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Discussion of some of the design decisions involved in making craft-skills for an MMORPG.

[This originally appeared on my MMO production blog here.]

I’ve been working on fleshing out Project: Gorgon’s crafting. Originally (years ago!) I’d planned out hundreds of different skills for the MMO. They made a really cool chart. (I like games with those huge-ass skill graphs.) But when implementing these skills, I found them to be deathly dull. 200 very similar skills is just no fun. (And in practice, this tends to be true in other games with huge-ass skill graphs, too, sadly.)

I don’t just want mindless level-grinding; the crafting skills need to have that little spark of fun that comes from making interesting choices. I realize the distinction between “fun craft skill” and “boring craft skill” is a very personal one, so in this case I use myself as the baseline. If I find it deathly dull, it’s not good enough.

So I’ve ended up combining a ton of skills together to make each one “meatier” and give them more depth. But this means the rate of adding new crafting skills has really slowed down. It’s getting to the point now where I really need some new craft skills so that I can decorate dungeons better. (I want the world to be full of interactive stuff, not just 3D models that you can’t interact with… but to do that, I need more kinds of interactions implemented.)

I decided it was time to do a completely new skill. Nothing too major, though: I wanted to do something niche. I picked Cheesemaking, which is about as niche as they come. It has some unusual mechanics, like how you have to store the fancier cheeses in a cool damp place to let them ripen. But it’s nothing super unusual for an MMO crafting skill: you put the ingredients in, you get something back out.

The reason I picked it, though, is that it’s built on lots of other skills, so it gives me content to flesh those other skills out with. For instance, cheese is aged in casks, so I needed new carpentry recipes for casks, and the casks need metal hoops, which are made by blacksmithing. The cheesecloth will be made with tailoring, after gathering the cotton with Gathering. The rennet is made with mycology, using animal stomachs that are cut out of carcasses with the Butchery skill.

So you get the idea — a cascade of new skills and recipes were necessary to support cheese making. But it’s easy to go too far when “modeling” something like this. I mean, after researching how cheese is made, I naturally wanted to model all the steps of the process. This would be tedious and boring. (You could argue that making your own barrels is already tedious and boring, but you’d be wrong. So there.)

Instead, I’m trying to capture some of the spirit of each skill without slavishly modeling it. I decided that most cheese can be made instantaneously (just like any other crafting recipe, in other words), but a few special types of cheese require aging. You need to put the casks in a cool damp place (like a cave) for several hours before your cheese is ready. This is a pleasant kind of detail, because you have to make decisions. Not hard ones: crafting isn’t really supposed to be a brain teaser. But it also shouldn’t be a grind. (“Which cave should I put them in? Hmm, I wanted to hunt near X, so I’ll put them in Y.”)

Contrast that to the Tanning skill, which turned out to be pure busywork. There’s only one way to tan a hide, and you don’t really make any decisions. You buy the tannin powder and you tan the hide. The end. Yawn. I’ll have to redo that whole skill at some point.

So that’s why I try to focus on details that create a very simple sort of decision making. For instance, in cheese making, there’s whey. Whey is a byproduct of cheese-making: it’s cheese-water run-off. It’s gross, but it’s not completely useless because there are “whey cheeses” which use this byproduct to make new cheese.

This creates some resource-management decisions: “I want to make some Scamorza, but I need some Sweet Whey. Hmm, I could make some Munster to get it cheaply, but instead I’ll make some Orcish Pepper Cheese to use up my Muntok Peppercorns.” It’s not hard choices you’re being asked to make. It’s just not mindless busywork, if you see the distinction.

Side Note: Why Not Real-Time Crafting Events?

As a side note, I've had some testers ask why I don't make crafting more like combat: more exciting and engaging. A great example is EQ2's crafting system, where crafters have real-time events they have to react to. The reason goes back a bunch of years to when my wife Sandra was working as producer of one of EQ2's expansions. She relayed an anecdote from her boss, the EP of the game.

He said that he'd come to believe EQ2's crafting was flawed, because it didn't let you socialize. Players can already experience real-time action during combat, which is the majority of the game. Crafting is supposed to be a change of pace. Players tended toward wanting to relax and chat while crafting, but they couldn't, because they were constantly watching for those real-time events.

At first I found that a little hard to swallow: make the game more boring so that players aren't distracted by all that gameplay?! But then I played some more and realized he was completely right. Not all players want to socialize while crafting, of course, but a large percentage do, including me.

A good MMO needs to cater to a lot of different gameplay styles. (Even if you're targeting a very specific audience, those players will be in different moods at different times.) And crafting gives a great opportunity to change up the combat gameplay. That doesn't mean it should be completely mindless, though. Instead of real-time action, I try to make the crafting involve resource-management decisions. Mild ones. Enough to make you think a little bit while you chat.

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