Crafting Systems: Why Players Have Fallen for the Forge
Why do gamers stop to sew leather armor and forge tiaras on the quest to save the world from evil? Crafting has existed since the beginning of video games, but it would be hard to call the interactions of the earliest games a “system” of any sort. The idea of collecting non-essential items for the sole purposes of combining them to create something unique or rare gained popularity around the beginning of the new millennia. While older systems were likely constrained by the limitations of the technology, the fifth generation began implementing features recognizable in modern crafting systems, like Paper Mario‘s recipe list, or Magic & Mayhem‘s crafting-centered monster summoning, not to mention the still-popular RuneScape crafting system and the Final Fantasy VII materia system. To many gamers, these games indicated the first exposure to a mix-and-match or recipe-building experience in a game. But many of these systems left much to be desired, using limited options for customization or feeling scripted.
Instead, the modern crafting game often looks more like Mojang’s Minecraft, with virtually limitless room for combination and modification, or like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, utilizing huge numbers of recipes and the ability to combine recipes to create even more valuable items. But, while the scale may have changed, many of today’s systems still follow the paths carved by these earlier examples, likely because they are addressing the same problems or desires. Skyrim, after all, is just taking the soups and truffles of Paper Mario and replacing them with maces and invisibility potions. So what is the value that has driven the proliferation of the crafting system to so many different games? This is not a simple answer, especially since the implementations in different games show that crafting systems can hold smaller or larger parts of the gameplay, be central or unrelated to the plot, and reward the player in different ways for utilizing the option.
Crafting as a Selling Point
The constant struggle for many AAA developers is to create longer games with more content for less time and money in order to meet the demands of their audiences and consumers. Crafting systems are one possible solution to this ongoing struggle, making huge leaps in possible hours of play with the inclusion of only a couple of rare items. Adding the multiple tiers of swords available beyond the storyline in Dragon Quest Swords accessible via collection and combination of rare items means that a player could spend hours beyond the duration of the game attempting to unlock these items. Meanwhile, Skyrim extends playtime by making several crafting systems reliant on leveling up, encouraging the player to dedicate time to improving their smithing ability to unlock the best items.
However, this interpretation of Skyrim makes the crafting system sound hollow, separated from the rest of the gameplay experience, and used solely to up the hours of play marketed on the game case. This is not the case, as this system also addresses the challenge of making each area of such a large map valuable. Making overarching stories or sidequests to fill the 15 square miles of land–not to mention the countless dungeons, castles, and crevices–would be many more hours of work for approximately the same amount of game time and player interaction as the crafting system. Instead, by filling the ending of an otherwise unimportant dungeon with a vein of rare metals, the player is driven to explore.
This also creates an experience similar to a scripted quest, but driven by the player’s interests instead of developer hours. Considering the wild success of Minecraft before any sort of story or endgame was established, it’s clear that players enjoy the freedom to choose their own objectives and progress at their own pace. Interestingly, this can often be more immersive than the intended storyline because it highlights the experience of active engagement and free choice that makes video games a unique form of entertainment. Hours spent on crafting systems, then, are not necessarily artificial hours tacked on to bump up the market value, and actually provide something for the players as well.
Crafting as a Proving Ground
Minecraft has transformed crafting systems from a means to an end, with games like Don’t Starve and Terraria happily playing with the formula and expanding the craze. But is the appeal of Minecraft simply in the freedom to build whatever one desires? This is unlikely, considering Minecraft and its many inheritors market themselves purposefully as survival games, and complicate players’ attempts to gain the most powerful weapons and the most beautiful decorations with complex build patterns, rare resources, and the constant threat of destruction. Instead, the fun of crafting systems like Minecraft‘s comes less from the ability to freely create, and more from the thrill of having done so against all odds.
While this is a similar excitement to the one felt when beating a particularly difficult game for the first time, there is another layer that makes it unique and even more enjoyable. In scripted, story-driven games, completion is the result the developer expects from the first moments of creation, and the events of the story will unfold largely the same for multiple players. Meanwhile Minecraft-style games highlight the lack of given objectives and the freedom to choose any approach to solve problems. That is to say, if a player fails to complete a story-driven game, the player could conceivably blame this on poor level design or unintuitive controls caused by the developer, but the player must be fully accountable for being unable to think of a better solution or to choose objectives meaningfully. On the other hand, success in such a game is entirely earned by the player, and a little sweeter for it.
Thus, Minecraft uses its crafting system as symbols of achievement for the player. Each piece of diamond armor the player builds is indicative of his or her ability to choose a goal, overcome unexpected obstacles, and complete that goal. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of most other crafting systems in existence. Including the option to use “masterwork” materials to give crafted equipment rare and powerful benefits in Dragon Age: Inquisition serves not only to reward the player with better stats, but also to give the player a visible representation of their successes. This is especially visible in the enchantment portion of crafting for Skyrim, as the inclusion of distinct glows for each enchantment offers few benefits to the player in a mechanical sense, but serves as a reminder to the player each time the weapon is drawn by glowing brightly.
Plus, in this sense, the more difficult the crafting becomes, the more enticing it can be to players. While there is likely an undiscovered upper limit to the viable complexity that a game can still sell, Minecraft‘s wild success proves that players are willing to dedicate hours and dollars to create more and more complex objects for little additional in-game benefit. The growing complexity of redstone engineering, trap construction, automation, and other machinery is virtually endless, but is also its own source of fun for many players, who are interested in showing their creative ability to solve problems. And, again, this often goes back to simply proving what one is capable of, giving players an outlet for tinkering and mechanical interest that does not exist otherwise, as well as a way to indicate this with a construction instead of merely in one’s head or words.
Crafting as an Afterthought
While there are numerous shining examples of crafting systems done well that add depth, complexity, and freedom to a game, most players can also think of crafting systems that they avoided when possible, and survived when not. Consider, for example, the capsule-mixing system of Dragon Ball: Xenoverse. Regardless of the other high and low points of the game, the crafting system sticks out like a sore thumb as troublesome. The intended effect is to give players cheap access to numerous temporary power-ups and healing items by combining materials collected during combat. The end result, sadly, is largely forgettable.
This game does numerous things to remove the power of a good crafting system, of which other games ought to take note, and players should consider avoiding. Specifically, every item that can be crafted is a consumable capsule which the player uses in battle and immediately forgets about. There is no opportunity for the symbolism of success that other games incorporate into crafting systems, whether for the player or for other people. Additionally, the items that can be crafted are often available for marginally more money at a nearby shop, meaning the rarity and uniqueness enjoyed by a Skyrim player and his favorite sword is lost.
Perhaps most unfortunately, however, is that this crafting system interferes with other aspects of gameplay that are enjoyable. For example, many of the crafting materials are gathered in repeatable “parallel quests,” which also happen to give new attacks and equipment items. Whether a player receives a skill, piece of armor, or material item is largely randomized, meaning that a player may have to play the quest numerous times before receiving an item that they actually can show off or use meaningfully. Not to mention that there is such a variety of possible material items that it’s rare to gather enough for any particular item. By randomly granting crafting materials, a real sense of goal-setting and overcoming challenges is instead replaced by a grinding feeling, which is especially demoralizing since each repetition of the quest grants money to buy the item outright.
However, while these design decisions hurt the game that they appear in, they also emphasize again the importance of a good crafting system, and the traits found in the most enjoyable ones. By focusing on symbolic status, overcoming obstacles, and freedom to explore or ignore crafting, crafting systems can help players immerse themselves deeper into a game and spend more enjoyable hours playing it. The proliferation of any design choice eventually leads to many less-than-optimal inclusions, but these examples should serve to move towards more refined and intentional choices in the future.
Crafting in the Proper Place
Regardless of its faults, the crafting system of Dragon Ball: Xenoverse does prove that this system once found only in dedicated role-playing games is slowly creeping outwards. As such, many developers in other genres will be challenged by the market to include crafting systems in games that, traditionally, would not have had one. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Leveling up once followed the same path, living only in Dungeons & Dragons and Warcraft, but now finds itself in shooters like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Splatoon, or fighters such as Injustice: Gods Among Us. None of these are bad choices, because leveling up has become another tool in the developer’s kit for making interesting and unique games. Much the same way, crafting systems are new to many genres, and there will be a period of learning before developers find the appropriate niche to place it in.
Even though there will be some rocky starts, this is an important development in video game design, and indicates a turn towards freer, more interactive, and more rewarding game experiences. By allowing players the option of crafting, games are allowing an expression of uniqueness that breaks away from the traditional model, and intuitively rewarding players who are able to utilize this without punishing players who choose not to. Very few systems have ever been so universally beneficial. This is more than a theoretical standpoint, however, as games with crafting systems that embody the symbolism, challenge, and freedom of good crafting are consistently selling well, such as Techland’s Dying Light, or Minecraft-inspired 7 Days to Die, in addition to the numerous titles mentioned already. Therefore, gamers can happily look forward to ever-expanding options for all of their zombie-killing, dragon-slaying, or mine-digging needs.
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