WoW Factor: A history of itemization in World of Warcraft

In which the author never quite gets to talking about Corruption

Herp to the derp.

Huh. You know, I really thought I’d written about the whole Corruption system in World of Warcraft’s upcoming 8.3 before now in a format more substantial than a newspost? Apparently I hadn’t. So it seems like now is the time to talk about it, as we’re still a ways out from the patch but it seems like we have passed that crucial point wherein basically what’s in the patch is what’s on the test server. It might change forms a bit, it might get numerical tweaks, but it is basically locked in stone.

So what’s my assessment? Well, while the concept is interesting, in practice it looks to not only inherit all of the downsides of Titanforging but also remove all of the benefits that Titanforging did actually have, however small. But I feel like understanding that requires looking at the absolutely bizarre way that WoW’s designers have mishandled items and surprise mechanics and such, and that means yes, it’s time for another history walkthrough! You didn’t think we could do it again, but we could! We are! It’s here!

In the earliest days of WoW, items were very simple. Also, a lot of them were terrible because the designers had gutted the mechanics that would make things like Spirit remotely useful for non-casters, and either no one remembered to fix that or no one had the time to do so, but we’re not really talking about Strength and Agility cloth bracers. The point is that you did a quest, and you got Trab’s Bottom-line Acceptable Green Boots as a reward. You killed Evil Trab in a dungeon and he had a chance to drop the Belt of Trabslaying, which always had the same stats. Simple and clear.

This system did have its drawbacks, of course, chief among them being the limitations of the format. If your particular spec required a weird cocktail of stats (like Strength, Agility, and Intellect), you looked for the items that provided that… and if they didn’t exist, well, you were naturally going to underperform. All items were fixed, and that meant many of them were just not useful.

I was never really here.

In a way, the gem system introduced in The Burning Crusade addressed that directly. Sure, your socketed items had basic stats on them, but they also had sockets you could slap gems in, and if you matched all the colors you got an additional bonus stat. Not only did that let you make choices (is the bonus stat worth slotting in a blue gem here when another orange gem would give me better relevant stats), it also created a new market for crafters.

But there was a downside, albeit a minor one. If a socketed item dropped, you really didn’t want to wear it without gems, which meant either carrying around a bunch of useful gems to immediately socket or waiting until you could get the gems. Enchanting was starting to be more standardized, too, which meant that it was possible for you to get an upgrade that wouldn’t actually be an upgrade until it was properly socketed and enchanted.

There was also another connected but not directly linked problem. While the designers had gotten a lot better about providing gear that could account for a wider variety of specs, it was still tricky to wind up with gear that served the needs of weirder specs in all regards. You also had certain stats that were functionally dead after a certain point. Sure, you could stack up a ton of hit rating, but once all of your attacks were hitting the target, any extra hit rating was functionally wasted.

Wrath of the Lich King kept the same basic gearing paradigm as its predecessor, but it also added in a much greater reliance on vendors and badges. In other words, you no longer needed to worry as much about whether or not something dropped, since as you picked up badges you were getting closer to an upgrade anyhow. Just clear the content you enjoy and you can get a nice set to use!

Then Cataclysm rolls around, and we’re into the era where the thought is that being able to plan out your upgrades regardless of your luck is a bad thing. This really does seem to be the point of a philosophical shift, wherein planning your upgrades is seen as a bad thing. You should be getting your rewards through luck, and any sort of planned rewards are catch-up gear only.

It’s not a philosophy I share. Judging by subscriber counts as subsequent expansions continued to double down on this, it’s not a philosophy a lot of people share.

Now my stats are good!

However, the result of this also led to the addition of reforging, which allows you to change a secondary stat you don’t really want into one you do. So if an item drops with Hit and Defense on it, but what you really need is something else, you can reforge those stats into a more useful form! Very helpful, isn’t that?

Oh… wait. In addition to leaning harder on random luck for upgrades, past a certain point these “upgrades” start feeling like more of a chore. Fel Trab drops his Fel Shoulders of Trabness, but they won’t actually be an upgrade until you reforge one of the stats, and you get them enchanted, and you socket them correctly. Bit of a problem, right?

Well, don’t worry, the designers hear you. You don’t want reforging? It’s gone! Don’t want to worry about enchantments? They’re mostly gone! So are gems, too! In fact, by the time of Warlords of Draenor basically all of these systems are thrown out to reduce all of this control over what the item you get actually does. Now an upgrade is actually just an upgrade… but now we’re back to another problem, wherein once you assemble all of the gear you want by luck, you no longer have any reason to keep playing, right?

Ah, but what if you could loot… the same item, only more? And herein we start down a very dangerous road because we enter the realm of the various forging systems that allow items to be upgraded into better forms. In essence, Trab’s Breastplate of Wondrous References is no longer just one item. It can be a bunch of different item levels, with lots of different combinations of secondary stats, and other special tertiary things like gem sockets and minor stats and so forth! Good, yes?

You can see how we got here, obviously. In order to make each individual item drop feel more like an individual reward, the item drops themselves have been turned into more of a lootbox containing something at the end. You no longer have any control over the stats on an item, but the need for relentless optimization hasn’t changed in the least, which just means that you have to keep re-farming the item over and over, hoping that this one drops with good stats and a high enough level to be an upgrade.

The idea was to make it possible that any drop is an upgrade. What actually happened instead left the feeling that every drop was stressful.

And with all that in place… we can break for the week. That’s right, this is already longer than I planned it to be, which means that I still haven’t actually talked about Corruption yet! Jeez, these things can get bloated. Oh, well, next time.

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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I always preferred to tinker with my own stats, but I can see why they would change it. Not everyone likes to gear up their character with a calculator and a spreadsheet on hand.

Maybe a better system is one that mixes philosophies? Such as, maybe, have Legion’s and BFA’s personal loot system while allowing reforging and gem slotting? Maybe not, but I want my number crunching game back :(


Fantastic article and analysis. Thanks!

I kept reading and nodding throughout. What it strikes me is here is a CLEAR divide between videogame paradigms:
A.) do you want a system where every action has a commensurate reward that’s fair and equal for everyone? Basically – you killed the big-bad, everyone gets 100 points!
B.) do you want a more of a real-world randomy system where kiling the big bad gets you her pile of treasure. Some of it might be useful (“Look, a magic bow! I can use that!”) some of it less so (“Oh…a magic bow. I can’t use that. So its only value to me is either $, disenchantment mats, or if it’s great enough I should learn how to use a bow.”) (Having taken away weapon skilling, the last is no longer relevant in WoW Retail concept.)

(I guess there’s a C.) you don’t ever get loot, just something that makes what you have better. Personally I think this is DULL AS DIRT and something every dev should have learned their lesson from LotRO Legendaries. We’re playing an MMO at least partly for virtual dressup – let’s admit it – I don’t necessarily want to wave the same hammer around for 120 levels.)

The former seems absolutely fairer, but also grossly contrived. It makes no logical sense that big-bad has in his treasure chest something for everyone, all the time.

The latter can be frustrating, but more realistic. In tabletop RPGs, this could be a balance factor: there might be really great weapons available, but they’re weird and rare and investing skill into using them might be wasted effort if you never stumble onto one.

Anyway, thanks.

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Random on random wouldn’t be so much of an issue if there was a decent backup system of you don’t get lucky. The current system is nearly there but the best catch up gear needs to be slightly better.

Arnold Hendrick

It would be more helpful if the WHOLE article was present. MOP editors should have a special category of article that is 2x to 3x normal length limit, just to accommodate things like this.

This background is useful to WoW players, especially new ones who never experienced all the history. But it’s ONLY useful if you relate it to the present day.