MMO Mechanics: Creating engaging crafting mechanics


I’m currently bogged down in an over-the-shoulder crafting blur, vicariously depleting gold and recommending several YouTube-approved crazy material gathering runs as I get my husband acquainted with Guild Wars 2‘s crafting system. I’ve been ill for last week or two and have spent each night this week helping him through the experience as a wind-down activity to try and encourage my eyelids to finally close. Watching him progress made me think about what it takes to create a mechanically engaging crafting system that doesn’t act as an at-best inconvenient time sink or at worst a snore-inducing snoozefest.

A great crafting system should consist of so much more than a tired old “clickety-clack, look in my pack, look at that stack of crap grow” grind, and in this edition of MMO Mechanics, I want to discuss what developers can do to ease the grind mechanically. I’m sticking with mechanic headers instead of game titles here because I wanted to attempt to group together the actual mechanics themselves rather than a specific roundup of the best crafting games. You’ll be able to mention many games that could equally (or perhaps better!) apply to the titles below, so take my named examples as mere illustrations only.

gw2 (1)Combination and discovery mechanics

Perhaps the most obvious mechanical inclusion that can brighten up the standard recipe and materials system is adding in heavy rewards for self-discovery to incentivise a healthy dose of tinkering with material combinations simply to see if a viable product can be made. Going back to watching the other half level his crafts in GW2, I definitely appreciated how satisfied he was with himself when he put down the crafting guide for a while and just played around with the materials he had rather than rushing to complete the most mathematically efficient crafting pathway. Cooking is particularly fun in terms of smashing things together in the discovery pane to create a new-to-you concoction because more recipes exist and they tend to be quite exotic and involved.

Every item added will tell you the base crafting level required to create a recipe with that ingredient (or the selected combination of ingredients if more than one has been added) to the panel, and further compatible ingredients that you own will be highlighted for you. Once it “looks like something”, as the panel so eloquently puts it, you can click the craft button to see what you’ve come up with, discovering a new recipe for your book. This grants much more crafting level XP than merely clicking on a known recipe and letting it craft as many copies as your material stockpiles allow, so any additional time the process takes is made up eventually.

eq2Active, full-time crafting mechanics

I don’t think it would be possible for me to discuss crafting without mentioning EverQuest 2 or Star Wars Galaxies and their active mechanics that allow players to skip the combat roles if they so wish. Mechanically speaking, full-time crafting is only viable if players gain an equal reward for crafting productivity as they would if they had opted for another role, and this is usually accomplished by extending the involvement of the player in the crafting process to make the type of gameplay compelling while also making the output highly desirable by the wider game community.

I’m particularly fond of systems in this section that totally engage the player throughout the crafting experience: Balancing durability and progress in EQ2 certainly helps to fill this role, as do the quirky mechanics involved in A Tale in the Desert such as the alloy creation shown in the video below. Granted, I’ve never got to have a go myself, but balancing temperature and oxygen levels to create charcoal, a blacksmithing system to die for, and this quirky strategic melding of metals are all right up my street.

A newer title with great promises on the crafting front, The Repopulation, has outlined a grading system for both raw materials and outputs that is layered with a random event mechanic and crafting missions, which should encourage players to become much more actively involved in the crafting process and give learning players an incentive for persevering with shoddy outputs caused by a lack of experience. Although the title has been delayed by engine trouble, it’s most definitely on my watchlist for the future simply because of its nod to the full-time crafters.

mortal onlineRealism in crafting mechanics

I swear that I’m not going crazy here by suggesting that MMOs should force us into action for every rivet that needs placing or stitch that needs sewing, but systems that at least attempt to emulate real crafting should be applauded. I’d even go as far as to say that this is the sort of crafting mechanic that all MMOs should strive for in one form or another, not least of all because realism gives any mechanic an inherent feeling of purposefulness that is usually lacking in standard click-and-ding crafting systems.

In Mortal Online, you’ll find that the crafting system utilises the properties of its materials to determine the qualities of the output rather than defaulting to slapping an arbitrary material level on there and using that to temper the end product. A sword, for example, can be better catered to a specific character by accounting for the weight, strength, and density of the materials used. Lore mechanics add a nice sense of realism too since a character’s specific specialisms should factor into his or her ability to craft particular products with the desired qualities. I love the way in which your particular recipe can be kept secret too, allowing you to make a name for yourself by creating specific items with niche implementations.

I’m going to add destruction, player-sourced repairs or services, and a very heavy dependence on crafted products at endgame into the realistic section while I’m at it, and to do so I must send a reverent nod in EVE Online‘s direction. The utterly realistic and complex in-game economy wouldn’t be anywhere near as mechanically interesting without the features I’ve mentioned, especially since the natural competition and meritocracy of its economy it creates adds a real-world complexity to crafting that many MMOs will simply never have.

eveOver to you!

What I really wanted to convey here is that either not wanting the end product of crafting or hating the actual crafting mechanics are both massive mechanical meltdowns that are seen far too frequently in MMOs. I understand — and applaud — that a lot of hard work goes into perfecting any craft, be it in the real world or in MMOs, but I should feel satisfaction in my improvement as time goes on, experience the joy of invention throughout the experience, and bask in the appreciation my hard work earns me when I finally manage to create something of quality and purpose.

Throwing endless copies of the same gear worn by every lowly guard or grunt soldier onto the never-ending scrapheap of dreadful craftsmanship every merchant unfortunate enough to be located near crafting stations has undoubtedly accrued simply isn’t fun or heroic. No wonder the merchants only throw a fistful of copper my way for that crap! I want more: Call me fussy if you will, but if I’m not happy to spend days of my life by the forge then my chosen MMO’s crafting system has failed. Are you with me? What makes you tick when it comes to crafting mechanics? Are you happy to watch those bars fly while you idle, or do you agree with me? Let me know how you like to craft in the comments.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to
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