As a result of some discussions, I've updated my design concepts for Engineering-oriented crafting in Star Trek Online.
There are two key changes:
- added Fabrication mode -- how do devices get created in the first place?
- changed Maintenance mode to Optimization mdoe -- "maintenance" implied "recover from item decay"
So the overall model for how Engineering crafting might work in a MMORPG based on Star Trek is as follows:
Fabrication: create a device with standard capabilities using standard components
Optimization: modify the internal connections between components to improve the numeric performance of a device's or system's current capabilities
Repair: fix or replace damaged or destroyed components to restore basic functionality of a device or system
Enhancement: replace standard components with exotics or add optional components to give a device or system non-standard capabilities
To allow the player to easily learn and perform all of these gameplay functions, a single presentation system would be used.
The main window would display an aesthetic dark gray representation of the type of device being created or device/system being modified. This representation would be surrounded by numerous slots for the components of which that device or system is comprised. Any fully functional components already placed into component slots would be displayed with a green background; damaged components would be shown in yellow; and destroyed components would appear with a red background.
A side window would display a tree-structured hierarchy of device types and components, which can be double-clicked or dragged into the main window to be displayed there. Existing components in the character's personal inventory will be visually distinguished from standard components that can be replicated.
The main window would also display connections between components. (It will be useful if every device/system always requires at least two or three connections so that the player will understand that they exist.) Players will be able to click on the ends of connections between components to move those ends to different components.
Finally, there should also be two display-only subwindows. One would present a graphical depiction of the device as it will look when the crafting process is complete, and the other will display textual and numeric information describing the device's functional characteristics.
In practice, several of the Engineering crafting modes would interlace. A character wanting to create, modify or repair a device would bring up the crafting interface, which would consist of four subwindows within one overall window.
For example, maybe your character, who has specialized in Engineering, is asked to provide to a newly-encountered culture a genetic sequencing analyzer for medical research that is capable of an 93% level of codon discrimination. If you weren't an Engineer, you could look to buy or contract for the creation of such a device. But since you're an Engineer, you figure you'll try to create such a device yourself.
You check your manifest and find that you don't have an existing analyzer that you could Enhance or Optimize to a 93% discrimination level. So you decide to Fabricate one from scratch. You pull the schematic from the Federation Engineering database, and replicate the standard components you need... but the resulting analyzer provides only an 89% level of codon discrimination.
So you start Optimizing the device by tweaking the internal connections between the components of the analyzer, trying to find a combination that improves the codon discrimination level (preferably without degrading any other feature too badly). Eventually you're able to see the pattern, and your analyzer develops a 95% discrimination level. Now you can give the analyzer to the appropriate NPC.
Alternately, you might have chosen to try to Enhance a standard genetic analyzer with non-standard components, some of which could provide a bonus to codon discrimination (though possibly to the detriment of some other operational capability).
Should the analyzer break for some reason, a character could attempt to Repair it. The player would right-click on the device and select "crafting" (or a more Star Trek-y term) to bring up the crafting window. The standard window would appear, and any damaged or destroyed components would be easily visible through the color-coding described above. The player would then be able to attempt to repair damaged components (perhaps via some minigame). Alternately, the player could choose to replace damaged or destroyed components by replicating standard components and dragging them into the appropriate component slots, or to replace damaged or destroyed components with non-standard components from the character's personal inventory. (Another way to look at this is as Fabrication or Enhancement mode gameplay, just on an existing device or system rather than a new device.)
Note: in this system, I'm assuming that players would be able to Fabricate new devices, but not new systems. I'm thinking of "systems" as large fixed installations, either on the ground, in a starbase, or mounted on a starship. Players would be able to Optimize, Enhance, and Repair such systems, but creating large systems from scratch should probably not be part of player crafting -- new systems should, I think, come from a different gameplay interface. For ships, this would be a "ship customization" interface. Once a ship system is installed, a character would then be able to attempt to Optimize, Enhance, or (when necessary) Repair it.
One of the goals of this design is to support both the reliable crafting of specific objects as well as "creative" crafting.
Reliability depends on the same inputs, connected in the same ways, always producing the same output -- that is, devices that always have the same functional characteristics. Since there's nothing random about this model of Engineering crafting, reliability is guaranteed. The internal rules by which specific inputs lead to specific outputs may be quite complex, but they would be invariant.
At the same time, the complexity -- or "depth" -- of those internal transformation rules would, in combination with having a very wide range of input components and component characteristics, allow for the possibility of surprise. Trying a new component or a new way of connecting components should produce new results (that is, new functional capabilities or new levels of performance of specific capabilities). These things should be comprehensible. Certain types of components should usually lead to certain recognizable kinds of capabilities in the devices constructed from those components, and connecting certain types of components together should generally lead to roughly consistent optimization results.
So there would be some level of predictability in a player's crafting choices. It's OK for a system to appear complex as long as it doesn't appear to be random. But that internal transformational complexity coupled with the large number of possible inputs would still allow for surprise, which should keep the crafting system fresh and interesting while still allowing reliable production.
It would be possible using this system to intentionally make a specific device to achieve a specific purpose. But those gamers who enjoy tinkering would also be able to use this system to explore creative possibilities.
More to come on this subject, I suspect. :)