The Great Gearscore Debate of ’09

Chances are that you’ve had a run-in with gearscore if you’ve been joining PUG groups in the last few months.  Gearscore is an addon which calculates a number based upon the gear you’re wearing.  It displays this information in the tooltip, and can query other people using the addon for their gearscore, adding it to the LFG interface.

The problem is that on many servers, people are becoming gearscore snobs.  They refuse to invite someone to a PUG unless they have an unreasonably high gearscore.  This makes it hard for anyone who hasn’t upgraded their gear to around the tier 8.5 level to get into groups.

There has been the expected level of outrage on the forums, with Blizzard being asked to ban the addon (which only goes to show that people don’t understand what it’s doing under the hood).  Blizzard has acknowledged the problem, with Ghostcrawler even joking that they were going to put an easily obtainable epic shirt in the game with an item level of 300 just to poison the data this addon and others like it use.

Today, I’d like to talk about what GearScore is, what it isn’t, remind people of what the various scores correlate to in terms of content, and look at how useful GearScore is with regards to recruiting and other guild decisions.

The Addon

The GearScore addon can be downloaded here.  There’s also a “lite” version here.  The full version remembers the gearscore of people you mouseover or encounter, and so over time will take up more an more memory on your system.  It also communicates with people in LFG who have the addon, displaying their gearscore for you.  The lite version by comparison only does the calculation on mouseover and then forgets about it, trading higher CPU requirements for lower memory usage.  Which you use is up to you.

The Score

The thing to remember is that GearScore is just a calculation.  You feed numbers about each of your pieces of equipped gear, it adds them up and spits them out again.  There are a few changes to the calculation to account for things like Titan’s Grip warriors (it averages the two weapons rather than adding them together) and classes that prioritize a specific slot (like Hunters), but for the most part it’s just adding up the result of a function whose input is the item quality (green / blue /purple) and item level.

Gearscore does not:

It’s just a measure of the item level of the gear you’re wearning.

What’s worse is that the GearScore addon does not use the same formula as some of the other armory-driven websites that list a gear score.  GearScore gives my paladin’s DPS gear a 4300 score, but WoW Heroes gives the same gear a score of 2240, even though it still calls the value a “Gear Score”.  Be Imba gives me 487.14, calling it a “PvE gear score”.

Just because GearScore gives bigger numbers doesn’t mean that it’s a better measure.  Psychologically, we like big numbers.  But the numbers only have meaning when placed in context.  If I tell you that a place is “about 5 away”, you don’t know if I’m talking in terms of miles, kilometers, minutes or hours.  Likewise, if I tell you that my gear scores 487.14 but you think I’m giving you the value from the GearScore addon, you’d expect me to be clad in level 45 quest greens.

When asking, giving or judging a gear score you have to know what measure you’re using.

The Way We Used To Do It

The concept of sizing up someone before you invite them to your group isn’t anything new.  As soon as the armory was released people began to use it to look at the details you couldn’t see in-game (like total spellpower, melee and defensive stats).  But the armory contains a huge amount of information about a character:

GearScore is not a replacement for the armory, and doesn’t try to be.  It distills one aspect of what the armory offers and calculates it on the fly in-game.

Convenience Does Not Breed Wisdom and Gear Does Not Equal Skill

GearScore is convenient, of that there’s no doubt.  We don’t have to tab out and perform a search – just mouseover and there’s your answer.  Or is it?  If the Armory only provided a list of items without any of the extras above, then it wouldn’t be as useful a tool.  You wouldn’t be able to make the same quality of judgements that we do on a regular basis.

So why then would we take the output of GearScore and put so much stock in it?

GearScore is a tool, and a single-purposed one at that.  Gear does not equate to skill.  My death knight has a gear score around 3100 because it’s primarily a crafter.  I have two or three epics, but everything else is quest and heroic blues.  Yet in Trial of the Champion heroic, I regularly put out more DPS than players with gearscores of 4000 or higher.  I don’t die to avoidable damage and I interrupt whenever I can.  Because I have an experienced tank and healer, I know the nuances of the fight.  The “whole picture” is that I’m a better player to bring to the instance than someone who only has a DPS character, doesn’t understand fight mechanics (e.g. Radiance), stands in poison or whirlwind and never interrupts an enemy healer.

But none of that is factored into GearScore.  You have to know me.  As with any attempt to distill someone down to a number, you remove the richness of the data.  If I recognize that and use gearscore as a general guide to the content that a character has experienced and should be taking on, that’s fine.  If I say to myself “I will never group with anyone who has a gearscore less than 4000”, then I’m doing myself and the community on my realm a disservice.

So Why Not Just Ban It?

There have been many calls on the official forums for Blizzard to in some way ban the GearScore addon.  People asking for that don’t understand what the addon is doing.  It’s just using the inspection API to get the item level and quality of your gear and then feeding that into a function.  Blizzard can’t prevent it from doing that without disabling the entire inspection API for addons.

Even if Blizzard had the ability to bad specific addons, the math is so terribly simple that it would be re-implemented in days if not hours.

Even the aforementioned shirt idea wouldn’t work, because the GearScore addon doesn’t look at that slot.  Any poison pill could just be excluded by the code in a game of whack-a-mole between Blizzard and the addon developers.

The solution is to educate people.

How to Combat It?

If you’ve been a victim of the GearScore effect, you can play dirty to boost your gear score.  Let’s say you’re a hunter just starting heroics and have a gearscore around 3000.  You’re a competent player and able to do pretty much any of the heroics with a good group.  You do heroic Trial of the Champion and a cloth healer chest with an item level of 219 drops.  Rather than letting it to go waste or be sharded, grab it.  When looking for a group, equip your highest item level pieces regardless of their armor class or suitability.  This will artificially inflate your gearscore when people look at you in LFG.

This won’t stand up to visual inspection of course (save for things like rings and trinkets), and you need to be able to pull your weight once you switch back into your proper gear, but it can help when faced with people who put stock in gearscore and nothing else.

It also has a slight PvE benefit in certain situations: the drakes in the Oculus and the vehicles in the Flame Leviathan fight scale with your average item level, regardless of how suitable that piece is.  A hunter can go into those fights dressed entirely in iLevel 219 cloth and do better DPS than if they went in a mix of iLevel 200 blues and purples.

The Various Tiers

One place that gearscore is useful is getting a quick idea for the tier of gear someone is wearing.  I tend to lump these into bands of 500:

There’s a fair amount of overlap, and I’ve recently seen the top guilds on my server sporting values above 5500.  This just gives you a basic idea of how far progressed a characters gear is.  It doesn’t tell you how far progressed their are – my Shaman has never don’t anything beyond Naxx 10, but has a gearscore around 4100 due to emblem upgrades.

Be Realistic

Now that you know what the various scores represent, think back to when you first started doing heroics and Naxxramas after WotLK came out.  The first release of GearScore was in June of 2009, but back in December 2008 when my guild was chain-running heroics to get ready to step into Naxxramas, we couldn’t have had a gearscore much above 3000, if that.  We knocked out all the heroic dungeons without too much difficulty.  Since the content hasn’t changed, why would you now need a gearscore of 4000 to do the same thing?

The cop-out answer is that you don’t want to drag an underperformer along.  But consider this: that underperformer may be a re-roll.  They may have a better geared main.  They may be an excellent player.  Is one skilled undergeared player going to wipe a heroic?  Of course not.  You’ll get your emblems, they’ll get emblems and possibly upgrades, and at the end of the day you may be introduced to someone who wants to join your guild, or can be called on in a pinch when you’re down a raider.

As a tank or healer, I use gearscore to give me a heads up on who may need more attention paid to them during a heroic.  If I see them pull agro, I might throw up Hand of Protection instead of just hoping for a taunt to bring the mob back.  Or as a healer, I might throw a bigger heal than I would otherwise due to the lower stamina that a lower gearscore translates to.

I’m by no means advocating carrying players who are undergeared and who can’t play.  If I invite someone with a low gear score to my group and it’s apparant that they don’t know the fights or die to avoidable damage, I won’t group with them again.   I use an addon called Do I Know You to track people I don’t want to group with, and I can tell you that there’s as many 4000+ gearscore players on my negative list as there are sub-3000 gearscore players.

You can fix gear, but you can’t patch stupid.

Guild Recruiting

Should GearScore be used in guild recruitment?  As a tool, maybe, but just as a “you must be this geared to enter” mark, and with a reasonable requirement set.  Never base your recruiting solely on the output of gearscore or any similar calculation.  You need to judge skill, personality, fit, attendance, and things that will never fit into an addon.

If you do say “to apply, you must have a gearscore of x”, try to be realistic.  If I’m recruiting for a new guild and I’m willing to start with heroic marathons, 2750 to 3000 is the maximum I’d ask for.  For Ulduar guilds, 3500.  For ToC guilds, 4000 to 4500 depending on whether you’re doing normal or heroic mode.

Don’t forget to allow for exceptions: you never know when a skilled re-rolled is going to come knocking on your door in fresh level 80 gear and it would be a shame to turn them away with no chance to come back.  If you do reject someone purely on a gear level, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tell them what a reasonable target is for their application to be re-considered.  This target may differ from your publicly stated one if you feel the applicant has merit in other departments.

Loot Policy

Gearscore could form an interesting part of a loot policy.  If you’re using loot council, you might use the difference in gearscore that an item would bring as part o your decision.  Certainly not the only decision, but if a piece of gear is equally good for two players with similar attendance / deservedness, the one whose gearscore would go up by more might help break ties.

Likewise, if your guild tried to gear up member alts in an organized fashion, dispensing with rolling or discounted GP entirely in favor of giving the item to the alt whose gear would get the biggest boost out of a drop may speed things up.  Do be careful though, as this breaks effort/reward relationship that your members may have come to repl on.

Until Next Time