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Logic vs. Psychology in World of Warcraft's New Gear Advancement System
by Greg McClanahan on 05/08/11 01:50:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


5/10/11 update: It has been confirmed that WoW is losing subscribers, which is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time this has happened. The reasons are still debatable, but at least part of the speculation in this article has been validated. Blizzard's official explanation is that players are churning through content more quickly, which seems questionable considering the fact that players completed the easier Wrath of the Lich King content much faster than the more difficult 12 raid bosses in 3 separate raid instances currently in Cataclysm just 4 months into the expansion. Additionally, players spent an entire year grinding through Black Temple and Icecrown Citadel without the game losing a substantial quantity of subscribers. Regardless of whether my theories in this article hold any merit, I don't believe it's a large stretch to hypothesize that sheer end-game content quantity is not the underlying reason behind the current decline in subscriber numbers.

Let me start by saying that World of Warcraft is a fantastic game that gets better and better with every patch and every expansion. With over 200 days /played since the first day of the game's launch and nearly 10,000 achievement points earned, I've seen all its ups and downs, and myriad Chicken Littles proclaiming the game's doom with every minor hiccup or small class balancing issue.

But now, something is amiss. Despite an entire expansion geared largely toward low-level player retention, numbers seem to be dropping -- both anecdotally and from third party census websites. The accuracy of both are highly unreliable, but then so is the complete speculation in this article regarding the underlying reasons, so let's begin!

What Keeps Players Addicted to WoW

For any true WoW addict, the leveling time is trivial. The vast majority of time is spent at the level cap, pushing raid content and improving a character's gear. This is where the cycle of addiction truly shines. You collect gear to do harder raids, and you do harder raids to collect more gear.

Top-tier gear has historically been very difficult to acquire, and it carries a certain psychological weight to it. You instantly feel more powerful when a new piece of gear is equipped, and it carries an illogical sense of permanence with it -- not because it will never be replaced, but because the player does not know when it will be replaced, which is an important distinction. It could be a couple of months, or it might not be till the next expansion (I finished Burning Crusade with a crappy blue tanking necklace still equipped because NOTHING ELSE EVER DROPPED, DAMMIT).

Burning Crusade and Increased Gear Accessibility

Back in vanilla WoW, getting a single epic piece of gear was a big deal for most people. Raiding had a large barrier to entry, and crafted/tradable epics were in small supply and often prohibitively expensive.

In Burning Crusade, Blizzard realized that acquiring epic gear made players happy, and perhaps it might be best if more players experienced this happiness. Heroic 5-mans started dropping epic gear, but they started out very difficult and drops were sparse. A 10-player raid, Karazhan, was introduced -- it too awarded epic gear, but the jump in difficulty from 5-man dungeons was fairly high.

Heroic 5-man bosses started dropping badges of justice -- these could be exchanged for epic gear of the player's choosing, but selection was limited, and badges were fairly difficult to come by for casual players early in the expansion.

By the end of Burning Crusade, badges were easily farmable and better gear could be purchased, but the selection was still fairly limited. Karazhan could be farmed by pick-up groups, but higher-tier raids still required guilds or well-coordinated groups.

Casual players got a trickle of gear upgrades throughout the expansion as new badge-vendor items were added and Karazhan became more accessible, but it was still entirely possible for a single piece of gear to last a long time.

Wrath of the Lich King: Open the Flood Gates!

Epic gear flowed far more freely in Wrath of the Lich King. The entry-level raid, Naxxramas, was undertuned to a fault, and any casual player with a slight interest in raiding was quickly covered in epic loot. The new badge system had been overhauled -- there were now multiple emblem tiers rather than a single type of badge. Midway through the expansion, old, trivial 5-mans began dropping higher tiers of emblems, offering players quick access to powerful gear grossly disproportionate to the effort required.

Throughout vanilla and Burning Crusade, I knew exactly where every piece of gear on my character had come from, and I could probably recall each piece's name, its drop location, and its general stats from memory. By the end of Wrath of the Lich King, I was checking my character pane with each new gear drop just to make sure that I didn't already have it equipped before I rolled.

Why this Loot Pinata System Was Still Okay

As mentioned previously, gear only makes up half of the WoW addiction equation. The other half is end-game raiding. And this is where Wrath of the Lich King truly shined (flame away in the comments if you disagree!). Naxxramas, while grossly undertuned, was still a great raid instance that most players didn't get to experience before it was remade for Wrath of the Lich King. Ulduar was easily the best raid instance that Blizzard had ever created -- the storyline, art direction, boss mechanics, music, voice acting, and boss personalities set a new standard of quality.

Trial of the Crusader was the expansion's small blunder both in release timing and in scope, but Icecrown Citadel was another fantastic raid instance that remained highly accessible to all raiders, whether hardcore or casual. Being able to experience every raid in 10-player groups made the entire expansion accessible to almost everyone, and optional hard modes kept hardcore players busy.

The playerbase developed a mild obsession with "gearscore" -- a number indicating a player's gear level -- but only because it was almost universally understood that a lack of high-level gear simply meant a lack of minimal effort on the player's part. Anyone could spend a few weeks casually running 5-man dungeons and old raids to reach a level of gear sufficient for any current raid in the game.

Enter Cataclysm: The Adults Are Back in the Candy Store

The psychological weight of gear was hanging by a thread by the end of Wrath of the Lich King, and Blizzard seemed determined to correct the course a bit in Cataclysm. 5-man heroics were made more difficult, and epic drops were removed entirely. Despite Blizzard's statement about Icecrown Citadel in the previous expansion remaining accessible to casual raiders (to paraphrase, they weren't going to have a "you must be this elite to enter" sign after an entire expansion of accessible raiding), entry-level raids in Cataclysm were significantly more difficult than what players were used to.

This created a problem because the game had trained players to expect two things: easy gear and accessible content. Without either one, some players found themselves forcefully ejected from the carefully crafted cycle of addiction between raiding and gear acquisition.

The New Point System

Gone are the days of several types of emblems dropping from different raids/instances in the game. In Cataclysm, the whole process was streamlined with ruthless efficiency. Now, 5-man instances award justice points, and current-tier raids (and fully completing 5-man heroics, capped weekly) award valor points. Justice points can be farmed and immediately spent without limit, while valor points have a weekly cap.

Both sets of points can be used to purchase gear for almost every single slot. No more being stuck with a crappy blue tanking necklace for an entire expansion. If there's a slot you need to upgrade to justice-level, it's likely just a couple of hours of points-farming away.

And here's the big kicker -- every time a new tier of raiding content is released, all valor points are converted to justice points, and all gear previously purchased with valor points is now purchased with justice points.

In other words, there is no piece of gear that a typical player (who's not doing heroic raids) can realistically acquire in the entire game that will not be trivialized by a single patch, in which gear of equal value can be purchased with easily acquired justice points.

"But Why Do You Care if Other Players Get Better Gear? This Doesn't Affect You."

This is a common question that people constantly ask even though they know what the answer is, simply because the person on the other end of the question usually doesn't want to admit what the answer is. But yes, the scarcity and difficulty of acquiring gear matters. And no, it's not logical. But it is psychological.

Diamonds aren't expensive purely because they're shiny, and I didn't spend 4 hours unlocking the Silver PP7 in GoldenEye 007 because it was a terrific weapon -- I did it because it was really hard, and thus, the achievement carried significant psychological weight, even in a single-player environment.

Even if I don't care about other players acquiring gear, I do care about the perceived value of the gear that I acquire. When it's trivialized, that psychological significance is reduced.

The Problem with Full Transparency

What the new points system has done is given everyone a tour through the sausage factory. Suddenly the meat isn't quite as tasty when the whole process is completely transparent. The thing about WoW is that our brains need some level of psychological trickery for the magic to work.

Back in previous expansions, we all had lingering thoughts in the back of our heads -- "This gear will all be replaced in the next expansion at the latest," "Blizzard is just going to add better badge gear later," "Current dungeons might drop better emblems later," "This gear will be easier to acquire later when the dungeons are nerfed a bit," etc. But there was at least some smoke and mirrors to the whole process because no one knew the specifics before patch notes were released.

Now, it's all laid out. With the regularity of content patches, we can practically look at a calendar and calculate when all of our current gear can be replaced or matched with a weekend of queuing up for 5-man heroics.

For an emphasis of this point, take a look at the census link from the beginning of this article. Shortly before an expansion is released, player activity drops drastically -- many players feel that there's little point in acquiring gear that will just be outdated in a month or two. But perhaps most drastic about the graph is that even after the spike in activity from Cataclysm's release, the activity level has already dropped to a point below where it was during the second half of Wrath of the Lich King.

But What About PvP Gear?

Since Burning Crusade, the gear progression system for PvP gear has been pretty similar to PvE gear progression in Cataclysm. Players fought in battlegrounds or arenas to earn honor/arena points, and they used these points to purchase gear. Every few months, a new arena season would begin, with new gear available for purchase -- the old gear would be made cheaper or available with lower-tier honor points.

This system works within the limited confines of PvP progression simply because there's no other way it could really be done. In general, hardcore PvP players care more about a level playing field with human opponents than they do about RPG-style character progression. A problem arose in Burning Crusade where PvP gear being used for raid content was often easier and more efficient than acquiring PvE gear, but this issue has since been largely corrected.

I would speculate, however, that the hook of PvP gear progression in World of Warcraft is much weaker than that of PvE gear, and it is new PvE content -- not new seasons of old PvP content -- that keeps the majority of the playerbase resubscribing each month.

Finally Getting to My Stupid Point: Content Accessibility and the Psychology of Gearing Up -- the Worst of Both Worlds

In vanilla WoW, end-game content was inaccessible for most players, but gear carried significant weight. I was damn proud of my crappy blue dungeon gear in vanilla WoW -- not because it represented the best gear that other players could acquire, but because it represented the best gear that I could acquire. I didn't care about whether raiding was easy for other players or not; it was inaccessible for me, so the lower gear still carried substantial weight for my character.

Burning Crusade was a better balance, but most end-game raids were still too difficult for the majority of the playerbase. Nevertheless, gear continued to carry significant weight -- or at least gear in the slots that couldn't be upgraded with "welfare epics" badge gear.

Wrath of the Lich King swung in the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared with the original game -- gear carried very little weight, but players had near-universal access to fantastic raid content, even if they started up late in the expansion.

But Cataclysm managed the worst of both aspects. Raiding is much harder, but gearing up through this content carries much less weight because equal gear becomes trivial to acquire at the exact moment that the next raid tier is released.

In other words, the addictive cycle of gearing to raid and raiding for gear has been shattered. Raid gear will never be required for the subsequent raiding tier because as soon as the subsequent raiding tier is released, the previous tier of gear will be trivialized by being 100% available to purchase with easily acquired justice points. And because gear acquired from raiding is never more than a few months away from being easily replaced, it serves as a much weaker incentive for completing difficult content.

An Illogical Conclusion

On paper, Cataclysm is a great expansion, and the new points system is clean, simple, and a streamlined version of the same basic underlying concept that WoW has been doing since Burning Crusade.

But let's be honest here -- MMO addiction isn't logical. It's filled with psychological trickery, smoke and mirrors, carrots on sticks, social pressure, and a perpetual loop between content and character progression.

Without these elements, an MMO can still be a fun game with great content, but it's not going to keep 11 million players spending years of their lives immersed in its digital world.

Or it could just be that the current end-game content is boring and I've wasted 10 minutes of your life with a completely irrelevant theory. Or maybe the census sites and my anecdotal experience are completely inaccurate and subscriber numbers are better than ever. One of the three.

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Eric Spain
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The problem with Cata is that end-game content at the moment is hard, boring and doesn't reward well, unless you are already stuck on the raid-loot-raid cycle. If you have a good guild that is doing heroics then you'll enjoy the challenge, but for a majority, they just wanted to have fun doing dungeons and get decent gear. Now Heroics are just hard enough to be annoying with dungeon boss fights painful if undergeared, and the gear that drops is only a scratch above stuff from questing. When cata first came out I was getting 200 points per dungeon for loot that cost well over 2000, meaning 10 heroics per item. Definitely way too much grinding.

Even though loot was harder to get in vanilla and the game took much longer to get loot, it didn't feel like a grind. Every boss down was a chance at loot, not just another payment towards a quota. The bad thing about loot drops is when it's something noone can use; that's just plain annoying.

My conclusion is that people aren't playing WoW to work, they want to enjoy themselves, and grinding for points is work. We aren't machines, and getting us to plug into an over-engineered system is going to make us leave.

Greg McClanahan
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I disagree that vanilla didn't feel like a grind (absurdly low blue dungeon drops, fire resist gear), but otherwise I think you've raised some great points. I'm also a bit bored with the current raid content, but it's tough to objectively assess whether the current raids are actually weak or if there's an underlying demotivational factor that's more systemic. This article argues the latter, but I think there's some merit to the former as well -- we'll have to see if Firelands turns the game around.

Eric Spain
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It was more that you weren't doing 10 dungeons to make a number go up so you could buy gear. It was, do a dungeon and *this* time, the item you need *might* drop. It could have just been the presence of a random goalpost that made it feel less like a job and more like a game. It was still a grind, but it wasn't so obvious that it was just a grind.

Greg McClanahan
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I completely agree -- the psychology is very different in both scenarios.

Ryan Hawthorne
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This article implies that gear is the only focus. Personally I played for the social aspect. To be able to do fun things with my online friends but we eventually moved together to other games, simply because playing the same game over and over for years gets boring, no matter how many bells and whistles are added.

Greg McClanahan
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The social component is certainly very powerful, and I did not mean to imply that WoW has lost all of its addictive components -- I'm just nitpicking a recent development in one area specifically.

Jason Min
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Not to derail for the purpose of nit-picky, but the statement "Both sets of points can be used to purchase gear for every single slot" is not actually true. Both point levels have holes, such as head/shoulder at the valor level (both of which require 'end boss' tokens as opposed to any form of point to purchase) and any sort of main-hand weapon at either level, trinket/ring at the honor level, etc. Also, justice point purchases are still technically 'crappy blues', though itemization can certainly beg to differ in a number of cases.

Yes, the fact that this was on the tip of my brain shames me to no end.

As for the deprecation of number blocks, I have to admit to being somewhat ambivalent. The day to day of plugging my paladin into a spreadsheet and calculating some dragons in the weird synchronized dance that is raiding isn't really affected by it, and not having to deal with this ( ) if you find yourself behind is a-ok in my book.

Greg McClanahan
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Thanks, I've corrected that inaccuracy, though my underlying point still stands (the hole in the weapon slot isn't too significant because PvP weapons, unlike PvE armor, are still pretty good for PvE content, and arena weapons are currently very easy to acquire).

I'm not sure what you mean by the last part of your comment, but I think that the game greatly benefited from simplifying the stats system and removing raid attunements. I would also agree that there needs to be some catch-up mechanic for players who get left behind (playing with friends is the #1 most important aspect of the game, after all), but I'd argue that the current system is perhaps too extreme and too transparent.

Lydia White
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The carrot-on-the-stick that is epic gear is usually over-simplified by hardcore players. If you're a casual player, the new shiny gear isn't a pride thing, it's an access thing. As much as people want to believe that progression can be skill based, raid content is, on some level, gated by gear. If your tanks don't have enough stamina, they get crushed. If your healers don't have enough mana, then DPS dies one by one as they struggle to maintain the tanks. And if DPS doesn't have enough damage enhancing stats, you hit an enrage timer on the boss and everyone dies in the blink of an eye.

My point is, when content becomes inaccessible to players who do well on a casual raiding/pugging basis, then there isn't even a point for them to continue hunting for new gear. If I can't go from one step to the next without waiting out the roll-over of points to get "wellfare" epics from doing the same boring heroics while the hardcore players are facerolling through the latest raids then I'll be "all dressed up with no place to go." The epic gear is only further devalued in Cataclysm in that it won't make the raid content any more accessible.

Wrath did "spoil" us in that it became possible to do heroic dungeon runs during your lunchbreak at work. You could fully outfit a character with epics using standard patterns with skilled professions. Everyone could do battle with the Lich King himself. I don't see why that system was so "broken" that Blizzard felt they needed to completely take that away from the casual raider and replace it with raids that you need fully geared, massively dedicated, well-trained players to conquer. I personally just don't have that many hours in the day to dedicate to the game to reach that point, and all the rest of my retired guildies are in the same boat.

None of us see wellfare epics as a very tasty carrot when all we can do is stand around Orgrimmar waiting for random dungeons to pop.

Omar Gonzalez
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I think Blizzard obsession to appeal to EVERYONE is really crippling the game. They been having this unbalance-contradictory design decisions since the introduction of Arena.

They said they learnt the lesson, I hardly think so. Activlizzard likes the money.

Gerald Belman
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In my opinion, WOW has always been a nice balance between casual and hardcore audiences. It kind of fits nicely right into the middle and appeals to both. But as a hardcore game, it is just not as good as it is a casual game. Most of the gear "strategies" in the game are either very simple or extremely derivative(gear with most points wins). And the "rules" of the game are too "simple" to keep truly "hardcore" people interested in the game for very long.

That's not to say that WOW isn't an awesome game. I think WOW is at its best when it focuses more on casual players: Beautiful landscapes, teamwork, socialization, pretty music and ambient sounds, cute little quests.(not to say these things aren't important to hardcore players but they are requisite to casual players). But when it focuses on "numbers" or "statistics" for it's entertainment it invariably fails. Because, there are so many better and more deep "number" and "statistics" games out there.

To help my point, If you look at the average age of a WOW player it is about 14 or 15. If you look at the average age of an EVE Online player it is about 28. Now remember, these are just averages, but these averages tell us an important thing: WOW needs to cater to the young and the old whereas EVE Online can get away with catering just to the old.

WOW is like the disney movie of MMORPG's. Disney tries to make it's movies appeal to adults and youngin's at the same time so the parents don't get bored and are more likely to see the movie(and I'd say they do a pretty good job what with all the inferred sex jokes they manage to fit into one movie) but adults will always desire entertainment that is strictly for adults.

So in conclustion, I sympathize with you sir. I agree that they are dumbing down the game, but let's agree that WOW was a pretty dumbed down game in the first place(I am not saying that hardcore WOW players are stupid, I am just saying that a hardcore WOW player does not play WOW hardcore because of the complexity and depth of it's game mechanics. they play it for other reasons, namely environment, nostalgia, art, characters, atmosphere, socialization etc.).

Simon Ludgate
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Do you have any statistics to back up your claim that the average age of a WoW player is 14 or 15? PARC research into WoW players suggest that US WoW players are fairly evenly spread in the 18-32 year bracket:

Gerald Belman
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I would like you to notice that in the PARC study which you linked there was 0 (zero) data for anybody below the age of what looks like 17(it's kind of hard to tell from the crappy graph). That is highly suspect.

In addition, I think because it is in the "blogs" section of the parc website it is not as subject to peer review. So basically I think this source is crap even though everyone cites it.

It's just a statistic I kept in my head, I thought it was from a legitemate source. I remembered it from researching it years ago. Looking it up though people are saying that Blizzard doesn't release that info. I thought it was from Blizzard. But looking it up it seem that the only one to research it is this Nick Yee douche from parc. If the majority of people who play WOW are in their 30's than I've been away from the game for a long time. Otherwise you (and Nick Yee) have been smoking hashish muffins.

Also he admits that his survey has flaws( one of which is that it is a voluntary web survey).

It'd be great if you could find a SCIENTIFIC study on the matter.

Gerald Belman
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Well, even though the statistics are right in front of me and are from a legitemate source, I still have a hard time believing it. Look at this link from Neilson's:


Are seriously more than half of male WOW players in the United States between the ages of 25 and 54?

I'm sorry but I just can't believe that.

Some other interesting statistics from Neilson: More than 90% of time spent playing games is by people over the age of 24. I'm sorry but I just cannot believe that.

How is this possible? Why are so many people people playing so many free microsft games(solitare, minesweeper etc.)? How can so many old, white, male, proffessionals be playing World of Warcraft? Am I misunderstanding this report from Neilson?

I am the first to admit I am wrong, but these numbers are just not making sense to me from a personal experience standpoint.

Mike Engle
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Honestly in all the WOW guilds I was in there was never more than a tiny handful of players younger than 18, and the majority seemed older than ~26 or so.

Gerald were your only interactions with other WOW players in General and Barrens chat? That'd be about the only way I could see someone making taking such a hard-nosed stance on assuming WOW players are kids.

Gerald Belman
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Well to be honest, the thing I probably spent the most time doing was battlegrounds. I was on a pretty old server too. It had been around since the start of the game.

It is more than just my interactions with people though(I admit most of them were young though and that defenetily affects my view of the average wow player). It is a bunch of other things too. The cartoony/disney-like art direction of the game seems to be trying to appeal to young teens. Also the nearly complete lack of violence or swearwords, or promiscous women or adult dialogue etc etc etc. The general childlike nature of the game.

Maybe my server was all young people too.

And don't get me wrong, I am willing to take my personal experience with a grain of salt and just except these statistics from nielson as being true. It is just very surprising to me. (all the other statistics from nielson are pretty weird too).

So in conclusion: Why are kids not playing PC games? And why are women over 55 now the most dedicated players of PC games(albeit mostly lame default windows games)?

Greg McClanahan
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It has been confirmed that WoW is losing subscribers. I added a little note at the beginning of the article with some general thoughts.

Ed Alexander
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So my response turned into a blog post... I hate to link it, as that kind of feels a little too "self congratulatory" to me in a strange way, but in the event you cared.

TL;DR Version - I think this is a great article and was glad to read it. ;)

Michael Gribbin
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The game is several years old and nothing stays fun forever, no matter how much content you add. Frankly, I'm surprised it went this long before losing subs.

To put it in perspective, WoW launched on November 23, 2004

In case you don't remember 2004, YouTube hadn't been invented yet, and Facebook was a pipe dream. IT'S OLD.

Aside from that, very well presented theory, sir. I suspect it is a combination of factors, including the age AND the choices made in the past few expansions. The point about smoke and mirrors is extremely accurate!

Raymond Domingo
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I was a WoW vanilla player and quit right when the expansion for burning crusade came out. I had 83 days played in my first year of playing the game. Here is why I quit WoW and why I knew WoW wouldnt last. Once you hit the top tier of items in the game its fun to own and dominate in PvP or show off to people on the server. But i wasnt going to fall for Blizzard little circle of tier 1, 2, 3, 4, ect. I could see what they were doing. It took me so many hours to farm the best items in the game. Then the expansion came out and turned my 83 days of hard work into a blue level 61 item that could be farmed in 10 mins. What a waste of time. Blizzard stripped me of everything I work so hard to get. I wasnt going to fall for it a second time. Most players couldnt see this coming since they never saw late end game content. But once you finally achieve status higher then anyone else, blizzard will take it away and make any noob able to achieve it. They never should of made old content easier. The grind should be the same for everyone.