The complexity, it burns! Do you use gear lists?

We know that players love collecting gear because devs tell us so. It isn’t just so that we can customise how our characters look, but  so that we can tweak their stats as well. Even City of Heroes which always shunned the gear upgrade option has  stat-items that you can slot in to improve your skills.

So it’s a very common in-game decision point to pick up a new piece of gear and ask ‘Is this better than what I have now?’

In fact, it’s one of the classic MMO questions. Games are designed so that you have to ask this a lot (i.e. every time you get a drop, there is a decision making process). This is in the same way that the classic player question in a RPG is ‘what do I see?’ Or the classic GM question is ‘what do you want to do next?’

So how do you go about answering that question?

  • Maybe check how the gear looks if the game gives a preview option.
  • Maybe you have a rough idea which stats are best for your class so you can quickly compare.
  • Maybe you ask a friend (or your guild).
  • Maybe you did your homework in advance and already have a shopping list of items you want.
  • Maybe you have an addon which helps crunch the numbers.
  • Maybe you look it up on a website where someone else has calculated long lists of ‘best in slot’ gear.

If you find yourself drifting towards the lower half of that list, it means you needed to do some work outside the game to make that in-game decision. I personally think that gear is more fun when I feel competent to make a snap choice rather than go in with a shopping list approach. But I know for some collector types, they like to tick things off on lists.

In some ways, gear sets (ie. tier sets or matching sets) provide a game-generated shopping list. They don’t even need to be great in their own right to hit the ‘gotta have them all’ collector instinct. But in general, designers like to leave the gear complexity as a toy for players to play with.

But the one thing you do know is that to keep the decision making interesting, there need to be some bad options. Some poorly itemised gear. Some drops which are absolutely worse than what you currently are using. And if you grab one of those and sell your old gear, you’ll never get it back. It’s not necessarily a critically bad decision, there will always be more gear in future, but it may be an irrevocable one.

The complexity curve

Back in my pen and paper days, I did some writing for GURPS. It’s a universal RPG system that covers just about every genre imaginable with a variety of rules and background supplements. And they had one rulebook which was an odd outlier in rule complexity. GURPS Vehicles gave really complex rules for generating just about any type of vehicle you needed in a game – it had lots of physics based rules to make sure that you didn’t generate anything wildly implausible (for some value of wildly implausible). You really needed a spreadsheet to work it properly.

And we always expressed surprise that they were still selling it. None of the other rulebooks came close in complexity. It was just a strange case. But in fact, at the time, that rulebook was one of their strongest and most consistent sellers. There was a core of players who adored the complexity and were happy to sit around creating vehicles, whether or not they actually played the rest of the game. Some of them posted up their designs for other people to use or took requests from other games. They liked it as its own minigame.

So you get this odd complexity curve where things become more and more complex and then … people decide it’s too much hassle and go look it up instead, and only hardcore complexity fiends do the number crunching.

I know that I’ve been using gear lists for awhile in WoW. We don’t receive that many drops and I need to spend my hard-earned DKP to win one so I just want to get the best value that I can. And not feel like a lemon for missing a great item because I didn’t get how the stats worked.

But I feel lazy when I use gear lists. It’s taken the decision making part of the game away from me. Sure, I could do it myself but I’m not up for making complex spreadsheets (especially when I know that other people have done them better – see: landsoul’s dps warrior spreadsheet for example). I wanted to play an MMO, not a spreadsheet. Is that really so unreasonable?

Gear is fun. Upgrades are fun. But crazy complexity is only fun for a small minority. Do you use external addons or gear lists to help decide if a new item is better or worse than what you already have?