(Originally Posted June 2009)

Right now on City of Heroes, generic crafted level 50 accuracy-improving enhancements are selling for 500k each in the game’s currency at the player auction house. This isn’t too bad, considering that level 40 versions of the same enhancement are selling for 400k.

Except that level 40 enhancements cost 200-300k to craft (depending on how much you paid for the components), while level 50 enhancements cost 1 million to craft before you even add the components. Anyone off the street can make a tidy profit from crafting and selling the level 40s, while anyone trying to sell the higher level versions is going to bleed currency like a sieve.

The problem comes from how crafting is regularly incentivized in MMOs.

Back when I was playing World of Warcraft (and I have no reason to believe it’s any different now), the advice to players wanting to make money as quickly as possible was to take two gathering professions (instead of a gathering profession and a craft). The reason for this was very straightforward: for almost every crafted item at every level, the components of the item would sell for more on the auction house than the actual item. Nearly every crafted item was sold at a loss.

The reason for this is very simple: the crafters weren’t making items for sale, they were making them for skillups. WoW’s crafting follows a very hierarchical progression; a crafter can’t make items appropriate for a higher level until increasing his or her skill by making many items of lower level. The vast majority of crafted items posted to the auction house were, therefore, priced mostly incidentally: their value to the crafter was that making them had increased his or her skill by a point, not what they’d sell for.

Remember those people with two gathering professions? Once they reached the level cap and had plenty of money, they might decide that they wanted to dabble in the crafting system. They’d drop one of their gathering skills, start a new craft at 0, and then proceed to buy lots of components (driving up the price), craft recipes to skill up as quickly as possible, and sell the crafted items as an afterthought (glutting the market with cheap items and driving down the price). The cycle repeated itself.

Why level a crafting skill at all? Each contained a few decent crafted items that were either usable only by the crafter, or were hard to get. Thus, amidst the dross of crafted goods, there were a few rare items that were worth more than their components, and worth all the trouble of skilling up crafting to get.

City of Heroes’ situation is a bit more complicated, but similar. Instead of offering skillups, CoH offers crafting badges. Once you’ve made a certain number of enhancements of a given type and level, further enhancements of that kind don’t require a new recipe and the actual crafting is done at half-cost. For the Level 40 Accuracy enhancement mentioned above, that’s a saving of around 150k (3/8 of the sale price becomes pure profit). In order to sell enhancements at this profit, though, a crafter has to make a lot of enhancements at a minimal profit, or even a loss, first.

And even when the crafter gets the badge that makes crafting the enhancement profitable, he or she is still competing with random-drop non-generic recipes that cost the same to make no matter who crafts them. The level 50 enhancements are so much less profitable largely because level 50 is the max level, and characters there would rather buy specific set-based enhancements than the generics.

But, ultimately, the low price of crafted enhancements is the same problem as WoW. Accuracy enhancements are one of a few exceptions that are in high demand; most crafted enhancements sell for far less than the cost of their components, much less the cost of crafting. I spent the last week as part of the problem: I was trying to get all the crafting badges* on one of my characters, so the actual enhancements were just the trash left over from getting the badge. Anyone on when I was could have gotten enhancements that cost up to 200,000 to craft for as little as 100. And I still had to delete a lot of the lowest level ones because the market was so glutted that it wasn’t worth tying up an auction slot for days on something I was basically giving away.

This long and rambling explanation brings me to my point: MMOs will never actually be virtual worlds for the purposes of crafters as long as learning to craft is part of the grind.

In the real world, crafted goods very rarely cost less than the materials used to make them. There are simply too few people making any given thing relative to the population as a whole, and even fewer of them that can afford to take a loss on their work. But in an MMO, fully everyone in the population can be a crafter; and as long as a number goes up on the character sheet and something useful eventually comes out, very few are going to actually care that crafting is an expense rather than an income. The game is to make the crafting skill number go up, not to make money with the crafting.

But I think there is a significant minority of players that go into these games with the fantasy of becoming a crafter in the traditional sense: buying components wisely, putting hard work and love into a creation, and selling it for a profit. For these people, requiring them to make 10 of Widget A and 10 of Widget B before they can make Widget C (the one they really want to make) is not a feature. Requiring them to go gather their own materials if they want to actually make a profit on their crafting (and still knowing they’d have made more of a profit just selling the components) is not a feature.

And you’d likely have enough of these people that your economy would be perfectly healthy if they were only competing against one another on price, instead of against the unrealistic prices set by high-level characters grinding up a tradeskill. The rest of your players probably wouldn’t care, as long as they still had things to do that interested them.

For this to happen, it requires designing part of the game around players that have little interest (or even capability) in beating up walking sacks of EXP and leaving one more number that goes ding off of the majority’s character sheets. It’s a lot harder than just letting everyone craft, forcing them to grind it up, and thereby adding an additional time sink to the game.

But it might result in a much healthier economy and much happier crafters.

*And I did, too!