Massively Overthinking: Solving the MMO gear obsolescence problem

    
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Last weekend, Amazon told players in a New World Discord Q&A that the expansion still on the way will essentially nullify existing gear to a degree. Redditors debating the issue settled quickly into two camps – “Oh no!” and “So what?” – which I think is a fair way of summing up a lot of gearing debates in our genre. The vast majority of vertical-progression themepark games are designed around the idea that players require the extrinsic motivation of incrementally better gear to march through combat or return to expansions: Yes, your old raiding gear is outclassed by green drops in the new expansion’s newbie zone, and you’re OK with it. Meanwhile, horizontal-progression MMOs tend to shift motivation away from gear by flattening gear curves in favor of other progression systems like achievements and skills.

Let’s talk about the MMO gear obsolescence problem in this week’s Massively Overthinking, starting with that bit of question-begging: Is it even a problem at all? And if it is, what’s your main gripe with it? How would you solve it if given unlimited time and money to do so, and which MMOs are handling gearing through content phases and expansions the best right now?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I don’t think it’s a huge problem myself, but I’m also someone who thinks about balance and longevity. As an example, I came into Star Wars Galaxies towards the end, when item decay was off. As a new player, even after several months of play and tracking down quality materials to harvest, I couldn’t sell anything, nor could I make money to buy anything. Admittedly, some people would occasionally give me free stuff since they were super well-to-do, but that didn’t make it feel as if I could really be part of the economy/world. I know power creep is a thing, but I feel that’s less problematic than item/gear stagnation.

I think the best way online games handle this is simply by adding customization, skills, and skins as rewards/grindables, rather than focusing almost exclusively on vertical progression and risking power creep. Splatoon 3 does this pretty well, and admittedly Pokemon GO largely is the same (I have a gym defender piece waiting to go through after my month-long Niantic protest that shows many of the best defenders are still from the game’s earliest days). Even Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are doing well on this front, as anyone who reads our guides on the tera raids will note that many of the pokemon recommended are not new ‘mon from raids, but the same ones that have been available since launch.

Andy McAdams: I think with the advent of so many different transmog/wardrobe systems, it’s less a problem than it used to be. But then, I like getting better gear, so I’m not upset about suddenly not being the biggest, baddest thing ever. I play games for the journey, not the destination.

I think a thing that could make this problem less of an issue and a little more horizontal is more situational gear. For example, back in WoW Wrath in Ulduar, there was one Frosty-gianty guy that you needed a set of frost resist gear to fight. You couldn’t use your normal set of gear because you took too much environmental damage and would die. You built up the crafted only (gasp! the horror that is gear that can only be crafted – Ion just looked off into the distance and said, “There’s a disturbance in the random-loot force…” ). But I think you could expand it for other capabilities to as well provide more capabilities — not unlike Agony in GW2.

Maybe a better way to say it is to create new gear with intention. Making more powerful gear for the sake of more powerful gear is dumb and leads to things like stat squishes whenever things get to a “pants on head” levels. Better gear for the sake of better gear leads to gear obsolescence. Different gear created with an intention and a purpose in mind has less chance to lead to obsolescence. After all, “Gear that lets me fight this elemental boss and not immediately have my face melted because of unique characteristics of the gear” is way more interesting than “oh this gear has +442343 to a stat, and this piece of gear only has +442342.99 a stat.”

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): My favorite MMOs tend to be sandboxes with chiefly horizontal progression, so I personally view the tradition of gear obsolescence as an unwelcome invader dominating games that I’d prefer to be about living in rather than grinding through. But even my themepark friends become exhausted about spending months gearing up for a raiding endgame and then replacing all their hard-won gear with quest drops come the next expansion. Frankly, I hate this system because it’s self-defeating; it wears players down by attrition.

I strongly prefer MMOs like the Guild Wars franchise, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies where you pretty much hit a leveling or skill cap and then switch to horizontal progression through cosmetics, achievements, badges, crafting, skills, builds, collections, housing, and so forth. It allows new content to focus on storytelling or something other than dungeon grinds, it flattens endgames for people with different playstyles and time investments, and it makes content design simpler with less powercreep for developers.

My question is superficially about gear, but gear is so fundamental to the rest of the game’s design that I hardly think it’s separable.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m enough of an old salt to like gear progression as a primary motivator, but I also like the new-school methods that have come since. To that point, if I can’t get a tasty shiny to drop from endless grinding, then using that time as a gradual on ramp to a buyable reward of equivalent strength is a fine compromise, a la Final Fantasy XIV’s tomestones and raid currencies.

Even so, I would not hate if pure gear-based progression went the way of the dodo. A lot of my colleagues have mentioned weapon skins or little additives to existing weapons as solutions, but I also have to nod to my current fling with Dungeons and Dragons Online here. Weapon power and skill is tied to the character’s feats and proficiency in weapons and armor, leaving gearing decisions up to what intrinsic boons or benefits a given item has. This, in my view, opens up a little customization while not making “useless” drops feel too bad since the items have similar attack or defense values anyway.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Maybe it’s because I’m playing a lot of ARPGs lately, but I really like the idea of modular, socketable gear. Make every piece of gear the same default stats for that level, but offer different cosmetic appearances (like Guild Wars 2’s approach to high-end gear). Then allow us to modify that gear with different visual effects, special abilities, and extra stats. It still requires a lot of balancing, but the mix-and-match approach gives more agency for players to develop gear according to their preferred playstyle — and makes us feel like we’re not throwing away gear all the time.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m not a very big fan of the classic gear grind. It kind of had a time and place for me, but that was decades ago, back in the days when I could take a weekend to sit in front of the computer and TV and just grind the day away.

I don’t really have that kind of time in me anymore. I just want to enjoy the story, the achievements, and the PvP. I don’t want to spend time just trying to get back to the baseline. It’s a big part of what’s kept me from coming back to New World, and this news doesn’t encourage me.

While I haven’t put the time into playing GW2 recently, I do love that I can hop into the festivals or one off events on a whim and not have to worry about my gear. I might not be optimized, but I’m good enough to play. And I have to remind myself when I sit down with these games that I’m here to play – not to work. I think GW2 does it right. That’s how I’d do it.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’ve already written a fair bit about my dislike of gear as a vertical progression mechanic in the past, and I don’t wish to repeat myself too much. It’s not a dealbreaker for me — gear as a primary progression system is well-trod ground, and it works to keep people playing, despite its flaws — but I’d prefer more horizontal options given the choice. If gear must be included, I’d prefer an upgrade system a la TSW so that we don’t have the psychological pain of scrapping our old gear, and I’m disappointed New World is apparently not going that route.

To be fair to NW, though, we’ve known a reset was coming for a long time, so this isn’t that great a shock, and I’m holding out hope Amazon will find a way to keep the ilevel cap increase from being too demoralizing – and maybe one day stop relying on the vertical progression crutch.

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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