Gearing, as one component of a PVE environment, has come a long way since WoW’s inception, tracing a path through different sizes of raid content, varying levels of difficulty, and a host of distinct distribution systems, from pure RNG to effort points. As a system, gearing is inherently tied to the progression of the WoW PVE endgame, with stat inflation progressively and continually narrowing the margin between those dps and hps thresholds set by the encounter and those that are achievable by your raid team.
Amazingly, when I started writing this post over a month ago, it wasn’t something that was instigated by any sort of shocking realization about gear and its relationship to progression or an overwhelming urge to go on a pompous tirade, but rather I was trying to design a graphic for a post I was writing on how to take your baby Resto Shaman from newly-85 to DS-ready raider in the shortest time possible. That graphic looked a little something like this:
And during the process of making the graphic, (in which I remade those arrows at least 8 times and I still hate them), I realized just how much was being excluded in the path that I had illustrated to Dragon Soul. Great encounters, great environments, great challenges, were sitting barren and desolate as players chose to farm 3 instances and one raid in Dragonblight instead. So I started thinking … what happened? How did we go from a landscape where guilds straddled multiple instances and tiers into today’s current state, which has raiders packed like clowns into one tiny little car? Today we’re here to talk about some of those solutions that I jotted down in my little spiral notebook, about some of the illustrations that I scribbled on paper during meetings, and about how I think progression and gearing paths in the PVE endgame can be changed for the better. Today, we’re about solutions.
Recap: The Problem Set
In Part I of this post I talked heavily about the evolution of the PVE gearing system, from Burning Crusade through Patch 4.3 in Cataclysm. I identified several hurdles that any end-game gearing system needs to address, topics which have been discussed previously in a variety of posts both from Blizzard and the WoW community, namely:
- Providing viable progression paths for all players, including not only difficulty tuning but also length of time investment (this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that super-long instances exclude more casual players, a sentiment discussed in this blue response to a thread about Ulduar)
- Encouraging players to sustain their end-game efforts (so that WoW’s endgame doesn’t end up like SW:ToR)
- Providing viable content for all levels of enthusiasts, from the high-end progression devotees to those who might have only a few hours a week to spare (Rohan touched on this in his post about why listening to hardcore raiders isn’t always the wisest option … bonus points to the first comment on the post from Kalon talking about BC nerfs coming in the form of gear!)
One of the key changes to the PVE gearing model that I talked about at length, and which seemed to be a fairly divisive topic (including in the discussions on the WoW forums—yes, I read those with a keen eye), was the increasing incorporation of “catch up” methods of gearing, which largely enable players to collect gear that will boost them into raiding new content. The trade-off, however, is that in comparison to raiding experiences like the end of Burning Crusade, when players were in multiple tiers of instances (with no difficulty gradation), players in Cataclysm may finish the expansion without ever having set foot in a raid other than Dragon Soul.
Ideas, I Has Some
So let’s get into the heart of this post—what changes I think would help the raiding game. As I said in Part I, I firmly believe that pushing people through the progression model, snowplowing players from one tier to the next such that they’re never encouraged to return to “old” instances, actually undermines the sustainability and appeal of end game PVE content. Not only does it shorten the lifespan of instances, which should be important from a development standpoint because of the incredible amount of time that goes into designing the bloody things, but I think it could be argued that it contributes to higher turnover because of the more compartmentalized experience.
Thus, the first thing that I’d advocate is a return to a more integrated tier process, one that encourages concurrent farming through both boss difficulty and ilvl. In addition to providing more frequent changes in environment, which I’d argue actually helps players enjoy a tier a little bit more because they’re not spending 8 straight months in the same bright red molten themepark, concurrent farming lets guilds choose the content that’s right for them. In conjunction with smaller instances (think 3-4 bosses, instead of 7+), it allows for greater variation of difficulty between the encounters as well as simply more to choose from.
The second thing I’d advocate is a repositioning of “catch-up” instances within the progression path to somewhere beneath the ilvl of the normal modes in the previous tier. As Zarhym mentioned in a post regarding the integration of Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub into the Cataclysm progression path, retaining 5-mans as part of PVE progression allows players to advance their character outside of a raid setting. But with the presumable extension of LFR into all tiers of raiding content, the need for 5-mans to provide such a jump in ilvl and experience simply isn’t there.
This ties into my third suggestion for end-game PVE progression, which is to make LFR approximately equal in ilvl to NM loot from the previous tier. When combined with catch-up instances, this supplementation of gear would provide players with a way to get their toes into the current instance (via LFR) but also enable them to make the transition into progression guilds appropriate for their level of play. One downside to this sort of positioning is that it would mean that a player would go from say, LFR in Tier 3 to the end of normal mode content in Tier 2, as a progression and gear path, which I agree, could be slightly odd.
Because a picture is much easier to understand, here’s the progression path of Cataclysm as it was put into place:
And here’s what I’m proposing:
Now, what you’ll note in the above is that there are four player progression archetypes illustrated: the fancy-pants world first player, the top 1000 player, the top 20,000 player, and the new subscriber who comes into PVE content late in the expansion. The “typical” progression path is illustrated (and generalized) for each, with the blue, green, and orange columns representing the release of the various tiers of content. The boxes in each tier represent the content to be conquered, with the box color designating in what tier the player killed that particular level of content (an orange box in a green column, thus, represents a kill of second tier content in the third tier).
Of particular note is that:
- Both NM and HM have two levels of gear (much in the same way that the two Deathwing encounters in DS drop slightly better loot than the other 6 bosses).
- “Catch up” instances and LFR remain, but at most bring you up to the starting NM ilvl of the previous tier. This is important because it eliminates LFR as a place to farm new gear.
- Content is designed to be raided concurrently, so ilvl and boss difficulties overlap.
- And lastly, the players who get the least out of this new model are not the players who come in late, or even the casual raiders—but rather the players who are the top 1% of the raiding scene.
Yes, I realize that last one is a bit of a departure, but let me tell you why I think it’s so important. At present, the most publicized part of the raiding game doesn’t have to do with the thousands of kills made by the diligent guilds out there, but rather with the progress of the top 10 or so guilds at the head of the progression race. These are the guys who raid on Christmas Day, the ones who are concerned only with the Race to World First. These are not players concerned with concurrent raiding because their goal is to finish content as fast as possible. So, including them in the audience for normal mode encounters is essentially including outliers in your data set—the result is going to be highly skewed and need significant adjustment later. (Ahem, Firelands HM nerfs).
So, excluding those folks from normal modes and getting them into that prized “un-nerfed content” allows normal modes to be tailored to the raiders more in the middle of the pack. Combine this stratification of content with multi-dimensional fights (think: Sarth 3D, 3-tree Freya) and you have the potential for a much greater diversity and depth of content that will appeal to a broader expanse of players. In other words: there’s more choice of stuff to do. I think this is why Ulduar is so prized in many player’s minds (or maybe just in mine)—because there was so much to do. Between tiered boss difficulties, achievements, meta achievements, immortal achievements and hard modes, content felt a little more broken up and a lot more varied.
In terms of the impact to the gearing path, the proposed model, by placing LFR beneath the ilvl of the NM content of the previous tier, significantly discourages guilds from using the system as a means of mitigating the RNG of drops. When combined with a lockout system that allows you to be eligible for loot from a boss only once the entire week, from LFR, NM or HM, there’s no reason for any guild or player to feel forced (or be allowed) to farm LFR for a gear advantage. In addition, the shift in positioning means that the larger majority of players are assured both lateral and progressive gearing options.
It’s important to note that the success of the concurrent raiding model is contingent upon one key idea—that a player can “finish” content in any difficulty level of that tier, whether it’s LFR, NM, or HM. If we’re truly looking at PVE progression as a model that functions based on “fit”, then it’s critical that players and Blizzard acknowledge that not everyone will make it into hard modes. And I’m not saying that from an elitist perspective but rather a realist one. Like the forward, back and intermediary tees that punctuate every golf course, the raiding game is not a case where one size fits all. If nothing else, the deconstruction of the raiding game into hard modes and normal modes, and now LFR, and into 10’s and 25’s, and according to Blues, 5’s as well, means that progression is more about finding the best way to complete the course than to follow the route that everyone else must take. (An elitist asshat arguing for choose-your-own-adventure style raiding? … WHU? Hell must have frozen over …)
Ultimately, I think we need to start treating LFR, NM and HM as intertwined paths instead of one linear experience. We need to expect that we can catch up gear as late-comers but know that there’s a world outside of heroic farming that will prove much more rewarding. We need to feel satisfied that we can see the end boss of an expansion, but not feel entitled to the kill. And we need to feel like what we’re doing as raiders fits our raid level, skill and time commitment, and that the rewards are appropriate for it. Like any evolving MMO, WoW has the opportunity to capitalize on both its failures and successes and use them to further develop content and reward systems that appeal to a broad swath of players. We’ve seen glimpses of these lessons learned in the Mists of Pandaria preview, and I can only hope there are more to come as we get ready to climb those Penrose stairs once again.