After combat, I believe the economy is the most important aspect to a quality sandbox title, and not just for those hoping to play a merchant. The ideal system would impact everyone playing on a regular basis rather than being a side-show for the few who decided to focus on crafting. Equally important, the system should be self-regulating, rather than requiring a total wipe every year or so when an expansion is released. Expansions should, well, actually expand an MMO, not just shift everyone over, but that’s another rant.
First let’s talk itemization. In this game items would wear and break fast, somewhere in the range of 2-3 PvE hunting trips per item/set. Getting an item repaired would slow this process some, but only temporarily. Consider games like EVE or DF, where when you go out to PvP, you more or less expect to lose what you bring, and if you don’t it’s a bonus. As this is a PvE game, you don’t expect to die every trip (but more often than when PvE’ing in a themepark), yet the item mentality should be somewhat close. Forget ‘best in slot’ thinking, and replace it with ‘best item for the job’. If you are going out to hunt some easier prey, or travel out into dangerous territory, you bring a cheaper set of gear. It will still get the job done, yet the price of it wearing down or being lost is still below what you will earn while PvE’ing. When you are faced with a do-or-die situation (your house/city being raided by a host of mobs), you bring out the top shelf stuff and hope it’s enough, yet even if you end up losing that, it’s not the end of the world (but does sting).
With gear getting destroyed at such a high rate, it has to be replaced at an equally rapid pace. This is where crafting and, more importantly, selling comes in.
First and foremost the crafting itself would be one-click simple. If you want to play a mini-game, find a mini-game online or get a Wii. Crafting should be more about the economics and supply/demand than who can play a poor mans version of Tetris (or worse) better.
But that does not mean crafting should be instant. To attempt something a bit new (to me at least), I think the initial act of crafting should take 30 seconds or so for the first item, and increasingly more time for subsequent items (a stacking debuff that lasts an hour or so) to represent fatigue. The goal is to allow a crafter to socialize or plan while making a few items that he needs right away, but to prevent someone from chain-crafting 100s of items in a row in just a few minutes. With mobs randomly raiding cities/houses (think random PK raids, but with mobs), going afk to craft would be a bad idea.
Plus you don’t need to do that with the production system. If you own a shop or are part of a crafting guild (more on both tomorrow), you can queue up production similar to what happens in EVE. The production speed would be the reverse of self-crafting; the more you craft, the less time each item takes (mass production efficiency). The goal here is to allow major crafters or crafting teams to mass supply the most common goods (arrows, basic weapons/armor/potions), and to create locations of importance in the world. Guilds will want to protect their production base from roaming mobs or invasions, and players will naturally gravitate together in cities to mutually protect each other. The world would react accordingly, and high-value mob targets would migrate away from major cities, requiring expert PvE hunters to either live out in the wilds or travel longer distances. Major player hubs would also draw the attention of mob warlords looking to raid and pillage player cities, and the bigger a city gets, the more frequent and powerful the raids get.
As for item power, think of it like a Ferrari vs a Toyota. Both get you from point A to point B in basically the same way, with the Ferrari doing it a little faster (if possible), and with some extra comfort. The biggest difference between the two, aside from price, is that the Ferrari is a status symbol and an excessive toy. No one NEEDS a Ferrari to get to work, but at the same time no one would turn it down or complain that they would rather go back to the Toyota. Items should work in a similar fashion. The difference between a basic iron sword and say, a diamond one is somewhat marginal. Yes, the diamond sword does last a little longer and hit a little harder, but we are talking percentage points here rather than orders of magnitude like in most MMOs. The price (determined by availability of materials and crafting difficulty) would be orders of magnitude greater, and so for every diamond sword someone owns, they could have had a few dozen iron ones.
As performance is similar, this means a ‘poor’ player in iron can still group up with someone in higher-end gear and not feel useless, while also always encouraging players to gain more wealth and to try maintaining a certain level of average gear. Those who are able to earn more wealth will, on average, use better gear, but almost all players should have one or two sets of great gear to pull out for big events. From the supply side, this means even the basic items will retain some demand, the mid-tier stuff will need replacing often, and even high-end pieces will be lost or destroyed enough to warrant continued demand. This also means that when you add higher-power items to the game, they don’t instantly turn everything before them into junk.
Another way to increase demand and variety without inflating power is to allow crafters to make purely cosmetic changes to items during the crafting process. For example, an iron sword with a special hilt or blade tint would still hit like an iron sword, but the demand for it might be higher or lower based on the look. We all know that while we chase shinies for power, we are not beyond putting effort in just to get something that looks cool (or for WoWbies, paying $25 for a mount to sparkle).
By adding cosmetic options to items, this also allows crafters to get creative and custom-design items to establish a reputation (you could get crazy and allow customization on, say, a City of Heroes character creator level, tech willing). If you know Bob puts in a ton of time to create some unique looking stuff, you might be more willing to travel to his shop instead of someone else’s, and pay a little premium for that iron sword as well. If Bob also has a really great looking shop (tomorrows post) that displays his wears well, his profits will reflect that.
As the world is always shifting based on player movement, resources would also react. If one area is being mined frequently, it starts to yield fewer materials, along with losing the ability to provide rarer goods. Expert gatherers would be those who not only have the skills to find the best resources, but also the ability to survive the harsher parts of the world and make it out alive with them. A guild PvE trip could be more about reaching a mining shaft for the rare ore than for the beasts inside, with both fighters and gatherers coming along, and the guild crafters turning the spoils into high-tier gear for everyone.
Crafting should be far more than min/maxing the auction house and under-cutting the current listings by a penny every few minutes, and the economy needs to be deeper than hitting the gold cap because you can. If the whole system is rewarding, it becomes its own game, and those who may not be interested in bashing monsters daily will still sign up, log in, and play a pivotal role. The best sandbox is not one that caters perfectly to one type of player, but rather creates a world to house a wide range of interests; mixing all those interests together to ultimately create something great.