Friday, April 4, 2008

Entry 12: Futurecrafting

Minor tangent. I'm presently working on my MBA, grinding away all sorts of hours during the week on reading up for class and writing papers. One of our current books is the business theory Wikinomics. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, but familiar with Wikipedia, the concepts are easy to explain.

Wikinomics proposes that a new world order is emerging, whereby the line separating consumers from producers becomes increasingly vague. The internet has revolutionized communication, allowing people to gather together and network with each other much faster than before. The author believes that the most successful of companies will be the ones who embrace this new open framework of public discourse, forming close alliances with their consumers, suppliers, and even their competition, in order to widen the field and encourage innovation. One of the keys to this is allowing your customers a major hand in the development of your product.

It's a compelling argument, though obviously rife with complicated issues, such as the role of intellectual property in a world of open sourcing, but there are better venues than a Warcraft blog to discuss them. No, this post has to do with applying that concept to that oft-maligned aspect of World of Warcraft - the crafting professions.

Every character can specialize in two major professions, beyond the secondary ones like First Aid, Cooking and Fishing. The primary professions are further broken down into two subsets, the gathering professions (Mining, Skinning and Herbalism) and the crafting professions (Tailoring, Blacksmithing, Leatherworking, Enchanting, Alchemy, Engineering, and Jewel Crafting). Alchemy, Enchanting and Engineering are kind of the odd ones out of this post, for reasons I'll get into towards the end. Let's begin by analyzing just how the crafting professions work right now, and identity some of the problems that plague most crafters.

Crafters start out by learning predetermined patterns from their profession trainers. As they make items, their skill level goes up incrementally, proportionate to the difficulty of the pattern relative to their skill level. This just means that a pattern that is green to you will yield far fewer skill-ups than one that is orange, regardless of the quantity of materials required for either pattern.

Enter the world of endless material grinds. Crafters end up consuming vast quantities of raw materials to reach the skill levels necessary to make the truly useful items. Burning Crusade set the tone by allowing crafters access to some truly epic armor/weapons, many of which are Bind on Pickup and serve as the primary driver for maxing out a crafting skill. Because, let's face it, hardly anyone expects to get rich off of crafting items. Tailors can make decent coin by selling their cloth transmute cooldowns, but leatherworkers and blacksmiths are often better served by just putting their raw materials up for sale in lieu of any of their finished products. Jewel Crafting is perhaps one of the few crafting professions that can bring in reliable gold because their goods can be freely traded on the auction house, and the barrier for entry (the relative high-cost of their pattern drops) helps keep competition down. For the most part, however, crafters aren't in the market to make money. If you want to do that, take up two gathering professions and sell everything else.

Why is this so? There are many reasons, but the primary one is that so terribly few of the crafting patterns are worth buying. Apart from some quest-specific items, or the ridiculous top-tier patterns requiring Primal Nethers, crafters rarely get to offer truly unique items with which to carve out niche markets for themselves. Blizzard has done this for numerous reasons, but for the most part, any item you can craft during the normal progression of the game (read: sans powerleveling the skill) will be worse than any quest drop or random green found from killing mobs of your level. Until you get to the last point bracket, your are sinking cash into a deficient system.

It doesn't help that, for the most part, a tailor is a tailor is a tailor. There are serious blocks to some of the epic BOE items (basically in the form of highly expensive pattern drops), but if you meet one tailor at 375, it's almost certain that he'll have 95% of the patterns that any other tailor at 375 will have. There is no diversity, no room for innovation, and thus the market levels out. Using data-mining sites like wowhead or thottbot will tell you which profession can craft the items that tend to sell best on the AH.

This is the watermark for any and all profits you can expect to make over the course of your crafting career, should you choose that profession. Generally speaking, the margins are razor thin.

I once did an estimate, comparing the required levels of production necessary to hit 5000 gold using two relatively well-selling tailoring items: Netherweave Bags and Imbued Netherweave Bags. Taking the mean cost of production for each bag, based off of the price averages pulled from the aforementioned websites, I was shocked to discover that the Netherweave Bag actually had a much higher contribution margin than the more costly Imbued Netherweave Bag, almost by a margin of 2 to 1. In theory, one Netherweave Bag had a margin of 42% of my investment, while the Imbued Netherweave Bag only has a return of 17%. I can make Netherweave Bags for about half what I can make selling them, assuming a perfect world where I'm the only person selling them on the AH.

This is not bloody likely.

The Imbued bags have a better chance of selling, if only because of their comparative scarcity, but the margin is much worse, and that was with me grinding all of the Netherweb Spidersilk; otherwise, the Imbued bags cost more to make than they sell for. Because of the way the crafting recipes are designed, I have no ability to apply personal innovation to any of my products with which to distinguish them from the competition. I cannot expect to sell anything I make for more than the average price for any long period of time; another tailor will just come along and undercut me, stealing my customers and costing me time. Crafters are basically stuck in a world where every other crafter can produce all of their products at exactly the same cost. Even availing of unique "advantages" such as a guild bank will only work for so long. You can grossly undercut the competition by using the resources of the guild, but unless you are selling the items at cost (meaning, at exactly the aggregate cost of its component materials), you are costing your guild money. Your are a cash deficit, and you should lose your Gbank privileges.

Now would be a good time to note that this post will in no way tackle the sticky practice of market monolopies, whereby a huge bankroll is used to corner a section of the AH that constitutes a commodity item. There's a lot more theory to that than I'd care to get into. I'm still of the mind that this practice takes real skill and foresight to ensure the would-be monopolizer doesn't get stuck with a ton of immovable inventory.

In the world of competition by scale, the only way to break the pattern is to allow crafters to innovate.

I may be alone in this sentiment, but when I first embarked down the path of tailoring, I had glorious visions of being able to subsist entirely on my crafted gear. I thought I'd be able to make stuff that would be really useful to me, to give me some kind of competitive advantage over the hostile world. I was rather let down when I realized the only useful things I could really make were bags, and the Robe of the Void I crafted when I got to skill level 300. I love my Frozen Shadoweave Set, but now I hardly ever use tailoring at all.

What would really get the markets cooking, in my opinion, would be to really let players go nuts with the item creation engine. This is what I envision:

At each of the skill bracket caps, crafters would unlock the ability to create a new tier of their own items by playing around with the item budget limits built into the game. The interface would require the crafter to select the item slot they are creating an item for, and select the ilevel they want to work with. The ilevel would be restricted by your overall skill, to a max of, say, an instance drop green for BoE items, and a Normal instance drop blue for BoP.

After the item slot and item budget have been determined, the crafter can then play around with the various point allotments for each stat, from the more basic character stats to the more exotic ones, such as resilience, spell damage, and spell hit. It seems as though there's already inherent limits on how each of these stats interact on the normal item randomizer, so allowing players to engage actively in the same activity doesn't appear to be a difficult feat.

The key aspect to this system would have to be in the realm of dynamic cost scaling. The material requirements for this customized item would have to depend on the types, not just the quantities, of the stat enhancements on the item. For instance, a cloth bracer with nothing but +stam and +res on it might require Motes of Earth, while another with nothing but +spell damage would require lots of Arcane Dust. Allow players to 'save' item configurations for use later would turn it into a sort of mini-game, something players could spend as much or as little time on as possible.

Players would be limited to creating green-equivalent items for trade this way, but they would have the unique ability to tailor their wares to suit specific niche needs. Allowing players to create items with unique properties such as copious amounts of +mp5 and +spi, or +spell damage and +res, to give their peers a chance at filling in awkward gear slots would be really cool.

In addition, the game could use something akin to token drops off of bosses in order to craft personalized BoP items, comparable to the item drops off of similar bosses in the game. It may take an appropriately large number of "tokens" to ensure that gear doesn't become too commonplace, but the system wouldn't be too different from how heroic badges work now. This would also give the 5mans a little more mileage, as no boss kill would be totally useless, or relegated to DE fodder. Higher ilevel blues would require more tokens, similar to how the new BT/Hyjal-level badge rewards can cost a staggering 100 badges.

If you REALLY wanted to spice things up, you would integrate some kind of item design system into the game, very similar to the character design screen. You could select from a slew of item designs, and tweak things like colors, patterns, and various glows to create truly unique gear looks. I can almost hear the RP'ers swooning.

The catch, of course, is that the most exotic designs would require really exotic items not usually related to the profession. Feathers, eyes, crystal fragments, dyes, or even blood could all be requirements for your unique look. It would give new value to gray drops beyond simple vendor trash. Perhaps it would be helpful if the item generator could manufacture a bill of materials, kind of like those quest scrolls we all experienced that listed down the requirements for a gathering spree. Heck, you could mail the things to people and tell them exactly what they need to get in order for you to build their item.

Imagine the potential requirements of an item with good stats AND a catchy look. The possibilities are endless.

Mixing and matching stats like this would take crafting from the grind it is currently into a dynamic and, more importantly, fun system. Further rewarding the truly dedicated, perhaps some stats or stat combinations (or even the limits you can raise those stats to) should be linked to quest chains and profession tasks. In addition to the canned pattern drops, bosses could drop patterns to unlock really esoteric abilities like Stun Resist or the various Chance On modifiers.

Crafted items like this would have a different color to them, like Bronze, and would have either a randomized name, or one designated by the crafter (obviously with some attention paid to propriety). Perhaps the relation of the item stats would help determine the name of the item, much like the present stam/int properties are all Of the Eagle, while anything with str/agi is Of the Tiger. Any crafter BoP should be open for custom naming though. Naturally, everything would have the brand of the crafter on the item (e.g. made by such-and-such).

Some items might be of sufficient complexity that they would require a specific location to be crafted. We see this implemented already with the need for Anvils, Forges, the Altar of Shadow, or even the unpredictable magic energies of Netherstorm. How cool would it be to have to trek out to four different volcanoes in order to craft a unique weapon?

Now, in my mind this system, or a similar system, would be applicable to almost all of the crafting professions, with some tweaking here and there to account for the variables in use. Engineering would be a very interesting profession to apply a "workshop" environment to, but I'm no engineer (and am only a mediocre enchanter), so I'll leave that to the more experienced to figure out.

Enchanting is an odd duck because of the way the system seems to restrict certain stats from being placed on certain pieces, not to mention the lack of player enchantments for the head, waist, leg and shoulder slots. Though TBC introduced enchanter-specific bonuses to rings, the system of enchanting is inherently flawed because of one glaring issue: the inability of selling enchantments outside of direct meetings.

As an enchanter, I know full well the terrible agony of spamming the trade channel with a list of your enchantments, hoping for potential buyers. Then, even if you did find a buyer, you had to hope that they were in the same capital city you were, or at least be willing to travel. Margins on enchantments may have changed since I hawked my wares, but in my day you hoped for just a few gold over the cost of materials, or just tip money.

It's an awful way to make a living, to be sure.

Lots of players have advocated using scrolls or some other medium to allow enchantments to be sold or traded on the AH. I support the concept, but Blizzard seems very hesitant to allow this to happen. The only reason I can think of is that it would allow enchanters to modify gear on their alts as well as the main, effectively giving each of their other characters a fully leveled enchanting profession on top of the other two.

If you ask me though, any enchanter who has spent the gold to max out the profession deserves SOME perk over and above a happy spell/stat bonus to rings. Come on people, throw them a bone or something.

The workshop concept could theoretically help out the situation by allowing enchanters to sell generic bonuses applicable to selected slots. For instance, a Wanderer's Blessing might allow a player to apply a set number of bonus points divided up between stamina, agility or spirit to their boots. Allowing the player to allocate the points would be even better, as you'd be moving the whole workshop concept one further tier down. Some of the more powerful enchantment scrolls might need to be Unique, such that an enchanter could only have one for sale at any given time, or have a cooldown before they could craft another.

Let's be clear though, whatever solution presents itself (if at all) in Wrath of the Lich King: the only money enchanters will ever be able to count on is the income they generate from selling their enchanting mats. They do not have a listing fee on the AH, and thus are far more readily tradeable than other commodities. In fact, enchanting mats are about the only reason I'd ever want to keep enchanting as one of my main professions. Being able to disenchant BOP quest blues or greens for significant profit over what I'd get selling the item to an NPC is a huge plus. Until Blizzard lets disenchanting work in the Non-tradeable window like picking lockboxes does, being able to DE is still a huge plus.

In any case, he benefits of the workshop system to Blizzard, in my opinion, would be numerous. First, it would put more of the itemization in the hands of the players, freeing the developers from having to build and design every single drop in the game (randomizer notwithstanding). You would kick start a huge change in the economy, allowing player innovation to propel market forces and eliminating stagnation of prices. It would help get rid of the complaints that all items look alike, and that the gear skins are endlessly recycled. If people are complaining about something, give them the ability to fix it themselves, I say. The system would complement the gearing system inherent to the game already, not by competing with normal drops, but by providing an alternative to them. Let's be honest here, the majority of green drops in the game either get disenchanted or sold. The percentage of them that go up on the AH and are actually sold that way are probably less than 50%.

Most importantly, it would make crafting fun, and give players a chance at exercising some real creativity. That, in my opinion, could never be a bad thing.

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