Raid lockouts have been the talk of the town as of late, with Ghostcrawler recently providing more than enough forum feedback for ardent raiders and trolls alike to sink their teeth into. With Beta on the horizon and a number of connected and lucky players very anxious to post without fear of the NDA hammer falling, speculation, discussion, comparisons, and talks about the raiding end-game changes have been making their rounds. As an ardent 25-man raider (I do it on two toons in separate guilds) and a casual 10-man participant, I’m definitely in the camp of players eager to see how the changes play out, cautiously approaching both models without definitively settling on either.
As I see it, with the introduction of the 10 versus 25-man model, where players are no longer “forced” to participate in both raid types for the sake of progression, there are 3 seemingly polar and yet complimentary concepts at work. In no particular order, these concepts are—accessibility & longevity; cost & reward; and challenge & sizing. Although I have no understanding of the design process that Blizzard goes through when developing instances and encounters, in addressing the larger raid design picture I cannot help but think that these concept pairs are very near the center of discussion.
Accessibility & Longevity
Arguably, one of the biggest changes to PVE raiding (both 10 and 25) was had when Blizzard introduced achievements and variable difficulties. The latter, moreso than the former, provided a way to open up content to more of the player base, while still providing a challenge for those seeking it. Achievements, to some degree, also provide this variable challenge to those seeking to prove their own merit. So, as we enter into Cataclysm, one of the raid instance design challenges continues to be—how to you make a dungeon/story accessible, yet nuanced enough to apply to a large swath of raiding skill levels?
Personally, I think one of the greatest successes in Ulduar was multi-level tuning because it answered just such a design challenge. Like console games which give you the option of “Easy”, “Normal”, “Hard” and “God” modes, the latter of which are only unlocked by running once through the entire game, multi-level tuning provides a way to cater to a variety of player skill levels, instead of trying to tune for two ends of the spectrum. While modulated levels of difficulty can be created from encounter to encounter, multi-leveling tuning on a single encounter encourages replayability and extended interest in the instance, while also providing for designers to spend a slight bit of time designing with that top level of progression in mind.
(I think it’s safe to say here that players oftentimes do not gauge the difficulty of a dungeon based on their own raid team, but rather the accomplishments of the top end guilds. At this point in time, even though many who are quick to accuse ICC of being too easy, even with a 25% buff, only 12% of guilds worldwide have killed LK25 normal mode. Thus perception of difficulty should be something that Blizzard considers when designing an instance, because popular perception can definitely sway participation. But I digress; back to the discussion!)
The debate over accessibility and longevity also suggests two additional fundamental design questions—first, at what point after raid instance release should content be available to everyone, and second, should current raid content ever be trivial? With ICC, Blizzard implemented several ways of addressing these two questions—literal gating, attempt gating, and the infamous ICC buff. The literal gating that we saw at the start of the instance was more a result of the timing of release than it was of progression limitations; it was the attempt gating that had guilds, at least at the start, held back by a means other than time and willingness of the raid to wrack up attempt after attempt.
Since that point, however, with the attempt limit increased to something that very few guilds will ever exhaust in a ~20 hour raid week, and the regulated increase of a buff to 25%, content has for all intents and purposes, become available to everyone. On the other hand, in the effort to make content available to everyone, Blizzard has succeeded in trivializing the majority of the instance to guilds in the top tier of progression. Guilds at that level tear through ICC, including LK25 HM, in a matter of a couple hours, and then are left to their own devices for the rest of the raid week. Almost 7 months after release, I’m not sure if this is such a bad thing, the inevitable result of content with a very specific shelf life.
Cost & Reward
Over the US Father’s Day weekend, for the first time I had the joy of having my Dad watch me raid. And among his various questions—about what the numbers on my screen represented (RAWR HEALING!!!), how I could make decisions so quickly (I am secretly a robot), and who all these people were talking in Vent (my guildmates, who are blessed with push-to-talk binds which are permanently depressed)—there was one question that I found a delight to answer—“so what do you get out of all of this [raiding]?”
So I started talking about the raiding qualities that I value—teamwork, challenge, self satisfaction, loot (as a means to an end) and social standing. But as I continued blathering on about the mindset of progression raiding and why I can’t simply log on for a couple hours and be happy, I could tell that he wasn’t quite getting it, despite the fact that he was my biggest supporter during my collegiate athletics days (and thus should be intimately familiar with what happens when I’ve devoted myself to something). So, I tried to use a metaphor to explain the situation a bit more:
Imagine that you are a marathon runner. Your goal is very clear—to complete the marathon as fast as possible. Although you may be more well-trained than other people, your view of the course will be the same. As with most races, an award is given for first, second and third place; let’s say cash rewards of $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 respectively. So your motivation to win is not only because you want to be the best at what you do and see all those hours of training pay off, because also it will give you more money than anyone else has and notoriety of your accomplishment. In fact, if you run the harder marathon course, in which runners are ranked separately from the normal marathon, you’ll get special sneakers and a badge, along with money for those who place. People will know you completed the harder course because of your swag and your badge, and you get more cash for being better at it.
This seemed to solidify the concept a bit more for my father, who nodded in understanding and said “The more effort you put into it, the more you get out of it. Got it.” At this point, being the imp that I am (sometimes), I decided to pose the Cost and Reward question to him by continuing on with the metaphor a bit further. And so I said:
Now consider what would happen if:
- You could choose to run the hilly course or the flat course, both of which would give the same reward—which would you choose?
- You were told that everyone who completed the race would receive $50,000 (the amount previously only given to first place), regardless of what course they chose or how long it took? You’d get your $50,000 first, but so would everyone eventually.
- You had to run with either 10 1lb weights or 25 1lb weights strapped to you, but that your reward for finishing with either would be the same?
- That a runner completing the easier course would get the same sneakers too, but wouldn’t get the badge; would you still run the harder course?
To me, this is the essence of the Cost and Reward debate. What is the reward for the player who chooses the more challenging path? Of all of the above scenarios, I think (2) resonates the most with me because my answer is so simple—if my tangible reward was the same for any length of time and any level of difficulty of completion, I would take the easiest route available. If my $50,000 and my sneakers were assured no matter when I finished the race, then I’d make my way there on my own timeline. If the only thing I got out of the harder race was a badge that said “I’m a super race runner, der-da-der”, I wouldn’t even bother.
Yes, I have said it time and time again—I thrive on challenge. Although I’m not the type to go climb a mountain “just because it’s there”, I will do things the harder way if there is a benefit in doing so. But I’m also a practical person at heart and the “Yay, me!” feeling of a reward will only take me so far; I already get a slight bit on edge when someone achieves with relative ease something that took me considerable effort to do. Players, hardcore and casual, are a competitive bunch by nature (hello, we are playing a game here!) and our tendencies towards ranking and categorization are well represented in the mods (GearScore, Elitist Group, RAWR), heiarchies (Wowprogress, Guildox, BeImba, WoWHeroes), and systems (internal guild ranks, Arena ranks, raiding nomenclature) that we subscribe to. And unfortunately, this social perception of ranking is only a good motivator when there is a visible and tangible difference, to someone other than yourself, between the person who is more successful than someone else (ohai consumerism, when did you show up?)
So in the end, the Cost and Reward challenge becomes one of recognition of accomplishment. How do you recognize those players who put in maximum effort while not alienating those who only have a little time to spare? For the life of me, I don’t know. And neither did my Dad, (although he is looking forward to the day when I have no compelling reason to play as much as I do.)
Challenge & Sizing
The last raiding dichotomy to consider when addressing raid design is a pairing which comes into play when we talk about the innate differences between 10 and 25 man groups—challenge and sizing. Arguably, this was a design challenge which originated back in BC with the introduction of Zul’Aman and its “hard mode” difficulty level. While tuned to be killed with a reduced raiding team, and thus reduced buffs and capacity, ZA’s infamous bear runs were largely not within reach of the 10-man raider. Generally speaking, they were the domain of top-end, well-geared 25-man guilds who wanted to add a little bit of spice in their raiding week. Unfortunately, at that point in the development of WoW’s raiding model, 10s weren’t even close to comparable in gear; a player with a complete ZA set would likely not have been as successful in a bear run as a player who had been farming Illidan for months.
Interestingly enough, Blizzard seemed to take this to heart when designing the first “hard mode” encounter of WotLK—Sartharion 3D. Instead of 25-man teams going in and roflstomping an encounter designed for 10 players, 10-man groups struggled for a kill. Tested with coordination, execution, and sheer output demand (in terms of hps and dps), I think it’s safe to say that the stresses found in the reduced-team version of this encounter far exceeded those found in the 25-man variant. The effect of a single death in 10 was catastrophic, whereas in 25 (as many 10-man devotees are quick to point out) you benefitted from the cushion of your teammates because tuning was not nearly as exact. Although Blizzard has since acknowledged that Sarth 3D suffered a bit of overzealous encounter design and tuning, it is a fight that has stood in stark contrast to a number of other 10 versus 25-man pairings, simply because of its performance requirements.
To be fair, if you want to look at encounter design from a numbers perspective, Blizzard has a sizable challenge on their hands when they attempt to normalize the allowable margin of error between 10s and 25s so that encounters “feel” like the same level of difficulty. For example, if the average player is expected by Blizzard to do 5000 dps at a particular gear level, +/- 200 dps, then a 10s raid group with 7 dps will be expected to have a range of 33,600 to 36,400 dps (2800 dps margin). However if that group now upsizes to 25s, and is 17 dps strong, then that range becomes 81,600 to 88,400 dps (6800 dps margin). Thus, while the 10s team can afford to lose only half a player and still be within acceptable tolerances, the 25s team can lose one and a quarter players and still be okay. For Blizzard to apply the same tolerances to the 25s team as they do to the 10s team, they would have to reduce a player’s acceptable margin to a mere +/- 82.5 dps.
So in the absence of any other effects, the tuning required to make 10s and 25s an analogous experience will be incredibly strict. Tank health, raid health, dps and hps are all very real limits which do not have the same impact in 10s as they do in 25s. You cannot, for example, have a boss hit 2.5 times harder in 25s without either having the very real possibility of the tank getting 1-shot or having the 10s version feel like he’s wielding a waffle bat. Likewise, while the introduction of multiple void zones may have players scrambling in 25s, in 10s they are rarely a concern due to the available space in a given area.
In the end, it is a lofty goal indeed to strive for equality in two settings with completely different limits and constraints. And frankly, I don’t see how it can be done to any definition of success without the implementation of varying fight mechanics between the 10s and 25s version. Again, I point to LK Hard Mode as a great example where difficulty tuning for both versions approached the same level of player rigor; but even then we saw that gear differential won out, leading the 10s version to be killed way in advance of the 25s.
The Road Ahead
So, it is with all of these considerations (and then some) in mind, that Blizzard will set about trying to reinvent its PVE raiding model. All of the “end is nigh” posts may be for naught, or may very well be accurate predictions, in the xpac to come. But I think as we set about exploring the Beta, providing Blizzard with suggestions, feedback and queries, we should keep the following questions in mind:
- How do you make a dungeon or a story accessible yet nuanced enough to apply to a large swath of raiding skill levels?
- How do you provide motivation for players to take on increased levels of coordination?
- How do you tune an instance so that it is equally challenging for small and large teams?
Because I think if you can answer these questions, you’ll be a lot closer to providing useful information and a lot farther away from simply another forum post.
(And for all those players and dedicated bloggers lamenting the loss of a raiding lockout, there’s plenty of time until release for you to level a second shaman/ druid/ priest/ pally/ hunter/ lock/ mage/ dk/ warrior/ rogue! Vix the second is already level 15!)
** Slider image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/somemixedstuff/2403249501/