Raiding, Content Difficulty, and Elitism At The Upper Echelon

Over the weekend, there were a lot of pieces of news and things I could have written about, but one in particular caught my eye and led to a lot of unified dunking on a person and their particular hot take. That person was Thdlock of Liquid, the once-world first guild. He came out with a series of tweets that are…well, they are sure something.

Reading these three tweets should make fairly clear why this take was so easy to dunk on and why it inspired such a large range of replies – it’s short-ish, peppy, and wrong. How and why it is wrong can vary a little depending on your viewpoint, but every audience can take something away from it. Let’s set some context and then roast this take.

Raiding in MMOs is one of those things that feel like a core mechanic of the genre, and arguably, it is. MMOs were the first games to enable the scale and scope of epic encounters to have large groups, as big as 72 players, and over time, while the size of the groups have shrunk in more mainstream MMOs, the idea of the raid is a cornerstone MMO “thing.” Yet at the same time, participation and clear rates make it obvious that raiding is already a minority activity – WoW’s data points to a pretty low rate that is likely around 25% or so as a very rough estimate, while LuckyBancho’s newest FFXIV census shows, as a raid-friendly example, that on my home server of Gilgamesh, with 14,105 characters completing the Endwalker story, 10,431 have done the current Normal raid series and 3,438 have done the full tier on Savage. Those are pretty good numbers proportionally, but against a total active player count of 24,835 on the server, that means that less than half of active players are raiding current content and just over 10% are doing Savage all the way. With 156 total characters with the Dragonsong’s Reprise Ultimate title or weapon equipped, a miniscule number of players are doing that highest level of raiding (0.6%!).

So why bring this up? I think that it is important to level set and to realize that raiding is both a big focal point activity in these games but it is also something that most players don’t find their way to as-is, for whatever reason. As I brought up when discussing the concept of difficulty ramps in these games, the developers and designers of them have a common observation – the game does better with more lower difficulty content and then using raid content as aspirational – something that you can work towards over time.

And so with that, let’s address Thdlock dragging the Liquid name through the mud worse than them running cryptocurrency ads on their last world first race.

Firstly, I want to say that his take is obviously elitist and sucks bad. The idea of filtering out “weaklings” is some fucking stupid trash that only a dumb baby would even dare put into the world. Creating content or balancing a difficulty curve to filter anyone out purposefully is not something a sustainable business model wants to do, and the idea that it should be done for the sake of the “dedicated gamers” is idiotic to the extreme. This idea that seems to emerge from the worst tryhards (I know a few too many of these, sadly) is that a game should be like work – that time spent should always give a return of skill and should be lauded as “dedication.” They’ll get mad if you raid log, if you spend a couple extra pulls compared to them learning mechanics, and they’ll push you out of your raid teams by complaining that everyone should be treating their leisure-time fun activity as a job, the thing we all do but hate because we have to earn money to live in this dystopian hellworld. It’s a myopic and sad view of the game or the idea of a game, to rob it of being, well, a game, for the sake of some sense of progression and skill. If you can find a likeminded group to play with like that – great, you should go with them. But to try and bend the entire game or your raid group to your whims is childish and wrong.

Secondly, I think his view of the MMO genre as a whole is pretty misguided, partially because, it is my understanding, that he started late into WoW, like around WoD. His view of the space is basically modern endless grind WoW and games like Lost Ark, where some of the raid content can take a pick-up group in the neighborhood of 6 hours to complete. The idea of “a longer time to get to stuff” being the reason people enjoyed them, divorced from any other logical reason, is silly, frankly. For some people – sure, the simple idea of immersive inconvenience is enough, but for most, I would argue that there is some other value tied-in with that. I didn’t like WoW in 2005 because everything took forever, but there was a sense of world that came from waiting for boats, a sense of scale from the tricky ways they manipulated the world to work like having multiple versions of capital cities based on viewpoints, and that once my gearing journey was done for a tier, it was DONE. I don’t have wistful recollections of waiting for my last piece of Prophecy in Molten Core, but I do remember how cool it felt to be done with gear – and that’s something I get just as easily right now from FFXIV Savage raiding, despite the much-faster pace. The idea that longer time investment = better on its own merits without any other analysis is foolish. A longer time investment is better if it pays off in a huge way that a shorter one can’t, but otherwise has no value of its own (and is more likely to be less valuable, in my opinion). The story of FFXIV is a good overall investment because it pays off almost all the dull moments early on by bringing elements back in a cool way that justifies that 100+ hour investment into the story. WoW’s story content stretches just as long in totality, but it’s not as good and it isn’t good because it is long – if anything, the length of the total story is kind of a bad thing now, and even Blizzard is skipping huge chunks of the early era content to move forward.

His third tweet, which reasserts the correctness of his take (which is still wrong and he is still wrong about), does get at something that I think actually undoes his point.

Ultimately, in any game, if you face a frictionless path forward and then are met with friction suddenly, it kind of sucks and kills your momentum. At the same time, no one starts in any game with a strong sense of what the fuck they are doing – it is learned behavior over hours of play. If you slam a player in front of a brick wall to start, what are they most likely to do? Spoiler alert – leave. In Thdlock’s stupid and simplistic fantasy, they do that so the real gamers can step up and do the work, but no company can make any real cash catering to a playerbase that is 1-10% of what it could be. FFXIV makes cash by the boatload selling itself as many things to many people – a single-player Final Fantasy saga with hundreds of hours of content, a social FF title you can run through with your friends, a gathering space, a housing simulator (including the brutal inventory and wealthy-buyer stockpiles of our capitalist hellscape!), an erotic role-playing interface (probably not fully intended, but well, it’s there), and a standard endgame-focused MMORPG. The cash made from selling to those other audiences, that 90-99%, allows Square Enix to put resources towards making Savage for the 10% and Ultimate for the 1%. In the eyes of the business model, the “weaklings” have the power and are anything but. The same is true of WoW – they make far more money selling the game as a casual hangout space with a serialized story then they do selling it as a serious raid game, and if they ever sold the game solely as a raid game, the business model would implode.

At the same time, I agree with the idea that players leave quickly when faced with challenge out of nowhere, because it is demonstrably true and the design teams behind these titles have said as much. The base path of the game is a largely frictionless glide through content designed to entertain you, with the high-end content existing in a parallel universe of sorts. It’s enticing and interesting, but they also don’t expect that everyone will do it.

The thing about his point is that I think that if the elitist sneering was toned down about 100%, there is something interesting in it you could pick at to build on. Generally, I think it is okay that raiding is not for everyone and that design and development time goes into that content. Both WoW and FFXIV have good ratios of non-raid content to raid content, such that a casual player has a pretty wide range of options, and where WoW once did poorly at presenting the ongoing story beats of content outside the raid, they’re getting better at it (albeit by just showing raid cinematics outside of their full context via some non-raid quest).

Likewise, I think developing challenging content that a small number of players engage with is also fine – launch-week Mythic raiding and Ultimate raids don’t ever need to be high clear rates or even high participation rates – they are both pretty popular to be watched and I’ve seen a lot of interest on both sides in tracking the race, watching the kills, and discussing how things work. Where I would disagree with Thdlock is that while he wants hard content to gatekeep players, I want there to be a way for players to move into harder content in a gradual, skill-building way, should they so choose. I think there’s a ton of value to be had in creating the optional, ball-busting high end content and then pairing it with a progression path outside of the main story or gameplay path that allows someone to go from that main path towards the aspirational high-end content.

No one starts the game at high levels of play, and the content recognizing that is not an incontrovertible sin. Most Mythic raiders have to start somewhere to learn and build their skillset, and players who lean into that type of content less have even more of a journey. It took me 8 years of FFXIV to try Savage raiding, and my journey in my first tier was not always easy or straightforward – it took a lot of reading, analysis, and hard-won gameplay moments where I tried and failed – and that is a part of why it is not for everyone. But the game gave me enough easy stuff for long enough that eventually, I found myself wanting to see the other side of the difficulty curve, to test myself, and it is that patient process by which I found myself ready to make the jump, and I made the jump successfully.

If I am to guess a total stranger’s motives, then I think I can identify two easy ones out of this desperate plea for attention from a member of Liquid – that he wants more high end content and that he wants more people willing and able to play at that level. Yet his ideological take on it – only put high-end content in front of players in order to weed out those who don’t want it – is something that would, in no uncertain terms, kill most games. If I assume good faith (an assumption that is not deserved!), then I think he would be better-served by a methodology that serves to allow players to acquire the skillsets and outlooks necessary for them to want to tackle Mythic raiding and that would increase player representation in those modes of play, which would create a business incentive for Blizzard to add more such content to the game. What is especially funny is that his own raid team suffered for getting what he claims to want here in this last tier, with Sepulcher being tuned to an agonizingly insane level of difficulty that led Liquid to burnout and a disappointing placement in the world first race after a promising start. Is he, by his own definition, a “weakling?”

Perhaps…and that in and of itself reveals how incomplete and idiotic his view on content design is.

7 thoughts on “Raiding, Content Difficulty, and Elitism At The Upper Echelon

  1. As someone who’s enjoyed raiding in some form or other for one and a half decades, I always bristle when non-raiders make all raiders out to be terrible elitists… sadly, people like Thdlock don’t help my case. 🙄

    I do think I understand what he’s trying to say underneath all the derogatory language… that he likes hard, exclusive content, and he wants to play with people who share his interest and goals. Which is fine, but considering that from everything I’ve heard, WoW’s latest raid already had the hardest mythic tier ever, I’m not sure what he’s complaining about. In some follow-up tweets he talks about how he thinks there isn’t enough casual content to do so people who don’t really enjoy mythic push into it because they think there’s nothing else to do but… yeah, I dunno, his arguments are all over the place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely agree on the point about community perception – I like raiding, even some of the hard content, but it’s hard to get people on-board with that as part of a community when some of the most visible representation of it is…this guy.

      I saw the subsequent tweets about casual content, and while the sentiment there is definitely improved (and I think that the overall argument could go somewhere if it were stripped bare of the sneering attitude of it all), calling casual players “weaklings” up top kind of dampens any positive reading I could have. I think he expected it to go better, but I think I saw about all quarters of the community quote-tweeting and roasting his initial take and had a sort of reflexive defense to it, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When people make statements like this I always wonder, and have to go to a fall back root cause, money-making. He’s one of those gifted players that had an opportunity to play at the top of the game, had the notoriety, and I’m sure some level of corporate sponsors. Companies offering free stuff, keyboards, gaming mice, chairs, complete systems, being paid to play, and being in the limelight. They are/were a big name. People followed because of the team they were on. They were special, and dammit, they should be catered to and paid homage to, and you should look up to me you lowly scrubs that dare to play the same game as me.

    Yeah, I know the type. What they fail to grasp is that sure, when you are part of a small percentage of people amongst millions, you are noticed, but as the millions decrease, you’re not that special any more. Companies start pulling sponsorships, you’re not getting the revenue from streaming to play a game for a living, and oh my, you’re getting older and younger people are getting better than you. Why, it’s unheard of, you may need to get a job to be able to pay to play a game like the rest of the unwashed masses. Outrageous.

    Personally I think the whole notion of competitive gaming may be on the ropes. Most people really are not interested in seeing these people play. Even years ago when I was active on Twitter and followed a thousand people, I couldn’t name anyone off the top of my head on any team. And the majority of people I know/knew really didn’t follow worlds first races. We just wanted to play the game and have fun.

    I think the focus of design to push everyone towards content they will never see, let alone complete is flawed. It’s almost a slap in the face, here’s content you could do, if you were any good at the game. So people get tired of chasing the gold ring, and get off the merry go round.

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    1. It’s an interesting point, because this guy is on a sponsored team that has a vested interest in having hard content in the game as an avenue to profit, and while I think his take is not indicative of the overall organization (I think Max and the leadership of the WoW-side of Liquid are generally decent people), it certainly fits with what pays his bills.

      I think Twitch is still growing as a platform because there are games people might not want to play but are interested in. I have little interest in Overwatch anymore, but I’ll watch other people play it. Hell, in the MMO space, I’ve seen the argument made that the stream viewership of WoW vs. FFXIV is an example, that more people watch WoW because they’d rather not play, while most FFXIV players just play instead and watch when they want to see the story inflict emotional damage to someone else, haha. I don’t know that I agree with that take either, but I think there’s value in the watching for some.

      Competitive gaming, though….I both agree and disagree with your take. I think in certain games, it is still doing very well and remains a strong part of the communities of those games, but not every game can be a competitive sport on that same level. A lot of what people bristle at in WoW is that conversion, and I think that there is some good in it (I enjoyed Mythic Plus a lot and it routinely is the only thing I miss about WoW) and some bad (watching Mythic Plus clears is only fun to a point, and Arena might as well be a wholly different game compared to the WoW I played and knew). Where it has met challenges has often been in under-investment – Overwatch is a good fit for competitive play and spectatorship, but Blizzard really cut the legs out from underneath that community and they lost nearly all of their momentum from the first season going forward. COVID definitely didn’t help, but a lot of the people who left the league made it clear that Blizzard just wasn’t on-board in a big enough way, which is interesting analysis I’d like to see from someone more connected to that scene!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’d think that the abject failure of Wildstar, with it’s hardcore grindy approach to the genre as a “throwback” that people in forums claimed they wanted, would have punctured a hole in Thdlock’s balloon. But noooo…..

    I couldn’t decide at first whether Thdlock was channeling Gevlon or vice versa, but I figured that they’re two independent people who came to a similar conclusion. But that’s the thing: putting out strictly hardcore (or ultra hardcore) content in some bizarre methodology to “toughen people up” as if we were all trying to become Marines or Spec Ops misses the point. No business model is going to be viable that way, and assuming people will pay to watch the best of the best compete –a’la a professional sports league– only works if there’s enough paying customers. And sponsors. Assuming people will pay to get their faces beat in on a regular basis is a business model for bankruptcy.

    If Thdlock wants more hardcore content, then fine, but assuming the player base will swell because of more hardcore and locked content is misguided at best. Given my own (soon to be ex) guild’s pivot toward a truly hardcore direction, they may find that they’re pushing more people away than letting in. And I think that despite his background as an Elitist Jerk, I do think that Ion has figured that part out. It certainly seemed to have taken quite a while, but I think economic reality has finally set in over in Blizzard, and we’ll see if Dragonflight proves that Blizz has learned their lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know that I ever want a WoW raider’s opinion on class structure or any of the other dreadful things Gevlon would write about. Especially given the way a portion of the community just is…yikes, I bet it would be awful.

      The world first race is an interesting counterpoint, because I think given the *right* content, people will tune in and watch. The most recent RWF was a hugely watched event, in large part because Mythic (and the raid as a whole this time out) was so poorly tuned that the race actually had an interesting marathon aspect to it, with the final results completely inverting from the early days of the run. That’s the kind of stuff you can build spectator sports on, but even in WoW it is not that well supported. Most of the teams had players run out of PTO at their actual jobs this time out, and the quality of sponsors was questionable (I completely unfollowed Liquid for endorsing crypto during this race).

      Content-wise though, I think he’s clearly quite wrong and I do think that there is a happy medium between hard content and stuff that is more accessible. I do think that WoW actually does better at that in modern times than a lot of people will give it credit for, but I think there is also a community effect of older, hardcore raiding guilds that still push their gameplay in that direction and shape perception. In my time in Shadowlands, raiding was four hours a week over two nights, and then the rest of the time was free and most people either just did world quests and putzed around or would run a few M+ keys together and log out.

      It was pretty chill and a big part of why I drifted away is newer guildies pushing harder in the other direction. Nothing really major about the game shifted that way (more than it already has at least), but the players did and that led a fair few guildies out of the game. If Dragonflight delivers on less grinds and less perceived need to be hardcore, I think it could push the community in a better direction that would have a multiplier effect for the better.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I no longer have the inclination to raid anymore, and I absolutely loathe M+, so that’s a large reason why I haven’t played wow in 4 years. Actually my entire guild quit in Legion. (of course a storyline where my race has genocide committed on it also was a factor).

    Likewise in FF, I do story trials and I like to do older raids for mounts and pets. But I never feel as if it’s the only game in town and I have to do it. I see people getting serious about raids and I’m glad they’re having fun but it’s not for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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