Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raid gap analysis

World of Warcraft has its ups and downs, which are to some extent reflected in activity numbers, but are mostly visible to people playing the game and noticing servers being full, "additional instances cannot be launched" messages, and activity on the auction house. By this anecdotal evidence I'd say that WoW is in one of its "ups", easily explained by the extreme popularity of the Dungeon Finder. Now that heroics are chock-full every evening, and people collect tons of emblems, a lot more characters are running around in T9 gear or equivalent. Not just the characters that raid, but also players who never raided, and non-raiding alts.

It is easy to see that this situation isn't stable in the long term. Sooner or later two things will happen: People got all the gear they can buy with emblems of triumph (and while they theoretically could go for full sets of T10 gear from emblems of frost, collecting 400 emblems of frost at 2 emblems per day is a lot less attractive); and people will get bored of running the same Northrend heroics over and over. Inevitably people will start to ask themselves what is next, after heroics. And the current answer is that there is a gap, because the transition from running heroics to doing raids is not an obvious one.

Now some raiders will tell you that this is because "raids are hard". That is a somewhat outdated myth, fueled by the need of some raiders to feel "special". In reality the hardest current 5-man dungeons, the three Icecrown dungeons on heroic, are actually harder than several of the fights in Naxxramas. So, given how people in T9 gear are certainly well equipped enough to run Naxxramas, and that doing raids like Naxxramas and Ulduar not only give emblems too, but also drop epics for slots that aren't that easy to fill with emblem gear, why aren't more people doing the transition from heroics to raids now?

I think that the main obstacle is one of organization. Traditionally raids are being organized by guilds. Now I'm in a really good guild, which does a tremendous job of spanning the bridge from running heroics with everyone to raiding Icecrown, but even our organizational energies are limited. The raid calendar is used mostly for "progression raids", and if you are trying to progress with the guild as a whole through the raid circuit, it is obvious that you'll want to do it with everybody's "main" character. Setting up for example a raid for alts to Naxxramas isn't that easy, because you don't want to do it on the 5 progression raid nights, leaving not many time slots for alt raids. And with the administrative charge of the raid leaders and officers already high, setting up a second, parallel raid organization for alts and raid newbies isn't really all that realistic.

Now what could Blizzard do to solve this, and help people over this gap from heroics to raiding? As the problem is one of organization, the solution has to be one that makes organization easier. I can think of several possibilities:
  • Expand the Dungeon Finder to raids, beyond the current limited functionality of the /lfr command. This involves some tricky decisions on raid lockouts, and thus might be limited to only a few raid dungeons, lets say Naxxramas, Ulduar, Sartharion, and VoA.
  • Enable "dual guild" functionality, to make it easier for people to organize their alts into a separate raid pool, without forcing them to leave their main guild.
  • Create an intermediate step by chopping up Naxxramas into 5 parts (the 4 wings and the central part), and having a cross-server Raid Finder for 10-man groups covering only these 5 new mini-raids.
Unfortunately the more probable outcome is that Blizzard will simply not do anything, being fully busy with patch 4.0 and Cataclysm for many months to come. In that case it is extremely likely that we'll see a decline in activity over the next 6 months. You can only run heroics so often before becoming bored, and I don't think that the currently available 5-man content will last that long. It would be in Blizzard's own interest to bridge the gap to raiding, to keep people playing. And just handing out better gear so nobody is "undergeared for Naxxramas" apparently didn't do the trick.

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