For many players, video games are a chance to escape from work. You hop into a game, sliding into a fantasy role as a dragon slayer or superhero, setting aside the mundanities of day-to-day labor.But as I hop from monster hunting to military sneaking missions, I’ve found that my personal play time is filling up with different kinds of work. I love difficult boss fights and intense combat, but I relish the chance to roll up my sleeves and create something. Crafting systems, something I’ve largely ignored, have piqued my curiosity in massive multiplayer games like Final Fantasy XIV, and I’m spending hours gathering materials and making potions and gear.
My first tango with digital “work” came with Stardew Valley. Clearing land, planting seeds, and raising cows was as engrossing as firing rocket launchers or battling eldritch creatures. Yet for a farming game, Stardew Valley is a very social experience. There’s just as much relationship management, dungeon delving, and exploration as hard work. Whether that was fighting slimes in a deep dungeon or goofing off with my former partner, there were plenty of distractions. There was a taste of hard work, but most of my time looked like this:
Recently, I’ve found that the thing I want most from games isn’t a special quest or rare loot. When I play Final Fantasy XIV, I’m managing spreadsheets and running around the game world to resource nodes instead of getting the highest gear for raids.
I’ve dabbled in this before, leveling a blacksmith for the purpose of making gear for friends. In turn, my peers made me special gear to boost my stats and offered items I could deliver for fast experience. I felt guilty about it at the time, but it provided the framework I needed to start my fledgling enterprise. While this sometimes means crafting a sword or armor piece, it’s mostly taken the form of resource collection. I’m happily leveling a miner, running around with my pickaxe to find the raw materials that other crafters need in order to sustain their work. I also make sure to stock a surplus for myself, and as time has passed, this casual process has become more and more intense. It’s not just a thing I do for spare cash; it’s becoming a part of my day. a bit of gritty work away from writing and news.
I knew something was up the moment I dived into the Garland Tools database. It’s a massive reference sheet and information repository that details exactly where to find the ore and items you’re looking for. When you start mining in Final Fantasy XIV, it’s mostly a matter of collecting anything and everything you find. Once you reach the middle levels of a gathering profession, you can collect “unspoiled” nodes. These only spawn at specific times during the in-game day and night cycle, which lasts about 30 minutes. Slowly but surely, I built a schedule of where I needed to be to collect these rare materials. This means tracking, to the minute, when these nodes will appear. Garland Tools does most of that for me, but the result is a web page with ticking timers and x- and y-coordinates.
I’ve previously found that crafting systems often break games. Before I worked at Kotaku, I worked on a handful of independent and AA games, first as a tester and later in a very minor design capacity. When the time came to interview for a AAA studio, one of the things I wrote as a part of the interview process was a detailed breakdown of exactly how Skyrim’s crafting system can completely trivialize the game. Through a focused loop of potion crafting and enchanting, it’s easy to create a humble dagger with an attack power in the thousands. I found crafting prone to exploitation and inconvenient. I never quite understood the appeal until now.
Done right, crafting is a robust and valid path through games. It can lead to hard work and intense micromanagement, but there’s a comfort in that. Much like learning how to pull off difficult fighting game combos signals an increasing understanding of a game, fine-tuning how to make the best gear (and often turn a sweet profit) is rewarding. As I work through a game like Ghost Recon Breakpoint, I’m taking breaks to craft when I would have never done so before. It’s labor, sure, but it’s more satisfying that I ever imagined.