Tech and the Devaluation of Gear

When I first walked through the Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands and ended up in Hellfire Peninsula, I was astounded at how quickly I replaced my gear. My hard-fought T0.5 gear meant nothing. My Rhok’delar? Nada. Even my Tier 1 gear, what little of it I had, was laughable. The stats on the gear that was dropping, even the greens, just far outweighed anything I’d ever even seen before. Just the stamina on the gear alone was astonishing. This was my introduction to gear resets.

Every expansion, it’s the same thing — wander around in the new zones for a while, replace everything. It’s always been a little sad for me, because it seems to devalue anything “tangible” (as tangible as anything is in this game, anyhow) you’ve earned over the last couple of years. Even mounts aren’t immune, since there’s no stopping people from getting Ashes of A’lar or whatever spiffy mounts are out there, thereby (in my opinion) devaluing them. I was truly saddened when I had to replace my heroic ICC gear in Cataclysm and am still somewhat miffed that my Reins of the Icebound Frostbrood Vanquisher can be earned by any yahoo who puts in two or maybe three weeks of effort (as opposed to my, oh, six months of effort), but no, I’m not bitter, nope… Okay, where was I? Right. Expansions.

For me, the worst part of a new expansion (aside from needing to relearn everything, of course) is how quickly the previous expansion is washed away. When we got to Northrend, who cared about Outlands? No one, that’s who. We dropped that continent and its endless demons like a hot potato and charged to the frozen depths of Northrend. And when Cataclysm came out, who went BACK to Northrend? Basically no one. Everything from previous expansions just vanishes so quickly when a new expansion comes out and gear is no exception. Not only that, but your gear is generally outdated in an insultingly short period of time. Of course, this makes sense, from a developer’s point of view: you can’t have someone who’s been playing for six years have an in-game advantage over the person who picked up the game three days ago. Gear resets make sense from a design standpoint because it allows new players (or returning players who had previously quit) to jump right in with everyone else in levelling content and early raid content.

It’s still kind of sad to see the gear go by the wayside. Maybe I’m just sentimental like that, though.

I was reading about the 5.4 upcoming feature, the Proving Grounds. It sounds great, to be honest. I love the idea of being able to test my skills, solo. And hopefully people will view it as a learning opportunity, too. Maybe now PUG tanks won’t be morons! Maybe PUG DPS won’t stand in bad! Maybe PUG healers will understand what COOLDOWNS are!

(Somehow, I remain pessimistic about the reality of the situation, but the possibility of those things will exist, at least, thanks to Proving Grounds… maybe.)

However, one of the phrases in the Blizzard post about it caught my eye.

“Upon entering the Proving Grounds, your gear will be scaled down much like it is in Challenge Modes.”

For some reason, reading this phrase just solidified a thought I’d had for months, maybe even a year. At some point, around last summer, something about the “scaling down” system they’d talked about for Challenge Modes bugged me. It irked me. When I thought about it, I couldn’t put my finger on why it bothered me. I couldn’t understand why I was moderately frowny about “upgrading” items via Valor Points. But now? Now, I GET IT. I understand why this bothers me! And, lucky you, I am going to share my thought with you.

My thought is this: Gear pretty much no longer matters in the game.

Blizzard has eradicated the need for gear because their “tech” has rendered it useless. I’ve seen this happen before, mind you. On various PTRs testing heroic modes, you would often get a shirt to wear that would augment your current gear by X amount, allowing you to participate in and test the heroic encounters.

I remember it striking me as odd, at the time, that they could just give us a shirt that augmented everything by a certain percent or amount and bam, even while wearing our same gear, we were suddenly that much more powerful. But I never really thought too much about it. Suddenly, over the last couple of days, my thoughts have finally gathered together and it’s made me realize that Blizzard has done so much with its “tech” that gear has lost meaning.

More than any expansion has ever done, Blizzard has made gear not matter. That’s not to say that you can expect to go to a heroic raid in the Twill set, mind you (although that would be hilarious), but in Challenge Modes, as long as you’re ilvl 463 or higher, you’ll be scaled down. I’m unsure about Proving Grounds ilvls, but you’ll similarly be scaled down, so people are on even ground with each other, much as they are with Challenge Modes.

But gear isn’t obsolete, Kurn, geez! you may say, scoffing at my thought.

True. But I didn’t say it was obsolete. I said it doesn’t matter. There’s a slight difference. The major difference, to me, is that Blizzard’s scaling “tech” has made obtaining better gear (for Challenge Modes and Proving Grounds) mostly worthless. In the same, upcoming patch, WoW players will also see Flex Raids, which will allow a raid to form for a group that is sized anywhere between 10 and 25 people and the raid will dynamically shift difficulties. They’ll also likely see Virtual Realms, grouping low-population realms together to act as though they’re all on one larger server. The “tech” they keep coming up with is changing things so that some core distinctions are being thrown out the window. This whole “upgrading” items? What is up with that? I first looked at it as another way to enhance items, like gems or enchants, but it still didn’t sit well with me. (As an aside, it’s suddenly clear to me why I never really liked reforging.)

Now, despite all this, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing (shockingly. Are you surprised?), just that it’s a significant departure from where WoW began.

Gear is always on everyone’s mind, regardless of what activity they enjoy pursuing in the game, basically. I loved getting new gear, but I didn’t raid for gear. I recognized that my raid group’s gear was how my raid group would advance, so I took my own upgrades (or lack thereof) in stride. Still, to this day, I remember that Halion never dropped his boots for me, that Heroic Saurfang never dropped that mail (!) belt for me, that I didn’t get EITHER Vashj’s OR Illidan’s maces… Gear should matter, even if it’s not the major reason we play. It’s the main way in which players interact with their opponents in WoW, so of course players want to improve themselves. By the end of Wrath of the Lich King, my brother (Fog), Majik and I could clear Heroic Gundrak (with the extra boss) in something like 11 minutes, on non-raiding alts, with Maj tanking, me healing and my brother DPSing, even if the other two DPS did less damage than I did as a resto druid. That’s a huge improvement on the time it used to take players, in crappy level 80 blues, when Wrath began. Gear made the difference, even if it was from ilvl 178/200 to ilvl 232/245.

All this “tinkering” with items and gear, well, it feels to me as though Blizzard has pulled the curtain aside by demonstrating that they can adjust item levels so easily, so arbitrarily. It’s as though I was in awe of the Wizard of Oz and then the curtain got pulled aside and there was the Wizard, just this old guy working smoke and fire machines with a microphone. The magic was gone.

WoW has always been a math-based game, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this has finally happened, but some of the allure of new gear was knowing that it would make a difference in what choices you made with your gear. And now… there are circumstances where new gear isn’t really going to make much of (if any) a difference.

Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For one, Challenge Modes and Proving Grounds are both skill-based challenges. It’s about how well you play as a player, not what kind of gear you got while some guild you paid carried you. It’s about knowing your class abilities, even the ones you rarely use. It’s about knowing what each different talent does and figuring out which would work best in those circumstances. (And I say all this without having DONE either Challenge Modes or Proving Grounds, so you can take that with a grain of salt, since I know people buy gold runs and such.) Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of rewarding skill versus luck.

I just find it a bit of a shame that Blizzard’s “tech” has enabled them to show us exactly how meaningless gear is. To me, it reinforces the utter futility in caring about gear so much, except we’re not just being shown that at the start of an expansion or on a PTR — we’re being shown that constantly throughout this expansion. When I was actively playing, I cared about my job in the game, not my gear, except as to how my gear would help with my job. (Stupid Halion boots. Grump.) But now that it’s just so easy for Blizzard to arbitrarily scale gear, raid difficulty and even actual realms… doesn’t it seem as though we’ve gone through the looking glass? I feel as though I can now see, with clearer eyes, the sheer pointlessness of the gearing aspect of the game. Raiders gear up for heroic dungeons as they level up. They ding max level and then start gearing out of heroics for raids, supplemented by crafted and rep gear. Then they gear up for heroic raids through a combination of LFR and normal raids. Then the raiding gear-up happens all over again for the next tier. And the next. And then, it really doesn’t matter because it’s the last raid patch of the expansion and in like, two months, all that gear you’re working for is just going to be worthless anyway.

If something as basic and integrated as gear can be arbitrarily changed in the blink of an eye, if something as solid as a raid’s difficulty can be dynamically adjusted based on the number of people in the zone or raid, if a realm can suddenly be grouped with other realms to the point of removing pretty much any distinguishing details between them aside from a name… is there nothing untouchable any longer? I guess I’m just wondering if the malleability of the game has gone a touch too far. If a piece of gear isn’t unchangeable at its core, isn’t as solid as something can be in this game, is there anything that is?

As my final word on the matter: Yes, I know, enchants, sockets, gems, reforging, upgrading and scaling are all different points on the same continuum. I realize that everyone’s limits will be different. Personally, I think my limit is up there after gems and before reforging, because I think as soon as you make things TOO malleable, you lose something in the process. My two cents. :)

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6 comments

  1. You say:

    My thought is this: Gear pretty much no longer matters in the game.

    I say:

    I think it might be an idea if everyone started on the same field. I think making skill and ability core values is a worthwhile concept, as making community and civility defaults in game-play. If the only reward was achievement, where would that put those who believe gear is the goal?

    You know, this could just be the shot in the arm the game needs. It’s going to die eventually. Why not go out on a moral high? :p

  2. Ophelie says:

    When it comes to heroic raiding, I don’t feel like gear matters any less than it ever did (except for perhaps Vanilla where you had, like, 3 drops for 40 people). If you saw how long my guild’s first Heroic Horridon took, and how it self-nerfed as we got gear… It still makes a difference.

    Upgrading items is just a way to force raiders to do stuff that gives VP. It can be kind of fun though. I enjoy mapping out the order in which to upgrade my gear.

    Perhaps it’s because I didn’t raid in Vanilla, but I don’t understand why so many people see gear as a reward and end goal. Gear is just a tool. Killing bosses is the end goal. Satisfying raids is an end goal. Gear just makes those goals easier.

    It’s true that there are a lot more facets of the game that are not-gear based, but they’re totally separate entities from the competitive pve and pvp aspects of the game.

    As for swapping gear every tier – of course we do that. It would get stale otherwise. It’s like how people change their car or their computer every few years. It’s never so much about the item, but about the thrill of getting something new and shiny.

  3. Aramis says:

    I understand your frustration, but the gear turnaround happens because each patch, each expansion is pretty much an entirely new game. Just enjoy that while others are going BACK to get what they missed when it was current, you’re moving forward.

    What difference does it make if someone else has what you worked hard for even though they got it months after the fact? You still got it didn’t you? You still felt happy when you got what you worked hard for?

    Why does someone else’s gameplay affect your enjoyment of the game?

    Even in a social game as an MMO is, there are still personal feelings of reward, and they need to remain just that, PERSONAL. Don’t make them about what someone else has.

    As for the constant gear cycle, that is just one cog in a PERPETUAL online game that is periodically adding new content. Things like transmog were implemented (with minimal restrictions…minimal, not “none) to give players a reason to hold on to something they earned. Yes, others can quickly grab them once that content becomes obsolete, but now when you get something, you don’t have to cry when it gets replaced. You can store it and change what you replace it with as you please.

    In the end, the game and its enjoyment factor are all on your own perspective. If you play the game for you and not based on what others do or think, I think these frustrations you’ve thoughtfully written would be less apparent.

    Happy Gaming!

    Aramis

  4. Kurn says:

    The Godmother – Gear exists as a tool, through which the players interact with the world. From Level 1, you’re asked to kill things in the game and things get substantially easier to kill the more gear you have. I think that if there wasn’t the possibility of getting better gear, people would quit in disgust when seeing how — in the SAME GEAR as them — guilds like Method and Blood Legion would defeat heroic instances while others struggle to clear normals. I would LOVE for skill and ability and community and civility to all be core values in World of Warcraft. That would actually entice me to come back. Sadly, I’m pretty sure WoW won’t go out on a “moral high”, but that could just be the erosion of my trust through Cata that’s speaking. ;)

    Ophelie – Oh, I completely agree that, at high-end raiding levels, gear still makes a difference. I remember how tight the timer was for my guild’s first Ultraxion kill in Cata and I remember how laughable the fight was just a few weeks later. What I’m saying is that Blizzard is able to arbitrarily change your gear based on what you’re doing, in order to “scale down” or, in PTRs, “scale up”. This, to me, shows how futile it is to really care about getting gear itself, at all levels of the game. If gear isn’t more or less static in its base stats, if it can be changed via reforging, via VP upgrades, via scaling down… does it really matter as an “item” any longer? It’s more of a philosophical question about the malleability of gear (and the game in general) than a statement saying anything about raiding and the gear raiders use. Gear is a tool, I completely agree.

    As to changing gear each tier, yes, it’s satisfying to get something new, but given the ability to change what are supposed to be “static” stats on various items, why bother getting anything new? Art costs money and time, so why not just do VP-earning activities to earn more upgrades? Extra/super/special upgrades? I’m not saying that’ll ever happen, but the flexibility of stats on various items means it COULD, theoretically, happen. Again, I doubt it will and that’s not even really my point, but it’s really a question of… I want this shield. It is a shiny, pretty shield with awesome stats. But *that* shield no longer really exists if you upgrade it. The ilvl changes. The stats change. Even reforging changes the item significantly. THAT SHIELD turns into ten different permutations of THAT SHIELD once you take into consideration all the upgrades and reforge options, never you mind the gemming and enchanting options. It’s like… if gear isn’t consistent, from moment to moment, from patch to patch… then gear can’t really matter, in a general sense, can it? In specific examples, yes, absolutely. But if all you really need to do to improve your character by 10% is to put on a magic shirt on the PTRs, or decrease your stats to ilvl 463 level, just step into a challenge mode, then your gear is as flexible as Blizzard wants it to be at any given time.

    I think I rambled. Sorry. :)

    Aramis – First, thanks for the comment. :) Second, I feel that you may be confusing my post with frustration when it’s really just an examination of an interesting thought I had. I no longer play the game, as I mentioned in the post (and have mentioned in several places on this very blog).

    Third, you ask why my personal feeling of reward about getting, I presume, my ICC 25m drake, is affected by someone else’s getting it months or years after the fact. It largely has to do with the fact that the content is trivial at the moment compared to when I did it. These mounts, titles, etc, are (in my opinion) supposed to be rewards for achieving difficult in-game tasks. Heroic 25m Putricide? Not easy. Heroic 25m Sindragosa? Quite difficult. Why should someone who is 10 levels higher than I was when I did the content able to do the same thing I did more than three years ago and get the SAME reward? To me, that’s devaluing the reward I got because the difficulty level is INSANELY different. It’s almost on par with how it took 40 people to kill Ragnaros in Molten Core and now you can solo him. That’s how big a difference it is. The devs even realize that, by nerfing 100% drop rates of dropped mounts in various instances. They realized it by no longer making Glory of the Raider mounts achievable, by no longer making the Amani War Bear attainable, by no longer allowing people to be a Hand of A’dal or Champion of the Naaru… And yet they allowed a whole lot of stuff past 3.1 to still be attainable even today. Consistency would be nice.

    Similar to our decision to remove the Amani War Bear from Zul’Aman, the goal is to ensure that such mounts retain a degree of rarity in the game; and with raids progressing into Ulduar in patch 3.1, we feel obtaining the rewards for “Glory of the Raider” and “Heroic: Glory of the Raider” would be somewhat trivialized.

    That’s a blue post from 2009, so my desire for my achievements to maintain that degree of rarity comes from Blizzard. If they didn’t have limits on things like those I mentioned before, I would probably be less grumpy about such things. ;)

    You also say that if I play the game for me and not based on what others do or think, perhaps these “frustrations” would be less apparent. Well, as I’ve mentioned, I no longer even play the game. I always played with a team of other individuals but, frankly, if you were to spend a few minutes reading my archives here, you’d see I rarely care what others thought of me or of what I’m doing. I’ve been loud and outspoken about this game, uh, pretty much forever. ;) And, again, my frustrations, as you term my musings, are less frustrations than explorations in thought.

    Thanks for your comment. :)

  5. Verbosity says:

    More often than not, I find myself nodding my head in agreement with your posts, but not as much here. Well, I agree with a lot of it, but not the key point: I think the gear compression tech is a good thing and should be used more.

    In fact, I think Heroic raids should be gear capped and compressed. This could do a few things:

    1) It evens out the competitiveness of progression. Gear isn’t usually a make or break for progression but it can be (particularly in 10 man where RNG can be a very punishing mistress) if RNG is wildly favorable or unfavorable (in both raid sizes).

    2) Will make encounter tuning easier since performance floors and ceilings won’t be as dramatic. In Throne of Thunder, the gear disparity is HUGE. The base gear, LFR, is ilvl 502. Heroic Thunderforged gear, when upgraded, is ilvl 549. Check out: http://www.wowhead.com/item=95025

    +1763 Strength
    +3005 Stamina
    +1236 Parry (1.40% @ L90)
    +1182 Mastery (1.97 @ L90)

    Vs: http://www.wowhead.com/item=95753

    +1134 Strength
    +1941 Stamina
    +761 Dodge (0.86% @ L90)
    +796 Parry (0.90% @ L90)

    This difference is astronomical, and is all in one tier. One could argue this points to a different problem entirely, and I would agree, but consider the context of my first point. That said, DPS is scaling hard, healer regen is becoming a brick wall and player health pools are getting close to doubling from early t14 to late t15 (not just tanks). This can’t make raid balance easy. In fact, I stepped into Heroic Lei Shen progression late from some guild bouncing, and being 15-20 average ilvls behind put me in a situation where I needed to flask for stamina as a healer to more reliably survive mechanics other people survived without issue. This secured our kill, actually.

    3) Can make rewards and incentives more cool. There are a LOT of good, potential, long lasting rewards now: Battle pets, transmogrification gear, mounts, just as the obvious examples. Even if they simply did a wider variety of color skins for the same mount, if they only allow the red version to be captured from Heroic Ra-den, it will maintain a certain level of prestige, though it will become more and more accessible over time. See next point though.

    4) With gear compression, we could do level compression too so that every time you go into Heroic Throne of Thunder, no matter at what level or what expansion, you do so with a compressed item level of 522 at level 90. Granted, future spell and talent changes may make the content more or less difficult, but it is unlikely to completely trivialize the content so much that in patch 8.2 people are soloing it at level 105. It keeps the rewards relevant and breathes life into old content, assuming the rewards are cool enough to keep people going in there. With cross-realm tech, it is a lot easier to secure groups for this sort of thing.

    I think raids should still drop gear, but I have no problem with gear acquisition being de-prioritized for superior game play and more even competition and rewards that might have better longevity. There was a lot of QQ in PvP when they compressed the max ilvl but I think that speaks too much about player motivation, and that’s a problem Blizzard needs to be more intelligent in addressing.

  6. [...] a fascinating phenomenon, mainly because it kinda goes over my practical, practical head. Kurn also recently wrote about how loot has lost its value (and when someone who doesn’t even play the game is writing long dissertations on a topic, [...]

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