Crafting games can be a disaster if you have a poor attention span or focus problems. They’re often based on a system of progression that relies on immediately recalling several layers of materials any time an item degrades or breaks. And their mission structure, if they have one, is never designed around accommodating the building aspect of the game, only the sidequests.
Take for example Graveyard Keeper, which I recently got into over the past several weeks. I like it a lot, but it’s one of the busiest crafting games I’ve ever played. In keeping up the church, farm and the cemetery itself, every moment is spent gathering resources from far away locations, and building the machines I need to refine my ever-escalating pyramid of advanced materials. Not only is the hustle exhausting, it’s worse when I can’t keep track of what I’m in the middle of making. At any given time I could need 20 copies of at least a dozen building materials, each with their own crafting chain that may take two or three different processes. Between that and the large distances needed to travel between each location to check schematics at various blueprint desks, it becomes very easy to forget what you were in the middle of doing, and very time consuming to figure it out.
Stardew Valley, one of my older obsessions, is very similar, offering almost nothing to direct the player or inform them of how they should be spending their time—and worse, the sensitive timing of the game’s grow seasons makes achieving various farming goals (most of which are not expressly written out) very tricky if you don’t already know exactly what you’re doing. In both games, your best bet is to pause, write some lengthy notes about short and long terms goals and what types of materials you should be accumulating, and refer back to that as needed.
By contrast, The Forest, which isn’t a terribly great game in most respects, offers a compromise. Blueprints for any buildable items are represented by a transparent outline, which are placed on the ground and then “filled in” with materials. A small tracker in the corner of the screen indicates what materials need to be gathered, and how many are already in your inventory. It isn’t a perfect system (the tracker is cumulative, and doesn’t differentiate between the items being built), but it’s better than forgetting what you were trying to find or gather in the first place, which happens often in a setting where it’s easy to become distracted by travel time, combat or other missions.
Years ago I interviewed Jon Schafer about At the Gates, his as-yet-unfinished 4x strategy game that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter back in 2013, and I remember he mentioned a notes system he was designing, one that would allow the player to keep track of whatever task they were in the middle of—an addition that would have made, for example, my Civilization games a little easier to focus on. I think crafting games would benefit from something similar, like maybe a checklist within the menu that would allow you to quickly set and track a goal for gathering or making items. With a small visual tracker like that of The Forest, the player could quickly and easily be reminded of what they should be doing next.
I think an issue with many crafting games is that they’re so focused on mechanics that they forget to guide the player through the system, and don’t give the game the structure it needs to keep people focused. With ARK: Survival Evolved or The Forest or maybe even Graveyard Keeper, this might be because the pre-release early access builds of the games cultivated such big and supportive communities that the need for any in-game guidance got forgotten and lost in the shuffle as the game evolved. But whatever the case, even games that don’t have that kind of background, like Don’t Starve or the recent Smoke and Sacrifice, can fall prey to that very thing. And while I concede that my experience may be a bit different from other people’s, in that I have obsessive tendencies in scenarios where collectible items are quantified (which affects my perspective on the rate at which I should be achieving in-game goals), because crafting games bring a sense of method and order, they are still often very appealing to people like me. And I suspect even those in perfect neurological health could benefit from a bit more structure as well.
The popularity of crafting games seems to be holding steady; even Minecraft does not seem to be on the decline, despite how much time has gone by. But with a little scaffolding and inner framework to increase the genre’s ease of use and accessibility, I think it only grow more in the years to come.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.