How Blizzard cornered itself with pushing the envelope slightly too far.
Thoughts about Cataclysm Raiding
It’s a long time ago that i agreed with Tobold 100%. Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Over the last few days i got my 1st steps into current World of Warcraft raiding and by 1st steps i mean finished 10man Bastion of Twilight and learning the last boss of Blackwing Descent. I consider myself a hardcore player for this game, not in the sense of pushing tons of gametime into it, but enduring the less fun stuff to reach the goal. I’m a decent player too. I’m not Paragon material but i’m able to reach the 90% thereshold of what my current class is capable of and i’m a veteran raid player going way back to EverQuest times. I’ve seen how raids as a separate layer of content were built from scratch. When i see current Cataclysm encounters, i start to believe raids in general and in this game particular plateaued.
Raids are the primary form of endgame combat in a PvE centered MMO. It gives players just another new goal to reach. It’s the perfect „you’re not done“ element and it funnels players all players into it. As a basic idea raids are brilliant. I still see myself back in EverQuest at my 1st raid. Pure chaos, pure wonder and at the end pure satisfaction. When the 1st dragon was slayed, i knew this won’t be the last one for a long time. Ten years later i question, if maybe those current Catalcysm bosses probably will be my last?
There’s a trend in gaming in general. Games get easier and/or more accessible. Try to play a 80s or 90s arcade game right now. I ate that stuff back then. Now i quit in less than 5 minutes. There was a reason early games were this tough. To get your coins the game needed to kill your character. That’s it. For years we were conditioned to ingame death as a core mechanic of motivation. This is called a fail-state. Early games had very few fail-states, today in most games it’s hard to even die at all. Not in MMO raiding though.
Cataclysm‚s main achievement was to streamline everything. Polish, simplify, trimming the fat. For some reason they did not apply this strategy for raid content and it shows. It’s hard to „fix“ current raiding. I think they succeeded in Lich King with recycling the old Naxxramas. The learning curve of the instance coupled with the reduced raid size, made raiding as accessible as never before. You could really start from scratch. Cataclysm raiding is different. Good luck killing those bosses as your 1st raid content ever. It’s nearly impossible. Raiding changed with WoW and YouTube. The game offered a critical mass of people and the website offered a platform for output. Exploring an encounter suddenly was a waste of time. If you want to play a current boss and you’re not into one of the top 10 guilds in the world, you’re in for a ride of reading guides and watching videos, before engaging a boss.
The complexity of current encounters reached the tipping point for fun into stress. I play games for almost 20 years and even the most intense hardcore fighting games period can’t touch todays WoW bosses. You always read about the simplicity of WoW, to reason it’s success. You never read about the dark side of the game. Let me give you a quick run-down of a current boss.
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A
You remember dragons right? Killing one feels great, so how about killing two at the same time while bathing in lava? So your average boss now breaks down to different „phases“. A phase sums up a fixed set of mechanics and alters through the whole duration of a fight. Phase 1 is mechanic A, B and C, Phase 2 is X, Y and Z. What once was a whole separate boss, now is just a phase. Bring in the dragons. When you engage this certain boss, it’s one dragon with your standard dragon mechanics and some mixed in flavor. Standard dragon mechanics are two frontal AE damages (breath and cleave) and a tailswipe. The mixed in flavor for the 1st dragon is a timed area damage that is mitigated by „turning“ the dragon away from the rest of the raid. This is a timed mechanic happening all X-seconds.
After a certain time a 2nd dragon will join the fight. Dragon two offers the same standard dragon mechanics and its added flavor is a mechanic, that is bound to its lifebar. For every 10% lost hitpoints, the dragon will do massive damage to every player, wich isn’t avoidable. You have to heal through it. Did i mentioned there’s also even more additional enemies? Those aren’t killable in the traditional sense. Their „lifebar“ always decreases, so the trick here is to control them to not hit players and this is done while killing the two dragons. Sounds to easy right? Wait for it.
Both dragons need to be split apart or they give each other massive increased damage. The „flavor“ mechanics of both dragons are quite brilliantly done. One mechanic is set on a fixed timer and can be mitigated by turning the dragon, while the other is controlled by players itself when to happen. Your aim here is to kill the weaker dragon, to get into phase two, while at the same time damaging the stronger dragon to lower it’s life and make it easier in the following phases. The trick is to not overlap the „flavor“ mechanics but it will happen probably at least once. If both mechanics overlap in a bad way, the „turn-the-dragon#1″ player is dead and the fight is lost. Even if you heal through overlaps, you healers will run into mana problems later on. Oh and this is just phase 1 of the fight, cause if you made it through enjoy phase 2.
In phase 2 the one dragon alive gets angry and floods the room with lava. Players have to climb on pillars while the room is being flooded. On top of each pillar an enemy is spawned, cause why not? In the 10man version three pillars need to be climbed on. The key here is to control the enemy that spawns. Those enemies as usual do heavy damage, wich can be prevented by interrupting the spell cast. If you miss it, massive damage is done to all players. Spells of all three enemies overlap again. If one interrupt fails, it’s bad. If two fail to interrupt, you’re pretty much dead. What’s the dragon doing in phase 2? Spitting nasty damage onto the pillars of course. Should you be able to kill all three enemies on the pillars, you reach phase 3 and your healers will once again be able to breath, cause the amount of damage in phase 2 can get quite insane.
In phase 3 the lava is leaving the room again. Remember those additional enemies from phase 1? Yeah they’re back with a twist, while the dragon is back on ground with its known nasty stuff. Those dead adds from phase 1 are ressurrected and the room is filled with patches of fire. If the adds get to the fire, their lifebar jumps back to full health. This is now a sprint to kill the dragon before the adds overwhelm the raid and the whole room is burning…and yes,for every 10% beaten from the dragon, it will almost kill everyone in the room with its fixed area wide damage. Fun right?
This is a fine example of WoW raiding today. The amount of details to know and the razor thin margin of error create a very intense task, almost too intense for my taste. The core issue with WoW raiding is the binarity of it. There’s only one fail-state. You either do everything right 100% or you lose the fight. Encounters are all about execution. The analogy of learning a dance fits well. If you screw up a single step, you fail. If one of your raid members screws up a single step, everyone fails. I also don’t like the pacing of Catacylsm encounters. It’s TEN from the 1st second to the kill, while it’s used to be slowly going up to TEN for the crescendo of the last phase only. It makes learning an encounter very unsatisfying at times. There’s no setup for mechanics anymore, it’s right in your face from the second you engage.
Another huge flaw of current raid design? Class roles are almost irrelevant. It’s not about your actual task anymore. It’s about how you react to the generic tasks everyone else has to do too. Move, watch out, get up, click this, run away…it’s only about that. I can easily see this working with everyone being able to heal or tank or doing damage all the time. In this scenario, the holy trinity of class separation doesn’t make sense anymore. I see the old class-model dying very fast and i see players like Tobold leaving, cause class roles are so watered down.
How to fix this? Introduce more fail-states. As of today raid content exists in two difficulties: very hard and un-possible hard. There’s no normal or easy difficulty. Why’s that? Rewards of course. Blizzard needs to introduce more layers of rewards. As of today killing bosses gives you x-amount of rewards. Why isn’t there an easier version of bosses to reward a lower y-mount of rewards yet? The content stands for itself. People will beat bosses for few loots or only points.
I also believe that pacing of raid encounters is way to fast. When they lamented about healing in Lich King being to frantic and how this will change with Catacylsm? All BS. Healing is just as frantic already again. Raid encounters feel way too fast for an entry level raid progression, but i’m convinced that will not change ever again. It would make content way too easy for the super-hardcore-world-first folks. For now things will go as usual. Don’t be fooled. Raids are very fine content and there’s room for Blizzard to take the pressure out of some encounters and they will do it, but damage is already done and a lot of players are scared of already and probably canceled their subscription. There’s was a lot of potential for Cataclysm raiding being improved for the overall audience. Too bad this did not happen yet.
Breaking the mold
When Blizzard itself is preaching, how their 2nd MMO will be different, it’s not hard to see what that means and why it’s needed. The way raids evolved since EverQuest, i don’t see any room for improving the formula. Blizzard perfected it and by that, made it very difficult to get into it from scratch. This is content only a very tiny fracture of the community will ever beat. This was always the case for sure, but it got worse over the lifespan of the game. I think they tried to „train“ the playerbase for Cataclysm with dungeon Heroics – something i applaud them for – but it looks like the plan failed miserably. I’ve seen it working. I was an early pickup healer in random heroics. Player’s got better and suddenly the nerfs kicked in and removed tons of pressure. I’m convinced raiding as we know it, will be what keeps WoW alive for many years: tough, intense, large scale, rigid. The true next step of the concept will happen in other games.