Why I Hate Item Progression

Warrior PvP Set

The complete PvP armour set that I exploited Tol Barad five times to get

I’ve been hinting at this post for a while now as I keep raising the point how item progression in MMOs bugs me. I’m not going to sit here and sing the virtues of sandbox games because, frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with a good ol’ fashioned themepark MMO (or whatever it is the kids are calling them these days). In fact, I spend most of my time playing those sorts of games because they’re a heck of a lot of fun. As much as I love the potential of a game like EVE Online, WoW and co are a real blast to play.

But I’m traditionalist and also a black-and-white-ist when it comes to my RPGs. If it’s not a skill based system then I want levels for my progression, none of this gated itemisation that seems to plague WoW. The concept of hitting the level cap and then investing as much time again into upgrading your gear through several stages of “item level” is frustrating to me as a lover of RPGs. Aside from being incredibly repetitive (oh whoop, I get to run the same dungeons again and again and again until I get the drop I need), it also strikes me as a very cheap way of providing a huge amount of content. The cynic in me would call it a timesink for the sake of timesinks as the idea of adding a layer or two of item progression above the level cap before raiding is utterly pointless really.

To be melodramatic for a moment, I also think item progression is rather exploitative and manipulates our native instinct to collect and complete. Sure, you’ll probably argue that this is concept is prevalent in every aspect of MMOs but there’s something about gearing up as a form of progression that particularly sticks out to me as being vulgar and unforgiving. It’s raw and obvious in it’s point and on more than one occasion I’ve stopped myself mid-play session to wonder why the heck I’m bothering trying to acquire all of these “better” items. I’m not on any sort of journey any more, I’m not going through new exciting or interesting areas, I’m just stagnating and stubbornly refusing to stop playing.

Item progression is so heavily interwoven into the end game of WoW now that everything has being boiled down into a single number, the dreaded item level. It’s rather strange to think that everything I now do with my level 85 Warrior revolves around that silly little figure but it does and it’s amazing how much of an impact it has. It gates what activities I can do and determines how people will treat me in their group. Throughout most of the lifespan of my character I’ve been blissfully unaware of the gearscore culture that has invaded WoW but unfortunately it cannot be avoid at max level. No matter how good you are or how fun you might be to play with, item progression is king at level 85.

The most ironic thing of all though is that the system is utterly flawed or at least in the way players interpret it (I have no doubt Blizzard have created a huge amount of leeway in the difficulty of their content but unfortunately the human desire to min/max often wins the day). For instance, as a tanking Warrior, I face an interesting conundrum. I have to accomplish heroic dungeons in order to progress my gear yet, given the rules of netiquette, I’m only allowed to roll on “tank” items. Seemed fair enough until I pondered what will happen to all of the tanks who have been collecting nothing but tanking gear and then want to raid because raids usually only need one tank. Time to switch to DPS for raiding? Oops, don’t have any gear for that. Doh.

Maybe I’m just becoming disheartened by the whole system and the never ending grind but I do think it’s a shame to see MMOs such as WoW become so heavily focused on item progression. I mean, why do our characters need to have an unlimited lifespan? Why do we actually need to play them for months and months and months? What would be wrong with hitting the level cap, jumping straight into a few raids (or single group dungeons) and just completing the darn storyline that’s been teased to us from day one?

Perhaps I’m a sourpuss but I need some closure.


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  1. Vex says:

    Or, you know, you could play some MMOs that offer just that. :)

    Lotro just got rid of their most annoying gearscore requirement raid (the Balrog now allows you to fight without a full set of this silly radiance armor), and in DDO, skill is much more important than equipment.

    I haven’t played Lego Universe long enough to know if there’s closure, but I have high hopes for Secret World being skill-based as well.

  2. Klepsacovic says:

    It sounds like your trouble is that item progression stops being linked directly to content progression. A lack of new content will bore anyone, regardless of what they think of gear-based games.

  3. numtini says:

    To me the big thing is that there’s this tiny period of challenge, which the players whinge up a storm at, followed by the month or two of romping through out-geared content without any real challenge.

    I’m back to Eve personally.

  4. Russ says:

    I’m having some problems with the game as well. In addition to issues that I have with leveling vs. following the lore, I am getting very tired of the end-game situation.

    The Tol Barad situation is ridiculous. I’m certainly trying to take advantage of it while I can, and I have my 4-piece set bonus as of yesterday, but it feels extremely cheap. It makes item progression a joke to an extent, and compounds the problems that are already inherent in the whole system.

    I’m not sure at the moment what my future in the game is, and I think, based on your last few articles, that you’re in a somewhat similar place. It’s definitely frustrating.

  5. spinks says:

    This is the genius of heirloom items. At least while you are levelling, if you have heirlooms, the item progression takes care of itself.

    I dream of a game in which this would be true at endgame too.

  6. Dril says:

    I didn’t really mind the pre-Wrath way of doing things; item progression is, for me, the only real way of actually seeing my character evolve, and frankly I like it better than a system whereby you just have an arbitrary number that determines how good you are at any particular activity. It just gave me something to do, something to work towards, to hook onto and chase, and I had a jolly good time doing just that.

    On the other hand, I’m not big on the token system as a way to cover-up the faults in a loot system. To my mind, it just makes you far less attached to the gear, and stops the loot system evolving into a dynamic one, whereby the loot changes with group composition and the like.

    • Gordon says:

      I don’t mind the token system, I just dislike the idea of having to farm dungeons for items (or tokens) over and over again. I don’t feel like my character is going anywhere and I’m just doing these activities for the pure sake of it.

  7. Bronte says:

    A man after my own heart. I have actually been trying to put together a post on some of the reasons I am no longer playing WoW, and this endgame perversion through itemization is one of the main causes. Just an endless cycle of doing the same content over and over again to increase the iLevel of, pray dear lord, just one of my items. It’s pathetic.

    I also love how intricately and carefully is the idea of “progression” woven into endgame. getting a boss from 40% wipe to a 39% wipe is progression. Killing a tough trash pack is progression. But somehow finishing 100 quests in a zone with an overarching story and saving the local populace isn’t progression at all, just a stepping tone to “real progression”. Ugh.

  8. The Necromancer says:

    I can totally agree on you with that one Gordon. Wow and games similar to it, have evolved to a point where only one thing matters……the gear.

    I would also like to see some more skill based MMOs and maybe some change in the system, where I don’t have to play in the same couple dungeons all the time. Even I get bored despite my persistence, yet that is the way it is, and I doubt it will change in a long time (but thats only my guess). Well for the time being Gordon you have to stick to it, cause thats the system around in WoW, no matter how pointless it actually all is.

    Adapt and Survive, Adapt and Survive…….. (it’s worked for me)

  9. Lujanera says:

    Spinks’ suggestion regarding endgame-quality heirlooms is interesting, but I wonder: why bother killing bosses more than once in such a situation? The incentive of gear drops would be removed, so the sole reason to kill a boss would seem to be getting to see the next boss.

    • Klepsacovic says:

      Indeed, why bother? Isn’t it strange that we spend so much time doing exactly what we’ve done before? What single-player game could do that and survive?

      Killing the same boss ten times serves only one purpose: buying time for the developers. In a subscription model where they need constant revenue for server upkeep, it makes sense that they need to buy time, stall us until they can make more content. Maybe there’s a better way than pure repetition for gear.

    • Gordon says:

      And for the sheer fun of doing it with friends :)

  10. Bhagpuss says:

    Completely agree with everything you say, Gordon.

    It doesn’t directly affect me because I pretty much only play the “Level Up” game. My continuity of play comes from levelling up many different characters, not from levelling one then having to find something to do with him. I would, however, prefer it if there was more accessible, pleasurable content to be had at Max Level.

    It is absolutely nothing new, though. I first came across the concept of “Gearing Up” back in EQ circa Kunark, when the concept of a “progression” through raid content came into beling (unless someone is going to tell me some earlier MMO had the same thing?). Even back then the idea that you would put a particular dungeon or encounter “on rotation” and repeat it ad nauseam until everyone in your guild had got the drops they needed so you could all move on to to the next dungeon, where without the gear you had just farmed you would all die horribly but with it you would just about be able to get started on the same treadmill again, seemed like a vision of purgatory.

    WoW seems to have refined this process, like Blizzard refines everything, into a kinfd of platonic ideal of tedium. There’s already talk of this kind of thing happening in Rift, which is disheartening. If it does, however, I shal at least be protected by my own extreme disinclination to spend more than a minute or two doing anythign i don’t actively enjoy in an activity that i am undertaking voluntarily and for pleasure.

    • Gordon says:

      WoW has definitely refined the process. In many ways it’s both their blessing and their curse because they have a talent for simplifying things and making slick and streamlined yet, as a result, removing the soul and point behind it all too. When people are grouping with strangers and not talking just to try and get a single item with a higher iLevel then one could argue that the whole point of a MMO has been destroyed.

  11. Purpledrannk says:

    This is why i have alts. It never gets old. with 4+ main professions and different mechanics, it keeps it fresh. Plus making gold! thats the icing on the cake.

  12. Ralkarin says:

    I’ve been feeling the same way for years now. I keep telling myself that what drives me to play WoW is the content. I want to see the raids and the encounters and experience the fun. One of the things that drives me nuts about running a brand new dungeon is when you have someone in the group that knows the fight, point by point, wants their loot and to get out. Personally, I love trying to solve the encounter, the puzzle and figure out how to overcome the challenges posed by the designer. Dying during dungeon runs can be fun if you have the right tools to figure out what went wrong and fix it.

    Ultimately though, I get to a point in the progression where I do ask myself: “What am I playing for? Why do I need that extra +10 agility?” and I stop playing, because I don’t care to invest the time to gain item levels.

    It’s an interesting question to ask for most games… I’m working on an Action-RPG right now, and I’m trying to avoid “number crunching progression”, but it’s really a tough design path to take! 1 possible alternative are things like Zelda-style games, where each item has a unique ability that counters a specific objective and you need to collect item X to get past block Y. I guess you need more designers and content driven gameplay then and it becomes less scalable.

    • Gordon says:

      You’re dead on with your example. When the point of grouping becomes about acquring a slightly better item and not about having fun with the people involved, why bother at all? I mean, could you imagine going paintballing in real life but not even talking to them, just grabbing some meaningless trophy at the end and running away? :D

  13. Syl says:

    While I certainly agree with you and have had my own share of loot luck frustrations lately, I have felt this being the trend in WoW for a long time, since half-way through TBC at least. The game has been heavily item- and collection-centric and I’ve had a couple of mates stopping to play for exactly this reason.

    it’s certainly got a little worse or maybe more obvious when gearscore started to become popular and in Cata, Blizzard have pretty much joined in by making the heroic 5man requirement your overall item lvl. which makes no sense by the way, so many classes and specs have special stats to go for that aren’t necessarily always on the highest lvl item. and certain slots (for ex. trinkets) have little to do just with item lvl either. i find the system was created for dummies.

  14. Wow, thank you. I was discussing this topic with my husband just the other day, when we talked about why I quit WoW back in 2009 and why I might be thinking of quitting again soon. I told him I couldn’t stand the item progression, where progress becomes a process of repetition and a neverending grind that revolves around a bunch of raids and instances.

    “The concept of hitting the level cap and then investing as much time again into upgrading your gear through several stages of “item level” is frustrating to me as a lover of RPGs”

    It is incredibly frustrating to me too, and I think for people like us, the way WoW has it as just another form of “lack of content”. I was trying to explain to my husband and I don’t think he saw things I did…but then he has no problem with stuff like grinding heroics, back in Wrath he did the whole shebang with no less than four characters.

    • Gordon says:

      I guess on some level I just feel that when item progression becomes the main drive behind progress in a MMO then it takes away the whole point of it being an RPG. I want to play a role and feel like a Warrior or whatever, not obsess over achievement points or gear upgrades.

  15. Nils says:

    What would be wrong with hitting the level cap, jumping straight into a few raids (or single group dungeons) and just completing the darn storyline that’s been teased to us from day one?

    Perfectly fine for a theme park MMO. And exactly the reason good sandboxed are superior ;)

  16. Epiny says:

    Gordon I felt this exact way in WotLK. I leveled to 80 then stopped. A few months later some friends talked me into coming back to PvP with them. So as I had no gear, after a week straight of BGs, I had a revealation… I’m grinding BGs to get gear, so I can do Arenas to get more gear… and I didn’t really enjoy BGs. So I stopped. I put down WoW and didn’t play again until just before Cat launched. I think the key was that I simply wasn’t having fun.

    Now I’m okay with alternate forms of leveling, in fact I embrace them. I love the idea of FFXIV where I can level every class. I enjoyed Darkfall because it was entirely skill based. I’m open to new ideas and I think item levels is a valid one. I don’t like how Blizzard does their item levels though.

    I think having character levels for 85 levels, then having the game switch to item levels, is a bad for the game. I think every MMO should give a taste of what the end game will be like early on. I think a game that is going to focus on item level at end game needs to atleast address it somewhere before max level.

    Also, if item level is going to be so crucial, make it difficult to exploit. This entire TB thing has completely screwed up game progression.

    • Gordon says:

      Well put, Epiny, and it mirrors a lot of my own feelings. I enjoy playing a role and exploring new content and having fun with my online friends but grinding gear for the sake of it? No thanks, especially when it’s in randomly assigned groups where no one even wants to bother talking – they just want their loot and then leave.

  17. Haversack says:

    I think Item level comes out of a stupid reluctance to raise cap level. Otherwise the cap level would be like 130 and equipment would make sense again.

  18. Talarian says:

    Haversack hits the point I think.

    I’m curious, how does item progression differ from level progression in a game like WoW? By offering an alternate progression track, they don’t have to up the level numbers. But in the end the two are largely equivalent. They both require a certain amount of time, they both increase your stats, and in some cases they both give you new abilities (Trinkets, Procs, etc.). The only difference here is that levelling gives you a bar to max out whereas gearing up does not (unless you want to count ilvl). Gearing up requires a lot more thought, planning, decisions and a date with the RNG, which is very different from the leveling game.

    Think of it this way, if a quest-based game didn’t give levels or experience at all, but gave gear and items that taught you skills (or you were to wear to gain access to skills), would it feel any worse? Guild Wars is as close an example to that I can think of, considering the level cap was 20 and you hit it not long after the intro/tutorial to the game. Then the only way to progress was to do quests to learn new abilities to choose from, and get better gear.

    Don’t get me wrong, for whatever reason I prefer the leveling game over the gear grinding portion of WoW to a large extent myself, but I don’t think the problem is the style of progression so much; I think the real problem lies in the amount of repeated content of the 5 man dungeons and raids, which you touch upon.

    • Gordon says:

      “I think the real problem lies in the amount of repeated content of the 5 man dungeons and raids, which you touch upon.”

      That’s possibly very true. I feel like itemisation is a grind because you’re just re-doing the same stuff over and over and over again in order to enhance some little piece of item. If it was new content then I probably wouldn’t notice.

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