We are excited to feature our first guest editorial on Tamriel Foundry in what we hope will become a regular feature. This first submission comes from member Riastrad, who investigates the challenges faced by ZeniMax Online in designing a balanced and compelling MMO crafting system in an Elder Scrolls context. We think its a great article, and encourage you all to read it and offer feedback in the comments below. Additionally, if anyone within the community is interested in contributing a guest editorial for this series, please feel free to contact us with your idea.
Crafting systems in MMOs are notoriously difficult to balance; with many failures over the years, but only select few successes. The Lord of the Rings Online in particular is a game in which crafting was ideally implemented. The LOTRO system was simple, but it allowed for many possible outcomes, with certain results being extremely valuable. Developers need to tackle the challenge of keeping crafting viable throughout endgame content without it becoming too strong. Of equal difficulty is making crafting interesting to use; overly simple systems are boring, while extreme complexity alienates players. LOTRO found this balance by incorporating an aspect of randomization in crafting results, allowing items a chance to turn out exceptionally strong. All of these issues collectively comprise a difficult job for game developers, though balanced crafting is not impossible.
Developing a crafting system for The Elder Scrolls Online adds an additional obstacle, since there is already a model for crafting from the single player game. Developers will have to modify the existing mechanics in such a way that it still feels familiar to fans but additionally is viable for an MMO. In past Elder Scrolls games there are three major forms of crafting: Smithing, Enchanting, and Alchemy. In the single player games crafting is very strong, to the extent that it is essentially required to maximize your character’s potential. At higher levels, crafting contributes towards nearly godlike effectiveness. A crafting system which allows the player this much strength is a not ideal, since it eliminates a great deal of the challenge of the game. In an MMO this potential imbalance in strength is even worse. While investment in crafting should be required to meet your character’s maximum potential, it should not be taken to such extremes. The market becomes another factor that differentiates MMO crafting systems from those in single player games. Crafting should allow a player to produce a reasonable profit for the time invested. A frequent issue in other games is that materials are so rare that they are priced at a rate that is commensurate with the value of the crafted item. On the other side there is the issue of components being too common, causing the market to be flooded. This surplus not only lowers the value of the item, it also eliminates some of the challenge that should accompany crafting. Crafting balance requires that ingredients must never be too rare or too common.
In my opinion, Alchemy is the easiest crafting skill to translate into an MMO. Health, mana, and stamina potions will always be in demand, especially for raiders. As long as alchemy is reserved as the means of obtaining the best potions, than the biggest issue is balancing the rarity of reagents for creating them. Adopting the system from the single player games would be an excellent choice. Discovering new recipes through experimentation encourages players devote time to work on Alchemy even after reaching the maximum level. Of course, once a recipe is first discovered, it is easily shared through guides and word of mouth, diminishing the challenge in obtaining the formula. To counter this, more valuable recipes need to incorporate additional obstacles in acquiring them. Obtaining rare components or encountering unique recipes as quest rewards or hidden in obscure locations would be an interesting way of making high value recipes more challenging to obtain.
Enchanting poses a crucial puzzle for preserving balance in crafting. In the single player Elder Scrolls games, Enchanting was a very potent way of increasing your character’s power, though perhaps to an unreasonable extent. In a single player game such imbalance is forgivable, but in an MMO it needs to be eliminated to keep combat fair between players. In Skyrim, Enchanting was a grind to level; likely due to the simple method of learning the different enchants. For an MMO, the method of unlocking enchants needs to be revamped in order to make progression more interesting and add more challenge in acquiring new recipes. A common system involves the use of daily crafting quests, which tend to feature simple objectives such as gathering materials. These quests reward the player with tokens that can be exchanged for things such as recipes. The biggest issue with daily quests is that they are often dull and repetitive; they also create a grind which leads players to quickly grow tired of crafting. A possible alternative would be to gain different kinds of materials from disenchanting items, once you have the correct combination of specific components; you can use those materials to unlock the enchant that corresponds to that combination. The method for enchanting the items would have to be altered slightly as well to accommodate a multiplayer environment. Soul stones should be kept in keeping with Elder Scrolls tradition, although the method of acquiring and using these soul stones should be changed. Restricting soul stones as select quest rewards or rare drops would be a good solution for this; with more powerful soul stones being more costly and more rare. While anyone is able to fill these stones; once filled, only enchanters of sufficient skill may use them to enchant equipment.
The final crafting skill, Smithing, poses perhaps the greatest challenge for the MMO. Equipment crafted by smith must be strong enough to be desirable, while not too strong as to render other gear obsolete. In many MMOs, crafted equipment is often either greatly inferior to gear from dungeons and PvP or so costly to create that it is not worth the effort. To counter this issue, gear created through Smithing needs to be appropriately priced. Materials used in the creation of a crafted tier need to be obtained through completing content that gives equipment of equal or slightly lesser value. Additionally, special recipes should be discoverable through adventure as unique variants of comparable gear. Required materials should ideally be a mixture of gathered resources and components acquired from dangerous foes. Equipment created by smiths needs to be desirable to all players and reasonably easy to commission for non-crafters. Adding these challenges in acquiring recipes and materials adds an interesting element to Smithing progression that will help to keep the trade engaging and valuable. In the single player games, smiths were able to not only create equipment, but also to improve it. This ability to improve gear greatly assists in preserving the usefulness and viability of smithing. Through acquiring materials and using them to improve weapons and armor, a smiths’ services would be heavily demanded.
There is one final factor that should not be overlooked, Elder Scrolls lore. This rich history contains many tales of the legendary abilities for the creation of powerful equipment, the Dwemer being a primary example. The tales of the Dwemer tell of their incredible knowledge of smithing and their ability to create powerful equipment and constructs. Recent lore describes the Dwemer discovery of how to manipulate Aetherium to create weapons and armor of legendary power. Such tales of legendary craftsmanship are prevalent in The Elder Scrolls. With such tales being well represented in the lore, it would be quite possible to create story quests based around crafting. These quests could be used as a way of gaining special benefits to certain crafting skills, as well as giving players a fun change from the typical crafting grind. Adding this type of content would not only create an interesting experience, it would also attract different player demographics that normally wouldn’t be interested in crafting.
The world of The Elder Scrolls is rich and complex, and it contains tremendous potential to create a MMO crafting system that would not only be valuable to players, but also provide an interesting and meaningful gameplay experience. These many challenges will test the creativity of the ZeniMax development team in designing a crafting system. I hope to see the potential for crafting be recognized, and am excited to see how it is implemented in The Elder Scrolls Online.
A big thanks to Riastrad for writing and submitting this fantastic article. We look forward tremendously to further installments in our Guest Editorial series from members of the community.