Let's do a little bit of polling in my head, shall we? How many of you raided during vanilla? Not all that many, I'm sure, and not purely because not that many folks from that time are still around but also because a horridly low number of people who were around back then did raid. But let's say you did raid. How many actually got to clear through the original Naxx? Now, that's a small number of hands; after all, even Blizzard said that less than 1% of the player base so much as downed a single boss in the that instance. Moving on to The Burning Crusade, how many raided there? More hands that previously, I'm sure. Now how many of you progressed past Karazhan? How many cleared through Black Temple? Sunwell?
Let's keep getting more current, though. How many say Naxx in Wrath? Now how many saw ICC? OK, how many say any T11 content? How many of those saw Dragon Soul? Interesting! The number of hands gets progressively smaller as the raids within vanilla WoW and The Burning Crusade progress, yet it stays relatively the same throughout Wrath and Cataclysm. That's because in Wrath, Blizzard drastically changed its view on raiding -- far beyond merely making it easier.
The truth behind accessibility
Originally, raiding took an extremely linear progression path. You raided Molten Core so that you could get the gear to raid Blackwing Lair so that you could get the gear to raid AQ so that you could get the gear to raid Naxx. The same was true for The Burning Crusade as well. You raided Karazhan to raid SSC/TK to raid Hyjal/BT to raid Sunwell. If your raiding group was good enough, you might be able to pull off skipping a step, but that was extremely difficult to pull off if your raid team was still trying to do progression.
All of that changed in Wrath. Blizzard did far more than create four varying difficulty modes -- 10-man, 25-man, 10-man heroic, and 25-man heroic. It completely revamped the way in which players progressed through the endgame scene itself. You didn't have to farm older raids in order to get into the newer raids anymore; progression instantly jumped to the most current raiding tier. Just hit 80 and ICC is already out? No problem! Justice and valor gear that you can get from farming 5-man instances will jump you straight past all the prior raiding tiers so that you can jump right into the most current raiding tier.
This was the change that made raiding as accessible as it is today. Forget 10s and 25s; forget normals and heroics. Those were nice changes that helped set the curve. But it was the ability to completely skip entire tiers of content that really opened up raiding on a whole new level.
Once you hit max level, you began your search for a solid raiding guild. Generally, you'd find several that were still working on intro-level raids and were more than willing to take you. You'd join up, start raiding, get your gear, and suddenly realize that you weren't really progressing anywhere. You would clear, say, Karazhan, maybe work on a few TK/SSC bosses, maybe even down a few now and again, but true progression never seemed to happen. There was a constant cycle of players coming and going; probably every other week, at least one person seemed to drop off into the void. Suddenly, you noticed that a guild that was already clearing TK/SSC and working on Hyjal/BT was looking for your spec, and they were willing to take you! So you jumped on board. Congrats -- you just left your first feeder guild.
That is what a feeder guild was, guilds whose progression was perpetually locked in a stagnant loop because every time that one of their players get geared enough to the point that the raid might really start to push progression, he would jump ship to a guild that was already progressed. It seems cruel -- those people seem horrible, honorless, and what have you -- but that was how the game was played. Less progressed guilds existed purely for the sake of gearing new recruits for more progressed guilds; thus, the more progressed guilds didn't have to waste their time going back to old instances to farm gear for new recruits.
Emblems and now points removed the need for this type of cycle entirely. Feeder guilds ceased to exist because there was no need for them. Recruits could be fully geared from the previous raiding tier in a week's worth of 5-man farming.
How change is better
In many ways, this was a fantastic change. Being that feeder guild was no fun, perpetually locked into your current state with no means of advancement. It was hellish to everyone involved. Many of these guilds didn't survive very long, and even if they did, their leadership usually changed by the month. It was a system that needed to be broken, and Blizzard did just that. It had to be intentional. Blizzard has always said that the reason it implemented this change was so new players who just hit max level would be able to keep up with their friends -- but let's be honest, that's bull and we all know it. Blizzard saw the perpetual state of feeder guilds and knew that it had to be broken if it wanted true raid accessibility.
Look at the numbers. Even with 10s and 25s, even with normals and heroics, more players fail to complete raid zones than do complete them. There is a disproportionate number of players that've killed Halfus and Magmaw compared to those who've downed Nefarian and Cho'gall. The same was true for Shannox and Ragnaros (although Firelands, with many fewer bosses, did have more equalized progression), and it wasn't until after nerfs to these raids that raid progression did increase.
Without justice and valor gear, without additional 5-mans to boost gearing, guilds still would have fallen into the same pattern that they had in The Burning Crusade and vanilla. It probably wouldn't have been as extreme now as it was then, but it would still have happened. You would still have ended up with guilds that never got through all of T11 and might only have seen a little bit of T12 progression, because their members would have constantly been rushing off to join up with guilds that had already cleared T12 and were working on T13. This gear reset for every single tier was needed to prevent that from happening, and it's worked.
Like magic, though, everything always has a price. While guilds are freed from being stuck in a single tier, players are able to skip entire tiers worth of raiding -- but that was half the point, so how is that a price? Because raids have a purpose. Karazhan was successful, and Molten Core and Zul'Gurub were successful, not due to their design but because of the purpose that they served. They were introductory raids. Their mechanics were a bit simpler, they weren't as tightly tuned (eventually, in the case for MC), and they introduced players to the entire concept of raiding versus 5-man content. A 5-man boss might have a single ability to watch out for, maybe two in a few cases, but a raid boss? You can get 8 to 10 abilities, multiple phases, adds, anything, everything -- it's crazy!
Introductory raids existed to teach players the more basic raiding concepts, that you can't stand in fires, that you have to interrupt, that you need to work as a team. The movement mechanics of Netherspite, while interesting and neat in their own right, wasn't nearly as difficult as those of Hydross. At their core, the two were fairly similar, but Hydross was a step above Netherspite in difficulty not purely because it required more DPS, more effective health, and more healing, but because the overall mechanics of the encounter were more complex.
WoW doesn't have that system any more. There are no introductory raids because every raid is an introductory raid. Players don't progress from T11 to T12 to T13; they don't even progress from T12 to T13. They hit max level and they jump straight into T13 content.
This forces a drastic change to the way in which raids have to be designed. You can't have a first boss like Hydross or Al'ar that are fairly complex and difficult. Instead, every raid has to start with Huntsman- or Mandokir-level fights. For a tier such as T11 where there are 13 or whatever encounters, that's fine. Tossing in a few easier or learning encounters that new players can train against is a good thing. When a tier has only seven or eight bosses, though? It's a little more tricky.
Paying the piper
Compare Dragon Soul to Icecrown Citadel. Marrowgar was a fairly easy encounter as far as those go. He had Bone Spikes and a whirlwind -- that's it. Deathwhisper, too, was fairly basic. Adds spawn at set intervals and set locations, and then you had a phase 2 with simple movement and interrupting. Lootship was lootship, but after that, the encounters ramped up in complexity rather quickly.
Dragon Soul is fairly similar. Morchok is an extremely basic encounter; so too is Zon'ozz and, to an extent, Yor'sahj as well (although I would argue that he's way more fun and potentially complex than Hagara). By the time you're done with the introductory encounters, there's just not much left to go on. Firelands, though better than Dragon Soul as well, was much the same.
Shorts raids are fine by design, but coupled with the need for two or three intro bosses, it makes for rather boring tiers. This is the price that Blizzard is paying with the new raid design. Let's hope that it can amply pay it in Mists of Pandaria, because it frankly did not in Cataclysm.
Ready Check shares all the strategies and inside information you need to take your raiding to the next level. Be sure to look up our strategy guides to Cataclysm's 5-man instances, and for more healer-centric advice, visit Raid Rx.