Wednesday, 17 July 2013

[WoW] Gear, and Other Carrots

Does your gear matter? Kurn’s post Tech and the Devaluation of Gear shows how really, gear is effectively an illusion, a trick, a carrot to get you to keep playing even though the upgrades are effectively meaningless, becoming obsolete every time a new tier/expansion is released. It’s really with the introduction of Challenge Modes, and now Proving Grounds and Flex Raiding, that this has become too obvious to ignore: when the numbers on your gear and the enemies can be adjusted so readily, it leads to a questioning of why we bother to strive for improved gear at all.

a can of gearworms

Talk about a can of worms! This question can be split into two answers: levelling and endgame.

As the popularity of heirlooms has shown, players are fine with something that makes gear irrelevant whilst levelling – even the pieces that don’t provide an experience boost are used, and gear drops are mostly only used as a source of disenchanting materials. That the heirloom gear is generally equivalent to rare quality, thus is quite powerful, is an added bonus.

Levelling, though, is but a small part in the life of most characters: it’s often been said that endgame is where the ‘real’ WoW begins. Once you hit maximum level, whatever that might be at the time, you then need to start preparing your character for the Good Stuff: raiding (or battlegrounds or arenas; the goal is mostly the same). This, of course, means gearing up.

Grind My Gear

Prior to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, getting a newly-max-level character up to raiding standard was a tedious process if it started any significant time after most others had done it, both for the player of that character, and for any guildmates that had to go back and re-do content with the newbie, content they’d already cleared when it was current, and possibly never wanted to see ever again.

Thus did Blizzard introduce the concept of ‘tokens’, a currency that could be earned from doing dungeons and daily quests, and that could be used to buy previous-tier gear. This plus the introduction of automatic group-matching via the Dungeon Finder tool meant gearing up a new character to current-tier standards was a much quicker, if more mechanical, process, one that could be accomplished effectively ‘solo’, since the random, blitz-like nature of the Dungeon Finder groups made it easy to view the other people in your party as NPCs.

The ‘gear resets’ upon the release of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were the first clues that the numbers on gear are mostly arbitrary. The tokens were the second: no longer was gear something magical that you looted from a boss after a hard-won victory. Instead, it became something you could buy – not a reward but a return on time invested.

Perhaps coincidentally, this was around the same time addons like Recount and Gearscore really came to prominence, further clarifying the feeling that WoW is about numbers above all, a pretty facade in front of a spreadsheet.

Zahlen Über Alles

The fact that WoW is so numerically transparent has led to some fascinating things. Simulationcraft, for example, can predict, to a high degree of accuracy, how your character will perform in a given situation. Sites like Ask Mr. Robot will look at your character, crunch the numbers, then tell you what gear to acquire, and how to gem and reforge it, in order to maximise your potential.

At risk of invoking the slippery slope fallacy, it’s getting easier to see how this focus on and automation of numbers is making those numbers irrelevant. It takes very little skill to become ‘raid-ready’, just time. And, for those of us with full-time jobs and families to look after, time is often at a premium 1, meaning we can feel somewhat obligated to optimise our gaming, sometimes to the detriment of fun.

So what happens when acquisition of gear is no longer necessary?

For Great Justice!

I play Guild Wars 2 as well as WoW. If you’re not familiar with GW2, it has almost no gear progression: you get to max level (80), and any gear with the stats you need is available via several means, including the Trading Post (equivalent to WoW’s Auction House, more or less). In other words, you can directly buy pretty much the best stats in the game (not getting into the debate about Ascended gear, which is slightly more powerful but harder/more time consuming to acquire, and only available for trinket slots at present).

Guild Wars 2 also has dynamic stat scaling too: go into a low-level zone on your level 80 character and your effective level gets lowered to the maximum for that zone; enter World vs. World on any character below maximum level and you get up-levelled to 80. Structured PvP is interesting, too: not only are you boosted to maximum level, you are given a set of armour with no stats, plus a single trinket that gives you a completely standardised set of stats. You don’t have to spend any time or currency on this, resulting in a completely level playing field (class balance aside).

So what do Guild Wars 2 players strive for? The short answer: appearance, fun and victory. Like WoW, GW2 lets players alter the appearance of their armour and weapons by using other items as a source; hence, players run dungeons in order to acquire items they think look nice. Additionally, they do things because they are fun – the endgame is not like WoW’s at all, with no raids, no tiers and (for now) no expansions, so players are free to set more of their own goals.

Then of course there’s WvW/sPvP, where the goal is quite simple: to win. In both cases, gear plays no part in one’s chances of success, and is not a factor in the rewards.

Dark Simulacrum

I bring up Guild Wars 2 not as an example of what Blizzard should copy, but to show that it can be possible to have a successful game in which gear progression is not a factor. Of course, GW2 differs in many other significant ways, many of which are primarily there as an alternative to gearing up – most obviously, ArenaNet have committed to releasing new content every month, for free, and often for a limited time.

That’s not to say Blizzard shouldn’t copy anything from ArenaNet – if it’ll work in the context of WoW, it absolutely should be implemented; good ideas are good ideas, regardless of who comes up with them.

Vestments of Prophecy

So what rewards would be acceptable for killing an Instance boss, if not statistically superior gear?

Already, we have one answer: items for use in transmogrification. Some folks may see this as the domain of ‘socials’, but each to their own – having your character look the way you want is a perfectly valid goal in my book.

Then there’s Challenge Modes, which already do not provide any kind of numerical upgrade, instead awarding ‘prestige’ things like mounts, pets, titles and so forth. Furthermore, there are realm-wide leaderboards, giving really good teams bragging rights.

Both of these things are relatively small-scale, however, and may not work so well for raid-sized content. What to do there? There’s a complicating issue here: how will new tiers scale? Will they be at the same level, numerically, as current tiers? If that’s the case, it’d go a long way towards reducing the way tiers become obsolete as new ones are introduced, and I personally would love it if all raids of a given expansion could remain relevant throughout.

While adopting Challenge Mode’s stat-normalisation could work for raids, I don’t think the timed aspect would. In fact, it’s hard to think of something that would effectively offer the equivalent to the dungeons’ Gold, Silver and Bronze ‘medals’. There could be a ‘difficulty’ setting, but the problem there is having to complete the raid several times at ever harder difficulties, which may get tedious very quickly, although this could perhaps be alleviated if the difficulty was adjustable on a per-boss basis.

So far, so traditional, but what about something… more? To bring up Guild Wars 2 again, I think WoW could benefit from taking transmog even further with armour dyes and craftable ‘skins’, i.e. armour made purely for use in transmog.

I say that entirely with the realisation that such a thing would require extremely large-scale changes to the game. Obviously there’s no way to apply custom colours to armour in WoW at present, and implementing one would mean a lot of work to make it backwards-compatible with existing armour models. Perhaps at first, only new armour would be alterable, with older gear updated over time.

Expanding on the dye idea further, the colours could, like in GW2, be craftable, perhaps by scribes or alchemists, and recipes would be one of the new kinds of drops from instance bosses, with the colour’s rarity and difficulty of acquisition being based on its value to players (black = most valuable, guaranteed; it’s one of the most expensive on GW2’s Trading Post).

Naturally, tailors, leatherworkers and blacksmiths would craft the appropriate class of armour, and engineers and enchanters could even get in on the act by providing cool animations and glow effects and so forth.


Blizzard maintains a very careful balance in WoW to ensure as many types of players enjoy the game as possible. They know better than any of us what motivates players, and they’ve had eight years to fine-tune things in a way that no other MMORPG can match, so obviously, removing a fundamental aspect of the game is not going to go down well with the type of player who likes downing raid bosses just for the sake of acquiring new gear and seeing bigger numbers.

Furthermore, although there’s plenty of complaining from a subset of players that dungeons are too easy and that everything’s a faceroll and boring, when the instances are actually challenging, another, larger subset of players complains that things are now too hard (or, in the case of a recent GW2 dungeon, they just don’t run it). The outcry over the initial difficulty of the Cataclysm expansion’s dungeons is evidence of this, although in that particular instance there were other important factors to consider, not least of which was that by the end of Wrath of the Lich King, the playerbase had become used to blitzing through even heroic, current-tier 5-player dungeons, area-of-effect spells out in full force, no brainpower required. Cataclysm‘s dungeons were like a bucket of icy water to the face, and only those bracing themselves for it could cope.

The issue if compounded by the greatly varying levels of skill within the playerbase – the main reason the Raid Finder tool, with its lower difficulty and simplified encounters, was introduced was so more people could experience the boss fights that Blizzard spent a lot of effort creating (alas it turned out to be a not so great solution, as anyone who’s used it can attest).

Designing encounters with varying levels of difficulty may mitigate the problem of a less-than-ideal number of people being skilled enough to experience the content, but it does little to entice players who are not solely motivated by overcoming the types of challenges that raids provide. Hence, carrots, especially ones designed to appeal to stereotypical ‘casual’ raiders: pets, mounts, armour dyes/recipes and other ‘collectible’ things.

Winter of This Content

I’m on the fence really as to whether I believe Blizzard could or would implement something like stat irrelevancy or armour dyes. WoW is growing old, and it won’t be long before its retirement comes, so expending significant resources to change the very core of the game after almost nine years seems unlikely; I suspect rather that we’ll see something like this in the fabled Titan project, whenever it makes an official appearance.

Still, it’s nice to dream, and perhaps might yet see some of these ideas in the World of Warcraft, albeit in watered-down form. Roll on 6.0!

1: As gainfully employed adults, many of us now have something else instead of time: money. What’s that, Blizzard are going to be selling a thing that lets players achieve something in less time? Well, fancy that.