It seems that the blogosphere is in the mood for talking about badges/emblems/points and things associated with gathering them! Reading these posts got me thinking about just how many changes the badge system has gone through since I started playing, and just how absurd some of them are. This in turn made me wonder how many people are even left who remember all of these changes. So I thought I'd write down what I remember, in order to preserve the knowledge and maybe educate some readers for whom this might be new.
In the beginning... there was vanilla WoW, which had no badge system, or heroics for that matter. After you hit the level cap, you could do some gearing up from drops in normal five-man dungeons, but that was pretty much it. Afterwards the only ways left to progress your character were raiding or PvP. Initially this wasn't a problem as the game was all shiny and new, and people were happy to explore, do leftover quests and roll alts. After a few years people started to get fidgety though, and Blizzard decided to release an expansion, and that in this expansion they were going to provide people with an alternative to raiding at max level: heroic five-mans.
The dungeons were going to be the same ones you had levelled up in, but much, much harder and the last boss would drop an epic. Sweet, getting epics just like a raider! However, someone at Blizzard HQ decided that this epic alone wasn't going to be enough, probably because only ever fighting the RNG for that one item you want and never get can get frustrating quickly, but also because the dungeons were so hard that you might not even end up completing them every time and then you'd feel like you just wasted a lot of time for nothing.
So they came up with the idea of badges of justice, little marks that would drop off all the heroic bosses for no discernible reason and that you could use as currency to purchase further epics from a vendor. There were only very few of them, and it would take quite a few heroic runs to accumulate enough badges to buy anything at all, but at least people would always feel like they were getting something out of each run.
Note that these badges were not dropping off raid bosses. They weren't meant for raiders. Raiders got multiple shiny epics off each boss anyway!
However, the raiders still wanted badges, because some of those epics from the vendor were best-in-slot items for them too, with no raid drops coming even close. So they ran heroics too, presumably while moaning about why they had to bother with this stuff when they were raiding anyway. And lo and behold, Blizzard agreed with this sentiment! So they made raid bosses drop badges too, so raiders could buy the couple of items they wanted without having to farm heroics on top of it all. If you think about Blizzard's current heroic strategy, the thought of the developers willingly letting raiders get out of heroics might give you a headache. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This worked alright for a while. Heroics were hard, and getting a capable group together required effort, so people geared up slowly. Still, after so many patches even the most casual of players had managed to buy all the vendor items they wanted (remember, there weren't that many anyway). People were running fewer heroics, mostly to keep trying for that one specific item that never dropped.
Also, the chasm between raiders and non-raiders in terms of badge acquisition rate was increasing. While heroic runs became less frequent, raiders gained access to more and more raids that they could gain badges from. A tier six guild could go back and do a full clear of Karazhan in only a couple of hours, gaining more badges this way than anyone could realistically get from running heroics all day. Blizzard tried to encourage heroic running with the introduction of the daily heroic quest, which gave you extra badges for completing a specific heroic each day. This did help at least a little, as the psychological trick of "having a quest for it" worked wonders - you'd be surprised at the kinds of things people do when they have a quest for it! Except heroic Shattered Halls maybe, that took at least three quests.
In patch 2.4, Blizzard decided to revitalise people's interest in badges by adding a load of items of tier six quality to a new vendor, though they were considerably more expensive than the old items. Basically, the players' reactions to this could be summed up like this:
Raiders: "OMG, you're giving tier six level gear to non-raiding scrubs? Fail!" (But then they were secretly glad to be able to buy some decent mail leggings after Azgalor refused to drop the ones they really wanted for the umpteenth time.)
Non-raiders: "OMG, you expect me to grind out 150 badges for a crossbow that looks like a dead bird? Do you know how many daily heroics that is?" (But then they did it anyway and secretly felt really cool for having a raid-quality weapon. Also, Blizzard tried to help them out by making it so that even some daily quests had a chance of randomly giving out a bonus badge.)
This kept people reasonably happy and busy until the release of Wrath of the Lich King, but in this expansion the developers decided that they were going to handle this whole badge thing differently. For one thing they wouldn't be called badges anymore, and for another there would be what you could call "heroic emblems" and "raider emblems", to avoid the aforementioned issues of raiders gaining currency much faster than everyone else and from doing content that was trivial to them. (Ten-man raids were lumped in with the heroics at this point, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.)
This sounded good in theory and also worked alright at the start of the expansion. Raiders gathered some heroic emblems at the start to help with getting ready for raiding, but afterwards they never had to worry about them again. Non-raiders would have their own "thing" again.
The problem was that the major changes in design philosophy in Wrath of the Lich King threw a whole new spanner in the works. Where the first tier of justice gear in BC had kept people busy for ages due to the slowness of gearing up, WOTLK was too fast and streamlined. Nothing required attunements anymore and the content was so much easier that experienced players just blew right through it. (This is where someone usually pipes up with a comment like: "You're wrong, at the start of WOTLK those heroics were hard too!" Sorry, but no. They were certainly not as faceroll as they became as time went on, and I did have some painful wipes on Loken and Eregos, but it was still an entirely different league compared to BC. In my first heroic Slave Pens run, we wiped three times on the first trash pull until we got the crowd control just right. In my first heroic Utgarde Keep run, we used no CC whatsoever and didn't wipe even once.)
What this meant for the emblem system was that people geared up really quickly and then had no reason to keep running heroics. Raiders weren't running them because they had their own tier of emblems to worry about anyway, and non-raiders simply ran out of things to buy. I can't remember for sure whether the original daily heroics in WOTLK rewarded heroism or valor and couldn't find any data about it, but even if it was valor already, people weren't hugely enthused to keep grinding at a rate of two emblems a day, what with the difficulties of finding a group and everyone only really wanting to bother with certain heroics for their daily. This problem wasn't really new, but it was rearing its head much faster in the new expansion than it had back in BC.
Things only got worse when Blizzard introduced another tier of raider emblems for twenty-five-man Ulduar, as it sent the message that the developers were only interested in letting the raiders advance further, while leaving the dungeon runners in the dust. This is where the system really started to show its cracks in my eyes, because by now it was becoming clear that what had started out as an alternative advancement system for non-raiders had instead turned into a way of giving more gear to raiders, while actively blocking the non-raiders from any further progression because that would mean that they'd be getting the same kinds of goodies as the raiders and we couldn't have that now, could we?
However, Blizzard was aware of the problem, and in patch 3.2 they decided to change things around yet again. They introduced raider emblem tier number three, but converted all the places that used to drop lower tier emblems to emblems of conquest (raid tier two). This meant that everyone suddenly had reason to run heroics again because with the new currency they could now buy gear of the same level as Ulduar twenty-five-man drops, which was a big jump up. Even raiders went back to heroics now, because right up until the patch dropped, many had been working their way through Ulduar only at a slow pace and for many of them conquest emblems still provided some upgrades too. In other words, Blizzard decided that the non-raiders could have the same goodies as the raiders after all, as long as they stayed a tier behind. An improvement in some ways, but at the same time still kind of insulting considering the original purpose of the system.
Another notable change was that the number of items that were available via emblems started to increase with every tier. Presumably the idea was simply that if people had more things to buy, they'd keep gathering currency for longer and thus stay entertained for longer. This was true, but it also caused a slow shift in focus, and for many people the emblems started to become more important than the actual item drops. You could even buy some tier pieces with emblems now. They weren't a bonus that you received during your item hunting anymore; instead you occasionally received a good item drop while grinding for emblems. This development reached its peak during tier nine and ten, when you could buy entire tier sets with nothing but emblems of triumph and frost.
But I am getting ahead of myself. 3.3 repeated what 3.2 had done, introduced raider emblem number four and made everything else drop emblem number three. Interestingly this seemed to cause a bigger outrage than in the previous patch from what I could tell, presumably because it happened that much sooner. By 3.2 everyone could tell that non-raiders were starved for some sort of progression and that it was getting hard to gear up new players for raiding, but when 3.3 gave them even better gear so soon afterwards, it might have seemed too soon for many. The shift in emblem rewards being geared towards raiders and becoming more important than actual raid drops also made it look like dungeon runners were effectively being given raid rewards without raiding.
This is interesting when we compare it to the situation back when the tier six equivalent badge rewards were introduced at the end of Burning Crusade. As I mentioned above, there was some QQ from raiders back then as well, but it wasn't nearly as bad. I think the important difference is that even though both raiders and dungeon runners used the same badges to buy items, the overall loot focus for raiders was still on drops, and those were strictly separate. A raider might scoff at the idea of a non-raider having access to an item that was as good as raid gear, but it still wasn't the same as raid gear. The raider essentially retained a cosmetic reward for having acquired his gear via raiding. Also, heroics in BC never reached the same level of triviality as they did in late WOTLK, so non-raiders were still working hard for their badges. It didn't feel unfair, somehow.
In 3.3 on the other hand, the combination of massive stat inflation due to hard modes and the introduction of the dungeon finder made heroics more trivial than ever, giving people the exact same rewards that raiders had worked hard for only a few months ago. A full set of tier gear was mostly bought with emblems, by raiders and non-raiders alike. In fact, the dungeon finder made things so easy that it even became worth grinding the daily heroic for those two raid tier emblems you'd get as reward every day. Basically, aside from not mainly being targeted at non-raiders anymore, emblems had also ceased to be just a little bonus on the side. Instead they had become the main reward, and this same reward was given to raiders for hard work one month, and then for dungeon runners for running trivial content a few months later.
The sad thing is that Blizzard did not seem to view that as a problem this time, and completely copied that system over into Cataclysm, only doing away with the constantly changing emblems and instead calling them valor points (=current raider tier) and justice points (=heroic tier, current raider tier minus one). On, and you can't buy a full tier set just with points anymore.
So, what do we have now?
A system that was designed as an alternate progression path for non-raiders has been turned into a system that now gives more raid gear (tier pieces etc.) to raiders, while giving the scraps to non-raiders every couple of months.
A system that was meant to complement item drops has largely replaced them.
A system that was meant to leave you at least with a little reward if you couldn't kill the end boss of an instance was given an additional layer that only rewards you if you kill the end boss.
A system that was once designed to be redundant for raiders, now works increasingly hard at bringing raiders back into five-mans they have no interest in. Satchels, anyone?
A system that once wanted to do away with raiders gaining currency from running trivial content now rewards everyone with currency for running trivial content.
You can consider the current badge system good or bad, but I do think it's rather odd that it's basically doing the opposite of what it was originally designed to do now. Do the devs themselves even remember why they started doing things the way they did? Or are they in urgent need of a historian to remind them just how strange some of their decisions appear now when you're looking back at them?