Why World of Warcraft’s item level scaling is really, really, dumb

If we do get a new race, of course, everyone knows my biggest suggestion.

This has been a very stupid week. I know this because any other week, World of Warcraft completely destroying the reason for acquiring new gear would stand out as the stupidest thing I’d heard all week. As it was, it was just the stupidest thing I heard on Wednesday. I heard it when I woke up, so it had an early chance to establish that lead, and while I couldn’t be certain it had no real way of losing that lead through the end of the day.

I don’t know if it’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard all week, but it’s definitely high in the running.

A lot of parts of Legion have produced some degree of controversy, and by and large, I’ve been on the side of these being good decisions that need to be made for the good of the game. This, on the other hand, is a terrible decision that does nothing positive whatsoever for the game. It hurts every form of content and reward currently in play, and it’s the sort of thing that seems so catastrophically ill-considered that your first thought upon hearing it is, well, that it can’t be real. But it totally is. And the eleventh-hour rolling back of several parts doesn’t exactly change the core problems behind the idea or why players immediately reacted with anger.

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a player who cares about having the best gear in existence. This has nothing to do with “oh no, my epix are less uber” whatsoever. If you need sourcing for this, look back at, well, about a thousand other things that I’ve written before now. Were this an issue affecting the people who cleared Mythic raid difficulty alone, I would consider this a good change and one that would affect almost none of the actual playing population.

But it doesn’t. It affects everyone who plays the game, and it basically makes gear progression – one of the two major sorts of progression in the game – completely irrelevant. With no forewarning and no appreciable justification.

Progression is a natural part of many games in general and MMOs in particular. You want progression to mean something, and you want to feel stronger when you progress. That’s natural. The very worst form of level scaling in games is where enemies are getting stronger at the same rate as you; in most games that feature level scaling of some sort (Mass Effect: Andromeda comes to mind as my current game of choice), your enemies are scaling up, but you’re getting more powers and upgrades and options, so you’re still more powerful than they are in a relative sense.

Remember when the big problem we had was seagulls? That seems so much easier right now.

Legion already destroys that. You are, relatively speaking, as powerful at level 110 as you are at level 100 unless you’re leveling a Demon Hunter, specifically because all of your stat gains are symmetrical with those of your enemies. It’s kind of frustrating in that regard; there’s no actual reason for level 110 since it doesn’t make you any stronger. It just means another set of levels to gain.

That just leaves gear progression as an option. And gear progression is, again, something that’s been with the game since the early days. You get better equipment and thus get stronger. So long as you have actual means of advancement in that field, it’s a totally functional form of improvement at the level cap.

Heck, it’s half of the reason to care about gear. The other reason is visuals, and since Legion doesn’t have a whole lot of new armor sets that aren’t reused across several dozen rewards, you’re likely to get all of the visuals you want fairly early. They’re not going to keep you coming back.

Obviously, the idea is that having enemies scale with you item level is that it’s supposed to be a slight growth. But the very idea is stupid at face value, because it’s a counterbalance to stats that’s only there because of inflated stats. If enemies are supposed to be scaled to gain two attack power for every five attack power you gain, a better option would be to just have the player gain three attack power and leave enemies where they are. It’s a counterweight to fix a problem that only exists because you put it in place.

Even leaving that aside, though, it creates a weird situation where you don’t want better gear. If you’re able to reliably kill things at a certain level, then you’re actually fine without ever getting another upgrade. It’s not going to make things significantly easier to kill, everything scales up to you anyhow; why bother? What advantage does it actually give you?

Have fun with this now.

Presumably it still gives you an edge in raids, but I refuse to believe that this system was put in place just to force people getting gear upgrades to raid. An argument could be made, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s just as simple as a matter of making very, very poor decisions.

“What, are you afraid of the game retaining some challenge?” Except what we’re talking about here isn’t challenge. It’s not things getting harder, it’s actually the opposite; it’s removing the ability to actually make meaningful progress at the level cap. There’s no additional challenge involved in ensuring that a bear in Aszuna will always take the same amount of time to kill; the bear isn’t gaining new abilities or mechanics forcing me to play differently. It’s just hitting harder as I gain more health and defense, making those increases functionally pointless.

Heck, most of the stuff I actually enjoy in WoW already has the problem of how many enemies are basically just damage sponges. Heroic dungeon bosses have simple and largely transparent mechanics that just repeat over and over for the lengthy duration of the fight; they stop being much of a challenge long before their health drops to nothing.

The original change to gear scaling also means losing the rather enjoyable sense of being able to take on Elites as the expansion progresses; that’s one of the fun parts of the game. No, you can’t do it at a lower item level, but with time and gearing you can take down group enemies solo. It creates a real feeling of reward and improvement. Causing them to scale with your gear means that they’ll always be out of your league, removing a sense of challenge (can I do this elite quest solo?) and accomplishment (yes, I can do it alone).

What if, instead of getting better, you just stayed exactly the same forever?

Legion already has some pretty big problems when it comes to progress. It’s heavily reliant on random chance and offers no real protection for bad luck, although it at least corrects for the major problems of Warlords of Draenor and gives non-raiders a path for advancement. (Or at least, advancement before this boneheaded mechanic made it useless.) When I saw this upon waking up, my immediate thought was that I no longer care about even bothering with upgrades; why should I when the world is just going to scale to match all of them? What point is there to playing consistently?

A lot of this was altered at least slightly within 24 hours of players first complaining about it, which is a good thing. It was not, however, scrapped altogether; it was just tuned downward, with the big focus being on making sure that things have bigger health pools but don’t do extra damage. This does not, in fact, make things better. It means that fights are now going to take longer and offer less risk when you equip better stuff. The only challenge is in staying awake while enemies soak up damage.

None of it changes the fact that none of this was mentioned or discussed or even included in the patch notes. Some things get missed when patch notes are written, yes, but the most recent post even tacitly admits that it was quietly left out of the notes altogether.

In theory, level scaling is a good feature. It’s a bit let down by the fact that nothing is gained in those levels in Legion, but the core concept is sound. But scaling to item level is just trying to fight the game’s massive stat inflation by making it symmetrical, as opposed to actually controlling and limiting that massive stat inflation. It’s the sort of staggeringly bad idea that no one would have asked for, and considering the fact that it was slipped into the patch without so much as a mention, it seems pretty clear that the developers knew it ahead of time.

But no, guys, people just stop playing WoW every so often, there’s nothing the designers can do to change it. Right.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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