Massively Overthinking: How important is gear in your core MMO?

And should designers rethink how gear is acquired?


This week’s Overthinking comes to us courtesy of a rant on the MMORPG subreddit, which… well don’t judge it by the title, OK? Author Galgox argues that gear and gearing is the “soul” of MMORPGs but that too many MMOs place gear at the end of treadmills that are inaccessible to the bulk of players, which seems counterproductive. His solution is seasons and cosmetics.

I thought it would be interesting to wander through the thread for our roundtable this week. Do we agree with the premise that gear is a big part of the “soul” of an MMORPG? Do we agree that existing methods for achieving gear in MMOs is a problem? And are seasonal cosmetics the right way to solve it? What about MMOs that do this all very differently? Let’s hash this out. How important is gear in your core MMO, and should designers rethink how gear is acquired?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think the whole premise relies on believing that MMOs are loot grinders. While it’s common, it’s not exclusive to the genre and, in my opinion, a big reason why smaller games like Diablo or Monster Hunter can scratch the multiplayer itch but not necessarily an MMO one.

That being said, yes, the way gear is achieved feels problematic if you want your MMO to be a virtual world instead of a loot grinder, though I’d argue more in favor of economies that largely rely on crafting and trade. I think creating a social society is more MMO-y than killing big mobs for stats. Season gear is a motivating factor for sure, especially fun cosmetics. Isn’t that basically how Fortnite and Overwatch make money? That being said, though, I do miss when MMOs were more story based and devs acted like Dungeon Masters and for certain events, there were exclusive rewards (though I’d argue the cosmetic ones were the wiser choices to create).

Andy McAdams: I disagree that gear is the “soul” of an MMORPG, but only because gear is a poor proxy for the growth of your character (I’m deliberately not using the term progression because I think it’s counter-productive). I think the gear is part of your character growth, but it’s absurd to assert that it’s the whole of it. Case in point: Your character growing and gaining a new ability will always be more interesting than getting a piece of gear that adds +45 Bingo Stabby points, but ultimately it does the same thing. What gear actually enables is for your character to tackle the same content with greater ease and rarely enables the tackling of new content.

What we want out of MMOs is on-going growth. Gear treadmills are the easiest, lowest complexity implementation of giving the illusion of growth of your character but is hardly the only path, nor the best path. It is most assuredly not the soul of an MMO.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t agree that “gearing” is the soul of anything, honestly. My foundational and my favorite MMOs (and I’m thinking of five or six MMOs here, not just one) treated gear as varying levels of disposable or secondary. The best systems separate progression-esque stats from gear and from cosmetics, not just gear from cosmetics.

That said, I would also say that insofar as gear is equated with and linked to progression in some MMOs, obviously it’s important, and for some people, it can definitely become the heart of their journey. But personally, I think it also makes for shallower experience, and while seasonal cosmetics might lower gear gates for “casuals,” it wouldn’t solve the underlying design flaws for the types of games that would need them.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): If gearing is a part of the MMORPG soul, then it needs to be made into a husk and imbued with a new soul through Daedric magicks.

More to the point, I’m kind of two minds here: On the one hand, I would really love to see gear scores and item levels and other metrics that halt me from enjoying content get into the bin while equipment is purely cosmetic, but on the other hand games with only cosmetic rewards sort of require the actual gameplay content to be extremely strong — nothing about Sea of Thieves’ content makes me care enough to play, no matter how nice that hat is.

If we must tie MMORPG progress to something, I’d rather see things like the skill system in Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World used, where unlocking and earning abilities and passives is the path to power. Or even do the sandbox MMO thing like in Albion Online or Valheim where doing repeated actions increases your character’s progress.

Basically, I’m saying that soul referenced in that post is old and could due with a tuning-up.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): Gear has been a pillar of all of the MMORPGs I have put any serious time into. I have really mixed feelings about the relationship between gear and progression. On one hand, if you’ve worked at it and put in the time, your gear is the reward for that. On the other hand, if your lousy gear is the thing that is holding you back from doing that advanced content, or even being able to get into a guild that does content that would help you gear up, that starts to interfere with the fun of the game.

It wouldn’t be so hard to separate stats from gear as rewards for finishing content. But I have to admit that I love putting on something with a unique look that can only be gotten from a raid or special event. Vanity is my vice, I guess.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): On one hand I almost agree. At least the premise that the gear treadmill makes it difficult for players to keep up without spending a lot of time off money. I’m not so sure that seasons are the solution to that, though. This person might have been coming at this idea from the viewpoint of WoW or games where you’re required to keep grinding until you’re lucky enough to get the gear drop that you need.

However, I think removing the limitation that gear imposes itself is the solution. I’ve always thought that Guild Wars 2 did it right. Max level gear is extremely easy to come by and sufficient for everything except maybe raids or high end dungeons. And if you wanted to do that content it isn’t a significant hurdle to create or find the slightly stronger, highest tier gear. Gear is completely meaningless in PvP where it is purely cosmetic.

It’s been, what, maybe eight years since the highest tier gear was added to Guild Wars 2. And in all that time I’ve never once thought, “Gee, I hope it doesn’t take too long to max out so I can play the part of the game I really like.” Instead I’ve just played what I like.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Forgive me if I do a bit of self-promotion here, but this touches on some issues I’ve discussed a lot in the past. A few years back, I did a post on how what we call RPGs in the video game realm should actually be labeled as progression games. The TL;DR is that most of what we consider RPG mechanics in video games are more about numerical progression than any actual role-play, which is about creating characters and telling stories, not a ladder of vertical progression. I’m a huge RPG fan, but lukewarm at best toward progression games.

The unfortunate reality is that most MMORPGs are more progression games than they are role-playing games, so in that sense I would agree that gear is part of the soul of an MMORPG. But it’s not a paradigm I’m happy with.

Here on Massively OP, I’ve already opined quite a bit on all the problems with loot as a central mechanic, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. I just want to move past it and embrace systems that better respect a player’s time investments and foster genuine role-play and creativity. I also recognize this isn’t something I’m super likely to see in mainstream MMOs any time soon, at least not to the extent that I want.

I don’t really agree with much the linked reddit post has to say. It’s actually pretty easy for most players to achieve competitive gear in most MMOs these days, without endless grinding or forking out cash. What they seem to really want is optimal gear, which is a different thing entirely. But these days most MMOs make it pretty easy to meet the minimum bar needed to experience most or all of a game’s content. And while seasons do have their virtues, building everything around them seems a little too FOMO-y to me.

I do like the idea of leveling the playing field between players, though. Again, I’m exhausted by vertical progression. We could get a lot of benefits from removing or lessening it. For one thing, if time investment stopped having such a huge impact on character power, MMOs would actually become something of a skill-based genre. If the “back in my day” crowd actually cared about challenging gameplay, they’d be arguing for this, rather than just asking for a return of poor quality of life and mechanics that overly punish casual players. But very few people in the MMO field actually want a game that tests their skills; they just want a grind that lets them feel accomplished without actually challenging them.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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