As RIFT and Cataclysm were released very close to each other, it's interesting to compare similar systems from both games. One such comparable mini-game is Archeology in WoW and collecting Artifacts in RIFT. In a lot of ways, Archeology reflects current WoW design, while Artifacts reflect RIFT and perhaps Vanilla WoW design.
First a quick description of the two systems. For Archeology, you have four dig sites marked on your world map. You fly to a digsite, and start surveying. Surveying is essentially a Hot Cold game. Your survey tool tells you when you get closer and provides a rough direction. When you find an archeology node, you collect fragments. There are three nodes per dig site. Collect enough fragments and you assemble an artifact. Most WoW artifacts are sold for gold, but there are a lot of pets and non-combat items.
Artifacts in RIFT are more like resource nodes. They're bright, sparkling white balls that are stuck all over the map, often in hidden or out of the way locations. When you click on an RIFT artifact node, you get a random artifact for the zone you are in. Each artifact belongs to a set. When you collect an entire set, you can turn it in to an NPC for tokens. You can then exchange these tokens for various non-combat rewards. The best analogy to this is collecting baseball cards or collecting CCGs like Magic: the Gathering.
What I've found is that Archeology in WoW is very grindy. Fly to digsite, survey, survey, survey, fly to next digsite, repeat. But it also offers guaranteed results. If you put in the time, you will complete the artifact that you are working on. The only randomness is where the digsites appear, and what artifact you are currently working on.
In contrast, Artifacts in RIFT are extremely random. Nodes spawn in random places, so you can go hunting and not find any. Every node is a random artifact. You can get lots of duplicates, while not finding the ones you need to complete your set. You can, however, sell or trade your duplicates. On the other hand, the final reward is not random. You just have to collect X sets to get the specific reward you want, while in WoW you have to wait for the correct Archeology project to pop for you.
It should be noted that in my time playing RIFT, I only ever managed to complete 1 Artifact set. I had like 20 or so partially finished, but only one complete set.
Archeology in WoW is very interface-driven. The dig sites are marked on your world map, and aren't shown in game at all. When I'm flying to a dig site, I have to have the map open so I can tell if I'm in the right spot. And surveying is entirely done using an interface button.
Collecting Artifacts in RIFT, on the other hand, are in the game world. Picking one up often requires maneuvering your character out on a ledge, or doing fancy jumping to just the right spot. The only interface action is actually putting the artifact into a collection.
Archeology in WoW is entirely independent of other players. You don't share nodes or dig sites with other people. There's no real competition or cooperation with them.
While in RIFT, other people can beat you to the Artifact node. It's like herbing or mining. You're busy clearing out the enemy mobs, and they sneak in and grab the artifact.
Archeology in WoW is also aimed at endgame, and is also not really something that you can do in between quests. It's pretty much impossible to level archeology without a flying mount. In some respects, it feels like Archeology was designed as something to do while waiting for a dungeon queue to pop.
Whereas it's perfectly possible in RIFT to see and collect an artifact while out questing. Even low levels will collect many artifacts.
In a lot of respects, I like RIFT Artifacts better than WoW Archeology. I love the fact that Artifacts are in the game world, scattered in obscure corners. I like trying to figure out how to get that artifact which is stuck in the tree. In WoW, I really dislike flying from dig site to dig site with my map open, trying to tell if I am flying in the correct direction.
I like the whole rush of opening the Artifact node and seeing what you get. It reminds me a lot of my days of playing Magic, and opening packs to see what rare I'd pull. While a dig site in WoW is terribly boring. Survey, survey, survey, but I know I'm getting 3 nodes of 3-5 fragments each. The only moment of excitement is finishing a project and seeing what the next project is.
In some respects, it sort of feels like the WoW devs spent too much time trying to simulate the profession of Archeology, rather than coming up with a mini-game which was actually fun.
But then again, I don't like the randomness of RIFT Artifacts. As I mentioned above, I only ever completed one set. And the more sets you finish, the harder it becomes to finish the remaining sets. Like Magic, getting the last few cards you needed to finish your collection can be a killer. On the other hand, if you removed the randomness, it might lose its luster and become a straight grind.
It's entirely possible that because I treated RIFT Artifacts as a side-game--only collecting them as I came across them in the course of questing--that I never saw the real flaws and frustrations. I imagine that trying to complete the Achievements for collecting all the sets would be mind-numbing, and you'd eventually resort to the Auction House to purchase the few artifacts you are missing. To me, the idea that a mini-game would force you to do that is something of an admission of failure on its part.