Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Can I Craft That For You?

Though traditionally confined to RPGs and roguelikes, crafting has become a staple of modern gaming almost regardless of what genre you enjoy.  Whether it's first-person shooters like RAGE, action-adventure titles like Dead Rising or Assassin's Creed, MMOs like World of Warcraft, or even rhythm games like Sequence, crafting is here to stay, for better or for worse.  After all, games are all about choice, and just like RPG elements like experience points creeping into just about every facet of gaming, crafting is another solid way to provide that choice to players.

Even so, not all crafting systems are created equal - so much so that often reading "crafting system" amongst a list of a game's features is enough to set off alarm bells in my head, as it's as much a source of tedium and frustration as it is a genuine improvement.  While there's always going to be some subjectivity involved as far as the value of crafting goes, there are still very clear wrong and right ways to go about implementing such mechanics.  When done right, crafting can be a positive addition to a game... and when done wrong, sometimes it's enough to make players want to stop playing altogether.

Why Crafting?

The first question to ask before even going into the details of a crafting system at all is actually much more basic - namely, why crafting?  What does crafting, mechanically, accomplish for a game?  What sorts of problems does it solve, and introduce?  Perhaps more to the point, does crafting fit into the overall vision of what a given game is about?  Often when it comes to game mechanics, it's not so much a question of the how as it is the why that needs to be addressed before any design work or code is written down.

Namely, what exactly does crafting do for a game?
  1. Provides a sense of player agency.  Just like making a hot meal for yourself instead of getting take-out, crafting in games helps players feel that they own the things they create.  Even if it's just following a recipe and there isn't anything creative involved, the simple process of choosing to make something can often be more satisfying than simply being given the same object or item.
  2. Gives a secondary use for items.  A common problem with loot-driven games, especially RPGs, is that the player will end up nearly drowning in excess amounts of equipment.  Usually the solution is to either sell this equipment or simply throw it away, neither of which rarely have much use in the game.  Crafting helps mitigate this problem.
  3. Balances in-game economies.  Another side-effect of giving the player lots of junk or "vendor trash" is that often a game's economy becomes woefully unbalanced or unstable, often to the point of completely undermining the value of money in the first place.  I can't count the number of RPGs I've played where I simply stopped picking up items because I already had so much money to spend and nothing to spend it on.  Implementing crafting doesn't just cut down on junk, it also helps reinforce the value of in-game money and keeps its role distinct.
  4. Encourages exploration.  Especially in open-world games, crafting is one of the ways in which designers can subtly get players to do and see more of the game worlds they spend so much time creating.  Even if it's just picking flowers to use in a few potions, players will want to spend time doing things and going places if they can acquire items doing so - especially if they're useful or can't be found elsewhere.
  5. Provides better rewards.  How many times have you completed a game objective and received a reward that was completely and utterly useless to you, either because mages don't use longswords, or because the item was well below your character level?  By rewarding the player with generic crafting ingredients and recipes (or unique, limited ones), players can actually receive something that's useful, without designers needing to come up with specific rewards for every possible play-style.
  6. Adds to play-time.  This, unfortunately, is one of the most malicious ways in which crafting is used.  Though sometimes there can be benefits in requiring players spend more time to complete a task (if something is too easy, it isn't rewarding), the majority of games I see featuring crafting use it as a way to simply pad out the experience.  More on this later.
With all that in mind, it's worth turning attention to exactly how all of those fit into the experience intended by a specific game.  All of this sounds good on paper, granted, but when put in context, sometimes it's clear that crafting isn't always beneficial to a game's design.  Would Super Mario 3D Land really be enhanced by the ability to craft power-ups?  Does the cinematic, structured and highly scripted gameplay of Uncharted really need a system that encourages exploration?  Grand Theft Auto IV is an open-world game, but does hunting down powder to make different types of bullets really fit with the vision of the designers or the immediacy of the experience?

This is all easier thought about than done, it goes without saying, and sometimes the only true test is experimentation.  Even so, there are some games I've played where crafting feels bizarre, bolted-on and arbitrary to the experience, as if it was just thrown in there for the sake of it being included, and I think that's largely due to a lack of scrutiny paid not just to the individual game mechanics, but to their place in the larger picture as well.  There's no "right" answers in this sort of exercise, but what it does do is highlight whether or not crafting is a good fit for a game, or if those resources would be better spent elsewhere - and in more cases than not, the answer is "yes."

Crafting Skills

More specific to RPGs is the inclusion of crafting skills in gameplay, which exist to limit the player's ability to craft in a way other than denial of resources.  Much like the basic "why crafting?" question, the "why skills?" question is also of the utmost importance for ensuring whether or not a crafting system works in a given game.  Even in cases where crafting fits in, the specifics, usually relating to skills, can often be over- or under-developed.

As above, when considering crafting skills it's important to ask these questions:
  1. How does skill progression work?  Does the player level up crafting separate from other skills in the game, or is the development of those skills integrated deeply into the standard gameplay?
  2. How long does it take to level crafting?  Is it something that requires a big time investment, such as gaining enough XP, or does the investment come from other parts of the game, like collecting money or crafting resources?
  3. How are skill levels structured?  Are there only a few skill levels with big benefits, or are the levels incremental with relatively small improvements each step?
  4. Is crafting static or customizable?  That is, is crafting a system that adheres to the same rules for all players, or do players customize their available options by, for instance, specializing in crafting certain types of items?
  5. What sort of information about crafting skills is exposed to the player?  Do they get to see all the minute details of the mechanics, or are they hidden in order to encourage experimentation and to create a more organic notion of improvement?
  6. How many crafting skills does the player have?  Are they mutually exclusive, i.e. only one crafting skill per player, or can the player become an expert at crafting anything in the game?
  7. Do crafting skills compete for attention with other skills?  Does the player have to, for instance, sacrifice combat ability to become a better blacksmith, or is every player guaranteed competence with at least one profession?
Some of these questions might seem a bit obvious, and admittedly they're the sort of thing that gets hammered out during development, but it is absolutely integral to answer them as early on as possible.  These sorts of choices dictate the nature of a crafting system; leaving them to be figured out over time or through experimentation is setting up that system for imbalance, poor cohesion with the rest of the game, and eventually, outright failure.  These questions are second only to the fundamental one of whether to have any crafting to begin with.

Crafting and Grinding

As I mentioned above, crafting is, much more often than I'd like, used in order to pad out a game and extend it beyond its worth.  Much like in Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy, where often the player has to take time out to perform repetitive battles in order to defeat a boss monster, crafting, in its lowest and most malicious implementation, can be used to restrict the player's way through the game by forcing the replay of the same game content over and over, and is even sometimes responsible for outright ruining a game's pacing and flow.

Talking about grinding is a hard thing, however.  As I said above, sometimes a little bit of grinding can be to a game's benefit.  Too much of it grows frustrating, but especially if it's optional content that isn't necessary to complete the game, grinding can give extra-dedicated players the sense of mastery over the game that they live for.  Moreover, some players even enjoy the act of grinding itself - perhaps because it represents a sort of "safe zone" where the player doesn't have to contend with any new game mechanics or story elements, or even because it leads to a sort of "grinding zen."  Quantifying exactly what the right amount is, both necessary and optional, is a very subjective thing.

Team Fortress 2's crafting system is extensive, but has begun to receive more emphasis than the core game itself.
 Even so, it's fair to say that there is such a thing as too much grinding, and that extends to crafting as well as anywhere else.  One game, I think, that perhaps takes the crafting grind to absolute extremes is Team Fortress 2, so much so that it has turned both myself and several friends of mine off from playing the game altogether.  Even though it's a multiplayer-focused game intended to be played for years, with the crafting itself almost a metagame on top of it, the amount of emphasis given to crafting both by the developers and the community borders on absurd.

For the purposes of illustration, let me break down the process behind crafting a rare item, the Sharpened Volcano Fragment.  This assumes that the player already knows how, of course.
  1. To start, we need Scrap Metal.  Scrap Metal is created by combining 2 weapons from the same character class.
  2. Next, we need Reclaimed Metal.  Reclaimed Metal is made up of 3 Scrap Metals, which means that we need to collect 6 weapons.
  3. Now comes Refined Metal.  Refined Metal requires, you guessed it, 3 Reclaimed Metals.  We're up to a total of 18 weapons to hoard up.
  4. The Sharpened Volcano Fragment needs 2 pieces of Refined Metal.  That's 36 weapons in total so far.
  5. Last, the Refined Metal needs to be combined with an Axtinguisher, another Pyro weapon... relatively rare, but considering we've burned through 36 items already, perhaps not too big a deal.
Of course, this is being optimistic and assuming that the player is a) going to keep all the weapons he/she finds for crafting purposes and b) going to find exactly the needed items.  More realistically, the player is going to need two or three times the 36 weapons needed.  Now, owing to some intrepid fans of the game, it's been estimated that most players will find a new item every two or three hours of gameplay, and that on average, players can only obtain about eight to ten new items per week.  This means that, at minimum, you're looking at about 80 to 100 hours of gameplay just to craft this one weapon.  Speaking realistically, however, it could easily take 250+ hours just to assemble the raw materials needed.

Granted, this particular item is an extreme example, and most in the game don't require quite that number.  Still, it serves to highlight just how absurd a time investment is required just to obtain even a single one of Team Fortress 2's best items.  Even for the more mundane items, 10 to 15 hours is not at all uncommon.  Given that you'll need to give up your day job for the sake of crafting, it's no wonder that players are willing to simply shell out real money to get their hands on the items.  Somewhere, Gabe Newell is rubbing his palms together and laughing manically.

Good Crafting: Case Study

After that rather depressing overview of Team Fortress 2, I'd like to take some time to gush over a game that actually gets crafting right.  Risen, developed by Piranha Bytes, is effectively a reboot of the Gothic series, and shares many of the franchise's strengths, from an open world and punishing but fair difficulty curve.  It also has one of the best crafting systems I've seen in a modern game, especially when compared to similar games in the genre, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The first thing Risen does right is that it shows incredible restraint in its crafting system: there are just four crafting skills - Alchemy, Smithing, Prospecting, and Gut Animals - and only two of those can be leveled up more than once.  Leveling up crafting draws from the same pool of learning points all other skills require, and it must be done at the hands of a skill trainer.  Skill trainers cost money to employ, and gold is rather rare in Risen, especially earlier on.  Despite the limited number of skill levels, those skills provide large benefits for every new level gained, including new potions to brew and weapons to forge.

What?!  I can't level my skills to 100?  What kind of crafting system is this?
Due to the scarcity of items in the game, crafting takes on a different role than most others.  Whereas in some it's just a cheaper way to get health packs, in Risen it's outright required for many of the best items in the game, from potions that permanently boost stats, to powerful swords.  In order to craft, raw materials must be hunted down, and their numbers are finite.  Many of the best ingredients can only be gained by defeating powerful enemies, or by exploring the darkest and most distant dungeons.  Thus, crafting isn't just a matter of putting puts into a skill and hitting a button, it's about venturing into the game world and putting your in-game life in danger.

The risk-versus-reward element doesn't end there.  Risen is a deviously difficult game, and early on, death is often swift and almost impossible to avoid when going against certain enemies.  It's only through training, mastery of combat and acquisition of better gear that the player even stands a chance against the more challenging enemies.  Because of the challenge, the player is presented with a very real dilemma: go for the combat skills and ensure survivability out in the wilds, or put points and money into crafting to gain access to powerful healing potions otherwise unavailable, or new equipment?  Both health items and gear are hard to come by in Risen, and the trade-off between those two and the combat skills is a compelling one.

Last, what Risen's crafting system highlights most of all, both about crafting and more generally about mechanics, is that context is everything.  All the levels, recipes, ingredients, perks and so on in the world mean absolutely nothing if the decision to pursue crafting isn't relevant, interesting, valid or rewarding to the player.  Even though the system is just about as bare-bones as it gets, the crafting is compelling because of all the other elements of gameplay around it.  It's often true in game design that less is more, and Risen's crafting is proof of that.

Conclusion

When implemented effectively, crafting can enhance a game in subtle ways, both deepening the gameplay experience and providing the player with options in overcoming challenges, customizing his or her character, and exporing the game world.  However, it is worth reiterating that crafting, as trendy as it is these days, is not a guaranteed way to improve a game.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and that assumes that crafting is a fit for a particular game in the first place.  Game design is often a process of throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks, but I think crafting might be one of those cases where that mentality doesn't work.

I, for one, am hoping to see crafting fade from popularity, due to my own fatigue with the mechanics and because it's something that simply doesn't belong everywhere.  I enjoy it when put in the right context, but the fact is that seeing it thrown into just about every genre of game imaginable really cheapens the mechanic, and ultimately ends up damaging many of the games it's shoehorned into.  To be blunt, if it can't be done right, then don't do it at all - there are better things to spend time, money and labor on.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Eric, I'd like to get in touch with you, but can't seem to find any contact information anywhere. Could you send me an email?

    Cheers,
    Thomas Løfgren
    Game Director, IO Interactive
    thomasl@ioi.dk

    Feel free to delete this comment :-)

    ReplyDelete