Yeah we do.

In 2003 I played SWG, a very enjoyable game for crafters because all adventurers bought their weapons armour and buffs from us.

As I moved on to WoW and EQ2 crafting seemed a lot less interesting because for the most part you couldn't get people to use the stuff you made.

I'm now playing Eve where crafters make people ships and the vast majority of ships flown are made by player crafters.

I enjoyed WoW despite its crafting, I enjoyed SWG and I enjoy Eve because of their crafting.

I don't see any evidence it hurts a game if people have to grind to make money to pay other players as opposed to having to grind to get rep with some spurious NPC faction.

Also it's a bit freaking ridiculous that wild animals living in forests eating berries just happen to be carrying magically enchanted polearms.
Tobold, by coincidence Ixobelle had written on losing recently. I just read that and thought it has great parallels to your raid classification post too. I wrote about it.
Tobold, I think FreeRealms has an interesting philosophy, it has kinda combined crafting and character progression to really good effect. No-one can argue that karting and cooking are remotely similar, but they are both different and fun mini-games.
No-one can argue that karting and cooking are remotely similar

I would however argue that cooking and mining and smithing are similar.
This is a good writeup, and there are some nice comments too.

I particularly like the idea of being able to customize your product.

I would take that further and include the name and description too, though that might be tough to regulate. Still, if a crafter can not only help establish some of the look of their product, but also establish what it is called and some of its flavor text, then that could lead to a more exciting crafting and buying experience. Sure, there might be a lot of "stings" but a good name might actually set your products apart, and you might sell a sword based as much on what you call it and how clever your flavor text is, and that would actually reward a differnt kind of skill: creativity. This would make it more like true crafting, where an artisan or smith adds their own creative skill to their product, and can make a name for themselves as an artist as well as a craftsman.
I got on my soapbox about a year ago about this, but I've always maintained that having equipment and gear "break" and disappear from inventory is good for MMOs.

One of the central arguments for HAVING gear "break" is that it makes craftable replacements relevant in a the game.

Part of the problem with WoW, for example, is gear stagnation. Once you have a good piece, there is no need to replace it -- EVER -- until you find a better piece.

If you want a robust economy, then gear has to break. It has to become a consumable.

The obvious corollary is that you would ALSO need to make loot drops more frequent.

The other side effect is that players aren't going to do a lot of things in their best kit. They are going to save it for the meaningful encounters.
I feel that part of the issue in MMO crafting is that there's a mix between making unique handcrafted goods, and wanting to implement commodities that roll off the equivalent of a production line. And the commodity side wins (probably because it's much easier to code).
One problem I see in crafting is making it easy enough for most people to make progress, but not too easy that it feels grindy. WoW's fighting has a similar problem in that leveling is trivial, but raiding is too hard for most people. Currently WoW crafting only has the trivial leveling part; I would hate to see them add a skill discontinuity as they have in the raiding endgame.
A Tale in the Desert is the only game I know of that got this truly right. It's just sad to me that a lot of the other gameplay in the game doesn't stand the test of time. The perfect game for me combines the crafting/resource system of ATITD with fun gameplay from any of a multitude of other MMOs, say WoW. In this situation you could have all gear come from the crafting system, while the reward for "looting" or questing be in the form of increasing skills/abilities.
Active EVE player and advocate, but EVE, while it has a very interesting economy, as a crafting system, is only moderately featured and not tedious only because you can walk away for the entire time it takes to cook something.

Which is a good time as some are hours and I expect that capital ships are days.

Its just a delayed/batch, one click and combine for the crafting itself.

They do make the mat gathering a bit more interesting.

Though, Tobold, I think you can make EVE more exciting than asleep at the keyboard mining and ZOMG! PIRATES!, it would take a corp though.

Mining in, say, WH space, can be interesting as there is the potential of danger the entire time, but its not omnipresent.

Just remember EVE has an amazing economy, an interesting idea in the crafting systems (researchable blue prints) shackled to an even worse crafting system than most.

Its a bit deeper than WOWs, as there are strategic decisions to be made (how much will you research you BP, what are you industrial skills like, how much does the local government like you) but the same tactical crafting shallowness.

And I haven't a clue how you make hauling load 453 of good between point A and B interesting.
Essential things I think you need to have in a good crafting/economy side of an MMORPG:

-crafting+resource gathering should be complex and engaging enough to keep a moderate player busy for a majority of their play time (i.e. very diffcult to be crafter and combatant at the same time)

-make quality of crafted items competitive with loot drops.

-player gear shouldn't last forever (i.e. unrepairable after 50 repairs)
Thanks Tobold! Very interesting to hear your view on it, since I consider you to be one of the better critics out there when it comes to crafting systems.

I agree on the exploration aspect of trade is severely lacking. But I feel that there's a solution available to that. Take the new phasing technology used in WotLK, and apply it for an entire server, rather than individual players, and regularly alter the travel paths between towns and cities, making it a regular task to find a new pass through mountains or a forest.

I also like Nils' idea of having a dungeon available for faster travel. Especially if you make it one of those dynamically generated dungeons he's been talking about.

Also, I'm thinking it's useless fluff to make the task of reaching "master craft" require leveling up in skill 50 or a hundred times. Why not make it 20 times? That would make it more important to focus on building in challenge to the simple task of crafting. Plus, you could make it actually useful to be a level 10 crafter, while mastery results in more advanced and exotic creations.

I have to say the hardest part for me to figure out is how to create sufficient demand for crafting, without making the game feel negative-sum to play.
I'm just wondering about the advanced market features you would like to see. I love Eve's price history for items and the ability to put in both buy and sell orders. Considering Eve is a sci-fi game in a world where computers are plentiful, it makes sense that players would have ready access.

The thing I'm wondering about is the presence of those same things in a fantasy setting. Would an elvish hunter really have access to advanced economic statistics? How much should the RP in MMORPG influence the economic features the devs give players? I think you are arguing that they should not influence it in any way. While I would love to have Eve's market features in EQ2, I'm not sure they would really fit into that game world.
Traveling in EVE is either extremely boring, or you'll get attacked by PvP pirates, in which case it gets extremely exciting, but usually with a rather bad sort of excitement and you losing everything.

I'm curious: How would you go about making travel more interesting? I've played two games with regional marketplaces (EVE and PotBS), and hauling in both of them was usually boring unless you were heading through a PvP area. If there's no possibility of losing your goods, then what would make hauling interesting?
@Nils: "But .. what about a dungeon, like "the underdark" connect various cities?"

You've read the Erikson's Malazan Empire novels, then? Say hello to the Imperial Warren...

@Yuripup: "And I haven't a clue how you make hauling load 453 of good between point A and B interesting."

A very large ship that can AFK travel relatively safely in Empire, and is pretty to look at? :) I love my Providence.

@Tobold: check out EVE's exploration mechanics, the update scanner system, and W-space resources. I think your time with the game may predate those systems.

There's been noise about CCP designing a more engaging mining mechanic (sometimes called "planetary rings", other times "system wide belts") to augment the existing system for a long time, and provide more engaging non-AFK bonuses, but no sight of it yet.

To be honest, I quite enjoy mining. There's enough free time to chat with my corp on voicecomms (corp-bonding is good bonding), or I personally can play it as a relatively high-engagement RTS since I have multiple mains. One man's boredom is another's perfect pacing.
If there's no possibility of losing your goods, then what would make hauling interesting?
The things that we pay good money to avoid in real life: delays, strikes, traffic jams, accidents, shrinkage (read: theft), bureaucracy, weather issues..

Eve does capture some of these in nullsec hauling, but most regional powers do not allow any third-party presence in their area, so haulers don't even get to worry about quasilegal issues: Either you get shot by the territory holders, their enemies or you have no problems whatsoever. The so-called free trade zones are few and far between, so there's no gray areas.
Aion had an interesting crafting system. The work order system provided fast and clean craft leveling without two major drawbacks.

One is the hunt and fetch method of crafting; akin to Runes of magic and FFXI Online. No longer will you have to traverse the wild filling up your backpack with goods just to burn up trying to get one craft level. All of the materials were provided by npc's on the spot. All your needed was the money to buy them

Second is the moneysink part of crafting. With the aforementioned games additional to wow, the level of money invested to leveling crafting was cut down tremendously.

I really did not enjoy waiting for an npc shop to open just to destroy half of the materials. On one hand crafting in FFXI was a challenge and very immersive; endgame equipment depended on crafting.

It was something that couldn't be ignored. On the other you would burn most of your money during the low level crafting and nothing was really useful until your got to higher levels.

I focused on crafting in Aion, I guess that was my "beta testing" of the game. I found it fun, enjoyable and saw some immediate benefits. I was able to craft my character better than most dropped equipment,

Although it was beta and not a real economy yet I would like to see how the real economy would play out upon release.

Tobold, how did you like the crafting system of Illuminary? I remember you had a problem with the grind factor but what did you think of the mechanics?
*throws SWG, Vanguard, and EVE's systems into a bottle, shakes it vigorously, and pours it out*

There. Make that. :)

Thanks for the post. I agree very much, and found this quite an interesting topic. I really dont like the trend to just "tack on" one of these systems in my MMO.
First off, nice post and great suggestions in the comments.

One thing that I haven't seen mentioned is the need for a cap on trade skills taken per account. Mafti mentioned earlier that "...a crafter should do the crafting, a fighter should do the fighting, a trader should do the trading." I would take that a step further and say that a blacksmith needs an alchemist for potions required in crafting some higher quality gear, and the alchemist needs the farmer for herbs required for crafting some higher quality potions, etc etc...

This idea could then be coupled with a 1-2 crafting professions PER ACCOUNT (not per character with a 9 character limit per server). This would then create the need for other crafters to interact with each other just like raiders must do to succeed in the higher-end game. The casual-gamer who enjoys crafting because of their limited play-time blocks could just purchase the items needed on the auction house, so they wouldn't be pigeon-holed too much into social interactions, but the need for others is still present.

I like how Darkfall handled the crafted vs. dropped item; the item quality is nearly the same, but the *durability* of the dropped items is severely lowered. This means that you *could* supply yourself with dropped items, but that means carrying multiple weapons and replacement pieces of armor with you for when they break during combat. Or, you could purchase the item from a crafter and it would last you a long time, or until you were PK'd and it was taken (another plus for bringing dropped items with lower durability).
Having done crafting in LOTRO, EQ and WOW I found the market system in EVE to be amazing when I discovered New Eden. The addition of wormhole exploration to build T3 Ships has taken the options to a new level. Definitely worth checking out if you enjoy taking a bit of (pirate) risk for big rewards!
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