Wednesday, March 9, 2005

SWG: Crafting -- A Blueprint for the Future +

Thanks for taking the time to comment, CPark. If an idea is good, it can withstand (and even be improved by) fair-minded criticism.

So let's see if that's the case here.

CPark wrote:
Flatfingers items 2 and 3 in the original post were: 2. The attributes of the resources used to craft an object should be reflected in the appearance and/or performance of the final product. 3. The configuration of subcomponents should be reflected in the appearance and/or performance of the final product.
I believe these capabilities are already in the system.
... if the game mechanism could support full fledged implementation of these ideas, and in some areas do implement them, why isn't more being done?
I agree... up to a point.

In a few cases (but not all), attribute values for crafted subcomponents help determine the final attribute values for the final product. (Resource attribute values also matter, but the outcome of each assembly and experimentation step is the main determinant of object attribute quality.) This association of inputs with outputs is so useful that I'd like to see it expanded to many more objects. It seems like a natural feature for a crafting system.

However, it's not critical in and of itself. This is for two reasons I've mentioned before:

  • Numeric attributes aren't the only feature of a product -- it also has visual and sonic characteristics, as well as potentially having alternate operational modes (the latter of which could arguably be more important than the numeric attributes of the basic operational mode). The characteristics (numeric and visual/sonic) of resources and subcomponents definitely do not play any kind of useful role in determining the non-numeric characteristics of most crafted objects -- but that's not a problem, it's an opportunity.
  • Being able to define the output characteristics of a crafted object (by choosing the inputs) is a necessary feature of a crafting system... but as I've tried to say, it's not the only thing that matters. You need it to be able to satisfy non-crafter players, and it's mildly interesting to figure out optimal inputs for a desired output, but ultimately that's just about being a cog in the economy, and not about having fun crafting. When all that matters is building the "perfect" T21, where's the opportunity for making interesting mistakes? Is there no value in anything unexpected? As long as crafting is designed solely to get from Point A to Point B to satisfy non-crafter consumers, as long as it's just about what crafters can make and not about crafters themselves, crafting will continue to fail to be as much fun as it could and should be.
Again, though, while as I note above the association of inputs with outputs shouldn't be the most important thing in a crafting system, it's still important. That being the case, we might as well do it right, which means applying it to most objects instead of the few objects that currently take the attributes of their subcomponents into account.

(And remember, I'm talking about associating many more kinds of final attributes with input characteristics. That helps make crafting more interesting to do. More on this in the next section.)

Implementation issues: Looking at Flatfingers' item 1 emphasizes why SWG may have decided there are better ways to use the people and time implementation would need.
Flatfingers wrote:
"Complex objects should have multiple appearance and performance characteristics beyond simple numeric attributes."
The final products, being tied to game mechanics, need...
  • Artwork -- that flashy new gun needs all the modeling effort of an existing gun, and if the subcomponents have to fit together visibly, then each subcomponent has to be modeled and all the possible assemblies tested together.

  • Balance against existing game systems -- the combination of all the weapon speed increases from the intermediate components can't blow out the max for speed in the external system.

  • New mechanisms -- the pulses of the laser with the burst component have to be animated differently than the solid line of the piercing component. All these changes cost people and time.

Add to that the resources necessary to implement the changes in intermediate item crafting and we have a lot of effort. So why doesn't SWG do it? Why is the priority low?
Well, I would argue that it's been because servicing the combat-oriented players has historically been considered more worthy of developer time and money. That doesn't mean creating a truly interesting crafting system isn't something worth doing on its own merits; it just means that combat features have been given the higher priority.

But of course, just because that's how things have been doesn't imply that it's how they must continue to be.

I should add here that I find it interesting that you reversed the order of the suggestions as I originally made them. I had items 1, 2, and 3 ordered the way I did for a reason: each improved crafting feature builds upon the previous suggested feature. If you break up that order, well, of course the strength of the overall proposal seems weakened!

Each of the steps I suggested flows into the next. Step 1 is to modify objects so that they have lots of features -- not just numeric characteristics, but things you can see and hear and use. Crafters can't make such objects yet, but they can be made (perhaps as loot). Once you've allowed for complex objects by implementing step 1 (and seeing as best you can how they interoperate with the game's other systems such as combat), then it becomes appropriate and useful to move to step 2, which is to tie outputs to inputs, to strongly associate an object's features with the features of the items that went into its construction. That provides the fundamental structure for a "deep" crafting experience. And once you've got that, then you can in step 3 expand on the system by which you make these input/output associations. In this way the opportunity for interesting (i.e., surprising) experimentation finally becomes possible.

First step 1, then step 2, then step 3. Done in this order, you can achieve the goal of a truly satisfying crafting process without having to dedicate your entire programming staff to do everything all at once.

Only a small proportion of the current population is affected. If the Astromech Stats about professions are still true, while a third of people try out artisan and medic, only about 5% go into the "pure" advanced crafting professions (weaponsmith, architect) -- and the "mixed" crafting professions (doctor, bio-engineer) account for about 4% of players. Even if there was no overlap in the advanced professions that means no more than 9% of players are impacted by the changes being proposed.
Having just referenced those Character Metrics stats yesterday, I have to say I think your interpretation of them is a little off.

(Before we get into this, we should note that these stats were posted October 20, 2003, and are almost certainly not representative of current profession statistics. Still, they're all we've got, so let's assume they're still valid.)

First of all, I don't think you can exclude the starter professions and wind up with an accurate picture of who's crafting and who's not. If a third of SWG's players are trying (or playing) Artisans and Medics, that's a pretty good-sized chunk of the player base. Add in a few more percentage points for those who just take the Engineering and Home Ec skill lines to get to Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Architect, Tailor, and Chef, and you're looking at even more players. Doctors and Bio-Engineers add even more to the numbers. And if you consider Merchants to be crafters (not unreasonable considering their close relationship to crafting and the extension of their profession from the Artisan's Business skill line), you're probably looking at half the player base directly affected (to a greater or lesser degree, of course) by how crafting works.

That's not trivial at all.

The benefits to draw and retention of players are not worth the effort. If the changes did make crafting more desirable and bring more crafters into the game, does the game need more crafters? What would the impact of more crafters be?
  • more goods

  • lower prices for goods

  • higher prices for resources (individual resources are seen as more valuable because their connection to the end product is more visible)

  • more desirable products -- look at the call for furniture coloring or the pilots trying to match blaster fire patterns with weapons to get the neat effects when the weapons fire

  • increased draw and retention of players that care about the "wow" factor of the environment

These changes must be, by the nature of balance limits on things like damage done from weapons, cosmetic.
First, I'm not convinced (yet) that better crafting = many more crafters.

More? Well, I hope so, especially if that means more people giving SOE their money. That translates into better survival value for SWG, which benefits all of us who are still playing.

But many more? Doubtful. I look at players as people -- they have things they like doing, and things they don't like doing. When they play a game, they extend these likes and dislikes to game features. People who like being active and experiencing things won't care whether SWG has a great crafting system or a lousy one because they'll be too busy doing things that they enjoy more (namely, combat). Meanwhile, those folks whose interests naturally tend to the creative will gravitate immediately to crafting whether it's good or bad. Its goodness or badness will determine whether they stay, but it's not a significant factor in attracting new players. (I would admit that word of mouth is a significant factor in attracting combat-oriented players to a game, but how many Web sites or magazines are there that exist to highlight the non-lethal features of games?)

Having said this, let's say you're right -- suppose the developers took all my wonderful suggestions and made crafting in SWG more fun than being tickled with $10,000 bills you got to keep afterwards. And let's further suppose that this attracted a lot of new players. What then?

Would more goods be created? Probably, which in addition to lower prices would mean more choices for consumers. I doubt most of SWG's other players would consider either of these to be Bad Things! As for crafters, they won't care unless they're Merchants, since with a crafting system that's loads of fun in its own right, you don't have to sell what you make in order to have fun. And as for Merchants... well, they're clever devils; they can figure out some way to profit from anything.

Would resource prices go up due to competition between crafters? Possibly, but not inevitably, since starting crafters usually also pick up the Survey line and can mine their own resources at no cost to anyone else. Furthermore, even if competition did increase resource prices somewhat, it's unlikely that these costs would rise to a level that would affect the pricing of crafted objects, which is fairly inelastic -- prices of crafted objects are primarily based not on resource cost but on perceived desirability. (This is somewhat less true for the most advanced items like RIS armor that require rare components, but desirability still determines pricing.) As a conversation over in the Business and Economy forum noted, there's a pretty good cushion between most resource costs and prices for items crafted using those resources. That means resource costs could go up a reasonable amount and not meaningfully affect object costs. So a lot of new crafters would probably not affect object pricing due to contention for resources.

As for the enhanced desirability of products and an increased "wow" factor due to more crafters using an improved crafting system... these don't seem like things that would damage SWG in any way.

Finally, it's just a theory of mine but I believe that crafters tend to stay with an online game longer than combat-oriented players. So if improving the crafting system meant a larger proportion of crafters in the SWG player base, that suggests to me that SWG has subscribers who'll stick around longer and keep putting money in SOE's pocket. That would seem to mean better survival odds for SWG, wouldn't it?

All told, then, I don't come to the conclusion that improving the crafting system to make it a more enjoyable process would not be worth the effort -- just the opposite, in fact.

The only question I have is how to make the business case (more than has already been made) that the changes I suggest are not just worth doing, but that they're more worth doing than yet more features for the combat-oriented players after nearly two years of rapt attention to their demands. As I've said before, I've got nothing against combat-oriented players and I don't mind them getting cool new combat features... but I do mind going for two years without equally cool major features for non-combat players.

I suspect SWG has decided those aren't pressing enough reasons to put out the effort this game. For future games -- could they be right? What kind of game could support this different balance?
That's a great question. I don't mean to be glib, but I think a reasonable answer is: a better SWG.

For one thing, focusing even temporarily on improving the game for crafters would create a "deeper" game, with more complex objects and more interesting actions and interactions between players. The combat-oriented player might not care directly about increased deepness, but it would affect the game world in which he plays. I think most (perhaps not all, but most) of those effects would be positive -- deep = less boring, and pretty much everyone agrees that the worst sin any game can commit is to be boring.

For another thing, a serious refocusing on crafters (even if only temporary) would possibly attract more crafters. Given the way that players report likes and dislikes to developers (or maybe I should say, given how developers hear what they want to hear about what players like and dislike based on what they happen to have developed for those players), a significant positive response from a lot of crafters enjoying an improved crafting game could lead SWG's developers to conclude that new crafting features are a relatively cheap way to get good PR, and from that conclusion decide to maintain an interest in keeping crafters happy along with combat-oriented players. I don't see how that would diminish SWG for anyone.

I believe in my overall goal -- that crafting in SWG, while good, could be better if reworked to focus more on the process of crafting itself than on the results of crafting. But I'm not married to any of the specific suggestions I made at the top of this thread to try to achieve that goal. Still, I felt that given such a reasonable criticism of them, they deserved one good rebuttal. I hope this was it!

Thanks again for the thought-provoking comments, CPark.