Crafting Systems I: the Hands-Off Approach and the Random Approach

(Well, it’s been very heavily delayed, but here’s the first part of my look at crafting systems in games… finally. At least a whole month after I started, I think.)

This week, I’m looking at crafting systems. I love messing around with crafting systems, in almost all their forms, whatever game they’re in; anyone who’s met me in any MMO with a crafting system is probably well aware of this, especially if the system allows silly items to be made. Happily, quite a few games nowadays have crafting systems; methods for players to make their own items and equipment (or other things), or have an NPC make them for you. Crafting systems are one way for a player to acquire specific items or equipment; they’re not as fixed as purchasing an item from a shop, but they’re also not quite as dependent on random chance as winning items post-battle can be.

The Hands-Off Approach
(Etrian Odyssey, Final Fantasy XII, Cyber Knight)

Of all the systems I’m going to detail, this is probably the simplest one; it doesn’t even look like a crafting system, at first glance, but it does allow the player to influence what items are available to them at any given time, and the player may have to work to find (enough) particular materials for whatever they desire.
Put simply, the player battles enemies, or otherwise works to attain materials. The player then sells or gives these to an NPC. Depending on how many materials of various types have been sold or given to the NPC up to this point, the player may then find additional items have been unlocked for sale, or are just given to them.

The main, primary variables in this system are the difficulty of attaining any given material, whether by chance after defeating a monster or by searching the right location, and the number and types of material required for each item to appear in the shop. Knowledge of a recipe is generally not required; if materials are accessible and handed over to the proper NPC, then as soon as the correct numbers of materials have been given up, any related items should be unlocked. Items can be made easier or more difficult to unlock by altering these variables; increasing or decreasing the difficulty of finding one or more required materials, and raising or lowering the amount of each type of material required to unlock an item. Low amounts required of easy-to-find materials mean an item will be frequently available, whilst items requiring higher amounts of more difficult-to-obtain materials will be rarer themselves.

It’s still possible for major variations to exist, however. Final Fantasy XII reset the tracked values of all materials sold to unlock an item as soon as any ‘recipe’ was fulfilled; if, say, a spear required 1 pole, 1 knife and 3 threads, then as soon as 1 pole, 1 knife and 3 threads had been sold, the spear would appear in the shop. However, if 10 poles, 3 knives and 3 threads are sold, in that order, the spear will still only appear once, and the extra 9 poles and 2 knives sold by the player are wasted.
Alternately, Etrian Odyssey tracks the number of all materials sold, and ‘made’ items on demand as you selected them for purchase; with the above recipe as an example, 10 poles, 3 knives and 3 threads sold and 1 spear bought would still leave you with 9 poles and 2 knives available for more spears – given enough thread – or any other recipe involving them. Both this and the variation employed by FFXII only get more complicated as other recipes using similar materials are involved, but it’s worth noting that Final Fantasy XII had many other shops with fixed inventories, independent of items sold, whilst in Etrian Odyssey there was only the one shop, with almost all of its inventory determined by what items the player sells.
Cyber Knight was the simplest of the three examples, with enemies dropping ‘Neoparts’ that, with enough of them, could be converted into useful items and equipment by an NPC, no selling or purchase necessary. Cyber Knight didn’t have any form of currency, whilst in Etrian Odyssey and FFXII almost the whole of your income is made up through selling materials; however, most if not all of the income made through selling materials in EO and FFXII went back into purchasing other items, as unlike other similar games, earning money directly from battle was somewhere between rare (FFXII) and impossible (EO).

A ‘crafting’ system like this is pretty hands-off for the player, with a minimum of interaction or planning necessary in all examples I mentioned above; new items and equipment become unlocked simply through normal play, as the player accumulates and subsequently sells or gives away loot collected from battles, not generally requiring unusual effort on the part of the player.

The Random Approach
(Star Ocean series)

A small step up from the hands-off approach used in FFXII and Etrian Odyssey would be the Star Ocean series’ approach to crafting; whilst slightly more interactive, in that the player can choose the general type of item they want to produce, the player cannot choose exactly what they want to make. As far as my experience of crafting systems extends, this method is unique to the Star Ocean series; no other system comes to mind where a single unit of a material is converted into a maybe-usable item (somewhat) randomly selected from a list of items createable with that material.
In Star Ocean, the player chooses a character to attempt crafting an item; which kind of item they attempt to craft determines what kind of material will be consumed in the attempt, in addition to what kind of item will result, and the character they select will have a given level of proficiency in the selected crafting process, and may have Talents, both of which affect the chances of getting certain items… in addition to characters naturally creating a slightly different set of items for each crafting speciality.

Primary, important variables relating to this system include the chance of creating any possible item from a material when crafting, and the availability and cost, if applicable, of a single unit of the specific material required by each crafting ability. Naturally, items with a lower probability for creation will be less common than items with a higher chance of appearing, and the cost and availability of materials will limit how many chances a player has at item creation with that material, before needing to pick up more units of the material.
Though Star Ocean is the only game I’ve seen employing this system for crafting, anything based on the character doing the crafting (Talents, skill levels defining the level of the character’s crafting ability, and the individual character’s list of items they can create), and items or temporary effects that alter the chance of crafting in general or specific items, for example, can be considered secondary variables; unlike an approach to crafting that I’ll detail later – the self-taught craftplayer approach – the crafting character’s skill will not improve as they make more items, outside of possibly unlocking a related talent, providing a permanent bonus to the chance of producing anything useful from that point onwards, non-repeatable. Making fifteen Skanda Ointments through Compounding will not make it any more likely that the next attempt at Compounding also produces something useful, let alone another Skanda Ointment. Adding points to relevant skills for a crafting discipline, if applicable, will decrease the chance of failing and producing a (mostly-)useless item, but will not generally have any effect on what item is produced when successful.

Star Ocean: The Second Story/Second Evolution (PS1, PSP) and Star Ocean/Star Ocean: First Departure (SNES, PSP) essentially used the system detailed above, with separate Item Creation options for Cooking, Metalwork, Compounding, Art, Machinery, Customise and Alchemy. Then there were ‘Super Specialty’ options, which produced much better results when succeeding, but depended on the proficiency of the entire party in the related skills and regular Item Creation disciplines; Master Chef, Blacksmith, and Reverse Side. With the exception of Master Chef and Compounding, these all made use of the random approach to crafting, and each Item Creation discipline used a different set of raw materials. Master Chef was a form of another approach that will be described in a later post – the mix-and-match approach – and Compounding was a combination of both that approach and the random approach.
Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (PS2) used a fairly large variation on this approach, removing skill points and materials entirely; crafting still used specific characters – up to three at once – who had set skills in different crafting disciplines, and instead of consuming materials, making any item consumed a variable amount of currency, depending on the item that will be made, and the crafting characters. Items that had been produced through crafting could be made available in shops for easy purchase without having to craft them again, in future. Additionally, the player could recruit NPC craftspeople who were often far superior to party members in a specific discipline, but could not be used at all for any other type of crafting; leaving them unrecruited would potentially lock the player out of crafting and ‘patenting’ certain items as the NPCs did themselves, and leave the items available in shops for much higher amounts of currency than they would have been had the player crafted the item first.
The item to be crafted was still random, and determined from the characters used in crafting, and the total skill points of the characters used; a given item could be crafted as many times as a player could afford, but stopping and identifying the crafted item would cause the potential item to change to something else – the player could make ten of something, but wouldn’t know whether it was ten gold statues or ten twisted rings until they decided to stop. However, as the item was determined before a player commenced the crafting process – as the price of crafting had to be displayed beforehand – it was possible for a player to determine what would be crafted ahead of time, and simply cancel any crafting process that would lead to a useless or undesired item. Subsequently, most of the difficulty in this version of the random crafting approach resulted from unlocking the entire crafting mode, working out how to recruit crafting NPCs, and working out which prices produced useless and useful items, rather than in being truly random.

Like the hands-off approach, this form of crafting system is still fairly independent of the player; its most interactive form was in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, whilst its earlier incarnations were marginally less involving. Both forms of crafting system require luck to some degree, as certain items in SO: Till the End of Time were very rare occurances and anyone taking advantage of the price to identify the potential item would have to make many successive attempts at beginning crafting until one of those items appeared, while earlier games gave no clues about what specific item would result each time. It’s tempting to call the ability to identify an item prior to crafting it in SO: Till the End of Time a cheat, but given that the player can potentially continue crafting until they bankrupt themselves, I’m inclined to call it a feature rather than a glitch, though that systems is by far the more exploitable of the two major variations.

Next week… or whenever it gets written… I’ll be looking at the non-skilled, self-taught and mix-and-match approaches to crafting.