This article is going to be critical of WoW, so I ask that you suspend any beliefs you may hold that WoW is perfection and anything that deviates from the WoW model is an awful game design. Once upon a time, the populace at large believed the world was flat and we all know now that was simply ignorance and an unwillingness to accept new ideas.
My old boss had a theory he called his “super model theory” to describe picking out a Big Screen TV. His point was that if you took 5 gorgeous super models and asked me to choose which one I would like to take to bed, I would start finding flaws in all of them. That one has too big a nose, I only like blondes, she’s too pale and so on. However, the truth of the matter is I would be really happy to take any of them home with me. Right now, Blizzard is a super model I’ve been dating for a while and I’m starting to think she looks fat in those pants. I’m glad I have a super model girlfriend, but I’m also more aware of her flaws than I was when we first started dating.
I’ve really narrowed down the source of my angst to a problem I’ve written about in the past in my article “From newb to pwnage.” The main point of the article is that the incremental benefit received for each gear upgrade far outweighs any incremental benefit gained from becoming a more skilled player. The game puts an unhealthy level of importance on gear that forces players to do things they would characterize as “unfun” simply to get better gear. There is perhaps no better example of this than the player who feels forced to play Battlegrounds or Arena for the gear upgrades.
The incentive is to become better geared, not better skilled.
If you enjoy PvE Raiding, the priority is often focused on players who are well geared. In a social networking game like WoW, it seems ludicrous that the focus is not (first and foremost) on finding players that you enjoy playing with, second on players who are skilled and then (a distant) third on players who have attained the necessary gear inventory. Smart, well organized guild leaders recognize these are the qualities needed for a really great guild and act accordingly. Most don’t.
I think the biggest indictment of the significance of gear in PvE is how important it is to our overall satisfaction. It says something about a game when the most fun moments are the seconds immediately after looting the big bad boss and not the 45 minutes leading up to it. Of course, if you didn’t get the drop you wanted or lost out on a roll or were outbid then you can also end a whole session of gaming very unsatisfied and disappointed. In extreme cases, loot drama can cause guilds to break up or players to quit the game completely.
In PvP, the gear issue creates an entirely different set of problems. The center issue in PvP is competitive balance. If we set aside class balance issues for this discussion then the WoW version is really player + gear versus player + gear, not simply Player versus Player. Actual skill and experience are trivialized in comparison to the significance of gear. A player in Level 70 blues & greens could never beat a player in S3 Arena gear even if they were far more skilled.
The more you play, the more skilled you become at PvP. Battlegrounds rewards time played and BG wins with better gear. Likewise, Arena players are rewarded for winning by being given better gear. From a competitive standpoint, the player is actually benefiting twice. Once because of the skill and experience gained from playing and then again with a gear upgrade. The result is that the rich simply become more rich. In the PvE game, that logic holds a certain justice. In the PvP game, it’s about competitive balance and that type of mechanic simply works to further unbalance the game. In other words, it’s counter-productive to balanced gameplay to provide the most skilled players with the best gear but that is exactly how the PvP reward system is designed.
The solution to fixing PvP is to make gear more accessible or irrelevant. However, in the PvE game, the significance of gear acts as an entry barrier to the higher level raids. Fixing one quite literally breaks the mechanics of the other. Right now we have people PvPing to compete for PvE and PvP players that can’t advance beyond the gear barrier that denies them the ability to effectively compete in Arenas.
It’s also a major contributing factor In the war waged by the Casual against the Hardcore. The single biggest complaint by the Casual is the lack of accessibility to the very high end content. The mechanic that Blizzard chooses to erect as a barrier into that content is primarily gear related. If you don’t have a sufficient level of gear, then the content will be too difficult for you regardless of your relative skill level.
This design mechanic issue is really unique to MMO RPGs. In single player RPGs, the issue never really comes up because you aren’t in competition or cooperative play with anyone else so your progress is only measured against your own success. In other genres, like First Person Shooter or RTS, gear (or inventory) is never persistent from match to match. You may acquire more resources, weapons or wealth during a single match, but those acquisitions are only useful for the short duration of the current match.
However, one of the defining characteristics of all RPGs is the acquisition of inventory items. This is a very important part of the genre. As your character evolves and gains new skills, it also acquires more wealth and inventory. His success is often determined by the inventory choices he makes and how he uses these skills. It’s common for “events” to be tied to acquiring a particular piece of inventory (like a key) and for your character to equip inventory items that make him more powerful as he progresses through the game. It would be very frustrating to work to gather these items in an RPG only to have them “reset” when you turned off your computer for the night.
It’s an interesting puzzle, but there is a very tidy solution that solves all of these problems. You’ll just have to wait until Monday to find out… o.O