Whenever I think about the process of gearing in WoW, I invariably picture MC Escher’s famous print, “Ascending and Descending”. Although more people might be familiar with the movie Inception’s depiction of the Penrose Stairs, the visual is still a keen one—a never-ending loop of stairs which you can ascend ceaselessly and still never progress past a point where you already had been. To me, the endgame gearing process is very much like that continuous loop of stairs. Your Best-in-Slot from the previous tier, that you spent weeks or months farming, is outdated and insufficient the moment new content is released. And no matter the gear thresholds that you surpass, you will never have gear that is truly irreplaceable.
How you regard this process (consciously or subconsciously) contributes to how you experience endgame content. There is the hardcore group, WoW’s “elite”, who are the kind of people who sprint up the staircase, concerned only with reaching the top and staying there. Other players prefer to climb the stairs at their own pace, progressing through content at a brisk but not entirely aggressive rate. Maybe they finish content before the next patch and maybe they don’t; their own values will dictate which it is. While others, through personal preference or simply because they got a late start, lag behind the group, but still play within the same gearing model.
But the gearing model in which these three player types operate is not a linear game—it is punctuated by platforms, the gearing thresholds that both set the bar and give you a moment to rest before you push on further. Some gear thresholds are visibly set by the game, such as the average ilvl rating for Cataclysm heroic dungeons or LFR, while other gear thresholds are a little less obvious, such as the gear needed to beat HM Ultraxion’s enrage timer or the amount of resilience you need to stand a chance against last season’s super-Gladiator. In the PVE game, gear thresholds serve as gates to progression, and the previous tiers’ farming efforts are, essentially, the attempt to surpass the current tier’s gear thresholds.
In this way, the gearing process and raid difficulties are intertwined, because as players get more gear, the perceived/actual difficulty of raid encounters diminishes. So it follows that the distribution of gear is one of the most influential factors in the progress of the PVE game, the valve that controls not only the quantity but also the distribution of players in the raid content. As the first part of a two-part post addressing PVE gearing and raid difficulty, I first want to talk about how the evolution of endgame gearing and highlight some of the major issues/trends that cropped up during Cataclysm.
The Challenges Inherent in Endgame Gearing
Although PVP and PVE endgame are entirely different beasts, they do share some similarities in that they both need to address fundamental design challenges in endgame (so that people don’t get bored and wander off after two months). For example, they have to provide viable progression paths for all players, from the realm-first raider to the new subscriber who gets into BG’s in the final season of an expansion. And, both types of endgame need to satisfy a range of time commitments, from the 12-hour per day player, to the 4-hours per week player. Finally, and most importantly, both systems have to encourage players to continue their endgame endeavours—PVE does this through new tiers, PVP does this through new seasons. But both do it through the gearing process as well, the unspoken promise that if you invest the time now, you’ll have an advantage later on, that the stat upgrade from T12 to T13 is really worth the time it takes to get it.
But the two endgame models don’t share everything, especially when it comes to how they distribute that gear to the playerbase. Unlike gearing for PVP, which is limited to a fixed two-tiered system (three, if you count crafted blue starter gear), PVE gearing is a more complex model. While PVP gearing is effort-based—in battlegrounds you even earn points where you fail to complete the basic objective, although the same can’t be said of Arenas—the PVE model is a hybrid, a combination of kill-based effort points and pure RNG. In addition, while PVP rewards are divorced from the way in which you earn them (eg: you played relatively the same BG’s to earn a Season 3 chest as you did to earn a Season 10 chest), PVE rewards are inherently tied to their source in ways beyond simple aesthetics. A new tier equates to new battles and a new locale. Further, while the challenge and variation of PVP is provided by other players, the challenge and variation of PVE is provided by different instances. Just imagine if every single Cata instance was released at the start of the expansion and only the loot tables were updated every patch—wouldn’t be much fun, would it?
Obviously, and as with everything on LiG5, I’m going to stick to talking about the PVE gearing model in this post, because it’s one that I have a massive amount of experience working with. But, it’s also one that I think has undergone a fundamental shift as of late, one that I’m hoping to convince you needs changing.
The Burning Crusade / Wrath Gearing Model
A good number of people lately have, in rose-tinted hindsight, been tossing around the idea of Burning Crusade as the “Golden Era” of raiding in WoW. Consistently cited in support of this argument is the premise that in BC, players raided multiple tiers/instances concurrently—something you don’t see as often in today’s raiding scene. In BC, guilds worked on the starting bosses Mount Hyjal and Black Temple while also continuing their efforts on Kael’thas in Tempest Keep and Lady Vashj in Serpentshrine Cavern (in part due to the revolving door that was raid attunement). Likewise, those guilds working on Sunwell also made time in their raid schedules for repeat kills of select BT bosses and … *shudder* … Archimonde. And, almost every guild out there will attest to running Gruul’s Lair every week for the insanely low drop-rate, but enduringly awesome Dragonspine Trophy.
In regards to the smaller raids that punctuated the BC raiding scene, Kara runs were an easy way to gear up alts (and enjoy late-night drunken/silly antics with your guildmates) but also a regular staple for those wanting to farm a few Badges of Justice post-2.3. When ZA was released mid-expansion, less progressed guilds swapped it in for their typical Kara runs, while those guilds farming BT made easy work of bear runs and didn’t give a second thought to its loot.
It’s important to note that “badges” and “badge loot” were new concepts in BC. Released with the expansion, badge loot provided an alternate method for acquiring starter raid gear, aside from Exalted faction loot and craftables, via heroic mode dungeons. It was a decided departure from the Vanilla gearing model which was based purely in RNG, even for tier gear. The 2.0.3 badge gear was on par with those items found in Karazhan, which at the time, would have been considered pre-raid gear since 10-mans weren’t really considered raiding at that point. And when the badge gear was updated late in the expansion in Patch 2.3 (which was the point at which Badges of Justice were patched to drop from Kara and ZA), the ilevel of the new badge gear was equivalent to late t5 / early t6 items.
But perhaps the first indicator of the gearing model changes to come was found in Patch 2.4, which marked the release of Sunwell, the Isle of Quel’Danas (and associated dailies) and Magister’s Terrace, a 5-man dungeon. Introduced late-expansion, the normal mode version of Magister’s dropped blue loot, roughly equivalent to Karazhan gear (which was epic). But the heroic mode of Magister’s dropped epics, including weapons and trinkets, which were comparable to early Tier 5 gear. It was the first time that a 5-man instance dropped *only* epics. (BC Heroic mode dungeons had previously only dropped epics on the final heroic mode boss). Whereas previously, your progression path into PVE raiding was
Dungeons –> Heroic Dungeons–> Kara –> Badge Gear –> T5 (SSC/TK) –> T6 (BT/MHJ) –>Sunwell
upon the introduction of Magister’s and updated Badge of Justice items, the gearing path became:
Kara / Magister’s –>Badge Gear / ZA –>T6 (BT/MHJ) –>Sunwell
What this did was provide the BC community with a way to “catch up” to approximate gear level of those players who had been farming SSC and TK for months. Likewise, the influx of gear into the raiding populace effectively closed the gap between the stats players had and the stats that they would need to kill bosses that they had been struggling to kill. It was enabling progression by helping those at the bottom of the pack. More importantly, this late-expansion “catch up” established a precedent for gearing that was perpetuated in the following expansion.
While most players remember the ICC heroics as being gear factories and the path by which you could moderately gear out alts to raid, what players oftentimes forget is that Forge, Pit, and Halls weren’t the only “catch-up” instances in WotLK. When Trial of the Crusader was implemented with Patch 3.2, 9 months after the expansion’s release, it brought with it a mini instance (Trial of the Champion) with the same intent as Magister’s—catching players up who had missed out on PVE content up until that point. Its normal-mode items were roughly equivalent to Naxx 10 gear, while its heroic-mode items were roughly equivalent to Naxx25 end-boss gear / Ulduar 10 gear. (Remember: this was the time when the ilvl of 10-man gear was less than the ilvl of the same boss’s 25-man gear).
But, I think the most important distinction to make here is that this model differed from Magister’s implementation because it was designed to get players into the current tier of content. The Badge of Justice gear released in concurrence with Sunwell was situated such that it provided people a way to get into the previous tier of content. When the Icecrown 5-mans were released, they continued the ToC model, giving players the minimum level of gear that, when combined with badge gear, would enable them to go into ICC10. The new player, outfitted with the 5-man gear, wasn’t quite at the level of someone who had been doing HM 10’s or NM 25’s, but they were close enough to make a jump.
So What Changed with Cataclysm?
Three major things changed with Cataclysm that, I think, had a significant impact on the gearing process, and as a result, on the progression path of raid teams. Yes, I’m going to be talking about LFR here, but let’s get two other major impacts out of the way beforehand.
First, with every tier of content in Cataclysm, we saw the release of ways for the raiding populace to “catch up” their characters’ gear to the current level of content. Tier 12 and Firelands were predicated by the release of Patch 4.1, which launched the newly-revamped versions of Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub. The gear found in these two troll heroics was effectively on par with normal-mode Tier 11 raid gear (ilvl 353 versus 359), a tier which, at the time, constituted current content. The Tier 12 Patch, 4.2, didn’t bring with it any additional instances, but it did introduce the Molten Front, which actually contained gear that was higher ilvl than normal-mode Tier 11 (but below that of Firelands normal modes). Similarly, in Patch 4.3, Tier 13 was accompanied by 3 new heroic mode dungeons complementing the Dragon Soul / Deathwing lore, and providing players with ilvl 378 gear, which was the minimum level of gear needed to start Dragon Soul normal raiding.
So, the Tier 11 gearing path, at the start of Cataclysm, was set up as:
Dungeons –>Heroic Dungeons / Justice –>Tier 11 NM / Valor –> Tier 11 HM
But in patch 4.1 it changed to:
Heroic Dungeons / Justice –>ZA/ZG / Tier 11 NM / Valor –> Tier 11 HM
With patch 4.2 it changed to:
Heroic Dungeons / Justice –> ZA/ZG / Molten Front –> Tier 12 NM / Valor –> Tier 12 HM
And, again, with patch 4.3 it changed to:
Heroic Dungeons/ZA/ZG/Justice –>DS Heroic Dungeons –>LFR –>Tier 13 NM / Valor –>Tier 13 HM
I really want to drive this point home here—with every new tier of content in Cataclysm, raiders were given a way to leapfrog over the previous tier’s content and jump right into the new instance. If you were in a guild that completed normal modes in the previous tier and had spent 5-6 months farming to get NM best-in-slot, your gear would have been equal to the player who came back and spent a week farming the new instance, with the only exception being tier bonuses. Only players who had managed hard mode kills had gear that was a higher ilvl than the subsequent tier’s normal mode loot.
The second thing that changed in Cataclysm raiding was the application, every tier, of a nerf to content difficulty by means other than gear. Different from the buff that was applied in Icecrown (and which is making a resurgence of sorts in Dragon Soul), every tier of raids in Cataclysm saw their bosses nerfed in order to aid progression of guilds who had reached a hurdle of some sort. Tier 11 saw a 25-30% nerf in difficulty upon the launch of Firelands, a change which enabled a number of guilds to push through the final encounters of the instance. Tier 12, however, saw a major nerf applied just 3 months after release, in the form of a 15-25% reduction of HP and/or damage from most bosses. This was, arguably, one of the most aggressive nerfs that the PVE game had seen to date, with possibly the exception of Patch 3.0, which nerfed all BC raid content by an approximate 25- 30% one month before WotLK release. That’s right, the only other nerf of this caliber was ONE MONTH before the level cap was raised from 70 to 80.
The combined impact of these first two changes to the Cataclysm raiding scene resulted in, to give you a good visual here, a snowplow effect. In essence, by providing those guilds struggling to finish content with a substantial buff, Blizzard was pushing players en masse out of “old” content and into the “new” content. Same thing with the “catch up” instances—players were provided with the means to entirely skip over the gear farming that defines the PVE game and bypass the gear thresholds that the farming was intended to address. Remember back in the start of this post where I said that PVE longevity was based on the premise that your investment of farming time would pay off in the next tier? Well “catch up” instances, in their current state, completely undermine that concept because they take that first path I illustrated in BC, which tracked an entire gearing progression from dungeons to T4, then badge gear and ZA, then T5 then T6, then Sunwell, and condense it down to the point where you have players making it from fresh 85 to DS raider in the span of a week. Which brings me to the third major change of Cataclysm—LFR.
Now, I am a fan of LFR, despite the fact that I, like many other progression raiders out there, spent an insane amount of time farming it at the start of this tier. Quite frankly, the accessibility and ease that LFR brings to the raiding game is introducing Dragon Soul to a host of players who would have never ventured past the first couple of bosses in the instance. And to me, that’s amazing because as someone who loves raiding, I want to see other people love it just as much as I do. If the sole goal of LFR was to open the doors to PVE raiding and end game, then the mission is a resounding success.
But, like many of the new systems rolled out during Cataclysm, LFR significantly altered how raiders geared in the last tier of the expansion and, thus, significantly impacted their progression path. All exploits aside, LFR inserted itself into gearing/progression path for all guilds by introducing a gear level that was one step ahead of the normal mode gear in the previous tier. When combined with amazing tier set bonuses, especially those for tanks, which were leagues beyond any stat increase, LFR became the stepping stone so large that it overshadowed the previous tier’s hard modes and became a necessity for HM guilds needing the edge that new gear provided. Add onto this the fact that guilds could control the distribution of LFR loot by queuing as a 25-man group, and the fact that it shared no loot lockouts with normal/heroic modes, and LFR’s gearing impacts made the snowplow effect I talked about above look downright subtle.
The end result of Cataclysm’s efforts is that, at the end of an expansion, your entire raiding community is shoved into one instance with a total of 8 bosses, the Aspects buff ever-pushing them into “harder” content. Not only that, but you’re left with a gearing model that encourages players to abandon their efforts to farm previous tiers with their guilds, and instead zerg gear through LFR when new content is released. Instead of a model that rewards continual and consistent effort, you have one that de-emphasizes commitment and deferred gratification (and devalues guilds in the process). I sincerely hope that I’m not alone in believing that that’s a fairly bleak picture and a far cry from the model that many enjoyed in BC.
What’s the Lesson in This?
So, to cap off the first half of this post … I think we can come out of this gearing restrospective with a couple truisms:
- Players will take the path of least resistance when it comes to gear, and there’s no faulting them for that. If there’s a way to get equivalent ilvl gear without the conditions and commitment of a raid team, players will take it.
- Raid content farming was not as rewarded in Cataclysm as it was in previous expansions.
- Providing players a means to “catch up” will truncate the lifespan of PVE content and likewise discourage concurrent tier raiding (because the new gear will be better than almost all gear from the previous tier).
- The way in which LFR was incorporated into the progression model was problematic because: a) it provided an easy way to get new tier bonuses, b) allowed guilds to mitigate some of the effects of loot RNG, and c) created a new gear threshold that was situated between Tier 12 NM loot and Tier 13 NM loot.
In my mind, these are the core issues that Blizzard should be addressing when it comes to planning the gearing model in Mists. Because although the Blues have stated that they (Blizzard) want to get more people into raid content so that they aren’t designing PVE end-game for 1-2% of the WoW population, the methods that they’ve put in place to enable players to get into raids are actually undermining the longevity of content. Entire raid instances are obsolete when a new patch is released and content which could have been enjoyable and, more importantly, rewarding for those players getting a late start, is cast aside in order to shovel them into the shiny new instance. And while I understand that the spectrum of players in endgame raiding is ever-increasing, I think it’s important to understand that there is value and reward to be had climbing that loop of stairs. And it isn’t found in the loot that you get, but rather the process of getting it.
So what’s to be done? I have some suggestions addressing that very question, so stay tuned for the second half of this discussion: End-Game Gearing, Part II – Devising a New Solution.