It’s been a few weeks since I last posted here, primarily because I’ve been angsting over the current content and how to express what I really feel about it. Though at last report I was exceedingly delighted with patch 4.3, “Hour of Twilight”, let me assure you that the bloom is most depressingly off the bush. Now I am instead both wary of and worried about what the next few months will bring. In my opinion Blizzard has really messed up here, despite the fact that Transmogrification and Void Storage are wonderful, despite the incredible lore and gorgeous visuals of the three new heroics and the new raid, Dragon Soul. Their decisions with patch 4.3 have affected me as a guild leader and a raid leader, but mostly they’ve affected me as a player. I’ve finally sorted out the reasons why:
The new heroics are too freaking easy.
Before I comment on the three new heroics I’m going to revisit WotLK for a bit, because a comparison between the previous expansion and the current one is definitely pertinent. Shortly after the Wrath expansion was released, heroics were a serious challenge, not unlike they were for the first six months of Cataclysm. I remember 2-healing Utgarde Keep – by far the easiest dungeon in Wrath – in order to finish it, at least in the first week after hitting level cap. I recall months and months of trying to get through the “Brann event” in Halls of Stone, a fight that took an exceedingly geared tank, a godly healer, and 3 massive dps. It was just impossible. I fondly remember working out strats for Ahn’Kahet and Utgarde Pinnacle – yes, strategies for completing heroics. For a very long time I was not even allowed (by my guild) to run Ahn’Kahet, because, as a druid, no one could kill my clone during the Volazj fight. Bears that charge, bash, swipe AND spam nourish? You couldn’t get through the phase without the druid (me) killing everyone.
What I don’t remember about Wrath is any complaints at all about the difficulty of the content, though considering the MMO public, I’m sure the QQ was there somewhere. It just didn’t really exist within the server community – certainly not our guild (which was definitely casual and inexperienced at the time) nor the ones we did joint raids with (which weren’t any less casual and inexperienced). Yet the content was genuinely hard. People enjoyed the challenges. They viewed them as, you know, a challenge. A test of skill. You had a sense of accomplishment when you completed them, and an even greater sense of pride when they finally got easier.
By the time the Icecrown Citadel dungeons came out even the casual players were fairly geared and experienced. The Argent Tournement interlude prior to ICC brought a single new heroic that was also astoundingly easy to wipe on, and a new raid that was intriguing, short, and virtually impossible on heroic mode – but both the heroic and the raid offered nice gear upgrades. The three new ICC heroics were brutally difficult, especially with pugs. Mention of Halls of Reflection still causes extreme reactions to this day, from shudders of horror to grimaces of sheer distaste. That heroic was excruciating for many, many people. But it was a challenge that gave really nice rewards… if you played well enough to complete it. In other words, as the expansion progressed, so too did the challenge and reward of the content, in line with the gear and “fitness” of the players. The old content became ridiculously easy as we outgeared it, but the new content provided constant new challenges and valuable rewards, which kept the game fresh and interesting.
Flash forward to Cataclysm. The initial dungeon content, like the new content of Wrath had been in its early months, was HARD. The first group I went into heroics with spent six hours trying to figure out Deadmines, moved on to Stonecore – never making it past the first boss – went away for some lunch, and came back half an hour later to try something new… only to finally give up until we’d all acquired some gear in regulars first. For several months, players worked tirelessly on gearing up just to conquer the challenge of heroics. Stonecore was brutal, period. Deadmines took an eternity to finish, as did BRC and even Halls of Origination. As you figured out the strategies for trash pulls and bosses, you also sorted out how to deal with the too-oft crappy attitudes (or lack of skills) of pug players in the random dungeon queues. Still, heroics eventually became mind-numbingly easy for many.
And then the Zandalari dungeons came out – a gargantuan step up in difficulty and excruciatingly long to boot. The rewards were nice if you hadn’t been able to raid, but if you hadn’t been able to raid you were not geared enough (or fit enough, as the player skill requirement was also incredibly high) to finish them. A Zandalari heroic could easily take three hours and 300 gold in repairs to complete, yet offered gear that was an entire item level lower than the raid gear needed to make the dungeons even feasible. My initial response was “we’ll do this once for the achievement, but never again….” though we did succumb to helping guildies get through it, and eventually people were more or less geared enough, or at least knew the fights well enough, to finish in an hour or so. But these heroics offered little incentive for geared players other than points or enchanting mats, and given the length of time invested in running the Zandalaris combined with the lack of any useful reward, many chose to forego heroics altogether – a sad state of affairs for a game in which dungeons are a primary activity. Note that it’s the challenge combined with the lack of significant reward that matters here – the problem is not “challenge” in and of itself.
Which brings us up to Hour of Twilight. Though Blizzard made one good change to the point system by allowing players to get the same point reward from any of the heroics (and thus some initial incentive to actually run heroics again), what I think many of us were looking for was exciting new content that would be both challenging and rewarding – like the ICC heroics had been. As the last content patch of the expansion, it was reasonable to expect this. Yet the heroics are stupidly easy – and not only for those of us sporting gear from heroic Firelands. I’ve seen brand new 85s walk into the new heroics (after buying their way up to the ilvl requirement) and complete them with ease. I have guild members who are impatient if the heroics take more than 15 minutes. The gear that is dropping is the same level as the previous raid tier, which means that, again, there is zero reward for those of us who have traveled along with the content and would like some sort of motivation for remaining here to do it day in and day out. But that isn’t what we got. Oh, sure, the heroics are beautiful, visually-speaking, and the lore is fascinating, but there is no challenge. At all.
As if that’s not enough, the changes to the points system were combined with both a prohibitively-low cap to Valor points (the reward you get from killing raid bosses and completing heroics) AND zero access to tier gear (the good stuff that gives you set bonuses that virtually all raiders want) except through raiding. The raids are disgustingly easy (which I’ll get to in a moment) so a single week of raiding results in capping on Valor points since you can down every boss in a night or two, but because you can’t buy tier with Valor points and there are only 8 bosses, you have to hope that the random number generator that determines loot rolls in your favor. If the heroics were a challenge and offered nice rewards there would at least be something to do. But they’re not and they don’t. Instead, they seem to be designed specifically just to get people who can’t raid (due to lack of skill or lack of time) Firelands- level gear for virtually no effort. It’s like salting the wound for the rest of us. In essence, there is now zero motivation for geared players to do much of anything at all.
And it gets worse.
The new raid content is not only too easy, it’s easy to the point of being boring as hell.
Within five days of the opening of Dragon Soul, five guilds on my unabashedly-unprogressed server had downed all 8 bosses of the final expansion content. You should read that sentence again – it’s not a joke. This is on normal raid mode, not in the Raid Finder. My own guild has only the final Deathwing fight to go. We’ve nearly one-shot each of the bosses. Certainly there was almost zero effort put into any learning of the first four bosses, and the remaining four have taken little more effort than that.
That paragraph alone pretty much makes my argument for me – the last raid content of the expansion, which should be the most challenging and the most intriguing and which should require the best teamwork and gear… is so ludicrously easy on normal mode that most guilds are completely done with content by the second week of the patch. To say that I am profoundly disappointed is an understatement. Raiding is a visual logic problem, it is a challenge of mind and body (hand-eye) that is made even more demanding by having to work as a team in a high-intensity environment. It is truly a team sport. But in Dragon Soul our problem solving skills, hand-eye coordination, reaction times… none of these are challenged in any way. There is no sport to our sport. And thus we are bored. Witless.
I don’t understand the change in paradigm. Though the Burning Crusade endgame was too “srs bzns” for all but the top players – a situation of exclusivity that Blizzard was smart to move away from – the Wrath model of raiding was nearly perfect in terms of both quantity and challenge. The main raids of the expansion were long, interesting, difficult, and fun. Ulduar was particularly beautifully crafted, similar in scope and feel to Black Temple or Sunwell Plateau – it was a grand expedition that your raid took together, true “progression” through the content. Even Naxxramas had this atmosphere, and Icecrown Citadel certainly maintained it, putting a wonderful, dark, and epic finish on the long journey that was the WotLK expansion.
In the meantime, Wrath was peppered with smaller raids, fast yet challenging and interesting, with a couple of new raids under Wyrmrest Temple, as well as the reappearance of Onxyia and the new Trial of the Crusader (the Argent Tourney raid). TotC was a little odd and definitely short compared to the three main raids of Wrath, but it was different enough to be intriguing – and the heroic mode was damn nigh impossible, other than for hardcore raiding guilds. These smaller raids provided some exciting content in between the larger, more expansive raids, so that you still had some nice challenges yet weren’t constantly stuck in progression. These raids were also typically easy enough for even the casual raiders to finish (with some hard work and learning, of course), yet rewarding enough to make it worth the effort for others to do too. All in all, Wrath of the Lich King was a wonderful expansion, due not only to its dark, epic story, but also to the smart release of raid content that challenged the hardcore yet allowed casuals to work their way through as well and see the endgame.
Cataclysm had the potential to be just as epic, but rather than increase in scope and challenge as the content progressed, the raids have instead gotten smaller and less difficult, leading up to and concluding with Dragon Soul. In this last raid of the expansion, the first four bosses of the raid are significantly easier than any of the bosses in the Zandalari heroics. Both of my raid groups walked into their first day of Dragon Soul and one-shot the first boss, without studying any strats. My more advanced raid group can, by the second week, down the first seven bosses in just over two hours. In the third week of content shouldn’t we still be learning the normal modes?
Blizzard is staying mum on the subject for the most part, but there’s plenty of postulation as to why the content is so easy, ranging from “Heroic modes are the actual new end-content” to “Blizzard is only catering to its majority population of casual players now”. And by most accounts (and various world logs) heroic modes are hard, so perhaps we simply need to rethink our focus and not view normal modes as the actual end-game anymore. Still, I have never before been as bored in a raid as I was in Dragon Soul by the second week – at least not until I’ve spent months learning and wiping and then farming for gear – and I am someone who loves raiding, is devoted to WoW and was very much looking forward to the dragon lore of this content. I am left to conclude that Blizzard is, in fact, catering to a population that is motivated solely by consumptive mentalities (“I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now…”). Furthermore, I feel that this decision will burn them when their long-term players are truly bored out of their gourds because of the lack of challenge and move on to find some true test of their gaming skills, as WoW used to be. Will TOR provide that? How about Guild Wars 2? That there is no MMO that can currently dethrone WoW is merely a passing circumstance if Blizzard continues on this trend of alienating its long-term player base in order to cater to a populace that seeks only instant gratification – a population that will move along just as quickly as they arrived once the buffet table has been plundered.
The irony is that this new strain of “casual players” (which is a misnomer, since they’re not actually casual, simply consumptive) doesn’t even really care about the rewards of the content (does anyone really care about handouts?), though they’re sure as heck gonna take ‘em. But, speaking of rewards…
The rewards suck.
I can hardly convey my disappointment with the loot and the reward system for this tier of PvE gear. I honestly didn’t think things could get any worse than last tier, which had belts and cloaks coming out of every nook and cranny imaginable (Both of these dropped frequently off of bosses even though they were available through a quest, a daily node, AND an in-raid reputation grind – I mean, seriously, Blizz???), but which offered such a ghastly scarcity of shoulders and boots that, despite full clears of Firelands every week for months, many of our raiders had ilvl 359 – or even 353! from the Zandalari heroics! – shoulders and boots going into Dragon Soul. Boots were arguably the worst problem; not only were they rare as boss drops, but the crafted recipes were virtually non-existent, and since the Chaos Orbs required to craft them were soulbound, if you were lucky enough to find a crafter with the recipe you needed you were typically SOL anyway because they didn’t have any orbs – or wouldn’t “sell” them to you for the crafted piece. I know of a single player who had the caster leather boots on my server (despite an extensive search), and she refused to craft them for anyone outside her guild. I am seriously appalled that Blizzard not only created a situation in which significant pieces of gear were almost entirely unobtainable through any individual means, but then came along later and reduced the drop rate of the crafted recipes, penalizing both crafters and anyone looking to get the crafted gear.
So things could only get better, right? Wrong.
In an effort to make WoW more accessible to more players, Blizzard added a new level of difficulty in their raid content: the Looking For Raid (LFR). This system allows you to queue either alone or in a group (even with a full raid group, if you want easy achievements and fast gear) and do the entire Dragon Soul raid on a drastically-easier level. In fact, you can do it multiple times a week, if you like, though you can only gain loot from each individual boss in the LFR once per week (although you can then go on to gain loot from normal or heroic mode boss kills as well). The system was created, supposedly, to accommodate players who have been unable to get into the raiding scene due to problems such as time (time to raid or even to grind for gear), or experience, or low skill threshold. And certainly this is an admirable goal and one I agree with and could support. But if experience is the goal, then why in the world is the LFR dropping tier pieces and achievements? What LFR has actually become is a loot wagon. An all-you-can-eat buffet. Free gear upgrades and tier 13 for a token effort. Show up, go AFK for half the raid, play poorly… get loot anyway.
I’m all for getting people addicted to raiding – it’s a wonderful sport. But if the purpose is to help people who can’t help themselves, why give away premium loot in the LFR… while at the same time putting punitive restrictions on loot acquisition through the traditional methods? Because that’s the other part of this murky picture: I mentioned the Valor point restriction earlier, and that 1000 point-per-week cap. For those of us who are unwilling to farm the LFR, gearing up is going to be a very slow process – not because it’s too much work, but because Blizzard has purposely prevented us from being able to grind out heroics. Apparently we’re supposed to take from their gravy train.
Quite frankly, I object. Like, a lot. Blizzard devs and “Blue” forum posters, along with about half a million trolls, have been telling us that our complaints about the loot system and the ease of the raid finder are elitist or selfish – which I find to be wildly dismissive of the seriousness with which some of us approach raiding.
Here’s the thing, folks. In most countries in the world there are competitive sports. From kids playing in the back yard, to pros making millions of dollars a year, competitive team (and individual) sports are a societal norm. At the top levels you have the best players making the most money and receiving the highest accolades. They have access to the best gear, the savviest training and most skilled medical staffs, etc. They are the fittest in their sport, typically because of their constant training and dedication to it. This isn’t an elitist attitude: it’s the natural order of things. It’s an accepted system. The least-skilled aren’t prevented from playing, but if your idea of playing baseball is the company league, you sure as heck don’t expect to get treated like a pro player when you step out onto the ball field. Pro players are revered. They’re viewed with awe and are respected for their skills. They are rewarded and accommodated accordingly.
But for some reason, we’re not supposed to want that in raiding. We’re not supposed to approach raiding like a team sport, and we’re not supposed to want to have our skills and gear and accomplishments be a meaningful and pertinent reflection of our effort and dedication, particularly in how we rank against others. Especially if that might imply that some of us are better than the rest. And I have to ask… why the hell not? Why are the hours that we spend improving our skills and abilities and gear, the commitment to raid times and careful scheduling of our non-WoW responsibilities, the loyalty to our team through hours of wiping and learning in real progression not worth being recognized for? Make no mistake, raiding IS a team sport – make any comparison you like, but when you hold serious, top-end raiding up against any professional sport, there is no difference in standards, commitment, and expectation of excellence.
I’ve heard the argument that the top players have the advantage of doing nothing but playing WoW, but that’s a copout. It’s a cheap denunciation of player skill and commitment by those who want what others have, and who, as often as not, play just as much as the top players do, if not more, since many hardcore raiders aren’t much interested in the endless monotony of alts, non-raid achievements or reputation grinds that don’t directly benefit their raiding. In contrast, most of the hardcore raiders I know work full time. A lot of them are in college or grad school. They adapt their schedules to meet raid times because this is important to them. They devote the time they have in-game to ensuring their gear and stats and rotations and resources are all in order, ready to raid, fit as can possibly be… before they level alts and chase achievements. This is what sets hardcore raiders apart – their commitment and dedication to a single, focused goal: raid progression. And there should be no shame in saying that that effort and commitment deserves to be identified as something “better” than what the masses who are there to just “beat the game” get. The raiders who work their way through normal modes and heroic modes are the players worthy of tier gear and achievements.
Instead, there are players walking around in full four-piece tier sets (from LFR) by the third week of content – players who can’t get past Ultraxion on normal mode because their dps doesn’t even break 20K or they don’t know how to properly rotate tanking cooldowns in a way that will both ensure their survival and help their healer, or they can’t heal, plain and simple. The “Realm First Deathwing!” announcement on my server went to a guild that simply beat the others to LFR on the first night – and sure, it’s a guild that should’ve known better and took the cheap way out, but hey… someone was gonna do it, because Blizzard gave achievements to the LFR. I have also walked into heroics in the past week and seen fully-LFR-geared toons who not only have zero situational awareness and get hit constantly by avoidable damage, but also have appalling-low dps. In other words, they’ve benefited by the loot buffet, but their skills haven’t improved in the slightest. The LFR teaches players nothing but rewards them everything. What a pathetic state of affairs.
As a guild leader and a raid leader, I’m definitely affected by this new paradigm, whatever it may be. Given things too easily, most people consume rapidly and become just as rapidly bored, and move along. Am I going to have problems filling my raid teams in the next few months? I’ve already lost a few to TOR. As the months pass and everyone feels sated on their LFR four-piece tier sets, are they going to lose interest in WoW altogether, making it difficult to even get events going? What is here to motivate people to stay? What is left to generate interest?
But the scariest part for me is that I’m actually asking myself those questions again. Is there anything interesting in WoW anymore? I mean, I thought I was devoted and I’ve sought out any number of ways to keep the game fresh and exciting. But raiding matters to me – it is my team sport. Since I refuse to run the LFR and my only gear upgrades come from raids themselves or Valor points – and I cap on Valor points in two hours of raiding – I don’t even have anything to do to improve my gear. The raid bosses are all down in just a couple of hours and I can’t get points outside of the raids. And I am surrounded by people who don’t even know what all of their class abilities are, much less how to use them, yet are sporting full tier sets and all offset pieces from the LFR. There is nothing here to challenge me and my rewards were all given away anyway by the guy selling knockoffs on the corner.
Yeah, I’m not exactly a happy panda.
Oh, gods… pandas.