I like Mists of Pandaria. This expansion has been the combination of Warcraft’s Oriental Adventures and Lone Wolf and Cub that I’d hoped it would be, and I’m quite happy to be playing it. It’s rich, immersive, gorgeous, with genuinely fun things to find and do. On top of it all, the class of my main character has been dramatically improved from Cataclysm.
Yet after three months I have no level 90 characters and my main is XP-locked at level 85. I’m not enjoying Pandaria in the traditional sense of leveling through zones and then doing endgame content. I feel no rush to get my characters to level 90 yet.
“Slow down,” the Pandaren NPCs tell me all the time. “There is no hurry.”
It’s good advice.
THE PROBLEM OF ENDGAME PVP GEARING
The dark truth about Warcraft PvP is that it is a game of gear as well as skill. Nearly all of the systems for PvP gear are designed to keep you playing simply to stay at the same relative level – you first start with crafted gear to grind out Honor Points to purchase moderately decent gear, which then allows you to compete for Conquest Points for better gear. If you’re on a good RBG or Arena team, you get more Conquest Points and get better gear then your opponents over the course of a season. Eventually opponents catch up, but there’s always a gear gap that favors characters which get an early lead. The gap is even worse if you start late.
The PvP changes in 5.2 are cleverly designed to help reduce this gear gap and make it easier for late starters to catch up. The system still favors those who push early and hard for great ratings, but the imbalance is definitely reduced later on. The incentives remain to get an early start, but the obstacles presented by a late start are reduced. That’s good for overall competitiveness over the course of a season – but nothing is really different about the gear treadmill.
Hamlet (from Elitist Jerks, not Shakespeare) made an offhand comment about how PvE isn’t really a gear treadmill because you get to consume content while doing it. You see new things while leveling up to endgame, doing dailies, running dungeons, raiding each tier, overcoming challenges at a difficulty they’re tuned at. I think his point highlights the problem with PvP gearing by providing contrast. I’ve argued before that PvP has very high replay value due to the changing nature of your opposition, while PvE loses replay value quickly due to the challenge becoming easier. The flip side of this is that PvE provides new, fresh content as a reward for playing, while PvP does not. You get to see new stuff and learn new fights while gearing up for PvE! You get to run Strand of the Ancients and Isle of Conquest again and again while gearing up for PvP.
Gearing up for endgame PvE is more like running through the countryside than a treadmill. You get a new countryside every expansion, which is pretty neat. Gearing up for endgame PvP is running through your neighborhood where you might not know the weather but you sure know the route.
This is the fundamental problem I have with endgame PvP, and why I locked my XP at 85 on my main to avoid it. Not only don’t I have time in my schedule to do Arenas with friends anymore, I don’t want to have to keep working to stay on top. I want to run Battlegrounds because I enjoy them, not because I feel obligated to.
I don’t know whether to characterize this as a flaw with the PvP system or just a personal incompatibility. One of the lessons I took away from Cataclysm was that you need to make decisions on an individual basis, and that those decisions might or might not be reflected in general population trends.
I can say, however, that I enjoy playing PvP more than I enjoy constantly gearing up, and that my dislike of the PvP gear treadmill outweighs my desire to see all of Mists of Pandaria.
This feels like a problem to me, but the plural of anecdote is not data.
THE PROBLEM OF COMBAT RATING DECAY
One of the quirks of World of Warcraft which my poor pen-and-paper RPG and LARP brain has trouble getting around is the idea of combat rating decay. Starting at level 10, the ratings which impact how effective your character is go down as you advance in level. This ratings decay encourages players to get increasingly better gear to make up for the loss of power. The numbers get bigger, but you’re not necessarily getting any more powerful for that level. I get the math behind it, I get the psychology behind it, but I don’t get why I should think it’s a good thing.
The FUDGE system greatly shaped my game design principles with the idea that all characters can (and should) be described in relative terms. The terms themselves don’t have to be fuzzy, but they should always be described in terms relative to their environment. Heroic raiders and gladiators are Superbly powerful, possibly Legendary. This kind of fuzzy system is actually quite compatible with more absolute systems like d20, where a +1 weapon is always a +1 weapon no matter what.
But Warcraft turns that on its head. You progress up in power through an expansion – first through levels, then through gear – until you reach a pinnacle. Once at that pinnacle you can do great, awesome things – until the next expansion comes along. Once you start leveling, the numbers get bigger but the ratings decay until you’re less powerful than when you started.
Twinking finds the sweet spots in these leveling curves and pushes the numbers to their limits.
I find it hard to convince myself that leveling Cynwise is a good idea. At first, I thought I would just finish up Battlemaster and then unlock – but now I’m not so sure. She is far more relatively potent than she could be at level 90, and the level 90 content that is available to her provides some solid challenges moving about the world. If I pull a level 90 rare, I really have to work to bring it down. It’s a lot of fun!
I bring this up because I think it’s intimately linked to my dislike of endgame PvP gearing. Taking a Superb Warlock and making her Fair – or even Mediocre or Poor, only to bring her back up to Superb over the course of two years – doesn’t feel right to me.
There’s no reason I can’t wait until the final patch of the expansion, level her to 90 then, and get the absolute best gear with one single grind.
I suspect that thoughts like these are why I’m not really a MMO’s target audience.
THE PROBLEM OF FREE WILL IN A SKINNER BOX
Hamlet – the Shakespearean one, now – wrestles with the charge laid upon him by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. Hamlet chooses how to do it, causing tremendous collateral damage, but he was prodded on by that unyielding spirit. We are left wondering if the Prince of Denmark really had any choice in the matter or not, yet every step he took was his own.
Did he have to kill Claudius? Would death have freed him, or plunged him into unending guilt-wracked torment? He doesn’t know, and neither do we.
The question of free choice in games is not quite so weighty, but neither is it any better defined. For an expansion dominated by talk of those things players feel they have to do, I think it’s reasonable to step back and look at ourselves and our choices. To look back at myself, to look at why I made the choices I’ve made.
I locked my XP and postponed chasing after the treasures of Pandaria for other goals, like Battlemaster. I turned down the big brass ring that the game offered for a smaller one, one that mattered more to me. Most of my time spent in game is chasing after those old brass rings, the ones nobody wants but I find kinda shiny still. And then there’s the PvP, which I enjoy on many levels.
It’s been interesting watching the rest of my friends settle into their level 90 lives, questing through areas which I can’t, running dungeons and scenarios and dailies, killing 12 more Mogu, getting more fatty goatsteaks, raiding those shiny pretty raids I can see the outside of. I see glimpses of it but not the whole thing. Those glimpses intrigue but don’t compel.
There are days I feel like a fel-using Bartleby the Scrivener, telling Warcraft that I prefer not to level, thank you very kindly. Why should I trade this game of riotous battlegrounds and exploration of unseen content for one of dailies? Of finishing up achievements which I never had time for in the past for a world of repetition and toil?
And yet, before I think myself above anyone, I remind myself that I am still a rat in a Skinner Box, pushing the buttons for the rewards I want. I’ve chosen which buttons I push — but is that really a victory if I am still pushing the buttons?
Perhaps I am not as much like Bartleby as I would like to believe I am.