Like pretty much every other aspect of life, trends often come and go in gaming. Many ideas only become trends because they achieve a level of popularity that quickly elevates them to the status of “the standard.” Over time, though, it’s natural for people to become tired of those trends to the point that they’re eventually replaced with new fads. However, I struggle to think of a time when the incredibly popular trend of “Gear Scores” was ever truly welcome even before the industry’s overreliance on that trend turned it into one of the most tired tropes in modern gaming.
The basic gear score concept is pretty simple. Do you know all that gear and equippable loot you acquire throughout so many modern games? Well, your gear score is a rough grade for all of the items you currently have equipped. Different games calculate that score in different ways, but gear scores are usually meant to provide a quick overview of roughly how powerful your character currently is (relative to your items). Not sure which new piece of gear to equip? The one that raises your gear score is supposed to be a pretty safe bet. Not sure if your character is powerful enough for a specific piece of content? Your gear score may be able to help you figure out if you’re good to go.
Actually, MMOs once helped popularize many basic gear score concepts. As raiding and other forms of group content become more common in those titles, it also became more common for players who perhaps weren’t ready for that group content to try to participate in it. The idea was that gear scores could help create an even information playing field for everyone. For instance, if a raid suggested a gear score of 2000 and a player had a gear score of 1000, they probably needed to acquire better equipment before they tried to tackle that challenge. Ideally, there would be no need to argue over the matter with players in the chat. Games like Destiny still use gear scores for similar purposes.
However, it wasn’t long before players realized that the gear score concept actually made many multiplayer communities slightly more toxic. Rather than filtering out players that were clearly below the recommended gear score, many MMO group leaders began demanding the highest possible gear scores. The margins between a 1900 gear score player and a 2000 gear score player were often largely insignificant, but in the optimization-obsessed worlds of MMOs, anything less than the biggest possible numbers was sometimes seen as not being nearly good enough. It’s a practice that lives on to this day.
Community impact aside, the entire gear score concept has always been flawed. In World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, for instance, there is a 200 “item level” trinket that is actually the best available option for some players for most of the expansion. However, as other players begin to fill their equipment slots with 250+ items from subsequent raids, that 200-level item will drag down your overall gear score (despite its actual power level). Some group leaders may be aware of those item-level discrepancies, but numbers-obsessed groups just looking for the highest available gear score (or even games that outright demand a certain score) may not be aware of that information. Then again, a good gear score system should ideally be able to account for the actual power level of an item and not its assigned base value.
That’s the fundamental problem with gear scores in the vast majority of games. The number that is supposed to represent the rough power level of your currently equipped items often fails to do that simple job. Yes, you can occasionally realize that an item is more valuable than its gear score indicates, but those instances just raise questions about why that gear score is there in the first place (especially in single-player or local multiplayer games).
Some of the answers to those questions can likely be attributed to the sheer amount of stuff you have to collect in so many modern games. Others have pointed out modern gaming’s loot problem in the past, but that problem is directly related to gaming’s gear score issues. As more and more developers look to invoke cheap thrills by filling their games with a nearly infinite supply of new loot to pick up, gear scores become more and more popular.
After all, the vast majority of that loot is pretty much useless. It’s like taking a metal detector to the beach and finding a bottle cap. The gear score is supposed to help tell you that the bottle cap is just a bottle cap and not a rare coin. That’s lovely and all, but why fill your games with bottle caps in the first place when you don’t have to? For a number that is supposed to show how valuable your gear is, gear scores have really just exposed how useless so much video game loot actually is.
It’s not just the bottle caps, though. If anything, high-end items in games are the biggest victims of gaming’s obsession with gear scores. Finding a “Legendary” or similarly rare item in a game should feel like a monumental moment. Now, though, a new generation of looter shooters practically flood your inventory with theoretically rare items once you reach a certain point in the game.
As a result, you end up spending too much time in those games comparing the slight statistical differences between supposedly Legendary and Epic items so that you can please the gear score gods regardless of whether that new item has any meaningful impact on the game. Other times, you’ll be tempted (or, in some cases, required) to equip rarer items that raise your gear score regardless of whether they fit your current playstyle or even if you enjoy using them.
What’s especially frustarting about the rise of gear score game design is that several viable alternatives to that approach have long existed. For instance, dungeon crawlers like Diablo or Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance also offer a ton of numbers-based loot of varying rarity and quality. Rather than use a gear score system, though, those games make you consider the value of the individual items you find along the way. The idea is that you’re supposed to understand the actual value of those items and their stats (and how they impact your character) rather than simply taking a look at how they impact your gear score.
More importantly, more of the gear you acquire in those games actually does have a significant impact on the experience. That “Flaming Sword +1” you just received can clearly cut through enemies faster than your old broadsword. Meanwhile, the “Mythical Hat of Ill-Gotten Gains” you were lucky enough to find may unlock a powerful AoE ability that changes how you approach the game. You actually feel the progression of the gear you acquire in those games for reasons that go beyond raising a mostly arbitrary number. It also doesn’t hurt that the sometimes simple (yet satisfying) combat in those games is often a clear reflection of your character’s power and the power of their equipped items. Generally speaking, the combat in a game should be the thing that clearly reflects your power level rather than a gear score.
Then you have games like Elden Ring or Dark Souls which not only limit loot to rare drops or rewards for completing certain challenges but ensure that nearly every item is potentially valuable. Simple swords can become weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the right player and the right builds. Not everything you find in those games is what you’re looking for, but the items in those games all have a potential purpose. Not flooding a game with items that the majority of players will trash as soon as possible? What a novel idea.
Of course, the best gear score alternative is sometimes no loot at all. Do otherwise great games like God of War: Ragnarök really benefit from constantly asking you to go into a menu to check if the bracelet you found will offer a slight increase to your attack speed? For that matter, why is someone like Kratos so easily impacted by a bracelet he found on the ground? I can understand Kratos’ benefiting from an ancient weapon of the gods or some armor taken from the corpse of a vanquished mythological creature, but who is throwing out trinkets that can impact the attack speed of a god? The same goes for the upcoming Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. I would much rather have the power and capabilities of that game’s characters be an extension of their unique abilities rather than the gear score of the gun they just found laying around.
I love loot in games, even though I know that many developers are more than happy to exploit that love to keep me on a constant grind. What I don’t love are the ways that gear scores have cheapened the looting experience. Yes, you could theoretically ignore the gear score, but (much like modern battle passes), too many modern games are being designed around that gear score number rather than having that number be an extension of the core experience. Now, the gear score is the core experience.
At a time when pretty much everything else in life is being reduced to some kind of number in order to limit how much thought we have to put into the true meaning of those things, it would be great if games just dropped the largely useless idea of gear scores and focused on the many other (and better) ways there are to make acquiring new items in games feel significant and enjoyable again.