If there is one thing at almost every MMO has in common, it is the emphasis and dependency on equipment and assorted gear that ends up being one of the focal points of the game. In many MMO's the players try to advance and grow their characters power usually by raising their levels and skills. It many MMO's, the max level can be easily achieved in a month or 2 worth of moderate gaming. Once our levels have been maxed and our skills capped, there is only one other way left to improve yourself. Gear.
It seems more and more MMO's are replacing good old fashion player intelligence and skill with raw gear. It used to be that gear only took you so far, and that ultimately skill and mastery of your own spells and skills would be the deciding factor. The gear dependent game is an epidemic to the MMO genre that collapses the gap between what were once average and great players. The effects of poorly thought out itemization have had many effects on the games of today, and quite possibly the games of tomorrow if the trends continue.
The first part of itemization is how drastic certain items can give you amazing advantages in both PvE and PvP settings. We can have 2 characters of the same level and the same class and the difference between their abilities is massive. I agree that good gear should give a player more wiggle room for errors, make his or her life easier, and raise the potential of power that can be used. What I don't agree with is the fact that itemization has gone so far over the deep end in some cases that a character can become easy mode by doing exponentially more damage with his strikes, achieving seeming limitless mana pools, and super inflated hit point totals.
One classic example of itemization gone horribly wrong is World of Warcraft. The first mistake in WoW's itemization was the massive differences initially between raid gear and gear found by any other means. For the first 2 years of the game's life, if you didn't raid and have the gear from epic bosses, you simply were a sheep waiting to be massacred in PvP. As a guild leader I remember clearly Blackwing Lair with my guild and finding an "Untamed Blade" off of the very first boss. This sword was massively more powerful then any other sword that could be obtained through PvP, or any instance that didn't require 40 people. All we had to do was walk into literally the first room of the instance, kill the boss in about 5 minutes, and that was it. The warrior whom I gave that sword too instantly become a God in PvP. If that thing critted, the fight was over instantly. Some poor slob could literally grind away 100's of battlegrounds trying to get a PvP sword, or worse yet 1000's of hours to get a warlord sword, and we could negate that in 5 minutes of raiding.
As time drawing to the expansion pack closed in, they began to rectify the situation somewhat by finally making other playstyles produce gear that had a chance. But once the expansion came out, they literally made a common level 61 weapon dominate anything that could be aquired from the hardest previous raid bosses. Basically they made you raid for 2 years to have a chance, then they made all your achievements worthless instantly by common expansion gear. I consider this to basically force every single player of the game to buy the expansion pack or be completely destroyed forever.
The second aspect of itemization that is destroying these games is that they are shattering character customization. Super twinking fears in the eyes of developers have led to adding level requirements onto virtually every single item we see in every single game. This creates an unofficial tier system for gear where there instantly becomes..."The best item for this level" mentality. These items often become mandatory and standard issue. Soon it becomes common knowledge that there are certain items that you basically must have at a certain level to be viable. Everyone soon learns what these items are, where they are, and relentlessly grind to get them and is ultimately rewarded with being a carbon copy of every other player of that class at that level. I don't think MMORPG's should be encouraging us to strive to be like everyone else. When you finally achieve all of the best items for that class at that level, you become assimilated into a collective zerg of clones. Way to reward the gamer!
The primary example of this aspect is the introduction of set armors into MMO's. Some of my favorite MMO's are guilty of using set armors as a tool for not only creating clone looking characters, but pigeon-holing people into certain build types with set bonuses. EQ2 and WoW are 2 of the most popular games that use the set armor system of loot, but I am going to throw FFXI under the bus this time. FFXI practically invented the clone army of players. In the lower levels of FFXI, there is simply no options or variety at all in what gear can be worn. Don't get me wrong, I understand that there are some extremely rare and expensive twink armor that will cost your your left nut, but the average first time levelling up player will be forced to wear the same leather, brass, lizard hide, chain, and so on up until the mid levels. The price to look different in that game was very costly. Eventually they had the class set armor as seen in the console Final Fantasies. The condom hat wearing white mage, the pointy hat black mage, and the feathered pimp hat wearing red mage. What FFXI did do right with items was the fact that gear was never a substitute for skill in my opinion.
A third aspect of itemization detracting from gameplay is the fact that in most games, the items you need are always dropped by the same monster and only that monster. This monster either is an extremely rare spawn, or some raid level boss. The information becomes common knowledge, and the frenzy to kill these mobs ensues. Depending on the location of the mob, this can often time leads to camping of a certain mobs, or the highly tedious process of attacking the same raid bosses over and over again until the Gods of random number generators decides to smile on you. This entire system often leads to the trivialization of other content because players will know that there is nothing there they can ever find that will interest them. So how can we get around this?
Well a long time ago, a game called Asheron's Call used a random item generator system of loot. Those of you who have played the Diablo series are probably familiar with this. It basically means that any given monster can drop any given type of loot of reasonable level equality to the monster with randomly generated stats. This adds an entirely new level of excitement to killing mobs that in other games would never be interesting to kill. There were many occasions playing AC1 where I would be out in the vast wilderness, kill a monster, and find a substantial upgrade or an item powerful enough to fetch a good price back at the town others would want. You never knew what you were going to find, but the mere possibility that on any given kill you could hit the jackpot was enough to make you want to keep going. It also made you never close your mind off to going to a certain place because you knew you would never find anything of value there.
At the end of the day, itemization is playing an increasing role in every new MMO that comes out. The need to be a good player, and the ability to notice one is becoming increasingly difficult and disturbingly unnecessary. MMO Devs should think about spending some time trying to come up with alternate ways of advancement after max level in the form of AA's or other rewards. Hopefully the next crop of MMORPG's will be innovative enough to leave the players enough room to distinguish themselves in both physical appearance and skill. In a good MMO, players will be able to develop a reputation for being the good crowd controller, the reliable healer, the tank who knows who to save lives, instead of just the guy with the epic set of armor who could WTFPWN N00bs with EPIX.
Co-Leader of Inquisition