Well, hello there, folks. Apologies for the dust, but that strange thing we call “Real Life” seems to have expanded significantly since I stopped playing. Plus, who wants to hear about WoW stuff from someone who hasn’t played it since November?

Of course, though, I have things to say. I always have things to say. As usual, whether you play or not is your choice. These are just my ruminations about raiding. I’m not calling on people to quit en masse, I’m not encouraging everyone who’s ever quit to go back. I’m just writing because I have stuff I want to write about.

I’ve kept up with some of changes that have happened in the game since I quit in November. A lot of the smaller changes have escaped my notice or interest. To be honest, I don’t care about most of the balance changes, I don’t care about VP upgrades, Elder Charms, dailies or anything of the sort. However, what has struck me as interesting has been some of the discussion between Blizzard reps and various players about a couple of subjects. Specifically, the 10% nerf to 5.0 raids that is coming up in 5.2 as well as some responses to a thread on the forums about raiding being too hard and time consuming.

In order to address these points, I want to talk about my own philosophy and what encouraged me to raid.

RAIDING WAS THE PVE END-GAME

We typically spent a lot of time getting our toons from 1-60 in Vanilla. It took me 30 days of /played time, one full, real-life month (!) to get Kurn to 60. It was a long slog. Part of it was that I had no idea what I was doing to start, part of it was because I was distracted by all the cool things I could do in the world. (I spent way too many hours on a run from Desolace down through Feralas to Tanaris in order to explore the neutral Auction House, for example. There were many deaths as I ran down there at level 28 or so, collecting flight points along the way. I still had a blast, because it was all new and exciting!) I eventually hit 60 and was getting the hang of the various 5-mans available to me. I soon learned the best ways to clear LBRS, that the Father Flame event in UBRS was SO not worth it, that unless a warlock needed shoulders you should probably avoid Jandice Barov in Scholo, memorized the pulls in Strat Undead, figured out how to summon the Postmaster in Strat Live, figured out how best to navigate around Dire Maul’s various wings and, possibly most importantly, knew every square inch of Blackrock Depths and how to get everyone through Molten Core and Onyxia attunement. (Damn you, Windsor, DAMN YOU!)

As I saw it, the 5-mans (and LBRS/UBRS 10-mans) were stepping stones to the REAL end-game, which was raiding. I also acknowledged that not everyone wanted to raid or even had to raid. But the max-level instances were there to help attune us to the raids and also challenged us to learn how to play, basically. That’s where I learned how to pull properly, but that took time. I still remember killing more than one group after the rat cage in Strat Live because I pulled the patrolling abomination at precisely the WRONG time, causing a group of undead to join in the fun. But I learned to time things better and got to be good at pulling, as well as CCing and controlling my pet. (We will not talk about how my cat, Whisper, once wiped us all in BRD because we jumped off the “high road” and Whisper took the long way ’round…)

As I understood progression within the game, it was very linear. You got to 60, did these instances, then started raiding. And you would start raiding with the 20-mans, Zul’Gurub or the Ruins of Ahn’Qiraj, if you didn’t have 39 friends to go raiding with. So we cleared ZG and half of AQ (always less popular than ZG with my guild). We recruited constantly and only ever twice had a full 40-man group to go tackle Molten Core. We would usually be around 32ish people or thereabouts, of varying levels of gear, skill and specs. We once walked into MC with something like nine warriors. Awkward. But no more awkward than 26-manning Gehennas one night.

MC would lead to Blackwing Lair, which lead to AQ40, which ultimately led to Naxxramas, the original level 60 instance. Somewhere in there, around the midpoint of MC, you could probably start working on Onyxia, which dropped T2 helms. (Insert moment of shock when you think that they’re about to release Tier 15…!)

Guilds were supposed to work their way through the content and eventually arrive at Naxx and Kel’Thuzad.

It didn’t really work out that way, though. Given the amount of people needed (at least 40 to have a full-powered raid) and the amount of time needed to prepare to raid (flasks, food, all the farming), many guilds just fizzled out, the guild I was part of at that time included. You have to know that in any guild, you have a lot of chances for things to go kablooie. The raid leader or GM quits? The chances to come back from that (if it’s unexpected, especially) were slim, back in those days. When you had 40 people, at a minimum, to manage, things got crazy hectic and there was even less of a chance of overall consensus or acceptance of various strats because there were even more people who could disagree with you. Maintaining order was challenging.

So, to me, it’s not at all surprising that so few people ever cleared the original Naxx. You weren’t expected to even SEE Naxx back in those days. It was accepted that most people, even raiders, would maybe get somewhere into Blackwing Lair, maybe early AQ40, and that’s where they’d basically fall apart. It was only the most dedicated and talented (and, in some cases, lucky) players who would get through Twin Emps and C’thun and get deep into Naxx.

There was, of course, a time limit. Naxxramas came out with Patch 1.11, June 20th, 2006 and Burning Crusade came out on January 16th, 2008. (Wow. Imagine less than ten months between the final instance of an expansion and the release of the new expansion…) So guilds only had 7 months to get to and clear Naxx.

It wasn’t really possible for people to catch up and get to Naxx. That’s why Naxx (much like Sunwell Plateau later) had so few guilds that ever even got to it. That’s why they could re-release an easier version of it as Tier 7 at the start of Wrath of the Lich King. So few people had seen it when it was current content, it was like a brand new instance.

BURNING CRUSADE MAINTAINED LINEAR PROGRESSION (MOSTLY)

Burning Crusade was more of the same game that we loved. We still had to go through and do the instances at level cap before we went off to raid, only they also introduced “heroic modes” and made those attunement quests rely heavily on mastery of level 70 heroic instances. I won’t talk about the rep requirements for heroics, nor will I talk about how some of the heroics were really quite difficult, even for people who knew their classes quite well. Entry into Karazhan didn’t require heroic dungeons to be completed, but Serpentshrine Cavern required time spent in Heroic Slave Pens and Tempest Keep’s The Eye required all the Trials of the Naaru to be completed — which included Heroic Shattered Halls, Heroic Shadow Labyrinth and Heroic Arcatraz to all be completed. (They were all considered to be some of the most challenging dungeons.) Once you cleared SSC and TK, you could get into Hyjal. Black Temple attunement required an extensive questline and for you to kill certain bosses in SSC, TK and Hyjal.

Long story short, progression here was extremely linear up until the point where they removed the SSC, TK, Hyjal and BT attunements and released Sunwell Plateau which was open to everyone without attunement (although the last three bosses were gated for two months).

Still, things were pretty linear because in order to participate in T6 content, you pretty much needed T5 gear. You couldn’t very well show up to a Tier 6 boss and do your part as a team member in gear you got way back in T4 out of Karazhan. It would be like doing some of Molten Core and then showing up to Naxx back in Vanilla. You couldn’t do it — your stats would not be high enough to justify giving you that spot, unless you were in an exceptional group who dragged you through farm content to gear you up.

So we went:

60-70
Normal level cap dungeons
Heroic dungeons
Karazhan (10 people)
Gruul/Magtheridon (this is when raids started requiring 25 people)
SSC/TK
Hyjal
BT
Sunwell

Somewhere in there, I think with the launch of Sunwell and the Shattered Sun Offensive, Blizzard gave us badge gear. We’d had Badges of Justice for quite some time, but now it could be used to purchase gear that was … interesting.

These badge-obtained items weren’t quite T5 (ilvl 133) but they weren’t quite T6 either (146). They were in the middle, leaning closer towards T6, with an ilvl of 141, for the armor. The weapons were ilvl 146, which was BETTER than what could be gotten out of BT, just from a stat perspective, with the exception of weapons off Illidan (151, except the Warglaives, which were 156).

All of a sudden, you could go from being all decked out in Kara gear to farming badges for this badge gear and you could move from being relegated to T4/T5 content (none of which most people touched in pugs except for Karazhan, at least on my server) to being able to join a guild progressing in Hyjal and Black Temple or even Sunwell.

This was the introduction of the catch-up mechanic. While the removal of the attunements was the preliminary step, the introduction of this badge gear was the thing that actually enabled people to move from T4 to T6 content without ever seeing T5 content. You could go from pugging Karazhan or even just doing heroic dungeons, to a Sunwell Plateau pug on your own.

It’s as though, midway through the expansion, Blizzard realized “dude, if guilds keep getting stuck at these entry requirements (attunements) for each tier, no one’s ever going to see Illidan,” and then once they lifted the attunements, they realized that the gear was the stumbling block. “Let there be gear!” they said, and there was.

Despite this, and despite the blanket 30% nerf at the 3.0 patch drop, about a month before Wrath came out, Sunwell Plateau was not seen by a ton of guilds. It was more popular than Naxxramas was for a variety of reasons (no attunement, the ability to pug trash for epic drops, etc), but I know hardly anyone back on my server went into Sunwell. Even very progressed raiders on other servers had a lot of difficulty with Sunwell and many guilds broke up while coming up against the second boss, Brutallus, who was well-known for being a “guild-breaker” and the sole reason many people picked up Leatherworking, for the Drums of Battle that could be used for a “permanent” haste buff, which stacked with Heroism/Bloodlust.

BURNING CRUSADE-LIKE BADGE GEAR BECOMES THE NORM

So off we go to Wrath of the Lich King.

In Wrath, tier gear was available from badge vendors right from the start. Sorry, I mean emblem vendors. Remember all those emblems? Emblems of Heroism, Valor, Conquest, Triumph and Frost. I still call them badges. :P

Anyhow, you could now get TIER gear from these vendors. Not all of your tier at first, but once the Trial of the Crusader raid (T9) came out, you could use your badges (which you got from basically any PVE content, including heroic dungeons and even a random normal one, once a day) to purchase your entire tier set from a vendor.

This continued with Tier 10 gear from Emblems of Frost, although your methods of gaining Emblems of Frost were a little less varied than Emblems of Triumph. Here, this page explains things pretty well.

So it was during this period, around Tier 9, that you suddenly not only had a “catch up” mechanic, or a mechanic to help you out in case your tier token is packed or to help with bad RNG. Suddenly, players had an alternate method, aside from raiding, to gear up entirely. What’s more, since the badges were EVERYWHERE, basically, people weren’t using the gear to “catch up” in order to go out and raid. It was more just to improve their own characters for the hell of it. And who could blame them? If you have the ability to upgrade your gear, especially with such ease, why wouldn’t you do it?

This is also the point where, in my never-remotely-humble opinion, raiding stopped being so much about the gear, which had been a huge incentive for people for years to this point. Until T9 came out, you were never able to get all of your tier gear without raiding. Gear was many people’s GOAL for raiding. (Not mine, mind you, although it was always nice to get upgrades.)

Gone was the linear progression, entirely. You could now level an alt to 80, do a ton of heroics, get the lowest tier of your tier 9 and then jump into PUGs without being a drag on the group due to your gear. (That’s not to say, of course, that you wouldn’t be a drag on your group at all, but that’s another story.) In theory, a knowledgeable player could get an alt to 80 and decently geared in an extremely short period of time. It was during this time that I actually levelled a bunch of alts. I had levelled my hunter and my paladin, but I levelled a druid to 80 as well as a priest, a shaman and even got my mage from 70 to 80. I healed pugs on all my healing-capable toons and did gold-DKP runs on my hunter. I knocked out dailies and weekly raid quests on most every character. Without a doubt, I was the most active I’d ever been in-game, with six characters at level cap and almost all of them had at least a full set of T9 and I was capable of doing just about any content I wanted to with them (barring heroic raids).

JUSTICE POINTS, VALOR POINTS AND CATACLYSM

Once Cataclysm launched, not all tier was available from the vendors. Clearly, Blizzard had realized “hey, we should probably keep SOME of the tier to raids only…”. Still, players had all kinds of options from their Justice/Valor point vendors. While there were a couple of slots that were notoriously hard to upgrade (helm and shoulders in particular) in early content, but there were several off-set pieces available to people, such that it was also pretty easy to gear up an alt or a new level 85 character. Combined with Darkmoon Faire trinkets, plus crafted gear from various professions, someone could level a toon to 85 and then get geared and hop into a raid pretty quickly. Even while running a guild, raiding with that guild, raid leading with that guild, I levelled a second holy paladin from level 1 to level 85 and geared her appropriately for T11 content in less than two months. If I’d had all the free time I wanted, that would have dropped to maybe three weeks, total.

It only got easier once Dragon Soul was out and the Heroic Hour of Twilight instances were out. Plus LFR joined the fray.

It was clear that LFR (in conjunction with the nerfs we saw in T11 and T12) was brought out to push people back into raids. However, given the precedents set in Wrath of the Lich King (where people were able to get good gear just by virtue of doing daily dungeon runs over a period of time), the challenging aspects of the LFR raids were toned down, if not eliminated.

Blizzard claims this is due to LFRs being a group of 25 people who don’t communicate and don’t plan things out. That’s fine, I get that. But there were very few, if any, negative consequences for screwing things up in Dragon Soul’s LFR. People didn’t have to soak on Morchok, bounce the ball back on Zon’ozz, even switch to the “proper” slime on Yor’sahj. People could eat Ice Waves on Hagara and manage to live. People could easily ignore the twilight realm on Ultraxion while healers didn’t pick up the healing buffs and still live. LFR Blackhorn wasn’t anywhere near as challenging as its normal version and was a pale imitation of the heroic version of the fight. LFR Spine saw healers twiddling their thumbs throughout while DPS mindlessly did damage and countless abominations died before they were pulled into the proper position. Thrall kept dropping people on Madness.

So LFR Dragon Soul was laughably easy to get through, with most of the issues stemming from griefers: those who would start the fight before people were ready or the group was even full, those who would deliberately kill abominations before they were in place and the like.

At the same time, normal Dragon Soul wasn’t terribly difficult. My own guild stomped the first four encounters on Normal on the first night we were in there. Two weeks later, Deathwing was dead and we could start in on heroics.

Meanwhile, non-raiders could “catch up” through LFR and get very similar gear to normals, albeit slightly less powerful versions. Again, though, these people weren’t trying to “catch up”, they were trying to progress. And that’s fine, that’s what LFR is for, IMHO. It’s for the casual raider who wants to see the content and do the encounters but doesn’t have the time or desire to raid in an organized, progressive fashion.

But then, they nerfed the crap out of Dragon Soul, both normal and heroic, despite having LFR available.

WHAT IS THE ACTUAL PURPOSE OF LFR, NORMAL AND HEROIC DIFFICULTIES?

After they had nerfed T11′s normal modes after T12 came out (by ~30%), I know I assumed they would go forward and nerf T12 by the same amount (normals only) once T12 was done and T13 came out. But just three months into T12, they nerfed everything in Firelands, pretty much, on normal and heroic. Why? So that people could progress and see the content.

Once LFR came out with T13, I know I assumed that normals and heroics would remain untouched in terms of being nerfed. After all, anyone with ilvl 372 could get into LFR and see the content.

But no. They started nerfing Dragon Soul normals AND heroics just 9 weeks into the release of the instance, and that’s with an active LFR.

It was no longer about allowing people to “see the content”, as they had previously claimed. If all they wanted to do was to expand the number of people who see instances, they’d done that with LFR. No longer would instances mostly go unseen, as had happened with AQ40, Naxxramas and Sunwell Plateau. The trouble is that, due to the ability to catch up even more quickly, fewer people were seeing the earlier instances, although likely not as few people saw the early raids as the late raids back in Vanilla and BC. Anyhow…

Here’s what Blizzard said about the nerfs to Dragon Soul.

For any number of reasons a group may be having difficulty on a specific encounter each week, and our intent in adjusting the content is to ensure the ability to keep progressing, enjoying the content, and gearing up. [...] Very few players are willing to suit up, buff up, do all the necessary requirements to raid, jump in, and then do no better than they did last week for hours and hours, only to return next week and do the same.

So it became clear: Blizzard wanted people to eventually see any difficulty level without always putting in the required time and energy. Right?

MISTS OF PANDARIA AND A RETURN TO DAYS OF YORE. KINDA.

Well, not really. Nethaera recently replied to a poster on the official forums, who had complained about being in normals for three months and wiping for 8 hours a week and she suggests some things that may be causing issues in the person’s normal raids.

You’ve found a bug or an imbalance in an encounter that’s causing you issues.

Your Raid team may not be using solid achievable tactics to approach the encounters and may need to refine them more.

Members of your Raid team may not have the most appropriate gear for the encounters. which can cause additional burden on other members who do have appropriate gear.

Members of the Raid team may need to change spell rotations or even talent options for specific encounters

So Nethaera is telling people to basically gear up, learn how to play their class, examine tactics and to submit a bug report if they think they’ve hit a bug.

This sounds like a perfectly reasonable response to me. This is what people used to do! This is how I’ve always approached the game. Make sure you have the gear, the skill, the knowledge and a strategy (or two… or three…) and note any weird behaviour that could be a bug. But Neth is telling this person who is stuck on normals to basically learn how to play the game. Good! It’s said a lot more diplomatically than, say, I would put it, but this is a case where the person who is complaining is basically saying “give me my loot with very little effort required”. And Neth says “no”. Yay!

However, at the same time this exchange is going on, the news comes out that they are nerfing T14 by 10% when 5.2 (and thus, T15) comes out. Bashiok says that they went “too far” in Cataclysm, meaning that they allowed people to skip all previous content, later on in the game and that fresh 85s could just hop into Dragon Soul. So now they’re going to try to force people to go through T14 content before hitting T15, and in order to make it a little more palatable to pug it, they’re going to nerf both normals and heroics by 10%.

But hey, if you killed various bosses in those instances PRE-NERF, you get a “Cutting Edge” (for heroic) or “Ahead of the Curve” (for normal” feat of strength! Snazzy. I guess…

SO WHAT’S THE POINT OF THIS POST, KURN?

I guess my point is that Blizzard is being inconsistent.

In the beginning, raiding was basically reserved for those who had the time to dedicate to it, but this was unacceptable.

They wanted more people to raid, so they lifted attunements in BC and implemented badge gear.

This presumably grew the game and so they continued with that trend in Wrath, with the game reaching

They feel that they did too good a job in allowing people to “catch up” in Cataclysm, so in Mists, they’re going to go back to the linear model, but make it easier to complete than it was before (10% nerf).

At the same time, by virtue of what Neth is saying on the forums, they are seemingly okay with someone in a sub-par raid group because there appears to be a limit to what Blizzard will do to allow people to progress without those people doing “the right things”, like gearing up, figuring out how to play and the like.

REALLY? NEARLY 4000 WORDS AND THAT’S YOUR POINT?

Well, there’s more to it than that. WoW is down to 9.6 million subscribers in Q4 (October, November, December) of 2012, down from “over 10 million” in Q3 (July, August, September). The Annual Pass ended, for many people, in November. Is the reason Blizzard is forcing people to go through raid content in a linear fashion because they’re hoping to get back to Wrath basics, where the game population grew substantially and everyone had alts? Is it because their early instances are being completely abandoned even by newer raiders in the more recent expansions? At the end of Wrath of the Lich King (reporting for Q3 2010), there were over 12 million concurrent WoW subscribers.

There are now 9.6 million.

I don’t think WoW is dying, I don’t think 9.6 million subscribers is bad. It’s leaps and bounds more than most MMOs have these days.

However, if I worked for Blizzard, I’d be looking back at Wrath and trying to figure out ways to entice people to keep playing. What could I lift from the extremely popular WotLK expansion and drop into Mists? At the same time, I’d have to balance how to keep the better/smarter/more talented players around.

I think the problem is that WotLK is when Blizzard got an influx of “the masses”. Not gamers, not people who understand what an MMO is or how things like aggro work. We’re talking people who don’t bother to train their skills, who don’t understand the game and they’re inflicting themselves on other players. So as game population went WAY up (and it clearly did), the overall ability of a random group dropped down into the basement.

I think that Blizzard needs to ask if they want 12 million bad players running around, making life miserable for everyone else on every single random dungeon or battleground or LFR they run OR if they want to keep the game interesting for the more talented players, even at the risk of alienating some of the bad players (and thus, their subscriptions).

I think a lot of this is tied in with how they approach gear and available PVE/raid content.

I don’t claim to have the answers. All I can say is that, if I were in Blizzard’s shoes, I would have wanted to keep people like me (GM, raid leader, blogger, podcaster) interested in the game. Since I am not interested in the game any longer (okay, not interested in PLAYING the game, since I’m obviously keeping up to date on some of the happenings), I can only imagine that people like myself (and Majik, for example) are being replaced by the people Nethaera responded to on the forums, who complain about 8 hours of wipes a week on normals for three months.

Which type of player is better for the game? Which approach is best from a financial standpoint? How can in-game changes to gear, gear acquisition, raid content and nerfs be used to maintain and grow this population? How can Blizzard balance the game population? Do they even want to?

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. I can only guess that we’ll learn more as Mists of Pandaria matures. Where will WoW’s population be for Q1 2013? We’ll find out in early May and that, combined with in-game changes, may give us an idea of where Blizzard is heading and what its true intentions are with regards to the type of players it wants playing World of Warcraft.

(PS: The final episode of Blessing of Frost is out. Enjoy!)