The Subject At Hand
As I've mentioned before, crafting is something I find to be a significant draw in an MMO. If the crafting system is boring, the rest of the game will have to strain itself to keep my interest. Only WoW has been able to survive under the weight of having a bland crafting system, thanks in part to my guild and some undetermined something that WoW has that keeps me.
Today, I will define aspects of successful, interesting crafting systems. On its own, crafting can be fun in its own right, but these features, when added, can improve the overall experience greatly.
Please note that this examination was brought about by investigation of the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic release, and its crafting system. As such, it may come across as unabashed praise of that system. While it is not intended to be that, precisely, it should be noted that said system will be fun, to me, because of this.
At its root, all crafting systems use the same formula. You obtain formulas/patterns/schematics to create items. You obtain materials, through drops, gathering or questing. You create an item. when you have the materials for a schematic, which increases your skill at crafting. As best I know, all crafting systems follow this pattern.
At its most basic, we have the standard WoW/Rift system. You learn the skill by purchasing it from a vendor. You learn formulas at a vendor. You then sit in front of a crafting node and queue up stuff that you know. You rinse and repeat until you are at maximum level. For systems like this, the joy is being able to make your own items, and this can be enough. It will usually grow dull and repetitive after a while, and it becomes one of the chores of levelling.
There are then things you can modify this formula with to enhance the experience.
The concept of Item Recycling is the ability to take an existing item and break it down into component parts that can then be used for crafting. It allows for useless items gathered throughout the questing process to be used for some purpose beyond selling for cash.
In World of Warcraft, You can Disenchant magical items and then use the resulting residue for Enchanting other items. This is the most limited version of Item Recycling, as it does not take into account the type of item, only its quality, and the materials received are only useful for one specific skill.
Rift introduced this in the most useful fashion I'd seen, as it added a skill to all manufacturing professions that would allow you to break down items that belong to that type: leather and cloth armor for Outfitting, weapons for Weaponsmithing, etc. Breaking down a piece of leather armor would give you leather you can use for new Outfitting items, and scraps of leather that are used in special items. It should be noted that those scraps can only be obtained by breaking down existing items. On top of that, Rift also has the Runecrafting profession, which functions much like Enchanting in WoW, and with the Runebreaking skill it gives you, you can break down all magic items to get Runecrafting materials.
And, of course, Star Wars: The Old Republic has Reverse Engineering, which allows you to break down an item you've created. There is only a chance of receiving materials back, but it's still there. Though Reverse Engineering serves another purpose, which I'll discuss in further detail below.
Item Recycling serves several purposes regarding adding to the fun factor of crafting, although it might not seem all that fun in its own right. It grants an opportunity to continue crafting without having to go out of your way to obtain new materials. Though really, it gives you one more thing to do while you're in a crafting binge. Let's face it. When you're leveling crafting, you're not paying as much attention to what you are making beyond the chance it has to increase your skill. Being able to then take those wasted items apart and continue is a boon when you have access to it.
I have very little experience with this one, but I feel like mentioning it. It was one of the innovations to crafting that Fallen Earth boasted, and it garnered some praise.
The Time concept applies an amount of time to the creation of an item. This time component can then define the difficulty and/or rarity of the item in question. The longer it takes to create, the less common it will be, the more it will be worth.
In the vast majority of MMOs, the Time aspect can reach up to... 25 seconds! And that 25 seconds is considered excessive. They might then apply a cooldown to that crafting skill, and that will be the real Time component. Though a cooldown just feels like an arbitrary hindrance applied so the market isn't flooded with high-powered items.
As such, the Time component in Fallen Earth feels more defining. Rather than applying a cooldown to a specific schematic, it simply requires a certain amount of time to complete. Unlike standard games, you are not required to sit around and watch the bar slowly increment when it takes an hour to craft an item. You can queue up several items and leave, to continue questing, log out, or whatever. When the time has passed, the item is complete. This did not actually discourage crafting, as some of you might expect. It instead served to make it feel more immersive. The process of creating an item was something that took more than 10 seconds; you can imagine your character slaving away over the workbench. Unless, of course, you were questing at the time. Then the incredulity of the action was almost greater than the 10 second great sword.
With SW:TOR, they have taken the same Time system as Fallen Earth but removed the player's character from the process. It will take a certain amount of time from beginning the process to receiving the item based on its difficulty. Instead of going to a workbench, though, and saying "I'd like to spend 10 hours making this awesome thing" and then spending that 10 hours in game, doing anything but, you send your companions to do it. This allows the Time component to be used without the requisite suspension of disbelief. It does cost you what functions as a combat pet in the game, as the companion will be inaccessible during the crafting process. This is a somewhat controversial decision, as many players are dismayed that their character will not be the Greatest Armorer Ever, but instead happens to have the Greatest Armorer Ever as a henchman.
As for adding fun to the process, Time is sort of up in the air. It's nice because it's different, and so it adds that new car smell to a system without changing much. It does remove that instant gratification that we've become accustomed to, and that may cause some complaint, but from what I've heard, Fallen Earth is noted most for its setting and its crafting system, and little else.
Everyone loves critting. Big numbers make people happy, especially when they are beyond the bounds of what is generally achievable. But very few crafting systems have noted this love of RNG. Not all, though.
For some games, there is the possibility of randomly making an item that is far superior to what the recipe you're working with calls for. This is uniformly referred to as a Critical Success. It is very rarely guaranteed, but it will always put a smile on your face when you make something that feels truly epic when you're just trying to make something moderately cool.
The first system I saw this in was Lord of the Rings Online. With LotRO, you would level through an Apprentice level of crafting, and that would get you into Master range (though not make you a Master, a bizarre conceit in itself). Once you've achieved Apprentice, you have the chance to crit on item creation, including just preparing materials to be used. As an added bonus, there are items you can obtain that can increase your crit chance greatly. Those items are consumed when used, but the difference between 5% and 50% crit chance is often worth it, especially considering the items that those crits can make.
Less controllable but more accessible, the crit chance in Aion was an unexpected joy. You had no idea when it would happen, you had no control over it, but you would make the same thing five times in hopes of getting it. Admittedly, Aion's pass/fail crafting system made those crits far more precious, as it also meant you didn't fail outright to create the item at hand. I had considered adding the pass/fail to this list, but it's not actually all that fun. It's just time-consuming and frustrating.
SW:TOR allows critting. I'll admit, that's all I know, but having it available at all is wonderful.
Do I really need to explain why critting on item creation is fun? You sit down to make something, thinking it's pretty cool, and then it comes out awesome before your very eyes. It's the difference between greens and purples, man.
Obtaining recipes for crafting is almost uniformly boring. You go to a vendor, you look at a list, you buy what you don't know. You may find schematics as random drops, or buy them on the Auction House. But in the end, that's it. Some systems, however, have added a different method to learning crafting recipes.
The core of the Discovery component is the ability to gain a recipe or schematic through performing an appropriate activity, but without as structured and guided a system as the vendor. It varies depending on the game, so it's harder to describe. For most, Discovery comes when creating items. For others, it is part of another activity, such as Item Recycling. And for still others, it's all Discovery, with no other options available.
In World of Warcraft, Discovery was added first for the Alchemy profession, and it is very limited. When you make certain items, you have a small chance of learning a new recipe. They then added what is essentially a Discovery recipe to Alchemy and Inscription. You use materials, craft the recipe, and then see if you learned a new recipe. At least you always made something when you tried, though.
In SWTOR, you will have access to limited Discovery as well with Reverse Engineering. When an item is created and your revers engineer it, aside from getting materials back you also have the chance to learn a new, better schematic for the item you just disassembled. So if you made a standard green gun and took it apart, you might learn the schematic to make the same gun, but of blue value. The limitation is entirely in what you are able to learn, as not all items have graded schematics like that.
Guild Wars 2 will have a straight Discovery method for learning recipes in crafting. You obtain materials, go to a crafting workplace, place items in the appropriate spaces and see what lets you make something. When you get a match of items that make something, your craft button lights up, you click it and then create something, learning the recipe in the process. The UI gives you an idea of when you can create something and when you can't, and also when there are further recipes to learn, but you do not start out with the majority of the recipes for crafting skills, and this is the only way to learn. As such, this crafting system is a full mini-game in its own right, and something you can devote time to just to figure out what you can make.
Also worth mentioning is the Skyrim Alchemy skill, which functions entirely on Discovery as well. It's just less helpful about it than GW2's system.
Discovery adds an element of the unknown, and makes the process of learning new recipes less of a quick vendor run and more like a game in its own right. When you have the possibility of gaining something unexpected and beneficial from an activity you're going to be doing anyway, it makes that activity more fun.
This is already a novella, so this will be a short closing.
Crafting is considered an essential part of an MMO. Many players love it, and would be happy to spend hours just levelling their crafting if they could do so without having to go off and get materials. It is a fundamental mini-game of MMOs these days. But at its core it's inherently dull. New MMOs will add an innovation here and there to spice up the process, but cannot really get beyond the fact of what it is. Also, innovation is risky. Sometimes you add something that falls flat, and if that was your selling point, your game will tank.
These are just a few of the crafting innovations I've seen that have improved the experience for me. It is far from a complete list, just what I could think of at the moment. When I started writing this and made the list of various components, I was not focusing on SWTOR, and was, in fact, surprised to discover that it is using all of them in some capacity. This makes me very excited about SWTOR, because I love crafting so much.
Are there any components I've missed that you can think of? Feel free to mention in the comments.