As a big fan of crafting in MMOs, I've tried out quite a few tradeskill systems. And they all share one thing in common: They don't feel nearly as fun as they could be. In particular, the "standard model" of crafting used in games like WoW and LotRO involves grinding out hundreds of useless goods to raise your level up the point where you can make the handful of items that other players actually want. Some recent games, like Warhammer Online, seem to have given up trying to make crafting a compelling part of the game, instead reducing it to a simple adjunct to adventuring.
So how, if at all, can crafting be made more fun? I hope to analyze this question in a series of posts examining the various aspects of crafting. As Brian Green has pointed out in an insightful post, tradeskills consist of several different activities. Typically, a crafter must acquire a recipe, harvest or otherwise accumulate raw materials, combine the materials into an item, and then sell the item. Different players often enjoy different aspects of the crafting process. Some get a kick out of locating harvesting nodes, while other like to run a store. So it's worth asking what makes each step of the process "fun," or if it isn't fun, how it could be made so.
In this post I'd like to look at the process of gathering raw materials. Typically, crafting materials can be acquired in one of three ways: (1) by looting them from monsters, (2) by harvesting them from resource nodes, (3) by buying them on the open market, and (4) by buying them from NPCs.
The first way to acquire resources is as loot drops. It's worth asking why a designer would want crafting materials to be looted rather than harvested. After all, killing and looting monsters is generally considered an adventuring activity rather than a tradeskilling activity. Does including crafting-related loot drops make a game more fun? There are two possible ways in which it might. First, it creates a reciprocal relationship between adventurers and crafters: Adventurers can sell loot drops to crafters, and crafters can use them to create items for adventurers. Second, it can help keep loot drops realistic, which can enhance the game's immersion and lore-consistency. It's always disconcerting when a rat drops a suit of plate mail.
Resources can also be obtained by harvesting resource nodes scattered throughout the world. In some games, harvesting is an integral and time-consuming part of the game. For example, some corporations in EVE focus entirely on mining ore in asteroid belts. Harvesting often appeals to the Bartle explorer type. Spreading resource nodes throughout the world gives people an incentive to get off of the beaten track and hunt for them. In modern quest-driven games, locating harvesting nodes is often one of the few motivations for undirected exploration of the world.
Third, resources normally can be bought and sold on the open market, often an auction house of some sort. In many games, trade in resources forms the backbone of the economy. It can also create interesting arbitrage opportunities, especially if markets are decntralized (as in EVE or Pirates of the Burning Sea). I'll discuss marketing in more detail in part 3 of this series.
Finally, crafting materials can sometimes be purchased from NPCs. This is not particularly exciting in a gameplay sense, but it may serve other design goals (like removing gold from the economy).
So is accumulating resources "fun" in today's MMOs? The standard model uses a combination of all of these techniques, and I think it mostly works well. Finding harvesting nodes is a central component of explorer gameplay, and trade in resources keeps the economy vibrant.
What do you think: Is traditional resource harvesting fun? If not, is there a way it could be made more so?