Ever played a video game? Then you've probably slapped together monster giblets with some sparkly rocks and somehow ended up with a magic halberd or something. This month's topic is crafting systems. Love 'em, hate 'em, they're here to stay.
Before I get to the creamy center of this discussion blog, I thought it prudent to apply some definitions so we're on the same page here. As far as I'm concerned, a crafting system is a gameplay system where the player expends a variety of resources (that are strictly for crafting or can be used in other ways) in order to attain something new that's either unique or something somewhat rare otherwise. Upgrade systems are very similar and sometimes even the same thing depending on the game you're playing. But for the most part I'm gonna focus on systems where you make stuff, not upgrade it.
This whole thing was born out of some thoughts I've had about crafting systems and how often I dislike them. Usually they're too grindy or so tacked on that you're better off ignoring them. While I could simply bitch about that (and I certainly will), I thought it'd be more interesting to broaden the discussion beyond just "this system good, this system bad" by comparing appropriate games and their crafting systems using different axes. Now that you're aware of what I'm throwing down, let's begin.
Depending on the game, sometimes the balance of the game is centered entirely on crafting and other times it's not part of the regular progression system at all. Starting on the left part of the axis, we have Summon Night: Swordcraft Story. Just like the name suggests, the game is all about crafting. There's even a rule within the setting that says that Craftknights like the player character are not allowed to use weapons they haven't forged themselves.
As such, everything in the game is based around getting material and crafting techniques so you can craft new weapons as often as possible. Crafting strong weapons and mastering them is even part of the combat, as weapons that are weak and unused break easily, which robs you of your hard work if you're not careful. But since the game is fair, you can actually break the weapons of bosses, which lets you defeat them without depleting their HP and lets you steal their weapon design for your own use.
But then you have the crafting system of Locoroco 2, which is technically a full fledged progression system, only it doesn't tie into anything but decking out the Mui Mui house and unlocking a bonus movie. Playing the game, you can pick up a fair few random items across the different levels, which can be combined to dig out rooms in the Mui Mui house and build nifty furniture. It's a lot of work to get everything, but if you just want to play the levels and get all the normal collectibles, you can easily do that without missing much.
As long as they're decently balanced, both approaches are fine. You can either challenge the player to make good choices using somewhat limited resources, or you can let them craft cosmetics on the way through the game just as a fun extra.
Here's an exciting axis, mildly this, mildly that. But with many games, some things are just there, ready to be ignored without much of a fuss. I wanna single out Shining Resonance: Refrain for the left part, as crafting is not as important as the game wants you to think. There is tons of stuff to craft, but due to how grindy it is and how the game lets you buy the bare essentials, it's much more efficient to just grind levels and progress through the story for the most part. I tried to do some min-maxing when I played it, but there really isn't much you can do, as the equipment you can craft is not as strong as the effort required to craft it would suggest.
Comparatively, there's the antique shop in Persona 3, which isn't super important to progressing the game since the fusion system exists, but it's still worthwhile to pay attention to it. It's your most reliable source of the game's best items (like full revives and anti-death protection), plus it allows you to craft the game's best weapons using special Personas.
But as useful as it is, its use is limited due to how difficult it is to get the gems required to craft things. Unless you grind to absurd degrees, you're just not going to be able make a lot of stuff during a playthrough. It still works, as it's interesting to choose what to make and justabout everything is really useful, especially during bosses or ambushes.
As per my definition, crafting systems are used to gain resources. But the nature of said resources varies from game to game. If you're playing Bioshock or Resident Evil 7, then most of what you're making is ammo and healing items that you're going to be using up in the next hour or so. In Bioshock, it's a matter of just crafting whatever you can, since crafting stations are rare and you're not burdened by the material.
But in RE7, it's more interesting, as a few resources can be used on their own, while others merely take up precious space until you've combined them. As such, it's usually in the player's best interest to combine items as quickly as possible. But then there are certain things, like the solid fuel, which is kind of wasted if you use too much of it to make burner fuel, as you can also use it to make grenade rounds, which is better for the last half of the game.
Now, if we really want to talk long-term crafting, there's a whole subgenre of first-person survival craft-a-thons built on that idea. I haven't played any of those, so I'm gonna talk about The Flame in the Flood instead. In that game, you have to concern yourself with both the immediate and the upcoming. The Scout needs food badly, but you also need to make sure to craft non-consumable upgrade items and an excess storage of food for the later levels. It's quite empowering to roam around the desolate areas in an upgraded raft full of extra food. Really feels like you've gotten a leg up on mother nature and her terrible minions.
As far as I'm concerned, a crafting system should be about as useful from start to finish, but that's not always the case. If you count the first two Trails in the Sky games as a single game (which was the original plan, so you might as well), then you'll notice the shift in usefulness of the cooking system. At the start of FC, it's imperative to carry around ingredients for cooking "sit-down meals", which are the best way to heal multiple characters outside of combat, since magic is pretty limited.
But around the midpoint of SC, you'll have upgraded your magic enough to make it viable to use it for healing after battle. Come 3rd chapter, magic is so plentiful that you can easily get through the entire game without cooking once. In response to this, they changed the cooking system for the rest of the series to only give you food that works on a single character and provides buffs. While it is lame to see a gameplay system degrade like that over the course of the trilogy, it does actually feed into the rampant technological development in the story, which is cool.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2. In these games, while you do get access to crafting quite early, it's simply not worth caring about it until the endgame. There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest reason is the availabilty of material. Enemies drop stuff, but they don't drop at decent rates until you've accrued enough drop rate boosters. And even then, you need to do so much crafting until you can make something that's noticably better than what you can get in treasure chests. Thankfully, there are a lot of bonus bosses there to justify the grinding, so it doesn't feel useless by the end.
Ok, so I'm cheating a bit here. While the alchemy in Haunting Ground is deterministic, it's effectively random, as you need to stop a series of orbs at the correct colour in order to get what you want. It's technically possible to master, but it's such a pain to do so. I found it better to just try my luck and get on with the game. You kinda ruin the pacing of the game by save scumming until you get the unique stuff. I could have put in a game with proper randomized crafting, but I didn't want to open up any old wounds.
In Eternal Ring, there are some very distinct formulas used when crafting the game's magic rings, making it wholly deterministic. You simply provide the correct amount of elemental points by combining different gems. The more points, the stronger the resulting ring. Sadly, it's kind of difficult to figure out the rules, but that's only a concern if you're obessed with crafting every single one, which isn't necessary at all.
Now then, for a game's crafting system to qualify as a nightmare, it has to be grindy, random and deterministic, all at the same time in my opinion. Which is why I nominate the ultimate weapons in Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen. In order to get the material without killing the final boss of the DLC multiple times, you have to run through an area, open a specific chest, pray it isn't a mimic that kills you and hopefully get a cursed weapon from the chest. If not, you need to stab yourself to reset the area quickly and repeat.
But then there's the issue of purifying the damn material, which costs a decent chunk of Rift Crystals best gained from bosses. Now, what weapon you get isn't random. Instead, the devs decided to mark your save file with a seed that places you within a gigantic list of weapons. Once you purify a weapon, you'll move down that list, which means that the process guarantees you what you want eventually. But holy shit is it an ardous process if you get a bad seed. I think I had to do it like 8 times before I got the bow I wanted, which stung extra, since I think I got the bow my vocation couldn't use twice. I know the DLC is built on making multiple runs and that the ultimate weapons are really good, but goddammit would I have liked them to just increase the Rift Crystal cost and let you pick what to craft.
Comparatively, the way Trails games and Swordcraft Story handles crafting is so nice. Both use an elemental material system, which means that everything you can craft (that's not food in Trails) is derived from 5 or 7 elemental resources. Said material is plentiful, as everything you fight and explore through gets you it in pretty even distributions. It's still interesting, since you don't get enough to make everything you'd want, but it's still such a relief to not have to grind unless you want to make something extra in order to stay ahead of the difficulty curve.
Let's end by comparing games that want to rob you with games that are very generous. For the left part of the axis, I of course have to shit on the crafting system in Dead Space 3, which uproots the mechanics of the previous two games in order to sell you material using real money so you can craft weapons. I don't remember exactly how it was when I last played it, but I think that the game's balance isn't bad enough to make you want to buy material. Instead, it's bad enough that you can make what you need to beat the game, but there's not enough wiggle room to experiment with the different possible weapons.
It's the worst of all worlds, frankly. EA gets no extra money since you don't need the material and the player is robbed of the chance to play around with the diverse weapon combinations. It's a real sad state of affairs and a true proof of incompetence. If you're gonna be evil, at least be good at it dammit.
Then you have games like Dust: An Elysian Tail and Wild Arms 3, which allow you to set up item farms (literally the case in WA3), which generate items in the background for you by simply giving up the item you have so that you can claim more copies of it later. It solidifies the actual challenge (getting the item in the first place) by giving you a reliable source of it as soon as you've proven that you have gotten it once. WA3 is even more interesting, as the more items you give up, the faster they generate, meaning that the fewer you consume earlygame, the more you'll have access to later. It's an interesting challenge to present to the player.
So, what have we learned here? Well, first of all, that there are a ton of factors that go into making crafting systems what they are, as proven by the gigantic list of games I have left that I couldn't in good conscience fit into my discussion without mostly repeating myself. Every game does something slightly different, which isn't strange, since there are so many factors in place.
There's droprates, monster availabilty, whether your monsterpedia tells you drops, where and how monsters spawn, if the devs intend to monetize your grinding or not, how the actual process is explained to the player, whether it has random elements, how important it is to progression, when it's best to engage with the system, whether the player is intended to craft everything or just whatever they can, if the results are static in usefulness or if they quickly get outpaced by new stuff and if there's a cosmetic incentive to craft.
Keeping just those factors in mind, it should come as no surprise that things go wrong so often. Some people like figuring out the spreadsheet nightmares, while others just peruse ancient GameFAQs threads for the agreed upon best grinding methods so they can get to the part of the game they care about. As with game design itself, you can't please everyone. But with how often I get annoyed with crafting, I thought I'd end by vaguely designing my own system and ask what you think of it.
So, first of all, no randomness at all. Monsters are where you expect them to be, as your monster guide tells you where they are as soon as you've fought them once. Then, to further curb randomness to the ground, let's not have random drops either. Either have drops appear after a certain amount of monster kills (so every 5 bears you kill gets you a pelt while every 15 give you a tooth) or make drops dependant on action in combat. So maybe reward high combo counts, or make it so using the correct element for the kill gives you a particular item. This way, the time spent hunting for material will be mostly predictable, giving the player the information they need to decide if they should go grinding or not.
Then, for the actual progression, let's limit the amount of craftable items to what the player actually wants. So a single stronger weapon for the current chapter, or special consumables or accessories that are really strong against special minibosses or an upcoming area gimmick. The intent there is for the crafting not to end up ignored due to an overwhelming amount of options and complexity.
Keeping it simple is best, I think, as proven by Trails and Swordcraft Story. If you need to make a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, then you're going to lose a sizeable chunk of your audience to apathy, at which point they'll stop crafting or follow a guide. Whatever the case, your effort to make an engaging sub-system will have failed.
But that's just my idea for crafting a crafting system that won't make people groan with disdain. What are your thoughts on how to fix or design crafting systems? I'm sure my solution isn't universal, but I bet it's better than the average systems games usually end up with. Let's see if one of you can outdo me in armchair game design.