Gearscore, and why we need to evaluate other players

The rot set in as soon as Blizzard allowed players to check each others gear. Adding achievements to the game and then conveniently storing everyone’s statistics on the Armoury were just the icing on the cake. It was only  a matter of time before addon writers figured out ways to automate these gear checks to make it easier and simpler to give another player the thumbs up or thumbs down for whatever group content you were planning to do.

Enter Gearscore, an addon which neatly totals some arbitrary ratings for each piece of gear (probably based on item level, which is fair game since Blizzard use it too) and sums it all up into a single gear score. If you have this addon installed, all you have to do is mouse over another player or their name in a group or raid and you’ll get the gearscore number. The latest version of Gearscore also hooks into one of the popular damage meters (recount) so presumably it is also going to try to gauge dps … or something like that.

There’s nothing controversial in making up arbitrary numbers to prove how badass you are or aren’t, but naturally players are now using the gearscore as a gating mechanism for PUG invites. I haven’t seen this so much on my server but it’s right up there with ‘show your achievement’ on others. Of course the number doesn’t adequately represent a player’s skill. Of course it can be arbitrary. Of course there can be some items which work better for a spec/class than the higher gearscore ones. So the harder nosed players criticise the use of the gear score, it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Yes, it’s unfriendly to new players who are just going to the right places to gear up. Although it’s hard to really argue this point with the influx of badges from the dungeon finder these days (pro tip: run Oculus :) ).

But there is another side to this. WoW, and MMORPGs like it, are gear based games. Part of your skill as a player is knowing what the best gear is for your class/spec and knowing how to acquire it. And sometimes, gear really is a gating factor. Given two players of similar skill, the one with the better gear will perform better; that’s hard coded into the game.

Of course looking at a single number is no substitute for checking over someone’s gear in person, if you really want to be sure that they understand their class (note: you will also need to understand their class if you hope to make any sense out of this.) And of course a poor player with badly chosen gear could still have a good gear score.

Gear Score isn’t a guaranteed way to show whether someone is a good player or not. It can be gamed in a lot of ways, and it will also miss a LOT of great players whose gear choices just aren’t recognised properly by the addon. A lot of players dislike it for that reason – Aislinana at Empowered Fire writes a spirited and well argued dismissal of the addon.

But the reason the addon has taken off is because it helps automate a task that PUG raid leaders need to do. They need to evaluate possible members before they invite them, so that they can try to put together a successful raid.Gear is a part of that, experience is a part of that (hence why people ask to see achievements), and when dealing with strangers, that’s pretty much all you have to go on. This is why in a lot of PUGs, the leader will ask existing members to ask around their guild for possible interest before they dive back into one of the world channels to look for random players.

It does feel unfair if you know perfectly well that you could perform well in that raid or group, and are being rejected because of some addon or lack of achievement. But put yourself in that raid leader’s place. Maybe you don’t want to have to explain the encounter to people who haven’t seen it before, maybe you just want a quick smooth run. The easiest way to ensure that is to take well geared people who have seen the raid before. Or poke your social network and trust your friends to recommend other people who will also perform well. The addons take the place of personal recommendations. And just as one of your friends can recommend a partner who actually turns out to be a rubbish healer (for example), the addons can make mistakes too.

One thing is for sure though, this need to evaluate random players isn’t going to go away. Raid leaders need to do this. Even the nicest players in the world can’t carry someone through a difficult raid, whether they want to or not. And if addons can make this job less onerous then people will use them even if the addon is programmed to be cautious and reject players who would be perfectly fine in the raid.

We could ask why people are so risk averse in MMOs. The answer might simply be … because they can. The great success of the random dungeon finder is simply that it is now easier to get a group and run an instance than to painstakingly evaluate four other people. ie. even if someone in the group is undergeared or underskilled, it’s quicker and easier for the others to just take them along than to be picky about looking for replacemnet.s

The only real question is what arbitrary way to evaluate their fellow players will people think of next? Nibuca writes at Mystic Chicanery about an alternative evaluation addon that she’s tried called Elitist Group (this one lets you save notes about different players after having grouped with them.)

So what can you do if you are hitting the gear score ceiling?

Firstly, don’t stress over being turned down for groups. Shrug and move on. Wish them luck if you are feeling polite. Particularly don’t stress out if their requirements were stupidly high, it’s their raid and their loss.

Secondly, work on your gear. Even if you know it isn’t necessary, you might as well collect more emblems and see if there are any easily available upgrades you might want. Don’t fool yourself that you’re such a great player that gear doesn’t matter – in a gear based game, all you are doing is making things harder for yourself.

Third, try to make some friends on your server. Maybe join a guild that does occasional raids for newer player or alts. Offer to help PUG raids that are less geared than you are.

Fourth, keep an eye open for people looking to fill PUG raids. Particularly the weekly raid quests, which are often to easier instances. When a raid is almost full, raid leaders will be more open to relaxing their initial requirements so that they can get things going. But if you do this, try to sound polite and as though you know what you are doing, and take it nicely if you are turned down.

Fifth, consider whether you want to start your own raid. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know the raid instance, but there’s plenty of information around online if you fancy your chances.

It will work out. It just might not work out immediately.

My love of multi-phase boss fights

I first got the notion of multi-phase boss fights from kids cartoons. In Battle of the Planets, when a fight got really bad the various team members would combine their powers and turn their ship into the awesome fiery phoenix … which would then kick serious arse.

Admittedly I didn’t think “Hm, a 2 phase boss fight. Note to self: make sure lazydin puts up fire resist aura in phase 2,” but that was because I didn’t have the wealth of raid leading experience then that I do now. Also they were the heroes so you weren’t really supposed to spend too much time thinking about how you’d fight them. (Am I the only person who spent serious amounts of time as a kid thinking of ways to confound Doctor Who in case I grew up to be a space baddie?)

This weekend we had some good attempts at the 10 man Trial of the Grand Crusader (ie. heroic edition), and it brought home to me how much I prefer leading progression raids through multi-phase encounters to single phase ones.  The reason is because it is much easier for everyone in the raid to get some feedback on how we are progressing. If you start the night with wipes at about 5s into phase 1 and end the night getting solidly into phase 3 on every attempt than everyone can feel as though it was a good solid night of learning. Even though you might not have actually killed the boss.

I think this is key to the idea of making learning fun in groups. After each failure, you get to tweak something about the raid or the tactics and try again, and get some instant feedback about whether that helped or not. The phases help by ringfencing different parts of the fight. It’s a more interesting way to judge how the learning is going than saying ‘We got him to 42% that time, that’s a 2% improvement in efficiency over the previous attempt.’

Also the WoW raid fights tend to have fairly spectacular phase change animations which at least keep everyone awake. Or give them a chance to adlib amusing commentary to the inevitable long speeches and keep everyone else awake.

On the other hand, I’m not so fond of the phases on farm raids where I have to actually explain them to the person who hasn’t been there before and didn’t read up on the tactics. The worst WoW culprit I can remember was the 5-phase horror of Zul’jin. Firstly it wasn’t that fun of a fight anyway but you also couldn’t really expect a newbie to remember 5 phases worth of instructions (cluster on this phase, spread out on this phase, run away from whirlwinds in this phase, etc etc) off the bat.

Our raid leader wrote a macro for that one in the end.