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Gear is good. Gear works.

Matthew Rossi

I initially had the intention of refuting Adam's dissertation on why we don't need gear in World of Warcraft with the same length and exhaustive detail he himself used. But I don't think that's the proper course here. By now, many of you will have commented in similar fashion. Instead, I'll go for simplicity and list some reasons why WoW should keep gear.
  1. Gear provides a means to tune content for consumption. Right now, dungeons, raids, scenarios and even leveling content is tunable along many aspects of gameplay, including whether or not it's intended for groups or to be soloable, whether or not it's for certain size of groups, whether a healer is intended, and what level of offensive power/healing/tanking ability is permitted by gear. Removing gear from the game means content loses a slider, giving the developers less options.
  2. Demanding that all content difficulty be based purely on skill is unnecessarily restrictive to players. Quite frankly, letting groups outgear content is good for the game. It allows groups that couldn't quite get an encounter down for whatever reason to come back later with better gear and try again. It lets groups go down a raid tier and have fun blasting through previously difficult content, or lets players shine in dungeons or scenarios that were once grueling. It even allows players to go back an expansion or two and have fun soloing what once took entire raids to complete.
  3. MMO's that eschew gear work best when designed from the start in this manner, and even then they often use things that are gear in all but name. A game that uses enhancements to modify powers, for instance, is just using gear by a different name.
So let's talk more about why gear is in fact good and shouldn't go anywhere after the break.

Gear is good Gear works
Quite frankly, the last thing we need is to change the game so fundamentally that all encounter balance needs to be retuned. Removing gear from the equation means one of two things. Either we'll need to radically rethink how characters progress in ability, or we're merely trading gear for something else that does the same things gear currently does for us. Using Adam's own argument, gear provides three functions in game. It provides characters with measurable increase in their ability (especially past level cap, when they can't simply get stronger by acquiring more XP), it gives them an aesthetic option for their characters (esp. post transmogrification) and it has a certain emotional resonance, what Adam called 'psychological' and which he described as a somewhat irrational belief that you must have the best gear possible because it's unsatisfying otherwise.

Since Adam allowed for the aesthetic uses of gear (indeed, he argued that's all gear should do) we can simply stipulate that yes, gear should have an aesthetic use for character customization in WoW and move on to discussing the other two. Why is it good that gear gives us measurable increases in power, and furthermore, why isn't it bad that we desire to increase our gear?

As I said before, removing gear functionality so that it provides no actual in game benefit removes a content tuning slider. While there will always be players at the top end of the skill equation, not all WoW players are so skilled and it's good for the game to have those players. Someone who just plays to have fun on the weekend, someone who has a bunch of alts for farming mats, someone who likes to play various classes but doesn't want to spend the time to master one of them shouldn't be penalized, and if you remove gear from the content balancing toolkit you lose a means to ensure that players are able to meet a minimum standard of damage, healing or survivability necessary to progress in various forms of content from leveling in various zones to running dungeons, scenarios and raids. While there are certain kinds of content like PvP and Challenge Mode dungeons where gear is or will be normalized to put a higher emphasis on skill, not all content should remove that tuning mechanism. Letting players who either can't or don't want to devote as much time to learning mastery of a specific mechanic still play the game is a good thing, and gear provides the developers with one more good tool in their balancing toolkit.

Another thing to consider is the fun factor of gear. Frankly, getting that drop you want is often just as much fun as not getting it can be painful. To quote Adam:
If you're not around for the right evening of raiding and that sword drops you've wanted for months, then too bad -- it's not yours and instead is going to the new guy.


You deserve it more than the new guy, you've worked at it longer, kept in the guild through the thick and thin, and are a model player. But there you are, with your old purple collecting dust and not topping the DPS charts. What can you do?

Grind more gear.

There's actually a couple of problems with this idea. First is the entitlement factor - "You deserve it more" that is so covetous of a piece of loot that it begrudges players who actually show up for a boss kill the drop that the supposedly deserving player wasn't even there for - but worse than that is its dismissal of the inverse. For every frustration with that one drop that you just can't get, or for missing a raid and not getting it, there's the exultation of the night when you do get it. Furthermore, the player who actually does care about the guild and its welfare should be glad a piece of gear will get used, shouldn't they?

But even further, actually having gear is fun. There's the aesthetic value, but we've already ceded that aspect. It's cool to look cool. It's cool to look badass. But it's also cool to feel badass. If WoW was to do away with gear, it would have to find some other way to let players who demonstrate that skill Adam is so worried about get that feeling of being badass, of progressing not just through content but also in personal power for doing so. The fact is, the reward for displaying the skill necessary for the completion of content in WoW is currently threefold. You get the satisfaction of achieving that display of skill, you get the potential reward of an upgraded piece of loot to make you personally, objectively stronger than you were before and you get the ability to display that strength in content that you've now progressed beyond the need for. It literally graduates you. You are constantly growing even when you're not strictly speaking leveling anymore, and so you get to feel progressively better at the game as you progress to content that can be tuned to do more damage, take more damage, and require more.

Removing gear without providing some other form of personal growth through the completion of these content objectives removes two of these rewards. Removing gear while providing an alternative method of personal power increase simply changes gear into something else that is effectively still gear, ala personal power enhancement. If the former, the game feels less fun. If the latter, you've made a lot of complex change to how the game feels and plays for no good reason at all.

To use one example from the current game where gear is almost removed entirely, we have leveling with heirlooms. Once a player puts an heirloom on, that gear slot is effectively negated for at least 80 levels, if not 85. What happens to content? It is trivialized in difficulty (because the heirlooms give you stats equivalent to some of the best gear you could get at the level) and the rewards from that content, the gear drops, become vendor trash. Instances are run and forgotten, quest rewards vendored, and in general the leveling experience becomes something you endure rather than experience.

Should there be content that rewards skill? There already is. There's content that makes gear much less of a factor like challenge modes and PvP in 5.3, and there's content like heroic modes in raiding that increase the difficulty and require a higher total skill and coordination factor to complete. There's a place for that in WoW, absolutely, but there's also a place for content that allows for gear to be a useful tuning mechanism in order to let a high population in to see it.

In the end, it all comes down to these three aspects. Taking away the psychological empowerment of gear without a compensatory mechanism to give players the feeling of growth without providing an alternative would damage the game for no reason, and adding a new one would simply be giving us gear under another name. Gear helps to tune content, gives players customization options, and makes for a more universally accessible overall game. It would damage the game to remove it.
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