In the midst of COVID-19 fears, the Sidequest team decided to focus our roundtable on something wholesome: crafting in games. We sat down (virtually, of course) and talked through in both tabletop and video games. Are you a fan of crafting in games? Sound off in the comments and let us know what does and doesn’t work for you!

What makes a good crafting system versus a bad one?

Melissa Brinks: A bad crafting system makes me feel like I’m not DOING anything. Final Fantasy XIV is super guilty of this—you can legit set your character to do all the crafting for you while you walk away and make a sandwich. What’s the point? It’s just a time-waster, and it’s a bummer, too, because they have professions that sound like they’d be fun to do. A good crafting system makes me feel engaged and excited by what I’m making, or, at the very least, lets me go do other things while the crafting goes on—Stardew Valley, for example.

Joesph Langdon: Wow, I couldn’t agree more with Melissa on FFXIV. When I was playing regularly, I would set a macro to press all the right buttons and watch TV on my PlayStation while I waited for 100 linen shirts to happen. Then I’d horde them and sell them on the market at the perfect moment, though that’s probably a discussion for a different roundtable. I just have this dream of living my Ghibli fantasy in an MMO that lets me win on crafting alone.

The closest I’ve ever felt to that fantasy was with Mabinogi. To be honest I’m not sure how well it holds up, but I remember at the time the mechanics really made me feel like I was doing something. Sewing in Mabi had a mini game mechanic where you had to perform stitchwork yourself. The more advanced outfit, the stricter the time limit. Every time I made a top quality item, I felt like I was really doing something. It made me proud to put my wares on the market.

Wendy Browne: So, I mostly hate crafting, so I support games that let me live my gaming life without stressing about the fact that I could get better things if I crafted or could afford to buy from crafters. I am grateful to my crafting friends who kept me supplied at fair prices in Final Fantasy XI.

Maddi Butler: One of the things I like about games like The Witcher 3 is that they do let you craft and it feels like it means something. It’s been a while since I played the game—I think I left off at the spot with the soup-hurling witch, so there wasn’t much crafting to be done anyway—but I remember liking the ability to make things in the game. I think it felt balanced, too, because you don’t have to craft—you can buy armor sets or just wear the ones you find—but I liked the option. Wendy, I’m curious how you felt about it, since I know you’re also a Witcher fan?

Wendy: Heh. I purposely play the game for story only and mod for aesthetics, so I don’t have to worry about crafting. I tend to only consider crafting as an option in multiplayer games.

Maddi: Very fair; it can get really tedious! I think it took me about four hours and several thousand crowns to get the Grandmaster set. (At least Geralt looks cool, though.) I also liked crafting in Horizon Zero Dawn. It mostly involves gathering ingredients and pressing a button, but I really like gathering stuff in games. It’s a nice way to explore the world.

Elvie Mae Parian: I have to admit that I am usually not a fan of crafting systems in general unless it is the main focus of the game itself. Breath of the Wild’s cooking system follows a pattern that is formulaic enough to figure out with which recipes produce the effects you want. Smithing equipment in Dragon Quest XI only asks you to have the key ingredients and play this tapping mini game and nothing more. In Minecraft, a regular torch is made by simply combining coal with a stick. Genius. I personally think that if crafting is a very secondary aspect to the game, it should not be too complex. If there is too much time and grinding that needs to be invested into collecting parts to scatter across an even longer process, I can find it draining.

Another problem can be if something has the illusion of complexity when, in the end, the system turns out to be pretty arbitrary. I was honestly a little disappointed with how Battle Chef Brigade turned out, in which you have the allure of all this work in fighting monsters and collecting ingredients, but the actual cooking aspect is watered down into a match-three puzzle game. I also personally feel this to also be the case with a lot of MMOs, as everyone else above has right about summed up what the issues are. I just don’t like math if it doesn’t need to be there.

In a dreamy Ghibli-esque style, a white-haired femme with a long braid sows a book that has Witch+Craft on the cover. She appears to be in a workshop. Witch+Craft, Astrologo Press, 2020.

Witch+Craft, Astrologo Press, 2020; art by Sarah Webb

Do you make use of crafting in tabletop games? How does it work in your games?

Melissa: I play a half-orc baker in a Pathfinder game and while she hasn’t baked anything yet… she will.

Joesph: No, but I want to! I ordered the Witch+Craft D&D 5e supplement from Astrolago Press and have been waiting with bated breath for its delivery. I want nothing more than a campaign of apprentice craftsman pursuing grandmaster status in the eyes of the guild together!

Melissa: I just got my copy of Witch+Craft and it’s beautiful! Can’t wait to put it into use.

Elvie: I too have also ordered a copy Witch+Craft! Currently in my 5e game though, I have already been encouraging cooking using a loose system where the players must make a series of dice checks. How they roll per step in the food-making process determines the meal’s quality in the end.

What positive things can crafting add to a game?

Melissa: Crafting is a very peaceful, cozy element. I’m a big fan of games that are otherwise stressful having an alternate activity to explore—though I don’t spend a lot of time crafting in Red Dead Redemption 2, I appreciate that it’s there because it really does make the game feel more lived in. The world isn’t all rootin’-tootin’ gun-shootin’, and I love that I can just sit down at camp and cook a little oregano steak while the world goes on around me.

Joesph: My feelings are pretty similar to Melissa’s. Something that makes violent titles work for me is the acknowledgment that violence isn’t the only thing that exists in the world. The stakes are more real when there’s contrast there. It doesn’t have to be crafting—Persona fills that same niche with social mechanics—but I think intentional crafting can really open space to reflect on the game and what it means to inhabit the world.

Wendy: Even though I don’t love crafting, I appreciate the value of having something peaceful to do in games that can otherwise be chaotic. I also appreciate the personal pride a crafter can get in certain games that allow them to “sign” their wares.

Maddi: I’m seconding Melissa’s response, too. Breath of the Wild’s cooking is, aside from falling off mountains, probably my most-performed act in the game. I love the experimentation aspect and how adding just one different ingredient can make or break a dish. It feels a lot like real cooking, in that way. I found it really delightful and unexpected when I made a dessert for the first time.

Elvie: Crafting is definitely a worldbuilding element that adds a lot of depth in understanding how a setting functions. Especially within the fantasy-adventure genre, even though I am not a big fan of them, it really forces you to understand the labor behind how the world in-game is built up and sustains itself. It is pretty amusing how many MMOs have multiple craft systems that can grant you the ability to be something like a smith, chemist, or even dressmaker, but when you think about it, that’s probably really draining and impractical when your character may already be a mercenary busy doing monster fetch quests as their main job.

Have you ever been inspired to craft something in real life because you enjoyed crafting it in a game?

Melissa: Not yet, but that means very little when it turns to apple season and I finally make Link’s baked apples.

Joesph: Absolutely. I’m one of those people that picks up a different (usually skill-intensive) hobby every month. More than a few came after trying them in a game. I usually gravitate toward tailoring in MMOs, but working with thread in both sewing and knitting fills me with an inexplicable stress. I’ve tried a couple of the recipes from Breath of the Wild, including the above mentioned baked apples. I even did a brief foray into stave craft after making so many in Dragon Age: Inquisition. What I learn most of the time is that games are a good way to be good at things you just don’t have the time to develop as skills in real life.

Wendy: Not really, but I am fascinated by the way people sometimes gravitate to specific crafts that reflect their interests in real life. I have a friend who loves cooking, so he’s always taking the cooking options whenever they are available and enjoys it more when the reality of particular recipes and cooking elements are incorporated in unique, game-specific ways.

Maddi: Cup Noodle counts, right?

Elvie: I wouldn’t say it inspired and influenced things I ended up doing in real life, but Final Fantasy XV definitely pushed me into thinking about the idea of cooking as a peaceful aside and legitimate mechanic to consider for an adventuring party, hence the loose cooking system I have since incorporated in a Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign I run, as mentioned earlier.

Crafting… really forces you to understand the labor behind how the world in-game is built up and sustains itself.

What games have the best crafting experience?

Melissa: Breath of the Wild! I love cooking in that game because the mixture of collecting elements, combining them, hearing the little music, and getting a new food result is just so charming. My only complaint about it is that after a while I was always cooking the same few dishes—I would have loved a little more variety.

Joesph: It’s only half true, but the good half of Dark Cloud 2’s crafting system was so enjoyable it makes up for the other half. For those not up on their PlayStation 2 cult classics, Dark Cloud 2 (or Dark Chronicle outside of North America) was a (kind of bad) dungeon crawler with a (kind of amazing) city building/time travel mechanic. Outside of both of those main mechanics, the player could invent objects by taking photos of the landscape and combining them in logically incomprehensible ways.

The invention system had me constantly paying attention to the world itself, looking for the perfect object to mix with my milk crate and conveyer belt. I interacted with the world too, in order to find recipes, and experimented with random photos to discover what they might make. The system made me feel grounded in the world and made me really consider how it worked. Then I had to grind for ingredients to actually make whatever item, which to be honest I never did because the combat really sucked.

Wendy: I did appreciate crafting in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I could pick up all sorts of materials on my path and then set my companions to work. It didn’t require me to invest vast amounts of time to the task. And I could also fund my adventures purely through material collection and sale, if needed.

Guild Wars 2 was the only game where I invested a reasonable amount of time in crafting. Again, I could pick up materials as I went along, which is a big factor for me, and leveling up granted experience points and materials to be used in later crafts, so I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time in the learning process. It also helps that my kids were old enough to craft for me, because why else would I have had kids?

Maddi: Seconding Breath of the Wild! I’m a sucker for those beautifully rendered dishes in Final Fantasy XV, but I wish the cooking was more active like Breath of the Wild’s. Let me help Ignis! Let me experiment!

I also thought The Witcher 3 was a satisfying experience because it made me work for my armor. This is especially true once you get to the Grandmaster level. First you have to find the diagrams, and components, and each set builds on the previous one, meaning you have to go through four sets of armor before you can get to the highest level. It was challenging, but getting the Grandmaster set at the end of it all felt so rewarding.