WoW Factor: The pros and cons of deterministic gear systems

    
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I circle the waterfront, I'm watching the sea.

One of the big changes that’s hit World of Warcraft over the years is in regard to deterministic gear systems. In the original launch version of the game, gear was entirely randomized and obtained through nothing but random drops, but the game’s first two expansions built up a deterministic system over time in which you could acquire badges and trade them in for gear upgrades. This was blunted somewhat in Cataclysm, which began the steady process of making deterministic upgrades less and less of an option until Warlords of Draenor did away with them altogether.

Today, I want to take a look at the pros and cons of these systems. There are advantages and drawbacks to having deterministic systems in the game, and the general paucity of gear available even through random chance in Shadowlands has people talking once again about the deterministic systems that were present in the game for a long while. Are these systems actually good, or do the drawbacks really outweigh the benefits?

Big ideas.

Con: Marking your upgrades on a calendar

Let’s start by acknowledging something that a lot of proponents of deterministic systems tend to either marginalize or just act like it’s not really an issue. Marking down exactly when you’re going to get an upgrade on a calendar does flatten out some of the excitement of loot right away. It means that you’re no longer hopeful about a given drop or boss fight; you know when you get the upgrade, and on weeks when you aren’t getting an upgrade (or even when you are) deterministic systems turn bosses into currency dispensers instead of loot dispensers.

Trust me, it’s not a bad thing to just be honest about this being an element of deterministic systems. Just accept that this is a weakness, and let’s move on.

Con: Flatness of gear rewards and a lack of drop variety

What, you didn’t think there was just going to be one “con” and then we move on, did you?

Turning bosses into what amounts to currency dispensers does mean that there’s a certain flatness in what people get, and it breaks up any sort of hierarchy in terms of what gear someone is wearing. If that matters to you, you’re not going to like a system where there’s nothing really separating one person who accumulated enough currency through one style of play from someone who got the same currency via different routes.

Similarly, that flatness extends to other rewards as well. After all, if you can buy a full set of gear from a vendor, individual drops from bosses have less space to be interesting compared to that vendor gear. You’re going to be looking at these drops as welcome bonuses, not something to chase after.

Lead you in.

Pro: Incentive for more play options

Here’s the obvious bright side for deterministic systems: They decouple gear from drops in specific instances. While this obviously has its downsides (see the last entry, after all), it also has the positive of opening up a variety of different content structures that isn’t as beholden to the format of having a boss at the end dropping all the loot. You have space for more kinds of content to be not just relevant but actively desirable because all sorts of content can award currency in different amounts.

This in and of itself can help give you some incentive to do things you otherwise might not be inclined to do. Do you really want to do a Normal raid just for another shot at maybe getting gear? That might not tickle you. But knowing that Normal gets you more currency and thus you can get more progress made without having to do as much? That’s a bit more assured.

Pro: Actual bad luck protection

I’m going to keep this one brief because it’s obvious. Over the years, as the game has increasingly moved away from any sort of deterministic loot system, we’ve heard a lot about the game’s bad luck protection systems. You know what’s really great at protecting from bad luck, though? Fixed currency rewards and purchasing gear directly.

Nothing protects against bad luck quite like having luck be altogether irrelevant.

And set.

Pro: More flexibility in endgame structure

One of the columns that I keep bouncing around in my head and ultimately finding doesn’t quite make it to the word count or concept count for a decent article is how many difficulty levels in WoW are entirely irrelevant. Heroic dungeons, for example, are basically not relevant past a very early point of play. They don’t need to be there in terms of challenge or balance, especially not when you’re not getting new abilities during the 10-level band of the expansion and everything level syncs anyhow.

But you know what would make them relevant? Currency rewards. If Heroic dungeons offered more currency than normal dungeons? Suddenly there would be an actual, tangible difference between the different challenge levels, and there’d be a reason to choose between normal and Heroic other than just defaulting to Heroic as soon as you hit the minimum item level.

This extends further, though. People are more likely to queue up for a random Heroic when they feel that those random dungeons get them notable rewards rather than targeting specific dungeons only. That means that there’s literally an ecology and culture around these dungeons and it ensures that people keep doing these dungeons even well into the expansion lifespan.

Suddenly, you have an endgame where people can actually explore different sorts of content for different things and not wind up complaining about lack of rewards or relevance. It’s kind of nice.

I tricked you! It was a trick!

Pro: Marking your upgrades on a calendar

Oh ho ho ho, thought we were done here, didn’t you?!

Yeah, here’s the funny thing about the whole “marking your upgrade on a calendar” downside. For some players, this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature; it’s something players actively prefer to just slaying and praying. It means that you can actually develop a plan, a clear sense of how much you’re going to need to play in order to get one reward or another, and then you can act upon it.

Heck, for some people this is actively more fun simply because it means that you can get a clear sense of what’s going on and when. You know it’ll take you five dungeon runs this week to get enough currency to cap out, and so you budget that time and then spend the rest of your time doing whatever. Maybe even more time spent in the game doing fun things because you know where your upgrades are coming in.

It should be pretty clear where my own preferences lie, and given the number of people who still point to the height of deterministic gearing as the high point of the entire game’s history I don’t think that I’m alone in that regard. At the same time, I do think it’s important to be aware that there are downsides to the deterministic model. It is not solely a benefit and does, in fact, have some drawbacks.

But those drawbacks don’t neutralize the benefits. and as people are reeling over the latest loot model problems, it seems important to point out that the game did actually solve those problems at one point. The fact that the solution had some drawbacks doesn’t seem like it’s worth giving up all the positives it had.

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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Bob Bobson

“In the original launch version of the game, gear was entirely randomized and obtained through nothing but random drops”

I wouldn’t call fixed loottables where you absolutely know that this boss and only this boss can drop the item you want with a fixed chance of something like 20% exactly “random”.

In WoW classic right now you know what items you want, where you get them and so you go after them with great determination. The only random factor there is if you have to kill a boss once, twice or three times (sometimes a bit more).

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Sarnaut Explorer

Why not have guaranteed deterministic gearing method, with a horizontal piece of gear that has a chance from dropping from the same content? Stat wise everyone is equal, but then there can still be that high of excitement from getting that drop?

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Anstalt

I’m all about predictable (deterministic) loot gains.

What’s fun or enjoyable about random loot gains? There’s a tiny amount of pleasure at gaining the loot, then that quickly fades back into your base level of happiness with the game. It’s a purely materialistic way of dealing with progression and it sucks.

When it’s predictable, you can start to feel like you’ve earned it. You can make plans, put in effort then be rewarded. The good feeling you get is much more meaningful and longer lasting than random loot.

The con about lack of drop variety? Meh. You can always add more types of currency. You can always add more things to buy with those currencies. You can combine deterministic and random systems into the same game if you want.

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styopa

It wasn’t originally just the random loot drop systems that could reward players.

There WAS a programmatic way to gain great loot according to your calendar: that was what CRAFTING was for.

Is it coincidence that as games have drifted over into the predictable drops or token-accumulation reward systems that they’ve (in most cases) consigned crafting to meaninglessness?

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Loopy

Marking your upgrade on a calendar is the true definition of death of RPG elements in my opinion.

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kjempff

Amen. Knowing what is going to happen, makes playing a game kinda pointless and certainly dull. I just don’t get that mentality, if it is actually thought through being honest to ones true desires. Sometimes it looks like these kind of things is trying to replace smaller issues with things that cause worse problems, for example replacing randomness with deterministic/flat, replacing levels/progression with scaling or horizontal “progression”, making dungeon finders to fix the trouble of group management, removing complexity and unique roles to make it more accessible, and so on.

Jokerchyld
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Jokerchyld

To each his own, my view is opposite of yours. I much more prefer deterministic, its not dull or boring and definitely not the death of anything. There is a difference between something being wrong and something you personally dont like.

Scaling adds to the games longevity. Its stupid that in WoW you never go back to old zones because there is no point to. Forcing all users to the same tiny expansion zones is a waste of real estate, given the fact the name of the game is WORLD of Warcraft. Horizontal progression and scaling allows them to re-use the older assets expanding what you can do. This is done very well in ESO where Tamriel looks massive because all content in the game for the past 5 years is relevant.

Dungeon Finder is a necessity and is the reason why every new MMORPG has one. I dont want to waste time looking for people to join a group. I want to push a button and have the group be formed for me as its much easier. Its an option and you are not forced to use it. You want to go out and do it the old fashioned way. More power to you. The dungeon finder wouldnt affect you in the slightest as a player.

I agree with making the games more simple but on the fence about completely unique roles as it can cause forced grouping which is pretty much an antiquated system but is still enjoyed by some. If I pay for a game I want to be able to do the (reasonable) content. And that could mean giving me utility to survive something but not necessarily replace the role.

There are a lot of options that could be made here and dont feel its an all or nothing solution.

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Schmidt.Capela

Con: Marking your upgrades on a calendar

I’m one of those people for whom this is a pro, and a big one.

I don’t get excitement from knowing the gear I want might drop; I get instead frustration that it has a high chance of not dropping, which for a purely random system means that the whole run was an utter and complete waste of time.

By the same token I don’t get elation that the gear I wanted finally dropped; I merely get relief that I’m done with some dumb aspect of the game that is there merely to increase engagement using Skinner Box psychology.

(BTW, that part about a run where the gear I want didn’t drop being a waste of time? That isn’t hyperbole. Core to the definition of randomness is that previous events don’t influence future ones; for the game, it means that my chance of getting a RNG-based drop is the same regardless of whether it’s my first try or my thousandth try, and thus every single previous, failed, attempt was a pure and complete waste of time, at least from the point of view of obtaining the loot I want.)

Con: Flatness of gear rewards and a lack of drop variety

You mean the effectiveness of a player’s gear isn’t tied to dumb luck, but instead to effort? That is a very big positive for me.

And lack of variety isn’t really a con; it just means that you aren’t showered in mostly useless gear. And it also isn’t mandatory; any half skilled dev can make multiple sets of gear that are side-grades, allowing players to choose how their characters will look and play without having to sacrifice efficiency for it.

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sirradoria

This this and this.

This is why i stick with Final Fantasy XIV until now.

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jealouspirate

I’m a big fan of deterministic gearing. Introduce a currency and let people buy what they want with it. The Great Vault in Shadowlands is annoying. I’d honestly be perfectly happy being only limited to one guaranteed piece of loot per week… if I could pick it. Don’t give me a high level chestpiece when I really, really just wanted boots, or whatever.

You touched on this in the article, but one of the great things about a currency system is that you can dramatically expand the endgame. Add currency for high-end loot… now let that currency drop from almost ANYTHING. Battlegrounds, world quests, normal dungeons, callings, even pet battles for all I care! Scale the amount dropped based on the difficulty of content. If someone wants to farm normal dungeons at a much slower rate… well, good for them for having a way to progress!

One downside I will admit is this: Any currency they introduce will have a weekly cap. We all know this. Now everyone will feel a strong pressure to hit that weekly cap every week. Basically it introduces another mandatory weekly grind. The current system isn’t perfect, but right now I can do ONE Mythic dungeon and be guaranteed a high level reward from the vault. Whatever currency they introduce I can guarantee you won’t cap it in a single dungeon.

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Ironwu

The ‘extra currency for extra difficulty’ model is a great one. This is actually implemented in ESO in a rather unique way.

The currency you get allows you to change the normally fixed major stat on a piece of gear (as long as you could craft that type in its basic form). The harder the content you do, the higher the number of the currency it is possible to win. So, still some RNG in the actual amount, but always a floor higher than the lower difficulty content maximum.

It works very well to incentivize folks into harder content, and removes the endless (and often fruitless) grind for just the right drop. I tried for months to get the final piece on a 5 piece set with the correct stat. After the Clockwork City was introduced, I had a piece modified in very short order with that stat. :)

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Schmidt.Capela

What I would do, instead of a weekly cap, is a game-wide cap on the total amount you are allowed to have earned since the start with a single character, a cap that is increased every week.

For example, instead of 500 points per week that reset every Tuesday, have it so that on the first week you are allowed to earn up to 500 points total, on the second week 1000 points, and so on; in other words, if you were to join during the third week, instead of being restricted to just the 500 weekly points, you would be able to keep going until you got to the week 3 cap of 1500 points earned in total.

Two big advantages with this: you aren’t pressured to hit the cap every week (as you can earn whatever you missed this week on the next ones), and it’s intrinsically a catch-up mechanism. You could even take a month off and then earn back the currency you “missed” when you return, catching up to those who never left.

The one disadvantage, of course, would be to the publisher; such a system would allow players to take some time off the game without feeling guilty, potentially reducing revenue from those players. Though I suspect it would reduce the incidence of burnout and might lead to higher long-term retention.

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jealouspirate

What you’re describing is exactly the Conquest PvP currency system that currently exists in Shadowlands.

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Ironwu

Yeah, but I do not PvP in WoW. So it is worthless to me and (my guess is) the vast majority of other WoW players.

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Mallus

^This 100% (except weekly cap), because RNG loot sucks monkey balls. Any activity in the game should allow you to progress your character but at different rates depending on the difficulty.

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IronSalamander8 .

On a similar front, a lot of board games are deterministic; a lot of ‘Euros’ have no luck or very little luck involved-what you see is what you get (put your worker on that space and get 2 blue cubes), whereas a lot of ‘Amerithrash’ games use dice or other randomizers to make outcomes less predictable but also more exciting (If I roll a 6 on this die, I win this battle). I’ve always stood by an earlier statement I made elsewhere that having a game with no randomness is formulaic and dull, whereas a game with too much randomness is a chaotic mess. I generally like some randomness in my games, but not too much.

That being said, I really liked the deterministic method of loot WoW had when I was at my raiding height back in Wrath. After raiding in EQ and sometimes getting no upgrades for a month or more, getting something from every run, even if only currency towards a piece of gear I’ll get in a couple weeks, was a breath of fresh air.

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kjempff

Protecting against bad luck also includes protecting against good luck.
RNGesus saves games and keeps them exciting.
It is a contradiction when rng mechanics are referred to as grind, because flat (deterministic) systems literally is the definition of grind; not that I actually consider grind to be “real” or definable , grind is just a perecption of whether something repeatable is enjoyable or not.

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Schmidt.Capela

A grind is when you have to keep repeating a piece of content in order to get what you want; whether the reward is random or deterministic has no bearing into whether something is a grind or not.

I vastly prefer a deterministic grind, though, both because I know how long it will take before I even start it and because I’m always making progress; with a RNG-based grind, not only I have no idea at all how much it will take, any attempt that doesn’t result in the reward I want is an utter and complete waste of time (in the literal sense, as pure RNG means that previous results don’t influence future ones, so the amount of time I’ve already spent trying to get a random result have zero effect in how likely I’m to get what I want in my next attempt).

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kjempff

Everything in life and games is repeating things, but you don’t define all repeating as grind, only the things you don’t enjoy.
Obviously I am the opposite of you, I regard deterministic as unrewarding and boring and “gambling” as exciting. Without downs there can be no ups, without tough times you can not recognize and enjoy good times; that is a fact in life and for me that transfers to games.

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Mallus

I wonder how many people would work if their pay was determined by a random dice roll. The RNG system blow’s, but if they want to keep it then add it on top of a deterministic system.

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kjempff

How many would gamble if it was a deterministic system.
Our lives are full of deterministic systems, work, duties, aka the grind. For me, fun things almost have to be non deterministic by nature, in order to hold any value (games are included in this). In fact the less a certain outcome can be expected the more enjoyable and memorable it is; an ultimate example of this is travelling because that is very likely to give an unexpected experience…and even though games are not on that level, playing a game still fill the same kind of need.

This is also why I don’t really recognize the concept of “grind” in a game, or at least that if you are experiencing something as grindy then you have turned your gaming experience into work. And as I said, for me deterministic is very close to grind, while a random outcome is fun.

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Rick Mills

Classic had one deterministic option that I always liked – the class quests for weapons or armor (loved the hunter ones).