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Flameseeker Chronicles: Crafting up a storm in Guild Wars 2

Anatoli Ingram

Merry Wintersday! Guild Wars 2's non-denominational twinkly winter celebration is in full swing. Despite earlier reports from ArenaNet that we'd get pure repeats of both Halloween and Wintersday, this year has added some new quests and a thematically appropriate relocation to Divinity's Reach. I was wrong last week about the sad Dickensian atmosphere of ruined Lion's Arch decorated with snowflakes, but there are still plenty of unfortunate children, so it all evens out.

As your resident Scrooge, I'm going to skirt around the topic of candy canes and jumping puzzles to talk about a game feature that's much closer to my heart: crafting. However, I come to lob snowballs at GW2's crafting system, not to praise it.

Guild Wars 2 isn't the only MMO I play regularly. I also play Final Fantasy XIV, and in FFXIV I craft. That's it, for the most part. Sure, I dabble in combat classes now and again, and I got White Mage to max level so I could buy a house, but most of my time is spent either head-down over a crafting bench or gathering the raw materials necessary to continue. For this to take up most of my playtime in a game that has a great deal of other content is viable because crafting in FFXIV is its own self-contained endgame, complete with gear progression, character development, and even story content. High-level crafters have complex skill rotations that require multiple cross-class abilities, and so having every craft at max level is considered the minimum threshold for breaking into the big leagues. Entry to the top tier of crafting takes a lot of money, a lot of time, and probably an undying love for making virtual items. I can't imagine undertaking all of it without that last part, but I'm sure someone tried once and has since wandered off, hollow-eyed, to live in the darkest forests with the wolves.

Approaching crafting in this way necessarily creates a huge barrier to creating the best and rarest items. But FFXIV also starts novice crafters off slow and easy, and even getting a craft or two to mid or high level can provide benefits for players such as gear augmentation, lowered repair costs, and potential income -- even while leveling a combat class. Low-level crafted materials are often even required for higher-tier items, so there are a few avenues for profit on the way to max level. Crafting is treated as a separate and valid playstyle choice, and as a result FFXIV retains a community of people who play to craft. Those players are part of the game's social structure: A non-crafter will need them to obtain many new vanity items, crafted gear, and augments.

Guild Wars 2's crafting system is approached from a much different direction. While there's still potential to make money from a low-level craft, it's very difficult to keep pace with a leveling combat profession due to the sheer amount of items needed to get from one level to the next. Farming the materials all but ensures a player will have outleveled the gear she wants to make by the time she can make it, and gear is so cheap and plentiful from the trading post that it's not really worth the effort anyway unless you're dead set on being self-sufficient. Buying the materials to level outright can get very expensive, and so the fastest and least painful way to proceed is arguably to finish getting to 80 and then farm the gold to invest in powerleveling your chosen craft.

You can't really argue that endgame crafting isn't relevant in GW2: Level 500 crafting is still the most reliable way to grab Ascended armor and weapons, even though more options for obtaining them through drops have been added over time. In fact, it's so relevant that lots of dedicated players immediately dropped everything to craft their way to 500 when the gear was introduced, even if they'd never been particularly interested in it before.

You peppermint things have nothing on me. I've got a whole bag of you on my desk, and once I'm through with them, you're next.
Working hard or hardly working

I hold this truth to be self-evident: Players who aren't drawn to crafting will, as a general rule, not like crafting any better even if they're given a reason to do it. They will instead probably resent having to waste time on an activity they see as grindy and pointless, especially if it acts as a gate to combat activities they'd rather be doing. It's clear that ArenaNet doesn't want character power to depend on RNG, which is certainly a good thing, but I'm still a little disappointed that crafting was sacrificed to the cause.

"Sacrificed" sounds a little dramatic, doesn't it? Crafting requires a delicate balance if it's intended to serve crafters as an activity, and it's rare to find a modern MMO that hits that balance, or even tries. Games with a strong focus on combat will often either make crafting relatively inconsequential so non-crafters won't feel obligated to do it or make crafting attractive to everyone by attaching something mandatory to it. Unfortunately, GW2's crafting falls somewhere in the middle of both. As a crafter, I find it deeply unsatisfying, and my non-crafting friends are tired of having to navigate a process that appears to have been designed as a roadblock.

For me, one of the main draws of crafting in an MMO is the potential to be social and useful to other players without necessarily having to shed monster blood together. Crafting done right is a virtual world feature; it simulates the presence of a wide variety of citizens with different lives and specializations without having to have all of those people represented by NPCs. One of my biggest gripes with the Mystic Forge -- and I have a lot of them -- is that Zommoros squats directly in a niche that could have been filled by high-level crafting. Dedicated crafters have very little to provide to other players beyond raw materials, but anyone can collect those materials and bring them to the grumpy fountain. Crafting itself is really just a stepping stone to being able to refine raw Zommoros chow with greater ease, and so crafters themselves are more middlemen than masters.

On the other hand, the process to craft a single Ascended item is the sort of thing even a four-star FFXIV crafter might raise an eyebrow at, Spock-like, before cracking her knuckles and getting down to business. Not only does it necessitate collecting items from game content in general, but it's heavily time-gated and one of the few endgame services crafters can provide to each other is selling materials to shorten the process. We're so flooded with the ostensibly super-rare magic doodads used to make Ascended gear that we now have even more doodads to siphon them off, but some of the more common materials are hugely expensive because the recipes were designed to soak up hundreds of them to begin with. The whole thing is one long cascade of corrective action.

There are a few elements at work here that lead me to use a dire word like "sacrifice." Ascended gear was essentially added for the express purpose of being more difficult to get than Exotic gear. And if your goal is to make certain that endgame players don't quickly achieve maximum power and then roll around on the ground like bored yet deadly harp seals, it makes some amount of sense to gate it behind something that takes some effort to achieve, but it's also something that they're not absolutely in love with.

This is bad for players who do craft for the love of it because while it adds widespread value to the activity on a personal level, it also means that a great many more of us now have level 500 crafting than otherwise would have, and that lessens the impact of a single player with crafting as his focus. It's not even really about how much money he could make or how exclusive a crafting-specific item is; rather, players who choose to craft often like to feel as though it's their in-game profession. It's a roleplaying element, one both personal and social, that allows us to further define our character and our place in a virtual world. Even GW2's growing number of collectable recipes are limited in usefulness by how often crafting is treated as a way to gate the acquisition of account-bound items. If you're happy with your Berserker gear, why go the extra mile to craft untradable combos like Celestial?

Of course I know what the blue bucket is for. What am I, new here? I'm just thinking, that's all. Hold on, it's coming to me.
If it ain't broke

Initially I was very excited for GW2 to have real live crafting because the original Guild Wars offered it only in a form similar to the Mystic Forge: You gathered materials, brought them to an NPC, and got them turned into items for you without any sort of character progression at all. If crafting in GW2 had revolved solely around chucking stuff down Zommoros's gaping maw from the start, the end results would have been nearly the same only without a preceding 400 levels of churning out trading post bloating salvage fodder. Much like GW2's bafflingly high character level cap, it feels like an MMORPG feature that was brought into the game without sufficient understanding of why it would make sense or of what would draw specific players to it. And like the massive leveling curve -- which has been revisited through the new player experience -- crafting is a system with a sprawling middle that doesn't provide any benefit beyond watching bars fill.

The crafting backpacks were a good way to give being a crafter more pizazz, but I think it's probably too late to shut the door and maintain "crafter" as a distinct player identity in GW2. The player character is the sort of hero who wakes up, eats his or her balanced breakfast, strides out to take charge of dragon situations, and gets home in time to forge rare items of mystical power before dinner. I could make a lot of suggestions as to how to "fix" crafting to my personal tastes, but there's a much bigger picture to look at.

ArenaNet has clearly learned a great deal in GW2's two-years-and-change of life, but some of the additions we've seen have suffered from an identity crisis. For example, the trait revamp is unpopular even though ANet drew inspiration for it directly from player suggestions, and I think it missed the mark because what would make the changes more fun wasn't clearly defined enough. Instead it ended up as a barrier to build experimentation for new players and an annoyance for veteran players. It works against GW2's pick-up-and-play accessibility but offers little in return. On the other end, collections slot well with the game because they provide a use for previously useless items while simultaneously injecting some lore and personality. I think the vast difference between the two shows growth and how much the game can benefit from features that play to its strengths.

In the end -- as much as it pains me to admit it as a dedicated crafting fan -- GW2 may have been better off without a traditional crafting system that serves neither the people who enjoy those systems nor the people who don't. For a long time I wanted GW2 to move toward more virtual world features or to provide more RPG elements, but the truth may be that they simply don't mesh with what the game does right. I would rather not have those things in favor of ArenaNet designing exclusively toward GW2's existing strengths, which it has plenty of.

What do you think of the crafting system? If you aren't happy with it, how would you change it? If you are happy with it, feel free to either throw snowballs at my head or sound off on what you think it does right. I'll even stand on one of those dissolving snowflakes for that real dunk tank atmosphere. Have a happy holiday week, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every other Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.

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