The Exploitative Nature of Crafting in Video Games

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The Exploitative Nature of Crafting in Video Games

It seems like every AAA video game these days has some sort of crafting. Is it useful, or just a gimmick?

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Games seem to be big on physics-based construction sandboxing right now, so why not have an interface that lets you literally assemble new things out of old ones, Ikea-simulator style? Telephone handset plus lightbulb via wood glue might not be useful, but how else would you know unless you tried it? Would certainly be more entertaining and engaging than cranking out ten copies of "Ingredient H" plus "Ingredient D x2."

Crafting in the Last of Us had a less obvious gameplay benefit - forcing you to choose what to do with limited resources. The trade-off between medkits and molotovs, or shivs and nail bombs, adds depth to the gameplay (not to mention makes it a lot more tense, realizing that you need a molotov to deal with a horde ahead but you'd also like to cure that gaping chest wound).

In some senses, crafting isn't too different from any game with a shop/upgrading element - you have a certain amount of an item that you can "spend" on a range of useful stuff. In survival contexts, it also offers better verisimilitude - you're not going to find vending machines out in the wilderness.

I think the issue with either of those is when you have enough resources that upgrading isn't a meaningful choice, you just scoop up all the upgrades available whenever you get the chance. Yahtzee railed against this in pretty much Assassin's Creed game besides Black Flag, for instance. I suspect it's meant to add a sense of progression (I suppose that fits under Catharsis), but it's a rather boring way of doing so.

When I read the title I was a bit worried that Yahtzee was going to tear into the concept of crafting as a game mechanic, a mechanic I usually really enjoy. Surprised to find a very thoughtful and nuanced that didn't criticize the concept in general, just instances where it is done in a lazy or tacked on manner. Not sure why I would expect any less from Yahtzee as his articles are generally very thoughtful and nuanced, especially in contrast to his review show which tends towards humorous hyperbole.

I seem to mirror the opinion that crafting adds very little to many games where it essentially just creates an additional step between scavenging for ammo/items and actually being able to use the ammo/items. I much prefer the games where crafting and creating is the core mechanic rather than a tacked on tertiary one, such as the aforementioned Minecraft. Sadly the rise in the popularity of this game mechanic coincided with the rise in popularity of the early access model(which could also be partially attributed to Minecraft) which has resulted in many many poorly executed games trying to utilize those core mechanics and I fear it may poison the well for crafting or environment manipulation games of the future

I guess it boils down to how you use it. I'm more familiar with the one-shot gear crafting from Assassin's Creed IV and Far Cry 3. You have to hunt down certain animals - sometimes unique animals - to collect the items required to make a bigger bandolier/satchel/quiver/whatever. Feels a bit random at times but the fact that you have to go out of your way and work towards these makes it work in turn.

It was always a big part of the old classic adventure games, of course, combining, say, crowbar with rope to make impromptu grappling hook.

That makes too much sense. The preferred means of making a grappling hook is to combine a rope with an anchor.

(Seriously, somehow this came up in both Teen Agent and Beneath a Steel Sky.)

Huh. I always just assumed crafting was implemented into modern games as a back-door for premium content and in-game purchases. Need more wood to make arrows for your archer? You could spend five hours chopping down woods, if you're boring and not cool. All the really cool kids spend $5 right now for 100 wood! Don't you want to be cool kids?!

I think its just pure luck most games that use crafting are so God awful and are abandoned two weeks after launch they never get around to those updates.

I get that some people enjoy crafting, but I've never seen it as needless time wasting and a cheap way to pad out the gameplay. I mean without crafting and the associated mineral gathering, how many hours of gameplay would have been knocked of Skyrim or Fallout 3/New Vegas? Dozens I'd guess. Dozens and dozens.

You know the trend over the last ten years about how they're shoving RPG elements into every game no matter the genre?

Crafting is another one of those RPG elements.

The crafting system in The Last of Us was intermediate to giving the player a choice in what they think they might want or need for any given situation. Instead of just giving you a medkit, molotov, spiked melee weapon, or nail bomb, it allowed you to get more creative with how to handle enemy encounters. It wasn't about the depth of what you could craft, but about the tension of making the real-time decision to go offensive or defensive on the spot. The fact that it was quite a simple two-way system made it so it was never confusing or a chore to sort through your options. Though this only worked as well as it did because you could hide behind cover; In a game like Resident Evil Revelations 2 the crafting mid-combat really didn't fare well at all.

Crafting systems are mostly annoying...

Crafting usually just makes me attempt to get by without using any crafting materials or crafted items. Unless it's a real character-building rpg like in WoW, in which case I do crafting for the sake of leveling up the crafting skill, something which I usually never finish.

I'd say crafting makes more sense in many games than a pure currency system in that it just makes more sense. For instance, it would be much more odd to find cash on a dead animal, than skins that can be tanned into leather and later fashioned into armor.

Also, crafting, when properly implemented, can make you feel like you're taking advantage of the resources around you - it's for example mildly annoying, when I kill a heavily armored shooter goon #721 and then the corpse just lies there in its high tech armor, that obviously has been designed to provide a battlefield advantage and has not been completely destroyed. If there's no in-game explanation for this, it kind of bugs me that I can't at least strip some easily accessed elements for either repurposing or sale.

Of course, the article raises a valid point about giving players the ability to use a money based economy system instead of crafting - it hardly makes sense for a traveling warrior, for example, to take time to learn tanning. If he procures hides from dead prey, it'd be far more reasonable to sell them to the local merchants or leatherworkers. The two possible explanations I see here are firstly, the point mentioned in the article, that crafting (at least in games where player isn'tbeing urged to specialize) promotes more diverse gameplay and secondly, crafting system allows for rare crafting drops, meaning your wizard won't get a useless +10 McGuffin sword but will instead score a magical +10 McGuffin, that he can craft into a +10 McGuffin staff. So, loot tailored for the occasion, I guess.

All that, of course, doesn't mean I consider the recent ubiquity of crafting to be a beneficial thing - I love my crafting, but I love it done right and it can be hard to get it to work as it should, not to mention it works in some genres better than in others.
Overall, I wouldn't worry if that's not your thing. Right now, crafting and overall "RPGisation" seem to be the dominant fads, but so was, at one point, having multiple lives, often lasting just one hit each. Or medkit pickups in shooters. Stuff like that still shows up every now and again, don't get me wrong, but definitely not that often. Honestly, I'm tempted to launch into a lenghty rant about them newfangled games with no definitive failure state and regenerating health... And the damn kids won't get off my lawn...

I "get" crafting in a game like Minecraft. There's a strange sort of satisfaction in turning something abundant but not inherently useful into something grand, or choosing to use a scarce resource in the perfect place.

By contrast, I poked Doodle God back when it was a Flash game, and it left me pretty much cold. I certainly don't understand why it's gone on to spawn so many sequels. To each their own, I guess.

But with so many games insisting on crowbarring crafting into the mix, I think it would be wise to start a) speaking up when its addition to a game adds nothing to the game but busy-work and distractions from the main thrust (because there are times when it really would be better just to use an ammo crate or a shop) and b) asking that if games are going to use it as a mechanic, they try to move it forward and innovate, not just give an endless string of "turn wood and flint into spear, turn coal and wood into torch". I don't think it so much to ask, for example, that games start thinking about how pieces would actually fit together into coherent wholes, creating the possibility that one person's stone-twine-stick mace might be significantly different or better than someone else's.

Item Crafting in WATCH_DOGS makes a little sense, because you're playing a hacker and it's a hacker thing to slap together gadgets and doo-dads from a bunch loose odds and ends.
Right on both counts. They're putting in more and more RPG elements in action games, and crafting is one of them. Black Flag and Rogue gave you some freedom in what you upgrade in what order, based on what animal skins or building materials you have in your inventory.
Also, what's with the commenting window now? I can only read 2 line at a time and I can't see the bits I quoted!

Modern crafting systems don't really add to the immersion because modern games don't have weight/size based inventory systems. You can just pick up everything you see (making pickup buttons a useless annoyance).

Last of Us arbitrarily limits the amount of any item you can carry forcing you to craft or lose stuff. Its necessary for balance so you can't alpha strike your way around tough fights but it still feels forced.

What I want to see is crafting as a larger element in multiplayer games. When both teams are grabbing from limited (albeit respawning) resources, different crafting combinations can potentially have a huge impact on strategy. Maybe four core categories of craftable items: weapons, armor, ammo, and tools. Some key sniping positions or ambush spots might require tools to access, but if you spend your steel on a grappling hook for climbing, you have that much less available for the other categories. If the whole game is designed and expanded around these concepts, it could be interesting, and substantially different from most multiplayer shooters on the market.

P.S. Thanks

I'd say Minecraft has something to do with the surge in token crafting systems. And the MMOs of course. In the end, what the experts these companies are consulting have decided Minecraft is, is mining and crafting. So you get stuff and combine them. Like Minecraft. Like billions of dollars of Minecraft.

I personally like crafting systems most of the time. I do believe it adds a level of immersion to the game by letting the player cobble together things in the world to survive. I have a problem with it, however, when it feels arbitrary. Like when you can't substitute things that would make sense in the recipe. A glass gar is not similar enough to a glass bottle for a molotov cocktail, du fuq? It's kindda the same emersion breaking feeling as when the game won't let you pick up weapons from dead enemies/allies.

Sarge034:
I personally like crafting systems most of the time. I do believe it adds a level of immersion to the game by letting the player cobble together things in the world to survive. I have a problem with it, however, when it feels arbitrary. Like when you can't substitute things that would make sense in the recipe. A glass gar is not similar enough to a glass bottle for a molotov cocktail, du fuq? It's kindda the same emersion breaking feeling as when the game won't let you pick up weapons from dead enemies/allies.

That annoyed me so much in Far Cry 3. Why did I need specific animal skins for each holster, wallet or ammo pouch? I can make a two gun holster out of goat skin, but need shark skin for the four gun holster. Why not just make another two gun holster out of goat skin? It makes the process less crafting and more just arbitrary item finding. It would be more immersive just to have the items either hidden in various locations or on sale from the merchants.

I find this article to be quite insightful. Fundamentally, this is a system of order imposed on the chaos of random item pickups, designed to appeal to the player's creative ego but ultimately lacking in depth and clumsily implemented (as pointed out numerous times in the article). iPhone wielding baristas have weighed in, and they think crafting in games is the cat's ass.

Is there an analogy here to the misuse of inheritance in badly executed object oriented programming? Is it instead a profound statement on why the selection of positive traits in evolution merely leads to gradual progress? What would Darwin think of the changes to the DualShock controller over the years?

Silliness aside, it's healthy to look at in-fashion game mechanics with a skeptical eye.

moosemaimer:
Games seem to be big on physics-based construction sandboxing right now, so why not have an interface that lets you literally assemble new things out of old ones, Ikea-simulator style? Telephone handset plus lightbulb via wood glue might not be useful, but how else would you know unless you tried it? Would certainly be more entertaining and engaging than cranking out ten copies of "Ingredient H" plus "Ingredient D x2."

Ultimately, it's because that kind of emergent mechanical and physical behavior is difficult for computers to do. It creates, very suddenly, a massive number of things that the game engine has to keep track of and it's only been pretty recent that computers have started being able to handle it on large-scale (such as in games like Space Engineers). A lot of physics needs to be kept track of, and more significantly it needs to be kept track of with a very high precision or else the things players build won't work reliably.

Look at how Kerbal Space Program lags with large rockets, for instance. That lag isn't because of the amount of texture on the larger rockets but because of the large number of physics objects that need to be tracked and more importantly how they all interact with each other.

We're getting there, it's just going to take a while for the computers to catch up.

OT: I think the real reason is that it makes for an easy way to pad gameplay. Functionally, a lot of crafting mechanics are basically fetch quests (you go out, get the things, bring them back and get a reward), but no AAA developer would be caught dead padding out a game with fetch quests. So, say it's actually a "crafting mechanic" where it works exactly the same but creates a bit of false agency so the player can feel like it's not just a device to artificially create gameplay content.

Sledgimus:
That annoyed me so much in Far Cry 3. Why did I need specific animal skins for each holster, wallet or ammo pouch? I can make a two gun holster out of goat skin, but need shark skin for the four gun holster. Why not just make another two gun holster out of goat skin? It makes the process less crafting and more just arbitrary item finding. It would be more immersive just to have the items either hidden in various locations or on sale from the merchants.

Yeah, that's why I generally like crafting systems in survival games. It's less about forcing you to see all the cool things the devs want you to see and more about just the fluid back and forth of survival.

rembrandtqeinstein:
Modern crafting systems don't really add to the immersion because modern games don't have weight/size based inventory systems. You can just pick up everything you see (making pickup buttons a useless annoyance).

Last of Us arbitrarily limits the amount of any item you can carry forcing you to craft or lose stuff. Its necessary for balance so you can't alpha strike your way around tough fights but it still feels forced.

Exactly - there won't be any enhancement to the immersion the player would otherwise experience by replacing one essentially game-y element (opening the chest and finding the item) with another essectially game-y element (punching a fucking tree). Chess is immersive not because it is so realistic, but because the rules of the game and its "world" (the board) are inseparable. Thus the players accept it as actual reality (in context) in order to play. I don't play card games like Magic, but I have gone to a tournement with a buddy to cheer him on, and the immersion is just as great, and for the exact same reason. Each gaming mechanic is essential to, and inseparable from the world of the game.

That's why crafting works so well in Mine Craft. The rules of crafting in that game are as essential to operating in the game's world as is the movement of the knight piece in chess. It is the reality of the game, and the player excepts it as such, naturally.

By contrast this is also why crafting fails in so much AAA tripe, because the rules are nonessential to the world - neither adding to, nor taking from the experience of playing the game. Sometimes it's almost feels like an afterthought. And this why it fails in so much indie tripe because, lousy developer knows crafting is popular, so "Survival Game X with Bad Translation and Zombies" will inevitably get crafting. Again, here, it's a mechanic included simply, and this is key, *for the mechanic's sake* rather than as an essential element of game's world.

Good article, I've been hoping someone would examine this, and start a conversation for a while.

Shops with limited inventory aren't as dynamic as crafting.
You can't bring over a part of a shop or money to buy a bgger item later on if that shop doesn't offer it but you can save up crafting materials to build one.
A limited item shop with 1x molotov and 2x medkits won't be the same as having materials for 1 molotov and 2 medkits but also possibly 3 molotovs or 3 medkits or something completely different if you just hold off for a while.

It can also function as a dynamic difficulty.
It'll be harder but if you can manage to get through the game without making anything up to this point, you'll have enouh materials to build your mega gun, kinda like what cave story did with the spur.

It also counteracts the "I'll save my large rejuvenation potions for diablo" syndrome since you know how easy or hard some items are to come by.

Jorpho:

It was always a big part of the old classic adventure games, of course, combining, say, crowbar with rope to make impromptu grappling hook.

That makes too much sense. The preferred means of making a grappling hook is to combine a rope with an anchor.

(Seriously, somehow this came up in both Teen Agent and Beneath a Steel Sky.)

The solution to some adventure games puzzles are even more nonsensical. Some might do weird things like (just making this up, but I've seen weirder) have the player take a monkey, stick a nail in it's butt, and it's tail lengthens from the pain and it becomes a makeshift grappling hook. Even the most realistic of adventure games often prevents the player from taking any obvious actions in favor of really really obtuse solutions to puzzles just because that's what the writers want the player to do. For instance, instead of using a perfectly good rope in your inventory to climb down from a second story window, they'll have you tie a bunch of bedsheets together or throw a mattress out the window to land on. Being as vague about the often insane solutions to puzzles as they can if they bother to give the player hints at all is both part of the charm of adventure games and the thing that's most annoying about them.

OT: I don't mind crafting systems, provided that they are A. nonessential, they make things easier rather than being strictly necessary, B. have neither too many combinations nor too few, and C. make sense for the world the game is set in. If the game has say 50 craftable item components I'd expect there to at least be 100 potential combinations, not one combination for two very particular items that result in you dragging around stuff that you aren't going to be able to combine together because it's partner stopped showing up 10 hours back. At the same time having over 1000 possible combinations means that the player is going to have hundreds of craftable items that are vastly inferior to every other, making their existence pointless and/or resulting in a chain of craftable items that largely exist just to craft into other items to get the ones that are actually useful. Crafting systems also only really make sense in a apocalyptic world or in a survival situation, if there's somewhere a player can buy items in a half mile radius on no matter where the player is it doesn't make any sense to even have a crafting system in the first place.

For me, the crafting system in a game like The Last of Us or Alien: Isolation succeeds because materials are scarce, and the player character is not a pack mule. There is no scarcity in Watch_Dogs-- stroll into an electronics store, and Aiden is good to go.

Casual Shinji:
The crafting system in The Last of Us was intermediate to giving the player a choice in what they think they might want or need for any given situation. Instead of just giving you a medkit, molotov, spiked melee weapon, or nail bomb, it allowed you to get more creative with how to handle enemy encounters. It wasn't about the depth of what you could craft, but about the tension of making the real-time decision to go offensive or defensive on the spot.

Not quite. Even in a Survivor play-through, Ellie will furnish Joel with plenty of health kits, mitigating the risk of death in an open confrontation. The same problem exists in multiplayer-- most of the maps have a number of free health kits near spawn points, so those resources go straight into crafting Molotovs.

R.K. Meades:

Casual Shinji:
The crafting system in The Last of Us was intermediate to giving the player a choice in what they think they might want or need for any given situation. Instead of just giving you a medkit, molotov, spiked melee weapon, or nail bomb, it allowed you to get more creative with how to handle enemy encounters. It wasn't about the depth of what you could craft, but about the tension of making the real-time decision to go offensive or defensive on the spot.

Not quite. Even in a Survivor play-through, Ellie will furnish Joel with plenty of health kits, mitigating the risk of death in an open confrontation. The same problem exists in multiplayer-- most of the maps have a number of free health kits near spawn points, so those resources go straight into crafting Molotovs.

Sure, you also find medkits and molotovs on occasion, but you can't just go using them indiscriminately. My first playthrough on Survivor I found myself stuck near the very end of the game, because I had a sliver health left and no more health items. And that while I was as careful as I could be throughout the entire game.

It's funny you should mention that even on Survivor Ellie will spot you things, since it's your lack of resources that makes her do that. And seeing as Survivor and up gives you very little to scrounge, Ellie is likely to give you more stuff on those difficulties. And even then I fall to my knees and thank God whenever I can actually craft a health kit myself.

Crafting is usually something I ignore in a game. I'm not big on collecting stuff, and it usually just gives you a differently shaped gun/grenade/sword thing. It's just a busywork way to give you more of the same stuff. If it's convenient I might do it, but mostly it's unnecessary.

Casual Shinji:
My first playthrough on Survivor I found myself stuck near the very end of the game, because I had a sliver health left and no more health items. And that while I was as careful as I could be throughout the entire game.

That's the problem. In certain levels, like the hotel, it pays to be proactive in your approach. The gentlemen in the hospital can act like headless chickens if you pick a few of their friends off early.

Casual Shinji:
It's funny you should mention that even on Survivor Ellie will spot you things, since it's your lack of resources that makes her do that. And seeing as Survivor and up gives you very little to scrounge, Ellie is likely to give you more stuff on those difficulties. And even then I fall to my knees and thank God whenever I can actually craft a health kit myself.

The free health kits took away some of the challenge. Ellie never gave Joel anything else in my experience. You can comfortably go through the entire game without crafting a health kit if you consistently get stealth kills against human enemies, then your firearms can be saved for clickers, bloaters, and the hospital.

The only thing I ever lacked was ammo in that level, but smoke bombs made up for it. Those chaps have a weird obsession with congregating behind the benches that are adjacent to the beds on the far side. (from where you start the level) That kink in the AI makes them so much easier to kill, without having to waste a pile of ammo and crafted items.

Crafting only adds real depth to a game when it was built from the ground up to support a diverse level of customization in that crafting. Yahtzee's kind of dooshing this one by mentioning Minecraft. That's still the same formula of every recipe being Binary and it's almost as bad as recipes that have a chance to fail b/c of RNG. Real depth is only applied by crafting, when the item produced is mainly judged by a subjective array of incomparables. Example: Your space ship in FTL -- you build it up with trade-offs in ways to get through standard defenses in interesting ways, and then divert power in an adaptive fashion when it's called for. Some RPG's allow us to craft weapons that have secondary effects like a Freezing debuff or we could increase their AOE / Range. Crafting has to be about tradeoffs and real agency, not just merely a resource-sink to trick us into thinking garbage drops can feel rewarding. Sticking 2 pieces of garbage together to make non-garbage is not a choice, it's a foregone conclusion.

In short: Incomparables allow for multiple levels of success generalized by scientific reasoning and application in the field which translates into refining and improving upon a pattern, and that in turn adds replay value and exploration.

captcha: by and large

I personally liked crafting in FO:NV
1)You can find ready to use items
2)You can find parts and junk
3)You can pick apart many items into parts
4)You can craft other items from parts, junk and items
5)Different types of crafting require different workbenches (cooking, ammo processing and other crafting)
6)You can find money
7)You can buy and sell everything (buying part is limited by merchant's stock)

I really liked how it was done, Hopefully FO4 will not drop this approach

No mention of Bioshock. Was it in System Shock? I think it started with trying to catch the Babelfish with the towel. Or maybe it was those stubborn Christmas trees. Everyone likes to think they are clever, now.

I think the first game I played where I ended up resenting the crafting system was BioShock, honestly. It could have worked as a way to justify your ability to gain resources in a war-torn city with no friendly NPCs to give or sell you anything, and keep the designers from having to shove dollar bills into trash cans that you would use to buy rocket launcher ammo from the nearest Coke machine... but then they went ahead and did that crap anyway. As Yahtzee said, I didn't pay any attention to what I had on hand (especially since I wasn't able to look at my inventory) and only had any clue when I went to a crafting machine or was told I was maxed out on a particular item.

But the biggest strike against it was when they just straight-up took it out of BioShock 2 and the game wasn't the least bit worse off for it.

I think Yahtzee's hit all the salient points on what makes crafting appealing in games. The sense of accomplishment putting together a piece of equipment better than what's just laying around, the ability to customize your equipment to your preferences, the sense of achievement when you create something that gives you options and abilities you didn't have before, they all play into it. And he makes a good point that when it's just tacked on for the sake of having it, making it an arbitrary process that just adds steps to getting a weapon or tool that could just as easily be available preassembled, the mechanic feels asinine.

Personally, I'd say crafting mechanics are a welcome addition to a game when they both serve a purpose -and- have novelty to them. This is something a lot of MMOs need to learn; you look at WoW's crafting system and it's done 90 percent wrong. Over time, the newer crafting types became useful because there were things that could only be gotten through crafting and didn't have forms of the same type of items that could be found elsewhere. But early crafting types - the various armor and weapon crafting systems primarily - were and still may be utterly token because all but the highest level items you could create quickly became obsolete by the time you made them. Being able to make unique and useful items through crafting that would actually last you a few levels is pretty essential, to me at least, to make crafting systems more than just another excuse to grind.

But even useful items can be dull to craft if all you have to do is gather up the pieces and click a "craft" button. That's why having some kind of novel mini-game can make or break a crafting system. To me one of the best examples is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. That game had a very unique crafting system, where you allocated work points from a point pool to various steps in the crafting process; making sure you managed point spending wisely so you'd be able to make a finished product that was a quality piece of work was challenging. Add in that different actions could get closer to a finished product or improve it's quality, plus the chance for random accidents that might need to be corrected (at the expense of some work points), and you've got an engaging mini-game that can feel rewarding when you craft something.

What an appropriate article for me to read, since I'm almost done with Mana Khemia. Have to admit, the alchemy crafting is half the fun, especially going into a new area and finding new materials ("Awesome! What can I synthesize with this?"), and I think Yahtzee hit it on the head as to why.

And apparently the Atelier series as a whole has been doing this since 1997...

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