If you measure the success of a dungeon by how many people are visiting it, the first incarnation of Naxxramas was a failure. Introduced late in vanilla WoW with patch 1.11 it was the last dungeon to be added before the Burning Crusade expansion, the difficulty was so high, that only an estimated 1% of players ever got to see it. That was one of the reasons why Blizzard decided to recycle Naxxramas for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. When WotLK was released, Naxxramas was the only raid dungeon with more than one boss, and its difficulty level was tuned in a way that even average guilds would have a good shot at going there. So for some time the place was a huge success and rather crowded. But 15 months later Naxxramas is deserted again. In this article I will argue that the second death of Naxxramas was caused by a divergence between how raids are structured nowadays, and how the reward system is structured, in the hope that the same mistake will be avoided with the design of the Cataclysm raids.
To my personal WoW status report coldheat commented that modern raids are full of what he calls “generic tasks”. That means that the difficulty of many raid boss encounters is caused by people having to learn to move or react in specific ways, which is completely independent of their class, build, or gear. Thus to use some Naxxramas examples, the dance at Heigan the Unclean, or the polarity shift at Thaddius poses a challenge, a set of moves to be learned, which will be exactly the same for let’s say a mage, a hunter, or a priest. Putting that mage, hunter, and priest into much better gear will not help them much for such a generic task, as the penalty for not doing “the dance” correctly is designed to be so extremely harsh that you can’t ignore it even if you are extremely overgeared for the encounter.
This design around generic tasks fundamentally changes the structure of the raid circuit. In vanilla WoW, if you were geared enough for Naxxramas, doing Molten Core would have been extremely easy. In Wrath of the Lich King, being geared enough for Icecrown Citadel doesn’t make Naxxramas that much easier. I participated in two Naxxramas raids in the last weeks, one with a pickup raid group which in spite of being overgeared wiped twice at Anub’Rekhan before falling apart; the second with my guild, which just having successfully beaten ToC with the same raid compositions then managed to wipe more often on Instructor Razuvious (for the weekly raid quest) than on any of the ToC bosses. People simply forget how to do those generic tasks if they didn’t try them for several months, and suddenly Naxxramas ends up being “harder” than Trial of the Crusader. The difficulty is mostly a function of practice with generic tasks, and not so much a function of how well your raid group can deal damage, withstand damage, or heal.
In vanilla WoW the structure of the raid circuit was very different. Most encounters were testing the overall power level of the raid group. Many called that a “gear check”, but of course gear was only a part of the equation. Two characters of the same class in the same gear do not necessarily have the same performance. Instead that “gear check” structure resulted in the better players advancing faster than the less good players, because they needed to farm less gear to be able to beat the next encounter. The design wasn’t always optimal, because too many players couldn’t advance any more at all, not even after gearing up to the max in whatever content they were able to beat. But the basic structure was a healthy one, with the raid circuit progressing from 5-man dungeons to easier raids to harder raids.
Right now that idea of raid progress is in shambles. People laugh at the idea that after finishing with heroics they should do Naxxramas next, then Ulduar, then ToC, then Icecrown. I suspect that part of the problem is that Blizzard wasn’t all that sure whether their 4th attempt at designing a looking-for-group functionality would finally work, and therefore decided to sweeten the deal by giving out a too high level of emblems as reward for the Dungeon Finder random heroics. But the other part of the problem is the design around generic tasks, so that learning how to move let’s say in the encounter in ToC with Icehowl isn’t really any more difficult than learning the dance at Heigan. Knowing how to squeeze out the last bit of performance of your class matters a lot less than knowing the specific encounter.
In vanilla WoW, somebody having geared up in 5-man dungeons would have no way to bypass Molten Core. Molten Core would not only be necessary for him to gear up for Blackwing Lair, but would also teach him how to play his class optimally in a raid environment. In WotLK, somebody having geared up in 5-man heroics simply has no reason to visit Naxxramas anymore. His gear is already much better than the Naxxramas drops, and what he could learn about raiding in Naxxramas would be mostly specific generic tasks of Naxxramas, which won’t help for the next raid dungeon at all. Thus even pickup raids in trade chat never organize raids to Naxxramas and Ulduar (except for weekly raid quest), but instead go directly to ToC and ICC. But at the same time the person organizing that ToC / ICC raid will ask for you to link the achievement proving that you already mastered the generic tasks of that specific dungeon.
Thus now we have a raid structure where one raid doesn’t really lead to the next one anymore. Several commenters advised me to go directly from heroics to raiding Icecrown Citadel, the last raid dungeon. Access to raid dungeons isn’t determined any more by whether the raid group has the power, the skill, and the gear to overcome the next challenge, but simply by when Blizzard opens the door to the next dungeon. But while the raid circuit structure changed, the structure of raid rewards is still the same. Naxxramas is standing empty because of that divergence: It isn’t easier to master Naxxramas than to master ToC, but the rewards of Naxxramas are less good than what you can get in heroics, while ToC still might give you some upgrades.
So where does that lead us to for Cataclysm? The Dungeon Finder is now well established as idea and tool, and it won’t be necessary to hand out extreme rewards for doing level 85 heroics. I’d assume that we get a similar structure: 2 emblems of a higher type for the first random heroic, 2 emblems of a one lower type for further heroics, plus one of these lower type emblems per boss killed. But the lower type emblem should buy gear that has the same item level than what you can get in the first level 85 raid dungeon, so visiting that first raid dungeon should still be interesting. The tricky part will be how to design the raid dungeons to form a clear sequence again. Blizzard could go back to the old system of making the harder dungeons have more checks of character power instead of just checking mastery of specific generic tasks. Or they could modify the reward structure of the raid dungeons, so that the rewards from the first raid dungeon aren’t obsolete as soon as you visit the second one. If the gear requirements from one dungeon to the next are less steep, then the reward structure has to be less steep as well. Then Blizzard just needs to add a working looking-for-raid functionality, and maybe in Cataclysm we can avoid the situation that some raid dungeons are simply skipped.