[Guest Post] Raid Leading in Wrath, One Tree’s story

(Thron is known in other parts of the Internet as Natural20.  You can
find him on Livejournal here –
http://natural20.livejournal.com/ or on
Twitter here –
http://twitter.com/natural20 He tends to talk a lot
about Irish politics as well as gaming and conventions, you have been
warned.)

thron poses in front of the frozen throne

It's a long way from Zul Gurub ...

A short introduction, I’m Thron, a Resto-Druid and raidleader of Cobra, the raiding community that Spinks mentions here.

I’ve been raiding with Cobra since the community started up in Zul’Gurub and I’ve been a leader since Karazhan.  As Spinks mentioned we’ve recently killed the Lich King and I wanted to share some thoughts on leading the Cobra community through eighteen months of raiding in Wrath, from the first boss in Naxx to our final victory atop the Frozen Throne.

Cobra was set up with the express intention of getting members of three guilds (Ashen Rose Conspiracy, Oathforged and The Red Branch) into content they would never see if they didn’t band together.  In Wrath we wanted to progress more than we had in TBC, but also try, as hard as possible, to bring as many people with us on our journey.  The goal was, of course, to have Arthas lying at our feet, but we knew it was going to be a very long road.

Thron and Cobra killing the lich king

Spot the tree

We benefited hugely from the company of some raiders from outside the three guilds who were looking for a more casual group than they’d been with in TBC, or those whose groups disbanded at some point during Wrath.  Integration has been hard on occasion, making sure that we held true to our guiding aims, while trying to make sure people didn’t get bored.  As all raidleaders will know, this is far from an easy task.  It’s also something I’ll come back to later.

The raid pool has always hovered around fifty toons, but the composition and balance has varied greatly.  There were times we thought we’d never want for healers and other times we’ve wondered if the hunters had a secret breeding programme going which would eventually overwhelm the group!  To be fair, druids have always made up the biggest single class, but that has always seemed right and proper to me.

This has meant we’ve struggled at times and mostly we’ve been saved by folk who were willing to play more than one spec, but we’ve held fast to our rule of only allowing one toon per player, it’s kept things much more straightforward.

So, we started out in Naxx in January 2009, speeding our way through the bosses as most groups did, running up against our first roadblocks with the Four Horsemen and feeling very accomplished when Kel’Thuzad gave up his first Journey’s End, although that’s all we ever seemed to get from him.  But clearly Naxx, easy as it was, showed us we could do it, at the appropriate gear level.  According to the realm forums we were in or around the seventh Horde-side raid to clear the instance, a position we were to occupy most of the way through the expansion, with a few notable exceptions.  This gave the raid group a lot of confidence, knowing that we wouldn’t be at the forefront of progression, but we’d be keeping up, managing to get through the content on an average of six hours raiding a week.

death of malygos, with the raid all mounted on red drakes

The Cobra synchronised red drake flying team never won any marks for style ...

And onwards we went.  While we never managed Sartharion + 3,  we killed Flame Leviathan the day Ulduar went live and pushed on until Yogg-Saron was defeated.  Trial of the Champions had already opened at that point, so we did outgear the god of death in the end, but we were happy to take the kill.  TotC was almost the death of Cobra.  Like many raid groups the instance bored us very quickly, but the heroic versions were just too difficult for us and wiping repeatedly without any sense of progress gets very boring, very quickly.  This lack of progress (and mindless repetition), combined with a number of situations where one mistake could wipe the raid didn’t please anyone.

Cobra has improved in leaps and bounds since we started, but that kind of situation has never suited us and the awful instance design and bad tuning didn’t help.

cobra eyes up rotface

We were incredibly lucky that Ice Crown opened when it did.  The raid is almost as much fun as Ulduar and the increasing buff seemed to be designed for a group like Cobra.  It was far from all plain sailing, but up we climbed, sticking with our six hours a week schedule and even getting a Horde-side first kill along the way (Princes).  And then finally, with patience and the 30% buff, we managed to kill Arthas.  What an amazing night that was.  I cracked open the very expensive whiskey and got to sit back and bask.

And reflect, with articles like this, on the journey.  We started off in Wrath with four raidleaders and we’ve ended with three.  Between us we have encouraged, explained, dragged and occasionally bullied Cobra through the expansion.  We have been amazed by just how good the group is and how individual brilliance has saved a wipe, while at the same time wondering if sometimes players just ignore everything we say before a pull.

death of halion

We’ve dealt with emo, both explicable and inexplicable, and despite Spinks’ request I’m not going to reveal which group generated the most!  We’ve managed to compromise between the hardcore raiders who want to push on to hardmodes and the more casual players who sometimes forget just why standing in fire is a bad thing.  I’m not entirely sure how we’ve managed this, mind, probably because the people in question trust us, at least that’s the assumption I’ve got to make.  We’ve nearly kicked people from raids and we’ve nearly had people quit mid fight.  Toons have come and gone, some will be missed, others less so.

Over eighteen months there have been nights when I just didn’t want to log in.  I didn’t want to have to guide the twenty-five brave souls on the list for that raid through the content and there have been times when the ten minute break couldn’t come fast enough.  But these times have been far outweighed by the moments of brilliance and fun.  And this is what sets Cobra aside.  This is why I think we’re one of only four Horde-side (25 man) raiding groups on Argent Dawn (EU) to kill Arthas.

We’ve been through things that would kill other groups dead and there have been moments when I’ve thought I was going to get zero sign-ups for the next raid, but the actual sense of community and friendship has carried us through.

map of the world

We come from all over the world

Our raiders come from as far north as Finland and as far south as South Africa.  We have raiders from Donegal (in the extreme northwest of Ireland) and others from far more easterly climes in Europe, it’s a varied bunch.  But it’s a bunch that have grown to know each other, to take humour from the strangest things, to laugh when the only other option is to cry and, ultimately, to support Phoenixaras, Elelereth and I while we, in turn, try to support them. I don’t know of any other raid group who would react to repeated wipes by riding mammoths around Deathbringer Rise and then jumping off, one by one, while voice chat is filled with gales of laughter. Cobra is a true community and it has, when we look back, managed to fulfill the mission and it’s made me proud.  It’s probably also shaved about ten years off my life, but thems the breaks.

We’re looking at Cataclysm now, staring down the barrel of a complete change in how raiding works in WoW, and I don’t know what Cobra will look like once everything changes.  My hope is that we’ll keep on raiding, but we really won’t know until decisions have to be made.

Either way Wrath raiding will always be a special, wonderful, frustrating, maddening and ultimately rewarding experience and I’d probably do it all again, even knowing what I know now.  That said, I do a few things differently, increase the number of raidleaders from day one and refuse a few applicants who turned out to be more hassle than they were worth, but these are the things you learn and nobody ever said learning was painless.

For now we’ll get the rest of the raidgroup Kingslayer, then relax for a little while and see if there’s a bunch of raiders who still want to be given orders by a loud Irishman (me) and a soft spoken Englishman (Elelereth), while a rogue picks their pockets (Phoenixaras).  I hope there will be, there are still stories left to create.

*** (Blame Spinks for the lack of good kill shots and general lack of any screenshots of Ulduar (!) )

Raid Alliances, and What Could Have Been

There was a time during Wrath when I thought that we’d broken the mould.

The random dungeon finder had just been released. Emblems rained from the heavens to outfit everybody and their alts in T9 equivalent. And in every nook and cranny of Dalaran, PUGs sprouted newborn to tackle various tiers of raid content. Gold DKP runs rewarded experienced raiders for carrying rich alts and newbies. And suddenly, guilds were no longer the gatekeepers of group-based content in Warcraft.

When people wanted to run heroic instances, the advice was no longer a smug, “Join a better guild.” If people wanted to raid, no longer were they pressured into a raid guild. It was to be a new era of people being able to join guilds (or not) as social clubs, and access their group content through a variety of other channels.

And still, despite the gearscore mavens and hapless ninjas, this is how Wrath has played out. My new DK alt has gotten plenty of heroic runs, and already been able to check out raids to Tempest Keep and the Vault of Archavon. And not a single one of those was with a guildie (because the guild is quiet at the moment outside raid times). Yet I was still able to play my alt in groups, and it didn’t involve hours waiting around trying to persuade random people that they wanted a dps DK or trying to schedule with my guild.

In this brave new world, people could form guilds for all sorts of reasons, divorced from the mechanics of the game. Or in other words, you would not be driven to guild with people who wanted to complete the same group content and played at the same skill/commitment level. Never mind Blizzard’s old mantra of requiring people to be in a persistent team for the entire expansion. PUGs would set us free.

In Cataclysm, I increasingly feel, we will be thunderously thrown back into our boxes. Far from being more casual friendly, group content will be more gated than ever before. And heaven help the player who cannot commit to a weekly raid schedule, if they have an interest in raiding. Or the player who has friends who don’t all play at a similar skill level (the big downfall for 10 man raiding).

I like guilds, but I couldn’t eat a whole one

I love guilds myself. Ever since I was first invited by a random person to sign a guild charter in DaoC, I have been hooked. And it’s because I love guilds that I don’t want to play a game where I have to swap guilds any time my playing times change or my interests take a different turn.

I enjoy being part of a large in-game group with common goals. I just don’t want those goals (and that community) to be tied in so tightly with the class/spec I play, the online times I can make, and my gearscore.

Keen has a revolutionary take on how MMOs and guilds have evolved. He hates the tyranny of guilds and thinks they have become far too key. He also comments on how often guild drama or breakups chase people away from games. I’m sure that I am not the only person who ever left a game after a guild broke up – I was so invested in my old TBC raid guild that I had no energy left to start again after they split. (At least not for at least 6 months.)

And Blizzard DID have options. They could have kept their new shiny guild plans without chasing people into regiments that were organised around 10 clones wanting to do the same content.

We could have had guild alliances

Imagine an alternative future. A future in which you could be a member of a guild, and also of several different alliances or communities. Each alliance/ community would be formed because of a shared interest in a specific type of group content. Guilds, on the other hand, would be primarily social groups.

So if your alliance broke up over raid drama, you wouldn’t lose your guild. And vice versa. And if your interests or timetable changed, you could change alliance/ community without having to lose contact with your guild friends.

And all Blizzard would have had to do is to actually support alliances. Offer alliance channels, alliance timetables, and maybe even alliance banks. Recognise that people don’t like switching guilds and leaving their friends just because they have different progression goals. And maybe even add in some larger, PUG friendly raiding content alongside the main line of progression. Something for groups of mixed ability.

Maybe that was just too hard. Maybe they didn’t even consider it. Maybe the hardcore EQ raiders who were at the original core of Blizzard raid design just had too much influence over the design team, and they had no interest in setting players free.

But mark my words, a year from now we will look back and see this period in Wrath as our brief time of freedom from guild tyranny.

Are bad factions more popular?

Every time a new game launches which has more than one faction, where one is identified as ‘the good guys’ and the other as ‘the other guys’ we end up wondering whether players in general prefer to play as good or evil.

In WoW, the Horde vastly outnumbered Alliance on PvP servers at the start, and still does. In WAR, Destruction vastly outnumbered Order on all servers at the beginning. A friend who plays Aion noted that Asmodian seemed more popular than Elyos on all the servers he checked recently.

The population balance isn’t always for the same reason. In WoW Horde really did have better PvP racials and classes (shaman) at the start. Destruction always looked much cooler than Order in WAR. When I took a look at the Aion beta, my first reaction was that Asmodeans looked cooler than Elyos too and I thought most people would prefer them.

So I see a few common points:

  1. Designers find it easier to make the evil factions look cool (where cool is some combination of look and styling that appeals to gamers). How a character looks is probably the single strongest reason for a gamer to pick it initially.
  2. Tied to #1, evil factions often have a backstory that primes them as being very tough and badass. Instead of heroes, they are portrayed as anti-heroes to make them more powerful as enemies. The bad guys also often have more interesting stories in general – is it just easier to write lore about evil or savage races?
  3. ‘Evil’ factions follow a morality that supports how gamers play (i.e. go out and commit mass slaughter and looting). They have more ‘fun’.  So many gamers find it easier to relate to them. This is one of the reasons a lot of PvP type players are drawn to the bad boys in game.
  4. Even though many games had a majority of the evil faction at the beginning, this often balances out later. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are natural balancing factors, others are devs rebalancing to lure people to the weaker faction. One of the big balancing factors in a PvP game is that the less played faction gets more fights. Either because there is a battleground mechanic that limits how many of each side can play, or in an open world game, they’re just more likely to encounter enemies when they go roaming.

Frank@Overly Positive reminded me about this with a post about faction balance in Star Wars. Fans on the SW:TOR forums are complaining that Bioware is making the Sith seem too cool. I think the fans have lost it – Star Wars has some of the most badass good guys in cinema. The Sith have to be very cool indeed to lure players who planned to be Han Solo over to their side. And if Bioware’s game is going to rely heavily on balanced PvP then there need to at least be some Sith in game.

Star Trek is going to have similar problems. All the films and TV series are about the Federation. So how to lure people into playing enough of the ‘bad guys’ that there’s going to be some people for the good guys to fight.

Some of this will be resolved by hardcore players deciding that only pansies want to be Han Solo et al and again picking the side that is likely to be less numerous because it’ll give more PvP and a badass demeanor. And even if PvP in these games winds up matching the numbers of the more popular good side against the hardcore badassness of the bad side, at least that’s atmospheric.

No, the problem comes a few months down the line when the hardcore guys are winning enough of the fights that lots of other people join them. At that point, the side that was less numerous at the start ends up being more more hardcore and more numerous. Some of the hardcore switch sides, and the cycle begins again.

Do you feel drawn towards playing the bad boy antiheroes? Like the goth Asmodean styling? Does it make a difference whether it’s a heavily PvP game or not?