There's been an interesting discussion taking place lately regarding Proving Grounds, and their use as a barrier to entry for LFG content. Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street tweeted to clarify Blizzard's potential intent, in response to the forum thread.
@Meerkatx It would probably be more like LFR requires ilevel 500 OR a Proving Ground Silver Medal, or maybe Silver + ilevel 450 or whatever.- Greg Street (@Ghostcrawler) October 1, 2013
I thought this was an interesting idea, and clearly something Blizzard has taken into consideration, so let's explore the good and bad sides of it. In each section, I'm going to try my best to steadfastly ignore the opposite position. Think of it as a debate I'm having. With myself.
Proving grounds are at least a way to show skill. The current system bases itself purely off item level, so if you have the gear on your character, or the gear in your bags, you can get into a LFR raid. This is really really easy to manipulate, particularly for classes who can equip anything, and this in itself is an issue. It's far, far harder to manipulate Proving Ground achievements, particularly given how item level is scaled to 463 in Proving Grounds.
And better players can do more with less gear. I know it's PvP, but look at the number of top PvPers, particularly during Cataclysm, who were 2200+ rated with terrible gear. The same applies for PvE. If you know a class well, and are a skilled player, you can do better with less gear. I know my resto shaman inside out, she's been my PvP main for a long time, and more recently my PvE main too, and I know I can outheal better geared players. Sure, there's a point where that will stop, where the gear will outdo skill, no matter how good you are. But skill is a bigger deal than you might think.
And Proving Grounds require skill. While they were all over the place difficulty-wise on the PTR, they are now at least relatively challenging. Bronze should be accessible to everyone. Silver should be easy for more skilled players, Gold is harder, and to get the Endless Mode wave 30 achievement you've got to be pretty on top of your game. There have been some adjustments and some honing of things like NPC AIs in the healing ones, but that hasn't made them less challenging.
So, what it would mean is, if we take Ghostcrawler's tweet as the design intent, you can get into Siege of Orgrimmar with either item level 500, or item level 450 and a silver medal from Proving Grounds. This is a great compromise. Perhaps the item levels are a bit too far apart, 450 to 500 is a really big gap, so perhaps 476 and 496 would be a better distribution. So 476 and a silver medal, or 496 (which is the current ilvl required). For LFR purposes, a silver Proving Grounds medal is great, it's within reach of most players, so it's not excessively hard, but it requires that you have a decent grasp of how to play your class. And, as I mentioned, gear is scaled for them, so you can't brute force your way through.
Philosophically, too, it's important for WoW players to recognize that gear isn't everything. Right now, there is perhaps too much of a heavy focus on item levels. Blizzard introduced the system back when they broke addons like GearScore and PlayerScore, and replaced them, but the ilvl system is really no better. There is too much focus on gear, and not enough focus on skill. The addition of Proving Grounds to the LFG qualification system would bring skill back into the equation, and that is nothing but a good thing. Proving Grounds show you can grasp at least some basic mechanics, perform a rotation, or your role, and gear alone doesn't guarantee any of that.
The biggest bad side I can see with this system is that Proving Grounds are not balanced content. Ghostcrawler confirms this himself on Twitter, saying:
@DjonRutherford Like any encounter, the specific PG mechanics are more favorable to some specs than others.- Greg Street (@Ghostcrawler) September 14, 2013
So what this means, is that if you happen to play a class that struggles more than other classes, maybe getting a gold medal from Proving Grounds is a bigger deal. Conversely, if you're playing a class that does really well at Proving Grounds, perhaps getting 10 waves into Endless is trivial. And yes, the same is true of item levels, to an extent, in that certain stats are more important to certain classes than others. Fire mages, for example, scale really well. But if you're having a level set by a specific encounter, isn't it a good idea to choose one that all players have a fairly equal chance to succeed on?
What's more, because of the gear scaling, some classes will suffer more than others. And, if you want to get an advantage, you'll need to reforge well. Many players will run a separate gear set for Challenge Modes, for example, and if you're hunting for achievements in Proving Grounds on a class that isn't inherently strong, you will probably want to do the same. Could Blizzard make them more equal? Perhaps. But it would be a lot more work. I'd rather that time went into other content.
Granted, none of the above is particularly onerous for Silver. Silver, it seems, is pretty straightforward if you know roughly what you're doing, although I have friends who have found it challenging. Once you get up into Gold, then things start to get a lot more real. One of the things that people feared when Proving Grounds were first announced was that players would start to use certain levels in them as criteria to access groups, raids, and the like. This hasn't happened so far, but if Blizzard starts to do it, who knows. No Flex PuGs without Gold? That would be harder to swallow. What about if they offered the option to LFG heroic scenarios, but only if you had a Gold medal? Sure, it's potentially a slippery slope argument, but you never know.
And what's more, putting barriers to entry where there were no barriers before is a bad thing. At least, if they do it how Ghostcrawler's first tweet suggested, there will still be the option to achieve a higher item level to get in to content. And if the scaled level of Proving Grounds remains at 463, everyone should be able to get the gear to access those really, really easily. Lastly, does doing well in Proving Grounds really mean that players will perform to the best of their ability in LFR? Definitely not. And this has the risk of encouraging elitism. Encouraging the idea that, unless you can get whatever medal in Proving Grounds, you aren't a worthwhile player to have along.
All in all, my conclusion is that it's not a terrible idea to offer another option to ilvl. Item level is not a perfect system, and adding a skill element to it is smart. However, Proving Grounds are not currently proven as a method to measure skill, and I genuinely fear the community impact of this idea.