Thursday, May 23, 2013

3.5. The Changed Landscape

The original 40-Man raid team defeats
Instructor Razuvious in Naxxramas, Sep. 10, 2006
School in Session

We returned to Naxxramas on the second raid night, December 14th, drunk with ego and testosterone. Much of the success of the previous night had gone to the raiders' heads; it seemed as though the students had become the teachers as we began to tear the trash apart in the Military Quarter. In the moment, what drove us was the excitement and anticipation of cleaning up the remaining part of the instance; an inherent realization that this was something we could actually do. For the few original Vanilla team members that remained, Naxxramas (40) was ever present in our minds as nothing short of a brick wall, and to be able to conquer anything in that raid was a significant achievement. But as we worked our way through the Death Knight Cavaliers, Captains, Deathchargers and Dark Touched Warriors, the greater mystery still loomed: Why had raids become so much easier? The progression team wasn't talking...yet. Maybe they were too focused on getting through Naxx, and moving on to Malygos. Maybe they were fearful of the answer.


Next on the docket: Instructor Razuvious. Raz was the first boss Descendants of Draenor defeated in the original Naxxramas (40) during Vanilla. It was a gimmick fight: the original encounter called for two Priests to mind-control Raz's understudies, turning his studies back upon him as tanks. Not only did it pull two healers out of the pool, but it forced them into a role they didn't play. Some might say this was a test of a true raider in WoW--I know you've healed for for the past year and a half, but tonight, you're going to be tanking. Back in September of '06, we put our two best priests on that duty: the officer Haribo, and Volitar, a player who would go on to assist with raid leadership (albeit for a short time) during The Burning Crusade. It was through precision timing, and calm, clear communication that Haribo and Volitar were able to pull off the unconventional roles imposed upon them, granting us a kill.

As Neps and Arterea positioned themselves to mind-control the understudies, someone in raid casually mentioned in Vent, "Did you hear how they nerfed this encounter in the 10-Man version?" Wrath of the Lich King had introduced a new concept to the raid-game: Each raid would be doable in a both a 10-Man and a 25-Man version. It was hard enough to wrap our heads around a brutal, 40-Man instance being watered down to this new 25-Man walk-in-the-park, but to liquefy its remains into a fine 10-Man paste seemed sacrilegious. How would you even accomplish the Razuvious encounter with only 10 players? Forcibly bring two priests every time? Of course not. The new deal for WoW was "bring the player, not the class", so the Razuvious encounter had been simplified for 10s: two giant cylinders called "Obedience Crystals" stood outside the 10-Man Razuvious pit. The priest's mind-control mechanic was baked into the 10-Man encounter itself. The progression team laughed when they heard this; the kind of laugh you make when you find out your childhood hero is back in court for drugs and alcohol abuse.

The instructor was schooled with little effort.

We proceeded to Gothik the Harvester, whom we pushed aside like a nerd in the hallway, and found ourselves face-to-face with Thane Korth'azz, Lady Blaumeux, Sir Zeliek, and their leader, Baron Rivendare: The Four Horsemen. Moons ago, this was a test few guilds could pass. A bewildering mixture of debuffs placed on the raid demanded that Vanilla guilds bring nothing less than eight fully geared and qualified Warrior tanks. I remember watching videos of guilds performing the chaotic criss-cross "expand and collapse" maneuver that was needed to mitigate the debuff. The strategy alone seemed confusing, never mind the unheard of tanking requirements. This was 8 tanks we were talking about! I considered it an accomplishment just to have six Warriors in the roster!...and we didn't even take six week-to-week! More realistically, it was four or five. For this particular evening, we had half of the original required tanks, and I was one of them. And, as we would discover, the strict expand-and-collapse maneuver was no longer a requirement.

We passed The Four Horsemen test on our first attempt.


"Sapphiron - Naxxramas", by Patrik Hjelm
Wyrm and the Lich

After 4H, all that remained were the giant Frost Wyrm known as Sapphiron, and the ultimate baddy of Naxxramas, Kel’Thuzad. Sapphiron was tricky: allow him to freeze players into position by having them eat an Icebolt, then hide behind those players to prevent dying from a raid wide Frost Breath. I say tricky, not due to difficulty, but more due to the encounter being very buggy. Players in our raid would die from the Icebolt, giving us nothing to shield us from the intensity of the frost breath. Other times, we would be positioned perfectly behind an ice block, dying regardless. I remember distinctly that there were certain places along Sapphiron's outer ring that you did not want to be frozen on -- a glitch meant certain death. Bugs aside, Sapphiron ended up only taking two or three attempts, and we left his bones in a pile as we headed down the final hallway, where we came face to face with Kel’Thuzad himself.

We had our hands full with the lich. Wave upon wave of undead scourge would be attacking us. Shadow fissures would erupt under our feet, forcing us to be ever mobile. Kel’Thuzad would, at times, detonate the mana our casters relied on to power their pyroblasts, frostfire bolts, their renews and rejuvs. Those mana-infused bombs would wreck players standing too close to one another, so we had to be mindful of where we positioned ourselves. He’d mind-control us at random, causing us to turn against each other, forcing us to apply crowd-control effects in order to stay focused and eliminate distractions. He’d even freeze people in blocks of ice, requiring healers to react quickly and heal them through the frosty damage. On top of all this, Kel’Thuzad would send two crypt lords after us, causing us to require further off-tanking. Written out here in plain English, it seems like it was a lot to digest.

It wasn’t.

The waves of undead minions were blown up like pinatas at a child's party. Shadow fissures did next to no damage. Casters that were detonated by Kel'Thuzad struck each other with arcane damage that can only be described as "a light breeze on a warm summer day". Mind-controlled players were easily dispatched with Frost Novas and Polymorphs; even simple AoE fears did the job. The crypt lords that joined the fight late into Phase 3 were picked up by the off-tanks and taken aside in a sleepy, "I'm checking my email"-like motion. And as for Kel'Thuzad himself, well...I recall that he hit me with a power and fury comparable only to pebbles bouncing off a brick wall

Who was the boss here?

Surprisingly, the only real risk of the entire encounter ended up being the blocks of ice he froze players into, which spiked their health down sharply. Our healers adjusted accordingly, and this factor rapidly became a non-factor.

Kel’Thuzad died in only a couple of pulls.

As we lined up for the screenshot that I traditionally posted in our Accomplishments forum thread, the raiders were aghast in Vent. Memories of the last three years of raiding rushed through my head. The many nights of attempts on Ragnaros, each week, gaining more of a foothold in adequate fire resistance. The weekends we poured into Nefarian, the struggles of Lady Vashj and Kael'Thas Sunstrider, months and months of work clearing Hyjal and eventually getting us to Illidan at the end of Black Temple. And after one weekend of raiding, I was lining up my progression team for a "full clear" screenshot.

I felt as though I was standing at a bus-stop, long after the bus had come and gone.

There had to be a valid explanation for this massive shift in difficulty. Let's be rational about this for a moment. Sure, I'd done a reasonably good job at getting the raid team prepared, but let’s not ignore some fundamental truths. This was our first raid weekend. Aside from a few pieces in Obsidian Sanctum, we had no previous raid gear; it was a fresh start. We’d also not had any opportunity to practice any of these bosses before hand. In fact, there were really only a few of us remaining from the days of 40-Man Naxxramas; even that was a moot argument. Many of the mechanics had been adjusted, and those old Vanilla strategies no longer applied. Some folks may have got their feet wet in the 10-Man versions prior to our 25-Man start, but surely that wasn't enough to reduce the 25-Man to the point of complete obsolescence...was it? It could be argued that we had a healthy amount of raid experience under our belts thus far, which may have given us a bit of an edge in tackling this first tier of WotLK content.

...but really? This much of an edge? An entire instance cleared in one weekend--the first weekend--no less?


The 25-Man Progression Team,
captured in  Kel'Thuzad's throne room
after the first full clear.
Achievement Whoring

We were confused and bewildered by these raid changes at first. After having spent years in raids the likes of which players would never see again, and bosses themselves that would take weeks and weeks of practice, we were stunned to consider that this drastic reduction in difficulty was the new direction for World of Warcraft. But, when we examined the Achievement interface in greater detail, we discovered that achievements were more than fancy titles and a clever OCD-based strategy to keep players coming back. Nestled among the silly achievements were strategic, skill-based accomplishments. Kill Thaddius without any player crossing the positive and negative charges. Defeat Sartharion with 3 drakes still alive. Kill Malygos in 6 minutes or less. It became clear where the true challenge resided.

And quite honestly, it was brilliant.


The barrier of entry to raiding had been an immense wall to overcome for many players. True, the days of 40-Man raids were well behind us, but even by having raids slimmed down to a more appropriate size at the start of The Burning Crusade (25), there was still a mountain of logistical walls to scale. Coordinating a regular schedule where 25 people meet, virtually, and dedicate their attention for a block of uninterrupted time was still a feat of monumental proportions. There are interruptions, there are real-life issues that demand our attention and cause us to have to cancel. There's the need to farm raiding materials ahead of time, whether they be flasks, food, or potions. You need to have a focused, dedicated leader who knows what they are doing, how to navigate virtual traffic, and identify/resolve failures in the raid quickly. It wasn't as simple as walking into a dungeon, killing a boss, collecting loot, and walking out.

...but maybe it needed to be.

Maybe players didn't want to have to deal with all the drama of a gigantic guild, full of inflated ego and teenage angst. Maybe some folks preferred a smaller, more tight-knit group to play WoW with, and large, overbearing guilds were too oppressive to their liking. Maybe their skills weren't necessarily up to the demands that Blizzard's typical high bar was set for. They still deserved a chance to see that content, didn't they? In the past, the masses were incapable of seeing that content -- you couldn't just waltz into Black Temple by yourself and expect to see Illidan meet his fate at the hands of Maiev...unless 24 other players had your back. Maybe the solution wasn't to force everyone over those insurmountable odds, just to catch a glimpse of the very villain that the expansion was crafted around.

Perhaps a more viable solution would be to lower the bar to raid entry across-the-board, thereby widening the audience to the endgame content. By making a sweeping change to the difficulty level, now huge percentages of players, who previously wouldn't have had a chance in hell of seeing endgame content, would now be able to. But, there still had to be a risk/reward structure. If players were able to prove that they had the skills, the coordination, and the teamwork that was expected of them in the days of The Burning Crusade and Vanilla, what would be the incentive to keep them coming back, long after raids had been trivialized? The achievements. Prestige. The rewards themselves would act on our behalf. You killed the Four Horsemen? Big deal! How about killing The Four Horsemen within 10 seconds of each other?


The 25-Man Progression team, snapped next to Alexstrasza,
after the defeat of Malygos
Once we solved the puzzle, Blizzard's announcement regarding all raids in Wrath being delivered in both a 10-Man and 25-Man format made sense. And as we hovered over a defeated Malygos after only a few attempts, our beliefs were confirmed. The new model of raiding in Wrath had finally nailed the balance between the casual and the hardcore. Just as I had restructured my guild's rank hierarchy, awarding more prestige to players who contributed more to the guild, Blizzard themselves lowered the bar to raid entry, so that everyone could participate--and if you chose to push yourselves to the extreme, delivering enhanced commitment and dedication necessary to kill bosses in the most challenging ways possible, you'd reap the greatest rewards. You didn't have to...you chose to.

It was settled, then. We would become a guild of raiding achievement whores. They would define how we operated as a raiding guild, and quantify our successes. They would provide us with our definitive list of goals, and we could scratch each one off the list as we continued to fulfill my vision of "baby steps" as progress. In turn, we would use this collection of accomplishments to separate us from the guilds unable, unwilling, or uninterested to compete at the 25-Man level, thereby funneling more traditional raiding recruits our way. After a meeting of the DoD minds, work immediately began on The Twilight Zone. Reaching it would be our first major raiding milestone in WotLK, and set the stage for our progress down this achievement whoring path throughout Wrath.

Getting there, however, would not come without sacrifice, and a decision that haunts me to this day.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love the blog.

So you're standing by your comment that the raid design was "brilliant"?
You clear the entire instance in one try in what I'm assuming is mostly dungeon/quest blues. And the remainder of the patch will be getting "achievements"? Many of which are arbitrary and honestly pretty dumb?

They flush the whole concept of progression and working as a team on clearing an instance and that's brilliant?? I beg to differ.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Anonymous,

I realize this is the part of the story where things will get contentious in regards to the raid situation.

My stance is, and always has been, that raids need to be doable by all. Big or small, all guilds deserve a chance to experience end-game content.

Let me be crystal clear on this next statement:

"Experiencing" end-game content is a very, VERY big difference than gaining the "Rewards" of end-game content. I'll elaborate because much of this thinking (esp. today via MoP) has skewed the community's opinion.

Pre-WotLK, the barrier to raiding was high. Not a bad thing! But, a fact: large majorities of players lacked the size necessary to even attempt it.

So, rewards aside, even just a "chance" to experience Illidan wasn't in the cards. I'm not a big proponent of this design. While my own preference is large raids, I can respect a smaller guild's choice to want to experience the content at a 10-Man size.

I felt the shift in WotLK to splitting raids into 10/25, lowering the barrier to entry, and tying progress to achievements (as opposed to clears) was perfect. Here's why:

There were no achievements pre-WotLK. The measure of success was the raid clear, period. **THAT** is what WoW players gauged as progression. You cleared the raid or you didn't. With the advent of achievements, we were granted a new mechanism to quantify progression; *they are completely analogous*. It's just a metric of success, nothing more or less. Problem was: passionate, emotional players from Vanilla / TBC still had that mindset that the "clear" was quantifier.

It wasn't.

It took some time for the community to come to terms with that, DoD just "got it" early on--and you can see that in this post (We didn't know why we were clearing it with ease, until we realized it wasn't the "clear" any longer that was going to be marker for success).

This is a fantastic design--it *really* is. Now, anybody can do it. At any size. And that's great, because everybody ought to!

*NOW*...where is the line drawn that separates the proverbial men from the boys in this design? Before, you were raiders with boss kills under your belt. Now, you were achievement whores (to start). And how did we know? (besides inspecting a player's achievement UI) Well, they had the best gear! The mounts from the meta-achievements!

Again, the metric that measured players simply changed from the clear to the achievements, and instead of just the gear that they boasted from a clear, they had the titles, and the mounts (not to mention *much* better gear).

The design was spectacular because, for those guilds that *did* decide to push hard for achievements/hard-modes/rare mounts/etc, they reaped appropriate rewards. Sure, anyone/everyone could do raids now--but if they executed the bare minimum...well, the reaped the bare minimum rewards. In WotLK the rewards matched the effort, which is why 10m gear was 1 tier, 10h was another tier, 25m was a new tier beyond that, and 25h was the highest tier of rewards.

I'll continue to elaborate on this as my blog continues, but there is a key piece to this puzzle that players of today continue to forget: The 10/25 split introduced in WotLK was to solve a *specific* problem: Give many, many more players the opportunity to experience content. And it did exactly that, which is great!

...where it went *wrong* is when that original reason for the 10/25 split became buried deep beneath a new line of thinking: that the effort for both a 10 and a 25 is the *same*, should be *measured* the same, and *rewarded* the same. That new mentality began to skew the entire community's opinion on raiding, difficulty, effort, entitlement, and an entire host of other issues that have led us down the road we are at today.

It's a muddy story...which is why it's going to take a few more blog posts to construct. :)

Dalans said...

Coming from the hardline point of view in that, if you don't have the skill to get through the first boss, then you don't belong in the instance (bring back 40-man!), I think the achievement focused system was the best possible outcome that Blizzard could have gone with.

Whatever the genesis of the change in difficulty, whether it was complaints from the user base or drop off in subscriptions, they were going to address the fact that a low percent of players were seeing end game content.

The achievement title and loot system in addition to the increased item level awarded by completing hard mode challenges replaced the arbitrary world first/server first/speed clearing established in the community forums.

We did clear the instance in one shot but we had more than just dungeon and quest blues. The guild members that had rushed to level cap had been running hard modes for what seemed like an eternity while we waited for enough people to catch up. We had experience from the 40 man version and players that ran with groups on the test server.

Disregarding the achievements that required luck such as The Immortal, Shocking! or The Safety Dance (please internet gods don't have anyone lag or D/C), things like The Hundred Club and And They Would All Go Down Together forced you to be on your A game, focus and work as a team in order to complete them.

I am getting a little bit ahead of the timeline here but I cannot tell you how many objects within reach of my computer chair got destroyed during You Don't Have An Eternity because of the group coordination that went into that encounter.

Mystidruid said...

Taps foot, anxiously waiting on the next installment...

Shawn Holmes said...

@Mystidruid,

SPAM F5 NOW!

Stonebreath said...

It's a shame that they didn't think of heroic modes for raids at the beginning of the expansion. Then the idea that the clear of the raid was what marked skill would have been preserved for people like you who'd been playing the game for years. "Clear" would have meant doing all the hard modes (which you did by going for achievements) while at the same time a larger percent of the player base is able to see the content and story without resorting to youtube.

This is largely true today as only 617 guilds (according to wowprogress) killed the final boss of T14 on heroic compared to 16,000 that did it on normal. Only 3.9% of raiding guilds "cleared" the most recent tier.

Shawn Holmes said...

@Stonebreath,

Concur, but in all honesty, nothing prevented Blizzard from making a universally acknowledged, official "ladder" that published progress. That way, the gauge would never have been open to interpretation.

That we have come to rely on sites like wowjutsu, guildox, and wowprogress to infer who leads progression is amateurish, and only continues to fuel the debate on how progression should be measured.