I have been grinding away at Diablo 3 these past few days and when I manage to focus purely on what I am doing I have a grand time; unfortunately I end up reading forum posts about what everyone else is accomplishing and then I feel quite inadequate. There are many components to why I am doing rift 32 and other people are on 39 (in which I think the monsters do roughly double the damage and have double the HP!) including them being 400 levels higher than me and having more practice. However, the biggest single reason is a couple of ludicrously powerful drops that I don't have, specifically a Star Metal Kukri and a Invulnerability enchantress token.
It is hard to overstate how big a difference these two items make. The token will give me 50% damage reduction. That in itself is enough to get me from rift 32 to 39 in terms of damage taken. The SMK grants me, at best guess, a 60% raw damage increase as well as giving me a much more rapid cooldown on a key skill that should improve my progression notably. Now this wouldn't be so absurd if I was a new character geared in junk because we all know in this sort of game the first few big drops you get are very impactful, but I have a very good gearset with extra copies of nearly all the best items. It is just that these two items in particular are completely ludicrous.
So here is the question I have been pondering - what should the stair steps for gearing look like in a game like D3? There is certainly an appeal to having extremely rare items that have really big impacts on gameplay to keep people salivating over what they will find next. However, when items that are 100% required to be anywhere near the top of progression are ludicrously rare that makes the idea that the game is at all competitive seem kind of silly. I am not anywhere near the top, probably tens of thousands from the edge. I could log on tonight for five minutes and with incredible luck I would be ready to push the top fifty. (I couldn't be at the top because I am still 400 levels off the pace!) That kind of difference is not especially appropriate in a game trying to provide a serious competitive environment.
The thing is though for a game that is played solo or with a few friends there is nothing wrong with that model at all. Fundamentally there is nothing different about playing rift 32 vs. rift 39 except that the monsters do twice as much damage and have twice as much health and if my gear doubles my damage and halves my damage taken my experience is the same. It hardly matters that my progression is slow since I can make progress by grinding up my gems, finding incremental upgrades, and levelling up, and all the time I can think about how great finding a SMK is going to be. If I suddenly get awesome I can help carry my friends and everybody is still happy.
Problems only really exist when I spend my time comparing myself to the others who have those key drops and arguing about progression on forums. When I am exposed to people who are massively more powerful than me and there is nothing I can do to close that gap aside from get lucky it is disheartening. I can accept that I am not as good as others when it is a function of my own failure - I am a terrible chess player because I don't practice chess except against a seven year old. No problem. It is tough to look at an environment that purports to be about skill when I know that I could never be anywhere close to competitive no matter how great my ninja clicking skills.
What this ends up meaning to me is that the current loot format in D3 is a fine format for a fun silly game where you blow up monsters and try to hunt for awesome stuff. It just isn't a good competitive game though, and that is ok. I just have to get it through my head that I play it to find fun stuff and watch my minions slay my enemies, not to compare myself to others.