Gear Catch Up Versus Bolster
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2013, 11:31 pm
I've been spending some time working on the tips from Blizzard's official guide on "catching up to 5.3" to gather some of the endgame gear from the patches I didn't play at the time.  I'm enjoying most of the process and it's going reasonably quickly, but I can also see how a new player just looking to play current content with their friends would lose patience with even this significantly accelerated pace.  Is this system really better than just automatically bolstering characters up to the entry level gear - a mechanic we're seeing increasingly for PVP in other games?

The Catch Up Method
Blizzard's guide is helpful and I highly recommend it to anyone who does have a new max level character in World of Warcraft.  I also find it unfortunate that the developers of an MMO are in the position of having to write this document, and especially unusual that the authors are encouraging customers to skip so much of the content that Blizzard spent so much money developing.

To oversimplify greatly, the guide's main point is to get to the bare minimum gear level required for the computer to let you queue for the lowest level of the automated raid finder, and then take advantage of several mechanics that have made gearing up in these raids much faster than it was a year ago.   To this end, the authors identify several low-hanging fruit in the reward scale - the kind of advice that five years ago you'd read on a player site like Player Versus Developer, rather than having the developer themselves TELL you to do X content and not Y content because the rewards are better.  They even go so far as to suggest fooling their own queueing system by equipping easily obtained PVP gear - this stuff may actually be worse than the random quest rewards you already had on from leveling because some of its stat budget gets spent on PVP stuff, but the item level is high and this is all the group finder cares about. 

Personally, I don't feel that players who get something early, when doing so is hard, should have a right to demand that future players must work as hard for the same rewards.  However, when you consider how often WoW in particular resets its entire itemization curve, and how extreme the catch up curve is, it starts to seem like your accomplishments will be so temporary that it's hardly worth working for them - better to just show up at the end of the expansion, like I have, drive through quick to see all the sights once, and come back in a year or two for the end of the next expansion.  Meanwhile, the new or returning player is forced to spend time - the guide says a week or two but this appears to assume far more effort far more consistently than what I've been putting in - grinding dailies and running random groups until they have enough gear not to hinder their friends in current tier raid content. 

Bolster and other automated solutions
Just giving players the stats they need to do the content they want seems counterintuitive to a genre that is built on persistent character progression.  Then again, this has happened in a variety of settings - Guild Wars 2 in particular made a big deal of this feature - and in particular in PVP settings.

I'll pick on SWTOR for a moment because their situation has evolved - and brought with it some serious growing pains.  Like many games, SWTOR has a PVP-specific character statistic, which causes problems when placing new characters who do not have this stat against characters who are fully geared out - even if the newbie's gear is very good for normal gameplay, they will fare very poorly. 

Bioware's first attempt to solve this problem was to make the entry level PVP set available for relatively reasonable sums of credits.  Next, they moved to giving every new level 50 character a full set of entry level PVP gear for free (in the process significantly upgrading whatever random stuff you had on when you hit the cap).  In the new expansion, they started implementing an automated "bolster" system that is intended to scale your stats up to some baseline level.  There were many loopholes (i.e. better to go in naked than wearing mediocre gear, because this would get you an overcompensating bolster bonus) but it sounds like most of the issues have settled down.

The end result is that players show up in whatever gear they're wearing, but are boosted up to the amount of PVP stats found on the new entry-level set.  This begs the question of why that's a non-zero number to begin with, rather than just using the entry level as the baseline if you're going to set everyone to at least that number anyway.  Players can still spend PVP currency to get the entry level PVP gear - and I think the intent is for this to be slightly better than the automated bolstering - but the overall effect is that you should NOT need to go do something you do not want to do as a prerequisite to doing something you do want to do with your friends. 

The cost of NOT bolstering
Getting back to World of Warcraft for a moment, prior to the current expansion, the developers stated that about a third of the quests in the expansion pack were daily quests so that players working on any one faction would have a variety each day the logged in.  Today, the guidance straight from the developer is that all of this content is completely optional.  The 3-man scenarios and 5-man instances also seem to be things that you spend only brief time in if you really want to - the real rewards are quicker and easier if you somehow get into the raid finder.  

It just seems like such a waste.  Time and limited resources wasted by the developer on content that won't be worth doing in six months.  Time wasted by players grinding out gear, enchantments, etc, that will be blanked constantly.  Time spend playing but not enjoying the game in the notoriously reward motivated random groups (that would not exist if not for the daily rewards).  And - in my case as someone who actually likes small group content - entire chunks of the game that aren't worth doing because the raid finder is easier and more rewarding. 

Would it really be worse to take stats off of gear altogether, give everyone what they need to do the content they're trying to do, and let players spend as much time as possible doing what they want with the people they want? 

(P.S. Random speculation - a purely subscription game makes its money based on how long players spend playing, so it's especially odd to see the last big subscription game standing giving players advice on how to skip so much of the content.  Either the lost revenue for NOT handing out this advice is even worse - players burning out and quitting early - or perhaps Blizzard is thinking about laying the groundwork for a business model shift where their money is less proportional to time /played.) 

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