Yesterday an anonymous commenter suggested that I write a piece comparing WoW fishing and LotRO farming, which is a great idea. The two occupations have a lot in common, and there are a lot of game design lessons to be learned here. Both are the odd-man-out gathering skills in their respective games, being stationary and non-competitive. Both have undergone numerous changes. And both went from money-making machines to underused activity due to these changes, with a prospect of becoming more popular later. In short, it does appear that developers everywhere have the same problem balancing this sort of activity.
The basic premise for both fishing and farming is a good one: a peaceful alternative activity to fighting monsters, which does not give any xp, but does give some monetary reward so as not to be useless. Having other things to do in a game than killing is good, because it makes the game feel more like a world. And while such activities certainly shouldn't be the most profitable and risk-free occupations in the game, making them somewhat profitable is quite okay. As always the devil is in the detail, in the degree of profitability and the possibility to automate.
The big fault that both WoW fishing and LotRO farming have is that they are not interactive enough. Fishing is totally stationary, and the only interaction is putting your mouse cursor over the random location of the fishing bobber, and clicking on it when it moves. That is very easy to automate. Farming isn't any better, only that it has two locations, the field and the workbench. But on the field you just click on make field, wait 15 seconds, then shift-click on the field to harvest, wait 15 seconds, and start over. And the workbench is even worse, because you can just say process 120 plants, each taking 15 seconds, and then you don't need to do anything for half an hour. So the automation is already built into the game, only the sowing and harvesting requires any input. Both activities are non-competitive, that is it doesn't matter how many other people around you are doing the same thing, that doesn't decrease your yield. So with low interactivity, and no need to look what other people are doing, it is easy to write a "bot" program to just fish or farm 24/7. A player could just go to bed and have the computer running automated to make money for him. Or a gold farmer could have several accounts botting this way, only collecting the profit once in a while. Even if every fish caught or field tilted yields only a small profit, the fact that there is no work involved doing so makes it possible to abuse the situation.
Shortly after Blizzard noticed the appearance of lots of fishing bots, they "solved" the problem by reducing the vendor buy price for most fish to 1 copper, basically breaking fishing to prevent it from being abused. Turbine is currently at this very same step of the evolution, they just broke farming to prevent it being abused. As farming, unlike fishing, has a starting cost, Turbine not only reduced the profit to near zero, they overshot the target and made farming lose you money, if you sell your products to a vendor.
If you make your fishing or farming earn absolutely no money, or even make it lose money, most people will only look at it shortly and then never do it again. That of course isn't the purpose either, adding an activity to the game that is totally useless and unpopular. One frequent idea from developers is to have vendor prices low, but make the product from the fisher/farmer be useful for other players. In WoW there are some fish that can be used for alchemy, and other fish that when cooked give nice stat bonuses. So either the fisher can cook and brew potions himself, or he can sell his fish to a cook or alchemist. The advantage of that is that the price of this transaction is variable. If somebody uses a bot to fish thousands of fish for alchemy, he wouldn't be able to sell all of them, or the potions you can make from them. The more he makes, the lower is the market value. Thus if you balance it right, the activity is profitable to normal players, but unprofitable to botters. Unfortunately this doesn't work yet in LotRO. By having fixed costs for water and fertilizer, growing a vegetable has a cost. But the same vegetables are being sold for a fixed price from a cooking vendor. And unless you have an extremely good harvest, your fixed cost for growing a specific vegetable is higher than the price a vendor sells it for. So no way to sell your veggies to other players, except at a loss. You can't even cook them yourself and sell the cooked food, because an item like a mushroom pie has too many too costly ingredients, and gives only a very small and short stat buff. Food at the current cost is simply too expensive for what it does, so nobody buys it.
LotRO's announced next fix for farming, announced for June, is working with that balance. They will lower the fixed cost of farming, so farmers can produce vegetables at much lower cost. That in turn enables cooking food at much lower cost, and opens up the possibility of people actually buying that food. And if you sell your farm produce to vendors, the system is supposed to be balanced in a way that you come out more or less even, with just a handful of coppers in potential loss or profit.
World of Warcraft meanwhile improved fishing to make it slightly more interactive and less stationary by introducing fishing nodes. The most useful fish now also exist in special fishing nodes that spawn and get deplenished just like a herb or ore node. You can still get the good fish by just fishing stationary, but your yield of good fish will be low, and you'll catch lots of 1 copper vendor junk. By running around and fishing in the nodes you get much better profits. And there are even floating flotsam spots which you can fish for other items than fish. When I started a second priest, Alliance side, on a brand new server, I made good money by sneaking into Stranglethorn Vale and fishing level 40ish flotsam spots with a level 16 character, finding items that were much higher in level and more valuable than anything which I could have gotten from monsters. With the Burning Crusade the number of useful fish was increased, and there are now even pure water spots where you can fish expensive primal water. By making fishing more interactive and mobile, Blizzard solved the problem of bots without destroying the activity for normal players. If Turbine could manage to change the farming into something more interactive and less easily automated, they could make farming a bit more profitable too.
One possibility that neither game has thought of yet would be to make the vendor buying price for fish or farm products variable, depending on how much of a specific good has been sold to them in the last 24 hours. Fish and vegetables could have a 24-hour timer, disappearing after that time, which actually would be quite natural, lacking a fridge, so people couldn't stockpile them and just sell them when the price is high. Instead a fisher or farmer would first look what product is currently in demand, and then could go out, do his fishing or farming, and come back and sell the product to the vendor, thereby reducing the price until it isn't profitable any more. That would add interactivity to fishing and farming, and make it both more fun and more profitable, without opening the door to 24/7 botters.
The other solution would be to make both fishing and farming more interactive, with more decisions to take, again to make these activities hard to bot and more fun. Imagine LotRO introduced player housing, with a patch of farmland in the back, and from sowing to harvesting it would take a day, instead of just seconds. With the possibility to sometimes come and water the plants, or pull out weeds. A kind of integrated "Harvest Moon Online" game within the virtual world of Middle-Earth. As you only have one house with a limited number of fields, the product you could grow per day would automatically be limited, and nobody could abuse that system. And it would give players a strong feeling of actually living in a virtual world, with other things to do than just endless killing.