Raising the Gear Cap in a Scaling World

ESO Outlaw Khajiit

Note: the following article originally appeared on Tamriel Foundry.

Datamining following the release of the Dark Brotherhood patch has revealed a lot of additions to the files that can be expected to make their way to the live game in the near future, the most intriguing of which (to me) is various new crafting material icons which appear to indicate the imminent addition of a gear rated higher than the current cap of CP160.

It’s been almost a year since The Elder Scrolls Online last upped the gear level with the addition of the Imperial City last July, and we’ve seen some broad changes to the way content is delivered since then, most importantly through the continuing proliferation of level scaling technology, which culminated in the recent announcement that scaling will be coming to all of Tamriel. Will these changes introduce challenges to the next gear cap raise? This one thinks they will.

The Past

In older patches to The Elder Scrolls Online, gear level raises were handled in effectively standard themepark MMORPG fare. The gear level went up. New, more difficult content was added. Players went to the new content to get the new, more powerful gear. It was straight forward, it made sense, and it felt fair.

However, as ESO has evolved, significant changes to the way the game’s content is consumed have been made. Foremost in importance among these is a tremendous increase in the employment of scaling technology to level match players to content and content to players. New DLC zones like Orsinium, Hew’s Bane, and the Gold Coast are all scaled at the current CP cap of 160 with a bolster that raises lower level players to an appropriate power level for the zone. Dungeons now feature two options: to scale everyone up to the CP cap like the DLC zones OR to scale the dungeon itself to the party leader’s level. In all of these cases, rewards are scaled to be appropriate to the natural level of the players.

As we now know, these examples are only the beginning of a massive trend that’s coming to sweep through Tamriel, likely extending even unto trials.

The Future

Gear acquisition featuring heavy RNG makes for a particularly frustrating upgrade.

Looking at the game’s current paradigm and the way gear level increases have been handled in the past, we can do some informed speculation on how the impending gear level increase will be handled. While the proliferation of level scaling technology will make content obsolescence a thing of the past, it has the unfortunate side effect of putting endgame players into a regrettable position when the gear cap is raised.

Let’s say the CP cap for gear is raised to CP180 in the Q3 update. If existing content is scaled up accordingly, this would force players to run through and farm the exact same content they’ve been playing for months again, only to get (what will in many cases be) the exact same sets of gear, purely due to the CP cap raise.

Think about this in terms of monster sets. Obtaining the set pieces you want in the correct armor class and trait is a massive RNG crapshoot. You need the piece you want to actually drop, then it has to be in the armor type you want in addition to the specific trait you desire. That’s a lot of variables – far more than I’ve seen in any other MMORPG. Players have spent months working towards getting the correct pieces, and some of them still haven’t gotten the specific ones they want. A CP gear cap raise would throw all of this progression out of the window only to have players farming the exact same content for the exact same sets once again. Even if the raise were accompanied by the addition of a few new dungeons, much of the progression would still end up being done in the old content (particularly with monster sets and unique sets from trials).

Granted this isn’t entirely new to the game, as dungeon scaling and monster sets have been around through gear cap raises before. Frankly, it was pretty terrible then too. Now though, the proliferation of scaling tech is going to make it feel much, much worse.

Because so much more of the world is scaled and many of those zones feature daily and repeatable content, players won’t be venturing into new, more dangerous environments to gain power and glory, returning later to old content stronger and more experienced. They won’t feel like they’re getting stronger, they’ll feel like their power is being taken away and they’re being asked to redo their work to get it back. If there was ever a case where an MMO’s gear grind felt like an artificially enforced treadmill, this would be the one.

The Solution

Skyrim Vista

Go ahead. Scale ALL the things!

So what’s to be done about it? While the proliferation of scaling technology to keep old content relevant can be seen as the root of the problem, that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to it. In fact, it’s something I suggested back in 2013 when I predicted that the eventual addition of the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood would be awkward without it, so it’s safe to say I’m fully on board.

In 2015 I wrote an article tackling problems with the Champion System’s original incarnation, suggesting not only the CP cap and catch up mechanics we have today, but also a switch to a fully horizontal system of endgame gear progression focusing on cosmetic acquisitions and the continual introduction of new equipment sets. While this solves the problem and has worked well in Guild Wars 2‘s take on an entirely scaled MMO, I think it’s safe to say it falls into the list of things that probably aren’t going to happen, so focusing on it would likely be an exercise in futility.

So long as we have both scaling and vertical gear progression, it’s unavoidable that gear cap raises will present the problem of lessening a player character’s relative power in existing content with their initial release. However, ZeniMax could take steps to mitigate that issue by making gear re-acquisition into a much a less painful process. My suggestion? Provide players with a path to upgrade the equipment level of gear they already have, preferably via crafting.

Realistically speaking, this should, at least to some extent, be prohibitively expensive. The goal isn’t to have everyone fully kitted out on day one so much as it is to reduce frustration from reacquiring harder to get pieces players have spent a ton of time collecting. A gear cap raise shouldn’t kick players back to rolling the dice to reacquire gear they already have, but it’s okay for it to be a journey. Do you need a path to upgrade for your crafted Hunding’s Rage set? Probably not – just craft a new one. Should you have one for the Medium Divines Molag Kena piece you spent months farming to get? I think there’s a case to be made there.

So what should it cost? That’s really up to ZeniMax. I imagine something like two full stacks of the new crafting material per item + the same amount of upgrade tempers you would need to upgrade the item to its current quality (e.g., for a crafter with all the appropriate passives, upgrading a purple CP140 medium armor piece to a purple CP 160 piece would require 400 Rubedo Leather and 4 Elegant Lining). In addition to the costly utilization of upgrade tempers, the requirement to use the new crafting material would put a damper on pre-patch hoarding, requiring players to actively farm post-update to upgrade their gear (or pay a hefty premium at a guild trader). Alternatively, a new upgrade material could be introduced specific to CP level upgrades, though this would be subject to a greater risk of market saturation over time.

All things considered, I believe this to be the best way of handling future gear cap raises without inflicting undue frustration on the players. Yes, everyone will have to do a little bit of work to get back up to par, but for the biggest pieces, the ones you worked the hardest for that will the hurt the most to lose, you’ll at least have a clear and predictable way of getting them back that’s not completely reliant on total blind luck.

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