Crafting has expanded from an rarely-seen mechanic in role-playing games to a nearly ubiquitous inclusion in all modern titles. It's now not only used in nearly every RPG, but also in first-person-shooters, action games, driving simulators, and even Steam's user profile badge system.
There's something thematically appealing about transforming base resources into useful goods, and players enjoy the strategy and choice that customization can enable. Though widely used, there is substantial variation in the appearance and implementation of crafting systems. In this article, I categorize these systems into five approaches, and highlight what works best about each and how they are best used.
Type 1: "Money by Another Name"
As Seen In: Dragon Age: Origins, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Blacksmithing), The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Assassin's Creed III, Terraria, Dungeons of Dredmor, Kingdom of Loathing, Bioshock, and many more.
This is the most common way games feature crafting, but it's actually only "crafting" in a conceptual sense. Here, the player pays for a desired item or upgrade, with resources that they've collected, in a fixed and transparent exchange. The so-called crafting here is abstract: you hand over some units of wood to a craftsman or workbench, and they hand you back a wooden shield.
This is generally indistinguishable from an in-game market system, but instead of using a money themed resource like gold coins, we're using a raw material themed resource, like iron bars, oak logs, or wolf pelts.
Due to its simplicity, this type of crafting is immediately familiar and easy to grasp. The inputs and outputs of the system are clear and unambiguous, so the system requires little or no explanation. Because it leverages existing systems, it also makes it easy to implement, and sometimes even employs the exact same interface that shopping with "money" uses. It's an effective way to add flavor and color to a market system, as the metaphor of turning raw goods into products can be richer than that of purchasing products with money.
This system can also provide a balancing function to the game by allowing additional control over what the player has access to. By making the currency exchanged for a given item rarer, or available only at a certain point in the game, the designer can disguise the true cost of the object. For example, if a cool sword costs 1,000 gold, the player might grind to save that up or think that costs too much and ignore it. But if it costs 50 steel, then it may seem easier to attain, even if it takes the same amount of time and effort to gather one unit of steel as it does to gather 20 units of gold.
This system's simplicity is its own drawback, and it's typically insufficient for games striving for more immersion. It's also difficult to strike the right balance between being a small but flavorful inclusion and feeling extraneous and tacked on. Plus, if too many resource currencies are used, it's very easy to make the system overcomplicated and tedious.
In Assassin's Creed III, for example, the crafting system uses dozens of ingredients. Crafting one unit of Firearms, which has no use besides being sold for money, requires combining Weapon Handles (themselves crafted from Maple Lumber), Iron Ore, and Flints (itself made from Limestone, Lead Ore and more Iron Ore). So much detail can easily exhaust the player if the rewards for navigating such a dense system are too small.
Type 2: "Find the Recipe"
As seen in: Dragon Age: Inquisition, Diablo III, World of Warcraft, Dead Island, Fall Out 3/New Vegas, The Witcher 2, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
In this system, crafting a given item can't be done until a representational recipe, schematic, or blueprint has been found that unlocks it. These recipes may be found in the world, given as rewards for completing challenges, or purchased from stores.
Once the player acquires the recipe, crafting proceeds just as with "Money by Another Name" by exchanging resources for outputs in a fixed fashion; the difference here is that the player needs not only the underlying resources for the exchange, but also the knowledge that the exchange can be made at all. More rarely, the recipe might unlock a more customizable form of crafting, as it does in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
This system can provide some additional flavor to the crafting process, as it represents the idea that merely having resources isn't enough; the player must also know how to combine them. Also, by adding a step to the crafting process, this effectively increases the number of rewards a player can be given without increasing the total number of items. This has some completionist appeal too, as the blueprints must be hunted down and collected.
It also maintains surprise for the player, since the full extent of what can be acquired isn't known right away, unlike in a shop-like system. Lastly, it provides the designer with an additional gating mechanic by preventing players from accessing certain content too early, even if the requisite resources themselves are available.
You must take care in balancing the difficulty of acquiring schematics and the underlying resources needed with the value of the items they produce. If the reward is insufficient, then the system will largely be ignored in favor of items acquired through other means (like stores or enemy loot). Conversely, if it's too good, it can displace the other avenues of item acquisition.
As with "Money by Another Name", it can be prone to over-use due to the simplicity of implementation, and acquiring all the schematics can thus become a chore. Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, has over 200 weapon and armor schematics, and they must each be found or purchased individually.
Type 3: "Guess and See What Sticks"
As seen in: Minecraft, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Alchemy), The Secret World, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Alchemy), The Elder Scrolls Online (Alchemy), and Diablo II (Horadric Cube).
In this method, the recipes for crafting are neither immediately known nor acquired in-game, but must instead be discovered by the player through combinatorial trial and error. The player is generally presented with a crafting interface in which they can combine the resources they have collected, and is tasked with finding valid outputs by trying different arrangements of inputs.
The complexity of this can range from merely choosing different ingredients (as in Skyrim), to additionally choosing their quantity or physical placement (as in Minecraft). This makes the crafting combination not an abstract unlocking mechanism, but instead a literal recipe that the player must learn. Because of the ingredient-focused nature of this system, it's most commonly seen when the crafting is flavored as alchemy or cooking.
Unlike "Money by Another Name" and "Find the Recipe", in which the crafting outputs are known or accessible, here there can be a sense of real discovery for the player. Rather than merely being told what the crafting system can create, the player is able to research and experiment in order to discover possible items they can create.
Though the crafting here is still abstract on some level, the process of discovering what works more closely approximates actual experimentation. It also makes the process of crafting require more direct player involvement, which can highlight the mechanic or its emphasis in the overall game design. Because what the player can test is limited to the resources they have gathered, it also provides the same balancing/restriction function as the previous types.
If the system is too punishing for incorrect guesses (consuming rare resources, for example), then it may discourage players from actually exploring the system. If the correct ingredient combinations seem too arbitrary, then it may be feel less like a game of discovery and more like a random guessing game. In either case, if it is too punishing or difficult, the player will invariably look the answers up instead. In such cases, the system is really just "Money by Another Name", but with an additional layer of player frustration.
Also, such a system can become unduly laborious (and necessitate outside resources) if there are too many recipes to remember, or if the correct answers aren't recorded in-game.
Type 4: "Made-to-Order Customization"
As seen in: Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dead Space 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Enchanting), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Spell Creation), Mass Effect 3, Monster Hunter Tri, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Sagecraft), and Mercenary Kings.
This is any system in which the crafting is modular or dynamic instead of following a set formula or fixed exchange. Rather than a shop-like mechanic, here the crafting gives items a build-your-own flavor, where the player is able to pick from a set of choices.
In Assassin's Creed: Revelations the player can make bombs, and by choosing the casing, fuse and contents, they can make a variety of different explosives with different uses and effects. Unlike in "Guess and See What Sticks", where the player's "choice" affects a binary right or wrong outcome, here the player is actually having to commit to a strategic choice from a range of possible, known outcomes. This can be reflected in-game as choosing different materials for an item, different design elements or add-ons, or even purely aesthetic flourishes.
This system permits an in-depth system of customization that can be very rewarding for players, and can give otherwise static items or equipment new versatility. Since the player has an actual impact on the outcome of the crafting process, it gives them more agency than they have in simply purchasing or finding a better item. And if the options available have distinct uses, trade-offs and drawbacks, then it can create an additional layer of strategic choice in the gameplay.
The increased flexibility and depth here can make the crafting process an integral part of the core mechanics of a game, instead of just as a flavorful method for producing items.
This type of system has an increased level of complexity compared to the previous types, and while that provides additional depth, it also means that it is harder to implement. Increased complexity also requires more attention from the player, which might distract their focus if crafting is not meant to be a core game element. On the other hand, if the system has too few real choices, then its depth is largely superficial and will be optimized to a few "correct" choices, removing the advantage of using such a system.
Overall, due to the number of permissible outcomes, it can be particularly difficult to balance custom created items against items acquired from other sources.
Type 5: "Anything is Possible"
As seen in: Vagrant Story, The Legend of Mana, Treasure of the Rudra (Kotodama), Breath of Fire III (Dragon Genes), the Atelier Series, and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Spellcrafting).
This a broad category covering anything featuring a true crafting system, where the input variables can produce a wide array of possible outcomes. This allows for a truly dynamic process with very deep strategic choice, like the blade-and-grip combination system of Vagrant Story which has thousands of permutations. This can elevate the crafting system to being the primary game mechanic, as it is in the Atelier series of JRPGs. "Anything is Possible" systems are almost always the only source of the items they produce, because it can be very difficult to balance the outcome against something more easily available.
The complexity such systems introduce can take players a great deal of time to fully explore. The tempering system in The Legend of Mana is so complicated (and mostly undocumented in the game) that players are still discovering useful recipes for it nearly 15 years after the game's release.
Investigating a system of this depth can be extremely rewarding. Having so much dynamic possibility can give the player meaningful agency in the process. The depth of these systems can greatly enhance gameplay or extend re-playability, and the difficulty of charting all possible outcomes can help the game resist optimization and the resultant stagnant gameplay.
This can be the least abstract form of crafting, since the immense variability of the system accords to the possibilities of actually making real things, and the testing and development the player must engage in is not unlike performing actual scientific inquiry.
This level of depth makes these systems extremely hard to develop and implement, as they require substantially more design and testing than simpler systems. The resulting complexity is unnecessary for most games, where crafting is a supplemental mechanic rather than a major feature.
Because these systems sometimes have infinite range of outcomes, the possibility of game-breaking combinations of ingredients (as in, combinations that produce items that are too good) can be hard to plan for.
Crafting can serve a variety of purposes in a game's design. It can provide a thematic and flavorful way for the player to access items, whether it's smithing armor in a fantasy setting or applying futuristic gun mods in a sci-fi game. It can play a vital balancing role in how the player acquires upgrades, and with greater subtlety than more overt restrictions. And, if built with sufficient depth, crafting can even provide strategic gameplay in and of itself.
Crafting doesn't belong in every game, however. If tacked on without care, it can be extraneous and distracting, and if made complex for no reason, it can be tedious and burdensome. Crafting systems are a structural mechanic, and so they function best when used to support a game's primary design goals.