WoW Factor: The pros and cons of deterministic gear systems

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.
Previous articleStar Citizen discusses the creation of logos, docking arms, outpost buildings, and more vehicles
Next articleDestiny 2 adds new seasonal challenges, discontinues Crimson Days event

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments