Ghostcrawler recently wrote an interesting blog post about the problem of item level inflation over the course of expansions. It’s a post that hit close to my heart, not only due tothe copious graphs, but also because it addresses some fairly significant problems in PvP – problems which, frankly, don’t exist in PvE.
Item levels have risen over the course of Warcraft’s development to convey a sense of increased power and character growth. Because the stats on the gear rose, damage rose – but so did the health pools of the monsters for that expansion. And, due to the diminishing effects of combat statistics, characters didn’t get any more effective as they leveled up, but instead became less effective as they entered a new expansion until they returned to their previous peak. This creates a strange illusion of getting more powerful in relation to older content, while actually becoming less effective in several key areas.
When you level from one expansion to another, each statistic becomes less effective in order to yield the same result. For example, when you level from 70 to 74, the same gear becomes about 25% less effective for certain key stats like Haste and Resilience. Even when you don’t move between expansions this is true – a level 10 character with 90% Haste will have 22% Haste at level 14 in the same gear – but between expansions it’s especially dramatic.
Expansions are the big culprit with power expansion in Warcraft, as each new expansion comes out with bigger stats, bigger damage and health pool numbers, and an increasingly huge disparity between the new and the old.
This chart from Ghostcrawler’s post helps show the stat inflation. It’s a good way to focus the discussion on the impending stat inflation which lies ahead in Mists of Pandaria if they don’t make any changes. If we carry forward his projections, the next line on the chart is going to go straight up and hit item level 600 in 5 short levels.
Put it another way – we could be looking at tanks with 500k… 750k… 1 million health… by the end of the next expansion. In PvP, we’re probably looking at around 400k to 500k health pools, and damage to match.
Let that sink in.
Ghostcrawler walks through two proposed solutions to this inflation:
- Mega Damage: keep the scale the same, but represent the numbers with (effectively) scientific notation.
- The Great Item Level Squish: adjust the game so item levels are flatter, except at the very end of the current expansion.
Both of these have some interesting pros and cons.
Mega Damage doesn’t change the underlying structure of the game, but rather presents it differently to players. Much like boss health is now represented by millions, the UI would be adjusted to present big numbers in a smarter fashion. This is relatively easier to implement, which means more developer resources spent on making new content (which is a good thing.) But it also fails to address the past and present issues introduced by item inflation, as well as ignoring the future computational issues when we’re dealing with really huge numbers for the smallest actions.
The Great Item Level Squish is a more involved solution; by reducing the item levels of gear through the leveling process, the entire game can then be retuned so that there’s a flat, streamlined progression through the game up until max level, when endgame gear inflates a bit, like so:
The Squish is a much more involved solution than Mega Damage, and the implications of it for PvP are really interesting. Really interesting.
Let’s take a look.
EXPANSION-FUELED POWER INFLATION AND LEVELING PVP
There are two serious challenges facing leveling PvP today brought about by expansion power inflation.I’m not just talking about low-level PvP, which has its own issues, but the entire curve of leveling PvP, going through from one bracket to another, starting at 10 and ending at 85.
- First, the power inflation between expansions creates zones where it’s possible to gain the benefits of the next expansion without being in it – all the enchantments, profession perks, consumables, and early expac leveling gear can be gotten at levels lower than their target balance, which serves to destabilize the brackets leading up to an expansion.
- Second, when a steep power inflation curve is compressed into a single bracket, it indicates a substantial gear disparity between the high and low ends of that bracket. The 80-84 bracket is a good example of this, with dramatically higher health pools at 84. We can presume, if nothing is changed, that the 85-89 bracket will suffer from a similar problem when Mists is released.
The first point has several elements to consider – gear, professions, enchants, consumables – but there are some common threads between each element.
It’s a fundamental axiom in twinking that the earlier you can get an item, the more overpowering it will be as you use it. This seems so obvious you might think it doesn’t bear repeating, but in the context of the Great Item Level Squish it deserves to be looked at critically.
Let’s look at a common example, a level 19 character who tries to get gear intended for a level 30 character.
- Because the gear is intended for a higher level character, it has higher stats and therefore grants more of a benefit to the level 19 character than gear intended for that level. It’s simply a better sword, helm, belt, whatever it is, than what toons should get at that level. Let’s call this gear statistic improvement.
- Because the combat rating system diminishes over time, lower level characters get more benefit from the same stats than higher level characters. This is counterintuitive, but the level 19 toon is more effective with the level 30 gear than a comparable level 30 character.
These two points are going to hold no matter where you are in an expansion or between expansions – the earlier you get good gear, the better it will be.
But the steeper the curve of the graph, the greater the inequality. The greater the difference between your level’s average item level and the higher level items you can acquire, the greater the advantage you can gain over your fellow players. And the places of the steepest curves and greatest inequality?
That’s right. In between expansions.
Each expansion introduces leveling gear a little before the endgame of the previous expansion, so at level 58 you can start wearing Outland gear, 68 Northrend gear, 78 Cataclysm gear. (I assume Pandaren gear will be available at 84, when it arrives.) This means that, in the x5-x9 brackets, the top of the bracket has two kinds of gear to choose from – the old and the new – and the new gear scale is usually significantly better than the old one, leaving characters at the bottom of the bracket at a significant disadvantage.
This isn’t really news; if you’ve played the 75-79 bracket lately, you’ve seen the devastating effects Cataclysm green gear has on bracket balance.
Let’s turn this idea around and put it another way: the shallower the slope of the graph, the less impact gear has upon your performance in PvP. Gear from 5-10 levels ahead will be a little bit better than what your average opponent will have, but not as much as it is now. Conversely, gear from 5-10 levels behind won’t be as much of a hinderance as it is now.
If gear becomes more equal in PvP, then class abilities, player skill, and teamwork rise in importance.
While this means twinks become less overpowering, it also means that leveling PvP becomes a bit less of a gear game, and a bit more of a battleground game, and I am very much in favor of that.
THE THORNY PROBLEM OF ENCHANTMENTS, PROFESSIONS, AND CONSUMABLES
While lowering the item levels of gear would help make leveling PvP a fairer, smoother experience, the real benefit comes when we apply the Squish to the real unbalancing elements of PvP – enchantments, profession perks, and consumables.
The above chart shows a rough availability of enchantments and profession perks by level, superimposed over Ghostcrawler’s item level chart. When you really start looking at when things become available, a surprising pattern emerges:
- Vanilla enchants are available at level 1, but are geared for level 60.
- Vanilla profession items are available starting at level 10 to grant items designed for level 30 or so.
- Vanilla first aid can be learned at level 10 to use items geared for level 60.
- BC enchants become usable in the late 20s and early 30s, but are intended for level 70.
- BC profession perks are available at level 35, and fully realized at level 50, but balanced for level 70.
- Wrath enchants are available around level 55, but are geared for level 80.
- Wrath gems are available around 62-63, but are geared for level 80.
- Wrath profession perks are available starting at 50 and fully realized by 65, scaled for level 80.
- Cataclysm enchants and gems are available at level 78, but geared for 85.
- Cataclysm profession perks are available starting at 65, fully realized by 75, and scaled for 85.
This mess is how twinking works – find the imbalance in the system and ride it for all it’s worth. It’s why you see Tazik’s Shockers and Synapse Springs in level 65 battlegrounds, why Green Tinted Goggles were so good in 10-19s, why Crusader and +25 Agility and +22 Intellect enchants are so overpowered at level 10-14.
The key to the problem lies in a steep item level curve.
Enchants, gems, and professions allow you to gain abilities and bonuses balanced for substantially higher levels – usually the endgame of the respective expansion. The flatter the item level curve, the less impact these abilities have on lower levels. The problem isn’t making them available at early levels – it’s a lot of fun pursuing these little advantages – but rather just how big some of the advantages are. Cataclysm-level damage in the middle of Burning Crusade? Enchants suitable for Molten Core and AQ-40 in level 10 Warsong Gulch? Mongoose at level 29?
This is only a problem if the item level curve is steep. If you bring down the level of each expansion’s endgame, and stop the power inflation between expansions, then abilities, enhancements and consumables geared for those parts of the game become less disruptive when brought down to lower levels. They still remain perks for smart leveling, but not overwhelming PvP advantages.
If you flatten the curve, these all become less disruptive to lower level PvP, and leveling PvP becomes more fair.
The Great Item Level Squish doesn’t affect the endgame that much in terms of gameplay, though it has profound psychological effects. Going from 150k health to 15k would feel… weird. Disruptive. Like something had been taken away, even though the gameplay remains the same. Having Shadow Bolt crit for 20k one expansion and 1200 the next is tough to swallow if you like the big numbers.
I’m a number chaser too: I like big crits and I cannot lie. (You other brothers can’t deny.) I enjoy setting a target DPS for a character and eventually getting it. I like hitting a target health pool on a twink. And I like those numbers to be BIG!
But I look at the Squish and go… this solves so many problems in leveling PvP, I’m pretty sure I could get over that quickly. After a few weeks, the new scale of things would seem natural. Instead of going up in Mists, I went down, but that’s okay, because everything else went down too. I’m still superpowered compared to most of Azeroth – just with smaller numbers.
I don’t like the Mega Damage concept. I’ve played with similar concepts before in RPGs, and they just don’t work well. Having two different damage systems complicates things and solves nothing – except for the psychological need to have numbers that make sense, while still remaining “big.”
If Blizzard is going to spend time working on solving this problem – and I really, really hope they do – I hope they go with the more comprehensive Great Item Level Squish and flatten the gear curve.
Squish that curve as flat as you can, and the leveling PvP brackets will thank you.