Where ‘Unfair’ becomes ‘Fun’: The Special Snowflake Paradigm, Round II

It’s been a ridiculous amount of time since I last posted here. I’d apologise for the lengthy gap between posts here, but you knew what you were signing up for when I first began this blog.
Given the transient nature of testing periods, I’ve largely held off on spending too much time and energy on blogging (both about Death Knights, and in the larger WoW context) since the Warlords of Draenor Alpha went Live. Even the information contained in a single, early analysis post of mine on Death Knight changes from the first round of Alpha patch notes has become largely outdated.

Thus, today’s post doesn’t exclusively focus on Warlords, but continues from a topic that I began in an earlier post. Previously, I discussed the legendary paradigm that was introduced in Mists of Pandaria, and seems to be poised to largely continue in the same vein (barring some minor changes, such as a lack of Valor Point acquisition or forced PvP) in Warlords of Draneor. Among the details of what I discussed in my previous post was the loss of the “Special Snowflake” feel: While I’ve acknowledged that there are clearly numerous advantages to the legendary model introduced in MoP, the visceral satisfaction of being more powerful and somehow feeling more special than other players is also one that I firmly believe contributes to part of the game experience. This was a feeling that earlier legendaries were largely able to accomplish by virtue of their slow acquisition, and which currently doesn’t exist.

So, what do we do if we approve of the MoP legendary model but still want to find a way to bring that sense of “unfair fun” back to the game? Well, in my case we put our armchair developer hat on and lay out a theoretical model that tries to recapture that sense of fun in a world that also accepts the status quo with legendaries!

A Step Above Others

Val'anyr, Hammer of Ancient Kings


The existence of an item class even higher than that of “Legendary” isn’t new in WoW. Prior to Cataclysm, the term Artifact was primarily associated with this type of item- and indeed, it continues to be the term that they are most commonly identified by. Artifacts have only appeared in the actual game as GM-only items, that are mainly used for testing purposes. The most infamous of these items, Martin Fury, was once mistakenly awarded to a player who used it to exploit a number of high-end raid bosses at the time.

On the whole though, Artifacts have not seen legitimate availability for players in the game. Back in 2006, Tseric wrote:

The devs would like to improve on Legendary items through addition or revision. At this point, adding Artifact items is somewhat unnecessary, as it would only mostly serve to devalue Legendary items as a whole.
Perhaps when the level cap gets a little higher and that next step in itemization is needed.

At the time, this was a very fair point to make: Up until MoP, the relative rarity of legendary items and their special significance for players who managed to attain them was sufficient for generating the sort of gameplay I’ve discussed previously. Now however, we find ourselves in a paradigm where everyone is guaranteed a legendary item provided they put in a sufficient amount of effort.

As such, I can’t think of a better time to formally introduce Artifacts as a new class of items that are available to players. Furthermore, because of the way in which legendary items are now handled we have a lot more room with which to play around with how these items are obtained.

Building blocks: Learning to love frustration


Given that we’re trying to accomplish a number of goals with the introduction of Artifacts, what rules would I apply to these items?

The first and most important rule I’d make about the potential introduction of Artifacts is this: They’d be rare. Scratch that, they’d be exceptionally rare- to the point where their acquisition would not be banked upon by guilds as part of their progression plan.
We would not, for instance, have a situation similar to what became of Dragonwrath by Patch 4.3: Most raiding guilds were able to equip every one of their caster DPS with the staff, and indeed would often only accept applications from casters with the staff. This not only lead to the item feeling rather “unlegendary” among these echelons, but was also unfair to any casters who had not been fortunate enough to receive a legendary thus far.

Speaking of which, we move on my second rule: Acquiring Artifacts would be a matter of luck. The exact item required to start the quest chain for Artifacts would be the result of a very, very fortunate RNG roll as bonus loot. There would be no allocation of items and no ability to “choose” the individual fortunate enough to begin the process of acquiring one. In doing so, we completely eliminate allocation drama
I realise that there is a heavy amount of irony with my including this particular point, given how vehemently I’ve opposed the bonus loot system in WoD. Bear with me though: The main reason behind why I believe this level of RNG would work in such a situation is because the acquisition of an Artifact would be so rare to begin with. Unlike bosses that are killed each week, and unlike Best-in-Slot items where the chances of obtaining a “plus 3” (i.e. tertiary stats, Warforged and extra gem socket) are frustratingly tantalising enough to make you gnash your teeth in frustration when your 20th kill of a particular boss doesn’t yield it, you would never bank on or expect an Artifact. The chances of your acquiring one would be so small that a particular server would be fortunate to see more than two or three in total.

Since we’ve already established a number of rules about rarity, my third rule shouldn’t cause any surprise: Artifacts would only be available at Mythic level raiding. In Siege of Orgrimmar terms, the only bosses that I’d probably allow to have a chance of dropping the quest item required to begin the Artifact quest chain would be Malkorok onwards- meaning that something like Mythic Immerseus, which is arguably easier than Normal/Heroic Garrosh, wouldn’t have a chance at awarding it.
The rationale here is simple: One controversial aspect of the MoP legendary system was the fact that it allowed LFR-level players access to items that had previously only been seen by serious raiders (with Heroic mode raiders almost always acquiring the items at a much faster pace). There is sound logic behind why Blizzard chose to implement the questline in such a way, and why this trend will continue in WoD, but we’re not here to debate that. Artifacts, in the role I’ve assigned them in this post, would exist to bring back that sense of “unfair fun” that I’ve alluded to. Furthermore, I am also able to see the logic in Mythic raiders (known before WoD as “Heroic raiders”) feeling as if they’ve lost something in the general diversification of legendary availability- they have. These items, therefore, would exist as a reward exclusively available to only the most skilled of players.

Acquisition: Getting back to our (legendary) roots

Now that we’ve dealt with the preliminaries of how often and who, let’s move on to the items themselves.

My fourth rule would involve the quest chains themselves: Assuming you were fortunate enough to be able to begin the process of acquiring an Artifact, the experience would be a fairly gruelling one. Given that we’ve specified that only well-progressed Mythic raiders would have a chance at these items, we can thus tune our quest chain assuming a certain level of competence with one’s class as well a certain level of gear. I’m also a much bigger fan of tough, individual quests where the true gate is a player’s own skill, rather than “Collect x fragments for y weeks”.
Unfortunately, we also hit a wall here: How do we design quests that are appropriate for multiple classes and specialisations? Part of the reason that the quests surrounding Dragonwrath, or the Fangs of the Father (Rogue-only legendary daggers) were so appealing was because they were designed for the role (in Dragonwrath’s case) or the class that the item was appropriate for. Perhaps an even stronger example that I can personally provide is that of the Warlock Green Fire quest chain- despite not being designed for the purposes of acquiring a legendary item, it was a challenging experience (at appropriate gear level!) that mandated a player use many abilities/tactics from their arsenal, rather than sticking to the same “standard rotation” in raids.
In short: We want quests that present challenges extreme enough to push even Mythic raiders to their limits, and demand that they play at the top of their game if they wish to succeed. Reaching that level of depth is impossible with a highly generalised questline.
So, do we limit specific Artifacts to only be available to certain classes? Certain roles? Or do we try to undertake the gruelling task of providing 34 different specs in the game with a worthwhile challenge for their just reward? Damned if I know!


You’ll also notice that while I stated my aversion to “Collect x”-type quests for Artifacts, I did not specifically state that I thought the process of acquisition should be a solo one. While I consider tough individual challenges to be a necessary hallmark of skill, I’m cognisant of the fact that my proposed model thus far seems like a highly lonely one, with it being restricted to individual, bonus loot and what have you.
Thus, my fifth rule: Guilds would play an important role in helping with Artifact acquisition. I see there being multiple ways to do this. The first would be economic: Much like Primordial Saronite acted as an economic gate early on in the Shadowmourne questline, Artifacts could potentially demand a large monetary or material investment. The flaws in this are immediately obvious: Not all Mythic raiding guilds are equipped to finance expensive burdens for their players, and some might not even see it as being a worthwhile investment depending on the player (a harsh, but unfortunate truth in today’s competitive raiding atmosphere). Furthermore, economic investments don’t necessitate a guild, so much as they incentivise it.
The second, more realistic way in which a guild could be of service to a player would be by including parts of the quest chain within raids. Much like Infusion quests for Shadowmourne, or Delegation for Dragonwrath, the active involvement of an entire raid group would most assuredly cement the need for a coordinated guild effort. This could entail fighting new mechanics on existing bosses, or perhaps even facing bonus challenges that would otherwise be inaccessible.

At last, we come to the most important rule concerning Artifacts. Up until now, we’ve set up a fairly brutal number of requirements and conditions that would see a player be able to acquire such an item. Why then would you wish to undergo such a gruelling series of trials, unless the reward were more than worth it?
Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 5.29.06 pmThus, my sixth and final rule: Artifacts should always contain a sense of unfairness, in that they provide players with a performance boost that no other available item can. Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advocating for items that match or even exceed the effects of the original Thunderdury on Vanilla-era Warrior Tanks, or the pre-nerfed version of Dragonwrath. Whatever the initial item level might be, an Artifact should provide a boost so clear and so potent that its value is set through the rest of that expansion.
Artifacts are, after all, intended a step above the quality and potency of Legendary items. Given that I’ve devoted all of my previous points/rules towards detailing their rarity, the difficulty experienced in the acquisition and the fact that they’d only be available to the most hardcore of players, it should come as little surprise that the final reward more than makes up for the amount of effort that the player undertook. I’d also probably associate a unique mount or transmogrification piece with the Artifact, denoting the significance of obtaining it even after its reign of supremacy as a usable item is over.

Reality Bites

Get it? Bites? Alright, nevermind...
Get it? Bites? Alright, nevermind…

If only it were that easy, right?
Despite laying out an Artifact model that I think could work and coexist with the existing legendary model, there are numerous problems and shortcomings that I’m all too aware would lead to the idea not being feasible.

  • First, there’s the sheer amount of work involved in implementation: What I’m essentially proposing is an experience with the depth of something like the Green Fire quest chain (which, fun fact, was supposed to be even longer and more complex than what ended up on Live), yet with the general availability of the Eye of Sulfuras from Ragnaros in Molten Core. From a development standpoint, that’s asking for a large amount of resources to be devoted towards a segment of the game that only a lucky few out of an already small elite pool will ever experience. Note that we haven’t even clearly established whether Artifacts would be class/role specific (in which case they’d reach an even smaller number of players), or whether we’d design entire Artifact experiences around multiple classes/roles (which, if you stayed true to the spirit of the concept, would entail making multiple questlines).
  • Second, despite my attempts to eliminate “allocation drama”, there still exists a great deal of other drama that these items could cause. Imagine killing Heroic Siegecrafter Blackfuse on a farm night, and suddenly having that underperforming applicant who you were probably going to fail receive the quest item instead of a main raider or officer? Even worse, suppose it was that buyer you told to hit the boss and then go die in a corner? If the item is as powerful as I’ve suggested it should be, you can bet that some guilds would attempt to aggressively poach anyone with it. Do you therefore bank on the trustworthiness of the lucky individual with the item?
  • I’ve explicitly stated that the quest chain associated with Artifacts would be hard. What if, as a result, you were faced with individuals that lacked the necessary skill or ability to complete said quests? Whatever group you were raiding with at the time would want you to acquire your new, overpowered item as quickly as possible; they would therefore presumably not be too happy if you were unable to progress in the chain due to personal issues.
  • While Artifact availability might cause them not to make a major difference in the macro level of raid progression and ranking, they could certainly cause a great deal of strife within guild. Would it really be fun for multiple raid groups to hinge strategies and reliance on the presence of one individual who happened to wield an item of such power? Would it be fun for players in competing roles to know that, assuming relatively equal play, they were always going to be outperformed by the wielder? How would these items be treated in scaled content such as Challenge Modes, where gear is not supposed to provide an innate advantage outside of certain stats being more useful? What about Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds, where legendary items became a much complained about and sore topic among the PvP populace?
  • Even if my initial concerns were seen as “acceptable” by both the playerbase and by Blizzard, we come to our final problem: The mere existence of such items would still be greatly upsetting to some. There’s nothing unique or special about this- there has always been a degree of upset/envy over the existence of items that difficult to attain. That’s part of what makes them fun. But if left entirely at the mercy of RNG, such items can also make passionate, hardcore players feel cheated out of a prize that they felt they deserved compared to whomever attained it. Remember: There is a reason multiple players, including myself, are opposed to the bonus loot system being introduced in WoD. While I posit that the rarity of Artifacts should dissuade players from treating them like they would bonus items, I cannot confidently say that my intentions would match results.

A song for another day


Ultimately this post has been less about any concrete/realistic analysis of game mechanics, and more a fun thought exercise that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for some time.

As I stated in my first blogpost on the matter of legendaries: Despite what’s been lost, I consider the Mists of Pandaria legendary model to be a success, and one that I’m glad is largely staying intact in Warlords of Draenor. In order to recapture some of what was lost, I’ve tried to present a type of item that I feel could occupy the niche that legendaries once did, and also take that feeling to all new heights by virtue of what an ordeal it took to get it.

While the majority of what I propose in this model is probably not feasible or attractive enough to where Blizzard would consider approaching something similar, I do hope that some elements of it resonate within those of you who have experienced past incarnations of legendary excitement. Perhaps there’s a sweet spot I’m missing that could mitigate the majority of the problematic aspects I’ve mentioned, while still preserving that feel that I’d like to be associated with Artifacts?
Regardless, I hope you enjoyed reading my scatterbrained fancies in this post- they say jotting down and fully fleshing out even the silliest of ideas can be a healthy thing to do!

In other news, Blizzcon is fast approaching. While I will regrettably be unable to attend, I hope to hear from many of my friends as they meet for the first time. Be sure to share in the festivities online, so some of us can experience them vicariously!
See you all in Patch 6.0.


One thought on “Where ‘Unfair’ becomes ‘Fun’: The Special Snowflake Paradigm, Round II

  1. Rodalpho

    The problem with making items so rare that only 2-3 people per server get them is that the dev effort is very difficult to justify. Green Fire was an entire class and /that/ took a very long time (and got cut back).

    Making artifacts offer raw power is problematic too. I get that you want them to be cool and do something truly new, but winning progression because you xserver-recruited a bunch of dudes with artifacts is the obvious end result.

    In my proposal, Artifacts wouldn’t offer any additional power, unlike Legendaries. Thus, they could be fairly common, and each one could have its own little quest.

    Flexibility, not power. Artifacts allow you to “break the rules” for your role. Their special abilities only work outside arenas and rated BGs.

    – Melee DPS and tanks: Attack at 40 yard range.
    – Ranged: Move while casting. (BM/Survival hunters generate double focus from Cobra Shot)
    – All: X% of your damage and healing generates a shield on yourself. Being attacked in melee destroys the shield.
    – Non-pet specs: Get a pet.
    – Pet specs: Possess your pet, getting additional abilities.
    – All: Fight while mounted on a War Talbuk, gaining tremendous runspeed in combat.
    – And so on and so forth.

    Many other MMOs have done stuff with “leveling” artifacts too. That’s a really cool mechanic where they start off weak but level up after you progress through stuff, like finishing dungeons, crafting items, killing a specific type of mob, etc. As long as the progression isn’t /too/ grindy, that can be a ton of fun.

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