Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I would design raiding

The way raiding works in World of Warcraft, like other features of that game, is the result of the iterative approach to game design of Blizzard. The developers started with something, in part based on previous games, and refined, balanced, and modified it in major content patches and expansions. That is a solid approach, but it is timid, and unlikely to lead to major changes. In this post I would like to shine a light on the shortcomings of the current system, and give an outline on how I would design raiding. That is of course a pure thought exercise, I doubt my ideas will ever be realized, but maybe they can serve as food for thought.

Everybody agrees that the key problem of raiding is its “difficulty”, which has been endlessly discussed all over forums and the blogosphere. While everybody perceives “difficulty” as a problem, there is strong disagreement about whether raiding is “too easy” or “too hard” and not accessible enough; and of course that discussion flares up again with every modification making raiding “easier” or “harder”. So instead of making a controversial judgment call on raid difficulty here, I’d like to point out some less controversial facts about raid difficulty: I think everybody would agree that raiding is more difficult than the other content of the game, and that during all the years of WoW there was usually a big step change upwards in difficulty between whatever you could do to prepare for your first raid, and the first raid itself.

I might get more discussion with another observation: In Wrath of the Lich King, raid difficulty did not go up from Naxxramas to Icecrown Citadel. That is somewhat unintuitive, because of course a raid group in ICC gear would have a rather easy time today on many encounters in Naxxramas, like Patchwerk; but that is caused by gear, and the raid encounters by themselves are not much more complicated in ICC than in Naxxramas (with the possible exception of the last bosses of ICC). I’ve even seen raid group able to do the first ICC bosses wipe on some of the more complicated encounters of Naxxramas, in spite of their better gear. The “difficulty” of raid encounters in Wrath of the Lich King is mostly a function of how complicated the special attacks of the bosses are, and how well coordinated a raid team needs to be to avoid the huge damage done by these special attacks. This difficulty is specific to each individual raid encounter, and being for example able to beat Lord Marrowgar in ICC does not mean that you are also able to do “the dance” at Heigan the Unclean in Naxxramas.

It also has to be noted that in general it is more difficult for players to deal with special attacks that require coordination (e.g. “no player should stand closer than X feet from another player”, or “players with a random positive charge need to stand away from players with a random negative charge”), than those which only require the player to watch whether there is a spot of fire where he is standing.

Based on these observations, here is how I would design raiding:
  1. The overall difficulty of the first raid dungeon in terms of gear requirement and raid group coordination should be only a small step up from the hardest 5-man heroic dungeon of the initial release of an expansion.
  2. The encounters in the first raid dungeon should not be too complicated. I’m not calling for only tank’n’spank encounters here, but the boss special abilities in the first raid dungeon should be more about each individual player having to react to something, without adding additional requirements of coordination between players.
  3. The second and subsequent raid dungeons of an expansion I would then design to be noticeably more difficult in all of those aspects. That is they should require more damage output, damage mitigation, and healing, regardless of whether that better performance is reached by better gear or simply by playing better. And the encounters should become more and more complicated with each subsequent raid dungeon, so that the encounters in the last one would really be very difficult and require a lot of coordination between all players of the raid.
At this point some people will complain that “Burning Crusade proved that players hate raid progression”, which is a common misconception. The problems of Burning Crusade were mostly the too high difficulty of already the first raid dungeon, Karazhan, and a system that needed too many repetitions of the same raid before players had enough gear to be able to progress to the next raid. Players did not hate “raid progression”, but the fact that many of them couldn’t even get into raiding at all, and others “got stuck” and didn’t progress at all any more.

A relatively easy first raid dungeon would ascertain that “raiding” as an activity would be accessible to most players, even in pickup groups. That first raid dungeon would also train players in fundamental raiding skills like “don’t stand in the fire”. And it would provide players with sufficient gear to be able to progress towards the next raid dungeon, where they would be able to train more advanced raiding skills. Players unable or unwilling to learn raiding skills would significantly “slow down” in raid progress at some level of difficulty, but that is totally okay. I’d even say that it is a necessary feature to encourage players to learn, because if you can faceroll all the way to the last boss of the last raid dungeon there is no incentive to play better.

What should be avoided is players getting stuck simply through gear requirements, like it happened in Burning Crusade. That is actually not so hard, since Wrath of the Lich King already provided the perfect solution: Improving gear with a system of tokens. I would design rewards in a way that raiding would give more tokens than running heroics, to preserve the same risk vs. reward ratio, or even a bit more to compensate for the bigger organizational hurdle. The token system is useful to make sure that there is a constant improvement and progress, to make sure that it is really skill and not gear that determines how far and fast a player can progress. What I wouldn't want is token rewards from heroics being so plentiful that they make the first raid dungeons completely obsolete, as it is now the case. Thus a "pickup raid", while harder, and harder to organize, should give better token rewards than farming heroics.

What I think my raid design would achieve is the best of both worlds: Accessibility of raiding to most players, even casual ones, and faster progress and status for the more hardcore players. In such a system an automated Raid Finder functionality makes perfect sense, especially if like the current system for the Icecrown heroics it makes sure that you can’t sign up for raids you are completely undergeared for. Pickup groups *should* be able to do the first raid dungeons, even if they lack the coordination necessary for the later ones. “Pickup groups can’t do every raid” is a much better situation than “pickup groups can’t do any raid”.

Of course no raid system will completely eliminate the whining of the two extreme groups: The players who want everything handed to them on a silver platter without having to exert any effort, and the players who want all of raiding to be reserved for an exclusive elite. But in spite of the amount of noise these extreme groups often made, they are actually only small minorities in the overall population of World of Warcraft, their size often exaggerated by their opponents from the other extreme (“All raiders are elitist jerks” vs. “99% of players are morons & slackers that only want welfare epics”). It is the eternal naysayers who often create the impression that stagnation would be the best option. But a system with a low barrier of entry and rising difficulty level in the end serves the needs of everybody better than the current “one size fits all” raid difficulty model with its endless discussion about what exactly that one size should be. Players generally not only understand skill-based progress much better than some people claim, but they are actually attracted by it and encouraged to up their game.

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