The state of raiding, part one

Maybe because of the impending reintroduction of valor in patch 6.2.3, or maybe because there is not much else to talk about until Blizzcon, there has been a recent spate of forum discussions and blog posts calling for an end to LFR. In turn, this has called into question the entire current raid structure. I’ll throw aside the inevitable bunch of illiterate invective-spewing crazies on some forums, but even so there are bloggers I respect posting some thought-provoking pieces on the subject. Check out Marathal over at Rambling Thoughts About WoW, or Pherian at alt:ernative chat for starters.

This the first of two posts on my take on the current state of raiding in WoW. Today’s focus is on the underlying game factors affecting raiding. The next (Monday’s) post will be some ideas on where we are and where we might go.

I always try to see things in terms of the larger picture. Raiding is part of a vastly complex socio-technical game system  we call World of Warcraft. So I am going to try and order my thoughts on the subject by looking at the various factors bearing on raiding as a game activity. Obviously, each of these factors is intertwined with the others, but I will try to separate them for purposes of discussion.

Game design. I did not play the game when it first launched, so I have no idea of how it felt back then, or what most players perceived the game design to be. From reading, my impression is that it was focused on questing and socializing, and that raiding was a minor part of what players could do for fun once they had pretty much finished other activities and reached the highest level available for their characters. But the raids were about fun and achievements, not so much about gear.

In other words, the game was about the journey, not the destination. But somewhere along the line, Blizz began to focus on the destination — the end game — and encouraged players to speed through the journey as fast as possible to reach that destination.

We are now at the point where the entire game is focused — by design — on raiding. That activity is central to nearly every aspect of the game, and indeed it defines the end game.

Technical/mechanical environment. As the game has swung from process-oriented to goal-oriented, and as that goal has been defined as organized raiding, the concept of “class balance” has assumed greater and greater importance. Back when the game focus was on questing and exploring the virtual world, it really did not much matter if one class was significantly more powerful than another, or had better movement, as long as both could use their abilities to be successful in the world. The competition was with yourself, to see how well you could cope with the virtual environment, it was not about publicizing damage meter results.

But when the game became all about raiding, players demanded class equity, because they needed to be able to compete favorably with other classes for raid spots. As the various classes had been designed on different power models, balancing their abilities with those of other classes became extremely challenging. To come even close — without a complete rewrite of the entire class structure — Blizz had to rely more and more on easily-configurable mechanisms such as gear and secondary stats. Thus, gear assumed greater and greater importance, and the methods for obtaining it became more varied.

As raids became more important and popular, players demanded new and harder fight mechanics, further complicating the already-precarious class structure subsystem. Further, several class talents and abilities were targeted solely for raid participation — they had little or no value to individual questing or adventuring. This even has begun to affect gear, as we see with the legendary ring mechanics.

Social environment. WoW was and is a social game. It encourages building of bonds with real life as well as online friends, through chatting, cooperating on quests and achievements, and seeking out others who share your views/philosophies/fantasies/whatever. Guilds have been the game’s most important social structure, and they naturally served as the basic foundation for organized raid teams. Some guilds were formed solely as a support structure for creating raid teams — they were known as raiding guilds and for a long time stood in contrast to so-called “social” guilds, which may have had one or more raid teams but raiding was not the stated purpose of the guild. Often, raiding guild raiders were known as “hardcore”, whereas social guild raiders were known — usually unflatteringly — as “casual”.

Raid teams need a more or less steady supply of active players, and as raids have gotten more complex, those players need to work well together as a team. What this means is that without a large pool of active players and a robust guild structure, the number of viable raid teams dwindles and raiding becomes less accessible to those players who remain. Competition for raid spots increases, much of that competition is based on gear levels and raid experience, both of which require successful raiding nowadays, and so we are in a Catch-22 situation. You can’t raid without gear and experience, but you can only get gear and experience through raiding.

Prior to WoD, you could get around this problem by being in an active guild with a raid team that would accept your gear and experience shortcomings and work with you to get you up to speed. But players judged WoD to be so terrible that they left the game in unprecedented numbers, either by unsubscribing or just by not logging on, and the result has been disbanding not only of raid teams but of entire guilds because of lack of participation.

Blizz has tried a few bandaid fixes to this problem, but they have either been ineffective or have had unintended consequences. Some of their attempted fixes include implementation of Raid Finder and Group Finder, introduction of LFR and flex-style raiding, and the impending cross-realm Mythic raiding mechanism. But they have done nothing to get at the basic problem of player apathy and thus greatly diminished raider base.

Community perceptions. As the game has changed focus, so have player expectations and definitions of game “expertise.” Some of this, of course, springs from shallow adolescent one-upsmanship — “I am great and you stink because I have different colored gear/bigger mount/higher damage numbers/more Archie kills/etc.” For this kind of thinking, a game focus on raiding easily lends itself to the stereotype “hardcore versus dirty casuals” screeds you see far too often in forums and trade chat.

The unfortunate thing about this particular stereotype is that it does tend to shape much of the discussion about the role of raiding in the current game. Check out some of the get-rid-of-LFR forums and you will see what I mean. There are logical arguments on both sides of this subject, but neither is furthered by using this lazy, simple-minded stereotype.

Of possibly more impact, Activision Blizzard’s all-in move to eSports for nearly all their games is shaping the community perception of raiding in WoW. (Just yesterday they announced the formation of an entire new division devoted to furthering the corporate venture into eSports.) For one thing, it drives the highly-publicized Mythic “firsts” we read about ad nauseum at the beginning of a new raid tier, which in turn promotes the idea of individual and team superstars, fostering the notion that this is what the true raider should be aiming for. Many of us do not subscribe to this line of thinking, but enough do that it shapes concepts about raiding.

As the popularity of eSports grows (and I think it will), it will have an inevitable impact on raid design. People want to watch the World Cup or the Super Bowl, not a couple guys playing Tiddledy Winks. If they perceive that it’s something anyone can do pretty well, they are not really interested in watching it. But if they think only the elite can play at that level, they will shell out a lot of money to watch. I confess I do not know exactly what effect this will have on raid structure, but I am certain it will have one.

What I have listed are not all the factors affecting raiding in WoW, but I think they are the major ones. Any discussion of raiding really has to consider them in their role of shaping the current state as well as in — since they are inextricably intertwined —  what the effects on them may be if major changes are made to raiding.

And with that, my brain hurts. I wish you all a good weekend.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

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