Something I keep coming back to as a theme in my head lately is gear and gear progression in MMOs.
One of the key opportunities I find WoW has is that its gearing system has lost some punch in modern times, as the seasonal model pushes to make more content remain relevant and reduces the significance of prior raid achievement, all the while pushing early expansion raids further and further away from players in relevance.
It hasn’t always been like this, though. So for today, I want to break down gear progression models through three lenses: the prior systems WoW had, the current system WoW has, and a modern model of the old WoW design as deployed in Final Fantasy XIV. Spoiler alert – both systems have some problems but overall, I definitely lean towards the older WoW/current FFXIV model!
Part 1: Classic WoW and The Changes from Vanilla through Cataclysm
Classic WoW is only worth glossing over here, as the loot model and reward systems in Vanilla were sort of just continuations of dungeon loot. Endgame gearing in Vanilla isn’t much of an endeavor, but it often takes a bit more research out of game. Best in slot lists are wonky with loot from a lot of different sources – DPS warriors, for example, find their best hand slot from the vaunted Edgemaster’s Handguards, a mail BoE item, while other slots vary wildly. Tier sets could often be great for bonuses, or terrible if you weren’t playing the spec the set had in mind. Warriors, for example, had mostly tanking bonuses. Priests had healing bonuses. Some of these were amazing for the role (if you were a healing priest in Vanilla, the Prophecy tier 1 set bonus that reduced Flash Heal cast time was a game-changer that you might hold on to for a while!) but others were just not there. Gear item level progression happened gradually over a raid, not just in tiers, so drops from later bosses could be a big deal. There also wasn’t as big of a gap between tiers – often only around 6 item levels, so early raid gear from Molten Core and even level 60 dungeon gear was viable for much longer.
Burning Crusade started some of the model that would define the golden era of WoW, with heroic dungeons giving upgraded loot, and both raids and dungeons rewarding Emblems as a currency which could be used to buy raid-equivalent items. However, the items remained at Karazhan level, limiting the ability for players to come in, farm badges, and then leapfrog old content. There was still a path through old content that one had to take, and often the hardest part of guild recruiting in TBC wasn’t finding people, but finding adequately progressed players, or people you could easily drag through the prior content to kit out prior to resuming progression.
Wrath of the Lich King had probably the most well-defined model of clear tiers and progression in the game’s history. Despite the muddled mess of multiple raid sizes and the scaling that entailed, it actually kind of stumbled into a sort of elegance. Launch dungeons were at 200 item level for Heroic, 10-player raiding was also there, with the harder 10-player and most 25-player bosses giving 213, and hard 25-player bosses giving 226 gear. There were two tiers of Emblems in play at all times, with one giving the 10-player gear offering and the other the 25-player gear. As the expansion went on, new dungeons were implemented to offer higher item level gear, and the emblem system rolling forward, with a base tier of emblem being the prior 25-player currency and a new one introduced as the current 25-player loot currency. If you played without raiding, you could kit out around a third of your character in current, 25-player raiding gear equivalents, with the rest coming close to the current 10-player tier and other slots filled out with dungeon gear which matched the prior 10-player tier.
That sounds confusing, but in practice, it worked fairly well. Gear rolled forward, so each patch with an emblem reset gave you a reason to log in, to play, and new rewards to chase, but most importantly, did so without fully invalidating prior raid tiers – mostly. By the time 3.2 came out with a third raid tier, Naxxramas was a lot harder to justify running, although it did offer some 226 gear on 25-player mode, which meant that pugging it could fill some slots better. Likewise, running 10-player Trial of the Crusader in 3.3 wasn’t as worth it because of the ICC 5-player dungeons, but there was still value to it on 25-player or on Heroic. Through the end of the expansion, there was still value to most of the raids for a casual audience, with arguably only mainstream raiding guilds having lost the incentive to go back – at least from a gear perspective.
Cataclysm just improved on this model, using the same design of dungeon rollouts, but streamlining the currency to a point system with Justice Points and Valor Points being the two tiers in the system, and simply rolling vendors to the lower currency with each new content tier. The game was a well-built model for endgame at this point, in my opinion – probably the key reason besides some excellent raiding early on that I really did enjoy Cataclysm. You could knock out your “daily” random dungeon bonuses all at once by doing 7 dungeons, or pace them differently in the week to fit your schedule, the point system was easier to follow and explain, and the layers of catchup in the game were strong, but nothing replaced doing the actual raids until the last patch, at which point everything was engineered to push you into Dragon Soul at a suitable power level, which was a great idea (shame that the raid was fairly meh).
So what did I like about the older systems? Well, everything felt clear and purposeful, and there was still a graduation point from older content. In Wrath and Cata, you ran older dungeons as a random event, or if quests incentivized it, and then spent time running newer dungeons as your focus. If you raided, you eventually graduated from the older raids, but up until two patches later, old raids still had a purpose for a large number of players and it wasn’t uncommon for PUG groups to be running Firelands late into Cataclysm, or PUGs for Trial of the Crusader and even Ulduar late into Wrath. People could still catchup, and do it on their own terms – mixing dropped random gear, currency vendors (player deterministic looting, imagine that!), and crafting markets (which upgraded for each tier as well). However, this came with a clear stepping-stone pattern of content – old dungeons were for new players at the endgame, and as you progressed, you did them less and less as you shifted to new dungeons and to raiding with PUGs or organized static groups.
The weaknesses? As a system, it means that catchup takes time, and is subject to some luck. It means coming into the endgame at the tail-end of an expansion requires a bit of a sprint through older content – although Wrath got around this through random dungeon queues for extra rewards and the daily quests for a random dungeon boss and random trash mobs in a dungeon, further incentivizing runs through prior content. It did mean that eventually, old raids like Naxxramas were completely depreciated of value, especially in the final patch of an expansion, where in Wrath even normal ICC 5-player dungeons gave better rewards than all of Naxx except Kel’Thuzad 25, and the Dragon Soul 5-player dungeons gave better loot than even the Heroic launch Cata raids. Overall, though? I really like this system.
WoW continued with a rough approximation of this system, although LFR of post-launch raids replaced new dungeons, until Legion, when….
Part 2: The Seasonal Loot Model of Legion (And BfA)
Legion introduced a new model to World of Warcraft for loot and reward acquisition, one that definitely changed how things worked. Because of Mythic Plus, the game couldn’t really have tiers of dungeons with differing difficulties – if that were the case, a Cathedral or Seat key later in the expansion would have been worse and a sort of poison pill for groups. Similarly, Blizzard identified that if world rewards only scaled in new zones, they’d be the only ones anyone did. So then, how do you solve for that?
Everything scales up, excluding raids.
All dungeons scale up to a new baseline, which includes Mythic Plus, maintaining a (rough) equivalence in difficulty between old dungeons and new. With that, rewards also scale up, and this just happens any time the content structure of the game has a major scale-up moment (typically, a new raid tier). PvP rewards already did this since TBC, so the precedent is there, but now, it is applied across the board. World Quests similarly scale upwards, and the baseline difficulty of most world content scales up minorly – it doesn’t feel noticeably harder after a patch, usually because the scaling is supposed to, in theory, have a ceiling, after which the scaling is less than a player’s power increase per item level. This maintains the feeling of power progression in patches (launch content still is easier, new zones have higher ceilings on their world content scaling, and end of expansion content higher still) but it also means that nothing ever gets truly trivial for all players. World mobs in Kul Tiras and Zandalar will remain at least very minor threats for as long as BfA is current content.
On top of the scaling of all of this content, Blizzard has, generally, added catchup mechanics on top of this seasonal scaling, making it possible to gear alts on a faster timetable, especially since World Quest rewards scale to your current item level. In Legion, this took the form of gear tokens (like the Unsullied gear in Argus) and Relinquished gear (allowing farming of raid gear through other means). In BfA, it took a slightly different shape, with 7th Legion/Honorbound caches for Invasions in 8.1, Benthic Gear in 8.2, and now Black Empire tokens in 8.3. The 7th Legion/Honorbound stuff is the closest to the Legion ways – requiring active play on the character you want that gear on, while the Benthic and Black Empire gear are relatively easily farmed on a main and given to an alt – simple tokens. Benthic is really simple (buy a token or earn one via a world quest or mission table mission), where Black Empire gear is less so (randomly drops from rare mobs in the invaded zones of 8.3). Still, it is easy enough to get an alt kitted out with a little bit of focused gameplay, enough for them to start really benefitting from world quests, and then moving to dungeons and LFR to kit out to 430 and change.
So what is good about this system? Well, it means catchup is an easy feat – in both Legion and BfA, it never takes particularly long before an alt or fresh 120 who just started is geared up enough to feel alright through the world content and base-level difficulties of dungeons, raids, and PvP. You have a huge array of ways to gear up, from tokens to world quests to dungeons. Every dungeon remains viable, which, in a transmog-equipped world, means various gear looks can be easily farmed and acquired. It increases the amount of available and viable content one can do – pretty much everything except old raids remain rewarding, so a random dungeon doesn’t have a dungeon you’d only do for extra rewards, world quests keep pace with a casual non-raider, and everything remains at a decent level of challenge.
As for the bad, well, there is plenty. To start with, launch dungeons can get tiring after two years, especially in a world with 3 base dungeon difficulties and a fourth mode which means you can see each dungeon literally 100+ times an expansion if that is your core mode of engagement. The insignificance of the early raid tiers feels awful – I probably couldn’t name every raid boss in Uldir and I did that raid from launch for like 3 months straight. It means that the number of people actively queuing for old LFR content is reduced and finding PUG groups for older raids is generally harder, especially in BfA without tier sets to farm – most people are one and done with those raids. Also, as I mentioned a lot in my BfA review series, this is where I really feel the game has taken a bad turn. In the old model, content was on a path, where you would, eventually, pass by the launch content and move on to new things – new dungeons, new raids, new world content, but in a way that the prior stuff was valuable to experience as a part of the catchup (at least, to a point). Sure, eventually, launch raids were unviable and launch dungeons held precious little value for long, but they were still done. I never met a player who had skipped the launch dungeons even as they did catchup to get to where everyone else was.
Meanwhile, in the current model of BfA, everyone can skip dungeons altogether if you want – world content will get you most of the way, and then you can queue for LFR for that 430 gear. You don’t need to even see a dungeon or the first 3 tiers of BfA raiding at all to get there! To some people, this is probably fine and good – but I feel like it fundamentally misses the point of having the content if there is no real reason to even so much as touch it for the average player just looking to catch up to their friends. Yes, in many ways, I am advocating for players needing to get their feet wet a bit more first, and I understand that this is largely my opinion, but I do feel like the game misses something when you can just leapfrog ahead to the current content after a couple of hours of work.
Part 3: The Almost-Plagiarized FFXIV Model
FFXIV, as I noted above, borrows heavily from the WoW playbook on rewards, most specifically, the Wrath of the Lich King model. There are 3 types of active Tomestones for purchasing rewards at any given time – Poetics, used for all things lower than the present expansion, and then a tier of basic currency for dungeon content that rewards gear slightly less valuable than the current raid, and raid-tier tomestones, which can be used to purchase gear on-par with the current raid content.
FFXIV’s different content structure allows them to make some simple carve-outs that increase player agency in meaningful ways, though. FFXIV, rather than lumping all big group content into the “raid” bucket, uses smaller buckets which change the ways in which you get loot. FFXIV endgame content that isn’t a dungeon splits into Trials, Raids, and Alliance Raids, with Trials and Raids having higher difficulty versions (EX and Savage, respectively). For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to ignore Ultimate raids, since they slot in weirdly and still aren’t fully integrated in a predictable way.
Basically, at launch, there is a tier of “Expert” dungeons, basically the 3 dungeons available at the endgame of the current expansion. These all give pre-raid gear, and the Expert roulette dungeons shift forward as the expansion moves on, bringing in new dungeons with higher item level loot, meaning that typically, Expert will net you better gear as time moves on, although there will be some moments where your Expert roulette will pick the oldest dungeon in the group. Dungeons in FFXIV past level-up drop only armor.
Weapons come first from EX Trials, either by drop, or by the guaranteed loot totems off of the boss. If your job’s weapon doesn’t drop, no stress, just run it 10 times and you’ll get a weapon to use no matter what. The remaining tiers split fairly evenly – raids drop everything, but via a token system with a limit of one per boss per week. Token need varies based on slot, with 1 token netting accessories, and the rest of the slots taking between 2-4 tokens a piece. The end boss of each 4-boss raid tier then drops weapon tokens, which are saved up and exchanged for a special tomestone item, which is traded in with tokens you get for saving regular tomestones to give you a weapon. If you are confused, don’t worry – it is weird.
However, the basic gist is this – base raids in FFXIV are flexible on reward, with the token system allowing you to choose only to roll on the tokens you need to fill out your gear set, and the most valuable token, weapon, being granted for doing the full raid tier each week. You have a choice and if you can benefit from anything, you can just roll willy-nilly, see what you get, and run with it going forward. There are tokens for everyone, so you will always get something – provided you roll on everything, and if not, you can go back in immediately, reclear, and try again.
Savage works similarly, but each end of fight chest instead drops both gear coffers that turn into a piece of gear immediately, while also giving books, which serve as the tokens for Savage. Because of the higher power of the gear, you need more books than you did tokens in Normal, but you can also simply win the gear directly in the raid. Again here, you have agency over what pieces you get and when – you can choose your rolls carefully, save your books for the right pieces, and ensure your full loadout is completed as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Alliance raids function a lot like dungeons in that gear simply drops and you roll – when an Alliance Raid is current, you can only get one piece per boss per week, but that restriction also lifts when the content is no longer the most current. At present, that means running the Copied Factory raid allows you to roll on all the gear you want, with the normal rules of dungeon loot applying (you can only Need for the job/role you queued into the raid with) and that gear, while no longer near the top of the food chain, is good for catching up. Similarly to weapons in normal raids, Alliance Raids drop a coin at the end of each run, which can be used to buy upgrade items for Tomestone gear to bring up its item level and stats.
What is nice about this model is that it allows you to engage with content in an efficient and methodical way – if you want a weapon, you have 3 routes – do EX Trials, do normal raids, or do Savage Raids. If you want chest armor, you have 3 routes there too – do normal raids, do savage raids, or do Alliance raids. On top of all of that, you get tomestones, which can buy any slot save for a weapon, although you need 1,000 of the tomestone of the level you are wanting a weapon in if you are getting a non-Trial, non-Savage raid weapon. It can sound a bit daunting, but basically, for every armor slot on your character sheet, you have 4 deterministic paths through the game, and for weapons, you have 3. (There is generally a fourth path through an expansion-wide weapon crafting quest with checkpoints in nearly every major item level tier where it is usable, but the form that will take in Shadowbringers is still TBA). You get a lot of say over the manner in which you will gear up – you can choose to focus your lowest item level slots with tomestone gear to bring them up, while saving raid tokens to buy larger pieces and chipping away at the current EX Trials available for those weapons. It also means catching up pushes you to do the content you missed – both in terms of reward, but also as story quests nudge you through it – you have to unlock raid tiers in sequence, and you have to unlock dungeons through story quests. Same goes for Trials and Alliance Raids (although both are more side-questy than dungeons, as are the raid series, in fact).
Where this model is weak is in time investment. As much as WoW can take a long time to gear in, even under the model that the FFXIV system is clearly based upon, it is not uncommon to be able to jump 20-30 item level average incredibly fast. In FFXIV, that is still possible to an extent, but once you start closing in on the current content, those jumps are less common and much harder to obtain. Early on in a raid tier, Normal can be hit or miss on actually getting gear, unless you specifically roll strong on certain tokens and roll on nothing else. If you remain disciplined, you can probably get most of what you want token-wise in a week, but it may take you multiple runs if everyone in your raid has the same idea and is chasing the same token. Weapons outside of Trials are a slog, as getting a normal raid weapon is typically 5 weeks of just getting the Blades in raid, before considering the possible difficulty and dedication of saving the 1,000 tomestones for turn-in alongside the weapon token. The other thing about FFXIV loot is that it has a very specific pattern to it, but at first and for a while, expect it to be confusing. I still had to look up elements of the purchase system for weapons and the Savage mechanics to make sure I had it right!
So overall, which one of these is my favorite? Well…I’d probably argue for FFXIV’s at present, given that it takes the things I really liked about past loot systems in WoW, but imbues a strong sense of agency into the proceedings so you are not forced to leave things to chance. You get ultimate say on what pieces you get when, and you can always choose to save a roll on a boss that has a loot lock for a subsequent clear that week when your preferred token is less competitive or your specific role piece drops in the Alliance Raid. That flexibility is key because even though systems like the raid weapons are frivolous time gates, the game has other ways for me to circumvent that. I can choose to spend 5 weeks farming normal raids, or I can spend a few hours on a Saturday clearing the current EX Trial on loop. WoW doesn’t really offer that, and with the varied systems of 8.3, it in fact has far too much loot variety with modifiers like sockets and Corruption. In FFXIV, you can set your watch to when you’ll finish gearing and actually hit the target!
Is this something I see Blizzard re-implementing into WoW? Well…probably not, sadly. My hope for Shadowlands is that we get broadly better player determinism of loot, although I fully expect it to have a “Blizzard touch” – some random element that can empower a piece of gear or frustrate you. They’ll never go to a token-based, simple loot system like FFXIV – but that isn’t to say it can’t be rewarding as constantly as FFXIV is.
I certainly hope we don’t have to speculate much longer, given those encrypted Shadowlands alpha builds hanging out online…