Losing Gear Progression in WoW

Players  expect that content will get harder over time in an expansion.  Our characters do braver and more heroic things (modelled by content getting more challenging) and pick up better loot. Raid instances get harder. Rewards get better. And you may need the loot from older raids to tackle the newer ones.

The Coliseum may be a momentary blip in that progression. It is easier than Ulduar but gives better rewards. Perhaps this is a special case, just to make sure that everyone is geared up for Icecrown and the apogee of the Wrath storylines. A special catch-up instance to make sure no one falls behind.

But right now, we effectively have no gear progression. There is no special reason to go to Ulduar, which is the most recent raid instance prior to the Coliseum. There’s no benefit to going there either, you’d be better served for rewards in the newer easier instance. It’s a cool instance, and I sympathise a lot with Copra, who laments that he can’t find groups there. But I understand why people are reluctant to go. And the crazy thing is: If they’d upgraded the Ulduar badges to be badges of triumph when the Coliseum came out, I think it would have been fine. Coliseum would still have been more rewarding but Ulduar would have at least dropped current tier badges.

My Naxx geared alt hopped into a Coliseum raid and came out with upgrades and the all-important achievement that is my passport into PUGs (unless I lie which is what I normally do). If she hadn’t been to Naxxramas, I could have geared her up in crafted pieces, heroic badge loot,  and drops from the Coliseum 5 man instance. In the next patch, when heroics shift to giving out Triumph badges, everyone will eventually get full sets of Tier 9 gear by running heroics.

It doesn’t bother me that my alt (and other people’s alts, or non-raiders who want to get into the game) can raid alongside everyone else. But it bothers me that my alt is almost as well geared as my main, and that all the extra work I did on Spinks now seems to mean nothing. I don’t say it’s logical.

Surely the whole point of persistent games was that we could keep working on our characters to progress them over time? What does it really mean if all that time spent means nothing any more. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think that finding out is going to affect whether I want to raid in Cataclysm or not. Or even how much I want to play WoW at all after finishing Icecrown. Because if there’s no real point putting extra time and work into a character, if there’s no payoff … then perhaps it would be better to focus less on one character in one game.

What I am seeing is simply the way that the genre is evolving now. The movement in many of the big MMOs is very much towards minimising the effect of previous grinds or raids because those things make the game more inaccessible to newbies. It isn’t just WoW.

What we lose when we lose progression

Despite the fact that progression makes games more inaccessible, it encourages drama, it can frustrate people, and all the other inevitable reasons that it will die, it has served a very very important purpose in achievement driven MMOs.

Gear progression meant that different players were motivated to tackle different content. There was a constant stream of raid guilds focussed on different levels of PvE. It would have been much more likely that Copra could have found his Ulduar raid.

If everyone and everything is focussed only on the newest and most recent raid, then the game narrows down. There is no longer the broad base of accessible content for players. Sure, they can all be in the same instance, but it’s the only instance they can possibly tackle due to lack of social support for the raids needed for the rest.

If we want broad-based MMOs with a wide variety of possible things to do, then maybe losing the gear progression isn’t such a great step. It is certainly one way to funnel everyone into raiding together. But players will get bored more quickly and if there isn’t any different content for them to work on when they aren’t raiding, they’ll wonder where the actual game went.

I think that Blizzard have proved that their vision for the raid game does work. More people are raiding now in WoW than ever before. But they have also proved that raiding alone isn’t enough if they break the gear progression. One little raid instance can’t keep the entire player population happy until the next one.

As for progression itself, I wonder if ultimately the only progression that will count is social progress. Are you in a good guild? Do you have friends in the game? Those are things that genuinely take time and effort to build up, and unlike a raid instance, those things will not be reset in the next patch or the next expansion.