We, the raiding world of WoW, hit a collective milestone this month, which went largely uncommented on in the larger community save for a collected few players who like tracking this sort of thing (or who like to look for cracks in Blizzard’s shining armor). No, this metric doesn’t relate to boss kills, nor the average gearscore of Northrend’s populace, but it has everything to do with the undertoe of anxiety growing in WoW’s player base.
I’m talking, of course, about the fact that ICC reached its 9-month old mark this month. Yes, it’s been that long since we waited behind closed gates for entry into Wrath’s final instance, since we wrote ballads (well some of us did anyways), fussed over Frost Badge acquisition (guilty again), and found that the “hard mode” model might not have hit the mark (can you tell what I spend my time on?). But, this article isn’t set to be a diatribe about Blizzard’s instance release planning nor a drawn-out whine about difficulty tuning. No, the reason I bring up all this information about exactly how much time we’ve spent in ICC is because of a question which recently arose during a discussion with a couple friends—after all this time, is there anything of value to be had in Arthas’ lair?
The Relevant Anecdote
Way back in the day … I used to play sports, quite a lot. In fact, I played multiple sports up until High School, where I was forced to narrow my specialization in the hopes of getting a paid ride to the college of my choice. And so, instead of spending fall, spring and summer playing with entirely different teams on different types of fields and courts, I devoted myself to becoming really good at one sport, at one position. I played during the fall, trained during the spring, and did summer bootcamp, coming full circle every year and having only a couple weeks off during the winter and at the start of summer.
In college, the cycles repeated again, albeit slightly upped in intensity (“slightly” being an understatement of epic proportions). In the larger training cycles were smaller cycles as well—during season, training would be about 1-week windows, where we’d prep for our next upcoming game, review tapes, go over plays, and do drills which set the stage for the team we’d be battling with. During offseason, the cycles would change; we’d move to 2-week windows where we’d focus on fundamentals, offense, defense, and specialty plays, and our strength training would shift to a micro-level, alternating muscle groups from one day to the next. Summer would ramp us back up, and the cycle would shift to a 2-a-day workout structure, where our 8-hour training days would be split into 4 circuits, designed to touch on everything, every day. It was a grueling routine to get used to, but once you did, the structure and regularity of it actually made it comfortable. Oh yeah, and I actually went to school in there as well.
So why am I telling you about college days long past? Because, despite the different nature of the exertion, those athletic days share something in common with WoW—their constant emphasis on training.
Most raiders, I’d argue, define their involvement in WoW on the basis of instances—which ones you raided, when, and for how long. Staged releases of these instances, in between release of the last expansion and release of the next, serve to break up the game into smaller segments. More so than that, a weekly cycle breaks up accomplishments and sets players’ sights on short-term goals as opposed to long-term timelines. The weekly/daily lockout is something that raiders accept and adjust to very quickly; anything other than a week or a day is viewed as an anomaly (ZG, for example).
But there are another set of cycles in WoW, which few players ever stop to think about, and those are the training cycles we engage in when raiding. Consider some of the following:
- Normal modes preclude hard modes. Although the idea of “keying” for an instance is something long forgotten, Wrath’s normal modes served the same purpose of preventing players from entering hard mode dungeons and instances until they had completed the designated pre-requisite. Further, regardless of your feelings about the easy-hard toggle introduced in ICC, there’s no debating that this dungeon and encounter gating prepped you for the mechanics that you’d find in the hard-mode variants.
- Boss difficultly and encounter complexity increases the farther into an instance you get. Generally speaking, a boss in the foyer is a one-trick pony, whereas the guy sitting in the back has a slew of tricks up his sleeve. SSC and TK are, I think, notable exceptions to this rule, which is why guilds often navigated past the “first” bosses of these instances (Al’ar and Hydross), to get a bit more experience under their belt before taking on the challenge. However, end bosses of instances have long proven to be multi-phase affairs, even dating back to Vanilla.
- Lastly, (with the notable exception of ToC), mobs that precede a boss will oftentimes introduce you to some of its abilities. Think of the packs before General that Shadow Crashed, or Stinky’s Aura matching that of Festergut’s Blight, or how the drakes in Sarth, when pulled separately, still gave you a preview of what 3D would be like.
Even the ICC 5-mans introduced us to mechanics that we would need to be familiar with in our later journeys into the ICC raid instance (Garfrost = Sindragosa, being one of the connections I make every time). In all, these training cycles are a subtle way for Blizzard to prep us for an encounter without handing us the “How To” guide; to provide a quick refresher before we start the main event.
But why is the subtle and slightly presumptuous hand-holding necessary? Because as raiders we’re open to a wide variety of boss mechanics, (more so than can be found in PVP, where class combos, spells, attacks, and strategies are largely known and precise execution is what counts), and it’s in Blizzard’s best interest to offer some help in making us successful. Repeated attempts on bosses and repeated kills of an instance only serve to reinforce these lessons and remind us about mechanics long since forgotten. (Did anyone think of Illhoof when they first did Lich King? Or Utguarde Pinnacle? I doubt it. But the chains mechanics Illhoof employed to punish your raid are the same effect applied via the Val’kyrs, and the same effect practiced by Utguarde Pinnacle’s first boss. We just needed to be reminded about the proper way to handle them.)
So, you see, without even acknowledging it, you’re already participating in multiple training cycles all devised to do one thing—get you ready for what lies ahead. But, I’m sure that’s not the reason that most people head back into an instance week after week, because the siren call of epics is so much more seductive.
Loot != Skill, Skill = Skill
Man, if I had a copper for how often I hear the following phrase when out and about in WoW:
Gearscore has nothing to do with skill!
And you know what? I agree; gearscore and the loot items it represents have nothing to do with the quality or caliber of the player behind the character. While gear does represent your general level of progression (eg: I have a ilvl284, therefore I must be not dumb enough to cripple an entire raiding team in Heroic Halion), there’s no direct correlation between my items and my skill as a Resto Shaman, Disc Priest, Arcane Mage, Feral Dps, Prot Pally or Unholy DK. What’s amazing to me though, is that as much as we deny this association when it’s used against us, it’s an association we support when we say something like “There’s no more reason to do ICC”.
When a friend said to me back in SSC that there was no reason to show up to raid anymore because he already had all the loot he needed, I almost reached through the internet and laid him out. Loot is, even at the end of an expansion, a means to an end, and a contributing factor in the cyclical nature of raiding. We gear to be able to kill faster, and the faster we kill, the more gear we get to use in our next kill, which gives us better gear, so that we can feed right back into the cycle. But as much as players credit loot with their ability to perform better, in the end, it’s their skill at an encounter which makes the real difference. (Gevlon’s Undergeared project is a testament to this being the case.) And yet, when players acquire enough gear they somehow think that this means they have enough skill as well, so they don’t need to raid any more.
As I mentioned above, it’s been 9 months since raiding teams first set foot into ICC, and as generally evidenced, this time frame has been taking its toll on almost every guild out there. Along with summer malaise, the end of the xpac is a time where players struggle to find motivation to keep up with the same old grind. The complaint I hear and read most often in today’s declining raiding environment—“There’s nothing to gain from running ICC for yet another week”.
In my not-so-humble opinion, if you’re one of the people who has uttered this phrase—you’re dead wrong. If you’re thinking that instance farming is about collecting loots and generally stomping content, the downhill journey after you’ve killed a boss, then you’re someone who defines WoW’s raiding cycle much differently than I do. Similar to the cycle I encountered in athletics, I would argue that the WoW raiding cycle doesn’t start when you kill a boss for the first time—it ends there. Everything after that first kill is training for the instance to come. And as evidenced by the fact that none of us rolled over ICC hardmodes in just a day, we all could use a little more training.
Change is the Only Constant
In the end, there are a number of reasons that guilds stop raiding, that players succumb to the end-of-the-expansion blues. But to me, “having all the gear I need” will never be a viable reason to stop my efforts to improve. Because the fact of the matter is, I can have the best gear available to me in the current content, but that doesn’t mean I have the skill I need to put it to good use in the future. Sure, my tools will be changing, but the fundamentals of the game will not and the mechanics you’ve seen and dealt with before will rise up again. For the same reason I was on the track every morning at 6am in the offseason, I will be at every ICC raid, and every future raid, until my guild decides to stop bringing me along—because you can never do too much to prepare yourself for the challenges to come.
The more you train, the more you learn, the better you can be. So, in my eyes, ICC isn’t the end of Wrath, it is our practice for the Cataclysm to come.
“In times of change, learners will inherit the earth while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer (compliments of The Endeavour)