This is the third of my WoW game design posts, a series about my take on World of Warcraft’s overall gameplay and visual design in many areas with an eventual focus on Shaman and Enhancement specifically. Mists of Pandaria, like each expansion so far, has introduced new things and done some things right, but there are always improvements to be made.
Character Power and Item Levels
Item level is the most basic measurement of character power in WoW, and it’s one we’ve seen more and more of as time has passed. Initially, item levels were hidden, though some websites and addons exposed them. They became visible for all to see not long after the release of the Dungeon Finder in response to players being unsure of when they were eligible to enter the Icecrown heroic dungeons. Since then, item level jumps from gear upgrades have kept increasing. The spread from heroic dungeon gear to best-in-slot gear in tier 11 was 26 item levels. The spread in tier 14 was 46 item levels. With the addition of Flexible Raids, the item level spread in tier 17 is likely to be at least 52 … probably more. Add in Valor Points upgrading and it’s even greater – we’re looking at a spread of 54 to 60 item levels in a single content patch.
What are the reasons for such a wide gap, and what’s good about it?
- As player numbers continue to grow, increases in performance become less and less noticeable, even if it’s the same percentage increase. Going from 132 damage to 158 damage is a clear and obvious increase to anyone at all at first glance, because the numbers are small and easy to visually digest. Going from 14225 to 17070 doesn’t seem quite as impressive despite being the same ratio. Going from 215279209214 to 258335051057? Most minds can’t really even process those numbers quickly enough for the 20% increase to have the same visceral satisfaction as going from 132 to 158 did, and therefore, the numbers need to be a bigger jump for a players’ mind to be able to recognize an improvement immediately.
- A common, frequent complaint from raiders throughout Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm was that nerfs to raid encounters came too early or too soon, and said nerfs diminished the accomplishments of those who did things pre-nerf, while removing the ability for others to ever accomplish the same feat. This was the original logic behind the Cutting Edge achievements – completing raid encounters in their un-nerfed state. Having large item level jumps and rapid character power advancement, however, accomplished the same thing as nerfing the content directly did without doing so… allowing a wider spectrum of players to complete content over time. It’s basically a sneakier way of nerfing content. You don’t see anyone complaining about it anymore, do you?
What are the negative side effects of huge item level increases?
- Huge item level and power gaps between a fresh 90 and fully heroic raid geared players basically shift your character’s power away from skill and toward that number on your character sheet. This has been most obvious in the PvP game, as numerous changes have been made to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, such as the removal of Resilience, the PvP item level cap, and the removal of the “elite” tier of PvP gear. It has the same set of problems in PvE, but they aren’t as obvious as PvE isn’t nearly as competitive. When looking to recruit for a raid group, item level disparities severely limit your options. A group working on heroic raiding content with a raid-wide average item level of 535 has literally no use for someone at the 500 mark. A person that far behind flat out cannot contribute to your group in a meaningful way, because those 35 item levels represent a 50-60% throughput and survivability boost that cannot be ignored or made up for with skill. This means that a guild who wants to give such a player a try needs to spend a great deal of time gearing that player up. This isn’t unreasonably difficult to do in the 25 player setting, but in 10s, such a recruit could set your group back several weeks… even if it’s a really great player.
- With Item Level providing such an absurd character power boost, many players are subject to a great deal of social pressure to do everything they can to improve their character, rather than just playing when they want to for enjoyment. Many players can’t “just raid” because doing so is affecting the progress of those you raid with. The power conveyed by Valor Points and even Greater Charms/Mogu Runes may not be anyone’s primary way of improving character power, but it isn’t negligible either. With player throughput being the primary driving force for success in all raid encounters (excluding LFR), not capping VP, farming necessary reputation, runes, and LFR (if there are upgrades to be had there for you) really is having a tangible impact on the players you raid with. Yes, skill matters… but for the vast majority of players and groups out there, the power conveyed by 5 item levels will take less effort than gaining 5 item levels’ worth of power through improving your skill level. The balance is simply way too far in the gear direction.
Above are the results of a pair of Patchwerk simulations, one of an Enhancement Shaman at 463 item level, and one of myself at a 545 item level. That’s a 200% DPS increase over 82 item levels, or a 2.44% increase per level (please note that this does not mean a single item level will grant you a 2.44% DPS increase, but rather a smaller amount, roughly 1.4%, that compounds each level). These simulations, however, use time in combat instead of target health, so both simulations were averaged at 7 minutes and 30 seconds long. If you’re looking for a power increase against a specific target – Tortos for example – your DPS gained from these 82 item levels would work out to be substantially more than 200%, as cooldown, potion, and Heroism/Bloodlust uptime generally increase dramatically as a target dies faster and faster. At the one minute mark of a Patchwerk-style fight, I’m often seen above the 400,000 DPS mark.
My opinion is that huge item level jumps and character power gaps are more harmful than good. The reason they exist is understandable, but the side effects just aren’t worth it. It may, however, not be possible to go back to a Classic or Burning Crusade power increase model without a severe item level squish, or some other way of making all the numbers in the game a lot more readable. I do feel that nerfs to content are preferable over large character power increases, as bringing players, groups, communities together is what makes WoW successful. We’re too defined by that silly number on our character sheet though, keeping many of us from feeling like we belong with each other. I want to feel like I can hang with my friends’ mains if I play my alt really well, and vice versa. This just isn’t possible right now.
What kinds of solutions are there? Well, step one might be to simply not have entire sets of gear in each new raid zone, leaving a few pieces out here or there. You certainly didn’t fill all 16 gear slots in Molten Core alone back in Vanilla. You probably didn’t do it in Karazhan, either. Certainly not Serpentshrine Cavern. Quite often, old set bonuses, trinkets, rings etc. would be useful for a long time after you picked them up, which served to give players a wider spectrum of things to do, and made your journeys through earlier content feel like it meant something later on, while providing newer players with gearing options if they started out later on. Nobody wants to go after gear they know they’ll easily replace, which is why so many players are asking for an easy catch-up mechanism now… they want to get to the stuff they won’t replace right away. If a few of those Heart of Fear drops still mattered, though, things might look a little different. Anyone remember Ritssyn’s Lost Pendant, or Hand of Justice?
An item level squish bringing the numbers players see back down to an easily read-able level, or a way to make changes in the larger numbers have the same visceral feeling that they did in Classic by improving their read-ability is also necessary for something like this to ever happen.
What are your thoughts? Do the advantages of huge character power gains outweigh the disadvantages?