I finally found the time to sign into WoW and run the new heroic 5-man TOC instance last night. In one single run, I obtained two major upgrades. The triumph was bittersweet.
Trading Memories for Numbers
The [Heroes' Frostfire Robe] that was part of my haul for farming Archavon 40 times is now gathering dust in my bank, replaced by the [Embrace of Madness]. The [Deathchill Cloak] that I earned the ability to craft by completing the Loremaster achievement? Now it's a situational side-grade, with [Kurisu's Indecision] taking its place for raid-level content. As the only caster DPS in the group, I received both items without so much as a roll. It isn't even worth disenchanting the old gear, since the resulting Abyss crystals now sell for less gold than I make on a pair of 5-minute daily quests.
The new normal-mode dungeon jumps straight to the highest item reward level previously attainable in 5-man content, and the heroic version leapfrogs over even the 25-man version of Naxx. The combined loot tables would allow me to replace just about every single piece of gear my mage owns. On top of that, it's a new arena season. The latest PVP rewards jump 2-3 tiers above the old 5-man stuff, and many of them offer a raw DPS upgrade for PVE in ADDITION to having PVP durability stats.
Each of my old items has a story, something that I did to obtain it. Almost all of those stories were more involved than "walk in door, breeze through instance, loot". Perhaps I did daily quests for a faction every day for two weeks, or ran an instance a bunch of times, or collected and redeemed 60 emblems from 25-man content. Before 5-man TOC, I cannot recall a situation in WoW where the loot tables actually offer major upgrades for players who outgear the instance.
The end of the gear incentive?
If there's one thing that any of us have learned from this expansion cycle, it's that gear incentives are so very temporary that it makes no sense to pursue them unless you're actually enjoying the activity you're doing to get there. Gear that I worked hard to get six months ago, thinking that it would last for the remainder of the expansion, has been made obsolete by gear that will itself be obsolete in six months, after Icecrown's three-wing 5-man extravaganza arrives.
Keen is also revisiting WoW's 5-man game, and suggests that Blizzard is embracing the theme park aspect of the game. Players enjoy running dungeons, and part of that enjoyment comes from a slow but steady stream of loot upgrades. Apparently, we will not continue to do the content after we run out of rewards. The problem is that the expected value of the reward is tied to the amount of time the player expects to enjoy it. The next time I'm facing a reputation grind or low drop rate in WoW, the prospect that the rewards will be obsolete in the next patch will weigh far more heavily on my mind.
In the end, the shift may not be a bad thing. There may well have been a limit to how many more times I was going to be willing to put up with some of the things I have put up with in WoW's past. Perhaps the decreased role for the RNG is a tacit acknowledgement of that reality. Still, the incentive value of loot is a pretty powerful tool in the Blizzard's toolbox, and one wonders whether they will regret having given it away.