As part of my post-grad studies, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time looking at the psychology of gaming. One of the theories on how games like WoW keep people interested, and a good theory at that, was one revolving around breadcrumbs. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, WoW offers the player lots of small, reachable rewards. Nothing so big that you feel like you're done, but lots of small things that aren't too hard to get to. Perhaps those things are in pursuit of something bigger, but they happen fairly regularly. Think of valor points, for example. A little additional reward for completing straightforward tasks. Reputation is another good example. Or leveling, be it a character or a profession.
Gear is much the same, it is the carrot that remains only slightly out of reach, pushing you to play just a little longer. In a PvE context, for an average player at least, you're never really done. Think of Thunderforged gear, this is an additional breadcrumb for those players who are at the top of the ladder already.
As I looked at another alt, recently 90, that I'd really like to PvP seriously on, and perhaps also have as a raider, and found myself looking back through my rose-tinted spectacles at the heady days of Cataclysm, when late-expansion gearing was really rather trivial. I was thinking about how I enjoy WoW, and, as is often the case, I wonder if anyone else feels the same.
My favorite bit of the cycle of every tier, be it a PvE raid tier or a PvP season, is the point where I've got everything sorted on the gear front. PvP is rather different to PvE as far as this goes, because it's far easier and far more binary -- there's a lot less discussion about best-in-slot and the like, simply because there's fewer options to choose from. Yes, you can tweak your gems and enchants, and there are often PvE items to grind out, but largely, it's a lot easier and faster to get the gearing done. PvE, it's more subjective and open to discussion. But, once you're in the full epics relevant to your main difficulty, so, for me, the epics from normal-mode, you can call yourself kind of done.
Once I hit that "done" point, then, that's when I start to really enjoy the game on that character. Gone is the nagging monkey on my back saying "you should be doing this because your gear isn't as good as it could be". I can play exactly how I want to, I'm no longer waiting for a drop, on the edge of my seat when a boss goes down, I can enjoy the game for its own sake. I feel like, for me, the breadcrumb gearing is almost an impediment to my enjoyment of the game. That's part of the reason why I was happy with Cataclysm, to an extent, although the raiding was pretty dire. The gearing was easily achieved, and while it was fun to keep an eye out for occasional drops, it was easy to get to the point where you could actually play the game.
But for many others, the gearing is the game. Working through the progress, the building up, the adding tiny little additional bits of strength and power and survivability and the like. Working their way towards the next upgrade, always having a goal in mind, a target to shoot for. There are several complaints, for example, that there is nothing for late-season fully geared PvPers to shoot for, nothing to keep them interested, but for me the opposite is true. Sure, I'd love a mount or a pet or something to spend excess conquest on, or better yet, BoE PvP gear to send to my alts. But I'm happiest when I'm done worrying about how I'm not yet geared.
I suspect I am in the minority. It seems likely that the gearing, the grinding, the leveling, the breadcrumbs, those are the things that pull people in to the game, and keep them interested. So I'm curious, do you love the endless quest for betterment, or do you enjoy feeling like you're done with the grind? Is gearing the game, for you, or does it get in the way?