It wasn’t until I was having a Twitter conversation with Snack Road (isn’t that how a lot of my blog posts begin these days?) that I realized there’s shenanigans going on with gear progression. It was merely a joke about Republicans at the time, but the trickle-down theory seems to be in full effect in World of Warcraft, and has been going on for a while.
For those of you who weren’t very cognizant of the Reagan era in the United States, “trickle down” was two slightly different ideas about economics and marketing that could be summed up as “The wealth at the top will eventually benefit the bottom.” Economically speaking, making sure the wealthiest in our country were taken care of with tax breaks and benefits would eventually benefit the poorest of our country. As far as the marketing theory is concerned, it describes that many products will start out only available or affordable to the richest but eventually lower in price so that all can afford it. The backlash of this is that once the “lower classes” have consumed or popularized a product, it is no longer wanted by those in the elite.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
I feel like more than ever, Mists of Pandaria was a step backwards when it came to an even level of gear acquisition. One the major problems of this expansion was requiring both reputation and Valor Points for obtaining the first pieces of gear that was available to you once hitting 90. In the past, VP gear was not coupled with any reputation. It was a means of gear acquisition that anyone putting the time could benefit from. It started in Burning Crusade with badge gear - it was arguably some of the best pieces you could get unless you were chasing progression endgame and a lot of times, it was the best slot-filler or catch-up mechanism you could have asked for. In Cataclysm, it was so finely tuned to the point that most people I knew except at the very top of the raid game made use of regularly. It wasn’t until LFR being put in that we started to see a decay of that system - given that LFR was put in at the very end of the expansion, the effect wasn’t as immediate. What LFR was doing was not making yet another stepping stone in terms of a gear path, it was creating a ceiling of sorts, contextually. VP gear was locked behind reputation and valor points, valor points were made harder to acquire and capped. Each LFR having successively higher i-level requirements meant that in order to do LFR, considered the final or penultimate level of raiding you’d achieve as a slightly more casual raider meant that you had to gear chase a lot harder than before. While things like the wider choice of reputations, world bosses and crafting has made it slightly easier, it still feels like the people at the top are benefiting the most from doing what they want to do, while the rest of the curve gets progressively less choices in the matter. Raiders who have the benefit of doing content quickly while relevant have access to the best gear, therefore not needing LFR at all. VP gear from reputation isn’t as necessary once the initial gearing hump of the first tier’s worth of content is over. These raiders are supplied they gear they need by skill alone perhaps, or eventually the content they are chewing through and their success is framed in such a way that other people can’t degrade it by being slower or caught up in circumstances beyond their control (bad loot streaks, raid team falling apart). You see this in not just how loot is obtained but in things like the Cutting Edge achievements. I felt the achievements were a vanity addition that suited the purpose to make top-end raiders happy for their accomplishments, and that’s not a bad thing. However, Blizzard’s design when it comes to gear paths is pretty textbook trickle down theory in a lot of ways and I’m not sure why.
LFR was supposed to be the great liberator of the masses, but I feel that it’s striated people wanting to make the jump from starting-out gearwise to anything above it. Is this to preserve the value of upper-level gear? In short, raiders that were normal or heroic progressed were seemingly disgruntled from having to share the same base gear pool outside of the content before LFR was introduced. The whole notion of people getting epics without having to set foot in a raid seemed terrible, except to the people who actually were going to make use of it. With the advent of LFR, the gear pool that was shared was largely obliterated, became more gated in Mists and now has forked fairly divergently - those wanting to obtain gear at the highest levels will have to participate completely in it. This isn’t even trickle-down, like before, where raiders were turning their nose up at badge/VP gear, but a fairly inventive shut-out for all but a few opportunities. In order to do LFR, you never need higher than LFR gear, if you want to do normals, you do not “need” higher than normal gear to do it, roughly speaking. This preserves the sanctity of those chasing higher levels of content, in both gear and accomplishment, while giving people that would ordinarily benefit from structures that “spilled over” for high-end raiders something else to acquire. And in a lot of ways, I can even feel myself going, “Well, if you want to do Z content, why do you need X gear?” It’s a very ingrained way of thinking about content striated by acquisition and elitism. So in this fashion, whenever Blizzard purposefully “outmodes” gear i-levels or content, it is satisfying the high-end by making it unwanted by them (giving them new, better!) and satisfies those down at the bottom by giving them what was once a popular commodity.
Of course, this analogy falls apart a little given some of the choices we have in the game now, a couple of content patches in. It is possible to get a 522 ilvl 2-set just via world bosses, or Shado-Pan Offensive rep gear from doing LFR. All that being said, there’s still fairly apparent places where the trickle down is becoming more and more apparent as time goes on. The most notable of these is crafted gear. It used to be the most sought-after for many classes, but the rise and fall of difficulty in terms of obtaining it has been most curious. The first thrust of good craftable gear was some of the tailoring gear - sets that lasted from Karazhan to Black Temple if you played your cards right. The patterns were learnable fairly quickly but making the gear was lengthy and grindy. There weren’t caps on how many pieces of cloth you could make a day but the materials were fairly hard to farm, so it took awhile to gain them. By the end of that expansion, it was to the system of crafting materials AND patterns dropping in the appropriate raids. This system lasted all the way to the beginning of Cataclysm, but what Wrath had introduced was eventually making the material needed for making the recipes purchasable with a currency. Cataclysm made the materials and patterns easily obtainable via the crafting professions but capped the materials significantly. Still, this meant that all you needed to get really solid crafted gear was time or currency. The efficacy of this gear started slipping behind though as people rapidly outpaced the ilvls over the course of the expansion. Mists is where the trickling was really brought to bear - not only did you have the basic level of epic patterns locked behind reps, but more to the point, the highest level of craftables were only able to be made with materials obtained from disenchanting epic gear (with a small chance of dropping from bosses) of current content. So, basically, if you want gear that is on par with the highest level raids, you have to basically wait for either your raid team (if you have one) or someone else’s raid team to have a piece of gear they can shard. If you’re not a part of an established raid team, in essence you’re looking for another raid team’s cast-offs in order to make yourself better gear. The argument is that if you’re not part of an established raid team that’s doing the content, then why do you need the crafted gear at all? For some people, it could easily be BIS for a time, other people it is simply more of the gear chase but with a lot more restricted paths or options. The only time people outside of the “system” really benefit from crafted gear though is when they are in a situation where their environment is already raining down epics - meaning the highest tier of raiders on their servers are past the gearing curve and are sharding everything or enough people have entered the current content to create somewhat of a competitive market. If that’s not the very pinnacle of this theory, then I don’t know what is.
Still, all of this raises a lot more questions than answers, and I know that I’m glossing over a lot of situations in order to make a point about the theory. Is Blizzard merely acting in accordance to what the audience wants, or is it a more strident hand in directing the gear path for all “levels” of players? Since they are the ones responsible for the structures we have to move through to obtain gear, I can presume that this was done purposefully. The “No Elevators To Everest” seems to belie a developer belief (especially since many of the older ones are returning the fold) that everyone has to really struggle to get what they want, and some people are going to hit a ceiling of skill or success just due to their position and no further. While the parlance has dropped out some, the idea of “welfare” epics couldn’t be more true now with the advent of LFR, but gamifying this so that no one ever really needs it anymore is an interesting mesh of Reagan-era social policies and Skinner Box perfection. There’s always going to be a subset of people that need enough gear to see the lower-bar content, but not more than that. If someone wants gear beyond that point badly enough, they have to go through great lengths to get it in order to not upset the overflow from the top. The idea that the developers are really giving us so many choices to be powerful but keeping the real power fairly divided and unobtainable seems to be what’s really at play here. Do I mind it terribly, from a personal standpoint? In some ways, yes. I might be casual but the practises of a game company to enforce power progression along lines that have typically caused strife elsewhere doesn’t seem to be the smartest move in the long run. Treating your broadest base and separating it further and further from the middle does little to make anyone feel good, but I suppose Blizzard has worked in enough distractions that no great portion falls through the cracks. Still, this is all something to think about going ahead. Are there iterations down the road that will even further divide the haves from the have-nots? Will desired/vogue gear be overturned even faster? Who knows, but I have seen the problems thus far and I’m not sure I like the direction Blizzard is taking us.
The Azerothian dream is not that every person must be level with every other person. The Azerothian dream is that every person must be free to become whatever
God Blizzard intends they should become.
For Snack Road’s thoughts on a similar topic of gearing, check his post!