The difficulty paradox: Why faster kills doesn’t mean easier content

rawr sha

Rest assured, I’m hard at work on part 2 of my soloing guide.  And by “hard at work” I mean “I’ve been swamped by finals and haven’t gotten a chance to get started.”  Luckily, as most BC content is pretty easy to talk about, it shouldn’t take long.

So, a couple interesting interviews popped up on MMO-Champion today, and they highlight a perception issue I’ve noticed for a while now.  This perception is that, like many other areas of the game, the raid content has been made easier, presumably to appeal to a more casual audience.  Which is why it’s interesting to hear from the higher-ups in both the developers and the raiders that it’s simply not the case.

The first interview is from Ion Hazzikostas, lead encounter designer, who spent some time with ConvertToRaid discussing various aspects of the game, including raid content.  While I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing (see: finals), the summary on MMO-Champ brought up two interesting points:

  • The addition of LFR has allowed Blizzard to target Normal difficulty more towards organized guilds that play together regularly and use voice chat. Previously, Normal difficulty was used by both organized guilds and PuGs, which made it somewhat easier than intended.
  • Heroic Sha of Fear was a worthy end boss in terms of the amount of time it took to defeat. It is almost impossible to make encounters that the best guilds won’t be able to beat in a matter of days when they are spending so much time raiding. Only 28 guilds have killed Heroic Sha of Fear so far.

These points were good for me to read, as they hit upon two issues players who cry out “the game is so much easier now!” have with raid content.

The first is the decline in difficulty of normal-mode raiding.  Back in Classic and BC, there was only one raid difficulty:  whatever the designers felt it should be.  In general, a smaller raid was perceived as being easier than a larger raid; thus, 20-man raids in Classic and 10-man raids in BC were seen as being less difficult as the 40- and 25-man raids of their day.  In Wrath, all raids were designed around having a 10- and a 25-man version, though 10 was still developed to be easier, as it rewarded lower-quality loot.  Even so, the only real raiding was perceived to be 25-man, as it had the higher difficulty and the greater reward.

Then came Ulduar and the concept of the hardmode.  Several bosses could be tackled in a different way, rewarding loot of even higher quality.  This was a novel approach; for the first time, bosses could be seen as having multiple actual difficulties.  TOC refined this idea and introduced heroic raiding, permanently splitting normal raiding into its own creature.  Now, only 25-man heroic was seen as the true end of a raid tier, with normal and 10-heroic not even factored into the equation.  This proceeded through ICC and RS.

Cata then shook things up a third time, with the unified raid lockout and equalization of difficulties (in theory) and rewards.  It’s the system still in use today, where 10- and 25-man reward the same loot, and are tuned to be roughly equal in difficulty.  The problem with this, as I touched on in my retrospective, was that many 25-man guilds fragmented, their raiders opting for the logistically-easier 10-man difficulty.  This begged a question I’ll touch on more later:  what’s the true end of the world-first race?  Does a world-first heroic kill on 10-man count the same as a world-first 25-man heroic kill?

Because 10-man was no longer an easier difficulty, this meant that everyone was going after the same normal-mode fights.  T11 was notoriously difficult, even on normal, so difficult that pugs never really stood a chance.  Thus, when Firelands came around, the normal mode was made a bit easier to better facilitate pugs.  Normal mode bosses were always killed in the first week by the world-first guilds anyway, so why care how hard they were?  Everyone knew heroic modes were where the actual race was.

Dragon Soul changed the raiding dynamic once more, by introducing LFR.  With LFR, a third difficulty was added to the picture, and this proved to be a fix to the declining difficulty of normal mode (though not right away; DS normal was still pretty easy).  Thus, an organized picture of raid difficulties and their intended audiences could be seen.  LFR was for pugs, and was tuned so that even if several raiders had no idea what they were doing, the raid could still triumph.  Normal was for organized guilds, designed so that everyone would need to at least be playing competently to succeed.  Heroic was for the better guilds, designed as a next step after they had completed normal, intended to test their limits.

Even though forum hardcores bemoan LFR, it’s because of LFR that their precious normal modes are actually a fair challenge again.  I can confirm that T14 normal is more of a challenge than T13 and before was, though not so much that it’ll drive you insane (except maybe Elegon).  Because of this, it’s more satisfying to actually finish a boss you’ve been struggling on.

The second point allows me to bring up the second interview, that with Method, the T14 champs themselves.  In an interview with Manaflask, raiders Pacteh and Treckie discuss the world-first race and the difficulties therein.  MMO-Champ did my work for me again by pointing out this quote:

The 3 final bosses of the raids in this tier were all done in 1 reset, what are your thoughts on the difficulty of the encounters, specifically in comparison to older bosses?

Pacteh: In my opinion the difficulty of these encounters are harder than ever, people are judging the content on the speed in which top guilds are beating these encounters when they shouldn’t be. The quality of the guilds in the Top 10 now are so high it’s impossible for an encounter to stay alive more than 1 reset unless its either bugged or impossible. Guilds outside the top20 wont be clearing Sha for a good while after the first few kills.

It’s extremely interesting to me that a world-first raider shares the exact same opinion that one of the lead devs has.  Both are of the opinion that the game is not getting easier, the playerbase is simply getting better.

These exact same sentiments were shared by Frostheim in a post on WoW Insider.  In it, he talks about the general sentiment that the whole game is being dumbed down, and argues that no, the game’s not getting dumber, you’re just not as dumb as you used to be.

If you tell someone to spend an hour a day doing something, and they do it every day, eventually they’re going to get better at it.  It’s only natural; humans are learning creatures.  We pick up on little details as we keep doing things, and the more we do them, the better we get.

Consider the average WoW player.  They might have played for one year or two, but in that time they’ve gone from a clueless bumbling newb to a skilled player who knows many of the ins and outs of the game.  Are they world-first material?  No, but give them a few more years and a lot of dedicated play, and they will be.

The fact of the matter is, it’s literally impossible for Blizzard to design an encounter that takes more than a week to down on heroic anymore.  In the earlier days of WoW, players weren’t as skilled.  There were fewer resources available to help, no such thing as Wowhead, no boss kill videos on Youtube (hell, Youtube itself wasn’t even all that great), none of that.

Nowadays, we do have it easier, but part of that comes from the sheer pile of resources available to the average player (especially if they know where to look!).  You can be ready to raid in an hour by just watching boss strategy videos, allowing you to not waste time wiping later.  I mean you’ll still wipe, but not as much.  Add to that a couple years’ experience, and even someone who doesn’t play too terribly well will be competent.

Boss kills in the early days took weeks or months (Ouro takes the cake at almost three months from raid release to first kill).  A lot of this boils down to the fact that even the world-first guilds back then weren’t nearly as skilled as the world-first guilds of today.  If you took any world-first guild and dropped them back to Classic, I have a pretty good feeling they’d down bosses within a reset.

The point of all this is that there’s no point in trying to distill the game’s difficulty by just comparing boss kill times.  The players of today are a whole different breed from the players of yesteryear, especially the world-first guilds.  There will never again be a boss that takes three months to kill, because designing one that the world-first guilds can’t handle without making it ridiculously cheap is impossible.

If this still doesn’t convince you, the only thing I can say in reply is “see for yourself.”

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