To be frank, I think any change will be an improvement, as it's hard to fathom a more boring and ultimately worthless gameplay system than what currently passes for crafting in Hyboria. This is a pretty huge topic, of course, so join me after the cut for the first part of what will likely be an ongoing discussion over the next few months. Before we can talk about solutions, though, we've got to identify what's wrong with AoC's crafting.
First and foremost, Funcom needs to realize that there are players out there who would happily craft more than they fight -- yes, even in an MMORPG with semi-engaging combat like Age of Conan. I recall making my first real AoC-related frowny-face circa April of 2008 upon realizing that I had to level to 40 before the game would allow me to craft.
This is, and I'm being as diplomatic as I can here, utterly ridiculous.
Yeah, you can begin harvesting resources at 20, but actually choosing a crafting profession and performing the combines is off-limits until you've ground your way through a few thousand mobs, quests, and adventuring zones.
I honestly don't get what the original designers were thinking here. Yes, the game world is beautiful, and if I'd created it, I suppose I'd be inclined to make sure people gave it a good long look as well. The choice as to when and how should be the player's, though, and tying crafting to adventure level was a horrible call that smacks of the combat-lobby simplification that's had the MMO genre in a vise grip since 2005 or so. Sure, not everyone cares about crafting (maybe not even the majority), but those who do simply logged off and threw their money into a more complete MMORPG.
Consider a rival fantasy themepark like EverQuest II, a title that allows for crafting at level 1 (and not only that, it allows for players to roll characters who do nothing but craft from 1 to 90 due to a huge amount of tradeskill quest content). It's time for Funcom to make crafting its own animal, and aside from a few understandable concessions to MMO design (like rarer resources spawning in high-level adventuring zones), there should be no arbitrary prerequisites for being a crafter.
Can we get an economy?
Aside from random gating, the major blunder in AoC's current crafting implementation is that of usefulness. As in, there isn't any. Prior to the 1.04 redesign, AoC was all about player skill (and gem exploits, to be honest). The 1.05 earthquake came along and said screw that -- the game is now about gear. And while that might have caused a few crafting fans to cheer, they quickly went back to other games when it became apparent that AoC was all about looted bind-on-equip gear.
The same holds true a couple of years later, as there is absolutely no reason to visit a crafter unless you just want some drab-looking armor (or you want to pay through the nose for the culture sets that, while slickly rendered, don't hold up to easily obtainable first-tier raiding gear in terms of stats).
A ray of sunshine broke through the gloom earlier this summer with the addition of cosmetic armor slots, and this resulted in a slight uptick in demand for some of the game's spiffier armor designs. That brief boom came and went, though, leaving crafters looking around yet again for other MMORPGs where their services are actually in demand. The current market for crafted or harvested goods consists of a very few endgame drinks and food buffs as well as the resources to build guild cities. Everything else, from potion consumables, to armor, to weapons, is either loot, available on an NPC vendor, or a quest reward.
The problem with tweaking this to favor crafters is the likely objections of new breed MMOers who want to be self-sufficient above all else. When coupled with the prevalent (and misguided) view of crafters as dastardly capitalists to be avoided at all costs, it presents a challenging design conundrum.
Finally, there are a couple of crafting-related gnat bites that simply need to go away. I've already weighed in on the adventuring level foolishness, but there's a similar mechanic that isn't as noticeable until you approach what passes for the current crafting endgame. In a nutshell, if you want to make master recipes around level 70 or 80, get ready to beg for admission into one of the highly ranked megaguilds. Yes, endgame crafting recipes require certain crafting facilities that are only available in guild cities of a certain rank, and this completely obliterates any chance of a small group of friends (never mind a solo player) building successful crafting careers.
While we're on the subject of annoying design decisions, there's also the issue of NPCs that spawn and attack you while you're trying to harvest resources. I understand the need for random failures in the harvesting process, but these interruptions don't cause you to fail, they simply prolong the process (you still get the same number of resources from the node).
Forcing me to fight a mob when I'm obviously not in the mood to fight (elsewise I wouldn't be gathering) is quite asinine, and it needs to be tweaked or preferably removed. Make harvesting fail, sure, or make the tools break or something, but don't spawn some hulking druid NPC that's purportedly mad at me for chopping down a tree. It's simply not fun.
Finally, egads, the frickin' bank and inventory slots (and no, a $15 item shop bag is not an acceptable solution).
Now that that's out of my system, I should probably throw together a few ideas on how to improve on all these faults. Feel free to do the same in the comments, and by all means, bring up any more AoC crafting facepalms that I might have missed. Until next week.