It's certainly been a controversial move. Lead Encounter Designer Ion "Watcher" Hazzikostas took to the forums recently to clarify some hastily translated interviews he did with fansites during last week's press event. There are several key things in Watcher's post that it seems people are missing, so let's just sum it up here.
- Proving Ground Silver will be required for solo queue heroic dungeons
- Group queue heroic dungeons will have no Proving Ground requirement
- Proving Grounds will be updated to "further refine balance and mechanics"
I did a little experiment as part of my research for this article. In an attempt to see how bad getting a Silver could be, I took a fire mage to the proving grounds. Not a new 90, but an unplayed one. My gear was woeful. I managed, with this gear, not at the hit cap, not even at ilvl 463 with downscaling, to reach wave 4 of Silver. Bronze took five tries.
What's my point? Well, I'm trying to establish that, even as a class that scales badly thanks to a heavy reliance on crit, I was able to get almost halfway through silver with woeful gear. I went back to the Timeless Isle for an hour or so, and got more gear, then got Silver with relative ease. I still had a 450 staff.
I am far from being a top-end fire mage. I'm pretty far from even just being a good one. I barely remembered to use Alter Time, I barely remembered to PoM my Pyro. What I'm trying to get across is that Silver is not hard to get. I deliberately sought out a class that scales badly, and did it with starter gear. If I'd actually tried to optimize more than just trying to get to the hit cap, I might have done better. My point is that even right now, getting silver is not hard. I tweeted about my progress, and heard back that another poorly-performing class was warriors. The only warrior I have at max was an arms warrior in full PvP 522 gear. Silver took me two tries, bronze one. I've also got Silver on healing paladin, tank paladin, tank warrior, tank DK, healing priest, DPS priest, healing shaman and DPS shaman. It's possible I've managed to miss out really hard classes, but I think I've covered a good cross-section.
Now, if the developers had said gold, I'd be joining the outcry. The difficulty scaling on current proving grounds is about as good as 10-man Throne of Thunder at release. Gold is a fair bit harder than silver, it seems, and then it's another jump up to Endless. But they're not, they're saying silver. And that's just fine. My mage struggled with her bad gear, with her complete lack of enchants and gems. If you were struggling too, then a look at your gems and enchants might help. Getting gear that's at least at the downscaling cap might help -- it doesn't scale lower gear up. But all these things are also things you'd want on your randomly match-made team-mates in Warlords' harder heroic dungeons.
Proving Ground rework in Warlords
I am not, however, saying that the current system is perfect. As Ion notes in his blue post, it is being reworked for WoD, and I'm wondering what should change. There could definitely stand to be some more class balancing taking place, as some classes do have a harder time than others.
Technical Game Designer Chadd "Celestalon" Nervig mentioned on Twitter lately that Proving Grounds could scale up to your character rather than scaling you down, and this is a fantastic idea. Why does it make a difference? Your gear. Instead of having to work with bizarre downscaling numbers, with problematic drops in crit and other key stats, you have content that scales to your level. If your frostbolt hits for 3,000 in the world, it hits for 3,000 in Proving Grounds. This feels good, it's good to not have to rethink your gear, reforging and gemming just for one piece of content that you may only be doing in order to access another piece of content.
Another change that has been mentioned is the addition of more teaching to the system. The problem with Proving Grounds right now is that if, hypothetically, you're a player who wants the silver medal, but doesn't really look at websites, doesn't really know the ins and outs of their class, you might fail and have no idea why. This is a problem, and while the game may not be able to intelligently examine combat log events to tell you precisely why you failed, a little guidance might at least help.
There is currently occasional NPC dialog, which, in the healing ones, is aggravating at best when you can't actually dispel both debuffs on Gold and Endless. This is not enough. On the DPS and Tank ones, there's basically nothing. What exactly the systems are capable of, I'm not sure, but I'd love to see a bit of rotation and ability usage guidance for all classes. Perhaps some tactical ideas on how to progress better.
Why this gating is good
OK, so we've looked at the issues with the current system, despite how Silver is pretty straightforward, but why is this gating good? I dislike attunements, I wasn't a fan of the gating of valor gear or rep, but I like this? Well a few things. This gating is short, and easy to complete. If the Proving Grounds are hard now, they'll be even faster to get in Warlords. Secondly, they require skill and knowledge that directly translates into your performance in the content they're gating.
Did doing the Golden Lotus dailies train you in the skills required to wear Valor gear? At least with the attunements system, completing PvE content arguably makes you better at completing PvE content, but it wasn't a test of skill -- you could still be carried. These gatings were really just inconvenience, especially later in the expansion.
While Proving Grounds don't currently teach you how to play, they could in future, and passing these relatively straightforward tests will certainly show you've reached a certain level. Even at present, they at least show you that something is wrong if you can't complete them -- either you're not wearing good enough gear, you're reforged wrong, or you're just not quite executing them as well as you could. Any of these is OK, any of these is fixable, even if it's you. If there could be more guidance in future, that would be even better. I'm OK with Blizzard saying that if you can't complete silver, you can't solo-queue for heroics, you have to go with pre-mades or friends. And I'm mostly OK with this because of what it allows Blizzard to do.
What it allows Blizzard to do
Blizzard has talked many times in the past about the difficulty they face doing random match-made content that is actually difficult. The problem is that players lose patience, players don't want content to take too long, involve too much wiping, or too much failure. Gating solo queues behind Silver at least ensures a fair level of skill from all your randomly match-made group members. Doing this allows the devs to make hard solo-queue content again, without fear of a brand new L100 stumbling unwittingly into it and slowing everyone else down. And this is a good thing. Hard content is a good thing, and if this allows Blizzard to make hard content again, it is also a good thing. And perhaps Proving Grounds could look specifically at encounters and pick out the hard parts, so urgent target switching for DPS, big group health drops for healers, big add pulls for tanks. It could make for better groups, which in turn makes for better content.
What's more, if you want to queue with friends or guild-mates, the option exists with no need for Silver. Indeed, the group-finder will allow pugging without silver, if you so wish. The options are there, if you want them, and if it makes people play more with friends, along with the higher rewards mentioned at BlizzCon, that's a good thing too.