J's post made me think about mini games in most games now, especially RPGs. I used to be a huge advocate for them; back in the days of Asheron's Call I longed for a crafting system that wasn't click. click. click. fail. click. click. click. succeed. Mini games, I thought, were the way to go.
But as games are starting to implement these things all over the place, it seems like all mini games are doing is breaking immersion. The pipe game in Bioshock wasn't terrible, as far as mini games go, but it didn't really enhance the game in any real way for me.
Crafting in particular seems to be at an impasse. No mini games means a whole lot of mindless, boring combinations (Oblivion uses this and so does WoW) and using mini games can be annoying and especially painful when you fail. They keep you better occupied than watching a progress bar, but not much.
I think one possible option to improve crafting is to establish a meta-game, where the real game is in researching and discovering where rare plants or minerals are located, as well as inventing the combinations for them yourself. Oblivion does this pretty well, and I think there is a certain pleasure in discovering your own recipes (until they are all posted online). To keep this method interesting, the progress bar needs to be axed, hard. There's no use putting your players to work finding materials and researching recipes only to have them wait patiently. Oblivion removes the progress bar, and is a good poster-boy for a crafting meta-game. Kudos.
But I'm not ready to pull the plug on mini games just yet, especially for crafting. Consider these options:
1)A crafting game, nothing mini about it.
In this system crafting could be just as involved as actually fighting. Crafters could have spells and abilities hotkeyed, and need to press them to successfully create an object, with each spell or ability allowing different traits to be passed on to the creation or keeping negative things from occurring. As an example, what if...
...a game's setting involved manipulating some magical forces in the air, creating order out of chaos (etc). The actual finding of materials involves things that allow you to better do this, and the game sets up a good way to "fight" you as you craft; the sword you are trying to make starts to pull apart, it starts to rust (as the horrible forces of chaos move to keep you from asserting order!), and you use your abilities to both improve the sword and to prevent these negatives that occur. Hit it with an invulnerability shield just before you add the lifesteal. "Heal" the sword as it starts to break apart.
2)A mini game.
Something simple, with timing: I'm crafting a sword, a mini hammer zips back and forth over a -------- 0 --------- line, and I have to time the hit to get it as close as possible to the 0. The closer I get, the better the item, or the better the chances of it creating with some extra bonuses. If I want to add more bonuses, I can do this again, but the hammer moves faster, or my sweet spot is smaller, or if I screw up I lose the original bonuses. Done. Next item.
Either way, I think it's important to never, ever destroy the materials on creation. Nothing frustrates me more than failing on a craft and losing all the stuff I worked for. I think a player needs to come away from crafting with something, even if it's a plain old sword. At least I can sell it back for 1/25 of the price of the materials for a small piece of my pride.
Mini games need an overhaul, and I think crafting is a great place to start. Either make things way more engaging, or use a mini game to allow a small advantage. Either way, keep me from getting frustrated and bored. But honestly, I'm just happy the industry is experimenting with mini games. They'll get better.