Hunting and Gathering
One of the fundamental mechanics for any game that has crafting is the acquisition of raw materials. Most MMOs have a fundamentally similar acquisition process, which requires the character to travel through the world until she finds a deposit of raw material, then use a gathering craft to acquire the material. E.g. a character might stumble across some ore sticking out of the ground, and then use a mining pick to extract some ore for crafting. Sometimes a tool is required to obtain the raw materials, and sometimes no tool is needed.
There’s always a fundamental element of unreality in this approach, in that over time metal and wood will spontaneously appear, sticking out of the ground; there’s very rarely much similarity to how these raw materials are acquired in real life. That’s of course due to the static nature of these game worlds; players can’t clear-cut forests or mine deeper underground because that requires the ability to change the world.
Though I favor dynamic worlds in most regards, and prefer closer simulation of real life activity in many regards, when it comes to gathering raw materials I rather prefer the less accurate but simpler and more fun approach being commonly taken now. If my character needs ore, I don’t really want to go down to a mine and dig out a mineshaft for hours at a time; it’s preferable by and large for me to just stumble upon raw materials in the course of doing other things.
I have mixed feelings about the necessity for gathering/crafting tools; some games, like LotRO, won’t allow you to collect or process raw materials unless you have the appropriate tool in your inventory. Thus you can’t mine without a pickaxe, can’t cut wood without an axe, etc. Other games like EQ2 are more forgiving in this regard; a player merely has to click on the source of raw materials to gather them, and no specialized tool is necessary. Tools can however provide a bonus to gathering speed, which I appreciate.
Though it bears no resemblance to reality as noted above, I liked the way raw material gathering worked in Age of Conan in one regard: raw material deposits had a visible amount of content, and you could tell before interacting with them roughly how much material you could extract therefrom. That’s a nice touch, and worked especially well with the trees, which would grow when they bore more wood, and shrink when harvested.
One thing I miss from LotRO is the raw materials consignments; a character could pay NPCs to gather raw materials for her, which I found very convenient indeed. I’d still run around and gather things myself, but I’d regularly send each of my alts to each of the consignment centers, to pay NPCs to collect hides, wood, ore, and scholarly materials for me. Depending on which crafting tier the components came from, the price and amount of time needed by the NPC would vary, obviously increasing with each tier.
Gathering raw materials is rarely much fun in and of itself. I think there’s potential for some minimal minigames, like in Free Realms, to spice up the mechanics of acquiring raw materials. I do think though that by and large it’s nice if the materials are easy to find (as they are in EQ2; AoC was terrible for this though) and the process of gathering is made convenient. Frequently crafting requires massive amounts of raw materials, and it can become pretty tedious to set out to acquire said amounts. If gathering is easy enough that characters tend to amass decent collections of materials in the course of normal gameplay, that facilitates and encourages crafting, which is a Good Thing on several levels.