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On Archaeology, or, Surveying the Survey

July 28, 2011

What was the first thing you did upon logging into World of Warcraft – Cataclysm?  I expect the answers are varied.  In fact, if I wasn’t afraid of having my already-tender heart broken, I’d set up a poll asking this very question.  (I’m just not sure that I can handle the harsh reality of a poll with zero votes right now…)

Well, me, I had it all planned out for my first night of Cataclysm.  Admiring the new (and very much changed) Orgrimmar, I made my way directly to Grommash Hold in the center of the Valley of Strength.  Grommash Hold?  Garrosh’s headquarters?  Yes, indeed, but not to get that vomit-colored brute’s autograph.  No, I had a date with a much more debonaire acquaintance – the dapper Belloc Brightblade.

Who, you ask?  The archaeology trainer.  I was so excited for this profession!  Having already read about the basics of the profession, I immediately opened up the map to find the nearest dig site in nearby Ashenvale.  I ran up to purchase old world flying and was off.  I didn’t do anything else until I gathered enough fragments and assembled my first artifact – the splendid Necklace with Elune Pendant.

And, well, then, I stopped surveying.  Not completely – but it certainly wasn’t a priority.  As much as I was excited for it, I just couldn’t justify spending my limited in-game time leveling this profession.  Fast-forward 7 months later and I’m sitting at 500 archaeology skill, 6 completed rares, 2 more in the works, and a love/hate relationship with this profession.  To put it succinctly: I think it is brilliant in conception but somewhat flawed in implementation.

Let’s get into a little more detail.  Here’s my list of the pros and cons of archaeology…

Pros:

  • Lore!
  • More Achievements
  • Getting out to see Azeroth
  • Some monetary recompense
  • Rare mounts, pets, other vanity items

Cons:

  • Lack of choice
  • Too much time required/slow leveling
  • Solving already-solved artifacts

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As you can see, I have a larger list of pros than cons.  There are many great things about this profession.  For starters, it’s a wonderful way to implement more lore into the game.  Not all players are concerned with this, of course, but it really adds a depth to the game that I think most appreciate, even if they don’t realize it.  In fact, I suspect that even those players who aren’t able to give you a quick history of Azeroth’s last 25 years can appreciate the fact that this complex structure of stories and relationships exist and serves to make the game world richer and more real.

Archaeology also gives a sense of adventure and discovery, like it should.  The rewards, be they achievements, gold, pets, mounts, or other vanity items are also exciting and motivational.  (When they work, that is… like the Haunted War Drum – what’s up with that?)  The races and associated artifacts are also generally interesting and relevant.  The way the artifacts relate to one another is also brilliant, and the associated achievements to these are very well thought-out.

Possibly most important, though, is that archaeology gives one a good reason to get out of a capital city.  Since the dungeon finder, I’ve had very little reason to leave these hubs, and justifiably so – they’re extremely convenient.  I started playing WoW just a few months before the dungeon finder was implemented, so I remember the stress and wasted time that was putting together a group and then traveling to the instance.  The dungeon finder is a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  The game has increasingly grown towards player convenience, and there are few that would want it otherwise.  But this comes at a cost, and one of the costs of the convenience of being able to do just about anything in Orgrimmar is having no reason to go out and see Azeroth.  The majority of max-level characters, in particular, really have no reason other than achievement hunting, that I can come up with to leave a capital city.  I didn’t realize how much I missed the beauty that is Azeroth!

I want to also take a moment to praise the artists and designers responsible for the game world.  It is truly fantastic!  While admittedly some character and environment models are starting to look dated, there is still an incredible amount of quality and finesse in Azeroth’s environs.  Oh, and could I possibly forget the weather?  Nothing makes me happier than being in a zone and having it start to rain.  Nothing.  Just thinking of it makes me smile and pull my blanket around me a little closer.  I love Azeroth’s weather!  When the scenery in a virtual world prompts me to take tons of screenshots, I consider that a resounding success!  Bravo Blizzard!

Contrā

So we’ve established that there are many great things about the profession.  Why, then, if I like it so much, have I not already reached the maximum skill level then?  In general, I think there are two elements, which while necessary, are proportionally too large to maximize fun.  These elements are randomness and time.

Let’s discuss the random, RNG aspect of the profession first.  There does need to be some random elements for the profession to stay fresh and enticing.  I mean, even in real-world archaeology there is a significant amount of chance.  Big finds are not usually predictable.  But currently there is not enough player control, in my opinion.  I find myself wishing that I had more direction over which races I focused on.  Just like a real-world archaeologist would have a plan, go to a site, and dig with certain expectations, I should be able to decide I want to focus on, say, Dwarven artifacts and be able to go and dig some up.  This seems like it could be an easy fix – simply make it clearer on the map which dig sites will yield which race’s artifacts.  It’s true that after a while this does start to become predictable after you been to many of the same sites, why not make it clear from the start?  I mean, we have had some training, after all, we’re not just bumbling idiots out with shovels and picks!

Another gripe I have with the random element is re-solving the same artifacts when there are still other artifacts that I have yet to discover.  Of course this has to exist – there cannot be an infinite amount of artifacts.  But shouldn’t it be possible to have this happen only after every artifact for the race has been solved at least once?  Spending time on an artifact that I’ve already solved when I’m hoping for another proc seems like a huge waste of my limited playing time.

That leads me to my second point of the profession simply requiring too much time.  There are two primary ways in which time is used by archaeology: time traveling to dig sites and time surveying at dig sites.  I don’t mind the surveying process too much.  It can feel a little ‘grindy’ at times, but I can’t think of many ways to improve upon it so won’t be too critical now.

Time spent traveling to dig sites is a problem, however.  Azeroth’s continents are large – very large, even.  I started Cataclysm with epic flying, thanks to the holiday meta, and yet even with that having to fly from one end of Kalimdor to the other was an immediate frustration.  When Outland and Northrend sites opened up, they seemed even worse.  I would up choosing sites based on proximity, not even caring what race’s artifacts they would yield.  This, too, was frustrating as I wanted to be able to go in with a plan as I already discussed.

Fortunately, I also see some easy fixes for this.  One option could simply be more available digsites available on any given continent.  Why have the limit of four?  Having eight available digsites wouldn’t break the profession as far as I can see.  It would simply give the players more options and allow closer proximity from site to site.  Another alternative would be to keep the number of digsites small, but prioritize nearby procs.  For example, if you just finish a digsite in the Borean Tundra, instead of having a site in the Howling Fjord replace it, have the random choice be between sites which are much closer.  In this way players could ‘chain’ their way across the continents.

Between the two options I think that simply increasing the number of available digsites is preferable, since it seems to meet two inadequacies – need of increased player control of digs and cutting down travel time.

Why doesn’t the Vicious Ancient Fish give me Archaeology AND Fishing skill?

Players often complain about the ‘grind’ that fishing and archaeology require.  In truth, some investment has to be put in for the reward to be appreciated.  Unlike raiding or PvP, leveling up archaeology or fishing requires virtually no skill.  The mechanics of both professions are simple and easily-mastered.  Thus, the investment becomes one of mere time.  That’s totally valid and just.  I’m not arguing for this to be done away with entirely, otherwise the pendulum of convenience swings too far and the rewards and professions themselves become meaningless to the player population.

I do feel, however, that the time required to level archaeology, right now, is not proportionally balanced.  This, along with too-little player control makes what is otherwise a beautiful profession something that one has to force herself to do.  Labeling and increasing the number of digsites, along with minimizing duplicate artifacts, would go a long way to make the profession much more enjoyable without losing any worth.

If you have a differing opinion, or see flaws in my suggestions, let me know in the comments below.  This post has been a long time in coming as I’ve thought a lot about what doesn’t work in the profession and how it could be ameliorated, but there’s surely some points or ideas I’ve missed.

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