Thursday, May 23, 2013

3.5. The Changed Landscape

Sep 10, 2006: The original 40-Man team
 defeats Instructor Razuvious,

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 Military Quarter's trash apart. We were driven by the excitement and anticipation, not of simply cleaning up the remaining part of the instance, but by the realization this was now possible. For the few original Vanilla team members that remained, Naxxramas (40) defined "brick wall"; 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 students back upon the teacher. 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 the original Razuvious 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 his protege 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, securing 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. How typical.

We schooled the instructor with little effort, then proceeded to Gothik the Harvester, whom we pushed aside like a nerd in the hallway. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves face-to-face with Thane Korth'azz, Lady Blaumeux, Sir Zeliek, and their leader, Baron Rivendare: The Four Horsemen. 

Many moons past, this was a test few guilds could complete. A bewildering mixture of debuffs placed on the raid demanded that Vanilla guilds bring nothing less than eight fully geared 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 was intimidating, never mind the unheard of tanking requirements. This was eight tanks we were talking about! I considered it an accomplishment just to have six Warriors in the roster! 

For tonight's diluted Naxxramas, we had but half of the original required tanks, one of whom was me. And, as we would discover, the daunting expand-and-collapse maneuver was no longer a requirement. Instead of the mind-boggling weeks and weeks of attempts that only the very best guilds in the world defeated the original Four Horsemen within, our execution took but a single pull.

"Sapphiron - Naxxramas",
Artwork by Patrik Hjelm

Wyrm and the Lich

After 4H, all that remained were the giant Frost Wyrm Sapphiron, and the ultimate bad boy of Naxxramas, Kel'Thuzad

Sapphiron was tricky: the raid had to allow him to freeze players by purposefully eating an Icebolt, then use those blocks of ice as human shields, a line-of-sight protection against Frost Breath. I say tricky not due to difficulty, but due instead 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 Frost Breath. I distinctly recall certain key spots along Sapphiron's outer ring that you did not want to be caught on when eating an Ice Bolt; these glitchy spots meant almost certain death. Other times, players positioned themselves perfectly behind an ice block...and died anyway.

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 attacked us. Shadow fissures erupted under our feet, forcing us to be perpetually mobile. Kel'Thuzad would, at times, detonate the mana our casters relied on to power their pyroblasts, frostfire bolts, renews and rejuvs. Those mana-fueled bombs wrecked players standing too close to one another; 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 sent two crypt lords after us, forcing us to off-tank, getting our players out of harm's way. 

Written out here in plain English, it seems like Kel'thuzad was a lot to digest. It wasn’t.

DPS blew up the waves of undead minions like pinatas at a child's party. The damage from Shadow fissures barely registered on the meters. Casters detonated by Kel'Thuzad struck each other with the ferocity of 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. 

And those crypt lords I spoke of? The ones that joined the fight late into Phase 3? Our off-tanks picked them up with a leisurely "don't mind me, just checking my email"-level of urgency. As for Kel'Thuzad himself, well, his attacks were insignificant, unmemorable, and sad; a kid having a meltdown for not getting enough birthday presents.

Who was the boss here?

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, as its damage was based on a percentage of their health. Even that risk was something our healers adjusted for with ease, another non-factor in a long list of potentials. Kel'Thuzad died in only a couple of pulls.

As we lined up for our traditional "Accomplishments" screenshot, the raiders were aghast in Vent. As they expressed their disgust, a slideshow of the last three years flashed through my mind. 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 now, this. 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. Sure, I wanted to believe I'd done a reasonably good job at getting the raid team prepared, but I had to be realistic about my limits and impact on the guild. Fundamental truths could not be ignored. 

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 had no opportunity to practice any of these bosses before hand. In fact, there were really only a few of us that remained from the 40-Man days. But even that was a moot argument, because many of the mechanics had been adjusted, rendering those old Vanilla strategies (and any experience gleaned from them) obsolete.

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 irrelevance...was it? One might argue that DoD possessed 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 defeats Kel'thuzad,

Achievement Whoring

We were bewildered by these raid changes, at first. After having spent years in raids the likes of which players would never see again, fighting bosses requiring weeks and weeks of practice, it stunned us to consider that this drastic reduction in difficulty was the new normal. Only after careful examination of the achievement interface did we begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Nestled among the silly achievements like kissing all the critters of Northrend and falling in a drunken haze without dying were strategic, skill-based accomplishments. Kill Thaddius without any player crossing the positive and negative charges. Defeat Sartharion with all three drakes still alive. Kill Malygos in six minutes or less. A requirement of skill was still very prescient in WoW raiding, the difference now was that the challenge was no longer front-loaded. You could, in theory, choose how hard to push yourselves, rather than have that forced upon you.

Giving players a choice, at last, was the brilliance of this design decision. Brilliant, and misunderstood.

The barrier of entry to raiding had long been an immense wall to overcome for many players. Even with the days of 40-Man raids well behind us, 25-Man raids still posed a mountain of complexity to recruit for and coordinate. Implementing a regular schedule where 25 people met virtually and dedicate their attention for a block of uninterrupted time was easier said than done. Interruptions from real-life issues constantly barge in, demanding our attention and causing us to cancel. Farming for raid materials ahead of time, whether they be flasks, food, or potions, is monotonous, and not fun. And you need to have a focused, dedicated leader who knows what they are doing: a person that can navigate virtual traffic, identifying and resolving failures in the raid quickly. Raid progression 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, chock 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. Forcing all players to overcome those insurmountable odds just to catch a glimpse of the villain around which the expansion was crafted seemed...well...over the top.

So, how then, could one re-design raiding to broaden its appeal?

Lowering the bar to raid entry widened the audience to the endgame content. Now, huge percentages of players, previously not having a chance in hell of seeing endgame content, would be able to. In order to do this without devaluing raiding, there had to be an appropriate 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? Achievements. Prestige. Special rewards, mounts, titles -- visual indicators that made it easy to separate the casuals from the hardcores at a glance. You killed the Four Horsemen? Big deal! We killed The Four Horsemen within 10 seconds of each other.

Even after solving the puzzle, I suspected the masses would not see it as I did. Ever competitive, exclusionary by nature, and skeptical of changes that made what was once difficult now digestible, many long time core players would pay no attention to risk/reward structure re-implemented in Achievements, focusing their contempt back at the raids themselves, and how this change was a slippery slope to a host of hypothetical futures in which players paid for upgrades, raiding would no longer require any skilled players and devolve into a mass of mouthbreathers, all the while dogs and cats shacking up with one another.

For DoD, the path was clear: we would become a guild of raiding achievement whores. They would both define how we operated as a raiding guild and quantify our successes in doing so. They mapped our goals, a raiding to-do list we'd scratch off one item at a time -- an in-game manifestation of "baby steps". 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.


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...


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...



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...


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.

Rick said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the achievement that required not a single death from any raid member for the ENTIRE raid. Disgusting. Now that's hardcore.

Shawn Holmes said...


I suspect it makes an appearance. And could it not?

Anonymous said...

What differentiates a video game from an interactive book? The fact that you have to learn to play it in order to finish it. YOU have to adapt to it in order to finish it. A book won't close on you at page 200 and deny you access to the rest if you didn't learn what it's about. A video game does (or should).

Making raids available to any and everyone made WoW no longer feel like a game, but rather like a movie you enjoy one night and then never repeat. Because you don't have to. Because you've seen the end.

Being able to see the end of the game was the real reward for players that "picked themselves up by the bootstraps" and learned how to play the game. Starting in Wrath, you no longer needed to know as much. Or play as well. Any shmuck with a subscription could experience everything, making the dedicated PLAYER's effort to learn how to play the game useless.

At least that's how it was for me. And why I never paid another coin to Blizzard after 3.0.