Thursday, October 29, 2015

4.50. Relatively Difficult

Mature and co. pull out a clutch kill of Heroic Hakkar,

Cruel Irony

The lay of the land hadn't changed much. Trails snaked through the brush in familiar patterns. Large creeping voodoo masks and totems peered out from behind hunched over trees and epiphytic ferns.

"This is a lot easier than I remember it."

Both Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman got a face-lift at the end of April (via Patch 4.1). Exploring the changes hadn't ranked highly on my list of priorities. A month later, we were teetering at the precipice of Patch 4.2, and I couldn't shake the feeling we'd been shortchanged. DoD had run out of time. The 25-Man progression team had missed its quota.

"Yeah, remember when 10s were hard?"

"10s were never hard."

I compared our current predicament to the freshest tier in my mind: the last one, the end of Wrath. Icecrown Citadel: all heroics completed, save The Lich King himself. 11/12. A respectable 92%. Tier 11, by contrast, had not gone nearly as well. Five full months of raiding yielded 4/6 in Blackwing Descent, 1/6 in Bastion of Twilight, and 0/2 in Throne of the Four Winds. Fourteen heroic bosses, and we hadn't even hit 50%.

That wasn't the most embarrassing part. The 25-Man still had two unfinished normal encounters.

Unable to complete normal modes? Way to scrub things up. 

I shuddered, thinking of the effect it would have on the guild, its members, and its morale. 

If you can't hack a normal mode, why are you even here?

"Not the ones you grew up on, skippy. I don't mean 'Ulduar' hard, I mean 'Karazhan' hard."

"Ulduar wasn't hard."

"My point exactly."

The tier 11 normal modes were a stark contrast to the the cakewalk handed us in Wrath. Cataclysm's top-heavy design forced raiders to digest the complexity of each encounter at the onset. A barrage of mechanics were force fed down our collective throats. And while the truly old school veterans of WoW reveled in the return to glory days, those lacking a pre-WotLK perspective were unprepared for their egos to withstand that much damage.

I dare say they were coddled.

The realities of raiding in Cataclysm slapped them silly. Like clockwork, indignance followed, precipitating the demise of an increasing number of 25-Man guilds throughout those first five months. Even DoD hadn't been saved from this outcome. But in a cruel twist, the 10s did not flourish as I suspected they might, and for a reason I did not see coming. Blizzard's struggle to maintain parity between the difficulty of both 10- and 25-Man raids produced something far more disruptive to their community.

Mature and co. maintain tight positioning as
they defeat Daakara, earning "Ring Out",

Perception vs. Reality

Gamers demanded that WoW return to its former, more challenging glory, as it was in the days of pre-Wrath. Blizzard responded in kind, and the resulting raids of tier 11 were decidedly tougher. And, since the men in the high castle mandated that Cataclysm's raid design be such that both 10s and 25s provide an equal experience, Blizzard took great pains to ensure that same "front-loaded difficulty" design was present in both the 10 and the 25.

Any raider you speak to that's worth their weight will tell you that an encounter's margin of error is inversely proportional to the difficulty. As the challenge increases, your chances of recovering from mistakes decreases. 25s have the numbers on their side (so the naysayers claim), and it is of this skewed reality that was borne the sentiment that "25s have it easy, the 10s are the real challenge." They claimed we straight up had more opportunities to recover from a failure than a 10-Man raid.

Honestly, I can't disagree with that sentiment. We absolutely did have more opportunities to recover from emergencies than 10-Man raids, and it absolutely was a major factor the community used to differentiate the 10 from the 25. But raiding is complex; it literally involves thousands of variables that combine to paint a complete picture of what is easy and what is hard. "That we had more people to recover from an emergency" alone is not enough to declare the 10s the winner in the which is more difficult? contest.

But it was enough for the majority. So they did.

The widest cross-section of raiders, those holier-than-thou ego maniacs that were fresh off the slaying of the Lich King, were now hitting brick walls after giving their former 25-Man guilds the middle finger. Rather than stick with the tried and true strategy of practice makes perfect, they opted to take the easy way out: re-assemble as a 10-Man guild, and target the smaller, "easier" versions for equitable loot. After all, that's exactly how it worked for them in the previous expansion.

But these new 10-Man raids were more difficult than they imagined. At least, at the onset, anyway. The normal 10s of Cataclysm were eating WotLK raiders for lunch. And, being the lackluster players that they were -- already good at finding excuses as to why they shouldn't have to participate in a 25-man -- were equally good at blaming everyone but their own laziness for their own 10-Man's downfall. The vast majority of them quit raiding, and in some cases, walked away from WoW altogether.

And reader, we're not even at the cruel twist part yet.

For those elite few raiders who remained in their 10-Man guilds, carrying the hardcore torch, channeling the tenets of effort and skill, when those guilds punched through the normal modes...well, that is when the tables truly turned on guilds like DoD. Because when those same players stepped into 10-Man heroic raids, they enjoyed a decidedly easier time than the 25-Man guilds -- ironically, for exactly the same reason whiners claimed the 25s had it easier.

Remember the Cataclysm raid design: front-load the difficulty in the normal mode. Force players to learn 85-90% of the mechanics, right out of the gate. We saw it. We lived it. Heroic: Magmaw, Heroic: Chimaeron, Heroic: Atramedes, and so on, and so on. The shift from normal to heroic only ever involved slight adjustments to the original design. It meant we only had to practice and refine small bits, added in to the mix. Things could certainly go wrong in Heroics (and when we failed, we failed spectacularly), but over time, those weakest links in the raid, those outliers -- they'd get it.

Which meant the faster you could identify the weakest links and fix them, the sooner you could close out a heroic kill.

And, by comparison, how many weak links do you think a 10-Man raid would have, in comparison to a 25-Man?

The defense rests, your honor.

Everything is Awesome Relative

To the layperson, raiding looked exactly the same as it had in Wrath. 10-Man raids were being completed much faster than 25-Man raids. The difference between the two, however, was subtle, and only the hardcore nerds could be counted on to take a magnifying glass to these nuances.

Raids were more difficult, period. When distilled down into two different sizes that were meant to equal one another, 25-Man (normal modes) ended up being easier than 10-Man. And since the 10s made up the majority, this was the most vocal group dominating forums with their complaints. The echo chamber only grew larger.

Meanwhile, attention to actual raid progress was measured only by those who had punched through normals, and were enjoying healthy success in heroics. These were the most dedicated, most skilled players...that simply chose the 10-Man as their preference of raid size. For these elite players, just as it was in Wrath, their execution of content came noticeably quicker than it did to their 25-Man brethren. Because these 10-Man heroics were also tuned to be as close in difficulty to their 25-Man heroic counterparts, there was far less complexity for them to have to refine, shifting from normal to heroic. The 10-Man argument went both ways. Yes, we 25s had more opportunities to recover from emergencies, but conversely, the 10s had less loose ends to tie up when mastering a heroic strategy.

The verdict, then, read as follows: From easiest to most difficult, it was 25-Man normals, followed by 10-Man normals, then 10-Man heroics, and finally, the 25-Man heroics. Yet the community remained eternally locked in conflict over which size was easier, passionately defending their "preferential size" while failing to acknowledge the nuances of how a normal vs. heroic ended up manifesting in Cataclysm's front-loaded design.

Sadly, neither the community nor Blizzard would paint clarity around these nuances. And why would either of them choose to vilify themselves?

The vast majority of the community (read: the most vocal, via the forums, blogs, etc.) overwhelmingly claimed 10s were harder (referring, of course, to the normals). To state the opposite would be admitting they were wrong, that it was they themselves who sucked at raiding -- not something gamers would readily admit. Blaming others for their own injustices is something gamers have become quite adept at.

And as for Blizzard, whose design vision for Cataclysm mandated they aim for equality in the difficulty of both 10s and admit the opposite would be to go against their "commitment to quality", an edict their designers live and die by. "We promised the WoW community an equal experience to 10s and 25s, and by the GODS we are going to stick to that path...even if we're still actually sort of turning dials, and iterating over certain choices...WE'RE ON THE PATH!"

That's what's most important, right? That the intent is to deliver?

Blizzard has a good track record of admitting defeat and back-pedaling, but only when there is nothing left to try, nothing left to tweak, no final recourse. There was still plenty of time left in Cataclysm to try new things.

Plenty of time left...for Blizzard.


Pam said...

Still enjoying reading through your WoW story. I'm wondering - did you write a lot of things down through the years or do you have an amazing memory?

Shawn Holmes said...


It's a little of both. I definitely possess some kind of innate ability to recall seemingly trivial moments in the past (yet still struggle with things like shopping lists). However, the blog would not be at the level of detail it's at today if it wasn't for the additional support of:

1. An extensive screenshot archive spanning all the way back to Vanilla launch,

2. Forum archives that stretch back as far as mid-TBC (I've lost track of my first forum's data, which spanned Vanilla-early TBC),

3. A (nearly daily) google chat history between myself and Cheeseus, stretching back to the start of WotLK, and

4. The support of many of the guild members mentioned in these stories. Out of the many names mentioned in the blog, the overwhelming majority of fact-checking is shouldered by Dalans, whom I chat with daily.

Shawn Holmes said...



Coincidentally, our guild forums are now public, and although we no longer raid nor maintain the presence we once did, some familiar faces still linger there, and a lot of the blog's fact checking happens there.

You (and anyone else interested) is free to participate / lurk as you wish:

Aubiece said...

This is the part I dread, the beginning of the end.
Our struggle to run 25m was about the same.
We struggled to run 25m raids, pugging some.
We split into 2 x 10 mans eventually, then 1 x 10 man,
then at the last tier I took 8 raiders into another guild
It was the best I could do to keep our group together.

Legends Anonymous said...

This is the post I have been waiting for. I interviewed Hanzo several times and he brought up the 10 vs. 25 man debate that plagues Cata and MoP. In fact, it is STILL such a hotbed topic that it resonates today with the addition of 20-man only Mythic raiding. This is something I would love to explore further since it seems to be a topic that will not die.

It seemingly killed many guilds in Cata and MoP. The topic is complex yet simple.

I have my own opinions on it, but what I would love to do is hear Hanzo's opinion on the 10-man raider's arguments.

Anonymous said...

To me the factor that made 10-mans more difficult was not lesser numbers or raid design, but class balance. I remember we simply couldn't do H-Shannox because all of our DPS were DoT-dependent and as a result could not conjure a strong enough single attack to stop the dog from stunning our folks (or at least a reliable one that didn't depend on all our trinket procs + a crit at the right time). It was only until we outgeared the fight (by killing other bosses instead) that we eventually managed to get past the threshold necessary (and it was still a struggle). On the other hand, you could also have a very OP makeup that has the right classes for the right raid tier making the entire place a snoozefest (such as in the case of those elite raiders that straight up stack certain classes). That's the perspective I got anyways.

JC Sway said...

I've long since grown tired of the 10 vs. 25 "debate." That said, as someone who has not done 25-man since BC, it's refreshing to hear someone passionate about 25 at least acknowledge that 10-man heroics during Cata were objectively difficult, if not the most difficult.

Shawn Holmes said...

@JC Sway,

The 10/25 war rages on -- never-ending, always entertaining.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I ever would have extrapolated difficulty for the entirety of 10 man or 25 man. There are encounters in which 10 man definitively has an advantage, and there are encounters in which 25 man definitively has an advantage. The point where I thought the differences primarily came from was the roster. If you could guarantee a full roster of great players and good raid group compositions, 10 man should generally be simpler than 25 man: you'd have all of the tools, and there are fewer variables. 25 man always has the burden of logistics, which I think added to the challenge without inherently making the encounters more difficult.

But the reality for many raiders was that the roster had holes. 25 man raids gave you many chances to ensure you had the raiding tools you needed, but 10 man tended to be more limited, even after they extended some tools to multiple specs. Life grip, an incredibly powerful tool when leveraged right, was still very rare, knockbacks (though rarely useful) were fairly limited, brezzes could be made pointless in 10 mans if only one player had it and was the player that died, tank tool kit issues tended to have fewer options for a replacement, and so forth.

These issues shouldn't have affected the most competitive progression raiding groups (10 or 25 man) too much, but for casualcore raids, it could cause unique problems (or advantages) in an encounter. Heroic Atramedes with only one ranged DPS, Maloriak with no Bloodlust or equivalent, tons of cleave on Rhyolith to simplify killing any adds that drew near, or bringing a single tank and healer to Heroic Baleroc because it could be done in 10's.

I haven't hopped in a 25 man in some time, but I've been playing off-and-on all throughout WoW and seen all raid sizes save mythic. I don't think there is a definitive way to compare any of them. Difficulty is so heavily dependent on individual encounter, tuning decisions, and your roster. Obviously 25 man has more involved logistical challenges, so if all else were equal, 25 man would be more challenging. But all else is very rarely equal, and the "Bring the player, not the class" mantra ensured many raid groups were effectively not even facing the same challenges as others in their raid size.