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.

Growing your own raiders. And I come not to damn TotC but to praise it.

LoadScreenArgentRaid

This weekend, I had a revelation.

DREADSCALE IS THE FIRE SNAKE!

I had a post half written when patch 3.2 went live to list why I loved Icecrown Citadel; and the number one reason was because I no longer had to remember which snake was which. Anyone who ever tanked Trial of the Crusader will be familiar with this conversation in the tank channel before the start:

Which snake do you want to tank?

I’ll take the fire one, is that acid… dread … whatever it’s called?

Is that the stationary one?

No, moving one. It’s on the left. I mean right as we’re standing.

Could I have that one? I always take the one on the right

((etc))

But we were back in the Argent Tournament arena this weekend, and I remembered the gorram snake’s name. It feels like a major achievement.

Raiding with less experienced raiders

As to why we were there, that’s a longer story. Our raid group has been more progression focussed in Wrath than we ever were before. We have class quotas, and role quotas, and all that sort of gubbins which means that raiders don’t have to sit out too often.

But our member guilds (we are a raid alliance) also have members who don’t raid with us. Some are more casual players, or unable to commit to a timetable for RL reasons, or just don’t have much interest.

I think we all have been aware recently that some of these guys would love to raid with the alts, or in the non-25 man raids. But it has been difficult to arrange because ICC-10 is simply not a welcoming environment for new raiders. No matter how much people say that the game is dumbed down, it’s not easy for new players to fine tune their dps while getting out of fires, avoiding adds, target switching, and paying attention to the threat meter.

And the instance simply isn’t tuned so that experienced players can carry the less experienced ones while they learn. It is after all the last raid instance of the expansion, and if it was undertuned, people would definitely complain that it was too easy.

Moreover, it’s not possible to really learn how to play your class in heroics any more. They are AE fests. I don’t recall much in the way of target switching requirements, and healers will usually heal through fires anyway. (I’m not saying it’s right, but that is how things tend to go.) Or at least, you can’t learn to play it well enough to raid endgame, unless you are already an experienced raider and it is an alt.

So that’s where Trial of the Crusader comes in. It was suggested that maybe a 25 man TotC run would give us the chance to bring both experienced and inexperienced raiders. We all agreed that in theory this might be a good chance for the newbies to get their feet wet. But would we get enough people to sign? Would we get the mix of experienced players (who probably didn’t need any of the drops on their alts) and newbies? Would newer players be able to follow instructions – you can’t just steamroll TotC in the gear they’d be wearing?

And I foolishly said, “I’ll run it,” and put the run up on the calendar

And people signed. Not just the new guys, who were very excited at the prospect of a 25 man run where no one would shout at them, but also some of the more experienced raiders who were willing to come and help out. Also some people brought well geared alts along who don’t often get a look in on the 25 mans.

I had said from the beginning that if we didn’t get 25 signups, I would cancel the run due to lack of interest. I knew last Wednesday (the raid was scheduled for the weekend) that I wouldn’t have to cancel it.

At that point, I put up a prospective raid list (i.e. list of people/ characters who were picked) and the boards lit up with new people starting threads asking for advice, experienced raiders writing up guides, and threads about addons and consumables as well. I don’t remember if TotC was this well analysed when we were running it as progression content :)

When we all rolled up on Saturday night – everyone was on time, by the way – I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I think I’d assumed we’d wipe a few times on Icehowl as people got the hang of moving out of the way, and that Faction Champions might also claim a few scalps.

What actually happened is that we were successful beyond my wildest dreams.

We one shot the first four bosses (IIRC) and got Anub’Arak on the third attempt. I reckon about two of the raiders had never been in a raid, three more hadn’t been in a Wrath raid, we had a tank and a few healers who had never been inside that instance before, and about 8 of the dps were undergeared (i.e. undergeared for TotC). Some of them found PUGs so intimidating that they didn’t dare sign up for them at all, even 5 mans.

I was very proud of everyone, because it was a true team effort. We could not have done it without some experienced guys being willing to take one for the team and give it their all. We could not have done it if the newer players had not been totally focussed, listened to instructions, and done their homework.

After the second wipe on Anub, where we wiped at 5% (due to hitting the enrage timer), we discussed the fight in detail on voice chat as everyone was running back. We discussed why we used bloodlust when we did, how the spikes worked, what had gone wrong and what had gone right in previous attempts. And everyone, new guys included, was brainstorming how we might be able to find that extra 5% damage on phase 3.

At that point, the difference between them and hardcore progression raiders was simply a matter of time, practice, and gear. Job done. (The fact we got Anub on the next pull was icing on the cake.)

And TotC succeeds as a training environment in all the ways that the heroics fail. You cannot ignore the proper strategies there when half the raid is undergeared/ inexperienced. People will have to move out of the fire, switch target neatly, and listen to raid leaders. It is in every way a true raiding experience.

In retrospect, I’d been playing with fire when putting that raid together, and fitting in as many of the less experienced guys as I could. But what is life without a little risk. If we’d known that it was going to be a walkover, then it wouldn’t have felt like such a good achievement, and we’d have been cheating the new players as much as the old ones out of that. As a raid leader you have to balance up the raid’s objectives:

  1. Run a successful raid, lots of loot, happy raiders.
  2. Get as many of the inexperienced raiders and raider alts in as possible.

You know how some raid leaders are talented at running different types of raids. Some people run awesome farm raids, or are really good at getting people to optimise their performance. Some people are amazing progression raid leaders and can analyse where the group needs to improve on a new fight by some form of psychic ability.

I suspect my strength may be dragging mixed ability groups through content. I admit this is … marginally useful. But hey, it’s a thing. I cannot honestly say that I had to work hard – people taught each other. But still, you cannot teach someone who isn’t willing to learn.

We can do it, but why should we?

So what have we proved, at the end of all this? We can set up successful raids where both experienced and inexperienced raiders play alongside each other. And where the new guys can get some support, coaching, and encouragement. And, more importantly, where everyone can have some fun and even the old guard has a chance at some loot which they wanted.

But in order to do it, we have to flout just about every pointer in Warcraft that directs players towards the latest, greatest raid instance. We have to ignore the pressure to do everything as fast as possible, to focus only on our own goals, and to ditch the weak to make room for the strong. It may be possible to have everyone playing nicely together, but there’s no in game pressure, or encouragement, or reward. Only the social reward of making a lot of people very happy, of knowing that you have a guild/ raid that is socially cohesive, and of rising to meet a challenge together. It’s an achievement for our whole raid group that we were able to pull it off, but not an achievement recognised by the game.

I was comparing this mentally to Gevlon’s undergeared challenge. I see our newbie raid as the social equivalent to that, where we deliberately handicap the raid by bringing weaker players. I know I’m not the only one who pondered that, since at least one of the other raiders commented on it to me also.

Ultimately, I think this highlights a weakness in Warcraft that will pull the game down. If Blizzard cannot encourage players to teach each other in game, then all they can ever do is make things easier so that there is less to learn.

Even though it was a fun raid, and felt like a good achievement, I cannot run these newbie raids every week. I cannot ask the experienced guys to keep doing this week in and week out for no real reward. No one is that altruistic (I’m certainly not) and whilst I’m proud of my friends and raid allies for pulling it all together, I also don’t particularly want to run TotC every week.

Maybe guild achievements in Cataclysm will help to plug this gap, and perhaps there will be perks for the guild that is willing to grow its own raiders, and teach its own newbies.  But I suspect that they will choose to reward the hardcore instead. Who will continue to rely on ‘social’ guilds to train their new recruits for no reward, because the things they enjoy doing (supporting each other, building community, teaching and mentoring) are outside the achiever’s purview.

Gearing, Gating, Attuning. And sometimes I miss the resistance fights …

national guardthenationalguard@flickr.com (OK, which tank has a fire resist set?)

Rohan wrote a post at Blessing of Kings which has been on my mind recently. He asked, “Was Blackwing Lair Boring?” Blackwing Lair (BWL to friends) was the second of the old 40 man raids from Vanilla WoW. It featured a large amount of dragons, and a storyline about Nefarian, the Black Dragon who was trying to breed a new strain of dragonkin. It also involved the best looking tier set in the game’s history.

And we adored it. I have very fond memories of Blackwing Lair, and even when my 40 man raid was way overgeared for the instance, people still enjoyed the weekly runs and happily signed up for them.

So I was thinking some more about how raiding in WoW has changed since then. These days, you show up on your weekly raid night/s for a few hours killing with your friends/ guildies/ random people from trade chat and then you’re done. You won’t need to farm raid food unless you are keen, someone will probably bring fish feasts which provide enough for the whole raid. Your repair bills will be handily covered by a few daily quests or dungeons. You will probably want some potions or flasks, which are easily bought, and gold in the game has never been easier to come by.

Back in the days of BWL, the raids would be the focus of your raid group for most of the week, even when you weren’t actually raiding. You would spend more time farming to cover repair bills, or for extra buff items. You might be helping your guildies to farm up some resistance gear, or quest items that they needed to build legendary weapons like Thunderfury. And if you needed any flasks … well, the only places in the game where flasks could be made were deep inside the Scholomance, or inside Blackwing Lair.

I remember getting permission to use my BWL lock (to our cleared instance) to let my friends from non-raiding guilds come in and use the alchemy table. Blackwing Lair had another bonus for crafters too, it was the only place in the game where miners could learn to Smelt Elementium, a material that was used to make legendary weapons.

Crafters were also involved in creating the resist gear that was needed for some of the fights. We had tanks in fire resist gear to tank the drake bosses. Everyone needed their own Onyxia scale cloak for the last boss also. And in that way, BWL was tied both mechanically as well as thematically to Onyxia (another black dragon boss). You HAD to kill Onyxia enough times to provide materials for cloaks for your whole raid before you could attempt Nefarian. The raid needed good crafters who had collected the right recipes – which also either dropped in raids or were bought with reputation that was collected in raids.

Raiding wasn’t just about killing bosses and getting loot. (Just mostly.) It was about completing raid instances in the right order and learning how to use drops from one raid to help complete a puzzle in another. The raid game back then was designed to be able to focus people’s attention completely.

Overcoming Barriers Together

wallclimb athenius22@flickr.com

No one will deny that being forced to collect resistance gear could be tedious, time consuming and annoying. I don’t think many people enjoyed it and I doubt anyone was sorry to see the resistance fights disappear. But often, the rest of the raid group would chip in and help.

I remember in TBC that our raid group helped to collect the materials to craft frost and nature resist gear for our tanks on Hydross (a boss which required one tank with frost resist gear and one with nature resist gear). It was a way for people who had more time and energy to contribute to the raid effort, even if they didn’t raid so often themselves. (We were more casual back then.)

In many ways, I think Blizzard has been toying for a long time with the notion of letting crafters and non-raiders be a part of the raid effort. They’ve just not found a successful model yet.

In Wrath, BoE raid drops (ie. runed orbs, crusader orbs etc) can be used by crafters to make some extremely nice and desirable gear, all of which is BoE and can be freely traded and sold. In Ulduar, recipes were random and rare drops from bosses. In TotC, the recipes were still random drops, but were much more common and also BoE so can be found on the auction house. A rich crafter could quietly buy them up. And in ICC, the recipes are no longer random drops. They are bought with frost emblems (indirectly, they’re actually bought with primordial saronite which can be bought with frost emblems).

So it’s never been easier for a non-raiding crafter to make those raid items.

The other side to resistance fights was the sense that the whole guild/ raid was working together on an ongoing basis to achieve a goal. Barriers are annoying, that’s their whole point. To annoy you until you overcome them. But the sense of working together on a common goal doesn’t apply to PUG raids in the same way.

If your pick up raid needs a tank with frost resist, you won’t be motivated to help them to gear up. It’s much easier to just shout in trade chat, “LF1M tank for raid X. Need achievement, gearscore, and frost resist gear check before invite.”

Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t miss the annoyance and frustration of resistance fights. I don’t miss the feeling that I was letting the side down if I had been unlucky with nature resist drops, or didn’t have enough time to farm my primals on that particular week. But I do miss the feeling that my raid was a team that was working together on overcoming obstacles, and that team included crafters and non-raiding members too.

And I have high hopes that Blizzard’s plans for guilds in Cataclysm will bring that feeling back.

* Picture notes. I wanted images that showed people helping each other to wear protective clothing and overcome obstacles. I know these ones are (semi-)military but the alternatives were pictures of kids at camp and I was uncomfortable using those, even when they had a creative commons licence.

** PS. Screw you, Princess Huhuran and your nature resist grind. But damn did it feel good to get you down.

Rewarding team play

Ferrel@Epic Slant and Psychochild have been discussing how best to reward team play in MMOs.

Ferrel is a guild leader. His problem is that people don’t like showing up to progression raids ie. where they meet with limited success, may be frustrated, may wipe a lot, may incur a lot of repair bills and don’t get many rewards. He looks for solutions that will give better rewards to progression raiding than to  less challenging content. He asks why success is the only thing that is rewarded. He also complains that DKP systems are set up to reward players, not guilds.

His observations are correct. Although DKP systems reward players because it’s easy to administer and it works. Even the most basic DKP gives points to people for turning up to raids. These systems are set up to reward constant and consistent attendance which is what most raid leaders want to reward. Not only that but people are rewarded for sticking with the same raid group, they see their DKP total build up.

If players aren’t enjoying progression raids and you are a progression guild, then find other players who do. Maybe progression raiding really isn’t for everyone. Maybe some players just don’t enjoy it and handing out better rewards will only make them more miserable because they feel that they must play in a way they don’t enjoy. Maybe people have a bad day at work and just aren’t in the mood for a stressful progression raid some nights.

One problem with  the whole raiding setup is that after you have beaten the encounter, you have to keep farming it for weeks of boredom so that the rest of the raid can gear up. That’s the real problem. Of course people get bored of farm content, of course people are reluctant to spend every raid night smashing their head against a brick wall of frustration. If your core problem is human nature, then no reward system is going to fix it. Go back to the beginning and look harder for a problem that you can actually solve.

This isn’t a problem that sports teams face — and the semi-professional sports team is one analogy for a raid group. They meet up every week, they have scheduled practice and training sessions, and then they have weekly matches against other teams. This makes me wonder whether the rated battlegrounds that Blizzard plans to implement may yet be the saviour of the raid game.

Guild leaders like Ferrel believe that if only people were more loyal to their guild, they’d happily keep showing up for the frustrating progression raids and boring farm raids. They wouldn’t, they might feel bound to show up more but if they’re really not enjoying it then they’d also burn out and leave the game. You can only nudge people so far. And there will always be some people who enjoy progression raids and some who don’t. Some nights where people are in the mood for it and some where they aren’t. And labelling people as selfish because they stop coming when they’re bored is just ignoring the real problem and asking them to burn themselves out instead. Is that really a good long term solution? Or would it be better if you didn’t have to keep putting together weekly raids to content with which people are already bored?

Or is the problem connected with having so much emphasis on difficult group content? That naturally means that pressure falls on the weaker members of the team to shape up, and that if you have a bad day, your team suffers (and boy will they let you know about it.) And unlike battlegrounds which are over in 20 mins so you get another chance to pull your socks up for next time, a raid will occupy a whole evening.

What you can do is make farm raids more fun, and either turn them into more social events or invent some fun challenges to keep people’s interest. It won’t work for everyone but there are worse ways to spend a night in game than chatting to friends while running through some cool encounters that people like even though they aren’t especially challenging. Particularly if rewards are structured to help your guild or alts or friends.  And even then, devising a system that locks people into the same farm raids for months on end is going to run dry eventually.

Psychochild tackles a different problem altogether: how can game designers reward the actual learning process? Is it possible to reward people for not chasing loot single mindedly, and to de-emphasise individual reward?

If I have learned anything from raiding casually, it’s that the learning curve is still just as fun when it is slower. That it’s OK to take a night off from progression raiding and come back to it later. That you don’t always have to be on the cutting edge or racing the rest of the server to feel a sense of achievement from your first kills. I wish I could think up a good reward scheme to show other people the same thing. I think it would make for a much happier raid experience all round, and less stressed out guild leaders too.

In any case, it was a fascinating set of posts to read, if only to see how two people come at an issue from very different perspectives.

Raiding and the Great Healer Problem

Of the three main roles in the ‘holy trinity’, it’s healing which changes the most between small groups and large raids.

In a single group, one healer usually supports the rest of the party. There may be an off-healer along as well who switches between dps and healing as needed. In a raid, there are many more people who may need to be healed, and also a larger healing corps who need to somehow coordinate who is going to heal which characters.

Unlike tanking, which is easy to organise (ie. you tank mob X, I’ll tank mob Y, and that other guy can grab the adds), sorting out the healing is a more complex problem. Healers in raids are often given very specific assignments to make this easier to manage. But it isn’t easy to always get this right. Assignments depend on the encounter, on the strengths and gear of the various players involved, and on the raid group itself.

Healing is also fundamentally different from tanking and dps. With tanking, there’s a set number of mobs who need to be tanked. It’s very easy to predict how many tanks you will need for an encounter and that’s unlikely to vary much. With dps, more is always better. You can always make a kill faster. But with healing, there is a maximum of heals that the raid will ever need. If you can see how much damage is thrown out, then you can figure out how many healers can take care of it. Healers can also ‘snipe’ each other’s heals — if I get a heal in before you and heal a player back to full health, then your heal will be wasted. We talk about overhealing (ie. heals that were wasted because the person they landed on didn’t need them) and it measures how much more time and energy was spent on healing than the encounter really needed.

It would be easy to imagine mechanics which converted overheals into something more useful. Maybe extra damage on the target’s target, or some kind of buff, or even just storing them in a buffer to be used the next time the person takes damage. But that’s not a common feature in MMOs – the skill of healing is to be smart enough not to waste power on overheals that you might need later. (In WoW at the moment, overhealing isn’t a major issue, healers have more than enough mana. But there’s a pass on this next patch.)

There are actually three big healer problems connected with raiding in WoW. At least one of them is common to just about every MMO which has healing classes.

How can we find enough healers?

Healers are often in short supply anyway, it’s not as popular a role as dps or tanking. Raid healers also anecdotally burn out more quickly than any other role. It’s a stressful job with low visibility – people often blame healers for wipes even when it wasn’t their fault. Healers also aren’t usually as involved in the details of an encounter, it’s very easy to spend the whole time staring at a raid interface and frantically trying to keep the green bars from dropping (aka playing whack-a-mole).

It has been a constant struggle to find healers in most MMOs I have played. Oddly enough, we have plenty in WoW at the moment. I think dual specs have invigorated the healing classes (which are all hybrids in Warcraft so can have a dps as well as a healing spec now if they want). But this is also partly because healing requirements drop over time, which is my next point.

I healed myself out of a job!

Jov@World of Snarkcraft covers this better than I ever could.

As a raid gears up, the tanks take less damage, the dps kill the mobs more quickly, and everyone learns to stay out of the fire. So the raid in general needs less healing. If they are tackling hard modes or just want to speed up the farm runs, then it makes a lot of sense to replace an unnecessary healer (who would be bored anyway) with more dps.

Dual specs should have provided an answer to this. Get one of the healers to switch to dps, no problem. But there is a problem. Firstly, what if the player wanted to heal? It’s what they had originally specced and geared for, after all. And second, hard modes can involve highly tuned dps races. So that healer can’t be replaced by an inexperienced dps in offspec gear that’s a tier or so behind the content. They need to be replaced by a main spec dps character to beat the various timers.

Short form: raids need more healers during initial progression than later in the raid instance lifetime. Not only does this mean that it makes sense to drop one or more healers from the group (until the next raid instance comes out), it forces the existing healers to be competitive with each other. If one class turns out to be better suited to healing current raid content than others, then it’s pretty clear who is less likely to be dropped.

What makes this worse is that the rest of the raid group is often very happy about being able to drop healers and make the kill faster. This does nothing to make the remaining healers feel wanted (and a lot of people play support classes because they like feeling wanted), it’s more as if it slows everyone down to have to take the support classes along.

There are solutions to this. Dual spec is one of them, healers being better able to boost raid dps (maybe via buffs or an ability to turn overheals into dps) is another. Not tuning hard modes to be such total dps races is another (ie. so that it’s sufficient to get a healer to switch to their dps offspec).

In any case, it’s hard to escape the feeling that if the healers do a really good job, people will just think: great, we can drop a healer.

Raid healing is boring

This may be a personal thing but I find raid healing terrifically tedious and this is why. In a 5 man group, the healer gets to make a lot of decisions all the time about who to heal and which heal to use. 10 man raids are still small enough that healers need to adapt on the fly.  But once you get into a large raid, it’s very likely that you will be given a fixed assignment. You may get told off later if you drift from your assignment, even if the raid was completely successful and you kept your healing assignments up as well.

Managing a team of healers is a complex job. To make it more tractable, healing leads do use fixed assignments and the tactics require healers to stick to them. So healing in a large raid often means that you lose a lot of the normal fun decision making of healing in groups. You don’t even get to decide who you heal. No wonder people refer to healers as healbots. I’ve never felt so much like a healbot as in a large raid, and I used to be a healing lead in 40 man raids. Not only that but you probably won’t even get to use half the spells you use in 5 man instances.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges in raid healing is how to setup your UI and addons so that you can most easily work out what’s going on. In any discussion about addons, you’ll see the healers weighing in most loudly. This is because a tank mostly just needs to see the boss and any adds. So do dps. But a healer needs to be able to see the mobs AND the entire raid. And because healing is so often reactive, they need everything to be represented in a way that makes it easy to react very quickly.

This would be vastly easier if WoW could steal an idea from WAR and give everyone the ability to have both a friendly and an unfriendly target. What they actually do instead is let you have a focus target (which may be friendly or unfriendly) as well as your main target. It’s workable but not as simple as if heals always went to your friendly target and damage to the unfriendly one.

By comparison, raid tanking IS different from group tanking but it’s not any less interesting.

A lot of this does come down to WoW in general. If healing raids was more similar to healing groups then it wouldn’t be an issue. You could imagine a game where most healing spells are actually group heals. In that game you’d assign one healer per group and focus on positioning so that a group would always be within heal range. You could imagine a game where it actually wasn’t possible for a healer to heal outside their group. That would give them back the flexibility to decide how to keep their group alive.

But in that case, it simply wouldn’t be possible to drop the number of healers in a raid. You’d need one per group. And maybe more than one for the main tank group. It’s not a flexible way to manage the setup.

Being tedious is not necessarily a problem in itself. Some players prefer to have their assignments predetermined. And it’s way less of an issue for healing classes that specialise in single target healing anyway. If you are mostly healing the tank in raids, and mostly healing the tank in instances, then there’s no reason that raid healing will be any duller for you. But if you like cross-healing (ie. healing whoever you like in the raid) then it’s frustrating to be told that you can’t do it.

I always found battleground healing far more fun, for that reason.

WoW Raiding just isn’t kind to healers

I think it’s the highly tuned aspect of WoW raids that makes them so awkward for healers. When you have a fixed number of people in the raid and a lot of pressure to kill bosses as fast as possible, the raid spots which don’t directly add to damage are under more stress.

I don’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed raid healing in WoW on the occasions when I have done it. But they haven’t really nailed yet how to make raid healing fun, and even the encounters that are designed to test healers (like Loatheb) are often dull for everyone else.

For me, the absolute high water mark was healing Zul Aman on my druid. Hex Lord Malacrass was an absolutely awesome fight – busy in lots of ways, lots for everyone to do, and it really did test the healers. I was proud when we got that and I was there. (The low water mark was 40-man Razuvious because I didn’t get to heal at all on my priest and had 38 people shouting at me on Vent whenever the mind control broke.)

If you play a healer, how do you feel about raid healing?

When to use shield wall?

There’s a great sketch in “Yes Prime Minister,” where Sir Humphrey (a high level civil servant) is trying to persuade the Prime Minister out of wanting nuclear weapons.

I can’t find the script, but Sir Humphrey gives the PM a series of slowly escalating situations and after each one he asks, “Do you press the button?” and the PM shakes his head. Eventually the hypothetical Russian Armies (this was an old series) are destroying London and knocking on the door of Number 10 and it’s pretty clear that the Prime Minister would never press that button.

You can play this game with Shield Wall too (for non-WoWers, it’s an ability which severely reduces all incoming damage for 12s, and it’s on a 5 min cooldown):

  • You can see the boss in the room. Do you press the button?
  • One of your healers just got a high score on Bejewelled. Do you press the button?
  • You just pulled an extra mob. Do you press the button?
  • You haven’t used Shield Wall in the last 30 minutes. Do you press the button?
  • The boss enrages. Do you press the button?
  • The off tank just stood in a void zone and died. Do you press the button?
  • You’re down to 1k health and zomg you’re going to die. Do you press the button?

Lots of MMOs have similar types of ability. They’re powerful, but balanced by making you really think about when to use them to best effect. And although a bunch of dps who blow all their cooldowns at the same time can produce incredible spikes of damage, it’s the tanking and healing cooldowns that are most likely to prevent a wipe.

Tanking is a Joint Effort

There are two sides to tanking: holding threat, and not dying. Good luck on the not dying part without a healer at your back. Tanking is a team effort between the tank and whoever else is helping them to not die. As a tank, your main responsibility is to pick up the mobs, hold threat, and move them as required, whilst not doing anything that would make you more likely to die. The healers will do the rest.

So a tanking or healing cooldown is to help keep you alive. In other words, Shield Wall is there to make life easier for your healers. When you’re thinking about when to use it, you should be looking out for situations that would normally cause a lot of extra healing stress, or when the healers (for whatever reason) need you to buy them just a few more seconds of time to get the heals out.

Shield Wall can help smooth these moments out. It absolutely can help turn a wipe into a kill. And sometimes it will make no difference, you would have died anyway. If you have 2k health and a boss normally hits for 20k on plate, Shield Wall alone will not save you. That doesn’t mean it can’t help – you can always hit other cooldowns too to get some additional emergency health, and the rest of the group might have other ways to assist. But sometimes it’s just not going to make the difference.

Cooldowns and Communication

Matticus has a great post on WoWInsider discussing the different types of healing and tanking cooldowns in WoW, and the importance of communicating with the other players when you use one (i.e. so that they know to save theirs for later.)

Sometimes in the heat of the situation, that’s quite difficult to do. If things are going pear shaped, usually you react first and then announce to everyone what you’ve done.

If you really want the raid to know every time you use Shield Wall, you can macro in some comment like /ra Shield Wall used!! to your hotkey. Or use an addon like castyeller that can be set up with custom announcements on different abilities. It won’t be as effective as shouting over voice chat but has the advantage of happening automatically.

Anyway, there’s three different types of situation where you may want to use Shield Wall. (Four if you include when you press it by mistake). With some of them you’ll have more time to communicate than others.

Usually though, in an emergency we prefer to have the tank use their cooldowns first since they’ll probably be the first to notice when a boss does anything unexpected (due to staring at it). Healers may need a few extra seconds for their UI to update before they can react. That’s not universal, some healers are really good at watching the fight, but as a tank you have no excuse for not being the first to know.

1. Predictable in advance

You know in advance that there will be brief but heavy healing stress and Shield Wall can help (in extreme cases like Sarth+3, the fight requires timed uses of cooldowns or you won’t make it).

This could be some badass boss ability. It could be that there’s a period of extremely heavy but predictable damage (e.g. an enrage). It might even be that the pull is particularly tricky. Or there’s a period which is very threat sensitive (i.e. so if you take less damage then your healers are less likely to pull healing aggro).

In any case you can discuss it in advance and work out some kind of cooldown use order. If you do this,  watch out for people being unexpectedly taken out of action and report this pretty smartly. A healer who’s died in a flame wave can’t use a cooldown … unless someone else uses an emergency battle res to get them back up.

Don’t forget that you can use Shield Wall when you pull if the pull is the most stressful part of the fight.

Try to think through fights where you have died before due to spike damage. Was any of that damage predictable? Ask your healers for their suggestions also. If there are, Shield Wall will soften the blow.

2/ Unpredictable, but you saw it coming and had time to think

The fight is not going as planned. You have to change tactics on the fly. You can see that you are imminently about to take a lot of extra damage and you know the healers probably weren’t expecting it. Use Shield Wall.

Examples:

  • Unexpected change in tanking orders – maybe one of the other tanks died and you’re picking up their assignment on the fly.
  • One of the healers died or is out of action. You can buy some time to help the healers adjust.
  • The boss is almost dead! But there are no healers up. Can you survive for just a few seconds longer to get the kill?
  • It’s a progression fight. What’s that void zone doing? Wait, is that add meant to be there? (i.e. you don’t know the fight well, but you can see some heavy damage coming.)

This is where Shield Wall truly shines and a lot of tanks are so busy fire fighting that they don’t think to use it.

If you have more time to discuss the situation (maybe you have some time in hand before the next bout of heavy damage) then it may be that someone else will offer to use their cooldown first.

I was thinking of this the other night when we had a main tank disconnect while fighting XT-002. I was only tanking one add at the time  and I saw the boss turn to the raid, so I charged in, hit Shield Wall, taunted it back and yelled on teamspeak that I was taking him. The other off tank spotted what I was doing, grabbed my add, and took it off somewhere (I may have mentioned before how awesome she is).  We killed him. It may well be that the healers noticed immediately – they’re pretty good – but the initial healing assignments wouldn’t have had me on the boss, so why not make their lives a bit easier when you can? Tanking is a joint effort, after all.

Point is, it can all happen very quickly. By the time most people had noticed the boss was loose, it was already under control again.

3/ Emergency

Usually signified by your rapidly dipping health bar catching your eye, accompanied by thought process along the lines of, “Argh, I am dying!!!”.

You don’t have a lot of time to think. You may not even know exactly what happened. All you know is that if things look to be going south and your cooldowns are still up, and there’s a chance of saving the fight, you might as well blow them. This is reasonable with a 5 min cooldown. Back when it was on a 30 min timer, you might have been keener to save it.

Maybe the Shield Wall will help. Maybe all the other cooldowns that people are probably dropping on you will help too. The key with emergencies is that since you don’t really know what happened, you’re just pressing buttons blindly and hoping for the best. Maybe it’ll be that day.

Clumping the player base

When patch 3.1 comes out, I intend to drop our Naxxramas raids off the schedule and run Ulduar 10 man on Saturday nights instead.

By that time I expect everyone will have gotten all the gear they wanted. Alts will be geared. Offspecs will be geared. Players will be bored and looking for new mountains to climb. And if anyone still needs any of the drops, chances are that there will be something better in the new instance that they can aim for instead. Maybe we will occasionally run Naxx again on off-nights as fun runs, for alts or achievements, or for people who come later to the game to play tourist.

I expect our 25 man raid leaders to make the same decision. (I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.)

In fact, I expect 95% of all current raids to drop Naxx like a stone when Ulduar is released. Farewell, Heigan. Sayonara, Patchwerk. Auf Wiedersehen, Anub’Rekhan. Adieu, Kel’Thuzad. Nice knowing you, and thanks for all the loot.

Think about this for a moment. When in the history of the game has a new raid instance been patched in that so many raid groups were immediately ready to attempt? When in the history of the game has everyone been finished with the same tier at the same time?

The answer is never.

Although the majority of the player base has a max level character for most of the time (barring the first month or two after a new expansion), they’re usually spread through the end-game content. In the past, some people would still be struggling with the entry level raids while the hardcore were two or three tiers of raid instance ahead of them. It had some big advantages: everyone could pick at the content at their own pace and hopefully find something to challenge them. It had some disadvantages: the playerbase grew more cliquey, more stratified, and had even less motivation to mix with people outside their own raid group.

The problem of getting people to mix with the rest of their realm is a knotty one. Games like Warhammer (and DaoC before it) have solved it handily with their PUG friendly PvP endgame. It isn’t for everyone. It can get dull. But every warm body who knows roughly what to do can help contribute to a victory and every raid leader knows it.  Although PvP is unpredictable by its nature, you can log into WAR and if it’s a busy PvP night, you can be straight into a busy raid in a few minutes (plus how long it takes you to get to them).

There is an actual strategic value in having greater numbers. So when you log in, you’re a potential asset to your realm. Sure, the zergy play style doesn’t suit everyone but it definitely does make it easy for players to get involved – you can easily find yourself in a raid group including members from both hardcore and casual guilds. Taking keeps in large groups is not remotely difficult. There’s no special challenge to it. But it can be quite fun and  at least you can easily socialise and get into a group.

WoW is taking a different route. Instead of encouraging casual and hardcore to play together, they’re  making sure we all have roughly the same gear and are at roughly the same level of progression. So if we did want to play together, we could. But they also know that they can’t drop the difficulty so much that casuals and hardcores really could play in the same raid. People do enjoy the challenge of WoW PvE. And WoW PvE is not a zergy numbers game.

Achievements now take the place of higher tiers of raid instances. They don’t excite people who were motivated by wanting to see new and different content, but they suffice well enough for people who mostly wanted boasting rights.

And it isn’t just the raid instances that are effectively phased out. Normal level 80 instances were outdated as soon as players realised that they could pretty much hop straight into heroics. The intention is that we all get to the same place and then stop, and wait for the next patch.

When that comes out, we advance to the next square on the board. We complete the task on it. And then we stop, and wait for the next patch.

This is all well and good. However it works out, it is a solid plan. I expect that somewhere in patch 3.1 will be a way to get gear that lets new level 80s join the Ulduar party – hopefully without needing a boatload of runs through heroic instances that no one else can be bothered with.

Help, I’m a prisoner in Naxxramas!

Immersively, I feel as though the endgame has become smaller and more claustrophobic. And not just because of running the raids on 10 man as well as on 25 man.

The raiding end game felt larger when you knew that raid groups were working on different content, each one struggling to make its mark on the progression line. When it meant something to be a Black Temple guild even to the people who weren’t in one. Does it really mean the same to be in a Sarth+3 guild?

I don’t think so.

I don’t much care personally about boasting rights or which raid is in which instance. But I do feel hurried by Blizzard’s very obvious schedule that tells me which raid I should be running at every point in time.

Is the theme park of WoW becoming a park with only one ride?