The Mass RNG Effect
World of Warcraft is much like walking into a Las Vegas casino; each zone, dungeon, or battleground being its own pocket dimension divorced from reality and filled with scenic grandeur and the promise of wealth. Except for when such promises are at the mercy of pitiless random-number-generators (RNG). In WoW particularly, the statistical reality of RNG is that players can go on for weeks or months without ever seeing a coveted piece of loot drop (Ashes of A’lar will drop anytime now. It’s only the 127th Kael’thas kill…). Over the years, Blizzard went to great lengths to mitigate this mass RNG effect by developing a variety of safety nets. Inexplicably, in Warlords of Draenor, the safety nets were yanked out in favor of more RNG.
Don’t get me wrong: pulling the slots by killing bosses to see what dropped with an edge-of-your-seat anticipation is exhilarating. Warlords grandfathering in Warforged items (a modifier that boosts stats to an existing item) and Seals (currency that grants a second chance at loot) from Mists of Pandaria, and adding Diablo-esque tertiary stats (i.e. life drain, increased movement speed, etc.) only heightens the excitement. It is problematic then that these innovations don’t address the void left behind by Valor and reputation vendors.
Valor and reputation used to be the safety net in terms of allowing for non-raiders to catchup on gear or for raiders to fill in missing slots. The gear provided by these two options were generally on par with the latest raid tier, and most importantly, completely reliable to obtain. There’s no RNG involved in accruing 1000 Valor points or reaching Friendly with a faction to buy a trinket. All it took was time, and that was completely in a player’s control. Both systems were mainstays for years until Warlords, where players are now at the mercy of pulling the metaphorical lever more than ever before.
Unfortunately, a bulk of the options Blizzard designed in lieu of Valor and reputation are entirely predicated on luck. Goody bags from Challenge Mode dailies, for example, randomize both its contents and its itemization, which means that securing a piece of gear that you can actually use is akin to winning the jackpot. Gear made from professions also suffers from stat randomization, but at least has the option for players to reroll the stats on a piece. The one and only non-random option available comes in the form of the Apexis Crystal vendor.
The Apexis NPC peddles out pieces of gear that can be upgraded over time. Conceptually, it’s a great idea: it encourages a form of investment at a pace of the player’s choosing. Apexis Crystals can also be gathered from a variety of activities and aren’t gated by a weekly cap. Functionally, it’s a poor-man’s substitute for Valor. Not only does items start below what Heroic dungeons provide with sub-par secondary stats, but it takes a about a month’s worth of dailies to fully upgrade a single item to what drops from Normal difficulty raids. It’s simply easier to find or organize a raid group for less time and more reward. Beyond the means of procuring gear, however, RNG has even trickled down to holiday events and secondary professions like cooking of all things. The amount of RNG in Warlords is out of control, and that’s the point—control.
There’s just no form of control left in the players’ hands instead of the amount of time that they decide to invest. A good start for players to regain a sense of control would be to redesign how the Apexis Crystal vendor operates. Gear from the Apexis Crystals should be by default at Normal raid quality, and rates should be adjusted so that pieces can be obtained within a week or two of time spent. Additionally, its wares should be expanded to cover difficult to slot items like trinkets and rings. If the Apexis NPC can effectively replace what the Valor and reputation ones used to do, with the added bonus of being able to upgrade purchases over time, it would alleviate much of the RNG frustration often found in dungeons and raids. Similarly, the RNG-laden goody bags can use some bad luck protection.
‘Bad luck protection’ is an odd concept when you realize that RNG is inherently unfair and ‘bad luck’ is the norm. The feature already exists with second chance rolls that come from Seals, but the same idea can be reworked for randomized rewards. The difference being, since a piece of gear is guaranteed off Challenge Mode goody bags, it can instead prevent a player from receiving the same item twice in a row. All these small changes would go a long way in keeping players feel rewarded for their playtime.
Arguably, there’s a feeling that no one item is the same came with RNG drops and stat randomization; a desire to reach for the Holy Grail of best-in-slot itemization. It’s an incentive that works in other games like Diablo III because of the amount of loot you can amass in a short amount of time and the multiple ways of repurposing them. You can’t do that in WoW: players are locked out by weekly gates or the amount of gold they have. Ultimately, Blizzard has veered WoW too much into Vegas-style gambling in Warlords and logging into WoW should never feel like you’re gambling your time and resources away.