If you’ve missed discussion of it elsewhere (including on this here site, even), World of Warcraft is rolling out a new system for item upgrades in Legion. Item drops from any given source can “explode” upwards, so rather than having a flat chance for a set upgrade, such as a 10% shot at a 5-level upgrade, any item can just keep getting upgrades until it hits the item level ceiling for a given content tier. That level 800 drop can get an upgrade to 805, then 810, and so on – it’s possible for you to be in content that drops level 850 gear and get a level 895 item out of it.
This is, honestly, pretty great.
There’s a lot of stuff to unpack about the whole idea of titanforged items, what they mean for the game, and how they’re at once a really good idea and a solution to a problem that was already solved back in the day. So let’s start walking through the items, complaints, and what the system could do in the future to make content and play more rewarding on down the line.
Solutions to solved problems
In Wrath of the Lich King, the problem of how to keep lower-level content relevant was solved. Like, seriously, it was pretty easily solved. Heroic runs awarded currency that could be spent on the current tier of top-end gear. There. Relevance achieved. We can all go home now, right, guys?
Obviously, that solution fell out of favor for reasons that are, at their core, pretty understandable. The designers looked at the system and decided that the most positive situation wasn’t as good as the most positive situation for drops, that the mild rush of “killer, I’ve got enough currency, I can get my next upgrade” doesn’t match the rush of “oh, yeah, that dropped and it’s awesome!” Combine that with a desire to push more people into raiding, and there was a pretty clear onus to swap over to a much more drop-centric mechanic.
There are a lot of problems with this, though, including endless ways to “soften” the luck factor, neglecting that the answer has already been found several expansions back. The problem is that balancing for the most positive experience avoids correcting for the most negative experience, so there’s little thought given to how much worse it is when the one thing you need just never drops for some reason. (By contrast, with WotLK‘s system, you still wanted drops… but if you didn’t get one, it was still a case of knowing you were earning something.)
All of that is in the past, and other games have taken up the mantle of WotLK‘s design and gone to further develop the system. I’m not interested in talking about those here, though, because as I’ve said in the past, Legion in some ways feels like an effort to go back in time and roll back development to an earlier point. Looking at the Titanforged items like that, it suddenly becomes much more plausible. Here’s a way to ensure that old content stays relevant without actually eliminating the rush of a lucky drop. You could get lucky, or you could get really lucky. There’s never a point when you have decisively outleveled content, even if you may have moved past it in large part.
The fans against us
One of the complaints I’ve seen about this is that it will remove the incentive for people trying to do the most challenging content in the game. Every time I see that complaint, I have to avoid just starting up a string of cursing that doesn’t last until the next expansion.
Do you know what incentive people currently have to do the most challenging content in the game? All of the incentive. There has been nothing else to do for months, the expansion has a reward structure that disproportionately rewards nothing else, and it’s all right there. And at this point, we’re finding people resorting to charity runs for moose to get people interested enough to tag along.
That isn’t a slam on the people organizing moose runs, for the record.
Top-end raid participation has always been about the same – it’s been low. This has been consistent across every iteration of the game. Claiming that a random chance to maybe get something equivalent to top-end gear is going to remove incentive to do this content is kind of absurd at face value.
I have, however, seen some very legitimate complaints, most notably people pointing out that this is adding another dose of randomness on to a process that’s already random. And that’s entirely true. It also has some rough points in that a chance to drop an upgrade even at higher levels doesn’t mean that you’ll still want to do this content at higher item levels, it’s just a chance. It’s a roll of the dice, and when you need to roll the dice often enough it becomes a matter of hoping for a lucky drop, then hoping that lucky drop rolls enough upgrades to be equivalent to your existing gear, then hoping that it rolls more upgrades.
But these are all balance issues, not conceptual issues. A spell that instantly kills all targets in a 30-yard radius has a conceptual issue; a spell that deals damage to all targets in a 30-yard radius has balance issues, but they can be addressed by tweaking the numbers and adding conditionals. So let’s talk a little bit about that.
From what we’ve heard about world quests, it seems that world quest rewards will scale up as your item level scales up. That, in and of itself, suggests a really strong way to improve this system right off the bat.
If you’re running personal loot, let’s say you get a stacking likelihood to bring dropped items up to your current item level. So you’re in a Heroic which drops 810 gear (I’m using random numbers here), but you’re at level 840. Instead of the usual upgrade chances, let’s say anything that drops has an 80% chance to be level 840 right away. That’s not so high that it’s certain, but it’s high enough that you will usually see gear that’s at least a sidegrade. From there, the upgrade chances scale up normally.
This is also a system that could benefit from a variant on the reroll tokens that have been around for the past two expansions. Rather than blowing one on a roll that might get you something, why not use it to reroll an item that dropped and see if you can get a better piece on the exchange? You could even put a system in place to put a floor on what you already have. In other words, if an 830 item drops and you reroll, the worst you’ll get is an 830 item again.
The idea of having the game accumulate around you as your own innate item level rises seems like a good one, and it’s the sort of thing that at once incentivizes high-end content without making it mandatory. If content rewards usually scale up as I get higher levels, then it’s going to require some luck to break out of each given ceiling (someone in all 810 gear will need several lucky drops to start regularly getting 815 gear), but it also makes the process feel like a slow accumulation. And I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that more people will be happy to play if they feel their efforts are consistently rewarded as time goes by, rather than hitting a hard ceiling.
We can deal with putting all of an expansion’s important story beats behind high-end raids after we’ve gotten through this particular hurdle.
Feedback, as always, is welcomed in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time around, I’m pretty sure we’ll have some pre-patch to deal with, so that seems as solid a subject for a column as any has been.