I Want to Forge Swords

I Want to Forge Swords. [Another letter to game designers]

Some of you might be familiar with I Want to Bake Bread –an essay that I wrote a few months ago. That essay spoke in general terms about some of the things that you as game designers could do to attract crafters to your game. It also gave some reasons why you might want to do so. It was an easy essay to write, because I didn’t have to solve any of the problems associated with crafting. I just pointed them out and –as you probably noticed– left you holding the bag.

I received much more feedback from that essay than I expected and much of it was along the lines of “I agree, but how do you see crafting actually working in a game that you would like to play?” That was a tough question for me. I had ideas, but I’d never tried to set them down as a unified whole. In case you have any doubts, it’s much harder to try to come up with a solution than it is to point out a problem. This essay was written in part as an answer to everyone who asked that question.

Based on the feedback from that essay and my own views, I’m going to try to be a little more helpful this time around. Naturally, I don’t know much about how your game works internally, and –depending on the game– I might not know much about how it works externally either. Because of that, I’ll be a bit on the general side. You will need to fill in the specifics for each idea (or decide that certain ideas won’t work in your world at all).

There are many aspects of crafting that could be discussed, but there is not enough space here to do them all justice. This particular essay will focus on ideas that I associate with the "making items" part of crafting. For now we’re going to ignore such topics as training, repairing, identifying, artistry, participating and selling. All of those things are also important to crafters, but it seems like a good idea to talk about making items first.

Just so I’m not wasting your time, let me list a few things that I think are fundamental. If you really don’t agree with these, it’s probably not worth your time to read any further:

  • Player interaction should be encouraged. This builds communities which make it harder for us to leave your world.
  • Player diversity should be encouraged. This promotes attachment to characters which makes it harder for us leave your world.
  • Player decisions should be important. This promotes a sense of realism and self determination which turns us into evangelists for your world.

As with baking in the previous essay– smithing is just the current crafting metaphor. I also want to forge muffins and dresses, phasers and chairs, scrolls and steam engines, bedknobs and broomsticks, blasters and potions. I want to forge swords and all of the other items and equipment in your game.

I. Resources

How do we get resources? Gems and ores, hides and herbs, circuit boards and energy cells: the raw materials of crafting in your world. What do crafter want to know first about resources? How do we get them?

  • Gathering: one of the abilities we should be able to choose is the ability to gather resources from the wild. These abilities (mining for a smith, plant lore for a baker, transistor-transistor logic handbook for an electrical engineer…) are a natural adjunct for crafters, but they also provide a means for your new players to interact with your established players by providing raw materials. Becoming more skilled at gathering might allow an increase in the quantity or quality of the resources found. Ideally, whether to gather more or better resources would be influenced by player decisions.
  • Looting: this form of resource procurement generally requires slaying something first. Once the something is slain, it may or may not require the use of an ability to procure the resource. Some resources may simply be carried by the creature (say, in a pouch, backpack or wallet) or be readily removable (like a battery or an antler). Other resources might require some special knowledge to remove correctly. If an ability is required, it should probably be an ability that is not costly to master (in terms of time and any skill cap) to encourage adventuring types that it is worth their time and effort to do so.
  • Purchasing: because it generally decreases player interaction, purchasing resources for crafting from computer controlled characters should probably be avoided. Purchasing resources from computer controlled players also has the potential for introducing artificial floors and ceilings on the price of resources. Don’t do that, because it makes our decisions about the worth of objects in your game less meaningful. Of course, to get away with not having NPCs that sell resources, the other avenues must offer sufficient quantities (and the correct varieties) of resources.

Where are the resources? Location, Location, Location… First of all, make locations meaningful. If movement between two locations is quick and easy, then they are –for all intents– the same location. We would prefer that you have distinct locations in your game. We would like to be known as the best bronze smith in Three Creeks, or the only certified droid tech on Revoli Seven. If popping from location to location is too easy, then people will not settle down and call one location home.

Once you have locations in your game, you can add interest by making some of your resources location specific. Crafters who want to work with this resource would need to travel to a town near where it can be acquired, or they will need to find a group of people willing to transport it to their location. Items made from this resource would –in all likelihood– be less common the farther you traveled from its point of origin. These resources my be quite a bit more valuable to players who live in far off lands.

Congratulations, you have just added Trade, Trade Routes, Trade Houses, Pirates, Bandits, Wagon Trains, and Mercenaries to your game. Of course, we are not suggesting that all of your resources have to be location specific. There could be varieties that are found "everywhere" and varieties whose location appears to be quite random. We will love your game more if the appearance in the last sentence is deceiving.

II. Subtypes & Properties

We like diversity; give us subtypes. While simply having “hides” might be fine for adventurers, please think ahead and make it possible to divide hides into rabbit pelts and raw hide, antlers and eyeballs, snake skin and dragon scales. Your crafters will expect this type of detail, and some of the rest of this essay assumes that it exists in (or can be added to) your game.

The wrong approach: More important than just having different subtypes is how they act in your game. We’re not in favor of a straight progression in quality. All this does is ensure that everyone will be wearing armor that is made of the same material. It doesn’t really help in the long run to make the higher quality resources scarce. All that will do is put off the day when everyone is using the same items.

The right approach: Decide what qualities you want the items we make to have, then assign them in various combinations to the resource subtypes. Let me give a more extended example of this using armor. Suppose you decide that your armor is going to have the following characteristics (just for example):

  • Weight: duh, how heavy it is.
  • Flexibility: can you do a backflip, climb a wall or cast a spell while wearing it?
  • Refleciveness: how well will it protect from a laser or other damaging photoelectric effects?
  • Insulation: how well will it protect from heat and cold?
  • Colorableness: how easy is it to dye another color?
  • Slashing: how well does it protect from bladed weapons? (perhaps inversely proportional to how much damage the armor takes?)
  • Bashing: how well does it protect from blunt weapons? (perhaps inversely proportional to how much damage the armor takes?)
  • Durability: how much damage can the armor take before it is useless?
  • Maintenance: how expensive it is to maintain this armor?

Obviously, some of these things are going to be influenced more –perhaps even exclusively in some cases– by the type of armor (leather, plate, bullet proof, containment field…) and less by what the armor is made of. That’s fine. All plate armor might be too inflexible to cast spells in no matter what it is made of, and all leather armor might produce less sound than any chain mail.

Lets look at one specific type of armor, and pick one made out of metal… How about Platemail? The idea is that Platemail itself –due to it’s design, nature, tech level, blessedness or whatever– has certain properties, but these properties can be modified to a certain extent by what the platemail is made of. This can be accomplished by taking a “base resource” (which may or may not actually exist in your game) and saying that everything made with the base resource has the properties of the armor type itself. From there you assign bonuses and restrictions for your resource subtypes. Here are some examples:

  • Iron Ore: no modifications (the base resource for metal)
  • Mithrial: weight -20%, reflectiveness +10%, Bashing – 30%, Maintenance + 05%
  • Bronze: slashing -10%, bashing -10%, Maintenance -10%
  • Valorite: slashing -05%, bashing -05%, puncture -05%, colorableness +40%, Maintenance +20%
  • Titanium: weight +20%, insulation -10%, colorableness -60%, durability +50%, Maintenance +10%

The crafters –based on availability, player demand, and so forth– would decide what to use when they make something. Is the above list balanced? Probably not, but we know that this balance is important, and probably hard to get right the first time. Change the percentages, change the scarcity, change the ability level needed to work with the subtype as you need to. We know that balance is important, and –as crafters– we’ll support changes that need to be made. We don’t want only one resource subtype to be the “best” in the game. We’re for diversity. In fact, we want to be able to combine the different subtypes as well. Maybe that’s an ability we gain as we progress as crafters? If it takes 500 ore to make a suit of platemail, let us experiment with a 300 Mithrial and 200 Valorite alloy. The same obviously goes for alchemists mixing potions, technicians making droids, shipwrights building ships and so forth.

III. Quality

We’d like you to consider adopting the idea that each item in your game has an attribute called quality. Item quality need not have a large impact on your game. And, as it pertains to crafting, quality would have two different effects.

Resources would have a quality associated with them. The quality of the resources used by a crafter would effect the quality of the item produced. At high levels of ability, you might need higher quality resources to produce certain items. This could be accomplished by using only high quality resources or by using a larger –perhaps much larger– number of normal quality resources. This usage of a larger number of normal quality resources would be an expression of the crafter sifting through to find the best or distilling lower quality resources into higher. Why bother? It is a good way to ensure that there is sufficient monetary “space” between the cost of items produced by low ability crafters and high ability crafters. You could also accomplish the same goal by increasing the rate of failure at higher ability levels, or simply requiring a much larger number of resources at higher ability levels, but we feel it is more realistic to demand that at a certain level of ability a crafter must use higher quality resources to produce the best items that they can make.

As mentioned above, the other effect on crafters would be that each item they produce would have a quality associated with it. There would be many things effecting the quality of the item. For example: resource quality, equipment used to make the item, the quality of that equipment, the crafter’s ability, the item’s difficulty, the location where it was made, the phase of the moon(s) and whatever else you feel is relevant in your game. How big of an effect would quality have on an item? It need not be a large amount. Perhaps something like a range of +/- 10% for the attributes of the item that you feel should be effected by item quality. You might ask, “Why do it, if it doesn’t have a large effect?" Because it sets the stage for player decisions such as:

  • Do I want to make this as quickly as I can or as well as I can?
  • Do I want to take the time to have the quality of this item ascertained before I sell it?
  • Do I use high quality resources on an item for this newbie I just met?
  • Should I pay this player more for these resources since they are separated by quality?
  • Do I want to use these high quality resources on an item that I can’t sell quickly just to raise my ability?

Player decisions are good, and this is another way that you can add them to your game. Combine this with the idea of resource location and you’ve added decisions like, “Do I want to risk my life to get the purest copper?”.

IV. Blueprints

How do we know what we’re making? To create an item you would need to have a blueprint for that item (recipe, schematics, manual, plan, drawing, diagram, textbook…). Blueprints would list things like: the name of the item, the raw materials needed, the tools needed and so forth. By looking at a blueprint, a smith could get a general idea of how difficult that item would be for them to make and how long it would take to complete the item.

How do you get blueprints? When you begin your life as a crafter, you receive (presumably after suitable training and payments) a set of basic blueprints from your guild. These should serve you in good stead until you can procure more. Where do you go for more blueprints? Here are a few ideas. You’ll have to see which ones make sense in your world (your game is probably more interesting if not all blueprints are available from all sources):

  • Purchased from guildmasters
  • Found as loot on "monsters" (those crafty orcs)
  • Created by players (if you allow research in your game)
  • Copied by other players (if you allow blueprints to be copied by someone with, say, the literacy and crafting ability)

Blueprints, like everything else, would have a quality associated with them. The quality of the blueprint might affect the resources consumed when making the item, the quality of the item produced, the amount of time it takes to make the item, the ability level required to make the item, the chance of succeeding at making the item, or anything else that makes sense in your game. It is possible that a given blueprint might be of higher quality in some respects and lower quality in others. If you allow players to make copies of blueprints, I would think a copy would almost certainly be of somewhat lesser quality than the original.

Blueprints come in two varieties: specific and general. Specific blueprints tell you exactly what resources to use to create “red beard’s mighty longsword of fresh breath”. General blueprints give the crafter some latitude in deciding what to use. For instance, a general blueprint for a morning star might specify “35 ingots, 10 of which must be of myronite”. The drawback to using general blueprints is that they are always of lower overall quality than a specific blueprint used to make the same item (and they don’t generally have cool names).

Blueprints also give you a fairly straight forward means of allowing more than one crafter to work on the same project. The person who starts the project (lets say it’s a project to create 10 long swords) can allow others to join the project by presenting them with the blueprint. There would need to be rules about ability gain, quality of the items produced and the amount of time involved in completing the project, but those can be dealt with individually for each game.

For convenience sake, it would be nice if we could bind all of our blueprints together in some form.

V. Item Research

This section is completely optional, and is meant as a means for your players to explore the item space that you have defined without requiring you to setup specific named items for all of the variations that you allow in your game. If they wish to make an item for which they have no blueprint, they begin to research a new item (which may, incidentally, have already been researched by another player). Here’s an overview of the research process:

  1. The player purchases a “research log” and uses it to designate the general type of item that they are researching (short sword, potion, rifle, loaf of bread, thruster…). They then designate the resources they will be using (both the type and quantity). You may wish to also allow them to pick which tools they will be using to create the item, or you might have the type of item they are making determine the tools they will need.
  2. The crafter attempts to make the item. If they succeed, an item called “research item X” is created (where item is the type of item and X is the number of items so far created from this research log). In addition to the item, an entry is added to the research log: “Did item X perform as you expected?”.
  3. It is now up to the crafter to determine if the item produced is indeed the item attempted. For some items (potions, drugs, spells) this will involve actually using the item and noticing the results. For other items it will mean performing (or paying for the performance of) tests on the item to determine it’s properties. These test tend to render the item unusable, which makes research fairly expensive.
  4. Once the crafter has determined whether or not the properties of the item were as expected, they record that information in their research log by answering the question “Did item X perform as you expected?”. This represents the accumulation of knowledge concerning the production of this item. Answering the question correctly results in gaining knowledge, and answering it incorrectly results in loosing knowledge (or gaining incorrect knowledge if you prefer).
  5. When they have gained sufficient knowledge about the item, the research log becomes a blueprint, and they can then use it as any of their other blueprints. At that point, the crafter gets to decide on a name for the new blueprint. This is the name by which all items created from this blueprint will be known, so it must be chosen wisely (assuming you allow named items in your game). If copying of blueprints is allowed, all items made from copies will also use this name.

It is probably worth noting that the easiest way for your code to produce items that do not perform as expected is to internally substitute some percentage of the resources used for resources of another type. This will cause the research item to perform in a noticeably different manner (if the correct tests are performed) without requiring you to define hundreds of different “unexpected results” before hand.

This process is intended to allow for research in online games without reducing it to a predetermined set of steps that can be retrieved from a web site two weeks after your game ships. The properties of each item will eventually be available from a web site, but those who wish to engage in research must still determine if their results are consistent with the results of their crafting peers.

Simple items would presumably require little research before they could be created. Though, more research may result in a higher quality blueprint.

Finally, it should be noted that players who do not wish to research items are not required to do so. They can beg, buy, borrow, loot or steal their blueprints from others. The most expensive item a crafter can produce might be a research log that is completed but as yet unnamed.

Note: If you wish to implement creation of entirely new item types by players that would be great, and we would certainly appreciate it. But I can’t personally see an easy way to implement something that complex.

VI. Item Creation

At one point, I was of the opinion that the interface for crafting needed to be as detailed as the interface for combat: hammer the ingot with just the right tool at a certain temperature for a specific length of time; quench it in the right liquid and then move on to the hilt. Choose just the right amount of material to balance the blade. Put an edge on the blade and assemble it together with the hilt. Each of these becomes a process that the smith must supervise, make decisions for and –potentially– ruin their work by doing incorrectly. If done realistically, I expect the result would be involved, complex, eventually tedious, and would invite macroing. Designing the process in an involved way that would tend to preclude macroing would be a project on par with designing a combat system. Realistically, I don’t expect a game company to devote resources to something like that. There are crafters who would find it truly enjoyable and amazing, but there are at least as many who are escaping the constant pressure that monster hunters endure.

Assuming you don’t want to go with something so complex, I’m going to suggest a more relaxed approach. The player selects the blueprint for the item they will attempt to create and, –in the case of a general blueprint– the resources they will use. Next they select the number of items they are attempting to make. Then, based on the item, resources, player ability, blueprint quality, player tool quality, phase of the moon and whatever else you care to include, the computer determines the length of time it will take the player will finish the item. After the player has worked on the item for that length of time, the computer uses the same variables to determine the quality of the item produced. I prefer the approach that each attempt will result in the production of some item –an item of absolutely abysmal quality in some cases. You may prefer that a player simply fail to produce anything at all in those cases, and stop the crafting process when they realize they have failed.

A player may only work on one project at a time, but may freely start new projects (as long as they are based on different blueprints) and switch between projects by selecting a blueprint with a project that is already started. It should probably also be possible to cancel a project.

How long should it take to complete a project? I would suggest that the completion time be related most closely to the expected life of the item. A loaf of bread would take less time to make than a suit of armor. A suit of armor would take less time to make than a house. After life expectancy, the complexity of the item should be considered. A short sword should take less time to create than a serpentine short sword of the maztors. The type of resources used to create the item could have an effect on the completion time as well. Finally, it should take longer to produce a higher quality item. What factors might reduce the amount of time? The crafter’s ability, the blueprint quality, and the quality of the tools used certainly come to mind.

How long should it take to produce an item in more absolute terms (i.e., real world time)? That is a game balance decision that has many factors, but I think the important thing to keep in mind is that a crafter has to be able to earn an amount of money that is comparable to the amount that can be earned by your other players. This must be tempered by the amount of risk each group is exposed to, and also with the demand of your playerbase for the items that crafter produce. If items tend to cost too much, you might try reducing the amount of time it takes to make the item; likewise if they cost too little.

Also worth considering is allowing players to continue working on items when they are logged out. The work could probably be expected to continue at a slower rate, and a “mandatory” 8 hours of sleep could be “required” by only allowing a total of 16 total hours of online and off-line crafting during each Real World™ day. This helps even the playing field between casual and hardcore gamers, and also lessens your server load by avoiding crafters feeling that they must remain logged on so they can finish an item. If you do something like this, it might be beneficial to have the amount of “work” done while off-line gradually diminish until it runs out. There’s no real need to worry about a player setting up a project and coming back a week later to collect 500 suits of armor, because they could not carry enough resources to make more than a few of them (perhaps not even one, depending on how you design things).

A compromise between a very complex approach to crafting and this bare bones approach might be to call for certain events during the life of the project. Tell the player that they feel more of a certain resource is required. Make them switch to a different tool at different points in the process. Require that they are within a certain proximity to “large tools” such as a forge or an oscilloscope. Ask them to perform a test on the object… The item they are crafting is not ruined if they can not immediately satisfy a condition, but work on the project is halted until the condition is met.

This allows some activity during the crafting process, and also reduces player’s ability to macro crafting (of course, by this point I hope we’ve done the things necessary to reduce the need and desire to macro).

One final decision needs to be added to this model of crafting. Players should be given a means of specifying the amount of attention that their character is giving to Item Quality, Ability Training, and Construction Speed. My own model for this is a slider where increasing any one of these three reduces the other two proportionally. Thus a crafter would need to decide which of these was most important for any given project.

VII. Summary

That’s a general overview of how I –and the people from whom I’ve stolen ideas– see crafting work in a game that tries to attract crafters. Is it the only possibility? Certainly not, and I look forward to hearing how others would attempt to address some of the issues raised in the first essay. This is just one way that making items could be implemented in the spirit of the I Want to Bake Bread essay.

Of course, making items itself is just one of the issues that effect how crafters view your game. In a future essay, I’ll collect some thoughts on implementing the crafting ability. We’ll look at questions like: How to you gain crafting ability? What benefits does the ability give you? How does crafting interact with other abilities? How do crafters and other players know what you’ve made? How do we repair items? How can multiple people work together in crafting? What about the merchant aspect of crafting?

Thanks for suffering through such a long essay, and we look forward to playing your game.

Sie Ming

Lloyd@LloydAndLauren.com

[self appointed speaker for sword forgers of all varieties]

This essay originally appeared as an editorial on Stratics.

Post Script:

And I’d like to say thanks to everyone else who sent e-mail saying that they wanted to “bake bread” too. Special thanks to those of you who reposted the essay in other places. I learned a lot by reading peoples reactions on message boards and newsgroups. Thanks for posting it, and thanks for telling me so I could read the responses. I’d also like to thank those of you who helped prepare this essay with your comments on the "prerelease" versions.

As always, I’d love to hear any feedback that you have after reading this article. I’m certainly not above revising it to include a new idea or to remove something that’s unworkable. If you have any thoughts on the questions raised in the last paragraph (or ideas for the next title) I would really like to hear those. I believe those are the hardest questions, and they’re next on the list.


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