Monday, November 7, 2011

On Item Squish

On Friday, Blizzard posted a Dev Watercooler post by Ghostcrawler about troubles they're running into with exponentially increasing item levels. If you haven't read it yet, I highly suggest you at least give it a once-over, because the various figures work to explain the problem really well. As a quick summary, the core issue is that item levels are increasing exponentially compared to character levels, and Blizzard is not quite sure how to deal with it. On one extreme, Blizzard could leave things as-is and figure out a better way to communicate and compute large numbers, while on the other extreme they could squish item levels back down to a more manageable level, but risk alienating the playerbase with the perception of a very major nerf. If Blizzard does nothing about item levels, then it needs a better way to communicate the numbers we'll be seeing on our screen (after all, it's somewhat hard to tell the difference between 100000 and 1000000 at a quick glance). If Blizzard does squish item levels back to into line with pre-expansion content, then players will suddenly feel like they've been nerfed extremely hard because their abilities that were doing thousands or tens of thousands of points of healing or damage will be brought back down to doing hundreds of points of healing or damage instead, which could be potentially disheartening even if all of the other numbers (such as target health) were brought down the same way.

Personally, my solution would be to set up a slow squish system. It would be a significantly larger undertaking up front, but it would allow for item squish to happen without making players feel like they were nerfed into oblivion. Essentially, how it would work is that Blizzard would set a hard upper limit for item levels, and set things up so that whenever tier of items would normally be introduced above that limit, those items would instead be introduced at that limit and nearly everything else would be squished a little downward instead. For example, if the upper limit were set to item level 500 and a gear tear would normally add 10 item levels above that, instead of coming out with a new tier of gear at item level 510, the current and previous tiers of gear would be squashed down to item level 490 and below and the new tier would be introduced at item level 500.

What this does is that it essentially splits one massive nerf into dozens of tiny nerfs that are far less jarring. Damage and healing numbers wouldn't suddenly jump down from the thousands into the hundreds, but instead would effectively cap out and slip down slightly (and temporarily) every time a new tier of gear was introduced, and slightly more for each new expansion. Item levels for any given tier would eventually slip down to where they would have been if Blizzard had followed a more linear methodology, and that would act as a floor so that the numbers eventually settle where Blizzard wants them to be. At some point, the exponential curve will flatten out and the hard cap can be done away with.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this would require significantly more work right off the bat than either of the solutions Blizzard has used to highlight the problem. For one, all items would have to be made able to scale downward so that Blizzard can squish them repeatedly until they reach the desired item level. Secondly, it would mean tweaking the numbers for every raid boss every patch, or possibly linking boss numbers to expected item level numbers so that the bosses scale down naturally. Ultimately, it would probably be a very complex solution to program and implement without taking up massive amounts of developer time, but I also think it's a more elegant solution than the two Blizzard has shown publicly.

That said, I doubt the two solutions Blizzard has shown are the only options they have up their sleeves. I think it will be interesting to see how Blizzard decides to deal with the problem as Mists of Pandaria inches closer to release.

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