Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The psychology of exclusivity

A reader wrote me with an interesting insight on Naxxramas: "I think the core of this casual raid vs hardcore raid debacle that WotLK is turning into lies with the age old Gear vs Skill thing. Hardcore raiders prefer to attribute their success to skill. Rather than better geared than casuals, they are better skilled, and the gear is only a symptom of that. The reason that people are reacting so violently to easy Naxx is that it is making it plain to see for all is that gear is really the ONLY thing that matters in WoW.

Naxx at 80 has all the same skill requirement as it did at 60 (Plus or minus a very very few changes). You still have to get away from anub'arak, stay out of the slime and behind the boss on grob, change sides on thaddius, dance on Heigan, be smart with healing on Loatheb, and get behind the Iceblock on Saph. If you aren't "skilled" enough to to those actions, you can still fail in naxx. The ONLY real thing that has changed is the gear requirements (From "Have to have perfect gear" to "You can get by as a fresh level capped character"). Wow is and always has been about the gear treadmill."

I found that definition of skill a bit too narrow. "Skill" isn't black and white, either you can dance at Heigan or you can't. In most cases there is a penalty for failing to "get out of the fire", but if you have enough health and your healers enough healing power, you can just overcome the penalty. Thus if you do Molten Core at level 80, you don't need to run if you are the bomb at Baron Geddon (which is another argument why training for raiding in lower level raid dungeons doesn't work). Another example is crowd control at Moroes in Karazhan, which was extremely important in the original version, but after patch 3.0.2 most raids just gathered all the adds on one spot and aoe'd them down.

So I do think it took more skill to do Naxxramas at 60 than it takes today. But his comment is touching on a different issue, that of exclusivity. The human mind is tribal, and automatically thinks in terms of "us and them". We have a basic human *need* to belong to a group which is different, and in our minds "better", than another group. Thus people sort themselves into Democrats and Republicans, or into fans of different sports teams, and both sides look down on the other side.

So pre-WotLK there was this nice group distinction of you either being a raider or not. The raiders could look down on the casual players who didn't have the "skill" to kill Moroes in Karazhan. And the casuals could look down on the raiders who "obviously" only got there due to their gear. Now with Wrath of the Lich King comes Naxxramas, and suddenly everybody is a raider. Blizzard is starting to have instance server problems, with lag in Naxxramas, and "no more instances can be opened right now" error messages, because every evening Naxxramas and heroic dungeons are simply packed. And not only is everyone a raider now, there are also less distinctions between top guilds and mediocre raiding guilds. Instead of just having one or two guilds per server that were able to beat Sunwell, suddenly a dozen raid guilds can do the hardest available content. There is no "us and them" any more, only people who don't want to raid don't raid. There is no exclusivity.

Turning the clock back and making Naxxramas much harder, excluding a lot of people from using it, would be something that Blizzard would have problems doing. It would cause a huge wave of protest of all those average players who thoroughly enjoy now being able to raid. So the devs decided to go only part of the way. Blizzard *is* making raiding harder, by nerfing healing in patch 3.0.8: If you have a healing meter like Recount and check it after a typical raid with druid and holy priests healers, you'll see that typically 30% to 40% of the healing by them is done with Wild Growth and Circle of Healing. Both are currently instant spells and can be spammed as fast as the global cooldown permits. And they are both "smart" heals, searching automatically for the wounded raid members, thus minimizing overhealing. In the patch both spells will have a 6-second cooldown, and raids risk losing a quarter of their healing, which should make raids in general harder.

But the other part of the solution has to be adding harder raid dungeons. Ulduar *must* be significantly harder than Naxxramas, so the hardcore regain a sense of exclusivity. They'll have to live with the fact that the limit between "us" and "them" is not whether somebody can raid at all, but whether he can raid Ulduar or not. The casuals have nothing to complain, because the *can* raid, just not everywhere. And the hardcore have nothing to complain because they *do* distinguish themselves from the less skilled players.

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