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?