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For the past few weeks or so I have been playing Defiance. As a refresher, Defiance was a subscription-based, TV show tie-in shooter that has since gone F2P. The game plays and handles a lot like an over-the-shoulder Borderlands, in the sense that waves of enemies appear and are dispatched with a large assortment of random weapons.

In crowds, enemies become armor-plated bullet sponges.

In crowds, enemies become armor-plated bullet sponges.

At this point, I think the show is more popular than the game, and that is too bad. Defiance has story quests that are voice-acted and pretty-well put together. You get a vehicle almost immediately after character creation. There are a number of “arkfalls” at any given time, which are dynamic random events which tend to congregate players around specific points on the map. There are a bunch of (repeatable) side-quests which involve racing, sniping, and other such things.

That said, the biggest problem with Defiance is a more fundamental one: the game is only fun with a fun weapon.

Loot in Defiance is random, just like in Borderlands. There are a number of rarities and status effects and such, but the actual number of gun types are pretty well defined. In the course of my ~20 hours of play, my favorite loadout involves a machine gun that pretty much empties a full 75-bullet clip in three seconds and a shotgun that shoots grenades. I was having a lot of fun running around with these weapons when I got them, but as I have scaled higher in “EGO Rating” (roundabout levels) enemy health has scaled such that my favorite weapons are no longer viable. You can upgrade old weapons to near your EGO Rating, but you can only do so once. And I have since outleveled them again.

In the meantime, I am at the mercy of RNG dropping a higher-level version of the guns I enjoy, or really any weapon that is serviceable. There is somewhat of a push to make all of the weapons viable, but there isn’t much you can do to, say, pistols to make them fun to use. Even with super-high damage and a fast fire rate, you would likely be better off with a LMG with 10x the magazine size. Rocket Launchers face the same sort of issue with faster, higher magazine grenade launchers outputting more DPS overall while giving you a buffer in case you miss your shot.

To say nothing about, you know, a shotgun that shoots grenades with 12-14 rounds in a clip and a 250 shell capacity vs the smaller explosive round.

Oh, Von Bach, never change.

Oh, Von Bach, never change.

In any case, I’m not entirely sure how much longer I will be playing Defiance. As mentioned, the story scenes are actually quite amusing in the sarcastic banter sense, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes. The weapon issue though… it does make it difficult sometimes to slog through waves of enemies with crappy weapons to get there.

Borderlands 2 Masochism

I finally beat Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep a few nights ago. It was… painful.

The DLC itself was fine – it is humorous and touching and has a lot of D&D/MMO jokes. What ended up happening with my situation though is that I completed the DLC on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode, aka the highest difficulty (well, I guess it goes higher now). This decision was sort of cemented when one of the Treant mobs dropped The Bee, which is a legendary shield whose shield stats are kinda lame, but adds something like 50,000 damage per shot when you fire with full shields. Either intentionally or unintentionally, that extra 50k damage is added per bullet to my Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold (DPUK), which means mobs typically melted in the fury of 2+ million damage with each trigger pull.

Things got even more ridiculous when I acquired the Grog Nozzle, a quest gun that doesn’t deal a whole lot of damage by itself, but has a high chance of Slagging enemies (increasing subsequent damage by 200-300%) while also healing you for ~65% of the damage you deal with it equipped. Even more bizarrely, since it is technically a quest gun (that you can take anywhere) it doesn’t take up an inventory slot either.

The “painful” part to all this was simply playing the game at all. All non-legendary item drops were useless, especially any shields given how The Bee was pretty much required to deal damage. I did swap it out for a bit in a few areas, but I was leaning real hard on the DPUK to carry me through. Other weapons were pretty much a joke: dealing 32k/bullet damage is irrelevant to mobs with tens of millions of HP and the ability to regenerate health extremely quickly. At one point around level 54, I entertained the notion of going back to some of the DLCs to acquire some (upgraded) legendaries just to spice things up and not be shooting a pistol all day. The Sand Hawk would have been interesting, for example, as a submachine gun shooting bullets in the pattern of a bird flapping its wings. But that would mean extending my Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode stay in content I already seen twice now just to complete the current DLC after which I was likely to uninstall immediately.

All of this really struck home how important it is for games to have a smooth progression curve. Where I “screwed up” was hitting the level cap at the end of Mister Torgue’s DLC; thereafter I was stuck in a limbo of too-easy content on one side and content that’s designed to challenge the people who farmed legendaries at the old level cap. While I suppose the latter group needs catered to – especially given how they’re likely to be still playing, and thus willing to buy DLC – the end result is an extremely warped play experience. Your weapons are so strong because the enemies are ridiculous, and the ridiculous enemies makes your shields/HP basically irrelevant, which means you are awkwardly trying to dodge their melee/ranged attacks with generic movement, none of which really feels like Borderlands anymore.

By the way, calling it now: Borderlands 3 will have a more formal Dash/Dodge button, ala MMOs these days. If Gearbox doesn’t add this, it’ll be because they’re really dumb because goddamn precision movement is awkward and annoying right now for how much they require you to do it.

And have I mentioned that because the death penalty is a percentage of your wealth, that you end up losing $400,000 each time you respawn? There is also a few places with instant-death traps, which was a lot of fun not at all fun. Granted, you can’t really purchase anything for $5,000,000, but that’s another whole issue entirely. It kinda makes even picking up and vendoring loot a waste of time.

The more I think about it, the more I come to understand that Borderlands 2 basically ends at level 50. A full playthrough of the vanilla game will end around level 35, and that was a fun experience. After that? Still sorta fun, but the “optimal” path was going straight through the story missions again, skipping all sidequests, until you hit 2.5 mode at level 50. Then you can safely do sidequests for the unique rewards that would stay useful. Increasing the level cap basically screwed over everyone that hit the old cap without legendaries, as you get left with a Faustian bargain of farming bosses for hours or doing DLC missions for no reward.

So if you haven’t played Borderlands 2 yet and are waiting for the GotY edition, that is my advice: play the vanilla game while doing everything, then the DLCs in order, and then pat yourself on the back and be done with it. You can get 120 hours (or more) of play time like I did, but the you’ll face some pretty ridiculous diminishing returns on both fun and sanity.

Loot 2.0

The big news of the week has been Blizzard’s rather unprecedented decision to shut down the Diablo 3 AH in March of next year. While I suppose that the start of a new expansion is as good a time as any, I still find it interesting that they are bothering at all – a bit late to close those barn doors, yeah? Then again, I suppose with all the other changes they have made in the time since I stopped playing (a whole year ago?!), the “economy” has become more warped and functionally useless than before. Making it five feet in Act 2 Inferno used to require Resistance scores out the ass, but between the general elite nerfs, the player-decided mob-levels, and the Paragon system, you can probably make it through the game without buying anything.

You would still want to, of course. Even a child should be able to understand that a 5% chance at something good is worth less than buying exactly what you want from someone who was going to vendor the thing anyway. Or anyone playing the game for more than an hour during the open beta weekend, for that matter.

The question though, is what system will replace it? Apparently Blizzard feels it is Loot 2.0:

  • New game modes including Loot Runs with guaranteed special item drops when successfully completed.
  • Smart drops where a dropped item is guaranteed to roll the appropriate mainstat for the class that finds it.
  • Fewer but better item drops, where players will see far fewer items, but the items (especially the rares) will have better stats.
  • A new NPC Artisan, the Mystic who has the abiilty to reroll one selected affix on an item.
  • Legendary (including Set Items) will get an across the board quality buff.
    • Legendary items will drop more often, especially for lower level characters with guaranteed legendary drops from the first kill of many story/quest bosses.
    • Legendary items will roll with less low-end variability, to reduce the likelihood that they are complete junk.
    • Legendary items will gain variable item levels with stats scaling appropriately — current high level items legendaries will drop on lower difficulties and low level Legendaries will drop in the end game. All stats on these items will scale up or down to be appropriate for the level of the monster that drops them.

Item binding is going to be a key feature of Loot 2.0, with some of the found items, and most or all of the crafted items or items upgraded with the Mystic gaining BoA or BoE to restrict them from being traded or sold. Full details are not yet finalized.

I counted three instances of the word “guaranteed” in there. Not something I usually associate with Diablo games, but hey.

While the above is not an exhaustive list of the Loot 2.0 paradigm – I’m pretty sure that not even Blizzard knows what else they’ll toss against the wall before March – we can see the sort of trajectory taking shape. What is a huge unknown to me though, is what exactly Blizzard plans to do with all the gold left in the economy when the AH doors close. Will the Mystic be an expensive gold sink? That might work… but what about the people who haven’t stockpiled? Will the feature not be for them? Between that and the possible stockpiling of crafting materials, I almost have to assume that Blizzard plans a “currency reset” with the expansion, to go with the inevitable gear reset that comes with an increased level cap.

In any case, watching things play out this week has been interesting while playing Path of Exile on the side. I mentioned before that PoE has something more akin to a lore-based barter economy, but I am finding it even more interesting than before. Effectively, I find myself rolling my own loot back in town when I go to vendor things. Useful Magic/Rare/Unique items do drop out in the wild, but I am finding that the addition of colored gem slots adds another depressing layer of randomness to everything; a given item might be awesome for your class/build, but if it is replacing an item with a good spell-gem configuration, you might end up banking it instead. While there are “currency” items that can add/change sockets, I am finding it almost easier to hold onto normal items with good sockets and then spend my “money” turning that into a Magic/Rare item instead.

That can sort of happen in Diablo 3’s crafting system, but it lacks the granularity and impressive nuance that PoE brings to the table. Scrapping four items to get another shot at getting a useful fifth isn’t the same as being able to choose to reroll an item’s magic properties, adding a new property, adding sockets, adding connections between sockets, changing a socket’s color, and/or stripping the item clean and then possibly rerolling it into a Rare/Unique.

Can I also just mention how addicting just leveling in Path of Exile can be? It’s the standard sort of hack-n-slash, but since your gems can level up too, it feels like I “level” a half-dozen times every 30-40 minutes. “Getting kinda sleepy and I still have 8 bars before level 24. Oh, wait, there’s like a centimeter left on my Raise Zombie gem XP bar. Hmm… let’s go clear out the NW corner.”

But, yeah, loot systems. Borderlands 2 is feeling pretty archaic right now in comparison.

Item Build Paradigms

As you may recall, I have been having a rough time in Borderlands 2. I bought the Season Pass back when I bought the original game, but sort of let things slide somewhere around 95 hours /played, about the time the Hammerlock campaign was released. My main issue, aside from general burnout, was that my character is Zer0, the melee-based ninja/sniper character. Simply put, I was having a hard time surviving in the extended difficulties as someone either in the middle of the action (where mistakes kill you quickly) or trying to snipe when 10 people are shooting at you (whom are extremely accurate with their assault weapons).

Now, I can already hear those of you in the audience: “But, Az, Zer0 is like one of the strongest characters in the game! He can solo the raid bosses!” Sure he can… with a very specific loadout of Legendary/Unique weapons, which either requires luck, grinding, duping, or all three. While I am obviously not allergic to chasing gear drops in games, in this instance all I really wanted to do was finish the Hammerlock DLC and then complete Tiny Tina’s Dragon Keep DLC. You know, at a level in which it’d be challenging and rewarding too – there isn’t any real reason to blow through it on Normal or anything.

Unfortunately, I was stuck between a rock and Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode (UVHM). I beat the game on True Vault Hunter Mode (TVHM) way back when, plowed through it again in “2.5” mode where everything is scaled up to level 50 (the cap at the time), leaving all of the sidequests alone so that I could give myself the option of getting the highest-level versions of the various unique gear. Hell, I even farmed the last boss a few times. UVHM steps it up a few notches though, including a level cap increase, and basically makes Slag elemental weapons (which increase the damage of all other sources) required. Not only did I not really have any of those weapons, my current gear was simply not cutting it… or anything, really.

This past weekend, I finally decided I was going to give it one more shot. My plan of action was to grind to level 51 and then cash in my ~40 Golden Keys and hope that the level-cap inflation on guns would give me something worth shooting. Since I was grinding anyway, I decided to do so in the Torgue DLC, in the repeatable Bar Brawl quest area; each run gives you special DLC currency to purchase, among other things, an Unkempt Harold, e.g. a Legendary everyone seems to use.

So I did. And got it. And now it feels like a whole different game.

The basic gist is that the gun says it deals ~14k damage per shot, but the “bullet” is actually a missile that splits off into 3, 5, and 7 missiles depending on how much distance it gets before impact. The Double Penetrating Unkempt Harold, which is the version I got, does the same thing x2. So, depending on how close something is, a shot from this pistol deals ~196,000 damage. Meanwhile, my best rocket launcher deals 226,000, with a 3-round clip and 7.4 second reload speed. I can carry 700 pistol rounds and reload in under 2 seconds. I could technically pick up another Unique item from a sidequest (The Bee shield) which would add something crazy-stupid like 40,000 damage to my bullets – which ends up being added to each bullet from the Unkempt Harold – but it is already making my TVHM-ish run somewhat of a joke.

What all of this is making me realize is that I don’t like this paradigm. Specifically: the gear-based-build paradigm. “Get item X and now you can do build Y.” Another of the items I picked up was a weapon (the Rubi) that gives heals you for 12% of the damage you inflict while having it equipped. It is another of the sort of “required” weapons for endgame Zer0 builds, as you can abuse the life-gain by dealing melee or grenade damage; the gun itself will never hold a candle to others, but firing one and then swapping back to it before impact will still basically let you heal to full. Combined with the “health-gating” hidden mechanic that prevents you from being one-shot (50% + 1 HP and you will survive any hit), this lets Zer0 basically melee raid bosses.

The problems, as always, are A) getting the gear and B) what to do until you get the gear. I am 100% for different character builds. I don’t even have much of an issue with talent choices leading to different stat weightings, e.g. choosing Talent X makes Haste worth more than Crit or whatever. But building an entire character around single pieces of (rare) equipment? That feels awful to me. Either you don’t have the item yet, in which case you feel weak/incomplete, or you do get the item and suddenly everything else that drops is useless/unrewarding. Plus, there is the whole side-effect of the fact that your character identity feels weakened or nonexistent; do my character choices even matter in the face of my item collection? Am I Zer0 at all, or am I simply “some dude with a Rubi and DPUK?

I decided to take a break from Borderlands 2, and started playing Path of Exile as a backup game. And… whoops! Just like many hack-n-slash games, it too features rare items that you can/should/(have to?) build entire characters around. Because that’s fun. To someone. Sigh.

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.

Raid Finder: Day One

I used the Raid Finder for the very first time on Monday night. It was an… instructive experience.



One thing that I learned about myself is the fact that I felt compelled to seek out raid videos/strategies even for LFR difficulty. It is not (just) about insulating myself from group embarrassment, it is about mitigating that awful feeling of not knowing what I am doing. I hate that feeling. At first I believed the feeling to be unique to multiplayer games, as I certainly do not hit up GameFAQs or Wikis the moment I get to a boss fight in a single-player game. Indeed, wouldn’t that be cheating? Or, at least, cheating myself from the actual game.

But you know what? I hate that feeling even in single-player games. If I am dying to a boss repeatedly and have no idea why, or there does not seem to be any clues as to different strategies I could try, I most certainly hit up Wikis. I enjoy logic puzzles as much as (or more than) the next guy, but I must feel certain that logic is applicable to the situation. With videogames, that is not always a given: quests that you cannot turn in because you didn’t trip a programming “flag” by walking down a certain alleyway or whatever. There was a Borderlands 2 quest that I simply looked up on Youtube because I’ll be damned if I walk across every inch of a cell-shaded junkyard for an “X” mark after already spending 10 minutes looking it over. Playing “Where’s Waldo” can be entertaining, but not when you have to hold the book sideways and upside down before Waldo spawns… assuming you are even looking at the right page.

I digress.

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Things got off to a nice start in LFR when the dog fight consisted of just tanking all three dogs in a cleave pile the entire time. The second boss seemed to have an inordinate amount of health, but he too dropped without doing much of note. I died twice to some insidious trash on the way to the troll boss; those bombs are simply stupid in a 25m setting, as I found it difficult to even see them among all the clashing colors and spell effects. Final boss dropped pretty quickly as well, although I almost died a few times towards the end once people stopped coming into the spirit world with me.

By the way, the queue for the 1st raid finder was 15 minutes for DPS. Might have been a “Monday before the reset” thing.

I joined a guild healer for the 2nd raid finder immediately afterwards, although the average wait time of 43 seconds was a bit off. Was killed by a combination of friendly fire and damage reflection during the first boss, but he otherwise went down quickly. I managed to avoid falling to my death during Elegon (thanks Icy-Veins!), but was killed by an add the 2nd tank never picked up; that will teach me to do something other than tunnel the boss. The third boss… made little sense. I spent a lot of time killing adds, as I could not quite understand what was up with the Devastating Combo thing other than I must have been doing it wrong. Eons later, the bosses died.

It is becoming somewhat of a running joke for my guildies since coming back on how much random loot I pull in. The prior week I got ~8 drops from my first 5 random dungeons, for example. This time around I got three epics from my first two LFR forays, all three of which came from the bonus rolls. I was not around for the Cata LFR days, but suffice it to say, I would not have likely came away with that much loot in a more traditional PuG.

Overall, LFR was a pleasant experience. While I can certainly empathize with the criticism of LFR – it was pretty ridiculously easy – I can definitely see the logic behind Blizzard’s moves here. Some raid is better than no raid, low-pop realms like Auchindoun-US wouldn’t support a robust raid PuG community, and to an extent even the “nothing ever drops!” LFR sentiment encourages organized guild raiding in a roundabout manner. Whether this remains satisfying in any sort of long-term manner remains to be seen, but honestly, it is better than the alternative of… what else, exactly? Running dungeons ad infinitum?

Speaking of Rorschach Tests

Ghostcrawler made another community blog post about the Great Item Squish (or Not) of Pandaria. I read it, went “Yep, tis a pickle,” and moved on. Motstandet of That’s a Terrible Idea instead went on a bizarre rant:

Unquestioning and steadfast in their decisions, the WoW designers make seemingly contradictory choices. Why doesn’t GC want level 85’s to do higher level content? I could only assume it’s so players do the leveling “content” first. Yet they constantly assault the leveling game, […]

The article goes on, discussing various methods which could bandage WoW’s broken attribute system, and then he unloads this gem: “If your answer is that stat budgets don’t have to grow so much in order for players to still want the gear, our experience says otherwise.” Silly plebes with your naive remedies; I have data to dismiss your predictable suggestions!

Ignoring the arrogance, what metrics could they possibly have to discredit this simple solution?

I answered the post over there, but I think it is useful to talk about some of the underlying design issues of expansion-based themepark MMOs.

Design Issue 1: The “assault” on the leveling game.

The matter of pacing is of huge concern in videogame design. Even in single-player RPGs (or really any game), you still see the steady metering of items and abilities as the game progresses; going from Stone Sword –> Iron Sword –> Steel Sword and so on. I do not think I played even a FPS where I had access to all the guns in the game right off the bat. By handing out new guns or powers or abilities in a measured way, the player has time to focus on useful applications of said gun/power/ability before deciding which one(s) they want to use.

So given that, why does Blizzard continually assault the leveling game with patch notes such as “The amount of experience needed to gain levels 71 through 80 has been reduced by approximately 33%?” The issue is twofold.

First, look at the experience from a brand new player or even potential player perspective. The designers may have crafted the original WoW leveling experience to take an average of 300 hours to go from 1-60. In other words, the designers felt that 300 hours was a long enough journey to get to the endgame. When expansions are released though, an additional 50 hours is added to the leveling experience and the endgame moves farther along the timeline. Assuming that each expansion adds another 50 hours and no other changes were made, someone picking up all the WoW boxes would be staring at a 500 hour leveling wall come Mists of Pandaria.

So, assuming that 300 hours is a sweet-spot of sorts, it makes sense to truncate the leveling experience so that it always takes 300 hours to get to the endgame. The alternative of doing nothing means that all the commercial and word-of-mouth advertising would be concerning (endgame) content a new player would have to spend weeks and weeks getting to.

This is not to suggest there are not side-effects to XP reduction, such as out-leveling a zone before all the quests are complete. Then again, as long as the quests are sufficiently non-linear, why should anyone care? After all, skipped content adds to replayability. It is not entirely different from RPGs today with optional side-quests and how you can beat the game without being max level.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, one has to look at the experience from a veteran player perspective. I say “more importantly” because there are more ex-WoW players than WoW players, and thus more people who have already experienced the leveling content at least once. If I want to experience the endgame as a different class, each expansion makes the decision to roll an alt even more difficult – every hour I spend leveling an alt is an hour I potentially fall behind in progression (which is, incidentally, why it is useful to have diminishing returns and plateaus). While it is important to pace the game for new players, it makes less sense to do so for players who already learned all the lessons a slow pace was designed to encourage. I may not have ever played a druid, but I played a rogue, a warrior, and a shaman, so pacing things like I have no idea how to move around simply makes me bored and impatient.

So why doesn’t Blizzard simply make a Death Knight option (starting at level 55) for all classes? Good question. I wish they would. Heirlooms were a rather brilliant “solution” insofar as they took something they were going to do anyway – reducing XP required – and then made you spend time buying them, rather than getting them for free. That being said, from a business standpoint there is still probably value for them to have me spend 20+ hours leveling up as that is time spent in-game in those leveling ranges, making things there a little less of a ghost town.

Design Issue 2: Why not just have flatter progression?

Well, if you noticed, Blizzard is kinda doing this already. The standard ilevel upgrade between tiers used to be 13 ilevels, but now it is closer to 7 ilevels. Moreover, Blizzard combined 25m and 10m gear, so that instead of four tiers between raids, there are only two.

The problem with flatter progression is that it, in effect, removes “content.” To understand this point, let us all acknowledge what really is going on under a random loot system: the loot is random so as to give you a reason to beat a boss more than once. If the boss had “smart loot” that only dropped items tailored to the raid who defeated it, that raid would have less reasons to kill that boss week after week. As long as you continue to care about the loot a boss has, that boss remains legitimate “content” to you. I keep putting air quotes around the word “content,” because let’s face it, in every other scenario the only reason you would want to kill the same boss again is if it was fun to do so.

Another issue is when there simply is not enough of difference between gear to matter… or when older items are better. Spending weeks on a boss to gain +2 Strength is not my idea of a productive use of my free time, even if objectively there is no difference between that and +20 Strength. The way something feels is as important (if not more so) than the objective measure. There is a good reason why things are priced at $9.99 instead of $10, after all.

Flatter progression though also leads to those scenarios in which older items were strictly better than newer ones. Before relics were changed to be stat sticks, the Holy paladin Libram of Renewal reduced the mana cost of Holy Light by 113. That relic was available from the beginning vendors in T7 content and ended up being Best-in-Slot for (nearly?) the entire expansion. And yet Blizzard designed and itemized Holy paladin librams for T8, T9, and T10. If you used those, you were actually doing it wrong. And while new paladins could always just buy the T7 libram, there were situations in WoW’s past where an older item remained BiS (Dragonspine Trophy) and basically led to people farming obsolete content for years. That is not my particular idea of a good time, especially when you were basically farming an item for just a handful of people.

The Design Solution: Business (Mostly) As Usual

To be honest, I don’t think there is much different that Blizzard should have done. There were missteps for sure, such as when they introduced hardmode raiding in the middle of Wrath and had itemization quickly spiral out of control. But from a player experience, I was very grateful that my having Lich King loot did not trivialize Cataclysm leveling content the same way my having TBC gear left me slogging through hundreds of Northrend quests with zero upgrades. I can empathize with people who have all their hard work rendered moot each expansion/tier, but I also believe that the alternative is worse.

If Sisyphus had to look at the entire mountain each time instead of just focusing on pushing the boulder, I don’t think he’d ever make it to the top.

That being said, there shouldn’t be an issue with Blizzard introducing an option to slow down leveling much like they have an option to currently turn off XP gain entirely. And I would also like to see a Hero Class solution for veterans, possibly via the Cash Shop.