Crafting systems have long been the Holy Grail of gaming. Developers glory in announcing and questing for them, and properly applied, they can extend a game's lifetime dramatically. But a bad system gets old really fast. And just as with the Grail, it's decided by whether the wielder truly wanted to make things better or was just greedy. With Mad Max and Fallout 4 unleashing crafting systems on the blasted and wasted landscape of AAA games, they've never been higher profile.
Which is why we're looking at the five worst problems with single-player crafting systems, and how to fix them. (Massively multiplayer crafting systems are a whole other kettle of fish. And all 50 fish have to be collected individually with a 0.4% chance of dropping from Epic Squid.)
#5. Crafting Trojan Micropayments
Dead Space is a series about relentless monsters which keep going even when you slow them down and chop off huge chunks. Which is exactly what happened to the series itself with Dead Space 3. EA unveiled a "crafting" system which turned weapon upgrades into grinding chores unless you paid. That is, if you paid again after already buying the game. You can technically acquire weapons without cash, but only by effectively working a sub-minimum-wage fictional job gathering ridiculous numbers of arbitrary resources instead of playing the main game. It would have been more convincing if they'd claimed it was a satire of capitalism and that they were Banksy. And it was so bad that players bragged about spending hours farming imaginary events instead of paying.
"I work on a spaceship of mutated Necromorphs, and paying for this is the most screwed-up thing I've ever seen."
The ability to buy better weapons ruins the game twice over. Either you're paying real money to beat a game you already bought, which is how your self-esteem wins a pyrrhic victory, or you're struggling through battles with the knowledge you're deliberately wasting time that even the game wants you to skip. Hard levels are no longer finely-balanced tests, but blatant difficulty spikes added as aggressive sales pitches. This shatters your immersion, keeping you constantly aware that you're not escaping from reality by struggling against alien monsters; you're losing a real battle against an evil Terran corporation.
Solution: No Micropayments Mode
Every game should have a simple "I WILL NEVER BUY ANYTHING" toggle which removes all offers and options from every menu. Not greying them out, not defaulting them to "No" -- absolutely eliminating even the least glimpse of them from the game. If only to reveal how many holes are left. This would have to be instituted as a legal requirement, just like age ratings, and it could be forced for the same reasons. Parents used to be worried about violent games, but now they face the real problem of children being tricked out of thousands of dollars. Micropayments are a genuine scam that exploit children as a security flaw. Video games are meant to make dealing with kids easier, not worse.
#4. Crafty Chronocide
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"Clickfarming" is any game mechanic which rewards you for clicking something, waiting several minutes because you really have nothing better to do with your life, and then clicking it again. It was invented by laboratory rats who'd survived testing, needed money for pellets, and wanted revenge on the human race.
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"This is for all the mazes! Enjoy MazeVille Social Plus!"
It's a more horrifying Skinner box than a literal implementation of that term in a horror movie, because at least horror victims don't insist that they're enjoying it. The basic timer tactic has expanded into an array of time-killing traps wherein you have to do the same things over and over again to change one number into another, convert one resource into a second in order to get a third, repeat a mission until you have ten of a certain component, or any allegedly complicated "crafting" system which requires five steps but can only deliver a single result. They're all embarrassingly simple proto-Matrixes reducing the human brain to a simple WHILE ... UNTIL statement.
I need different lumber to make a weapon handle to combine with flints and ores to make a firearm I can't fire. And I used to be an Assassin.
If you click through three menus to complete something which could have been done with a single keypress, then those menus were there to hide the lack of real gameplay. If changing one of those steps gives a different result, it's crafting. If the multi-step sequence has only one correct result, then it's not crafting; it's the world most boring quicktime event, which decided to swap the "quick" for "filing." And as in the previous point, the instant they offer you a chance to pay your way past any step is when you know it's all bullshit.
Solution: Macros And Smelting
Ideally, all games should have macros. A simple set of instructions in which you can map out commands like "IF this THEN that." It sounds complicated, but everything in the virtual world is already inputs and named components. If you can do it with menus and a keypad, then the game should be able to do that for you. Setting up a system to call button presses and menu elements really would be BASIC.
"I see what you did there."
Developers worry that players would skip parts of their game, but if players want to skip a part, then they should be allowed to. Video games aren't meant to be homework. More realistically, every crafting game should at least have a smelting option like in Team Fortress 2, which lets you take all unwanted items and resources and render them down into base material to be rebuilt into other items. That way, even the most useless items feel like progress towards a desired goal.
#3. Preventing Players From Crafting Anything Powerful
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The game gives us a crafting system to make amazing items, but then steps in to prevent us from making powerful ones. Starting with "simulated video game DIY" and adding another level of pointlessness is technically impressive, but not in the technical senses we wanted. If we can't generate anything better than what games normally give us, then the crafting system isn't an extra on top of the normal game -- it's a chore assigned instead of a normal game, like a bored parent giving their kid a stick and only getting involved to scold them when they pretend it's something awesome like a sword.
Still better than spending hundreds of dollars on a katana, and even more practical.
If you're worried about balancing the players' equipment and weapons, then give them balanced equipment and weapons. If you can't figure out a crafting system which fits the established structure, then don't include a crafting system. There's no point in crafting if you can't make something better than the standard gear. Super Mario Bros. wouldn't have been improved if Mario had to take out his tool belt to unscrew and empty every metal box he met. Either give us weapons or give us the ability to truly make things.
Solution: Infinite Options
Run with it! It's more fun to break a game than it is to behave inside it. The Elder Scrolls games let you ramp up any ability to world-shattering, all-dominating levels, because you're the hero and playing pretend, and both of those mean you should to be able to do that. My only combat duty in Skyrim was cackling while dual flame atronachs arsonized existence.
"Don't speak to me, speak to the hand WHICH CONJURES ELEMENTALS OF FLAME!"
Don't just let players break the game; give us options for infinite resources so we can see just how stupidly awesome we can get with the wreckage. Then include an achievement or a cosmetic award item for people who don't use those options and complete the game "as it's meant to be played." That encourages people to try both modes and have much more than twice as much fun. All for the cost of less than a line of code as you change some resource variables. The core point is that we already have a world in which extremely un-fun people will make sure we don't break the rules. That's why we invented video games.