ToGC, and Hardcore Raiding in Wrath of the Lich King

I apologize if this entry seems rushed. That’s because it is. With the release candidate up on the PTR for 3.3, I feel I need to provide criticism well before Tuesday, on the chance we could see 3.3 hit the live servers next week. I feel there are things Blizzard has not considered carefully enough.  Things that have driven some of us away from a part of the game we used to love. So there aren’t any links to help clarify terminology, and explanation is minimal.

To be fair, I think the raiding game is much improved. I like how raiding has become much more accessible with the separation of difficulty between normal and heroic versions of each boss. I like the way Ulduar was designed in terms of the presentation of its story within the dungeon. I love the artistic atmosphere of Ulduar. I originally thought I wouldn’t like it, because I’m not a fan of the old god storyline, but it took me by surprise. I also thought some of the hard modes were well-designed (even if some of them needed to be re-tuned).

But then ToGC was released, and it was like taking one step forward, then a few steps backward. I honestly like that the normal and heroic versions of the instance have separate lockouts. It allows you to experience the normal content, without ruining your ability to attempt the harder versions of each boss. It also promotes a more linear progression route, without hindering a person’s ability to experience the (potential) beauty of a dungeon and the resolution of its various story arcs. And on a very basic level, I actually like the design of the heroic versions of a few bosses. However, everything else I dislike.

I dislike the concept of limited attempts on heroic. Creating an artificial pacing mechanism that limits the time people want to put into various areas of the game is a mistake. And the mechanic also turns what would otherwise be well-designed encounters into frustrating experiences. I dislike how rushed the instance feels. Not artistically, as I don’t actually care that most of the dungeon is just an arena in which to face bosses, but how the encounters were buggy and poorly tuned at release. I also dislike how poorly the Anub’arak storyline concluded, which contributed to a feeling that ToC was rushed.

Some of these issues I think Blizzard could stand to further evaluate. With Icecrown Citadel (ICC hereafter), they’re removing the separation of heroic and normal versions, and I feel that’s a decision that has its ups and downs. They’re still planning to use attempt limitations. Sure, they are making it so your available attempts go up as time passes, but I think they should have explored other options for heightening competition. That said, we are at least taking some more steps forward. It appears ICC will have the most epic storyline presentation for a raid instance to date. And the artwork and atmosphere is comparable to the likes of SWP and Ulduar. What’s more, Blizzard has recognized the fact that achievements like Insanity and Immortality have potential RNG components that could be frustrating for various content, so they are shying away from putting emphasis on them.

But there is, in my opinion, a better way to implement pacing mechanisms that challenge top guilds while allowing mid-level hardcore guilds to do what they want to do on their own time. There is also, in my opinion, a good way to separate normal and heroic versions of the instance without ruining gear pacing for heroic progression. And these are things I feel we, as a community, need to discuss and debate.

Limited Attempts

Imagine you’ve just picked up a new Zelda game. You’ve got the week off, and you’re ready for marathon sessions to beat the game. Like the good gamer you are (yeah, right), you’ve refrained from buying the strategy guide. A few hours into your first playing session, you hit the first boss in the first dungeon and you’re ready to begin figuring it out. The first time, you die because you’re not sure what to do. The second time, you die because there are a couple subtleties you missed. The third time, you die because a new phase takes you by surprise. The fourth time, you die while trying to figure out what to do in the second phase. And the fifth time, you die because of the subtleties of that final phase.

After the fifth death, the game bumps you outside the dungeon. When you try to re-enter, a message pops up on your screen sayng, “You’ve exhausted your attempts at clearing this dungeon. Better luck next week!” At this stage, most gamers experience a sense of disappointment. Being unable to play a game on your time can be frustrating. This is the way I felt whenever we’d run out of attempts in ToGC. You’re not stopping because you’ve exhausted your raid schedule. You’re not stopping because you’ve cleared the instance. You’re not even stopping because the content seems impossible for your guild. You’re stopping because an artificial pacing mechanism forces you to do so.

Limited attempts can also ruin encounters that would otherwise feel well-designed or enjoyable. For example, if attempt limitations were removed, I would probably enjoy the Twin Valk’yr encounter. I think, on a basic level, the RNG component to orbs is what makes it a challenging fight to defeat. It’s similar to the way the RNG components of Kil’jaeden and Archimonde were what made those fights challenging, as well. But when a random situation generated can potentially ruin your attempt count, I find the encounter annoying. When you have to stack for battle rezzes just to have a decent shot at Insanity every week, I cringe. When you have to wait for various cooldowns just to limit the loss of your attempts, so you can progress on Anub’arak, I get annoyed. Without limited attempts, and attempt-based achievements, these feelings disappear.

I understand the desire to heighten the competition for the top guilds in the world. But even people I know in Might (who ranked number two in the world on Immortality), who are former members of Lunacy’s raid, dislike the concept of limited attempts. While it definitely separates the skilled guilds from those who merely brute force their way through content with insane raid comps, bloated raid schedules, or a combination of the two, it has the very detrimental effect of forcing people to stop raiding the content they want to raid and return to content they’ve already exhausted and find boring. Some even choose to simply stop raiding for the rest of the week.

This isn’t at all good for mid-level hardcore raiding guilds (those ranked between 50th and maybe 200th in the U.S.). Most people at this level find normal modes uninteresting and nothing more than content that serves to supplement gear. Their enjoyment is obtained primarily from progressing, and the majority of their progression time is spent on the heroic versions of the newest dungeons. But there’s nothing more anticlimactic and disappointing in a given week than having your attempts run dry. If the first time you reach Anub’arak, you have two days left in your raiding schedule, but only five attempts, it’s quite disconcerting. You want to put in time on that content, but you can only put in so much because you have limited attempts. As a result, people lose a lot of the enjoyment they obtain when raiding such content.

I’d rather Blizzard not risk the well-being of mid-level guilds for the sake of a group of players that don’t even comprise 1% of the raiding population. Who cares if a guild wants to spend 16 hours a day to be number one in the world on an instance clear, when it means mid-level guilds could be happier overall. Some of the guilds that don’t spend as much time as those that do to achieve high rankings often don’t care whether or not they rank well in the world, anyway. And you can still have achievements Immortality, anyway, without limiting the attempts a guild has in a given week. You can still reward guilds for clearing an instance without wiping, without limiting others’ attempts. And there are other mechanics and accomplishments that can heighten competition for guilds, without limiting the raiding time for others who don’t care about such competition and only care about personal progression.

I’d rather see Blizzard overtune bosses initially, then slowly nerf them by doing something like decreasing their health and damage done by 1% each week, instead of limiting attempts. (Obviously, you’d have to set a floor per encounter to keep it from falling over dead by default, and to prevent it from becoming too easy, however.)

Insanity and Immortality

Personally, I’m okay with the inclusion of Insanity and Imortality-based achievements, so long as the raiding community can decide whether or not such achievements are major progression points. I think Immortality is too RNG-based to really be a basis for ranking guilds sequentially, even though accomplishing the achievement is definitely a testament to a raid’s skill (and composition). But because RNG can contribute to failure in that area, it is not something I believe you can use to make a distinction between the first and second place guilds. One guild could have had vortexes during the downtime between each mass orb spawn in their first week of seriously trying Immortality, while the other could have had vortexes during orb spawns that same week. The high-end community is typically smart enough to recognize these realities, and it is usually reflected on sites like WoWProgress.

I definitely think people shouldn’t be rewarded with gear for achievements that are highly dependent on RNG, in any case. A mount for Immortality is fine. But I’d like to see more rewards for other, clear-cut testaments to skill. I would much prefer people get an extra piece of loot for doing a speed kill of a heroic boss. I’m also fine with rewarding guilds for not losing anyone on a specific fight. This would give guilds multiples ways of exhibiting their skills and heightening competition, while minimizing potentially frustrating situations that individual encounters can often create. I’m not saying Insanity falls into the category of RNG, I definitely think the achievement is doable nearly every week, because you can counter the RNG with things like battle rezzes and raid comp. But Immortality definitely has a very high RNG component to it. But less emphasis on rewarding achievements susceptible to RNG is needed.

The interesting thing is, however, that you would need to separate achievements based on whether or not you’re doing the normal or heroic versions of an encounter. For example, a speed kill achievement of Yogg-Saron exists. However, that requires you to forego doing the heroic version of Yogg-Saron. So this why I also advocate putting the normal and heroic versions of a boss on separate lockouts. Or, alternatively, they could change the parameters of an achievement for each version–that way, you still get the achievement, without having to sacrifice your ability to do the heroic version if that’s what you would prefer. Such deserves more discussion in the “normal and heroic difficulties” section.

Heroic and Normal Difficulties

I’m a very big fan of the concept of having normal and heroic versions of each boss. By doing so, you can make raiding accessible at the normal level, and allow casual players to witness the development of various storylines, while maintaining the ability to challenge guilds with a hardcore disposition and creating more enjoyable content for them through heroic modes.

There is, however, an issue of how you separate these difficulties. Yogg-Saron I think was an interesting case, having five different levels of difficulty, each progressively more difficult than another. This is in and of itself an interesting design, and I honestly really loved the way Alone in the Darkness played out in terms of challenge and enjoyability. I know caster classes might disagree with me, but it was definitely fun and interesting for me as a healer accompanying the illusion room DPSers and then healing through the crazy damage in phase three.

But I also like the idea of putting normal and heroic versions on separate lockouts. By doing so, you make the heroic content more linear, and this creates a more intriguing grounds for competition, as people can’t skip ahead to other bosses and snipe realm firsts. I suppose you could still have different levels of difficulty even if you separated the lockouts of normal and heroic, though. Yogg4 would be in the normal version, while Yogg0/1/2/3 would exist in the heroic version. And having variable difficulty levels for final and optional bosses is something I support.

But I think in order to make this a reality, you need to design gear with lockout separation in mind. Otherwise, gear inflation becomes a problem. The obvious way to address this issue (to me) would simply be to make gear obtained from the normal version of an instance the same item level as the gear obtained from the heroic version of previous content. The same, likewise, for the heroic version of gear obtained from the 10-man. Gear in and of itself is a big issue, though.

Gearing

I think one of the things I find frustrating is that you often have to go back to older or easier content to get items that are BIS (best in slot). If you want to have a full set of BIS gear for a moonkin, for example, you need the GVH trinket, 2PT8 from Ulduar, and a ring from ToGC10. 2PT8 should no longer be requisite in 3.3, though I haven’t done any spreadsheeting to make sure that’s really the case (and probably won’t, because spreadsheeting moonkin DPS accurately is difficult, as our rotation doesn’t have a solid pattern).

Blizzard really should make every item in a 25-man heroic a direct upgrade from 10-man heroic, and also do the same for the normal versions. This way, 10-mans wouldn’t be requisite for hardcore competition, though they would still provide a way to supplement gear.

The way I see it, item level progression should have gone as follows:

  • 213: Uld10 Normal
  • 226: Uld10 Heroic, Uld25 Normal, ToC10
  • 239: Uld25 Heroic, ToC25 , ToGC10
  • 245: ToGC25

This in and of itself has its flaws, of course. Blizzard wants people to feel compelled to upgrade their gear each time new content is released, so this wouldn’t compel people to go from Uld25H to ToC25 to do so. So some separation between the previous heroic and the new content’s normal version might be called for. But then time spent in the previous heroic might seem wasted, because the normal versions are typically so easy you can PUG them, which is why I advocate the normal version of new content dropping gear that’s the same item level as the previous content’s heroic gear.

Class Raiding Balance

For the most part, I think Blizzard has done a decent job with class balance in Wrath. Yes, some classes have been, at various points, overpowered or underpowered. But more attention is being paid to the issue than was being done in both vanilla and TBC. They don’t always make the right decisions (4PT9 and pestilence remained situationally overpowered for DK’s in raiding all throughout 3.2), but they at least make decisions with much more frequency that before. And that’s more than nearly all other MMO companies out there do these days.

The Raiding Game Overall

Overall, I like the increase in accessibility to raiding. During TBC, a lot of the content in raid instances was exclusive only to a small amount of players. Even after 3.0, the number of people who actually got to see Kil’jaeden was still relatively small. People can surely go back to Sunwell nowadays, but it doesn’t come at all close to the experience of doing it at level 70. The look and feel of the Eredar Twins room holds much less important if people just barrel through the content without even blinking. So the increase in accessibility is a cool thing.

I also think the “gear reset” that happens with new content is a good thing. Back in vanilla WoW, you had to essentially guild hop just to meet the requirements for guilds running Naxxramas. For new players to the game, this was a rather arduous task. So having decent gear readily available to help prepare people to enter or re-enter hardcore raiding I also consider a decent concept.

The basic concept of heroic versions of a boss is also good. Yes, admittedly, it does make the experience a tad cheapened when you’ve already seen the boss and its fundamental mechanics on normal. But I still really enjoyed defeating Yogg0 for the first time, and heroic modes are a great way to accomplish the increase in accessibility I also like. And nothing says Blizzard can’t design the heroic mechanics to be completely different from the normal version, while still maintaining the same artistic and story-based elements that exist in normal. That’s something Blizzard could certainly consider.

But the raiding game needs tweaks–some serious, some minor. I think limited attempts need to go, and better concepts need to be employed. More consideration in hardcore content needs to be given to mid-level guilds.

ToGC’s failures and the resulting frustrations of people need to serve as an example on which the raiding game can be improved. While I am no longer planning to be involved in that part of the game, it’s still important for the game’s overall health. Let mine and others’ frustrations, criticisms and praise serve as something for Blizzard to consider for the future development of WoW. By voicing out opinions, we can help Blizzard design Cataclysm to please as many people as possible.