6.0 and Item Levels

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

Is this how good you are at this game? No, but it's pretty close.

Is this how good you are at this game? No, but it’s pretty close.

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.EnhSims

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?


15 responses to “6.0 and Item Levels

  1. Huge ilvl discrepancies are a real pain for recruiting new raiders. We need to set a minimum ilvl requirement because, as you said, someone with an ilvl 35 below the rest of the raid group just isn’t going to be able to contribute in a meaningful way. Even when we get someone who’s only say, 15 ilvls below the raid average, their trial can be very difficult for them. The majority of the raid (who are not going to spend huge amounts of time log diving or simming max dps) just see that this new person is doing x amount less dps than everyone else. It’s especially bad if the person plays a class that relies heavily on weapon damage if they haven’t been able to get the best weapons available.

    I’ve just started playing an alt recently and though I think I’m doing well, but throw me in raid and I look like a chump because I have an item level of 485 and most everyone else is well above 500 at this point.

    I think one of the solutions to this is to just stop making so many raid types. LFR, flex, normal, heroic. It’s too much. One of them needs to go (preferably LFR). Thunderforged gear is also superfluous (and I really doubt it has achieved the intended effect of incentivizing 25s). I’d also love to see an item squish happen in the next expansion – did they ever say why they didn’t go through with it for Mists?

    • Couldn’t agree more about the multiple raid settings thing, but I get the feeling any pleas about that will fall on deaf ears. It’s just the way games have been going in general, most new releases have an ultra-difficult setting, a super-casual setting that simply cannot be failed at, and a couple in between, regardless of genre. As far as the item squish goes, I think it has to do with them not being sold on it over simply finding a clean way to deal with the larger numbers.

      It might confuse a lot of people to be doing 100,000 DPS, then log in on patch day and be doing 1,000. To me, character power is relative to what other players are doing, and a reduction like that would not bother me at all, but there are probably a lot of people who would see it as a huge loss of progress or a massive nerf. I support an item squish 100%, though.

    • Can you explain why you think LFR is the one that should go? I’ve only really started raiding in the last couple of months (via LFR – after a long hiatus from the game) and while i’ve played since vanilla, I just never had time to get into the end game content like i can now. I use to play with a smallish group of friends and we’d run dungeons (and later heroics) and go on little adventures safe in the knowledge that the amount of time we could pour into the game would never net us the ability to join larger guilds who demanded so much time from their players in set raid days / times, which frankly, sounded like a second job and ‘we were just there to have fun anyway’! I appreciate what the main article is saying and can see that getting rid of one raid type might help sort out the issue, i’m just curious why LFR is the best choice, considering for a lot of people its the main way to play this content. I also realise that a lot of these people use it as a stepping stone to the higher level content, but for the purpose of my argument i’m ignoring them as there would always be another route for these type of players! Surely the best solution for everyone would be one that makes this content available while not causing the higher end players to suffer? Would it be sensible to merge one of the higher levels into a single one? Or do Blizz need to chose one group or another to please?! Thanks 🙂

      • I don’t think LFR as a raid setting needs to go anywhere. I simply think that it’s a shame that it’s a necessary gearing step for anyone who wants to do anything above the LFR level. LFR being a prerequisite for Flex being a prerequisite for Normal being a prerequisite for Heroic is just simply running through the same content four times. It’s pretty repetitive.

        I also think that having numerous steps of gear within each content patch makes it a lot harder for people to make the jump into higher levels of raiding. If you have the best possible gear available outside organized raiding right now including vp upgrades, you are going to cap out around 540 item level. That would mean, assuming insane skill level, you could do maybe 50% of the DPS I’m capable of and have 200k less health to survive stuff with. Seems like a lot to overcome, doesn’t it? Not counting my experience and raiding knowledge.

        So basically I think LFR should be a gearing *option* roughly in line with world content/dailies/dungeons etc. So it doesn’t drain the interest of people who want to take the next step and that it allows the power conveyed by the best gear to be less of a jump, so it’s a bit easier for players who do want to take that step.

      • Organized Guild raiding may seem like a job, but it should really be looked at as more of an organized sport, with which it shares the most similarities. Schedules are necessary for the same reason. Time commitments vary by group. Rarely does anyone expect any time outside whatever their raid hours are. Being a part of a normal raid group has many of the same kinds of experiences as going bowling with your buddies every Friday night.

      • Very good point about repeated content and i imagine that can be quite a drag for people intending to get to the highest levels.

        I do find it quite annoying that try as i might the best i can manage is anywhere between sort of 8th to 12th in damage done, and very often much worse (unless i get lucky with some procs and cooldowns on trash – which i realise doesn’t really count!!). It does seem like a lot to overcome, yeah. I’m around ilvl 500 so i realise there is still a lot for me to do in terms of gear – primarily my weapon, being a Paladin thats kind of annoying…

      • So I was thinking about this all evening, and having read your article re ‘catering to casuals’ this morning I see now more of the issue at hand here. LFR is certainly a way for people like me to see all (a lot of) the games content. We all pay equally for it so why shouldn’t we be able to? That said, the more ‘hardcore’ players like yourself want to go above and beyond what I want to do with the game and very often you are the ones who feed back a lot of issues to Blizz so they can continue with patching out any balance / game issues (which also rewards players like me), so why shouldn’t you have more available to you? The issue is definitely the people who just want to turn up and see all this content (which they also pay for) without doing much about it. I have always been a fan of reading about class mechanics – not just the ones i play – reading forums about the finer points of the game and getting involved in the comments… 😉 You raise a very good point about the monk quests teaching you how to use certain skills, don’t most classes have some kind of, here is a level 3 skill, go use it on a target a number of times type quests? Its certainly done to a much greater extent with the monks, but why can’t Blizz do more of this with everyone else? Gone are the days of having to go see your class trainer every other level or so and cool class specific quests, it means the game is faster to level and play I guess. I always tend towards thinking there is room for everyone, especially in a game world. Perhaps LFR and Flex need to sit adjacent to each other in terms of content but with LFR being less rewarding than it is now and Flex bridging the gear gap that will create. You’d probably need to widen the gear levels awarded from Normal & Heroics to fill in the blanks this would create (or as you suggested maybe use tier bonuses – or the lack of to do this) but at least now people like me could be happy with content from LFR, Flex could stretch down to pick up those directly from Heroic dungeons and lift them to readiness for Normal raids. I don’t know how the boss mechanics differ from LFR to Flex so perhaps this is almost in effect anyway. Its definitely interesting and, coming back to my initial thoughts this morning(!), I think to say that the most casual of players are the reason for dropping subscriptions is not fair on those people. Blizz need to up their game, I was wrong before. Blizz need to please all groups of players!!

  2. [quote]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. [/quote]

    This isn’t true. You absolutely could, and did, get fully geared in each of these tiers. The only reason you might not have was the size of your raid and the number of items that dropped, but itemization was not a problem. Your SSC point is semi-true, but only because the tier was spread over two zones (The Eye and SSC were released at the same time and run concurrently.) The only exceptions were when something was so poorly itemized that older gear was better. But this isn’t something we want to aim for.

    I agree there is a problem, but I’m not sure you are keying in on the right one. More levels of raiding isn’t a bad thing, that is a matter of providing access to more people. A higher percentage of the population is raiding now, and even if you ignore LFR as raiding (which I would) this is still the case.

    We don’t really need an item squish, but we might need some reining in of what item level does in terms of players power. If 1 ilvl represented a 1% increase in power instead of a 2.5% we’d have less of the mudflation problem, while still having some meaningful difference in better gear vs. worse gear. The issue isn’t the 24 ilvl gap, it is the formula that makes that mean so much.

    • You’re right, you could theoretically get almost fully geared in each of those tiers, but my point is more that you didn’t really want to. Tier 2 3-piece was competitive for healers through to the end of classic. There were often better blues and dungeon drops than what was available in Molten Core for many slots. There might be items to fill every slot (excluding trinkets) in those raids, but the fact of the matter is that you didn’t really want to. Some items were best-in-slot in their time… some were merely options with the best-in-slot coming from elsewhere, or competitive options coming from elsewhere. You would replace some – not all – of your gear when you managed to clear Ahn’Qiraj. Loot rains from the sky on patch days now.

      The only way for Tier 14 to have remained even remotely relevant with Tier 15 out would be for a lot of the gear to still matter. Currently, It does not, so a progression model that includes Tier 14 raiding feels like a pointless waste of time, and because of that you have people asking for instant catch-up mechanisms because they want to play with their friends… and rightfully so.

      At any rate, it doesn’t really matter how it’s accomplished in my opinion, a reduction in scaling across the board or a reduction in item level jumps accomplishes similar things, but I’d prefer itemization that left previous tiers mattering somewhat instead of being made obsolete on patch days. I understand that’s asking for a lot, though, and expect that chilling out on player scaling in one way or another is a more reasonable request.

  3. Pingback: Shaman Talents in 6.0 | Wind Lashed

  4. Pingback: That Legendary Cloak | Cannot be Tamed

  5. Late to the party on this one but I was intrigued by the thought that the rapid iLvl increase from tier to tier was functioning as a hidden nerf to content. I like that idea a lot but I don’t think it’s a particularly useful system vs a zone-wide nerf like we’ve seen in the past despite there being less negative PR around it.

    Having gear be the catalyst for the nerf won’t help raids who are experiencing problems earlier in the raid since they aren’t getting much gear. It will really only benefit raids who are making significant progress and if they’re making progress, they don’t really need the nerfs. So basically, this style of nerf is really only helping successful raids move fights to farm status sooner. Admirable result, I guess, but I don’t think those are the raids that really need or want the help and it isn’t the 2/12 raids at time of nerf who are complaining about the nerf, it’s the ones who are 10/12 or 11/12 who complain that they don’t WANT the nerf, they want to complete the content as designed. This acts counter in both respects.

    The removal of VP gear in 5.4 also counts against this because less successful raids will have even LESS access to high iLvl gear than they had in the past (and I don’t consider the random i535 gear to be an at-par substitute, although it should help a bit). Fights will have to be balanced around expected gear (including legendaries) so, if they get the scaling right, the 4th boss will have a significantly higher performance requirement than the first boss so less geared and skilled groups will experience a hard wall sooner than later that they’ll have a harder time overcoming than in the past.

    All told, it’s an interesting idea but I’m not sure if nerfing the content with big iLvl discrepancies is the GOAL for Blizzard, I think it’s more of a side effect. I think they’re just stuck, at this point players expect their power to increase by 30-40% per tier so they have to stick to that level of stat progression. I think I prefer a flatter gear curve, I want gear to be part of the progression process, not a large majority of it.

    Also, maybe I’m wired differently but to me, the difference between 148293 and 197382 actually seems bigger than 148 and 197, I notice dps deltas a lot more when the numbers are big than when they’re small even when the %ages are obviously identical.

  6. Pingback: An Unfortunate Downvote | Wind Lashed

  7. [Quote] 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.[/Quote]

    While it’s true the ‘range’ of ilvls is greater, you are forgetting that ilvl ranges from tier to tier overlap one another. The highest ilvl obtainable in tier 15 was 549, now it’s 580. This is only an absolute increase of 31 ilvls.

    In tier 14, the highest ilvl obtainable was 516.
    516 -> 549 = 33 ilvls
    549 -> 580 = 31 ilvls

    So, in fact, there is less ilvl inflation during this content patch than previous patches. Over the course of three tiers (an entire expansion), the highest ilvl gear has only gone up 64 ilvls (516 -> 580).

    • This is assuming the majority of the player base actually reaches the maximum item level before a new tier of content is released. The reality is that very few will – less than 1% will even approach it. For the vast majority of players out there, the 528s available in SoO LFR were upgrades when the patch landed.

      Inevitably, players in the best heroic gear are going to be playing with players just reaching the minimum item level for SoO, or even lower in scenarios or heroic dungeons, and it results in an un-fun play experience for someone involved almost every time it happens.

      WotLK had a maximum level range of 187 to 277, a total of 90, with very easy catch-up mechanics and a shallower scaling curve.

      MoP has a maximum level range of 450 to 580, a total of 130, with more difficult and slower catch-up mechanics and twice as much value per item level, on top of VP upgrade gating for those who didn’t cap pre-patch (aka most non-hardcore players), and one fewer tier of raiding total.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s