Disclaimer: I stopped raiding after the first tier of content in Cataclysm. I have no experience with the Firelands, beyond how it was introduced thematically and plot-wise via the Molten Front.
If I was to nitpick, I could say raiding has changed a lot with Cataclysm. The multi-tiered badge system was converted to a two-tier point system. And 10-mans were made prevalent, dropping loot equivalent to 25-mans. But neither of these changes affects the actual game play on a basic level. Neither changes how the encounters are fundamentally designed. Neither changes the quality of the storytelling found in a raid dungeon. Neither changes the way we traverse the depths of Blackwing Descent or the heights of Throne of the Four Winds. And this is very much where raiding is flawed.
For the most part, improvements are stagnant or inconsistent. And sometimes there is a nauseating amount of content recycling.
Breadcrumb Quality & Inconsistency
Let’s first consider breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are quests, movies, events, zones, or anything that would otherwise lead you to a specific raid dungeon. Breadcrumbs are an important part of raid storytelling. They introduce you to an antagonist or set of antagonists and give your character reason to enter raid a dungeon to assault them.
Unfortunately, Blizzard doesn’t always do a good job with their breadcrumbs. Sometimes, they don’t include them in the game at all. At the release of Cataclysm, two of the three major raid instances—Blackwing Descent and Throne of the Four Winds—were missing breadcrumbs. No one tells you to go to Blackwing Descent. No one says, “Hey, there’s a rumor going around that Nefarian is back from the dead! How can that be possible? Who is responsible? Someone should investigate!” There’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the same goes for the Throne of the Four Winds. People only go to them because they’re on the map, because they remember Blizzard talking about them outside of the game, because Wowhead lists them, because they remember reading about them on MMOC, or because their guild or raid is headed to one of them and they’re invited to come along.
Even when the breadcrumbs do exist, they often could be done better or more completely. As an example of this, I’ll use the Bastion of Twilight. For the most part, the way you’re introduced to Cho’gall and his ilk towards the end of the Twilight Highlands isn’t half bad. But Blizzard could have done so much more. I remember how awesome it was entering the Black Temple after completing its attunement quests. You fought your way through a bunch of demons alongside Akama to a small breach in the Temple’s foundations. This was an excellent end to the trail of breadcrumbs leading into the Black Temple. The Bastion of Twilight, and many other recent raids, could do with this sort of epic conclusion to their introductory questlines.
Of course, I’m rather happy with the breadcrumbs for the most recent raid—the Firelands. Already you had the quest at the end of Mount Hyjal where you briefly engage Ragnaros. Tack on the Molten Front, and you’re given an adequate introduction to the Firelands. (I could talk about the annoyances of being daily-throttled, but that’s for another section.)
So Blizzard is essentially two-for-four with Cataclysm, which is pretty poor. And since there’s only one more raid instance coming this expansion, the best Blizzard can do is three-for-five. And you don’t want to be batting .600 in a video game.
Plot Development in Raids
I’m going to be blunt in this section. The plot development in WoW’s raid instances is awful. Blizzard has dropped the ball in this area time and time again. And it is no different in Cataclysm.
Blackwing Descent is the worst offender. I’ve already gone over the lack of breadcrumbs, so you already know you’re not introduced to the conflict outside of the instance. That must mean you’re introduced to the conflict inside. Right? Well, there are some things that allude to the overall story, but they by no means paint a complete picture. Nefarian’s back from the dead. His minions have been doing some experiments on various dragons, creatures and constructs. Beyond that, you’re not explicitly told who resurrected him, how, or why. And he’s dead before you find out. Maybe this will be addressed in 4.3, but I doubt it.
For that matter, the quality of the story that does exist in Blackwing Descent is poor. I almost laughed when Blizzard revealed Nefarian was back from the dead. That alone inspires some /palmfacing. Maybe I would find it plausible if it played out in some actual plot development in the game. Maybe this could have been Deathwing’s way of bringing physical proof that he is not the Aspect of Death in name only. But none of this was in the game itself. I seriously hope Nefarian and Onyxia aren’t bosses in the final raid. If they are, I don’t think I will ever have to say another word about how ridiculous the raids’ stories are. I could believe this narrative copout for the undead. But when you extend them beyond that, I start to wonder if Blizzard is struggling to come up with fresh ideas.
All right, well, Blackwing Descent doesn’t have a great story. What about the Throne of the Four Winds? The only thing to criticize is its lack of a story altogether. Al’akir and his lesser lords of wind reside here. He’s allied with Deathwing. I know because I read it on WoWWiki. They don’t really say how or why in the game. It’s merely implied. You don’t see anything about it in the raid instance itself.
What about the Bastion of Twilight? The plot development here consists of you chasing Cho’gall and battling through trash and the other bosses, until he reaches a dead end and is forced to fight. I guess the story here didn’t have to be too complex, but I’d liked there to have been more insight into Cho’gall’s recent past involving C’Thun. But I guess we’ll never find out in-game, now that he’s dead. Oh well!
This is even worse than the story told in Icecrown, which was mostly plagued with pointless filler bosses, cheesy dialog, terrible voice acting (you know what I’m talking about), and dangling threads.
Raid Game Play
Okay, Lume. Writing is one thing. But WoW doesn’t need to have great stories, if it’s a game that plays well.
Obviously, I agree with that sentiment to some degree. People play Mario because of its game play, not because the abduction story is at all compelling (it’s not). The same could be said for Ocarina of Time. The Ocarina of Time actually had a pretty saccharine story. But its artistic themes, whimsical charms, and its game play made it one of the greatest and most memorable games of all time.
Unfortunately, however, the game play in WoW’s raids can’t hold a candle to so many other games these days. And why is that? Well, firstly, it’s because WoW is outdated. But it’s also because it has some major problems in several areas that affect raiding.
Basic Design Is Stagnant
The basic fundamentals of raiding hasn’t really changed since TBC. Sure, raids have been downsized and the loot system has been streamlined. But the way you approach and kill nearly all of the bosses hasn’t changed much at all since TBC. You’re usually required to tank the boss (or a set of mobs that are a part of the encounter), dodge fire, heal through damage, DPS, and maybe deal with some kind of unique mechanic featured in the raid (something like a debuff that does AoE damage, or shatters the tanks armor, or something simple along those lines).
Of course, part of this has to do with the way the game is designed as a whole. When you have very strict roles defined by the holy trinity of tanking, healing and damaging, you feel compelled to force people to use those tools. So there’s only so much basic variety you can include. And while new spells and abilities can give the raid designers more options, most of the new spells are too awkward to make liberal use of, since not every class has a spell available that works equivalently. With this in mind, the raid designers have to tread lightly when considering requiring something like Leap of Faith or Heroic Leap. So most of the encounters operate on the premise that the tanks take damage and do their best to mitigate it, the healers heal through damage (be it raid or tank damage), and the damagers do, well, damage. Along the way, you’ve had a few more major mechanics added, such as healer cooldowns, but those are extremely limited in scope.
Occasionally Blizzard will create a unique encounter to keep things fresh. But it’s rare. But the unique mechanic is often limited to only a small portion of the encounter or to only a few people. Not everyone uses the cannons during the gunship encounter in ICC. Only a set number of healers go into the portal during Valithria. Only a set number of people hop up onto Magmaw’s head to impale him (her?) onto the spike. Etc. Sometimes, the encounter mechanics meant to add a little spice to raiding are poorly done (or they aren’t as interesting as they appeared on paper). So the fun isn’t there or it’s shorter-lived than it should be.
The first tier of content in Cataclysm has done nothing to change my mind about any of this. You always have those slight changes. The puzzle’s picture is different. But the pieces are always shaped the same. This isn’t enough for me anymore. I need a 3-D puzzle, a chess match, a poker game, a tennis match, some Minesweeper, and then a page of Sudoku.
RNG. The “random number generator.” Code for the randomization you encounter in games. WoW’s raids are full of it: how hard your abilities hit, how hard you get hit, whether you dodge or not, whether your abilities crit or not, what ability a boss uses, etc. There was a time when I was relatively cool with the RNG in raids. I was fine with it during both Archimonde and Kil’jaeden, because the style of RNG presented in each was manageable. For Archimonde, it was about manipulating the doomfire and making sure you kept your distance from it before a fear, and making sure you used your Tears if you got launched into the air. For Kil’jaeden, you just needed to know how to handle his combo of death. (Flame Darts! Fire Bloom! Darkness! ULTRAAAA COMBOOOO!) And for most of the other elements of RNG, they’d average out over the course of your raiding experience.
But the RNG in Cataclysm’s first tier was of the most frustrating kind. The kind where you had to go to the extreme in terms of gimmicks and raid stacking to have the best chances to succeed. If your tanks weren’t dodging a lot during Chimaeron’s final stage, you’d just stack mages and cheese the threat mechanics of the fight with mirror images and invisibility (not to mention a mage’s superior ability to burn). If you were having issues with one or two of your healers running OOM during phase two of Nefarian, due to Shadowflame Barrage, you’d just bring extra sources of mana regen or defensive cooldowns. And then there was RNG that was just completely dumb. For example, heroic Al’akir. I’m sorry, but any fight where you tell a large chunk of your raid to stand there and do nothing to minimize RNG gibbing is just poorly designed.
To me, it seems like the handling of RNG in raids has become sloppier over time. During TBC, it wasn’t all that bad and you could usually do something about it. But in Wrath and Cataclysm, it has often been an absolute bitch. And I really don’t think the first tier of raiding is the best time to throw tons of RNG at people, anyway. RNG keeps people on their toes, but you can’t just throw it around like rice at a wedding. You have to carefully plan it. Otherwise, it’s just annoying.
Class balance is I think one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to raiding. To be fair, the speed at which classes are balanced is much better than it used to be (whoever remembers how terrible it was during vanilla, raise your hand). But there was some gross oversight in the AoE DPS department early on in Cataclysm. So much so that it got to the point where my raiding compadres and I were bitching about it nearly every single raid until it was finally fixed in 4.1.
But, for the most part, the blame lies in the way the game is fundamentally designed. How can you easily balance a raid encounter when there are so many spec combinations with different mechanics while still making the raids challenging? Realistically, you can’t. You can try. And you can do things like making various stats equally beneficial for two different specs, so gear doesn’t complicate the matter. But, even then, you still have such a wide variety of classes and specs with which to fill a raid that you simply won’t be able to make challenging raids without frustrating guilds that simply don’t have the resources to utilize the most optimal setup for each and every fight. And, if you go in the other direction to accommodate those guilds, you risk making the raids way too easy for the guilds that do have those resources.
So, unfortunately, there’s really nothing Blizzard can do about it at this point. People are accustomed to the classes they have. The system is long-established. The game is spec-oriented. Full stop. Changing class balance to me would require changing the fundamentals of the game altogether. And you’d need to rework the classes from scratch. Maybe even remove some or change how you access them. And that is liable to upset a lot of players.
Overall Quality of Play
WoW’s engine is old. Older than most of the engines for games that also came out in 2004. This is because MMOs like WoW take longer to produce than traditional games. Furthermore, because WoW is persistent and some of its processing is done server-side, it cannot have as many complex processes to handle as its traditional counterparts. As a result, when WoW went live, it almost felt like you were playing a multiplayer version of a single-player platformer from 1998. Like Ocarina of Time online, but with more classes, abilities, specs, items, etc. Of course, things have slightly improved over time. But only slightly.
As one example, they’ve added smart collision with spells like typhoon, but the way it works is extremely primitive. I can’t tell you how often I’ve throw a typhoon right over all of the parasites on Magmaw, only to see half of them knocked back and the other half staying put. Even when two of them were directly on top of each other, one would get knocked back, and the other would just keep on trucking.
With such a dated engine, it’s extremely difficult for Blizzard to improve the game and create some truly unique mechanics. Can you imagine all the problems they’d have trying to make dynamically destructible objects? With WoW’s engine and the server architecture it operates on, I don’t think it’d be possible. And, unfortunately, that contributes to how stale the game feels to a lot of veteran players.
Comparing 10- and 25-Man Raiding
If there’s one thing I think Blizzard did well in considering its raid design for Cataclym, it’s acknowledging that 10-man raiding doesn’t have to be third-rate. Different people like different group sizes. It’s a preferential thing. Me? I enjoyed aspects of both 10- and 25-man raiding. I could spend a whole article writing about the differences between each. The social implications. The styles of delegation and management. What it feels like to be a part of the crowd. Etc.
The problem before Cataclysm was simply that 10-man raiding often had no incentives attached. In TBC, people wanted to run ZA because they wanted a bear mount. Or because they wanted the caster trinket. In Wrath, no one really wanted to run the 10-mans for anything but supplementary gear. So if you desired a more intimate setting, but wanted the same physical rewards, you were out-of-luck.
Of course, I should note the tuning for each version of an encounter and the balance between gear drops is not perfect. 25-mans have a very distinct advantage when it comes to loot. More items drop per person. And you’re more likely to have someone present who can actually use each item that drops. And for early progress, this means 25-mans have the advantage in that regard. But loot isn’t the sole discrepancy. General difficulty is, as well. Some encounters are easier in 25’s, and some are easier in 10’s. So the balance between the two is definitely not perfect, but then I never expected it to be.
At least 10-man raiding is now a viable option, and I think Blizzard made a good decision here.
The Upcoming Raid Finder
In 4.3, a raid finder will be implemented, operating much like the dungeon finder does now, but for raids. This is long overdue. As 4.3 is technically a part of Cataclysm, I’ll include my thoughts about it in this review.
When I was still leading a serious raid during Wrath, I had problems maintaining the raid’s health for pretty much the entire expansion. And this was while leading a guild that was frequently in the top 100 in the U.S. The situation was much more dire for raiding groups ranked even lower.
This is what happens when a game is bleeding players. The number of raiding guilds has to decrease. But guilds are slower to reduce in number than the size of the pool of players, because they have to gauge the size of the recruitment pool and then react to it. But guilds are reluctant to disband, so it’s a slow process. And, because of this, most guilds are generally stressed for numbers.
At the end of the day, some percentage of the raiding guilds will have to go. For the players in the guilds that dissolve, they’ll have to find a new. And, unfortunately, it’s not easy. You either have to find a raid that runs during your free time, or you have to transfer to a server with a successful PUGing operation that meets your standards. In light of this predicament, a lot of players end up quitting, exacerbating the problem.
The raid finder, however, may give players who would otherwise quit a reason to stick around, if they feel like playing raid roulette. Maybe they’ll even find a guild they like using the raid finder. For these people, it’s better than sifting through hundreds of guilds and putting in a bunch of applications.
If you ask me, the raid finder is about two years too late. The game’s already bled a lot of players that a raid finder could have saved. But I guess it’s better late than never.
Amount of Raid Content
With the recent announcement that 4.3 will be the last content patch of the expansion, Cataclysm will finish with five raids (not including BH, which I’ve never considered a proper raid instance). That’s three tiers of content. 25% less than Wrath and TBC. This seems odd to me, because Blizzard will be embarking on this final content patch very soon, and could possibly finish it around Cataclysm’s first birthday, give or take a couple months. I’m not sure that settles well with me. Nor am I sure it’s going to settle well with a lot of people.
I think much of what I’ve stated is a result of the fact that I burnt out on raiding a long time ago. What kept me going was the social interaction that often took place during the course of a raid. Some moments have left me with priceless memories I will cherish.
But the fact I’ve burnt out is very much a problem, especially because I know there are others in my situation. I saw friends burn out when I was still trucking along. And I’ve talked to friends who have since burnt out after my own retirement from raiding. I guess you could say everyone grows tired of a game eventually. But I think MMOs need to adapt to the changing demands of its players. And, if it can’t adapt, maybe an engine re-work is in order.
Raiding in WoW has its problems. Some of them are a result of flawed fundamentals with the game itself. And some exist simply because Blizzard hasn’t done enough to heighten the interest or enjoyment generated by the raids. We at least need more than what we’re getting—more compelling and better written stories told within the instances, and encounters that are better crafted and less of the same. The raid finder will probably be a good addition, if done well, but I’m not sure it will be enough to counteract the other problems I’ve mentioned.