I love crafting. Tell me a game has crafting, and already the first notes of the sweet sirens call begin to tickle my ears — yearning, as a designer and a player, to unlock its secrets. The barest whiff gives an alluring quality to any game; and yet, as I find far too often, this yearning turns to a loathsome disdain for the eventual reality. It seems I’m always left holding a bag of crushed dreams and unfulfilled fantasies. Indeed I do dream of being a rich merchant someday…
The problem is that people create crafting systems because, like me, they love the IDEA of a crafting system: The idyllic version, the fantasy. They rarely ask if what they are fantasizing about fits the goals for their game; what’s more, they horribly underestimate the implications of a crafting system.
Know the goals you are trying to serve!
I did a lot of research for this article, and a common theme made itself clear: the particulars of the crafting systems mattered far less than you would think. Before writing this, if you asked me, “Mike, what makes a crafting system cool?” My response would have been immediate: lots of items to make! And yet, that’s false. Games like Diablo 2, Dead Rising 2, Monster Hunter, and Vagrant Story — all wildly different, all fun in their own way — feel good because, at their core, they are there to serve the goals of their game.
To build a good crafting system, you must create a system that aligns with the game are you making; this should be painfully obvious. But how do we ensure this alignment? Our path to this understanding is best gleamed through a lens of economics, for this lens provides us with a very meaningful lexicon.
A Crafting Lexicon
Before you can discuss anything of sufficient complexity, you must first build a lexicon. This helps you break down the problem (in this case Crafting systems) into bite sized chunks of understanding. Let’s define our language:
- Crafting — a system for allowing players to take resources and convert them into goods through some form of work.
- Resources — the in-game items that make up the input stream of the crafting system (wood, stone, iron, etc.).
- Goods — the in-game items that make up the output stream of the crafting system (axes, swords, shields, etc.).
- Low Stream — when the number of potential resources (or goods) is considered small.
- High Stream — when the number of potential resources (or goods) is considered large.
- Simple Manufacturing — a system of converting resources into goods that requires little work.
- Complex Manufacturing — a system of converting resources into goods that requires a greater amount of work.
- Open Crafting System — when goods can also be resources.
- Closed Crafting System — when goods can not be resources.
That is a lot of jargon, I know, and we shall discuss it all in due course, but primarily you will notice a theme: crafting, at the most basic level, is all about manufacturing. That’s all it is. Turning one thing into something else; and doing it through some form of work. There is more to it, of course, but before we get there it is important to take a step back and understand the system from the high level.
The Magic Box
Crafting is about converting resources into goods through some form of manufacturing. To start, think of the manufacturing process as a black box. What goes on inside is magic. On one side of this magic box is a slot that says “input”. You put some combination of items in there and out the other side, from a slot that says “output”, comes some new item. Crafting!
These two slots are the streams. You have an input stream, resources, and you have an output stream, goods. This should remind you of two things we already defined: High Streams and Low Streams. These high/low qualifiers don’t refer to height, but to potential volume of traffic. You can define the difference between a High Stream and Low Stream in many different ways, but we are talking about video games, if you remember, so we define the difference between them by a players ability to hold information in their head; namely, around their short term memory.
The seminal work on short term memory limits was a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by George Miller. Since then we’ve honed in on it a little more, and the generally accepted limit is four, plus or minus one. It is entirely possible to augment a person’s short term memory limit through certain psychological tricks, like Chunking, so realize that this is not a hard rule, but rather a guideline of intent.
Point is, the way to differentiate a High Stream from a Low Stream is going to be in the player’s ability to hold the entire possibility of that stream in their head, more or less. A game like World of Warcraft limits your profession to only a few materials (around 5), and then even further limits you by your level. Contrast this with a game like Dead Rising 2, where there are hundreds of potential items that you can combine together. This is a rather loose definition, I admit, but it’s surprisingly useful, and you’ll see why in a minute.
Let’s return to this magic black box. We have a stream of resources coming in, and we have a stream of goods coming out, but what about the box itself? The box itself represents the player’s interface to the crafting system, which is what we call Manufacturing. Now, like the streams, we define the manufacturing in one of two ways: Simple Manufacturing, or Complex Manufacturing.
Simple and Complex, in this context, are defined by the mental and physical requirements they ask of the player: aka, how much work is required. A simple system would require nothing more physically demanding than clicking a button, while asking for nothing more intellectually stimulating than reading a list. World of Warcraft is a simple manufacturing system. There is no mystery to what resources are required, as each recipe tells you exactly what is needed, and the only input required to create a product is the click of a button.
Complex manufacturing, on the other hand, requires more from the player. Minecraft’s crafting system would be considered complex, as it requires not only that you figure out what items are required to make something, but also how to lay them out inside the grid. Note, too, that Minecraft on the 360, by these definitions, would be considered simple manufacturing: it’s the same game, but two different implementations. Ask yourself why that change was required, and if it was a change for the better.
The Crafting Model
All of this combines to give us a model for discussing crafting systems. This is important, for constructing a model to describe crafting systems allows us to define them into archetypes:
- High – Simple – Low (HSL)
- Low – Complex – High (LCH)
- High – Complex – High (HCH)
- High – Simple – High (HSH)
This looks all nice and neat, certainly, and we can extend this model further, if desired, but we haven’t verified its usefulness, so let’s test it against our cursory understanding of some crafting systems.
Vanilla WoW – LSH
- Low Input Stream
- Each crafting skill is paired with its own unique resource pool — tailoring with cloth, or leatherworking with skinning — which provides a great means of demarcating the resources into metally manageable chunks of information.
- Simple Manufacturing
- To craft an item requires, at the most, standing in front of certain objects in the world, while having something in your inventory. Once these requirements are met, the act of crafting requires a click of a button and waiting a set amount of time.
- High Output Stream
- The number of items that come out the other side of the crafting system are both various and randomized. There is a predilection of building a bountiful number of the same exact good, in order to grind your skill, but this does not negate the range of goods that can be created with the system. More importantly, for this to match the model, these goods must be created with the same few resources.
Dead Rising 2 – HCL
- High Input Stream
- Almost every item you pick up in Dead Rising 2 has the potential to be a resource in the crafting system. It may not be viable, but it has the potential to be a part of the system.
- Complex Manufacturing
- This one can be a confusing. It looks like simple manufacturing, for the system does a really good job of alleviating the complexity: Only two items can be combined, and you collect recipes as you play the game, which show you combinations that will work. Despite this, the player must step up to the system and do more than simply press a button. They must make choices, and those choices require Self Knowledge (Human Capital).
- Low Output Stream
- There are a lot of items that can be created in Dead Rising 2, but an output stream is not defined by the totality of its output. It is defined by the number of goods from single resources. Most items in Dead Rising 2 are limited to 1 or 2 combinations.
- Minecraft (PC) – HCL
- Minecraft (360) – HSL
- Dead Island- HSH
The model is seemingly able to slot disparate crafting systems into our archetypes, but we lack an integral component: For an archetype to be meaningful, then it must serve an equally meaningful goal. It is through the combined understanding of archetype and goal that the model becomes useful.
The Goal of Crafting
All crafting systems have one goal: increase economic Capital. You take resources, you do work, and you are rewarded with goods. These goods must have value, which we call Capital, or what’s the point of even doing it in the first place? In video games there are three forms of Capital.
- Human Capital — you, the person behind the character.
- Avatar Capital — the intrinsic abilities possessed by your character.
- Physical Capital — the extrinsic equipment you carry on your character.
So you have one major goal, increase capital, and this capital comes in three forms. This alone, however, would not really be enough information to satisfying a good analysis. We must also speak about the intent of crafting systems. Here things get a little bit muddy. Every game is unique, therefore any intentions a crafting system might serve would, in some ways, be unique. Still, when I looked at a few different games, there were certain common themes that seemed to crop up time and again. These themes break down into five basic intentions: Status, Combat, Access, Trade, and Exploration (SCATE).
- Self expression is about making a character that is unique to you. Crafting a cool hat to show how stylish you are has all the hallmarks of uselessness, as far as games are concerned, but, once you take into account the human desire for social status, it begins to make sense. What it lacks in Physical or Avatar Capital, it can more than make up in Human Capital.
- For crafting to be about combat, then it must be about providing options. Games like Monster Hunter 3 fall into this category, as the choice in style of combat–be that lance, blade, hammer, or bowgun–comes from the crafting system.
- Crafting can also be used as a gating mechanic to the flow of your game. If your game has the additional goal of exploration, Minecraft being the obvious example, then a way to naturally control the flow of your player through space is with keys (without really calling them keys). You can’t mine diamond until you mine iron and make an iron pick; you can’t mine obsidian until you mine diamond and make a diamond pick; you can’t go to the nether until you mine obsidian and build an obsidian portal — three levels of gating.
- For an economy to exist, there must be trade. So for games that desire a synthetic economy, the crafting system’s intent is to drive trade through various kinds of specialization: either through crafting roles, or through randomization and luck.
- Finally, if you have a large cool world to explore, you can use the crafting system to entice exploration through the environment. Far Cry 3 goes so far as to explicitly show you where certain animals hang out on the map, as a means to get you to travel around.
A game may attempt to serve one or all of these intentions, and it may do so in a major way, or a minor way — depending on the level of focus. Diablo 2’s Horadric cube, for example, is primarily focused on Trade: It allows you to combine runes, gems, and weapons for the act of trade with other players. This makes sense, of course, because the simple reality in any Roguelike is that you are constantly getting great stuff you can’t actually use, and so is everyone else. The best path to good stuff is through trade, so the crafting system is designed to facilitate that path. The Horadric Cube is also, in a minor way, about three other things: access, through the creation of the horadric staff; combat, through the ability to socketing gems into your weapons; and social standing.
Time For Numbers
Now it’s time to get into some numbers. One might even say a lot of numbers. And you and I, we’re going to get all up in their business. Don’t let this scare you, though; Numbers are cool! It’s fun to talk about Models and Goals, like we did above, but eventually you have to start doing some honest research. You can’t just talk about systems, you gotta look at them, touch them. What? How can you touch something so abstract? Through data.
Let me tell you a little story from my early days. I’m working on my first high profile game, let’s call it Duke of Fisticuffs, and I am currently having my entire concept of game design completely shattered — working with talented people will do that. But nothing creates a better foundation for building than complete annihilation. See, from this destruction, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel; I saw the person I wanted to become.
It was only days after my epiphany that the frame data for Street Fighter 4 began to make its appearance on the net. I made it my mission to study, nay scrutinize, that data, and when the game finally came out in America, I would play the game with my laptop sitting beside me, comparing the two. I would not be the designer I am today without those early days spent staring at numbers and wondering. Numbers are important, not scary, for they are storytellers.
Mulder: I’m reading the box scores, Scully. You’d like it. It’s like the Pythagorean Theorem for jocks. It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947. It’s like the numbers talk to me, they comfort me. They tell me that even though lots of things can change some things do remain the same. It’s . . .
Before we get to data, however, let’s review what we’ve learned so far.
The Story So Far
Crafting systems are a dense, complicated subject, but they are also incredibly simple. The journey started with a general definition of crafting.
Crafting: A system for allowing players to take resources and convert them into goods through some form of work.
Next, like all tasks, we studied the goals of the system. All crafting systems have one goal, the increase of economic capital, and this capital comes in three forms:
- Human Capital: you, the person behind the character.
- Avatar Capital: the intrinsic abilities possessed by your character.
- Physical Capital: the extrinsic equipment you carry on your character.
Crafting systems, as we have defined them, have a simple 3 step process: Input -> Manufacturing -> Output. Combining this with certain patterns led to a model for crafting systems, and this model allows us to create archetypes:
- Low Input – Simple Manufacturing – Low Output (LSL)
- High Input – Simple Manufacturing – Low Output (HSL)
- Low Input – Complex Manufacturing – High Output (LCH)
These archetypes can be combined with one (or more) of 5 basic intentions:
- Status: increase your social standing.
- Combat: add to or enhance your combat options.
- Access: serve as a gating mechanic.
- Trade: allow for market specialization.
- Exploration: serve as a driving force in exploring the world.
We’ve created a model, we’ve stated the goal, and we’ve studied the intent (SCATE). Now it’s time to look at data.
I researched a number of different games while writing this, but I focused on eight that I was familiar with.
- World of Warcraft
- Dead Rising 2
- Dead Island
- Far Cry 3
- Fallout 3
- Fallout New Vegas
- TES: Morrowind
The process started in excel by entering all potential goods and their requisite resources. From that I was able to pull out all of the unique resources (our Input Stream) and calculate the total number of goods that can be created for each resources (our Output Stream). An example:
Dead Rising 2
It’s important to understand what this information is saying. Inputs, as we previously defined, are items that can be inserted into the magic box that is our crafting systems. In Dead Rising 2, for example, it would be all the things you pick up in the game, such as Boxing Gloves, a Flashlight, or a Lizard Mask. “Input: 70” is saying there are 70 items that can be potentially used in the crafting system, far more than any person could reasonably keep in their head. This would be, by our definition, a High Stream.
The output can be a little confusing, but stay with me. Remember: the output stream is defined by the total number of items that can be crafted from a single input. Some items in Dead Rising 2, the Battery for instance, are used in multiple goods, while something like the Baseball Bat can only be used to create one thing. If we were to study the system for just these two items it would look like this:
Battery — Output 4
Baseball Bat — Output 1
The output is dependent on the input. The listed output for Dead Rising 2 represents the average output of all inputs, which gives us an actual number of 1.4, but I rounded down.
In short, the average item you pick up in Dead Rising 2 is constrained to only one possible good. That is a very good thing, as it turns out, for it improves and meshes with the flow of the game: You generally have “a something” in your inventory, and, through the design of the crafting system, you start asking yourself, “Ok, where the hell can I find X, so that I can make Y.” It gives you purpose.
Next, for all the various crafting systems I indicate (as far as I can tell) the intentions the system was trying to serve: 0 for nothing, 1 for minor, and 2 for major focus. Here you can see that Dead Rising 2 has two major intentions: Combat and Exploration.
Last, but certainly not least, I ranked every crafting system on a 5 point “fun scale”. I realize it seems arbitrary, but it’s just my subjective measure of fun, and I tend to like 5 points scales. In the case of Dead Rising 2 a 3 is actually pretty good (I’m picky).
Ok, now that we’ve got this example under our belt we can look at the full list of data:
|Dead Rising 2||70||1||51||50||HCL||0||2||0||0||2||3|
|Far Cry 3||28||2||53||53||HSL||0||2||2||0||2||4|
|Fallout New Vegas||180||3||209||160||HSL||0||2||0||0||2||4|
|TES: Morrowind (Alchemy)||105||179||78||78||HCH||0||2||1||0||2||4|
In this full version I also included the number of unique products. In the case of Dead Island, for example, you can produce over 400 items, but most of these are duplicates. This is all very fascinating, but it is feels we are missing something critical — you can feel it too, no doubt. I have completely overlooked the kinds of goods you are crafting.
Systems Within Systems
A look into the kinds of goods we are crafting demands we delve a little bit deeper. This requires some new terminology, which we shall take from my article on economics and video games. I defined three kinds of items in a synthetic economy:
- Consumable Product
- Products that are destroyed after being used for the first time. Such as a health potion.
- Dependable Product
- Products that persist after being used, but they depreciate in value over time. The quicker something depreciates in value the more it begins to act like a consumable.
- Permeable Product
- Products that are never consumed, and also never depreciate in value over time. Hint: most items in a video game.
For fun, and without understanding the import, I labelled the goods in a few crafting systems by their product type. It became clear, however, that the success of certain systems hinged on understanding the kind of products your system was creating (which, when you think about it, should be stupendously obvious). This observation tends to reveal systems within systems, where the outward appearance can be one way, but on the inside it acts in other ways. We shall look at two: Far Cry 3 and Minecraft.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 is a clear example of this. Everything you make with animal parts (with the exception of the fire arrows) is a Permeable. You are making some new thing that that will permanently be with you. Everything made with the plants, however, is a Consumable.
Let’s treat the Far Cry 3 crafting system as if it is two independent systems: the things you can make with plants, Consumables; and the things you can make with animal parts, Permeables.
|Far Cry 3||Input||Output||Products||Type||S||C||A||T||E|
In this case, we are learning a lot more about the system by breaking it up this way. Syringes are primarily about combat, while the equipment is primarily about access and exploration. Once I made this discovery, I started to pay attention to how I was playing the game, and it was interesting to notice how important this was to the flow of the experience.
I never cared about finding plants, but I was usually concerned with my current stockpile of health syringes. Because there were so few plants to worry about (low input stream) it was all very organic: I would simply grab the plants I needed as I was traveling around. The equipment, however, forced me to make meaningful choices about where I travelled. I’d find myself asking, “Man I really need a bigger money pouch, what do I need for that?” This would force me to create a little mini mission for myself. This is an example of a crafting system that perfectly fits into the context of the entire package. This concept of a “search” versus “find” mentality for resources is even more apparent when looking at Minecraft.
Breaking up Minecraft’s goods into Permeables, Dependables, and Consumables results in a similar illumination: There are systems hiding within systems. Let’s see what the numbers say:
This was interesting, but I think the more appropriate view of this data comes when you take a closer look into the dependables. Consider that Minecraft is really built around 5 “base” resources: Sticks, Wood Planks, Cobblestone, Iron Ingots, and Diamond Gems. If we separate the crafting system and look at just items that involve these base components we see something totally different than if you looked at the system as a whole. Let’s compare the two.
Each of these base goods can make, on average, 21 different things; and, what’s more, result in over 75 different goods — that’s almost half of all possible goods in the entire game! This heavily contrasts with the view of the game as a whole, but, like Far Cry 3, this is important to the game’s flow.
Part of what makes Minecraft work is that the first time you build a wooden tool, due to the nature of the crafting system, you instantly grasp the potential implications (I can make this same tool with stone, or iron). It draws you to go out searching for new resources that you intuitively know exist. Knowledge of iron and diamond are not even required, for it would be natural for you to expect that something out there will slot into the system. This kind of intuitive expansion is nearly impossible when a game uses obtuse recipes, nor would it be feasibly manageable in a game with more than than 5 “base” items — the standard limit on our memory.
In both of these cases (Minecraft and Far Cry 3) we have discovered systems within systems, where the complete image belies sub-archetypes that are driven not only by different kinds of goods, but also by different intentions. But of course, this all leads us to the critical question: how do we use this analysis to construct good crafting systems?
Why We Analyze
One of the biggest hurdles you will face as a system designer is learning that analysis, even the best kind, is not the guide to good things. It can serve you in many ways, of course, all of them necessary, but it is only a tool. It can tell you where you are stepping off the rails. It can tell you that something needs to be cut, and where best to cut it. It can tell you a fight is too long, or an arena too small; a boss is too hard, or monster too easy. It can tell you all those things, but it can’t necessarily tell you where to build that arena, or how to design that boss.
Analysis is not constructive, it is reductive.
All of my analytical tools (The Rule of Three, Pacing Charts, Principles of Boss Design, Cast Archetypes, and this Crafting Model) create a bulwark against which I crash my current implementations, or my budding ideas; but they are not a roadmap for starting the journey to good things. This is important to understand, for they can’t do your job. What they can do, however, is create pointed questions.
“What is the intent of this crafting system?”
The first and most important question you must ask, and the first to showcase the purpose of analysis. The answer to this question need not fall within the five (SCATE) I have defined, but once you have decided on the focus for your crafting system you look back and see how it fits. Let’s say you’re making a game about Sky Pirates. You might define your system’s intent like so:
Players should be able to build and customize their own flying pirates ships. The system should be a driving force in enticing the player to explore the fantastical world.
A nice goal. The intent of Exploration is clear, but this is where the analysis comes in handy, for there could be secondary intents that are not nearly as opaque. Let’s run through our 5 intents and see if anything jumps out.
- This is going to be a single player game, so this is unlikely.
- Are players going to be able to fight other pirate ships? Likely. We want the system to be integral in players building their own ships, so we have stumbled upon a new focus for the system.
- Is the system going to control the access to different areas of the world? We lack the information to answer this one at this time, but it has created a question that we must answer at some point.
- Again, this is a single player game, so trade doesn’t necessarily seem like a focus for this system. The player could certainly trade with the ingame merchants, games like Port Royale do this, but that’s rarely as exciting as trading with real people. This is another one that we could revisit.
Already our analysis is generating new questions about the game.
- Certainly players will be selling and buying items from merchants in the game, but are we going to make trade with in game merchants a focus of the game?
- Should the crafting system be used to control access to areas of the game? And if not, how are we going to handle that?
- What combat options are we going to incorporate into the ship crafting?
The answer to some of these questions might be unclear, but their formulation is the important first step. This is your tools doing their job: First you build, then you test. This testing leads to more pointed questions.
“What kind of resources are in this crafting system?”
An important question, obviously, and it can be intimidating. But we learned previously that we have two major focuses in the system, Exploration and Combat, and that helps to narrow the field. Further help can be made by studying games with similar intentions.
|Dead Rising 2||70||1||51||50||HCL||0||2||0||0||2||3|
|Far Cry 3||28||2||53||53||HSL||0||2||2||0||2||4|
|Fallout New Vegas||180||3||209||160||HSL||0||2||0||0||2||4|
|TES: Morrowind (Alchemy)||105||179||78||78||HCH||0||2||1||0||2||4|
It seems we have a fairly common trend in our input streams. But it’s not just the high number of resources that can be important to exploration, if you remember. When we took a closer look into Minecraft we discovered that there was a system within the system that was based around 5 base items. These 5 base items were integral to the exploration as it gave you a clear drive to go out and find new things that you intuitively knew would fit within the items you were building. We also learned, though, that this was only possible with the complex manufacturing process that exists in Minecraft. However, as we can also see, Minecraft has many more intentions than the system we wish to build. Perhaps there are better games to look at.
Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas present an interesting study, as they are not only very similar games but also closely match the intent behind our crafting system. More interesting, despite their similarities in crafting functionality, I far preferred the experience in New Vegas over the experience in Fallout 3. In both games you have the ability to construct weapons, which act as centerpieces of the system. In New Vegas, though, you have a lot of little secondary bits and bobs that you can make, like food at a camp fire. This creates new questions.
We originally stated that we want players to build and craft their own pirate ships. These are definitely the set pieces of the system. But do we want to extend the system even further with smaller stuff to build?
Do we want to keep our original intentions and focus on simple recipes, or do we increase the focus on the crafting system and have a more complex crafting system?
Hopefully you are seeing the pattern to this process. Questions lead to analysis, which leads to more questions. The analysis can, at times, be the answer to your questions, but it is up to you, the designer, to propose those questions and find their solutions.
This model is not a set of rules about crafting systems. Indeed there are many games that will refuse to fit any mold, and their success is built upon their ability to break that mold. I would never advocate the rigid application of this model, for it can be very easy to lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish. Tools are there to help you; they will work, and, in all likelihood, they will make your job easier. But tools can also be set aside.
Set aside like the assumptions I brought with me to this article. I like crafting systems. I like the idea of them. Two months ago if you had asked me the qualities of a good crafting system, or if you had asked me to design one in earnest, I would have focused on the manufacturing process and the number of items that you can make with it — more is better, right?
What we’ve learned, however, is that the success of a crafting system comes in its ability to fit within the larger context of the entire game. It must match with the goals of the game you are trying to make. The Dead Rising 2 system would make no sense in a game like Far Cry, just as the Elder Scrolls alchemy system would make no sense in a game like Minecraft. Different games need different crafting systems. More interesting, the good ones manage to hide systems within systems.
Crafting is about turning resources into goods through some form of manufacturing. It’s that simple. The analysis allowed us to go deeper and understand things a little better, which revealed that we can look at them in a archetypal way. The analysis also gave us pointed questions we can ask when trying to design a crafting system. Analyzing systems is an integral part in being a systems designer. Numbers are cool! They can talk to you. But they can only say something meaningful if you choose to listen to them. Analysis can’t replace a good designer, but a good designer can’t exists without analysis.