Item Squish 2.0 – Sure Appears to Be Happening, But It’s Not What You Expect

So last time we talked about item squish, I mentioned that I think it is going to happen – because item values have gotten crazy out of hand, and while the Artifact has been a big part of that, it’s not the only thing causing such insane scaling.

However, FatbossTV interviewed Ion Hazzikostas during Gamescom, and the context around which item squish was discussed was interesting.

To paraphrase the key points about that discussion, here is a handy list:
– Item levels and health pools are very high
– It’s likely we’re getting a squish
– Ion wants to take a look at the “concept” of item levels
– Item level is a bit meaningless, when you consider currently, 115 gear going up to 200 gains you +2 intellect, as an example, but then at endgame, item level gain represents a much larger increase, so item level as a concept needs to be normalized across the board.

This, to me at least, represents far more interesting thought on an item squish. The first one was basically applied in a simple flattening, taking all items up to Mists of Pandaria, and basically flattening out the item level curve. Items kept their item level, but what that level represented scales up slightly until it suddenly, exponentially blows back up in Warlords of Draenor content once more. This is what the comparison of BC to Wrath gear Ion made alludes to – while item level climbs a lot, the stats do not, until suddenly, you end up outside of Squishtown, when the stats per item level are substantially higher.

While doing the initial squish meant some rebalancing of world content, and the buff inside raids to reflect where our power should be – what this hints at is something more substantial.

What Would It Take for Item Level To Mean Something Again?

This I think is the right question to ask, but also quite difficult to answer. Historically, Blizzard only ever used item level as means by which they can specify how many stats goes onto an item. It goes into a formula that spits out the values and so short of trying to design how things like trinket bonuses scale, it makes item design more of a science than an art.

As I discussed when last talking about item squish, Blizzard’s go-to incentive for content was increased item level. However, over time, this has caused the inflation we’ve witnessed, all the way up to some items at item level 1000 by the end of Legion.

The system, at least to external eyes, doesn’t seem to have been designed for what Blizzard ultimately had to use it for. Scales between Vanilla and even TBC raid tiers were very small jumps. When Wrath introduced scaling for raid size and Heroic difficulty raiding, the number and size of item level jumps shot up, was stabilized slightly during Cataclysm, but then the introduction of LFR made that worse again. Flex raiding in Siege of Orgrimmar, leading to the current raid difficulty system, has only exacerbated that problem. Item levels now shift up in leaps and bounds, rather than slow, measured steps, and the value of an item level itself also increases – slowly during old content, leading to a sudden jump at Mists of Pandaria. When the game was first designed way back in 2001, it would be difficult to imagine the shape and form of the game in 2017, or 2014 when Squish 1.0 happened, or 2011 when we saw our health into 6 digits through Cataclysm content.

So that leaves the initial question – how do you make item level meaningful again?

Here’s what I would propose:

-A curve-flattening is not enough – that just serves to exacerbate the item level inequity we saw from the first squish. That solved the problem for the day-to-day state of the current game, but it would just have a similar impact to the first squish – good for about two expansions of content, and then not anymore. Maybe even less effective, since we now are dealing with such a high item level that it’s very nearly insane. However, curve-flattening is still probably needed, at least to the Mists-Legion content.

-Item level reduction and rebalancing would likely be needed, and valuable, as well – if we take our item level at the end of Legion, and halve it, I think that might actually be crazy enough to work, even without curve-flattening. Think about it – the exponential scaling is tied to item level, so if we flatten the curve up until now, but also halve item levels across the board, you can delay the onset of massive stat inflation. If we all drop from, let’s say 950ish by the end of Legion to 475 average equipped item level, with the requisite drop in stats, that sets us up to inflate stats far less. Couple that with an adjustment to keep item level scaling valuable at low levels, and you have an interesting change that makes leveling gear more important than it has been in a few years.

I know that sounds crazy, and I used to think so too, but at the end of the day, what is item level used for?

Two things – Blizzard uses it to assign stat values, and we use it to evaluate item worth. In a vacuum, if our item level caps with legendaries at item level 500 instead of 1000, but that is still the peak of item value, then it means that the game still plays much the same. Of course, such a change would require a significant rebalancing of all content. You’d need new raid buffs, or to actually scale raid mob health to match. All world content would have to be rebalanced. Base health on players would need to be re-evaluated once more. Current Legion raid content would need to be redesigned, similar to how Mists content was. You’d have a bit of awkwardness with vanilla and TBC raid content rewarding gear that is lower item level than the character level cap of those expansions – however, that is mostly meaningless today. (My apologies to any retro guilds out there with XP gain turned off that are farming Molten Core as level 60s).

The other concern speaks to Ion’s big callout in the interview – how do you balance an item level in terms of value such that it remains interesting and rewarding to increase them, and remains enough of a carrot-on-a-stick to keep people grinding up to higher difficulty content? That is a tough question – one that I know I can’t answer. In theory, you could just meet item level valuation in the middle somewhere, perhaps near to where it sits in the curve for Mists of Pandaria gear today, and get a good result, basically squishing us down to the power level we were around that first item squish. But that could have unintended consequences – ones Blizzard will have to navigate through very carefully.

Given how very, painfully specific Ion was in his word selection, however – I have a hunch that Blizzard has thought this through a lot already, and we only have 67 days to wait for more information (hopefully).

2 thoughts on “Item Squish 2.0 – Sure Appears to Be Happening, But It’s Not What You Expect

  1. Oh, I saw that interview too and got very excited! I guess it becomes harder to just do a “flat squish”, since we probably can’t run around at level 10 with just 15 health, right? But surely 3000 health at level 20 is bizarre, and wont hurt by getting reduced a tad!

    Item level reduction and rebalancing the way you propose it sounds good. Not crazy to me at all. I would also add, that after such a squish they could think about the next expansion and have it so upgrades are not so insanely high; to kind of “delay” another stat squish in the future, if that makes sense.

    I would love to get rid of item level all together, but I’m odd like that, hey 🙂

    Very excited to hear more, thank you for the post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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