Gear pollution is a concept that’s only really come into existence within the last several months of WoW’s life, as a result of (r)evolutionary changes in the philosophy behind end-game design. But just what exactly I mean by “gear pollution” can’t be explained without going into some of the background. So grab a cup of tea (NO YOU CAN’T USE COFFEE INSTEAD), sit back, relax and embrace the wall of text to follow. I’m going to discuss:
- WotLK’s implementation of multiple progression paths (with exciting charts!)
- Some of the design factors that make raids fun
- The benefits and problems caused by increased raid accessibility and the progression PUG phenomenon
- The way gear is supplied through different raid sizes and difficulty settings
- And finally, some thoughts on different approaches to solving the “problem”
Blizzard have used Wrath of the Lich King to pioneer the concept of using the same raid instance for entirely separate progression paths. In fact, throughout this expansion they’ve been experimenting with exactly how to do this, and we’ve seen slightly different implementations with each successive raid that’s been released.
Basically, though, the original idea was to have the same raid available in two formats: 10-player and 25-player. Each raid would contain the exact same scenery, mobs and encounters, but they’d be retuned to support the appropriate number of players. 10-mans were aimed at the “casual” crowd and 25-mans at the “hardcore”, and thus 10-man loot was a tier below 25-man loot in terms of ilevel.
However, Blizzard soon realised that there were “hardcore” 10-man raiders and “casual” 25-man raiders. Thus patch 3.1 saw the inception of large-scale “hard mode” design, whereby you essentially had four progression paths within the raid game:
- 10-man normal mode
- 10-man hard mode
- 25-man normal mode
- 25-man hard mode
These were in addition to the non-raiding progression available through 5-mans and daily quests, which essentially constitute an extra, separate path of progression.
At first hard modes were simply extensions of the normal mode instances, but in patch 3.2 normal modes and hard modes became almost entirely decoupled – you just had to have one person in the raid complete the normal mode instance to unlock the hard version, and then you could ignore the normal version if you wanted to.
In The Burning Crusade, there was only one main raiding progression path, with the option to “cut in” on that path by using badges awarded from heroics or entry-level raids to gear up.
In Wrath of the Lich King, we have what are effectively three major paths and two sub-paths. Rewards from each tier banding allow entry to the next, regardless of its path. It’s worth noting that for most players it was possible to enter tier 7 content directly without first going through normal 5-man dungeons.
Thus at level 80, those who wanted to raid 25-mans could go directly into the first 25-man raid instance and then onwards through each new 25-man raid. Those who wanted to do only 10-mans could go straight into the 10-man instance. Those who wanted to avoid raiding could work through 5-mans. And hard modes are completely optional, able to be entirely bypassed by normal progression if players so choose.
Each path was incentivized with loot both across the way as well as down the way. That is to say, you can get better rewards either by:
- progressing into the next tier banding (down the chart) OR
- progressing into the next group-size path in the same tier banding (across the chart to the right).
Furthermore, you can supplement the rewards from your present tier either by:
- using rewards from the previous tier banding (up the chart) OR
- using rewards from the previous group-size path in the same tier banding (left across the chart).
It’s important to note that since 3.2, emblems function as a “catch-up” device. In each successive patch, the cutting-edge emblems from the last patch’s main raid are distributed to all existing heroics and raids, while a new cutting-edge emblem is introduced for the Daily Heroic quest and progression raids. This means that no matter which progression path you are on or where you are in that path, you have access to gear of the quality of the penultimate raid tier, enabling you to quickly go from raiding, say, Naxxramas, to raiding Icecrown.
The advantage to Blizzard of this new method of pathing progression is that rather than having to design a separate raid for every progression path, they can instead design a single raid for all possible paths and then tune it for two different group sizes and two different difficulty settings for each size. That saves a lot of development time which enables them to put out more content that more of the playerbase will actually experience.
However, they do still have to do work on each individual raid size and difficulty setting, which leads me to wonder if they deliberately try to maximise the saturation of each design. I say this because presumably the more people who see each raid setting, the more economical it was to spend time and money designing it. So perhaps Blizzard want to actively encourage people to not just stick to “their own” path, but to dabble in other paths too. And it makes sense from a subscription point of view that, if people are finished with their chosen path for the week, they have something else to do. Your main progression path may be 25-man normal, but if you’re bored or you’ve done as much as you can in the latest raid, you can go back and bash up the previous tier of content. Or you can take some friends and try your hand at 10-man hard modes. Or you can just chill out in 10-man normal. There are a lot of options for the casual pathhopper.
And naturally, if you decide you’d like to move from one level of raiding to another, it’s very easy to do so: each separate path provides rewards which can be used to enter the next path while at the same time familiarizing you with the basic strategies of each encounter. This makes it a lot easier for raid groups to find new members with the appropriate gear and experience.
Further design considerations
By now you all sense the “but…”, and I’m not going to disappoint! I’m a huge fan of the way Wrath of the Lich King’s raid progression has been designed and how it manages to be both accessible and challenging. But there is a big problem with the way progression flows right now. Let’s look first at some of the considerations for raid designers.
The difficulty of every raid instance has to be carefully balanced. It has to be hard enough to be challenging and fun, but easy enough to be accessible. Most importantly, it has to be possible to beat with the gear available. That means that every instance on the chart above was tuned, in theory*, to be appropriately difficult to people wearing gear from the previous instance. If you have gear from Naxxramas, you should be able to progress through most of Ulduar. If you have gear from Ulduar, you should be able to progress through the hard modes. And so forth.
*(I say “in theory” because anyone who raided 10-man Ulduar during 3.1′s launch week will know how badly it can go wrong.)
Blizzard want players to raid. They spend a lot of effort on the end-game and they want that to be justified. They want players to see their content. So “normal” (non-hardmode) raiding has to be fairly accessible. Tier 7′s raids were very easy and accessible, as were tier 9′s. Tier 8 was a bit harder but still allowed more casual guilds a fair bit of success.
Hard modes are a lot less accessible. 25-man hardmodes are the least accessible owing to the number of players who have to gear up and learn each fight, and because the world’s “top” guilds are 25-man raiders. 25-man hard modes have to be designed to give the most absolutely hardcore players a sense of accomplishment. 10-man hard modes, however, have to be accessible by people who find the 10-man paradigm appealing in the first place – which probably means people without a lot of free time for raiding. I suspect 10-man hard modes are also designed to be accessible to 25-man normal raiders.
To motivate people to raid your instances, you need to reward them! Rewards are mainly provided in the form of gear upgrades, but we can also be rewarded with achievements, special titles or vanity items like mounts. Each raid needs to be sufficiently rewarding to entice players to enter it from the previous raid. This rule applies, as we have noted, both on the vertical axis of the progression chart and on the horizontal axis.
As a raid group gears up, the raid content that it’s working on gets easier. They do more damage. They can survive taking more damage. And they can heal up damage taken faster and keep healing for longer. Fights get shorter and mechanics get less threatening. The 16k-damage Lightning Nova done by Heroic Loken is lethal to a guy in ilevel 187 blues and a similarly geared healer will struggle to keep up even on anyone who survives, but the weakest progression raiders with their 22k health pools and massive HPS barely notice it.
Combined with increased experience and practice, this means that raid bosses are easier to “farm” than they are to get first kills on. This helps the raid group move through an instance with a sense of real progression and achievement, without having to go through all the pain and effort of getting that first kill in the same circumstances every single week.
So wherein lies the rub? The rub lies in the interaction of these core raiding mechanics with the multi-pathed progression outlined above.
Normal-mode raids are so accessible that pretty much anyone capable of heroic instances is capable of joining a successful pick-up-group to a normal-mode raid. This applies equally to 10-player and 25-player normal modes. Anyone capable of completing a 10-player normal raid is also capable of completing a 25-player normal raid, and vice versa. PUGs don’t require the same dedication, commitment and relationship building as guilds – you can join one week and forget about it the next with no consequences. You can raid any time you can find a PUG and don’t have to stick to schedules. PUGs are almost infinitely accessible provided you can convince the RL to invite you. This means that anyone, at any point on any progression path, has access to the 25-man normal gear.
But because of reward considerations, 25-man normal gear is better than or equal to anything except 25-man hardmode gear. You can be utterly incapable of killing Northrend Beasts on 10-man heroic, but you can clear 25-man Trial of the Crusader and get gear rewards that are equivalent to or better than what the 10-man hard mode would have provided. The 10-man raider is now “polluted” by 25-man gear.
This in turn upsets balance, because now gear is seeping into the system from the right of the chart to the left. We’ve already seen that encounters are extremely sensitive to gear. You know how easy it was going back to Karazhan in your Tier 5, or bashing through Naxxramas in your Ulduar loot? That’s how much easier a full tier of gear makes an instance. And a full tier is precisely the difference between 10-man normal and 25-man normal. If 10-man raiders are getting gear from 25-mans, they are artificially inflating their gear by an entire level of raid progression. No wonder fights suddenly seem so much easier!
This can in turn affect the fine tuning of an instance, as it did with Ulduar-10. Pretty much everyone on the PTR who tested the first few bosses of Ulduar-10 was in 25-man gear, many of them outfitted from the few hardmodes of the time too. So the fights in Ulduar 10 were, on release, balanced around 25-man gear. In fact Razorscale was, on release, balanced around a full 25-man raid – she was nerfed several days later when the developers realised that she was throwing the same number of fireballs for the same amount of damage in 10-man mode as she was in 25-man mode :D
That’s an extreme example, but it shows how even the development of the game can be affected by this gear pollution effect.
Itemisation & Gear Pollution
Now, if you want to gear up your 25-man raid as fast as possible for 25-man hard modes, what’s an obvious source of extra gear? 10-man hardmodes! They’re not that hard with your 25-man gear and you get extra experience of fight mechanics that you intend to tackle later on 25-man mode. Even 10-man normal modes might help your raiders fill in a few gaps. The hardcore 25-man raider is thus compelled to raid 10-mans too.
But it’s not just the hardcore who are affected. 10-mans have entirely separate loot tables to 25-mans. This means that sometimes the best-in-slot items for a 25-man raider come from 10-man raids. If you want those items, even if you’re not particularly hardcore, it seems foolish not to run 10-mans as well. In fact the best elemental shaman options for several slots (neck, belt, ring) come from 10-man hard modes in Ulduar and Trial of the Grand Crusader. With your 25-man gear these are far more accessible – all you need is time and 40% of your raid group to agree to come with you. If your raid group is serious about progression within their chosen bracket, you may well be compelled to raid 10-mans to remain competitive enough for your group.
25-man raiders doing 10-mans for extra loot is so normal that we barely even give it a second thought. But if we go the other way – 10-man raiders doing 25-mans – suddenly it seems a lot weirder. “Strict” 10-man progression ranking sites like GuildOx disallow 10-man guilds from dabbling in 25-mans at all, yet 25-man guilds can farm 10-mans every week with no consequence to ranking. This is, of course, because 25-man loot is so much better than equivalent 10-man loot, and thus makes 10-man raid encounters a lot easier than they would be in purely 25-man loot. But as we’ve seen, some 10-man loot is preferable to 25-man loot, just not by so large a margin. It’s just a lot easier to go from 25-mans to 10-mans to fill in gear gaps than to go the other direction.
And gear gaps abound in 10-man raiding. We’ve already discussed how lacking itemisation is for elemental shamans in 10-man raiding, with entire slots having no options whatsoever in three whole tiers of content. And elemental isn’t the only class/spec in that position. With such gaping holes in item tables, 10-man raiders are strongly incentivized to raid 25-mans where those gaps can be filled.
But doing this throws off the balance of the 10-man encounters (and arguably the 25-man encounters too), making them too accessible, and reducing the desirability of the now inferior 10-man rewards. The entire structure of the raid design is ruined by the gear pollution.
What can be done?
I’m not a game developer and I don’t presume to know how to fix their problems. I tend to find it irritating more than inspiring when bloggers give their ideas on how to fix things. So I’ll sidestep that irritation by not suggesting fixes, but wondering aloud about methods the developers may or may not be considering employing!
Should raid lockouts cover both player sizes? That’d prevent raiders using the other-sized instance without also locking them out of that week’s raiding with their guild. Unfortunately, this means that there’s more chance your players will get bored with nothing to do outwith normal raid hours, and it doesn’t really solve the problem – you can still get gear from the other instances if you’re willing to sacrifice your week’s reset for any reason.
Should all raids use the same loot tables? Trial of the Crusader is interesting because its normal and heroic loot tables are (almost) identical, but the heroic loot is a tier higher in item level. What if the same was done across both raid sizes? Then there’d be no need to try and fill itemisation gaps by going “across the chart”. Of course if you didn’t get a drop you want in your chosen raid size you might still be encouraged to go across the chart for a lower (or higher!) ilevel version instead. And to be honest, it’s not very exciting seeing the same loot drop in hard modes that you saw on normal.
Should normal modes and hard modes share loot tables? If the loot tables were totally shared – that is, 10-man == 25-man – well, Blizzard’s never going to go for that. They regard higher ilevel loot as an essential part of the incentive to bother with 25-mans at all. We may, however, see 10-man normal loot and 25-man normal loot being the same items with different ilevels, much like the Trial of the Crusader normal/heroic divide. Then 10-man hard and 25-man hard could have the same items, but again separated by a tier of ilevel. You’d get a clear loot distinction between normal and heroic and a clear quality distinction between 10-man and 25-man.
I actually quite like the last idea, not least because it means that ridiculous situations like the difference between ToC-10 trinkets (which are utterly useless to anyone with more than 40 emblems of heroism and the time to run 5-man Trial of the Champion) compared to ToC-25 trinkets (which include a monster caster trinket that’s twice as powerful as the next best option) would be a thing of the past… but I have no idea if Blizzard has any interest in fixing this “problem”.
On the one hand, it makes 10-mans – which are meant to be the most accessible way of raiding – even more accessible and encourages people to raid more (even though they’re just seeing the same content over and over again).
On the other hand, it can potentially make content so easy and the rewards so unexciting that it’s used up too fast and raiders have no more incentive to play, and it can get raiders quickly bored with an instance if they see it multiple times a week on different size and difficulty settings.
I certainly think there’s a real problem here, and not least in the way people perceive the divide between the two sizes. The fact that 10-mans are so much easier in 25-man loot tends to mean that 25-man raiders don’t take even hard mode 10-man raiding seriously, which causes friction in the community and leads to the 25-mans being regarded as the only “true” raiding path – which in turn heavily biases the direction of community content and theorycraft provision! And 25-man raiders looking for a calmer existence in 10-man raiding are less likely to want to bother with content that their gear already trivialises.
So, readers: what do you think? Is gear pollution, overall, a good thing or a bad thing? And what might be done to address the problems that it causes?
Update: I’ve highlighted and responded to some of the comments left below in this post.