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The Jenga tower of MMO gear complexity


In most MMORPGs, gear is a major part of the power and progression system that serves to doubly excite players by providing both visuals (I look awesome!) and stats/abilities (I fight awesome!). We are forever chasing better gear, not just to be a more powerful fighter, but also to unlock content that was barred to us before (higher level zones, dungeons, fashion shows, etc.). And hey, it’s fun to collect and always a welcome part of a gaming session when I get an upgrade.

But can I talk for a minute about a major pet peeve that I see across many MMOs when it comes to gear? The long and the short of it is that online game designers seem to revel in stupid complex gear systems that are unfriendly and arcane to the casual user. As content and expansion get added over time, gear grows increasingly complex, with new types, new slots, new ways to power them up, new grinds, new builds, new metas, and so on. The longer an MMO is out, the higher the chance is that trying to understand and have a workable knowledge of its gear becomes increasingly difficult to a new or returning player.

Very little makes me gnash my teeth as hard as trying to figure out how to properly gear up my character in an MMO that has multiple years and expansions under its belt. Sure, if you’ve been there all along and this is your only game, then chances are you’ve learned all of this as the devs have built that crazy gear Jenga tower, block by block. It sort of makes sense to you and you don’t have a lot of empathy for those trying to figure it out for the first time.

Marvel Heroes is such a perfect example of how gear went from being a desirable chase to an onerous task. The team kept adding new system after new system, to where there were so many different types of gear and specific things you had to do to get the best out of each piece of gear and ways that you could undermine your character’s potential that by last year, I just about threw my hands up in frustration — and I had been playing it for a while. Trying to deck out a new character wasn’t fun at all; it was like trying to navigate a maze that you sort of knew but was annoying even so.

The frustrating part is when I see these systems and think that some developer thought that this was the best way to implement gear for his or her playerbase. All gear and gear systems don’t have to be alike, but geez do some of them get dumb.

The Secret World fails hard in the gear department. QL10 gear was supposed to be the top — there was no QL11 — but then they had to add QL10.1 and up, plus glyphs and signets to modify gear, plus that dumb-as-bricks Tokyo AEGIS system, plus the scenario gear, plus auxiliary weapons. Just keep on stackin’.

RIFT is another offender that triggered this whole piece. When I came back, I thought that we had here a game that was pretty easy to grok. Yet two expansions’ worth of additional systems left me bewildered about upgradable gear and dream orbs and relics and what you had to do to get your character at an endgame baseline to match the rest of the crowd.

Another example from my own gaming history? LOTRO’s legendary items, which where slammed on top of a mountain of gear choices already and then teetered there like some unwieldy beast of options and grind. At least the devs eventually tried to tackle this and make it more manageable.

Is it too much to ask to make gear systems intuitive, easy to understand, and not dealing with a tax code amount of related stats? If you have to keep on adding systems, can you make them fun to interact with and not super-grindy and obtuse?

If your game has gotten really bad with this — as many have — MMO devs need to see how it’s become spaghetti code for players and streamline the whole mess so that it works together as a cohesive unit instead of some Frankenstein assembly. Make sure you explain things clearly in-game and point us where we need to go to improve our gear. I should never look at my gear screen and go, “What the HECK am I supposed to do to get better gear? How does this work?”

It’s an evaluation that needs to happen every so often in these games or else the entire Jenga tower might topple over and crush those who want to enjoy your game but can’t for having been smothered by its nonsense.

13 thoughts on “The Jenga tower of MMO gear complexity

  1. Anarchy Online is pretty complicated when it comes to gear advancement and overall skill advancement, especially if you are a paid player. It’s a game where you basically have to buff yourself in order to put on buffs.Then you have twinking which requires hunting down more buffs from other players, or dual, triple, quadruple logging your higher level toons to throw the buffs on the low level. Then you have to put on your twinking gear which raises your stats high enough to put on the armor/weapons/cybernetic implants you want (preferably those of not too high a level so that they don’t get the “over equipped 25% effectiveness debuff). Preferred twinking gear is actually a lower level as the requirements to equip it are low but the boost to stats are the same. So a level 20 ring that boosts +20 Int but requires 120 points in Perception sells for a higher price than a level 60 ring with the same boost but a requirement of 300 Perception.

    Then you have what my friends call “stepping” into implants where a low level eye implant is replaced with a slightly higher, that allows a for a higher level brain implant, which then allows for the higher level arm implant which is dungeon loot you camped for in the first place.

    For paid players, there are several forms of experience to be gained including 200 levels of Rubi-Ka (base) experience, then 20 levels of Shadowlands XP, then 75 of Alien XP (from the Alien Invasion expact), then you have all your Perks to put points into and your Research which requires a certain percentage of regular XP to allocated to in order for THAT to advance.

    There’s a reason my friends are so proud of sticking with AO for 10+ years. A Co-worker of mine once told me he tried playing it, but the amount of research he had to do to advance in the game equaled the same amount he was putting into earning his Masters degree.

  2. What do you suggest? The challenge of keeping an always-on interactive experience alive and interesting?

    If they did the opposite and kept everything the same, you’d be here complaining about that instead.

    Perhaps RPGs are not your thing anymore? And asking for them to change for one player group is not the right ask.

  3. For Marvel Heroes its, in theory, getting a partial clean up – . Things are still complex, but better.

    And I totally agree with the theory. I hate gearing when I see two items with identical level/ilevel/whatever and a pile of different numbers and I can’t tell if I should swap to the new item or not. Sure, leave me choice on how I want to optimize, but gear shouldn’t be something I need to think about a lot. I should pick my build/playstyle/etc, and then slot in gear that supports that. But I shouldn’t have to do a huge amount of digging to tell if this item supports my build or not.

  4. I am not sure that “Jenga tower” metaphor is really cutting it. Jenga is pretty simple and just falls over if you do something wrong… and you know what you did wrong.

    MMO gearing is more like a series of jigsaw puzzles… those thousand pieces ones where they try to make the pieces almost all exactly the same shape… one for each expansion, and mixed up in the same box. And the puzzles were cut from the same template, so pieces from one fit in another, and sometimes you don’t even notice their wrong until way later.

    Oh, and then, every once in a while, some guy comes in and adds some more pieces via a “patch” or something.

  5. Not trying to troll here, but as someone who played Eve, left and came back a few years later, then left and came back a few years later still(then left again), it’s worse in this respect than any other game I’ve played. But I don’t think most people try to claim it’s anything else.

    Rift keeps confusing me when I go back.

    On the other hand, I would point at World of Warcraft as having turned around and gone in the other direction recently. This of course caused some to complain the game was being dumbed down. I think it’s a lot more friendly to new and returning players.

  6. Think of Guild Wars 2’s Mystic Forge crafting in which players bring a semi truck full of materials to Zomorros and receive a knee-high legendary shortsword in return. Replace the materials with Black Bullion and a smattering of Marks of the Pantheon and you have The Secret World’s gear progression system. You need oceans of bullion to upgrade everything – absolutely everything – over the course of months, if not years. Game Director Romain Amiel describes himself as a “harcode” player; the endgame gear upgrade system in TSW absolutely reflects that.

    A jenga tower it isn’t, however. Just a tower. A really, really tall one with a glacial construction pace.

  7. I dunno. It is confusing, for sure, but its also fun as often as not. Learning new systems is a big part of the appeal. I’d rather have too complex than too simple any day.

    Also most MMOs now sidestep the issue by offering max or near-max level characters that come mostly geared, either with an expansion or as a cash shop purchase. And most MMOs will have a website that tells you the current Meta or favored build. If you want to sidestep the learning process there are generally plenty of shortcuts.

  8. I couldn’t agree more about the needless increasing complexity of gear with each succeeding expansion. It reminds me of a card game some friends once had that attempted to codify all the arcane “college rules” of Uno.

    I find that, at least when leveling a character, it’s best to only worry about the gear that was available at that level when that particular expansion came out, then adding complexity only when necessary. Usually the content at that particular level only requires the simpler gear anyway.

    Maybe not the best MMO example overall, but the KotFE expansion of SWTOR streamlined the character and gear stats so it was fairly easy for me to boost the stat that was most important to me while not worrying too much about whether my character used the Force or Tech, etc.

  9. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve played since day one or if it is intuitively designed enough, but TSW’s gear system I understand the most and I’m at the point where I have used a gear planner and know what I want from it.

    I think as a game evolves and your character evolves it’s natural for new layers of complexity to just happen. TSW is actually pretty good at obscuring this from new players so that they aren’t overwhelmed – for example the eighth ability slot for auxiliary weapons isn’t even visible on you bar until you pick up an aux weapon for the first time. Or the AEGIS section of your character doll isn’t even there until you are given your first controllers.

    I think if you attempt to get everything at once, you’ll inevitably become overwhelmed. But if you go through a natural progression of working through each system in a logical order it makes sense.

    For example, my gear was maxed when I arrived in Tokyo so AEGIS was all I needed to think about focusing on. It replaced my previous focus on raising my gear to QL 10.5.

    Now, after having maxed my AEGIS to 2.9, my new focus is doing the content that will raise my gear to QL11 and the next level 3.0 AEGIS tier.

    When you look at the Jenga tower as manageable individual blocks and tiers, you don’t look down and get vertigo. 🤔

  10. “The Secret World fails hard in the gear department. QL10 gear was supposed to be the top — there was no QL11 — but then they had to add QL10.1 and up, plus glyphs and signets to modify gear, plus that dumb-as-bricks Tokyo AEGIS system, plus the scenario gear, plus auxiliary weapons. Just keep on stackin’.”

    I pick this as of all games you mention, TSW is the one i am most familiar with. So let’s take a look:

    – Gear up to QL10 is the “normal”, that’s all you got outside of dungeons in the base game. Custom gear and upgrading to 10.4 was there right from the start, but no non-dungeon player ever encountered that.

    – The very same is true for glyphs and signets, they were there right from the start, although signets were incredibly hard to get when the game was launched. This was remedied a little later, so signets got accessible.

    – When the issues came out, you got a few custom items, but since all the different local currencies were replaced with BBs, the upgrades also got easily available for everybody. So please also note, the horribly convoluted many-currencies-for-many-different-things mess was removed there. (While many other games just get more and more of those… i am looking at you, GW2… )

    – Historically, after this came the auxiliary weapons. But as somebody else already mentioned, you only get the aux weapon once you progressed far into the game and should already be familiar with other things. By itself, the aux weapon is not complex at all, it’s one weapon, one active and one passive ability which can be added to your setup independently from your chosen weapon combination.

    – In historical order, now we look at scenarios, i guess. Which makes me wonder what you mean with “scenario gear”? Do you refer to equipment which you assemble specifically to run scenarios? If yes, that’s your very own call, as such specific gear only ever makes sense if you want to run solo scenarios at nightmare difficulty. (When doing them at nightmare difficulty in group, i use a setup made for nightmare difficulty dungeons, which all by itself is something of a niché game… while TSW has dungeons and raids, they are not the core competence of the game. Mind you, they are better than in many other MMOs, but i still consider raiders to be a small part of the community. )

    – I could guess that you refer to the augment system instead. Which is nothing i consider complicated. The thing i dare to call it is: a massive grind. You can purge a lot of time into it for a very small gain in power. But hey, when it was introduced the developers stated that it was something to keep the power oriented top tier players busy for years to come, and it was what the community demanded. People asked for a timesink, people got a timesink. Anybody not interested in investing a lot of time for little extra power can ignore it or just care for the green augments, which are easy to get and learn, as those provide a small but noticeable gain in power for limited effort.

    – Last in the timeline is the Tokyo equipment. And yes, while things have been improved since launch, i also agree that it’s a bit of a mess. But if you played the game normally, you are familiar with the other aspects till you reach Tokyo. Being added by itself, Aegis might not be “pretty”, but it’s still well understandable, so for the regular player understanditng it once again was not the big deal. (Getting the gear was a big deal when Tokyo was new. But that problem is fixed by now. )

    After all this text, one could think that i don’t understand what you want to say with this posting. After all, every single mentioned component can be justified any is not too complex and confusing. But this is for an active player. Things look completely different if we speak about returning to a MMO.

    Examples from my experience are:
    – Returning to STO after 14 month of a hiatus.
    – Going back to DCU after about 9 months of not playing.

    In both cases it was not so much the existing gear which posed the problem. All i had was understandable, despite a pile of new stuff washing in as free gifts, for which i had no idea what that new stuff would be doing. (I simply ignored it for the start, deciding to figure out more when i am familiar with the rest again. )

    But one of them just had too many different systems in parallel, for which several i had to think hard to just vaguely remember why i ever bothered for them and what they’d do for me, while the other just showed me that i had to relearn all the combos and synergies of my selected abilities to be successful, which reduced my motivation a lot. Having a full inventory of “new and shiny stuff and upgrade options, which you now can learn about” did not help at all, as i already had to relearn all the basics.

    That all being said, i also see on what a dilemma the developers are. Active players need new things. Add nothing new and they get bored and leave. But if you add something new, you put rocks into the path of any returning player. The new things don’t even have to be utterly complex, their mere existence in combination of having to re-learn things the player formerly already knew (and the threat of time Investment to catch up) reduce motivation and thus the mhance that a returning player stays.

    So, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I think that player retention is more valuable for most MMOs than ease of access for returning players. Thus as long as the new player is guided well from one new mechanic to the other, instead of getting walloped with all at once, i guess that’s the best we can have.

  11. Without the experience from WoW I’d probably agree, but imo WoW shows the problems that can occur if a developer is concerned too much with the accessibility of a game’s systems. Classes lose their unique features and can feel all the same (or at least very similar), new systems get abandoned after one expansion cycle, lack of choices in character development, and so on.

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