GAME DESIGN ANALYSIS
The Brilliant Crafting System in The Last of Us
Deconstructing its core system teaches us a lot on Naughty Dog approaches game design
The Last of Us became an instant classic the day it was released, back in 2013. At the sunset of the sixth console generation, it felt like Naughty Dog managed to raise the bar in all critical areas of game development simultaneously. The authentic characters, compelling story-telling, both the technical and artistic excellence: this game nailed everything.
The Last of Us has so many outstanding attributes to mention that relatively few people discuss its game design qualities. That’s a good problem to have if you ask me.
People tend to overlook it precisely because game designers have put a tremendous amount of effort to blend the mechanics into the flow. The systems subtly convey the intentions, themes, and setting of the experience without ever having to take the spotlight away from the story.
Bad design is immediately noticeable. Excellent design is invisible.
I was studying game design when The Last of Us released, and I remember finding the crafting system to be well-conceived at the time. Years later, I had to design a complete crafting system myself; it was the first inspiration that came to my mind. With much more experience, I got a better understanding of why it’s so effective at what it does.
In this article, I detail each component of the crafting system, explain the intentions behind Naughty Dogs’ creative choices and explain how they smartly solve complex design problems.
What crafting is (and what it’s not)
Crafting is one of these catch-all terms in gaming. In The Last of Us, it’s the following 3-steps process:
- Collect crafting supplies.
- Transform them into items in the dedicated Crafting menu.
- Use the crafted items to overcome gameplay situations.
How do you approach the design of a crafting system?
When I started the design of crafting in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, I quickly faced a ‘chicken and egg problem’ and realised it’s not the type of system you can figure out independently from its content.
You can essentially boil down a crafting system to the following three elements: a series of input elements, a set of outputs and transformation rules from one to the other. And you can’t match just any input with any output: the conversion must be logical and coherent. Whichever comes first shapes how the other needs to be.
For games set in real-life inspired universes, game designers must find somewhat plausible crafting recipes and won’t be able to come up with their own convenient logic.
Whatever the origin, it will require time and several iterations until you find a good compromise between coherence, exciting content, and a pleasant system to manipulate.
For The Last of Us, here is a probable approximate order the team designed the game loop. These themes constitute the three parts of this article.
1 Collect: they wanted from the start of the project to have the player explore and scavenge in the post-apocalyptic environment.
2 Use: as they worked on the combat and level design, they figured out which exciting items to give to the player.
3 Craft: finally, they designed crafting recipes and built the menu to support it, then iterated to maximise its usability and comfort.
Part 1: Collecting crafting supplies
The Last of Us is a linear game which features more open sections than previous Naughty Dog games. Gathering additional crafting supplies is the core motivation to explore all these extra spaces.
But they had a problem: with cluttered post-apocalyptic environments, making the player search crafting supplies by observation alone could have been akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
Naughty Dog already puts a tremendous amount of effort into directing the player through its levels without relying on HUD. They would never add a radar or compass to point out interactive elements as most open games do. They opted instead to have a discreet icon appear when Joel is in the immediate proximity of an item.
This mechanic eliminates almost entirely the observation challenge, which wouldn’t be fun even with the shiny shader, but it’s still entertaining. The player is now incited to approach exploration strategically: visit every room, check behind every cover and be on the lookout of the little icon that pops.
Most pickups aren’t on the critical path of the level: if you rush, you only get a few, but if you conscientiously search through the entire play area, you gain several useful rewards. And more importantly, you get a real sense of discovery. The Last of Us is a linear game, yet ironically it makes you experience exploration better than open-world games in which you only go from an icon on a map to another.
Handling pacing for different playstyles
Each section with enemies, whether human or infected, feels particularly tense in The Last of Us. Joel is capable of handling many threats, but not at once. Unlike in action games, you rarely feel comfortable doing so.
Stealth is encouraged, you have limited ammo and often need to retreat to cover. The game also needs to balance the crafting supplies to maintain permanent pressure during those phases. If the player ever has too much, they won’t feel threatened and won’t approach situations as carefully as intended.
Achieving this in a linear experience might seem simple on paper but in any game where the player has freedom of approach, striking the appropriate balance is difficult. How did the player overcome previous situations? Did they waste all their stuff or manage to save a lot? How much do they explore? What is their experience with video games in general?
To address this complex design problem, Naughty Dog likely implemented a smart system to adjust the spawning of crafting supplies and ammo based on the player current inventory and selected difficulty level. I suspect they sometimes even decide the contents of drawers and cabinets at the last moment, right before they are actually opened.
With this dynamic balancing, they ensure the player always has some supplies to craft items regularly, yet is never overpowered. Inventory limits (three of each item) also help to prevent hoarding.
This design solution is clever because it brings back all types of players closer to the intended experience. As a designer, you can’t just plan for the ‘ideal average’. You need to account for the ‘extremes’ too.
Even if your system encourages a particular playstyle (here: exploration and strategy), your duty as a designer is to entertain everyone, not just those who obediently follow the rules you wrote for them.
An excellent illustration of this philosophy is the ‘gift’ mechanic: when you’re very low on health or ammo, allies occasionally drop you some.
Naughty Dog designers don’t fall in the ego trap of the creator: they don’t punish the player for failing at the game, they don’t turn it into a lecture either, they just subtly help players to get back on track.
Part 2: Using items
The Last of Us has six items to craft. It’s relatively few compared to other crafting systems, but quality prevails over quantity: each brings a unique gameplay possibility and reinforces player autonomy.
Using the health kit grants you a large chunk of health points. Simple as that. You’re vulnerable during the long seconds of application, which creates tension when you have to heal during the battle and only found a precarious hidden spot to do so.
The Shiv is a more profound item with several possible uses; the player must decide whether they want to spend them to:
- Execute ‘runners’ and human enemies twice as fast as the free strangulation, which can be decisive in stealth situations.
- Kill the ‘clickers’, powerful infected which otherwise instantly murder you.
- Open ‘shiv doors’, caches filled with many supplies and items.
Between the three, you quickly realise that faster stealth kills are the least interesting option to waste a shiv on. Which leaves us with this decision: should I spend my shivs to handle a clicker or to open the shiv door for additional rewards?
The Last of Us is a linear game: when you get in front of a door with no possible way to open it, you must move on knowing you’re missing whatever was behind. You want to anticipate and save shivs to prevent this. But conversely, whenever you get slaughtered by a clicker, you seriously reconsider if the last door you spent a shiv on was worthwhile.
The dilemma is intense.
Upgraded melee weapon
It takes several hits to take down an enemy with your fists, a few with a melee weapon and just one (and a thrilling animation) with the craftable upgraded melee. Time is precious in combat situations with multiple threats.
Molotov cocktail, nail bomb & smoke bomb
The Last of Us has three throwable items, each with its own speciality.
- Molotov Cocktail burns enemies in a radius, fire also propagates and can ignite more targets.
- Nail bomb does a lot of damage and only explodes when enemies are nearby, so you can also use it preventively as a land mine.
- Smoke bomb stuns any enemy within its area of effect, giving you time to either hide or rush towards the opponent.
The pacing of unlocking
Naughty Dog is particularly vigilant when it comes to maintaining a smooth tempo for their games. Items discovery is no exception.
All six are unlocked one after the other throughout the first third of the game, outside of combat most of the time, so Naughty Dog also ensures the player fully dedicates their attention to noticing the new gameplay tool. Once the item is discovered, its craft recipe is unlocked and appears in the menu (which is almost empty and therefore not overwhelming at the start).
The only exception is for the Health Kit, which teaches us another design lesson. You get to use the item first and later get the recipe to craft it yourself. Tess also gives you whatever supplies you’re missing to make one on the spot.
Spreading tutorials is always a good idea (lesson 1 ‘Use health kit to heal’, lesson 2 ‘Crafting them’), so is ensuring the player can practice the theory directly. This moment isn’t the first time crafting, but reminders are never too much for the fundamental mechanics of your game.
Part 3: Crafting items
Finding the right UX
The crafting menu is split into three areas:
- The left side is Joel checking inside his backpack. The game isn’t on pause, crafting is risky, and you have reduced view of your surroundings.
- You select items in the central column, the wrench icon to indicating in a glance if you have enough supplies.
- On the right is the informative section, with both an overview of your inventory and input reminders.
Alexandria Neonakis, the UI designer on the project, explained in this article how she designed the whole crafting flow so you’d need to spend a minimal amount of time in menus. She details the iterative process for the weapon interface, and we can assume the same for the crafting system.
In the first gameplay demo showcased at E3 2012, the structure and visual look of menus were entirely placeholders for what looks like the same final system.
Alexandria was brought into the team in November 2012, only eight months before the game released. By early 2013, the menu wireframe was already there, although the art differs from the final result.
This version looks encumbered, especially the wall of icons: did they decide to switch to a max capacity of three because of it or was it purely based on the balancing efforts on gathering?
Although this version of the interface is lighter, it still has intense colours which stand out. It changed in the following months for silhouette icons, and the use of colour was kept minimal. The information is still clearly communicated to the player but subtly preserves the immersion.
Even late in the production, Alexandria and the team never stopped making adjustments to increase clarity and usability. If you pay attention to menus in the making-of, you can spot numerous iterations. The examples below come from a single video; I count at least five differences with the final version.
Hard work pays off. The result is honestly outstanding. Look at the gif below how effortlessly you can start from the item cross, hold the button to craft, then close the menu and use the health kit in a continuous motion.
All the info come in a glance, all the actions take a snap of fingers.
Minimalism and maintaining immersion
Human brains have a hard time perceiving what’s missing; this is sometimes referred to as “absence blindness”.
At Naughty Dog, they know they can leverage this cognitive phenomenon to keep the player’s focus on the right elements. As I explained in a previous piece, they expertly, maybe unconsciously, avoid drawing attention to the latent weirdness of some game mechanics.
See what’s missing here from this crafting menu? Numbers.
Here is the design problem: each recipe requires a combination of two components. You want to encourage the player to scavenge, which means giving supplies often enough, or they’ll be discouraged. But you also want to retain the tension and not have the player carry a whole arsenal. What’s the solution here?
Most games handle this by throwing in numbers and then figure out balancing: three of this and five of that turns into one item. This approach technically works, but it has the negative side effect of highlighting the rigidity of the crafting mechanic.
I had a go at applying this to The Last of Us and produced a mock-up of what it could have looked like to present supplies with numbers, with the exact same rules for the mechanic. Suddenly, you want to question why twelve is the limit for inventory. Immersion ruined.
Instead of numbers, The Last of Us present supplies in icon quarters which makes both for a cleaner design and give them the flexibility to scatter supplies. The vocabulary and the quantities are also kept intentionally vague (no ‘this pair of scissors you picked-up is worth 3 blades’).
The more you try to justify it, the weirder it feels, so don’t.
Dilemmas in craft recipes
To create each item, you need to assemble two components (except the upgraded melee weapon). Designers iterated on the recipes throughout the project, as you might have seen from the early screenshots above, they cut batteries for flashlamps (probably too annoying in dark areas). Here is a diagram of the craft recipes in the final game.
Presented this way, you can immediately spot the decisions on how to use your supplies. The pair alcohol/rag combination is the most obvious; the rest doesn’t have as discernable of a pattern (to break the monotony) but still clearly show designers made recipes to reinforce player choices.
When you come across supplies, you always pick them. Designers could have made scavenging a choice with a rule such as “you’re faster when your backpack is empty”, which is coherent within the narration, but they didn’t. They want the player to fill their inventory to have choices on how to spend it.
Most of the time, the player faces some dilemmas in the crafting menu. Even if you carry very few supplies, the recipe design has a high probability of having more than one craftable item. This design decision has two benefits for the experience.
Firstly, being forced to make a choice emphasises how important it is to scavenge. You hate to have such limited supplies, only to be forced to choose between nail bomb and upgraded melee — you really want them both.
Secondly, you can directly correlate your past decisions with your current situation; sometimes they will be reinforced, other times they will be a source of regret. Items fit into different strategies, and you don’t know in advance what you’ll encounter. You decide based on incomplete information and hope for the best.
These are the great choices in games, the ones you remember and reflect on later.
The Last of Us doesn’t have the deepest crafting system ever seen in gaming; it doesn’t have hundreds of recipes; it doesn’t allow any creativity. But it’s still one of the greatest I’ve played with because it expertly conveys the narrative intentions of the experience.
The permanent tension, the never-wracking dilemmas. A feeling of scarcity balanced by the joys of surprising exploration. A rewarding need to have a careful, methodic approach to each encounter.
It’s what good entertainment is all about: to take you on a journey and make you experience powerful emotions. The Last of Us is unique because it accomplishes this thanks to a well-crafted story, characters, and art design. Equally compelling are the clever gameplay and system design that work so effectively that you don’t even notice.