Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This Article is About Item Level Requirements

Item level is something of an objective measure to determine how powerful a piece of equipment is in World of Warcraft. Because of this, the average item level of all equipped gear on a character is a good way to quickly gauge how powerful the character is. Aside from the fact that much of the depth of optimal gearing is ignored, item level requirements have become a benchmark to determine whether a player is worthy of joining a group. However, since players are free to set requirements to whatever they want, there are many groups that, at least in my eyes, set unreasonable requirements. The latest of these requirement shenanigans occurred about two weeks ago when Black Temple Timewalking was made available:
Normally, since Timewalking Black Temple drops item level 900 gear for level 110 characters, the requirement is on the cusp of being unreasonable since it requires players to be so geared they likely don't need about half of the drops. However, the problem is twofold because BC Timewalking scales down your item level to 141. The scaling mechanic in question nullifies any advantages that having item level 900 or higher gear may have, so therefore the requirement makes no sense. What this listing told me at the time was that the leader might be incredibly incompetent and the idiocy was so hilarious that I tweeted about it. It also serves as a catalyst to a topic I've been wanting to talk about for quite a while: item level requirements.

The History of Item Level Requirements

In this section, I cover some of the history related to item level requirements. It should help to provide some point of reference in the following section.

While item levels existed in a sense from the beginning of the game, they basically served as an invisible footnote on gear. I remember having to roughly gauge the stats on gear to determine which was better and there were frequently questions about which gear piece to use. This sufficed for a time until Wrath of the Lich King. Around this time, there were many more players and thanks to entry-level raids like Naxxramas and Vault of Archavon, group content became a lot more accessible. Accessibility improved with the addition of hard mode and heroic raiding since it created a new domain for exceptional players to hold some prestige over others, allowing normal mode to be tuned to appeal more to the average player. 

However, the improved accessibility led to an increase in what some consider to be undesirable players in their group. Such players may be underperformers or they may treat other group members poorly, but regardless they were players that might be nice to filter out. Personally, in a rather unproud moment of mine, I kept a lengthy blacklist of players who seemed undesirable to have in a group and often rejected them from joining. However, by the time I tempered my mentality and was on the verge of deleting said blacklists, Gearscore was implemented as something of an objective measure of how "good" a player is. This addon was the source of much controversy due to how it was used and while I was generally unaffected I was there to witness the rise of unreasonable requirements. To save time on several paragraphs of explanation Preach explains the problems of Gearscore pretty well here.

Blizzard's Item Level System

After Gearscore became a very popular addon to use, Blizzard responded in early Cataclysm by giving item levels more of a presence in the game. While they were already visible by this point, they soon became a metric to queue for Cataclysm dungeons in the recently added Dungeon Finder system. This would later be expanded upon in the Raid Finder and other requirements, such as the completion of Proving Grounds Silver, were experimented with in the queue system in particular. Item level requirements in particular generally seemed reasonable since they they were lower than what the content itself awarded but high enough that participation in lower tier content was necessary to meet the requirement. Players adapted to this new system and started setting item level requirements for non-queued group content, which culminated in the expected outcome that involved having some unreasonable requirements such as asking for a (far) higher item level than what the content awarded.

Warforging and Titanforging

Without going over the history of Titanforging too much again, it is worth pointing out that this system, due to its effect on the item level of gear-based rewards, definitively has an effect of some sort on item level requirements. On one hand, Titanforging (and Warforging to a degree) allows players to obtain gear from content with a less stringent or nonexistent item level requirement to meet a more demanding one. It also allows players to obtain upgrades from content they may vastly outgear. However, this can work both ways since now players who set very high item level requirements for group content can justify it by calling their run a "gear farming run for Titanforging" or the like. In addition, item level requirements may become more demanding due to the increased accessibility to higher item level equipment, even if obtaining such gear can be a luck-based affair.

The Problem of Unreasonable Requirements

While the detriments of unreasonable requirements have already been explained somewhat, this section will briefly describe the consequences of two scenarios, followed by some personal guidelines that I follow.

Setting Requirements Too Low

This one is probably not actively considered much but it's worth acknowledging. While most group content outside of Mythic raiding is generous in terms of checking how geared players are, that doesn't mean players with any level of gear can do certain content. For example, being too undergeared can lead to general underperformance and given how damaging some mechanics are, dying instantly is a real possibility. Aside from the extreme situations where it's literally impossible to kill a boss without sufficient gear, players may end up being frustrated by having to carry an undergeared player, even if that player is incredibly skilled.

Setting Requirements Too High

With the previous points in mind, players tend to fear running into such a show of underperformance so they may set item level requirements very high to have a group full of strong players. However, while this may lead to faster kill times, a geared player is not necessarily a skilled player. Furthermore, there may be a bit of a diminishing return on how much effect geared players have on an encounter if only because of mechanics. Finally, such runs may not end up being that fruitful and while they may serve as a source of entertainment for a few hours, only a few players are likely to receive upgrades even when accounting for the fact gear can be traded between players on a Personal Loot system and the like. This ultimately culminates into a smaller net gain in terms of overall playerbase power due to the low risk-low reward strategy, which leads to a smaller pool of geared players to make pick-up groups from.

How I Set Requirements

In the interest of preventing the issue of setting requirements too high or too low, I try to use what Blizzard recommends for content in the Premade Group Finder. Sometimes, I drop the requirement by about 10-20 item levels depending on the content since in some cases, like with Mythic Dungeons, I'm more than geared enough to carry and I'm willing to do so. On the other hand, very high-end content like Mythic raiding or a +15 Mythic dungeon key may have me raising the requirement a little if only because recommended requirements for such content are missing, but also because gear checks are far harsher.

Blizzard's recommended item level requirement seems to vary, but is usually at least a double digit amount below what the content rewards. For example, Normal Tomb of Sargeras at the least can drop item level 900 gear and Blizzard recommends inviting players with 880 item level.

Final Statements

I don't think this article is really going to do much to convince anyone to change the item level requirements they set. In a sense my publishing of this piece is very selfish because it provides some personal catharsis by expressing my opinion of what I consider a problematic aspect of the WoW community that damages player retention that Blizzard probably won't, and in my opinion shouldn't, address more than they have. With that said, if there's an interest in having a larger pool of skilled, geared players, I think it would help to generally try to set bars lower not necessarily for the sake of carrying players, but for giving capable players more of an opportunity.

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