17 June 2013
Raiding is a Lost Art?
So over the past couple weeks, some interesting news items have come up regarding raiding in MMO's, specifically in World of Warcraft and the still-under-development WildStar. Before I get into the specifics of what both Blizzard and Carbine had to say on the matter, I want to take just a moment to talk about what exactly we mean by raiding. Now since you are here reading an MMO blog, it might be safe to assume that you probably understand what raiding is. But there are two problems with this assumption. The first would be that not every MMO player is a raider, even in the casual sense. Even in this day and age of "Looking for Raid," smaller group sizes, and smaller instances, it still remains the case that a significant number of MMO players do not participate in this kind of activity, mostly by choice. The second problem is that even for those who do participate in it, there is some debate as to what "qualifies" as raiding. Just to stick with WoW as an example, there are many in organized raid guilds that hardly consider "LFR" to be raiding at all. But if we define it simply as a large group activity, it certainly qualifies.
So what is the standard? Group size? Difficulty? Rewards? For my purposes, I simply think of raiding as a large group activity, something that cannot be completed either alone or in the default group size. I have always thought of MMO content in sort of three "tiers." You have solo content, things you can do entirely on your own. You have small group content, things to be done in a fixed group size of some small number, usually somewhere between four and six people. And then you have large group content, things designed for a number of people above whatever that "small group" number happens to be. This "tier" is what I define as raiding. Pretty much anything you can do in an MMO fits into one of those three "tiers" somehow, even informal activities like role-play, although obviously there are rarely any "game enforced" mechanisms in terms of player limits on RP.
How Many Does it Take to Storm a Castle?
If we accept then that raiding is simply defined as a large group activity, then the announcements by Blizzard and Carbine recently deal with details of the raiding arrangement, specifically the "ideal" group size and how to accommodate people trying to participate in this kind of activity. Let's start with Blizzard. They announced that in the next major content patch, 5.4, a new raiding system would be implemented. This would introduce a third "lockout" in which a player could participate in a "flexible raid" composed of anywhere from ten to twenty-five players. This would be separate from the LFR lockout and the standard 10/25 lockout. Raids in this mode would be more difficult than LFR in terms of mechanics, and would scale to match the number of people in the raid. Rewards would be handled similarly to LFR in that each raid member would get a "roll" on appropriate items from the boss' loot table and awarded either gear or gold depending in the result.
So let's look at this in terms of what it means to the philosophy behind raiding. To me this is just the next logical step in a progression within MMO development to allow more players the option of participating in large group content. Years ago, raiding was the purview of a select few, those who could set aside the time and organize themselves appropriately. Many "veterans" have commented that raids were not more difficult in terms of mechanics, but the largest obstacles involved finding enough players with the requisite time and getting them all to show up at the same time to attempt the content. As someone who served as an officer in a 40-man raid guild during vanilla WoW I can attest to this. Herding forty players to the raid instance at the same time was often more difficult than any of the bosses behind said portal. And many bosses were simply a contest of numbers... elemental resistances, damage output, etc. Many of these metrics are still critical to raids obviously, but these sorts of "number checks" seemed more prevalent then than today. (Yes I know, the "enrage timer" has become a rather standard feature as a "DPS check," but I think that is a consequence of other sorts of design features. With good healing rotations, a boss encounter could be extended almost indefinitely. Developers have decided they don't want such situations to be possible.)
As noted above, not every MMO player participates in raiding or even wants to. But as time went on, more players wanted to "peek" behind that curtain, and more developers wanted the content they worked so hard to create to be experienced by their players. Let's be honest, no matter what you do for a living, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from others being exposed to it and enjoying it. Whatever statistic you want to quote, the fact remains that developers were sinking tons of time and money into raids that a small percentage of their players were using. So logically, they wanted to increase that number. Fast forward to today. "Flexible raiding" is simply the next step down the road where smaller base raid sizes and LFR have already gone. Now you don't even need a smaller (but still fixed) number of players, you can simply take whatever you have available.
As someone who bounced from one "casual" raiding guild to another throughout much of Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, this will be a godsend to smaller and more casual guilds. Now they don't have to worry so much about available attendance on a given night. If they have 14 people online, you take 14 people. You don't have to worry about leaving four out, or missing six more, or anything like that. It is a huge logistical hurdle to eliminate. Being stuck in that "limbo" between the small raid size and the large raid size is a nightmare for many guilds. No one likes to be benched or left out, and this almost eliminates that problem entirely.
The Realm of the Elite?
Of course not all the reaction to this announcement was positive. As we've already discussed, raiding used to be the realm of a select few, and that select few still exists within the MMO community. These "hardcore" players enjoyed the exclusivity that raid content provided to them. Some enjoyed the challenge, others simply wanted something to "lord over" other players, but regardless there was something special about that content and those people who had access to it. Heck even though I was a raider myself at the time, there was still something inspiring about seeing well-equipped raiders in the common areas, sporting their gains from instances where many could not tread. And so there is something to be said for this aspect of raiding that is diminished by innovations like LFR and "flex" raiding.
The counter argument to this is that such exclusivity does still exist in the form of the heroic versions of the fixed member raids. LFR or "flex" raiding may give you access to the content itself, but it will not provide the challenge (or reward) that the fixed heroic versions of that content will provide. Is that enough of a difference? Does a reskinned version of the same epic sword justify the additional difficulty and effort of fixed heroic raids? That is really the conundrum developers face, and I think it is a valid question to ask. Is the difference in rewards by itself enough, or should there still be pieces of content that are only available to the "select few" that are willing and able to meet those requirements? Blizzard's answer is obvious. All content should be open to all players in some form. And since where WoW goes, other games are almost forced to follow, it seems this trend will extend to other games as well.
But not everybody is following along with that concept. Another game and its development team are taking a somewhat different approach to accessibility. Next time I will look at some of the comments from Carbine and their philosophy regarding raiding and access to content in WildStar. Are they trying to "turn back the clock," or are they trying to find a way to service that "elite" community while still providing something special for the rest of their players as well?