Blizzard’s approach to Dragonflight design in a nutshell is probably best described as, “talent trees make things better.” To be fair, in some ways, they are on to something – class and spec design are feeling interesting and there’s room to take interesting choices, and while Dragonriding is either great or bad depending on who you ask, part of the interesting quirk there is the glyph system and talents that expand your ability to ride.
Professions in WoW have needed a change for a long time, without a doubt. Tradeskills in WoW have always been sort of an outlier in the genre, and WoW’s own approach has changed in ways that have often de-emphasized them at the cost of player interest in trades, making most professions unable to make much money or have positive interactions outside of the individual player level. There have been efforts in both directions – in BfA when most crafted armor at raid level or higher was locked to BoP so it was only for the player with the skill, to Shadowlands when craftable gear was opened up with equip restrictions on high-level stuff as a deterrent for full crafted gear and the Legendary system using crafted base items. Most of these have just solidified that outside of raid consumables, gear enhancements, and stuff like bags from tailors, there just isn’t that much to be excited about in WoW crafting.
Dragonflight took direct aim at this critique, by drastically reshaping some aspects of the WoW tradeskill experience. While the game remains locked on a menu-based, mostly un-interactive mode of “play,” the model around trades has changed drastically. Skilling up is mostly riding a wave until 50 out of 100 skill points, at which point you can learn most, if not all, recipes, and skillups past that point rely on a slow progression of skilling up with endgame recipes, new options like Alchemy Experiments, and a recipe grind through Renown ranks with the major DF factions. Work orders allow players to craft BoP armor and weapons for other players, and drops like Titan Training Matrixes and finishing reagents allow you to upgrade a base recipe’s item level, as does a newly-added Quality system, with the quality of the reagents and your effective skill level influencing the quality of the finished craft, with higher quality increasing the item level or stat bonus offered. Professions get talent tress through Specializations and the Knowledge system, giving you a way to gain points to invest in increases to effective skill in a way you choose, with the eventual ability to max out every specialization in a trade for maximum bonuses. Then, and lastly, there is profession gear, equipped directly to the profession pane, which offers bonuses and new stats just for crafting and gathering, with things like gathering/crafting speed, ability to find rare materials, ability to make multiple stacks of a consumable, and even the equivalent of crit strike, giving a higher chance to craft something at higher quality.
So, with all of this in mind, how is crafting in DF?
Well, it’s…maybe in need of some more work (orders).
Firstly, the inspiration of other MMOs is obvious, but the game is held back by the ability to go fully to a new crafting and gathering system. Profession stats work in games like Final Fantasy XIV because they set a player up on a baseline level of capability to gather or craft something, but then have gameplay interactions with rotations and abilities to allow a player to learn the system better and be able to craft or gather something that might otherwise be hard to do – provided you meet the gated baseline stat requirements for a node or craft, you can learn ways to maximize your success – but failure also looms as a gameplay twist. In WoW, you still cannot fail a craft (although Alchemy Experimentation gets a big fuck you from me for how often you can get a hot streak before just losing and being stuck waiting for 4 hours to try again), and because there is no rotation or gameplay involved past the spec choices and gear, the stats kind of end up…not feeling like anything? Crafting speed is nice, sure, as is Multicraft, but it just means that a UI element sometimes tells me to be excited about something happening and it is easy to miss. To be fair, I don’t think you could add a rotation or tradeskill gameplay to WoW without alienating players – and I don’t think it would fit what the game has built over nearly two decades now – but it ends up making the crafting stats feel kind of bland and empty.
Secondly, the leveling of tradeskills borders on pure frustration at a certain point. Sure, you can learn pretty much every recipe by skill 50 of a trade, but you need those higher skill points to be able to max out the quality on a craft, because for as much as the gear system can influence that, nothing hits as hard as the raw skill rating, and raid-level armor, weapons, and consumables demand high levels of effective skill to be a successful 5-star quality. What gives you those higher skill points? Well, because recipes drop off in skillups so early, you have to make the highest level stuff – and so many of those things are gated recipes hiding behind Renown!
But there’s another way to get effective Skill (still counts!), and that is through Specializations, and this brings me to a core frustration I have with the new system. Specialization implies a certain limiting of choice, that you cannot be a specialist in everything, so you have to make choices carefully. The game offers no respec for profession spec, so once you spend a Knowledge point, it is spent forever. However, tucked into walls of explainer text in an early quest in the expansion is a tidbit that matters a lot – eventually, you can gain enough Knowledge to have every specialization fully unlocked. Early points basically boil down to a decision path based on your play environment – if you’re in a guild with multiple Alchemists, do you each run a different spec to maximize Phials on one and Potions on another? If you are just trying to max out effectiveness, do you just take a point dump in the opening trait in each tree for the sake of effective Skill, or do you try and go deep in a utilitarian way such that you can maximize your Skill for the consumables and things you use regularly?
So we need to talk about the specialization system in more depth, then. The core currency of profession spec is Knowledge, gained from first-time crafting/gathering bonuses, random items you can find in the world, random drops from certain mobs and nodes, weekly quest rewards in Valdrakken, and as a one-time reputation reward per tier of reputation with the Artisans of the Dragon Isles. Specialization nodes can take a ton of points, with tier rewards at every 5 points of Knowledge spent. Each node is built with a different maximum value of points, but always in multiples of 5, and professions mostly take north of 500 points of total Knowledge to max out. The caveat is that you can only dive into all of the trees of your trade at max base skill of 100 – with either 3 or 4 tree options unlocking as reach skill breakpoints to open extra specs.
On the one hand, as a system, this gives crafting and gathering a certain depth throughout the expansion – you’ll want to chase Knowledge for as long as possible until you hit the maximum for your trades. There’s an advantage in the early days to capitalizing on the opportunities offered on your regional Auction House and adjusting your spec accordingly, or to optimizing across a guild roster to ensure you have different specializations lined up to make things in a way that makes sense for your group.
On the other hand, the specialization system also suffers in a similar way to profession gear – failure isn’t an option, so it kind of just feels empty. Granted, the spec points can make a huge difference if spent in a way that benefits your crafting – my tailoring on my Demon Hunter is strongly invested in the first choice in two trees and it means I can make 5-star quality 343 armor without a sweat, while my Monk’s alchemy feels flailing and struggling by comparison, in spite of having more total Knowledge invested. It adds the tiniest consideration of gameplay choice, but it doesn’t make crafting meaningfully more engaging.
Also, the specialization system doesn’t apply to fishing or cooking, so those are just similarly-contoured grinds to the current system (Cooking) or the way things have always been (Fishing). Fishing gets some benefit by allowing you to equip your fishing rod to the profession instead of as a weapon, and it has interactions with the Iskaara Tuskarr like new fishing nets you can set and come back for and the fishing hole system with quests around it, but these skill functionally feel fairly similar to how they’ve always felt – with the caveat that both require Tuskarr Renown to hit a certain point for you to gain the benefit of your last round of leveling recipes or the new tech like nets for fishing.
Is New Always Interesting?
In a way, professions represent this interesting approach to WoW from the current team. It feels like a lot of Dragonflight is premised on this idea that new ways of handling content are always going to be more interesting to players. I think in some ways, this is absolutely true (rare farming as a means of gear progression pre-season has been popular, although I am not sure if it is loved or not, Dragonriding at least gives a form of flight right at the start instead of months or a year later, talents in their new form are pretty neat), but I would struggle to say that professions are better. They are different, and in answering the question I posed above, they are interesting – but perhaps not how Blizzard wants them to be.
What is interesting to me about the new profession systems is how it feels like Blizzard saw a thing in other games and other places and thought that there’s no reason they couldn’t do something similar, but without an understanding of what made it work in those other places in the first place. FFXIV trades work as they do, for example, because they have a lot of moments where they meet players where they are – you can take a weird and wonky set of Scrip armor and consumables and end up still being able to craft the best stuff in the game or gather the highest-level nodes effectively with your own rotation and idea for how to tackle it, or you can grab the theorycrafted macro rotations, best-in-slot lists, and just hit the macro buttons and chill while watching something on a second monitor. There’s a failure state and consequences that require you to meet a certain minimum threshold, and there’s a reward in quality value for doing something really well, however you ultimately arrive there. In Dragonflight, WoW crafting is still WoW crafting and gathering remains similar as well – you can always gather a node as long as you are trained, you can only ever succeed at crafting and can only ever make the thing you want if you have the recipe and the skill points, but nothing more is asked of you.
Dragonflight crafting takes the veneer of a more in-depth crafting system, more interesting gathering, and it layers it atop the same systems that have powered the game’s professions for nearly two decades. Do the stats do something? Sure, but in gathering you can’t really tell what they did for you short of the game shouting it at you, and in crafting it’s a tiny little message that pops up in a crafting list you might not even look at. The grind of trades is more frustrating (going 50-100 in Herbalism on my Monk took a few hours of flying the Azure Span looking for elementally-imbued and Lush nodes, which wasn’t more engaging but was more frustrating), the recipes are just categorically harder to get unless you no-life a particular rep as hard as the game will let you or let the reward come in due course, which might be quick and might be very slow depending on the World Quests you get and how often you can play, and the quality system so far is just an annoyance that means my Demon Hunter sends a bevy of 1-quality scrolls to the guild bank for people to use while crafting and gathering both now take up vastly more bag space, to such an extent that the reagent bag slot added alongside new stacking rules for crafting reagents feels insufficient (a very sharp contrast to what I initially expected!), and I even made myself updated 32-slot bags on my DH for my highly-played characters.
But at the same time, in truth, this is the most-engaged I have been with professions in like, a decade. The last time I seriously considered them was early in BfA when the early BoE crafted armor turned BoP, leading me to take Leatherworking on my DH just to make raid-prep gear, and before that, I think Cataclysm is the last time I seriously made a point of having my alts with trades leveled just in case. Dragonflight has made me at least interested in playing with trades for a bit, and that is very much unlike me with WoW, so on that front, it is an improvement of sorts. However, what I find frustrating is that because I am more engaged with them now, I want them to be more, and I can see the thought process that led to what we have now, but I also think it falls short of the ideal as outlined here. There’s a chance it could be gameplay engaging with just a few more tweaks, but the problem for WoW is that those tweaks would be the biggest fundamental shifts in crafting gameplay in the game ever, and there are plenty of players who would not have it.
In short, it’s different, more interesting, but not necessarily better, and it suffers from being pointed at an idea without understanding the process of how that idea arrived and is supported while not being able to rock the boat too much. It’s fine, but it could be more, and it is frustratingly close to being genuinely good if it wasn’t excessively Renown-gated, overly confusing, and reliant upon walls of in-game quest text to try and teach players how the model has changed.
(oh and also I had nothing to say about work orders because I literally haven’t seen one yet, so while I get the model and think it’s a good idea, there’s no practical experience guiding that opinion!)