There are two kinds of people in WoW: people who hate archaeology, and people who really hate archaeology. While it seemed like it was one of the more promising additions to Cataclysm, archaeology just hasn't worked out as well as everyone had hoped. Even the most dedicated lore nerds are guaranteed to wilt in the face of the game's most relentless RNG.
Whatever, right? Some experiments work, some don't, and it's ultimately more important that Blizzard's willing to take these risks in the first place. But ever since Mists of Pandaria was announced, I've been worrying more about archaeology's future. As Ghostcrawler once observed, archaeology was designed to be easy to add to, and it's reasonable to expect new races and new items to appear in the future. However, unless something fundamental about its design changes between now and Mists, it's the only profession guaranteed to become an absolute hell as it expands.
Why? Because archaeology suffers from two problems: It's too random, and it's not random enough.
It's important to draw a distinction between what archaeology is as an idea and what it actually became, because they're two very different things. I'd argue that archaeology as an idea is one of Blizzard's more brilliant inventions. There are lots of different races in Azeroth. Many of them are very old. And they all left bits of their empires and civilizations scattered across the landscape. It stands to reason that you can go digging for these and learn something and maybe even find some truly valuable objects. So the whole idea behind archaeology is sound, and it has the potential to become one of the game's most engaging and addictive draws if its issues can be addressed.
But where archaeology is likely to run into problems in Mists is that adding more races and artifacts makes the problems it's already got much worse. The two most consistent complaints that players make are about the inability to pick which racial artifacts spawn for you and the amount of time wasted on races you no longer need in the forlorn hope that you'll eventually spawn a dig site for one you do. At present, the limited number of spawn sites and lack of control over how you advance the profession gets worse with more races and artifacts added, not better.
The race or grouping that best exemplifies this problem is the tol'vir in Kalimdor, who compete for spawns with the night elves, dwarves, trolls, and fossils. The tol'vir almost inarguably have the most attractive selection of artifacts, but their dig sites are few and far between even when you've maxed your skill points. Adding, say, tauren or quillboar dig sites to Kalimdor without increasing the standard four dig sites spawns gives them yet another race to compete with and moves any effort to finish the tol'vir from its current "nightmare" status to that of "living hell."
- Lore Reading the item descriptions is fun. A lot of them are funny and revealing and add some welcome personality to the different Azerothian races.
- Nabbing a pet, mount, or cool item The Clockwork Gnome is cool. The Crawling Claw (my nomination for the game's best-animated noncombat pet; some artist must have spent days running his hand along a desk to get it right) is really cool. The Scepter of Azj'Aqir is cool. And while this isn't a pet or mount, the Last Relic of Argus is pure fun and not something that deserves a 12-hour cooldown. While rare (and they should probably stay that way), it's a huge rush to land one of these projects.
- Good randomness The inclusion of the alchemy Recipe: Vial of the Sands in tol'vir Canopic Jars was a stroke of genius. Yeah, it's a pain in the ass to get, but it's not like anyone actually needs to transform into a dragon.
- High-value items The Imprint of the Kraken Tentacle, Chest of Tiny Glass Animals, Word of Empress Zoe, Silver Scroll Case, and Cat Statue with Emerald Eyes are all grays that nonetheless vendor for 100+ gold. Any dedicated gold hound will tell you that the return on time investment for archaeology is nowhere near what you'd get playing the Auction House or even dailies or farming, but at least you're getting some payoff while putting an otherwise useless gray item together.
- Getting players out in the world This has been a constant concern ever since Wrath, and archaeology could be a great way to get players more interested in leveling zones and the lore behind each.
- Bad randomness Trying to get a specific artifact is RNG piled on RNG with a little RNG cherry on top. Randomness in itself isn't a bad thing; it keeps players interested and wondering what's going to happen next. But too much of it is demoralizing and counterproductive. Once you've maxed your skill points, it's impossible to advance the profession except when the god of dig site spawn locations stirs himself on your behalf.
- Large dig sites Any very large dig site (the fossil ones in Un'Goro and Tanaris are the worst, followed closely by the troll one in the Swamp of Sorrows) is murderous to get through.
- Certain races having most of the good stuff The tol'vir, as we've said, haunt the nightmares of any player digging around Kalimdor.
- Certain races having way too much stuff, period I realize this is unfair transference, but the very sight of anything related to the night elves, including otherwise innocent players, is enough to provoke white-hot rage on the part of anyone sitting on 500+ completely useless night elf grays.
- BoA epics While they sound like a good idea, it's a toss-up as to whether you'll get any real use from them. As a lot of players pointed out as Cataclysm began, by the time you manage to get something like the Staff of Ammunae or Zin'rokh, Destroyer of Worlds, you've probably long since picked up something better. The lower-level epics are more likely to be useful.
- Random blues While the Last Relic of Argus is pretty badass, most of the blues you get from the profession don't really do much apart from occupying bank or void storage space.
A few things have to happen to make archaeology a profession defined by less horror and more win as we gear up for Mists. Literally, I am just tossing out ideas here, and I expect most of them to suck. But that's OK. Iterating on a bad idea is probably more instructive than just having good ones.
- Tie archaeology into in-game libraries or museums. What if all the artifacts you solved added to your faction's knowledge of Azerothian history? I think it'd be pretty neat to have libraries in faction cities, some of them specializing in certain races. I also really liked a recent suggestion from Tiggindy on the forums -- what about in-game museums where you could turn artifacts in for a type of currency or something else fun?
- Allow players to excavate and sell BoE artifacts. Get the unfeeling mercenary contingent of the game involved. Hell no, this intensely valuable artifact doesn't belong in a museum -- it belongs on the Auction House. Not every artifact can or should be a valuable BOE, but it'd be neat to encounter one every so often.
- Turn the Explorers' Guild and Reliquary into reputation factions. This won't fix the long-term problems with the profession, but giving players a means of advancing themselves even if all they're getting is rep couldn't hurt.
- Increase the number of spawn sites, or do away with dig sites altogether. I think the dig site mechanic is a little clunky. At the very least, any addition to the number of races you can find in Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms will have to result in more than four sites being available at any one time without the tol'vir nightmare described above.
- Give players more control. You can probably keep the RNG element of not knowing which artifact is going to come up as your next option if you give players the ability to work on a specific race. Yeah, it means you'll still spend a lot of time running around Uldum for tol'vir spawns, but now it won't be broken up by pointless, lengthy, and frustrating trips elsewhere on the continent.
- More "good randomness." If the annoyance factor of trying to put artifacts from "difficult" races like the tol'vir can be addressed, more stuff like the Vial of the Sands recipe would be gravy.
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