Figuring out how to get the right gear in World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is a chore. It's not hard to get gear, as most of the PvE and PvP content in WoW offers some kind of reward. Having spent some time away from the launch of Battle for Azeroth, I've returned to a game that feels more complex and obtuse. If you want to be efficient, you can't just play the game-you have to dive into a site like Wowhead to know exactly what gear is where.
At the end of last week, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth director Ion Hazzikostas sat down for a Q&A session about Patch 8.1.5, entitled Tides of Vengeance. The livestream session covered the new story and raid content, while also addressing the new season of PvP. During the event, Hazzikostas spoke on gear for both sides of World of Warcraft.
PvE: No Points With the Random Number God
One question tackled PvE, asking for the return of the Valor Point system. Valor Points are a system that had roots in Burning Crusade's Badge of Justice. In that expansion, players could run Heroic dungeons and raids each week, and if a boss didn't drop their chosen gear at random, they'd still be rewarded with one or two Badges of Justice. Once you had a number of them, they could be traded in at a vendor for armor similar to what would be dropped at random.
Badges of Justice gave way to various Emblems in Wrath, followed by another replacement, Justice and Valor Points, in Cataclysm. Valor Points were shifted slightly in Mists of Pandaria: you could also use them to upgrade the item level of existing Epic equipment. Both systems meant that if the Random Number God wasn't in your favor, you'd still eventually get something. They were removed in Warlords of Draenor. In Battle for Azeroth, the "upgrade" side of gear is Titanforging, which is a completely random process.
"Before Titanforging existed, even when Valor Points were present as upgrade currency in Mists of Pandaria, when you're in month five of a five-month raid tier, you probably don't need a whole lot in the way of upgrades. The way that used to work is you'd go into a raid and you'd know that 'Boss #4 drops pants for me and if I get my leggings, I get my upgrade.' If the boss doesn't have my item, I'm getting nothing for the rest of the raid. That could be demoralizing as well. Titanforging to some extent was an answer to that problem," said Hazzikostas.
Hazzikostas explained that part of the issue with the old system is allowing players to manually upgrade gear means that item levels need bigger jumps between raid tiers. The team at Blizzard Entertainment currently shoots for a jump of 30 item levels between tiers-30 ilvl is the smallest jump that feels meaningful according to the developer-and allowing more player upgrades would require boosting that to 45 ilvl. The other issue is these upgrades meant that players sometimes jumped into the next tier at a higher level than intended, making the content trivial.
"This isn't something that's off the table," Hazzikostas admitted. "I could see us doing something like this again, but I think it would make sense for the last tier of an expansion, where we have that longer tail, but we don't have to worry about how we replace this all for the next raid."
Part of the issue here and something that I'm running into as a more casual player now, is figuring out which content to target. World of Warcraft's progression PvE content now stretches across several levels, which just adds to the complexity.
So let's outline the item levels of gear available in the current patch of Battle for Azeroth: dungeons come in Normal (ilvl 310), Heroic (325), Mythic (340), and Mythic+ (375-410). The current Dazar'alor raid has four different modes: Raid Finder (370), Normal (385), Heroic (400), and Mythic (415). As far as miscellaneous content goes, World quest rewards can go up to 340, Island Expeditions are 325, Incursions are 385, and World Bosses stretch from 355-400. Reading that entire list and putting it all back-to-back is already giving me a headache.
It's hard to jump into World of Warcraft today and just know where to go and what to do that will still provide a good upgrade. The benefit of the Valor Points system is everything offered a certain number of points, regardless of whatever other rewards it dropped, and that all fed into the vendors. No matter what you did fed into the upgrade system, which was much easier to keep track of. Yes, some content offered more points, but you were always pointed in the right direction.
With Battle for Azeroth, there is varying gear across so much content that the clarity of progression is gone. In contrast, older expansions like Wrath of the Lich King only offered Normal and Heroic 5-man dungeons, and 10- or 25-man raids; progression was an easier matter overall. I understand the desire behind having so many dungeon and raid types-not to mention other additional content-but perhaps it's time for a bit of compression. When I go back to competing MMOs like Final Fantasy 14 or The Elder Scrolls Online, I feel like there's less hassle in figuring out where I'm going next. Execution should be key, but simply determining is the next step.
I also understand the issue with a system like Valor Points, but benefit is allowing all that effort spent doing Mythic dungeons and raids each week to actually add up to something eventually. The current system forces players to deal with two levels of randomness: the chance of gear dropping and any potential Titanforging. If you win the lottery, great! But if you don't, you're just waiting, frustrated. At least with some sort of currency, even if you lose the lottery, you'll eventually see a small payday.
PvP: The Rigid Conquest Schedule
Over on the PvP side of World of Warcraft, vendors have been cut completely as well. PvP players actually do get the currency I outlined above with Conquest points, which are rewarded in various amount for participating in Battlegrounds, Arenas, and Incursions. What's changed is a lack of vendors to trade in Conquest for particular rewards. Instead, there's the new Conquest schedule: each week, WoW offers a specific set of item choices each week for hitting the maximum cap of Conquest point.
Players have asked for a return of the PvP vendors, because the schedule means a lack of control. If you want the ilvl 385 Chest for example, then you need to play in Week 5, as opposed to just playing whenever you want to and hopefully working your way up to it.
"We understand the value of a vendor is the feeling of control. The feeling that you can determine the path of your gear and what you're going to seek out when. The system that we're pursuing is recreating and trying to deliver all of those upsides through a system that's a bit more transparent. You should be able to hand pick the pieces that you want for given slots," said Hazzikostas.
Interestingly, he noted that part of the problem Blizzard has with vendors is "a certain level of obscurity." The vendors have to exist in a certain spot in the world, and if you don't know where they are, you can't pick up your rewards. Players counter the Conquest schedule isn't actually listed within World of Warcraft itself, also requiring a new player to hop outside of the game for information.
Part of the reason for the change is the flattening of gear types: there used to be PvE gear and PvP gear, each with different stats. With Battle for Azeroth, all gear is the same, allowing players to jump from PvE to PvP without the gear-switching hassle. Hazzikostas said this lowers the barriers to PvP, but the problem is PvP's rewards schedule has to now take into account PvE progression. The Conquest schedule gives developers control over where PvP players are in terms of gear.
So for the PvE players, the gear progression is too obtuse. For PvP players, in order to make things less obscure, control is actually taken away from players. On both sides, players lack clarity in terms of further progression, and when you don't know where to go next, you're more likely to just stop playing altogether. And to paper over some of the issues in clarity, Blizzard's set to offer things like catch-up gear or more choices on the Conquest schedule.
In my head, I'm thinking "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but it sounds like Blizzard was privy to balancing issues I didn't have to deal with as a player. But the answer isn't to shift the burden over to the player. As World of Warcraft gets older, I think simplicity becomes even more important, because you're dealing with more players who are returning after a long hiatus. Battle for Azeroth keeps adding more systems and content, but it might be time to start thinking about a bit of pruning and looking back to past systems that might've worked for players. The latest expansion has had its stumbles, but I think knuckling down on some of these issues might lead to another Legion-like revitalization of what World of Warcraft is for players.