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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Dunk Bird
Dunk Bird

I mean, I understand why you are upset, but the alternative was far worse. Either the content had to become harder as you were more geared to avoid having world quests that reward current tier items to be 1-shot, or they could make them not scale and the only relevant content would be the broken shore.

I don’t know how much you’ve played, but being confined to a single zone every expansion was horrible. In order for it to remain relevant (and to reward relevant gear), it has to be made harder. Otherwise you get a crazy lewt feedback loop where the gear helps you complete the world quest harder to get better gear to complete the world quest faster. That just isn’t sustainable.

They also could’ve made stat gains from items lower, but that would serve to make upgrades unsatisfactory.

My point is that you can’t have this much relevant content and not have it become harder as you get stronger. Clearly the intent was not meant to be a 1 to 1 increase in difficulty to ilevel, which they have said. But it does ease that power curve to a point where you aren’t literally rolling over mobs before you even see what they are.

I’m sorry the idea of this is so offensive to so many people, but it absolutely makes sense and it results in a far healthier game.

Grim? Darhk

It makes sense to make the world quests harder, because they give better rewards. Was scaling the way to do it? probably not, but it works fine.

Geo Kavu

No no no, it’s a great feature!
For me at least. Stopped playing a month ago.
Now I just stalk the forums having fun with all the nonsense.


There is still a feeling of you becoming stronger, it simply is not so that you’ll run around one shotting things all the time. The scaling was over tuned and this was fixed very shortly in the patch, in all honestly unless it was a patch note i would not even notice it really being there. So i find you are creating an issue out of nothing, since to see this as a problem you have to go out from the extreme point of view that it completely negates a power increase in the world, what it does not do.

At worst it will probably make it so mobs are no longer a push over, i can understand why this is done. It is because WQ’s rewards are also scaling, especially the artifact points and to some degree the gear.

With how WQ’s work and how easy it is to get parties for it with the new group finder it is no problem at all. I play less now since i went to a more casual approach but i experience no problem on either main or alt and not all my alts are geared to the point of 900+ equipped none of them are and most of them don’t even have 2 legendary items equiped.

So again can only agree with your sentiment in theory if it was scaled to the point it became a major hindrance or if it negated player progression in the open world. Neither being the case i find this opinion piece to be more of the dramatic kind :)

Kickstarter Donor

A great write up Elliot and I really enjoyed it except- “In theory, level scaling is a good feature”
its not though for a lot of players especially solo players, in theory what would make it a good feature is the choice for the player to have it turned ON or OFF.

I am sure the majority would have it turned off as they play the game for lore, achievements and completion, ie questing.

My days of piling the hours/ days grouping with friends are now long gone, and this is where level scaling is useful only.

I want to twink out or grind out a couple of levels on my character so I can wizz through questing/ exploration(my fave) and do some of the other mass of content in the game.

With kids in my life now a couple of hours playtime is a struggle so getting bogged down in drawn out fights with mobs is no fun, especially as all it is, is wash, rinse and repeat combat.

The first thing that attracted me to wow was exploration of the world which was killed off in wod as I don’t want to have to fight every mob to get to my destination.

Humble DG

This exactly. It makes no sense to me that as I get more powerful in a game, mobs just happen to do the same thing.

Kickstarter Donor

The auto level of mobs in WOD was enough to put me off, its great to see them follow it up and see everyone get upset now, I almost re-subbed last week so glad I didn’t or I would really be pissed now lol

Ryan Goodman

Genius! And rather accurate lol

Ryan Goodman

Boy, as much as I miss WoW from time to time, this fiasco has me glad that I quit before WoD. With the whole flying ridiculousness, all the gating and the so-called “skill pruning” (a rather weak euphemism for “further homogenization”), throw this scaling on top of it, and you’ve got yourself a game that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one I fell in love with years ago.

Looks to me that, much as they did in D3 (which is also now, IMO, a broken experience no longer worth playing), the devs have apparently decided that their own “vision” of what is “fun” is what they are going to implement, player feedback be damned.


Blizzard shot themselves on the foot the moment they decided that the difference between fresh level 110 gear and the gear at end of the 1st tier is ~100 ilevels.

As much as a *************** Azmongold is, his recent video on the topic is pretty on point, it’s well worth a watch.


Uh oh, WoW is edging dangerously close to having to make a game be more than just ilvl grinding

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

WoW is far more enjoyable when you ignore the grinding and just do activities for the sake of doing activities.

chriskovo .

The problem with that is they don’t allow them to be side activities anymore. They force you to them whether you want to or not to get back the basic right of flight in the game. Im fine with them adding side activities to do but they should all be optional. It seems like its not about pleasing the customer anymore its about their own egos and trying to force you to realize how great their ideas are. Its like they are all nihilist now or at least their management team is.