System Shack is NME’s new column that explores the mechanics behind the industry’s most successful games. This week, Rick Lane digs into Minecraft’s enduring crafting system.
Minecraft‘s influence over the gaming landscape is so massive that it’s hard to properly grapple with. The game is directly responsible for the birthing of at least two genres – the survival game in the early 2010s, and the subsequent evolution of battle royale games about five years later. At the same time, Minecraft itself remains enormously popular, thriving alongside games like Fortnite, Stardew Valley and Rustgames which Minecraft itself directly inspired the creation of.
But perhaps Minecraft‘s biggest impact on gaming is how every mid-to-large budget game has since felt obliged to include a crafting system somewhere in its mechanics. Dragon Age, Tomb Raider, Fallouteven 2017’s Prey has a little bit of Minecraft in it. Forget gaming’s Citizen Kane, Minecraft is gaming’s Genghis Khan. It took the world by storm, and now there are traces of it everywhere.
At the risk of extending a metaphor comparing a nice game about building things to one of history’s bloodiest conquerors, none of Minecraft‘s progeny have succeeding in matching its achievements. Games outside Minecraft that feature crafting either overcomplicate the mechanics – as seen in No Man’s Sky‘s bamboozling system of synthesizing the entire periodic table, or they oversimplify them, like the crafting systems that invariably get stapled to the head of every third-person action game.
The reason for this is, in most games that feature it, crafting is a means to an end, and that end is either to complete some other in-game objective, or simply so the developer can put “crafting system” on the back of the box. In Minecraftcrafting is both the means and the end, a self-perpetuating system that facilitates ever greater creative ambition.
That’s not an especially astute observation, but what’s interesting is how Minecraft approaches this, and how that approach has changed over the years. When Minecraft first launched, the heart of its crafting system was the 3 × 3 grid interface of its crafting table. Every crafting recipe was designed as a little jigsaw puzzle where you needed to place your resources into the grid in a particular arrangement often resembling the shape of the item you were about to craft. Not only did this help simulate the feeling of doing something, of assembling it piece-by-piece with your hands, it also helped players figure out how to craft other items in the absence of an in-game tutorial. If a stone pickaxe is three stone blocks sat across two sticks, then it makes sense for a stone spade to be one stone block on top of two sticks.
This system has taken a back-seat in more recent years, in favor of a simplified quick-menu that lets you select craftable items from a list. It’s a necessary concession for non-PC players, as the jigsaw system is too fiddly to use with a gamepad. But it’s also a sensible refinement given how much the process involved in the crafting system has evolved over the last decade.
Process is the other crucial ingredient of any crafting system, one which Minecraft has understood since its earliest days. While your crafting table alone was enough to craft basic items, for more advanced kit, you also needed to deploy a smelter, used for turning ores into metals, sand into glass, and so forth. Even in its simplest form, Minecraft gives you a sense of using different tools for different jobs, which makes holding the final product more satisfying when it emerges from the other end of the pipeline.
Yet whereas the crafting table has become less central to Minecraft‘s core loop, the subsidiary processes have expanded massively over the years. Today, Minecraft‘s crafting stations include anvils, enchanting tables, composters, cauldrons, brewing stations, blast furnaces, and looms, all of which are used to produce different items.
There are two other key elements to Minecraft‘s crafting system. First, almost every item you can craft can be manifested in the world. Any block you craft can be used as a building material, while most of the items you craft have some physical function in the world itself. It sounds obvious, but so many crafting systems in other games get this wrong, and any craftable “items” are simply abstract menu icons that have no presence or effect upon the game world itself. A great example of this was the early versions of No Man’s Sky, where nearly all the items you could craft existed simply as cards in a menu screen. It says a lot that one of the ways Hello Games’ improved No Man’s Sky was to make it play a lot more like Minecraft.
But the most important element of Minecraft‘s crafting system is, of course, that it enables players to make things the developers didn’t anticipate. This is true both within the core crafting system, which allows players to create things like custom fireworks and specially enchanted weapons, and in how it facilitates larger-scale custom projects through adjacent mechanics like its Redstone system. The possibilities in Minecraft truly are endless, which is not something any other game can say, certainly not while also offering the same level of accessibility.
Minecraft is over a decade old, now the same age as its own core audience, unprecedented in the history of the industry. You would think anything that could have been said about it would have been by this point. And yet, there are still clearly lessons that can be learned from how it implements its crafting system, as we’re yet to see a developer come along and do it better.
You can pick up Minecraft here.