To Farm or Not to Farm?

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The past few weeks have seen me chew over one aspect of online play which I never consider to be part of my desired game. Reaching level 80 in World of Warcraft opened, amongst other new play styles, a vacuum for alternate characters (or ‘alts.’) to fill. The most noticeable change this brought to my game, and the topic I which to address today, affects my characters’ resources.

Though appearances may be deceptive, I was not of a superior level to these beasts when fighting to get at the Silver Vein – but I was fortunate not to have had the vein swiped by someone else while doing this.

My first ‘alt.’ was an undead rogue named Virgar. As my ‘main’, Gemenar, is an engineer, so too was Virgar, so enamoured am I with the profession. It’s in playing as Virgar that I first saw new light shed on resource management, having already endured the struggle to gather all the schemata and craft all the parts as Gemenar. Such was my goal in the game – to follow the engineering profession through to its ‘endgame’ conclusion.

Virgar started his own engineering career with some inherited experience of where to obtain schemata, a bag full of hand-me-down tools and even some starter materials from Gemenar’s surplus. By the World of Warcraft community’s definition, Virgar was made a ‘twink’ (though personally I dislike the term – I prefer to stick with “alt.” for all its implied meaning). By being such an alt., Virgar’s progress and possessions are expected to be a good few levels higher than a starter character might enjoy.

My second alt. was a little different. Whilst warlocks and rogues like Gemenar and Virgar can make good use of those tools the engineering profession provides, my third character, Capricar, is a priest and therefore largely non-combative. She has no need for guns, bombs or repair kits because she’s positioned at the back of the group, healing her party members. As such, my priest did not follow the mining/engineering track, and instead took tailoring and jewelcrafting. Both would allow my alt. to craft enhanced armour, to boost the various statistics all my characters battle on.

Tailoring is a common choice of profession for alts., along with enchanting because neither requires raw gathering skills (such as mining, skinning or herbalism) as a complimentary skill. Cloths are looted from many enemy corpses, while enchanting requires only those weapons and armour dropped by NPC enemies and dungeon bosses. All players, then, will find these regardless of trade. Jewelcrafting, however, requires ores obtainable only with the mining skill, just as with the engineering trade I chose for my first two characters. So it was that Capricar became a drain on Gemenar and Virgar’s resources, for if her only other professions slot was occupied by tailoring, she would have only surplus to work from.

I could have chosen enchanting as Capricar’s second skill, but instead have built her up to be someone who can craft quality armour and statistic-boosting items for herself and for my main, largely because it’s fun for me to do so. Because neither skill is considered particularly profitable however, she has become a different sort of alt. and requires not only the combined mining efforts of my engineers, but donations of cash from their proceeds. Luckily, this is not a difficult task for a level 80 character.

To help my needy priest progress (along with second engineer, for reasons I’ll reach shortly), I will occasionally send Gemenar out on errands. While a player can generally support their own professions without deviating from those resource-rich paths the PvE (player versus. event) game provides, an alt. who cannot dig their own ores and gems must rely on the occasional farming run. Gemenar will venture out, often into areas of the game which are designed for characters 20 to 60 levels her junior, and tap into resources which are also demanded by players who actually fit that zone. The benefit to my endeavour is that this fast-moving, nigh-indestructible character of mine can quickly cover a whole zone and gather all the resources which come her way, with nary a glance at the NPC enemies who would offer a younger character something of a challenge. The impact this has upon players who belong to that zone however, is pretty frustrating.

I have certainly been victim to farming when playing as Gemenar as she grew, paying witness to the harvest of my desired resources by characters who were almost certainly cheating. I use that word hesitantly of course, for the act of farming with a higher-level character breaks no rules other than social etiquette. Still, there is little a younger player can do when a much more nimble character, often of the opposing faction too, can fly in, snatch the materials and escape, leaving the younger player to fight what surrounds them. It is, in fact, precisely why some of the stocks Gemenar gathers actually go to my engineer alt., because Virgar’s materials are getting snatched by players just like Gemenar.

The balancing argument is that such supposed farmers may actually be levelling a profession up in earnest. As much as I glare angrily at Blizzard for having created such circumstances, Death Knights are the solitary example of a class which simply has to stomp about entry-level zones as a level 58 behemoth amongst level 8 beginners, if they’re to adopt any profession other than tailoring or enchanting. Older players can also find themselves abandoning one profession for another, such as engineering for alchemy, in which case they will need to harvest resources from the game’s beginning too. In these circumstances, it’s much easier to think outside of levels and simply see each character as a professional of equal standing. By that I mean my mind may be put at ease if all the high-level characters who snatched my ores and gems needed them just as badly as I do to level my skill up.

World of Warcraft has means of discouraging such innocent thoughts though, as trades are complicated by the presence of an in-game auction house. This place of commerce is, above all else, a marketplace for the game’s professionals. It allows non-engineers to buy guns and non-blacksmiths a chance at owning unique armour, but in turn also allows these engineers and smiths to sell the wares they make as as a by-product of progress. It’s also a good place to turn to for extra resources, should your own quota fall short – but that makes it a good spot for profiteering, too. The worst fear I have when farming for my active character or an alt. is that the person who beats me to a much-needed resource will harvest it purely for profit.

It is this aspect of the game which I had intentionally ignored until just recently, but from reading Warcraft economy blogs like Greedy Goblin, playing characters who can’t provide for themselves and even creating a couple of characters who do nothing but gather (to offset those who purely craft items), it seems I’ve landed myself slap bang in the middle of it.

To a certain extent, I have come to rely on just those players I despise the most. Although as an engineer I am not out battling alchemists and scribes for precious herb stocks, I do occasionally have need for such items and so have had to buy them in. I also created a Death Knight scribe and enchanter of my own, whose entire glyph profession has been built up to his level cap. on the back of auction house purchases and occasional donations from friends. Were it not for the farming industry in World of Warcraft, I could not be the scribe I wanted to be.

In a way, my alts. are like coddled children. Alts. like that are unable to hunt for themselves, but they are content to grind away at the much more fun professions so long as bought-in stocks or the cash to do so keep coming in. Producing a wardrobe of cloth armours and inscribing a library of spell-enhancing glyphs is, to my mind, much more fun than travelling from place to place and gathering materials up. I’d been down that road with two characters already, and did not fancy replaying it a third time. The second pass through starter zones and their subsequent challenges is made that little bit more bearable when the new character can try exciting new professions and can offer the produce back to those characters considered to be favourites. As I have explained though, this sort of play carries a cost and so there seemed only one place I could turn.
A bitter irony seems to have wound its way into my game, as my character roster shows. These are my alts. in chronological order:

  1. Miner/engineer
  2. Miner/engineer
  3. Tailor/jewelcrafter (requires mining)
  4. Scribe/enchanter (requires herbalism)
  5. Skinner/miner
  6. Herbalist/alchemist
  7. Miner/blacksmith

Blue text denotes those characters of mine who are self-sustaining. Those in red require base resources from another character, while the green ones are, I’m ashamed to say, gatherers and nothing more. I have inadvertently created a roster of characters which rolls to and fro between those characters I can call independent, those fun alts. or ‘twinks’ who require extra support, and farming workers to balance them – characters I neglect in spite of their utter necessity.

It seems that if I am to play a tailor/jeweller like Capricar, I need either to farm extra ore from a gatherer or an independent character taking time out of play, or to sell extra goods from the same sources, in order that I might buy ore for cash. There’s no way around that, which leaves the resource-worried player only two options: swallow my pride and become a farmer/vendor, or make each of my characters an independent craftsman in their own right. Either way I look at it, the game I try to control is forcing me to work for my pleasurable gains.

So I come to my first solid questions.

  • Is there a way we can discourage farming, sparing gatherer/craftsmen the frustration of apparent theft, without forcing everybody’s alts to use precious profession slots up just to keep the ores coming in?
  • Contrary to that, is there a way we can make profiteering a much more stable and accessible form of play, benefiting those players who need the ores while also making farming a more enjoyable and approachable option to them?

My first reaction to these questions is a sympathy for those designers whose work formed the ancestry of WoW‘s own trades system. Such a series of experiments simply to arrive at even this precariously-balanced system must have been taxing indeed.