Devs weigh in on key innovations in Fallout 4's crafting system

'The game bends over backwards to share authorship. There is no grid. It prescribes no sense of right or wrong. The game trusts me to make horrific and wonderful things.'

Two weeks after Fallout 4’s launch, people are still coming to grips with the depth and breadth of its crafting system.

It has already inspired exhaustive how-to guides, webcomic jokes, and fantastic creations ranging from ridiculously overpowered guns to a pagoda house with an entire floor full of generators.

It’s a big, wide-reaching system with lots of potential for player creativity and inspiration, and it's become a go-to topic of conversation among game developers. 

To help you laser-focus in on some of the most interesting design ideas, we’ve spoken to developers Rick Ernst, Darcy Smith, and Brendon Chung about what they see as the most notable lements of Fallout 4’s crafting.

Strong systems

Freelance Designer Rick Ernst, who’s currently contracting at Riot Games, compares Fallout 4’s crafting to Bethesda's Skyrim, and says there’s an immediately visible shift in design that shows significant evolution from older modes of RPG thinking.

"It focuses on discrete jumps via perks. This means that grinding is a poor choice, and advancement can focus on qualitative bonuses through qualitative advancement."

“The crafting system is much more interesting and useful than that of Skyrim, despite the superficial similarities and reuse of core mechanics," he says. “With Skyrim, early crafting was, with few exceptions, grinding out garbage to skill up. Low level enchanters couldn’t make anything worth a damn, but you still did these low-cost transactions because it was the only way to level up enchanting.”

By comparison, Fallout 4 begins by “demoing” skill trees that players may be interested in later. “For example, mods, chems, and structures you build early on are immediately useful power-wise, and don’t feel like grinding to build," says Ernst. "Though a small amount of XP is awarded with crafting, it isn’t a primary means of advancement. “

Fallout advancement focuses on discrete jumps via perks, so grinding is a poor choice and advancement can focus on qualitative bonuses through qualitative advancement via S.P.E.C.I.A.L skills that act as a prerequisite gate to better crafting perks.” 

For Ernst, it’s an extension of Bethesda’s philosophy across all of the character systems.. “It’s a much more rewarding system--though more expensive from a developer standpoint--and is responsible for a large part of Fallout 4’s engagement and investment.”

Looting, shooting, and reinforcing design pillars

"Apart from being outrageously efficient in terms of development, it does wonders to make the world feel alive."

League of Geeks' Darcy Smith (Armello) points to the scavenging end of the crafting system as another of its strong suits, as it reinforces the central design pillar of the post-apocalyptic scavenger in a way that sufficiently upends his usual looting tendencies. “Initially, my modern day intuition led me to prioritize inventory space for gold and silver trinkets,” Smith says. “When I went to browse potential upgrades, it became very obvious that 15 gold plated stop watches do not equate to a new power suit arm.”

That first failure sent Smith back out into the Wasteland for the (now much-discussed) screws and adhesives that are essential for gun and armor making. This search does tie back into Ernst’s point about the perk system, as spending character points on leveling up can increase the number of screws and adhesives the player discovers upon breaking down guns. 

Smith also looks at the way the basic crafting ingredients have been boiled down to exist in every piece of scrappable loot and how it takes advantage of Bethesda’s usual environmental design tactics. “It’s worth noting that a large portion of crafting objects would have to exist as environmental assets regardless of player interaction. Apart from being outrageously efficient in terms of development, it does wonders to make the world feel alive.”

From the shopping list on the Fallout 4 wiki

The Weird and the Wild

"The game bends over backwards to share authorship. There is no grid. It prescribes no sense of right or wrong. The game trusts my character to make horrific and wonderful things"

But of course, it’s not a Bethesda game unless someone tries to stack one hundred cheese rolls inside their perfectly designed house, or plays through every encounter as a chem-addicted junkie. In any case, Brendon Chung, (Flotilla, Atom Zombie Smasher, Quadilateral Cowboy) thinks the settlement system--an extension of the crafting system--also taps into the furthest end of Bethesda’s open world design theory. For him, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences in the game. 

“I love how Bethesda RPGs are so enthusiastic about relinquishing control," he says. "Relinquishing control to its simulation model, relinquishing control to the player. When I start a quest and a wandering NPC bear unintentionally completes my objective, that is trust. That's the moment I know we can have a two-way conversation."

“The Fallout 4 settlement crafting runs with that ideal," adds Chung. "The game bends over backwards to share authorship. My roof bathtub. My shrine to Mama Murphy. There is no grid. It prescribes no sense of right or wrong. The game trusts my character to make horrific and wonderful things, and that's a conversation I enjoy having.”

Chung’s point about what Fallout 4 lets you do with crafting does become both penned in and strengthened by its limitations. Though it has the workshop elements that are similar to Rust, Day-Z, or even Minecraft, it only limits the zones you can perform this architecture in. But within the limitations, each zone comes with a kind of template that suggests ideas to players who aren’t ready to dive in whole-hog on building their Commonwealth fortress. 

Sanctuary Hills has open spaces to build new houses, Greygarden is a small compact farm, Hangman’s Alley is a tiny raider fortress--each of these accesses the same pool of structures and resources fueled by crafting ingredients, but Bethesda’s pre-formatting helps players toward Chung’s idea of “mixed authorship.”

“Mixed authorship works on a spectrum,” says Chung. “On one end you have games that are a wild west of do anything anywhere, and on the other end you have games where the game does almost all the talking while the player gets a few words in sideways. I feel Fallout 4 heavily leans toward the former. There are resource management requirements, but its implementation is done with the lightest touch.”

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