Monday, February 25, 2008

From newb to pwnage

Obviously, I play the game a lot and I am writing a blog about it, so Blizzard has clearly done far more right than wrong in putting together a game that is very fun to play. Still--there are two things that really bother me about the WoW game design.

The first is accessibility of content. Or more to the point, once the top-end content has passed it’s prime and is irrelevant to the hardcore, it SHOULD be re-tuned to make it relevant to the people who missed it the first time around. In most cases, it’s generally the more accepted path to simple skip the irrelevant content all together. I hate that I am encouraged to skip content simply because it’s a waste of time in my quest for better gear.

Which brings me to the second flaw and largest flaw in the game design. The game is entirely too focused on gear. The incremental benefit received for each gear upgrade far outweighs any incremental benefit gained from becoming a more skilled player.

This struck home to me when I leveled up my second rogue character. On my first rogue, I hit 70 and got man-handled in BGs and arenas. Over time, as I played more and more BGs and Arena and got more familiar with the class in end-game PvP, I started doing pretty well. This, of course, coincided with getting better gear by turning in my points. Eventually, I could just deal out pwnage at will and played my class very well in PvP. Then I leveled my second rogue 70 and started getting man-handled again. What the hell happened? Certainly I didn’t become a worse player or less skilled. The gear didn’t make THAT big a difference, did it?

But it did. It makes a HUGE difference. In fact, gear selection is arguably more important in WoW than talent selection. In fact, it’s to such a large extent that actual skill has very little to do with a player’s ability to compete until you near the “gear cap”. The example I provided was for PvP, but it also applies to PvE. The uber-geared Mage or Rogue who watches tv during raids will always have a higher DPS than a highly skilled, highly attentive player in entry-level epics. That’s not to say skill doesn’t make a significant difference, only that they need to be equally geared in order to make any comparison because gear is always greater than skill.

That’s a pretty serious flaw and certainly explains why people flock to certain activities and completely ignore content that doesn’t provide maximum gear benefit, even if it’s something they would more naturally enjoy. The result is that you get AFKers, arena point buyers, and the tag along types who look for guilds with certain raids on farm.

But wait, you say.. acquiring gear is needed as a readycheck for tougher instances. Wrong. The whole concept of “gearing up” is a SYMPTOM of the greater problem, not the cause. It’s very easy to keep people out of content they haven’t yet earned without enforcing a gear check. Attunements are a great example of this type of mechanic. And not just personal attunements, but Guild and Account attunements as well. So once a guild has achieved a certain landmark together, then the content opens up. Or if you achieve a landmark on one character, then all characters on that account gain the benefit of having completed that content. Circling back to my first complaint about content becoming irrelevant… Well, that’s easily fixed under my scenario by making the most important pieces part of an attunement to the next progression level.

But wait, you say.. I like being able to customize my character. Well, so do I. But what if that customization came from the ability to assign not just talent points, but attribute points. And perhaps certain attribute point levels unlocked additional skills. For example, enough points in Spirit and a Warrior can learn a gimped heal – but at the cost of not putting those points into a DPS attribute like Agility. Clearly, more talent choices (particularly lower tier choices) would allow people greater flexibility than what exists by simply getting +10 Strength on your new gloves.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t have lots of non-combat benefiting rewards for high end content so that the top players can strut around. Faster, cooler looking mounts. Awesome looking gear models (no stat bonuses, but they look damn cool). Bigger bags. Killer titles. Increases in model size to “heroic stature”.

OK. Now a reality check. This will never work in WoW as it exists today. Like trained dogs, we have all been taught to roll over for our doggy biscuit. You could never implement a sweeping change like this and have it work because of the uproar it would cause in the community. This is the type of thing you just need to chalk up as a learning experience and look to implement in a future game. World of Starcraft anyone? It could work. I mean, the last I checked, the Zerg didn’t wear clothes...

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