Two weeks ago, we published The OverAchiever: Why Icecrown was less fun than Sunwell. It's definitely become one of the more controversial OA topics I've written about and attracted a lot of discussion, neither of which I had really anticipated. Some people agreed with me, some didn't -- but either way, the comment thread is a very interesting read.
While I hadn't been intending to revisit the topic so soon, I lost internet access after Hurricane Irene strolled through my area and had an extra week to mull over the points people had raised. The conclusion (perhaps erroneous) I've reached is that, if anything, the issue is more complicated than we all guessed, as the normal/achievement/heroic split may also point to a deeper systemic problem with the 10-man and 25-man model, too.
While this extends the life of a given raid, it was my argument that it did so at the cost of many players' enjoyment. Having to worry about three different versions of an encounter, and needing all of them for a meta, has changed the way raiders experience content in a way that isn't good for the game.
For lack of a better term, I'll refer to the overall problem as the normal/achievement/heroic split.
Which direction is the excitement?
Making the game more exciting for 99% of the player base is worth making the game more boring for the other 1%. I'm going to use Celton's comment here as a means of encapsulating a very valid point made by a number of people: Namely, that progression itself is still an attractive part of the raiding experience for a number of people and that the current normal/achievement/heroic split isn't necessarily a concern as a result. While it wasn't my intent to dismiss the population of people raiding purely for progression, with the benefit of hindsight, it's apparent that that is exactly how the article reads, and I apologize.
In rereading the comments, it's apparent that a lot of people have had issues with how raid achievements are currently designed. This discussion is probably going to be helped by teasing the raiding population into those likely to care about achievements and those who don't, without falling into my previous trap of assuming that it's a blanket concern.
For our purposes, let's say "casual" denotes anyone who doesn't bother with the heroic versions of encounters, "hardcore" is anyone who does, and "elite" is someone at the top of the raiding pile and in a realistic position to compete for world firsts. While this is a necessary gloss on how people in the game approach content, I hope it's largely accurate for how each population sees its priorities in raids.
- Casual 10-man and casual 25-man Probably won't care about raiding achievements.
- Hardcore 10-man Probably cares about raiding achievements and will go for each tier's meta (e.g., Glory of the Cataclysm Raider), but may or may not suffer the attrition that makes the normal/achievement/heroic split an issue. More on this later.
- Hardcore 25-man Probably cares about raiding achievements and will go for each tier's meta, but is far more likely than their 10-man counterparts to have logistical difficulties getting everyone through the normal/achievement/heroic grind.
- Elite 10-man and elite 25-man Probably won't care about raiding achievements until heroic content is on farm.
Squeezed in the middle
I think it's fair to conclude that it's the folks in the middle getting squeezed. While this reduces the population of players for whom the normal/achievement/heroic split is a problem down to more manageable (some might argue negligible) levels, these people certainly exist. Actually, it can be argued that they form a plurality of the hardcore raiding population, as the vast majority of these people will never be in a position to compete for a world first. A hardcore raiding guild without world firsts to recommend it has to have something to make it an attractive option, and achievements are an undeniable selling point. If you're a raider with the time and gear to go for heroic content, which guild is more attractive while you're browsing the recruitment forums: guilds that promise you a raid drake or ones that don't?
This is where I get the feeling that hardcore guilds are basically obligated to do achievements; they're one of the few things that helps them attract, compete for, and retain players in an age where raid-quality gear is so accessible outside of raids, and factions are no longer an impediment to recruitment. Achievements are not only a selling point for guilds as a whole, but they're also a pseudo-résumé for the players who have them (unless the character in question is a reroll, which people will understand). As Kalon noted, achievements are now among the most reliable outward indicators of a player's experience within raids unless you have the benefit of an Ensidia guild tag. Most of us don't.
The second observation to be made is that if you accept that Blizzard's normal/achievement/heroic achievement split is in fact a concern, a real problem lies in how it might be accelerating what seems to be an already-present trend: 25-mans are going the way of the dinosaur.
Under the normal/achievement/heroic model for anyone seeking a meta, new people brought onto a raid team end up causing a huge headache for everyone concerned. Until you outlevel and outgear content, it's usually impossible to combine an achievement with the heroic version of an encounter. This means spending a week or two redoing the normal version of a boss in order to get new folks their achievements, returning again and again as needed for other new recruits or anyone who couldn't be there for a previous achievement kill. A 25-man raid team has more schedules to work around, more people coming off the bench, and more recruits to juggle than their 10-man counterparts.
As an example, back when Icecrown Citadel was progression content, I wound up having to keep a spreadsheet of players in my 25-man guild who still needed the individual achievements and heroic kills per boss. After a few months in ICC, we wanted to run and hide for each new person brought on board. We wouldn't have recruited them if we didn't like them personally and need their talent, but each person represented another week's worth of boss kills that often had to be done on normal with drops that would all be sharded. It didn't seem right to recruit someone only to screw them out of a drake, so we persisted, but it was pretty discouraging. As Heather observed, guilds in this position feel like they're never going to get anywhere.
I think there's a fundamental problem with this model, as it attaches an undesirable penalty to recruitment -- and no raiding guild can avoid having to recruit. The bite is doubled on encounters like Sindragosa and Cho'gall, where the inability to do the boss on heroic in a given week means you also forfeit the chance to do the heroic Lich King and Sinestra.
So 25-man raiding is definitely not the more compelling model if you want to get everybody their raiding drakes/phoenixes while navigating the normal attrition rate on a raid team. While the most obvious solution is to shrug off achievements and just focus on heroic progression, I think that hardcore guilds are basically trapped on this point, for the reasons described above.
So I leave it to you, readers: Is the game outgrowing 25-man raids? Are two different raid sizes just not worth keeping around anymore?
While the entire comment thread is very much worth your time, I picked a few additional comments that I think give a good view on the issue on all sides:
- Sahara and DeathPaladin: One problem with the Ulduar version of hardmode = achievement, was that sometimes a raid group would unintentionally trigger the hardmode while intending to do the regular mode. Yep. This is a genuine problem with the Ulduar approach to incorporating the heroic version of a fight in an achievement. I think it's more responsible for us to admit that a return to the Ulduar model for raid achievements is not exactly penalty-free on its own, in addition to being a bigger burden on raid designers. DeathPaladin had an excellent point here about every encounter's having to be designed around how to activate the hard mode limiting what developers can do.
- Brock: Achievements are just an optional way to have a different experience in an encounter that you may not have had otherwise ... It sounds like you feel achievements are a required part of progression and not an optional diversion. This is ultimately true (much as I squirm over admitting this in an achievement-oriented column), though I would argue that achievements are only optional to a point, largely for the guild recruitment problems described above. For the raiding metas, achievements are explicitly intended to be an unavoidable part of your guild's progression. However, there's nothing that says you have to do them.
- Razz: Regarding the move away from the Ulduar-style (which seems to be pretty widely admired), one thing that Blizzard said to justify the UI toggle was that they didn't want people to have to use external resources (like Wowhead) to figure out how to engage the heroic version of the encounter. With the Dungeon Journal now in the game, maybe ... they can use that to explain how to do the encounter on heroic. Hmm. The Dungeon Journal may wind up impacting Blizzard's future raid design in a way we can't really anticipate. I think developers have the right to expect that players (or at least raid leaders) will have read it before attempting an encounter, and is that going to give them more room to play with innovative mechanics?
- Lissanna: I can't really parse her comment in a sentence or two, but there's an excellent point here concerning developers' issues with pacing content that can't be returned to its classic and BC level of difficulty. While the game is much better off with more accessible raids and no more nightmarish keying requirements, it does leave us with an awful lot of players blowing through content at the speed of light, which is not the ideal way to experience it.
- Moonburn: Concerning the 10-man and 25-man models: (Scaling issues inhibit) encounter designers, who have to take into account four potential modes for each encounter. It homogenizes encounters, and I think contributes to the fatigue that raiders feel. This was actually what prompted today's detour into thoughts on the 25-man raid issue. Maybe the ultimate problem isn't how raid achievements are designed -- it's that they just work better at the 10-man level.
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