Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Trade Skills: Don’t Quit your Day Job


I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to trade skills. They remain one of the most tedious aspects of MMOs, but I can’t stop. I tend to make a large number of characters in order to cover all crafting possibilities in a single supporting network (and because I like to try all the different classes). But addicted or not, I’m still annoyed at how cumbersome they can be and how stagnant their development has remained.

If you compare recent releases like LOTRO, AoC, and WAR you see that trade skills are pretty much the same as WoW (for that matter, WoW isn’t much different from UO). The variations are in the details alone. Sure, LOTRO has stepped learning instead of gradually gaining new recipes and has added critical successes. Sure AoC has trades that allow you to construct buildings and siege engines (though WOTLK has added this to WoW). WoW has eleven skills of which you can pick two; LOTRO has ten that you can get in prearranged packages of three. WAR lets you have two of six skills in its underwhelming system. But the basic premise is the same. You tediously gather resources from monsters or the environment then go through the cumbersome task of refining and combining them into equipment which you generate over and over again until you gradually improve your skill. When it comes down to it, they all function the same.

Curiously, there have been lesser giants between UO and WoW which developed more for their crafting, yet it’s a rare game these days that even seems to try. I never played the EQ series, having enjoyed AC far too much, but from what I understand, EQII pushed the crafting system common to most MMOs now and then. It actually introduced skills that players used while crafting, rather than just pushing a button and watching. It also had various qualities of base materials that could affect the final product. SWG employed the quality idea too, as well as stepping away from the node-based harvesting system. Instead, various areas of planets were more mineral rich and harvesters gathered materials by selecting the region rather than wandering in search of non-random node spawns. That is an improvement in harvesting, yet the crafting remained little changed.

The deepest shortcoming and greatest room for growth in trade skills comes in the basic premise of their application. That is, its foundation in the practices of a hunter-gatherer civilization rather than what would be expected given pseudo-medieval technology. So let’s take a look at history before we step back into gaming.

The Celts, although generally perceived by their Greco-Roman neighbors as barbaric, had highly developed mining during the Hallstatt era (700-500 BC). They didn’t gather iron that they stumbled across like some form of crude hunter-gatherer. On the contrary, they developed towns and mines. In the Middle Ages, equipment was crude yet miners burrowed sixty meters into the earth in the search for ore.

Most MMOs are loosely set in the technological equivalent of the “High Middle Ages” which occurred two millennia after the Celts. Furthermore, games have numerous dungeons that are called “mines.” Despite this, designers have decided that players can’t collect ore like normal miners. Instead they have to stumble across it in their travels and loot it where it lies.

Medieval farmers weren’t ignorant either. The three-field system of crop rotation was introduced in Europe in AD 700, came to widespread use by AD 1100, and is still largely used today. I hardly think such competent farmers and herbalists made a common practice of scurrying through the woods looking for random naturally growing herbs and plants. Yet WoW’s herbalists gather plants in a very crude fashion compared to what should be a refined method of growing domesticated herbs. LOTRO’s farming is more accurate but suffers from being the most grueling of all trade skills I’ve experienced.

So how can crafting be made both more accurate and more enjoyable? The first step is to break from the fundamental system that currently exists. Most recent MMO crafting systems are gross imitations of what already has been established in previous games with only minor tweaking to make it supposedly new. For one possible change, let’s step once again into history and look at societal roles. In the pre-medieval days of Celtic and Germanic tribes, the warrior was also a farmer but this combination disappeared with the feudal system. Instead, warriors became a distinctive class to whom peasants turned for protection in exchange for subservience. If such is the case, it makes little sense for a player character in a medieval setting to be both a warrior and a tradesman. The concept of the weekend warrior had disappeared by the Middle Ages and would not return for centuries.

To incorporate the differences between the martial and non-martial classes, players should be able to hire their own NPC vassals to serve as their tradesmen. These tradesmen could work while the player actually “plays” the game, removing the tedium. From time to time, the player returns to his fief to assign orders, oversee the requisition of provisions, and determine the disposition of what has been produced whether that be utilizing the crafted merchandise, selling it, trading it, or scraping it. A player could have several tradesmen working for him such as miners, foresters, and farmers to gather the resources and smiths, woodsmen, and cooks to craft from what is collected. So instead of being in proficient in two or three skills themselves, a player more realistically has two or three skilled vassals who perform those tasks for him. Tradesmen could gain skill either as the player levels and/or as they utilize their craft. One possibility is to link them to an account rather than to a specific character.

Of course this is but one idea of many. For most players, trade skills are a nice addition to the gaming experience but we’d rather not quit our adventuring “day job” for long hours at a time to keep up on crafting. Trade skills are generally time consuming, tedious, and devoid of player skill when they should be enjoyable, not just for the rewards they offer at the end of the hard work, but because the hard work is fun in and of itself.

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