Our Item Level Overlord

What are item levels?

Just to be thorough, item levels determine how high the stats and other attributes of an item can be.  A higher item level means more stats.  Nearly everyone who’s played World of Warcraft at max level at some point over the past two years knows what item levels are.  Item levels have been a part of the game since it was released in 2004, and became visible to players in game shortly before the release of Cataclysm in response to the dungeon finder requiring certain gear levels for certain dungeons.  Halls of Reflection required better gear to enter through the dungeon finder than Utgarde Pinnacle, but the gear level required wasn’t transparent at first.  In today’s PvE game, you can’t do anything without being given an item level requirement to enter.

Why are item level requirements necessary?

Heroic dungeons and Raid Finder require specific item levels to be able to enter.  Some of us would be capable of taking on these challenges at much lower gear levels than the dungeon and raid finders ask for, but there are many players who don’t have months or years of max-level experience to draw on and these challenges are appropriate for them at the gear levels required.  Item level requirements are also a form of speed bump – skipping ahead through the game too quickly tends to eventually leave a lot of players with nothing to do, which is what happened through much of Cataclysm.  Skipping most of the journey doesn’t leave much room for a satisfying or rewarding destination, and the fact that many players never got to see tier 11 or Firelands raids because the Hour of Twilight patch made them obsolete and easily skipped is pretty sad.

Character progression

This is the most basic idea that nearly all RPG games revolve around.  The player’s power increasing over time as you accomplish certain tasks shows up in nearly every game released at this point, but in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, a game lives and dies to many people based on their ability to move forward at any given time.  Players quit when they can’t move forward and make progress.  The game loses its appeal when you can’t log in and know you’re moving toward a goal that you’ve set for yourself or the game has set for you.  The ability to make steady forward movement is absolutely vital for all players in all areas of the game, because that’s what the game is.  This is why nerfs to raid bosses happen, this is why the Raid Finder and Dungeon Finders were added, these are put in place to improve players’ ability to engage in the game’s primary feature – character progression.

Progression paths

There are many ways you can move forward through World of Warcraft, acquiring gear through rated PvP, non-rated Battlegrounds, daily quests, dungeons, crafting, Raid Finder raids, and Normal and Heroic organized raids.  There really are a lot of options, many of which did not exist or were much less lucrative at points in the past.  The single most important thing is that there is, within reason, always a way to move forward.  By that I don’t mean it’s necessary to have some way to move forward every minute of every day, but rather over a larger time frame – can I make progress during a play session or three this week?  If yes, the game for you is in a good place.  If no, you’ve either reached the end, or the game’s design needs some improvements going forward.  A game like WoW really should not have an achievable “end” for your average player, and yet specific goals you set for yourself or the game sets for you should be within reach.  I’m sure this is a delicate balance, a significant challenge for the developers to get right.

What’s wrong with the current progression model?

Ultimately, this is the point of my post.  There are very obvious periods where character progression comes much more easily and much more quickly than others, and these periods are, from a lore and a game world immersion standpoint, completely nonsensical – seemingly arbitrarily chosen patch days.  A new content patch comes out and with it comes a flood of available upgrades for nearly everyone.  This is inevitable to some degree, but the ease at which upgrades tend to come and the power increase of them often isn’t even remotely proportional to the effort required to acquire what you’re replacing with them.

I won’t pretend to speak for everyone in my position, but my feeling is that something difficult to acquire should also be difficult to replace.  I worked hard for my current set of gear, why is half of it being replaced in the span of a week?  Gear resets, in my opinion, should be saved for expansions.

The transition from tier 14 to tier 15 looks like this:

Tier 14 Raid Finder – 476-483.
Tier 14 Normal – 489-496.
Tier 14 Heroic – 502-509.

Tier 15 Raid Finder – 502 (+19 item levels)
Tier 15 Normal – 522 (+26 item levels)
Tier 15 Heroic – 535 (+26 item levels)

While VP upgrades and elite Protectors blur things a bit, there are a few things that bother me about this.  The first and foremost is the fact that the new raid finder difficulty provides gear that will be, in many cases, equivalent to heroic raiding gear of the previous tier.  Players who worked hard in coordinated groups for their heroic-tagged gear are going to find upgrades in a setting that isn’t intended or aimed at their level of play.

I find no enjoyment (beyond the first few weeks of an expansion where planning a character progression path and taking part in the leveling and gearing race can be fun, race being the key word) in picking up an upgrade I did not put a lot of effort into acquiring.  There will be no enjoyment whatsoever in that trinket upgrade that is sure to drop when my guild clears normal modes on week one of the patch.  I feel like I didn’t earn it because it came from a game setting that is not targeted at the level of play of myself or my guild.  The proportion of effort to reward is way off.

My personal preference for item level jumps would be more like this:

Tier 14 Raid Finder – 483
Tier 14 Normal – 496
Tier 14 Heroic – 509

Tier 15 Raid Finder – 496
Tier 15 Normal – 509
Tier 15 Heroic – 522

This way, Raid Finder gear is actually closer to heroic raiding gear (522-496=26, 535-502=33), but heroic raiders will never have any desire to run Raid Finder on their mains.  While, again, I can’t speak for absolutely everyone, Raid Finder is not fun for most heroic raiders.  I play for challenge, I play to tackle difficult bosses with my guild.  Raid Finder is not capable of providing an experience I enjoy.  I haven’t found a Normal boss to provide a remotely notable challenge since the Lich King, either.  Doing these raids is simply going through the motions and collecting rewards with power that feels out of place – not at all proportional to the effort required to get it.  It just does not feel right.  Many of the items I’m currently using were acquired in a state of heightened emotion; an exhilarating boss kill accompanied them, or the memory of such accompanying them on subsequent kills of that boss.  When I replace these items with Normal – or worse yet, Raid Finder – items, the feeling can only be described as depressing.

I understand that the above item level progression model cannot work this tier.  The item upgrade system implemented in 5.1 means that higher item levels are required for the new gear to actually be upgrades, but I feel 522 for normal modes is still unreasonably high.  It’s unrealistic to expect every heroic raider to have fully upgraded gear in every slot, but those we did upgrade really shouldn’t be getting replaced by normal mode gear.  515 for normal, for example, would feel a lot better; upgrades for slots we did not invest as much in, no upgrades for slots we did invest a lot in.  I have no love for the VP upgrade system (though I do feel if it were made to not apply to heroic-tagged items that it would provide a potentially great catch-up mechanism), but time and effort are exactly that regardless.

I think there are a lot of positives to squishing item levels from here on out.  It feels that item levels aren’t “nice to have and work for” but are instead a merciless, tyrannical, iron-fisted overlord.  You can only do what your item level lets you do.  Item level requirements are shoved in our faces as players at every turn, be them listed by the game itself in a queue window, or a soft gear requirement an encounter we’ve reached has.

An example of this, for the raid group I’m a part of, would be Gara’jal the Spiritbinder, an encounter referenced by Watcher in his recent encounter tuning blog.  During week one of Mogu’shan Vaults heroic, we developed a strategy, iterated on it, and ultimately had a 6% wipe as our best attempt on our last raid night of the week.  The “arbitrarily chosen reset day” as I refer to it to myself sometimes comes along and we make another attempt at Gara’jal, absolutely demolishing our DPS from three days earlier, easily finishing the encounter with 15+ seconds to spare on a pull that was not our best effort – several deaths and a number of other mistakes.

I certainly understand why gear upgrades are so substantial; the positives are that huge upgrades allow players to steadily progress through the available normal and/or heroic raid content without having to bring out the nerf bat and hit encounters with it, and that an individual upgrade having a noticeable impact on your personal performance appeals to the subconscious “bigger is better” mentality present in most humans.

Gear is important, gear should remain important.  The problem is that it has hit an extreme.  Gear is simply way too important.  PvP players are obviously making the most noise about this topic, but it applies to the PvE game as well.  13 item levels now is a much more substantial increase than 13 item levels in Burning Crusade due to the normalization of primary stats and the addition of several secondary stats, all of which scale off each other.  The upgrade path back then was not linear, with many pieces having randomly allocated stats, and therefore the power jump going from Karazhan epics to Sunwell epics was not as large as it would be if Burning Crusade were released now with current itemization.  Valor Point upgrades exacerbate the problem, increases the gap between your average player and the most hardcore even further because the hardcore is likely to cap VP every week and use those points to upgrade gear they won’t replace in the current patch, while there’s going to be a great deal of “waste” at “lower levels” due to a 2/2 upgraded normal or raid finder piece having several potential replacements available.

For the enjoyment of players who step into the arena or a battleground for the first time and get absolutely demolished by someone with Malevolent gear, for the legitimacy of PvE progression races that take place in each raid tier, for the sanity of players who really can’t stand doing dailies but are under substantial social pressure to do them from their guild mates because it affects them to a non trivial degree, and finally for the significant number of people who feel as I do and do not want our hard-earned gear to become obsolete on patch days, the gap between the top and bottom of the level 90 player base needs to shrink.  The raid progression hurdle can continue to be solved as it was in Dragon Soul and Icecrown and/or with a VP upgrade system that applies only to non BiS items.  That VP piece hidden behind reputation would be considered an option if the gain were small, but it’s not currently an option because the gain is large and the entire group you raid with is affected by it.  Less pressure to OMG GEAR UP means more freedom to do what you want in game without preventing people from improving their character and moving forward.

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