On Raiding, Difficulty, and The Need for Varied Content

Raiding has, traditionally, been one of the things that World of Warcraft has done “right” even as the rest of the game is not doing so well. During Cataclysm, even as we noted a lack of endgame content and the 5-level cap extension not offering us as many things to do, raiding remained a high point of the game. Likewise, during Warlords of Draenor, the raid team stepped up and delivered excellent raid content as a similar lack of content drove players out.

Now, the raid dominance of WoW has been challenged a bit during Battle for Azeroth, as Uldir offered a subpar tier with some balancing challenges, and elements of both Battle of Dazar’Alor and Crucible of Storms felt off. During a time when many players are feeling a bit drained in the main game, the raid game being a bit weak has been a further disappointment.

However, that’s only a preamble to setup what I’d actually like to discuss today – what makes a raid “good?” How do we evaluate the content presented to us, and do we have an objective way to measure this?

Bhagpuss posted a response to my post about Eternal Palace being too easy, and it gave me a lot to think about. The biggest thing I took away from that, however, was a bit of a challenge to my old way of thinking about raiding.

For over a decade now, I’ve felt like the point of raiding was to offer challenging endgame content for a large number of players. Dungeons can offer some difficulty, but in vanilla, the core way to get more difficult experiences in your gameplay was to raid. Raids in vanilla could be difficult, but often, the difficulty was more in getting 40 active players to log on ready to play at the same time, and then to push through fights where the difficulty often came from throughput requirements or tightly-tuned mechanics. Vanilla raids, despite any nostalgia, were simple – Vaelestrasz’ core mechanics were 3 – essence of the red, the chain cleave, and blowing up players with his debuff. Timer mods weren’t really popular then – the closest thing we had to make life easier was stuff like Decursive and CT Raid Emergency Monitor – pushing us to dispel debuffs and heal those that got low. A lot of my early raid learning as a healer was done simply clicking the lowest health player via CT Emergency Monitor and casting a Flash Heal on them to get them off the list.

However, the post from Bhagpuss brings up an interesting point that I hadn’t really considered much before – should every raid encounter be a challenging fight against a formidable foe, requiring a degree of precise execution the normal game doesn’t?

That idea feels wrong to me somehow, but I realized something about my playstyle from that – I want raid fights to be challenging, but I also get frustrated when a fight requires a large effort to overcome – like Conclave of the Chosen in BoD. At 10 wipes, I was irritated, and that irritation grew to near the point of giving up on the game as a whole by 50 pulls without a kill. The core assumption I had about raids might be wrong, it turns out! When I think about enjoyable raid tiers, what I remember most are the tiers with a mix of challenging bosses that take a handful of attempts (maybe 25 or so max), coupled with easier bosses, with my preference being that the early part of the raid be full of the easier bosses, giving way to more challenge as the raid progresses.

This led to a second thought – does WoW do a good job of serving players with a range of difficulty preferences? I used to think that it did, given that WoW, unlike any other MMO on the market, has 3 difficulty modes per dungeon and 4 per raid, giving players at all levels something to do. Hell, if you count Mythic Plus dungeons as an additional difficulty per key level, there are another 20-ish difficulties per dungeon on top of the 3 mentioned above!

In theory, this means something for everyone, right?

Well, consider this – most fights in WoW are mechanically dense, even in dungeons now. When Blizzard tunes a lower difficulty, they often do so by removing some mechanics, to a point, and then keep the core handful they’ve identified as the fight’s “flavor” and tune the numbers on those up or down to match the intended level of difficulty. Even on the lowest possible difficulty of a given fight, most players will still have 3-4 mechanics to deal with. Players now run DBM at all times, and the amount of content to which DBM applies has grown at a steady pace.

It gets even trickier when you consider that between world mob scaling and the fact that world mobs have mechanics now too, in some cases. There is no longer a real place to go for players who want simple, no-frills gameplay and a chance to feel powerful simply for having progressed. Even bosses designed to be “tank and spank” in theory are no longer that simple – every DPS race boss Blizzard has designed since Patchwerk has layers of additional mechanics and is no longer a simple race against a tight enrage timer. World mobs scale even harder in newer zones, meaning that once you finally break free of the scaling peak in launch BfA zones, Nazjatar and Mechagon bring right back down to earth, with mobs that hit even harder, are packed more densely, have more health, and have actual mechanics that can cause tons of damage if you aren’t paying attention. It’s no longer nearly as possible to enjoy current WoW as a passive sort of entertainment as you do world quests and basic dungeon content – you must always be paying attention.

Now, some of you might read that and think that what I am talking about is counter-intuitive or against the nature of the game, but honestly, think back across WoW. The game has been built on a foundation of fun world content that isn’t made to be taxing, which is used to build up more challenging dungeons and finally more challenging raids. The season systems and world scaling have taken that from the world.

Back to raids to close this thought out, think about even LFR. LFR still has mechanics, and it is still very possible to wipe in LFR. It can be difficult to do, but it is still possible! While LFR fights have done better in recent years of capturing the spirit of the fights on the higher difficulties, I can’t help but wonder if that is a bad thing. Perhaps what I am wondering is not if LFR should be nerfed, but rather if there is a way for a story-only raid playthrough, presenting simple, fun versions of the bosses where the mechanics aren’t really going to hamstring you. Maybe there aren’t enough players out there for that – I don’t know, and I won’t pretend to have good solutions for this one either as it simply isn’t my playstyle. But I do think it is a valid concern.

Likewise, at the higher end of raiding, fights now often boil down to watching DBM or BigWigs timers count down to the next major mechanic, doing your dance against the mechanic, and then preparing for the next one. When Blizzard wants a fight to be chaotic, they do so by building in randomly-targeted mechanics that use high amounts of damage or other high penalties for failure. Rather than creating intelligently-designed chaos – they create actual, unnerving chaos, the likes of which can, depending on the fight, actively screw a group over. Even entry-level Normal raiding has, for nearly a decade now, been about an arms race between timer addons and Blizzard, with Blizzard responding by making fights so mechanically dense that they often require these addons, and then also adding mechanics that require much higher levels of immediate execution with abilities that can’t be fully prepared for via an addon. Mekkatorque’s wormholes and the whole sparkbot mechanic requires rapid adaptation, and is really better done with advance planning – having people stack for wormhole and planning a voice comms leader to call out the sparkbot self-destruct sequences. It is, more or less, impossible to raid in WoW without a boss timer, and doing so often makes you a burden to your guildmates (I have a couple of raiders who seemingly don’t use DBM, or at least, I expect that they don’t, as they often die to mechanics it would call out!).

When I compare this to my limited experience doing EX trials in Final Fantasy XIV, it feels a little weird. FFXIV has the design sensibilities of a JRPG, in that most Savage raid fights and EX Trials often are a series of memorizable, repeatable actions, and as you memorize the sequence and execute against it, you get closer and closer to victory. My free company in FFXIV did a lot of kills on one of the current EX Trials recently, and after about 3 attempts, we had the sequence down as a group and were executing against it. Some mistakes were recoverable, but others were harder to fix. Overall, however, while it was challenging, it was nothing compared to a WoW fight – some fights in WoW have as many as 27 distinct mechanics in play, where this fight had around 9, and the phases used meant that only 3-5 were ever active at any given time. Of course, the big difference is that FFXIV doesn’t allow addons, so there are not really boss timers in play, save for maybe limited support within third party apps like ACT. Fights have increased in difficulty slightly with time, but nowhere near the extent to which WoW fights have had to balloon in mechanical complexity, mainly due to the lack of timer addons. The game does an excellent job of telegraphing, usually, although Savage/EX fights tend to use less obvious telegraphs compared to the quest/normal versions (far fewer giant orange circles, and those that exist in Savage/EX last for far less time).

I guess in a way, reading that post opened my eyes a little bit – I want challenge, so the current state of Eternal Palace feels undertuned and bad because it is too easy for my group – and the scaling at the end with Azshara raises the difficulty hugely, which also feels bad. However, I believe there is space for an MMO to appeal to both audiences. With the same content – perhaps not, I’m not sure how Blizzard would balance say, 5 raid difficulties. But I do think it is fair to say that in terms of casual, overpowerable world content, Blizzard has failed to deliver that for us in BfA. With regards to raid content, the record throughout BfA has been mixed – but arguably, the early tiers of BfA were harder than I expected, and Eternal Palace has been a drastic departure. My guild spent a few weeks working through each Normal mode, before moving on to Heroic fully. At this point, we are likely (pending any raid leader stubbornness) to leave Normal behind in the next week. The variance of difficulty between the tiers so far has been an interesting thing to see unfold, and I think it has already caused a bit of an issue for raiding guilds, many of which have lost members or closed down altogether.

In conclusion, I think there is a lot of room in WoW’s design space to better sort through difficulties and offer more to players. The current state of Battle for Azeroth has focused on added complexity as means to engage players, with mixed results at best.


2 thoughts on “On Raiding, Difficulty, and The Need for Varied Content

  1. It’s been an interesting discussion. I don’t raid and never realy did but raiding still affects my gameplay. The trickle-down effect, where mechanics designed to slow down players at the leading and bleeding edge, end up becoming standard dev tools that get used in Heroic and open world and eventually even solo content means everyone has to deal with a diluted version of what was originally raid-only content.

    Then there’s the gatekeeping. GW2 has had a torrid time over the last couple of years since it introduced actual instanced raid content, something many players thought would never happen and shouldn’t. At best, it’s split the community. At worst it’s affected the entire direction of the game.

    Add-Ons are the very devil, too. I’m fine with a few mild mods but once devs start allowing players to develop counter-measures you have effectively started an arms race. It changes the entire game and not for the better in my opinion. Once you a) have to use specific Add-Ons and b) then spend almost all your time staring at their displays you have arguably moved past playing the game at all.

    I totally agree with you, though, that all of this is solvable by better game design and better decision-making by designers. They need to think more about how a game’s playerbase breaks down by preference and activity and then design content appropriately. Devs are very resistant to that, unfortunately. In GW2 there have been constant demands for “Story” versions of raids that give no rewards other than allowing players to follow the narrative that’s currently locked behind them. ANet simply won’t consider it. Pride would be my explanation for that. They made the content and they can’t stand the idea of just letting people ride through it as observers.

    WoW seems to suffering some kind of mid-life crisis right now, where it doesn’t know if its going forwards, backwards or sideways. Blizzard are going to have to sort it out somehow and they could do a lot worse than follow some of your suggestions above.

    Extra line to foil duplicate comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I stopped raiding in WoW back in Cataclysm and I have to admit that what I hear and see of more recent raid fights doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me – like you say, too much going on at once with everyone fixating on add-on timers. SWTOR also doesn’t allow add-ons, and I think that really helps with maintaining a hard ceiling on how complex the designers can make a boss fight.

    Liked by 1 person

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