You’re the hero in a game. You spend upwards of several hours honing the peaks and valleys of your characters physical features. You enter the game world, ready to stare peril in the face with a grin. You’ve found yourself embarked upon a quest and so naturally you’ve equipped yourself with basic accoutrements to get the job done: a boiled leather jerkin, iron barbute helm, and a devastating double-bearded axe. Both the haft and heft of your mighty axe feels as familiar to you as the air in your lungs – you are the hero, this is what you live for. You set forth on your quest, heart in your hand, ready to face the danger come what may. This is the true excitement that divides men from mice; the calling of a true champion. You smite the enemy’s lands with righteous fury and slay the hobgoblin, or demogorgon, or a jormungar worm or two, and from it’s stash of loot you reap your bloody reward: *record scratch* animal glands, leathers, sinews, a broken longsword, chipped gems and four lesser bear asses. Lachrymose, you skulk back to town to hand in the quest, at which point you discover that the next hour of gameplay consists of sifting through thematically jarring inventory menus being introduced to a convoluted crafting system that every game developer crams into their god-forsaken RPG. You know, cause you’re the hero!
Dig deep and really ask yourself the following question: have you played a game in which you truly enjoyed crafting? I am not the only one who is sick of staring at windows and menus. I am not going to pretend that this is some kind of novel opinion. But it’s still worth discussing as crafting isn’t going away, and many of the most highly regarded games of the last ten years heavily feature crafting.
That leads me to the following controversial opinion: my disdain for crafting systems also prevented me from joining in on the Breath of the Wild hype. It’s a fantastic game, but the amount of cooking required was just a bit much for me to really get on board with the very loud community of people who already celebrate it as the best game of all time. Before you start foaming at the mouth and preparing your rebuttal, remember that I’m just some guy on the internet who certainly has no idea what he’s talking about. That should provide some relief.
Of course, here comes an obvious caveat: the idea of crafting itself is not necessarily an awkward inclusion in a game. Minecraft is based around gathering and crafting. And while it’s not a game I have ever particularly enjoyed, I can recognize and appreciate its innovation. Stardew Valley is another game that had a tolerable crafting system. But the way it’s done in most games, especially RPGs and MMOs, is simply tedious: click through immersion-ruining windows, panels, and inventories, to sort through countless materials, staring at a bar fill up, just to bloat your inventory with ten lesser wristbands of disappointment. Where did this awful crafting system template come from? I think we can point to early MMO’s as a possible culprit, and, being the most popular MMO with such a crafting system, World of Warcraft more specifically.
The crafting system in WoW hasn’t changed much in 13 years. Considering how much their talent trees and class abilities have changed, you’d expect something in the way of innovation with their crafting system, though granted they have revamped it in some ways over the last few years. I played thousands of hours of endgame content in WoW and the crafting system was nothing more than a necessary timesink in order to make gold and gain the profession-specific enhancements to minmax one’s character. Leveling a profession consisted of spending a lot of time wandering around low-level areas, and often spending a lot of gold on rare materials as well. The actual crafting itself is banal, almost accurately laborious: once again watching a bar fill up over and over, bloating your inventory with crap you’ll inevitably vendor when it won’t sell on the auction house. More often than not, I would craft multiple at once and alt+tab to something more interesting. Because of how the endgame was designed and incentivized, crafting was nothing more than a necessary evil.
Another MMO worth mentioning is Final Fantasy XIV. It recognizes the obvious obtuseness of the typical crafting system and tries to revamp it with some risk-reward mechanics that affect the outcome of the crafting. Unfortunately this results in a ‘mini game’ with the robustness of something you’d find on Yahoo Games. It may be better than WoW, but I still found myself groaning at the prospect of crafting nonetheless.
I probably logged about 60 hours into Skyrim before I left it unfinished, and in that whole time I’m not sure I crafted a single item – I simply couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to explore a fantasy world, not stare at my character grinding with a whetstone. A common criticism of the Elder Scrolls series is the abundance of things that break the sense of immersion. Skyrim, for instance, suffers greatly from NPC’s having the same voice actors, and Oblivion was even worse. But to me, this doesn’t come close to the damage caused by the crafting system. This kind of crafting system is comparable to walking up to the grindstone or alchemy table, and alt+tabbing to the desktop to play a terrible text game.
And one might object that the ‘text game’ in this case has ramifications on the actual Elder Scrolls action, since many of the crafted items are powerful rewards. One also might object that yes, crafting is downtime; a serious triple-A RPG is supposed to have depth, and such depth will inevitably introduce moments of downtime.
But the main draw of these games, their entertainment in essence, does not consist of crafting by sitting through inventory menus. A crafting system, as it exists in most games, is not an intrinsically enjoyable experience – it’s a means to an end. It’s the ‘what you have to be doing’ to get to the ‘what you want to be doing’. So wouldn’t it make more sense to be able to gain those rewards by doing the latter, rather than the former? That seems like a blueprint for success.