Editorial: Wrath of the Lich King Raiding Retrospective

Endgame may be the coolest word in the English language.

Think about it.

It is a combination of two evocative, powerful words. They are short, concise, but loaded with intention. End. Game. End. Finality. Game. Fun. Taken literally, they signify the termination of what was fun about the game, the experience on reaching the end.

But the ends of stories, however bittersweet, are also the best parts, if done correctly. A good storyteller will develop storylines and plots throughout the “rising action” of the development, culminating in the zenith of the action as plot points are resolved, storylines end, and resolution fades into denouement. Many iconic scenes in literature and film happen at the end of a story. The end is the best part, and so there is a definite disconnect between the literal meaning of “endgame,” which ought to be a terrifying and saddening prospect, and the actual meaning of “endgame,” which is the most exciting part of gaming.

In a player-versus-environment (PVE) MMO, the “endgame” refers to the high-level, story-driven dungeons that large groups of players must take down together. It is the highest level of PVE play in the game, and ostensibly, what the PVE MMO game is all about. This is where the bads are separated from the champs, where server firsts are earned, and what competitive PVE gameplay is all about.

And I love it.

I have always been a sucker for cooperative gameplay, and firmly believe that a joy shared is a joy doubled, whereas a loss shared is a loss halved. Even on an 18% wipe on a very tough boss, the elation of getting her down to 18% is a rush.

A long, long time ago, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we all played Everquest, endgame raiding was seen as an elite tier of gaming that only the truly dedicated could (or would want to) reach. The original idea of MMOs was that only hardcore gamers cared about that sort of thing, whereas everyone else just wanted a shiny new chat channel and some rats to kill.

So primitive.

The problem, however, is that the really cool stuff that developers, artists, encounter designers, class designers, musicians and story writers put into the game goes in to making the endgame experience rich, fulfilling, and just plain awesome to see. If developers make endgame play exclusive, the barrier to entry is too high, and the effort required too great, and the majority of the player base never sees the hard work. This is not a good strategy for player retention, let alone player base growth.

Kel'Thuzad, Final Boss of the Naxxramas Raid
Come, minions, soldiers of the cold dark... obey the call of Kel'Thuzad

If, on the other hand, endgame gameplay is too easy and admits everyone, it quickly bores skilled players, who will beat it, shrug, and throw it away. While this works for single-experience console games (and plays into Gamestop’s evil pawn-shop like scam), the point of an MMO is to create a lasting, social world where the storyline can continue well past the nominal “end” of the game. Again, making things too easy is not a sustainable design.

The trick, then, is to strike a balance, which is notoriously difficult, even for successful MMOs like World of Warcraft. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion tried to broaden the endgame player base, by making gear necessary for entry into 5-man dungeons lower, increasing the ability to each class to do their job with lower skill requirements, while still tuning harder content for more skilled players, and lowering the raid size down to ten players (although 25-player raids are still possible). Back in the days of Everquest, raid size could grow well above 50. Sometimes, the bosses would be random spawns or non-instanced, requiring people to spend hours “camping” a likely spawn point. Wrath of the Lich King made the “casual” raid possible.

Much to the chagrin of (largely) self-styled “hardcore” raiders.

In an effort to fix this, Blizzard began to experiment with different ways of mixing up hardcore and casual-focused gameplay. Starting with the Secrets of Ulduar raid, casual players could experience the entire raid on “easy mode” (though I contend some fights, such as the Yogg-Saron fight, are not truly “easy”), while better players could activate “hard modes” that provided better/more rewards. This was a continuation of a mechanic first introduced in the Obsidian Sanctum, where, by leaving mini-bosses alive, players could increase the difficulty of the resulting final boss encounter.

XT-02-DECONSTRUCTOR, Guardian of the Gates of Ulduar
I GUESS IT DOESN'T BEND THAT WAY... :(

Although this model was largely successful, it had some drawbacks. Namely, “hard mode only” loot required more time from item developers and a whole gaggle of artists to create the wireframes, textures, animations, et cetera. Developers had to work in ways of activating hard modes (and finding ways to increase the difficulty) that fit seamlessly within the fights, such as destroying XT’s heart, or reaching Thorim in two minutes.

A new experiment was adopted in the next level of raiding, the Argent Tournament. In this experiment, Blizzard simply created two versions of each size of raid, ten-person and ten-person-heroic, and twenty-five-person and twenty-five-person-heroic. Each of these four (yes, four) raids were available week after week. The gear was no different between any two paired regular/heroic modes, except that “heroic” level gear contained straight-line increases of all stats. Thus, players were tempted (and many did) to run the same raid four times over the course of a week, simply rotating through ten and twenty-five player modes. This lead to unbelievably-fast burnout, and for good reason: running the same dungeon four times in a week is madness.

Jaraxxus, Eredar Lord of the Burning Legion
TRIFLING GNOME!!! *zap*

Realizing that this model was unworkable, the designers stepped back from it in the final raid of the expansion, the Icecrown Citadel raid. In “ICC,” players can activate the “heroic” modes via a clunky user-interface based toggle after the raid leader (only one person!) has performed a single Lich King kill in the normal mode germane to the size of the raid currently underway. Thus, the number of total lockouts was lowered to two, but now every boss has a “heroic” mode that rewards the same straight-line increase gear. Some fights, like the Gunship Battle encounter, are laughable even on heroic, while others are so punishingly hard that only a few guilds worldwide have managed them.

The balancing act, however, is not finished: lead developer Ghostcrawler (UT REPRESENT WHAT WHAT) has revealed to the player populace that in the upcoming Cataclysm expansion, it will no longer be possible for players to complete both the ten and twenty-five raids in the same week: players will have to choose. Also, ten and twenty-five player raids will no longer drop differing pieces of gear. Difficulty between the two raid sizes will be comparable. The only difference is that it will still be more efficient to gear a raid through twenty-five player raiding because it will drop proportionately more loot.

Icecrown Citadel, Stronghold of the Lich King
So, the Light's vaunted justice has finally arrived? Shall I lay down Frostmourne?

Because the logistics of getting 25 people together are more difficult and not always feasible, raids can be split mid-week, thus allowing players to start a week on a 25 but break it up into three separate 10s groups.

Incomprehensibly, this eminently sensible idea is being derided by the community.

Here is why everyone else is wrong, and Ghostcrawler and I are right: by most accounts, the Ulduar model of heroic versus normal mode was the most successful. Sure, it means more work on the developer side, but all that means is that players need to be (1) more patient and (2) more appreciative of the hard work put in. I hope that the hard mode model continues, but the clunky, fourth-wall breaking interface of saying, “OK, I am flipping the heroic switch now!” goes away. It was much more fun to push Mimiron’s Big Red Button than it is to walk up to Deathwhisper and whimper and cower as the heroic switch gets flipped.

Capping the amount of emblems a single character can earn per week, as well as reducing the incentive to spend 3-4 nights week raiding on a single character to maximize emblem and gear gain makes a lot of sense as well. That way, players can decide whether they can denote 1-2 nights a week to raiding, and spend the rest of their in-game time doing other fun things like PVP, profession work, or other related aspects of gameplay. Or, players that wish to raid four or more nights a week could start a second raid from an alternate character and see the game from a new side, such as moving from a tank to a healer, or a healer to a damage-dealing position.

This also encourages better gameplay. The problem with the current setup is that bad raiders can either be carried by a sufficiently-powerful 25-man group (or worse; 2-3 bad raiders can ruin an otherwise competent 25-man group), or bad raiders can simply outgear a 10-man raid by spending a minimal amount of time gearing up in a 25-man raid, because of statistic inflation on gear between the two raid levels. With the difficulty between the two raids hopefully meeting somewhere in the middle, it will be less likely that bad raiders can hide in either group. With the attention focused on being able to bring alt characters as well, players will hopefully increase their own skillsets as they see a raid from several perspectives.

Going forward, here is what I hope Blizzard takes away from the historical experience of Wrath raiding.

First, the first tier of raids needs to be smaller. Naxxramas was a fun dungeon, and not terribly difficult (meaning it could be used as an effective training ground for fresh recruits), but it was entirely too long. Eighteen bosses is over the top. If, instead, there were around three to four smaller raids, each displaying different fight mechanics, it would be possible for progression-oriented raiders to introduce those recruits to more advanced concepts in a step-wise and effective manner.

Second, buffs need to be redesigned. I know that each class is supposed to provide at least one benefit to the entire group, but if certain buffs are going to be “always on” (like Paladin blessings, Priest prayers, or any number of special abilities like Improved Icy Talons or Leader of the Pack), then those need to be simplified in that melee DPS provides one buff, the healers another, the tanks another, and the ranged DPS another. That way, a balanced group always has these buffs. Other buffs need to be redesigned from their “apply once at the start and forget about for an hour” model. A good example of a well-used tactical buff is the Shaman’s Bloodlust or Heroism spell. For a short duration, everyone gets a small attack speed buff that really helps the raid push its throughput. The decision of “when to Hero,” as my raid calls it, is fun and strategic. Because it cannot be an “always-on” buff, it makes sense to use it when we do.

Each class should provide a single raid buff based on their role, and this should be the only one that is factored in when tuning the encounter. Every spec should have at least one unique, strategic buff that they can apply at special times. For instance, Fury Warriors should get a Battle Shout that temporarily increases the health and attack/spell power of all party members for 30 seconds. Paladin tanks could receive a Divine Guardian buff that adds an extra 5,000 armor to players below 30% health once every two minutes. Healing Druids could receive a form that increases all healing done on all raid members, but at the cost of halving the Druid’s current mana pool. That way, these buffs could feel situational and responsive to emerging conditions in the fight, rather than something that raid designers assume groups will have, especially the more limited ten-player groups. Players of “support classes” that bring extra situational buffs would be more in-demand, as their situational buffs could make up for a lowered damage or healing output.

A current example of this model already exists: a tank’s cooldowns. Tanks love to endlessly strategize over the best place to burn cooldowns, hoping to time it right so that they have an “oh rats!” button when they need it, but also providing a way to ease the load on healers. As it stands, healer cooldowns act like additional tank cooldowns, and DPS cooldowns are merely one more button to press when available, rather than waiting for a strategic time to deploy.

Third, play needs to be more strategic overall. Many fights in Wrath are mindless, mash-buttons-as-fast-as-you-can affairs. Once a spell rotation is learned, a fight becomes simply an exercise of following that rotation while avoiding environmental cues within a certain timeframe. That is to say, very, very boring. If instead fights required players to interact with the environment, choose specific abilities to use in response to what the environment or the boss is doing, or perform other types of non-rotational actions, the fights would feel varied and require a broader swath of strategies to complete. As it stands, this is more or less what competent raiders will do on hard modes. But normal modes should train less-competent raiders to do these things, not simply avoid having to play well.

Lastly, there needs to be greater NPC involvement in the fights. One complaint about the focus on smaller raid sizes is that battles feel less “epic” because less people are involved. The solution is to bring in major lore figures (such as Tirion Fordring in the Lich King encounter) and have them do things while the raiders assist in some way. For instance, a major lore figure could lead one force in to neutralize a large mass of enemy soldiers while players focus on the boss. Even if this is largely cosmetic and part of the scenery, it helps immerse players within the lore itself, instead of having large, evil beings taken down by a group of ten yahoos hastily assembled in the bowels of Ironforge.

In short, Blizzard seems to have learned from past experiments (I will not call them mistakes per se) and is applying their evolving concept of raid design well. However, I think that, for whatever reason (nostalgia?) too much of the old style of raid design still exists in what is, in other respects, a very modern game. My concern is not out of anything but make the game as accessible–and fun–to as broad a range of players as possible, which means lowering the barrier to entry and completion for casuals while still providing the sorts of things (intense strategy and challenging encounters) that more skilled players need to hold their interest in the game.

0 comments

  1. I’m trying to write this and also pay attention to the game (ZOMG! Heskey! DO it UP!) so sorry if it comes out rather fragmented.

    1. I agree that Ulduar made best use of “heroic” encounters. The only issue I had with it was that there were not enough binary hardmodes. With most encounters you either had easy mode, or if you activate the hard mode you got “OMG WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME!?!?! It BUUUURNS” mode. Fights like Flame Leviathan and Freya had it right – give players a bit of wiggle room, let them choose how hard to make it.

    2. I hate the way ICC handled heroic mode. Not being able to try hard modes until you beat the Lich King is just cruel, especially when you consider how the instance was introduced and gated. Plus, Lich and Sindragosa are pretty damn hard. It’d be nice for guilds to work on hard modes and get some new gear to help with those two fights.

    3. As a Hunter main, I approve of your buffs idea. I’m tired of looking useless next to everyone else other than the rogues. Activatable buffs are the shiz. I’m with you, some of our best tactical moments came when we figured out when to Lust. And god help the Shammy who lusts when they’re not told to. >_>

    4. I’m very pleased with the 10/25 changes. This will hopefully allow purely 10-man guilds to have a fair chance at world firsts/server firsts, without competing with people who outgear them from 25s. It also validates the 10-man raider, who HAS been going through raids that are just as hard as 25s (Sarth 3D 10, anyone?)

    5. I definitely approve of 25s being a more efficient method to gear up, though. Managing a 25 man raid is like herding cats, and people will need incentives like more lewtz to motivate them.

    6. I’m not happy with their plans for badges, though. They’re gonna make the same mistake there that they made in Wrath.

    7. I want to make babby with Ghostcrawler.

  2. @Lusipurr & SN: TAKE IT AND LIKE IT.

    @Ginia: what’s wrong with the badge system? I think the new changes are for the best. Under the Wrath system, around the time Ulduar hit I had a bunch of 10-man Hero badges saved up that were now useless as everything cost Valor badges, except for Heirlooms. I now have a bunch of Heirlooms.

    In the weeks before a patch, I wouldn’t care about the “old” tier of badges, or even the new, because proportionally, I could maximize badge gain by taking a week off so that I didn’t have a bunch of useless badges.

    Think of the new system this way: I get Level 2 badges from raids, and Level 1 badges from heroics, quests, etc. When the next patch hits, all of my old Level 1 badges will get converted to Level 2 badges (so none go to waste), and I’ll start earning Level 2 badges from heroics and quests while I’ll get Level 3 badges from raids.