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The RPG Scrollbars: Heroes. Don't. Craft.

World Of PUT THOSE TOOLS DOWN!

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Few game mechanics right now make me ‘urrrrrrrrrrgh’ quite like crafting. Bloody, bloody crafting. I hate crafting. I hate that just about every game I pick up can’t wait to introduce its crafting system to me, with its long shopping lists of finnicky items to find, and about as much care for being believable as all those shotguns and medikits Lara Croft used to find littering ancient tombs. Crafting is the worst, and unlike something like the escort missions of old, it manages to be the worst regardless of how much it actually ends up wasting your time.

As ever when I complain, I’m not talking about literally every crafting system ever. It’s not something that interests me in any game, but I have more tolerance for it if it’s a fundemental cornerstone of the game, like a Minecraft. What irks, irritates and gets under my skin is crafting as a Feature That Games Like This Just Have, where every potentially interesting part of the process is stripped away in favour of time-wasting, out-of-character piffle.

I liked the old Elder Scrolls spellcrafting system for instance, because it gave you, the player, the chance to meddle with magic at a very primal level – to create ridiculous spells that stuck two fingers up at balance, no matter how hard the algorithms running the show tried to make them work. Oh, but that was far too interesting, wasn’t it? Come Skyrim and that was the kind of power you had to break open modding tools for, or simply sit back and play with boring Enchantment Lego.

I do understand why crafting is in games, obviously. MMOs need a player economy, exploration and loot needs to drop more than just whatever the local equivalent of gold is to keep it interesting, and players do generally like the ability to customise gear and so on. I just don’t think it generally works very well, with most games being a pure case of following recipes to get a specific thing, and then typically customising it in other much more useful ways, like gem sockets. On top of that, the levels the game can offer, the likelihood of a player staying on top of it, and its relative importance to the rest of single-player experiences that don’t focus on it pretty much guarantee it being left little more than a bloody nuisance at best.

Ironically, crafting would often be better if it did demand more focus, like in The Witcher III – a game that sets up the player character as an alchemist and dirty fighter willing to use any chemical advantage in a fight, only to render the whole system completely irrelevant unless you’re playing on one of the harder difficulty levels. Or the average MMO, where it’s not until the endgame that it’s usually worth bothering to make anything, leaving the majority of the grind to get to that point entirely pointless. What the hell is the point of sitting there churning out a billion useless weapons that nobody, not even the NPCs, actually want? Is this fun? On what planet?

And then there’s the recipe system in survival games, which I think have enough crossover to be mentioned here. I’m willing to accept the mental leap that somehow a completely untrained person can repair an AK-47 by hitting it with a rock, or construct their own firearm by laying out a few bits of wire and metal and not have the MacGuyvered death-trap blow up in their face. What tends to bother me is that despite the simplification, it’s rarely a particularly intuitive process. Instead you need wikis to lay out the various ‘recipes’ for you, with the game either not willing to say what it wants, or acting like a great big tease. Either give me something like Garry’s Mod and reward experimentation, or just tell me how to create a pointy stick.

(This, along with needing time to eat and sleep, is one of the reasons why I don’t bother with Early Access survival games any more. There’s leaving things to be discovered, and then there’s just being a dick. Don’t make me leave the game and find where someone has apparently pulled that information from the deepest resources of their ass, or expect me to sit there trying combinations like a human version of that SETI@Home program that everyone was briefly obsessed by a few years ago.)

Far more often though, the result is that crafting sits in what I like to think of as The Unsatisfying Valley, where you don’t actually need to do it, and the game will never actually challenge you to the point where you really feel like it might be a good idea, but at the same time the existence of the feature hangs over the entire thing like the Sword of Damocles. Better fill these bags up with ore, just in case. Better grind the skill, just in case. You never know when you might actually need it, except for the fact that you never actually bloody will. And that’s just the problem at its most generic.

One of my biggest problems with crafting is that the systems never really trust you. Not really. They know you’ll have read the wiki or whatever, so typically the bits and pieces you need will be scattered to the four winds just to make things difficult, or anti-fun features will be added just to make damn sure you work at it. It’s not an RPG, but these things don’t get much more obnoxious than the Combo weapons in Dead Rising 2. If you haven’t played it, basically you get to find weapons around a zombie filled mall and then combine them to create super-powerful, zombie-busting murder machines. Spiked gloves! Wheelchairs with lawnmowers on the front! Everything a budding psychopath could want, turning the zombie apocalypse into a field of splashing bubble-wrap.

Oh, except that if you don’t first get the ‘Combo Card’ that tells you how to get your Wolverine on, they all become rubbish. No heavy attacks, bad XP gain. Grrr. Even though Dead Rising is the absolute last series that should suddenly start thinking of balance, it completely kills the sense of having invented some great and wonderful murder weapon. That’s fun. Being reminded that it’s a carefully engineered option placed in the world for you to find… not so much.

Likewise, if I’m going to make my own sword in an RPG, let me actually do that thing properly instead of simply telling me what I’m going to get. Make it meaningful. Make it a memorable moment. Let me choose my style of blade, the curve of it, the runes on its surface, the style of the hilt and pommel, the style of leather on the strap. Then have the courage to let it be my blade for the duration; my Excalibur, my Glamdring, my Orcbonker 3000… something to look back on as fondly as any character or moment.

Knights of the Old Republic did that really well. The scene in which you craft your lightsaber is almost exactly how I wish everyone else did it. First, it’s a one-time, special thing. You’re making your own sword, which is something your character would be doing in game. The whole decision process of making and later upgrading it is rooted in both the world’s fiction and your own personal tastes. Colour of crystal. Single or twinblade? The whole game has been leading to this point, making it feel special, and while afterwards you can pick up about as many lightsabers as bits of vendor trash, I suspect that most players did what the game gently indicated they should – keep upgrading that one weapon, not because it’s special in the grand scheme of things, but because it’s theirs. It certainly beats what happens in most RPGs; out-levelling about ten Swords of Legends and throwing them to NPCs for chump change. What’s that you’ve got there? Excalibur, fabled blade of the One True King? Two gold, mate.

Maybe the economy would be better if heroes put some more money back into the system, like actually paying trained blacksmiths to do the crafting for them? At some point I genuinely expect to get to the bottom of some dungeon somewhere… probably Divinity: Original Sin 2… only to find a blacksmith standing there over some dragon’s carcass and saying “How do you bloody like it when someone does your job for you, eh?” And it’ll be fair enough, really.

Not only should blacksmiths be able to craft better gear than my guy, who’s just taken a few experimental whacks at an anvil, they’re probably able to order moon-rocks and whatever at trade prices instead of having to scour the entire countryside in the hope of stumbling across some that aren’t too badly guarded by fire-ogres.

That hunt for resources would be a lot more relaxing too if you could do in games what you can in real life – find someone in the know and politely ask them where you might find some blofindo mushrooms or silverleaf instead of having to go to a wiki or just assume that they’re out there, somewhere. Sometimes it’s fun to explore the forest and simply see what you find, but again, when crafting is basically optional 99.9% of the time, having to pixelbitch through an entire map in search of what’s been presented as common as a daisy doesn’t help build my desire to keep it up when I’m done.

That said, something which will never, ever be fun in the average game that makes you glug down health-potions like mixers at an awkward office party should ever, ever require the player to do any of that crap just to make something as simple as health potions for questing purposes. Looking at you, Dragon Age: Origins. The only thing that ever, ever does is cause frustration while the player has yet to find the inevitable loophole that lets them make a thousand of them, and then stop the game in its tracks for a few hours while said loophole is abused for fear of not finding another one like it later on. On the other hand, Origins did demonstrate how the words ‘hero’ and ‘craft’ can frolic together – you as the hero going out in the wilds to retrieve things like dragon hide for actual craftsmen to make awesome armour and stuff out of.

I far prefer this kind of wrapping around crafting. It’s not functionally that different, but it feels like a very different transaction. I’m reminded of the cancelled World of Darkness MMO, which had very similar views. You’re a powerful vampire. You don’t stitch shirts. Instead the plan was that you’d recruit, by force if necessary, a network of human contacts to do all that fiddly stuff for you, and simply place an order with them. (Being a vampire, that’s probably the kind of order with ‘NOW!’ tacked on the end.)

Sigh. It might have been a terrible game, but I still wish we’d seen it.

In general, what I’d like to accept is that most games where you’re not specifically building things, like Fallout 4’s settlements (which I think work, even if that whole side of the game is hilariously at odds with what your character would be doing in that situation), you’re really paying and working for customisation. Crafting should be far more than that, with the ability to actually create things and put some imagination and even game-breaking moxie into them – a personal stamp on the world, an exploration of the rules, the chance to actually make things. If all you’re doing is giving people random items in exchange for basic unrelated options then that is what we call ‘currency’ and that is as far from ‘crafting’ as Bognor Regis is from the moon.

But I don’t hold out a lot of hope for that. The success of Minecraft and Fallout 4 and so many other games means that a game without crafting is like a new shooter without eSports potential. It’s expected, even when it adds nothing of real note to the experience and ultimately gets in the way of what could be a fun experience in its own right. The illusion of control and responsibility and discovery, because that’s way the hell easier than actually offering it. I miss making my own spells though.

I wince every time I think of a great combination of items that the latest game doesn’t care to recognise. And I growl every time I have to waste my heroic time picking flowers instead of being down in a dungeon. It’d be one thing if more RPGs cast you as a florist, but that doesn’t tend to happen. No. They’re games about being heroes. And in books and films and the myths of old, there’s a bit of a recurring theme on display.

Say it with me, people. Heroes. Don’t. Craft.

Well. At least unless they’re really going to commit.

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Richard Cobbett

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