A recent forum thread invited players to discuss a perceived decline in quality of armour sets in WoW. Amongst wistful posts about iconic Judgement and snarky one-liners about recent tier coming pre-packed with rust, Vaneras made the following point:
Truly colourful gear that really pop can be very cool indeed, the problem with this though is when characters have a mismatch of different colourful armor sets equipped. We received quite a lot of negative feedback back in the day during TBC about “clown gear” making characters look silly, and there were a lot of requests for more toned down armor sets that would allow for better looks when mixing and matching pieces between different sets.
Miriah and I were subjected to the clown look. The clash between a yellow vest, purple and blue belt, green and pink trousers, and grey, blue and lilac boots was sufficiently eye-searing that I disenchanted the lot and went back to her warlord kit at significant loss of stats. But I don’t think the legacy of TBC questing should be a permanent aversion to bright colours and bold designs in gear outside of our tier sets.
Setting the stage for an invasion of clowns
The Burning Crusade was, of course, Warcraft’s first ever expansion. This meant it was the first time players would find themselves replacing hard-earned epics with green-quality quest handouts. The whole act of regearing was tough to stomach, and this particular act took us from some of the most striking class sets in the game to, well...
The bare fact of it is this: questing in TBC did not earn you any clear sets of armour. It earned you mismatched pieces of potential armour sets. Questing might give you two matching pieces if you were lucky, but the rest would be random drops off mobs in a narrow level range.
Dungeons promised full sets here and there, but these set pieces were interspersed among other items and dropped across four different instances over a six-level range, back when levelling was slow and ‘queuing for an instance’ felt like an act of manual labour.
You weren’t likely to patch together a complete look. Those who did were probably wearing a piece or two that was actually weaker than something else they’d picked up, because that was the fashion-conscious alternative to transmogrification back then: creating a look that only slightly impeded your character as a fighter so you could safely wear it in combat.
So what we have here is a shift from eight-piece, designed-to-be-together sets to a mishmash of gear that you could only force to form a coherent look if you farmed for drops and limited yourself stat-wise. It is absolutely no wonder that early TBC armour was torn into, victim in part of the success of its predecessors.
When he says ‘mixing and matching between different sets’, I feel Vaneras is referencing a different and more modern issue than we experienced in TBC – mostly because we weren’t mixing and matching between sets, we were wearing individual, essentially non-set pieces we happened to pick up. The distribution of armour has changed since then, to a model that favours releasing items in coherent and obtainable outfits:
To me, this change alone cured the clown problem. Even if you dislike the look your questing set gave you, it’s unified aesthetically. There’s no sense that every piece of armour you’re wearing is locked in mortal combat with every other piece.
The trouble stems from Vaneras’ point: as they cured the no-set problem, the design team attempted simultaneously to ease the transition between sets. They did this by making non-raid Wrath kit uniformly dull. Colours varied between muddy red and muddy green.
And that’s the thing: if you’re going for incredibly interchangeable pieces, you’re limiting how stand-out any one of those pieces can be. You have to work the average look instead, and that’s not how to create eye-catching, iconic armour sets.
I believe Wrath’s levelling gear suffered horribly from this attempt to deal with two similar but separate issues at once. Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria bear the scars of similar brushes with neutral tones.
Colours that pop
As you can probably guess by this point, I’m solidly of the opinion that the present-day method of building up a set as you level would support brighter, more striking sets in a way the TBC model could not, allowing more variety to take advantage of with transmogrification.
In fact, Mists has already demonstrated this to a degree. The cloth sets in the Jade Forest are bright and interesting, but there’s no way to think ‘clown’ while looking at them. They form a coherent whole.
Although there are recolours of this set, in red and tawny, they create a very different look, whereas some of the older recolours were so similar to the originals that they made minimal impact.
Meanwhile, Cataclysm had a host of problems at high level, but the reworked lowbie zones provided new and enduring looks as well. How many new monks are still running around in their leather ruffs fifty levels on, courtesy of transmogrification? Those were bold and unusual looks, so they’ve survived in a way the washed-out colours of 80-85 have not.
While I’m on that tack, allow me to complain about something through the medium of Photoshop. You can see how an item looks in-game on the left side of each image. The right side has been retouched in Photoshop to the level of colour that I’d prefer.
Well, alright, I’m not exactly a wizard with Photoshop so my touch-ups aren’t perfect, but I hope they convey my problem with these items and others like them.
They look as though they’ve been dulled, and not in an artful way. A ‘wash some brown over all of it and it’ll be fine’ way. Even the shadows drawn in on the armour have been paled by this effect, so the details lose definition. If there’s one thing that really ticks me off about some of the sets in WoW, it’s this awful treatment. Let the colours pop! Nothing bad will come of this, I swear it.
On why I give a damn
I suppose the final question for me to answer after this phenomenal text wall is simple: why does all this matter, when transmogrification allows every player to escape any piece of armour they dislike?
I say this: I would much rather transmogrification be the tool through which I get to enjoy as many awesome pieces of armour as I can get my filthy hands on than the high-pressure hose pipe to use when my levelling character looks like she’s been rolling in the mud.
One of the things I adored about the Cataclysm revamp of the old zones was the process of slowly piecing together new and unknown armour sets as I played through each zone: armour sets that were interesting and sit in my void storage to this day. It was disappointing, working through the high level zones and finding that each piece looked like the last, and most of them were oddly muted or uninteresting.
I do think some of the armour designs have been falling short of the mark lately. Don’t get me wrong, there are pieces I adore, the sha-inspired warlock tier amongst them, but there is a reason the majority of my characters are mogged into classic and TBC kit, and it’s because there is a much wider variety of inspired items to be found in those sections of the game.
I think Vaneras’ argument – the fear of a resurgence of the ‘clown look’ criticism – is holding the design team back from pushing the newest range of items to those old levels of success.