One of the things that comes up time and time again is the idea of uniqueness. Every crafter wants to offer something that no one else has - to be able to stand out in the sea of sameness. This desire to be unique has spawned some arguably bad behavior. Auction House speculators who buy out competitors and repost at their favored price. Stockpiling items that are scheduled for modification in some way to capitalize on buying frenzies. Racing to be the first person with access to the newest pets/dungeon drops/raid craftables/etc so you can charge out the wazoo for it. The driving force behind all of these behaviors is our need to be the first or only crafter offering a specific item so we can price it however we want and make oodles of gold.
I know there are folks out there who would argue that this is how the market works. Capitalism in all it's glory. I agree with that to a certain extent. Except when other game mechanics interfere with a level playing field, such as raiders getting first access to recipes by engaging in an activity that is unrelated to crafting. Or insane faction grinds blocking high profile recipes (runed ruby anyone?) because epic items are also unlocked in the process. Instead of putting the focus on thwarting bad behavior and wasting time trying to police it, perhaps there's a better way. If crafters had the option to differentiate themselves in a positive and meaningful fashion, maybe they wouldn't feel the need to engage in more underhanded tactics.
So what would be a positive solution? How about letting crafters have more control over the creation process? One of the things that Second Life validated is the idea of user-generated content within an MMO framework. This is always a positive way to keep players invested and allow them to contribute to the vibrancy of a virtual world. Clearly Blizzard recognizes this with their plans for the Starcraft franchise by encouraging user-created maps to be distributed and even sold on the Battle.net site. MMOs could also benefit from embracing this concept, and crafting in particular is an area in desperate need of individualization.
From what we've been reading about Reforging, this door is already going to be cracked open in Cataclysm. The ability for players to modify and redistribute the stats of an item is the first step on the road to user customization. Ideally what I'd like to see is a way for crafters to have full control over the item budget. What difference does it make if a Blizzard person spends the item budget or I do? It's the same number of stats either way. If I want to make a full set of armor with 100% STAM and 0% STR, why not? I haven't gone outside the preset "power" of the item, I've just allocated that power in exactly the places I wanted it. Obviously there would need to be rules in place that would prevent abuse. Players should be limited by the same restrictions Blizzard now uses and the interface should be coded to enforce those rules. Of course a certain amount of stupidity could ensue - but I'm not sure Blizzard is obligated to police stupidity.
Even better would be allowing crafters to modify all aspects of an item, not just the stats. Just as we currently have the tabard design interface, I think it would be great if we could have an item design interface. I'm not suggesting any sort of user-contributed design elements, but just opening access to existing models would allow a pretty high level of customization. Then crafters could change not only the stat distribution, but also the look of the item. Giving crafters the ability to modify the visual elements AND the stats would open up infinite possibilities for individualization. Not only would this help the market tremendously, it would also benefit buyers. A perfect example is my hunter - I hate guns. Not really a political thing, they're just noisy and obnoxious. Unfortunately it's pretty common that the best ranged weapons are guns. As a crafter, maybe I'd be able to design a bow or crossbow version of the Nesingwary 4000. Players who prefer the bow version of the NSG4K would buy from me =)
Let me throw out another example that makes me giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. I'm an engineer and I want to specialize in non-combat pets. I could use the player version of WoW Edit to combine different critter parts and invent my own pet. Frankly, the Wolpertinger looks like someone did exactly that. With the editor I could make a fuzzy caterpillar, a girlfriend for Egbert or a rainbow snuffleupagus. Rainbow Snuffleupagus... I already want to buy this stupid thing, rofl! This is a painless way to give players viable market items that shouldn't in any way morph into a game-breaking catastrophe.
To go completely out in left field, let's stroll down Discovery and Research Lane. The current implementation of discovery/research is that I use a preset combination of mats and I randomly learn a preset recipe drawn from a preset pool of recipes. This was fine when it was first introduced, a nice improvement over previous options. However, it would be really cool if R&D actually functioned like R&D. Meaning if I experiment with a random combination of herbs, I could theoretically brew a random concoction. Maybe I would utilize an alchemy lab for this type of noodling and maybe I could put any combination of herbs I want into it. Maybe I would try blending old herbs with newer herbs. Maybe I would play around with different amounts of Herb A and Herb B (even Herb C).
Currently we have about 50 types of herbs in the game, with variable quantities it should be possible to generate infinite combinations. Suppose each herb had a vague "effect" value which could provide a rule-base for experimentation. Throw in a little RNG** fun and <POOF>! Out comes random herbal brew. Sometimes stinky and useless, sometimes interesting and maybe every once in a while something really cool. But through the magic of RNG R&D it would hopefully be difficult for everyone to end up with the same exact recipes. You could even give Alchemists a way to "publish" their recipe and sell it if they find one that's particularly exciting. Or they could just hoard it and reap the financial rewards, their choice.
It shouldn't be hard to create the customization interfaces once the rules have been ironed out. In fact, if I heard correctly in the Diablo panel at Blizzcon, there are no static items in Diablo, it's all randomly generated loot. So we know it's workable to create an item system that's dynamically driven. The real issue is whether it's appropriate for WoW. I don't want to delve too much into how it might be incorporated because I don't know what constraints are involved. Just a few ideas off the top of my head would be that as you level your craft, you gain a more powerful ability to "tinker". Or perhaps when you learn a new recipe you also get the ability to modify that recipe. Maybe only max level crafters can do modifications as a perk for reaching the cap. Or there might be an epic quest associated with unlocking the customization skill (no dungeon or raid steps plz!). There are a number of ways to go about that and whatever is in the best interest of game balance is fine by me.
Because game balance isn't really my thing, I can't say if there are fundamental, insurmountable problems with these ideas or not. It's always possible to implement new features that end up going awry (CoH: Architect), but I have every confidence that Blizzard can handle that kind of problem intelligently. What we don't really know is whether the new Reforging system includes the architecture to support more grandiose implementations. I could go on forever dreaming up ideas... but I'll rein it in. There's no way for us to know what's possible or reasonable, but the main limitation would be developer resources and maybe the current architecture of WoW itself, not anything technological. The big question is, if you could have "pie in the sky" would it look like this? Or is there better way to add individualism to crafting without aiming so high?
Feel free to share you thoughts in the Comments or toss out your own ideas on how to add individualization to the crafting system in WoW.
** RNG = Random Number Generation