But just because we aren't getting any new dungeons doesn't mean we aren't getting alternate ways to obtain all that sweet, sweet gear we know and love. Patch 5.3 will see the introduction of heroic scenarios, slightly tougher versions of the scenarios we've already seen this expansion. In addition to valor, the heroic scenarios will offer raid-finder level rewards for players that choose to participate in them -- better than any gear you'll find in a heroic dungeon at this point.
While this may seem pretty cool for some people, it does make one wonder -- what's the purpose of heroic dungeons?
The history of heroics
Heroic dungeons weren't introduced until The Burning Crusade -- vanilla didn't see them at all. Presented as a harder version of current dungeons, the TBC era heroics were not only extraordinarily punishing, they had a reputation requirement to even enter. If you wanted a chance to try out heroic dungeons, you had to first reach a certain level of reputation with the associated faction. At the onset of the expansion, it required revered reputation -- this was later lowered to honored as the expansion progressed.
These early heroics didn't offer epic quality loot for all. In fact, the only epic drops were on the final boss of the dungeon. They did, however, offer badges that could be used towards purchasing epic-quality gear from various factions in Outland. So what was the point? Badges, a small chance at epics, a way to garner further reputation, and attunement. Several of these heroics were required as parts of attunement chains for various raids -- making them mandatory content for any who wanted to attempt raiding.
The problem with Burning Crusade heroics wasn't the lack of loot, it was a combination of accessibility and difficulty. These early heroics were extremely punishing -- think Mists challenge-mode dungeons. And on top of that, there was no dungeon finder at this point, meaning you had to cobble together your own group for heroics, and hope that it was a solid group that could succeed. It wasn't until Wrath that the dungeon finder was introduced, which blew the lid off of heroic dungeons and made them far, far more accessible.
Heroism, Valor, Conquest, Triumph and Frost
Wrath was also where we saw a sharp shift in heroic gear. Wrath offered Emblems, and each Emblem was tied to a different tier of content. For heroic dungeons, this meant that bosses in the heroics offered Emblems of Heroism, used to purchase better quality gear. As time went on, each new tier of content shuffled what Emblems were offered, until at the end of the expansion heroics were offering Emblems of Triumph, and raids were offering Emblems of Frost. Emblems could be traded down for lower-tier Emblems, and gear on the Emblem vendors included both BoP and BoE epic items.
But heroic dungeons were forever changed when the dungeon finder was introduced. Gone were the days of struggling to find a group -- instead, you could simply queue for a dungeon, go about your business, and hit the dungeon when the queue popped. In addition to this, new heroics were added with content patches, and each progressive heroic offered better and better gear -- by the time Trial of the Crusader hit, all bosses on heroic mode dropped epic-quality items.
In an effort to streamline and simplify, Cataclysm made some drastic changes to this system. First, heroic dungeons no longer offered epic quality items. Instead, heroic gear was simply blue gear that was tagged with the heroic label. Second and far more importantly, the ridiculously-confusing and over-complicated Emblem system was removed and replaced with a point system intended to make life much, much easier. It worked, to a degree -- but as the expansion wore on and new five man dungeons were introduced, once again we saw heroic dungeons offer nothing but epic-quality loot.
Why did this happen? What made this the expected solution? There were two reasons, but one was far more important than the other. First, players that began the game somewhere mid-expansion needed a way to catch up. Second and far more importantly -- as new heroics were introduced, they had to offer not only a challenge to players that had been participating all along, but rewards that were good enough to make that dungeon worth running.
The evolution of the heroic
The problem with heroics is one that mimics the issues we saw with the Emblem system in Wrath -- over-complication. As players progress through new content, they expect better rewards, and they need a challenge to complete. Yet WoW is constantly drawing in new players who are not geared well enough for this new content -- so a content patch just feels like a disappointment, rather than something exciting that they can do immediately. So here's the crux of the issue -- how do you create new heroic content? Who do you create it for? How do you create it for the widest array of players?
For those that have been doing heroics and raids all along, a heroic tuned to the same difficulty as entry-level heroics is no challenge at all. For those that have begun playing mid-expansion or don't participate in raiding, a new heroic tuned to require raid-quality gear is far too difficult to accomplish. Either way, there are players that aren't interested in participating in that new content, or simply unable to do so. And that flies in the face of everything Blizzard is about. They want to create content that is accessible to the largest number of players at any given time -- content that anyone can enjoy.
This is why we have the Raid Finder, guys. In all the years that WoW has been out, there has been one last bastion that was the pinnacle of hard-to-get-to content, and that was raiding. Tremendous amounts of effort were poured into each raid, only to have a fraction of the playerbase actually able to experience that content. Raid Finder opened up that content to everyone, and made it accessible in a meaningful way. But because of this, it threw a wrench into the gear ladder -- suddenly people are wandering around in quasi raid-quality epic gear.
So who do you make the heroics for now? Do you make them for the raiders that are doing normal and heroic level content? Do you make them for the new players that are desperately trying to level and gather new gear? Do you make them for the people in raid-finder quality gear?
How do you answer the question of who to exclude? You don't. The role of the heroic has been re-defined in Mists of Pandaria. It's no longer a delivery method for new content, because trying to puzzle out who to exclude and who to design that content for when there is so much content available is, quite frankly, a logistical nightmare. Heroics have been a step on the gearing ladder since TBC. But Raid Finder has muddled that gear ladder in a substantial fashion, to the point that heroics by and large have no place on it anymore.
So why not just take heroics and put them in one place -- at the beginning of that gearing ladder, just after regular dungeons -- and leave them there? Don't waste the time developing a dungeon that will exclude a percentage of the player population, and instead focus the effort on content that everyone, everyone will be able to play. Which is where heroic scenarios fit in, because if there is one thing that scenarios are, it's widely-accessible, fun content.
You don't need a tank or a healer for a scenario. In fact, the purpose of a scenario appears to be a training ground for players to learn their class abilities -- including those really, really useful survival abilities -- to their fullest. Can you run a scenario as a tank? Sure, but you really don't have to. Can you run it as a healer? Again, yes, but you don't have to. Both of these roles are useful in scenarios, but they aren't necessary. This makes queue times shorter, and means that players are spending far less time waiting around in a queue, and far more time doing what they ought to be doing all along -- playing the game.
The future purpose of 5-man dungeons
While we may not see any further 5-man dungeons in Mists, it has been emphatically stated that these dungeons are not gone for good. Because they aren't -- they have their place on the gearing ladder. They are beginning-of-expansion content. They are around for challenge modes, for players that really want to jump into that five-man group and test themselves on their ability to work as a group. But if you're looking for raid-quality gear, epic gear, you'll want to hit the place where that gear is found -- raids. The raid finder, 10-man, 25-man -- it's all in raids.
There are exceptions, of course. Crafted gear will still be a viable option, point gear, reputation gear, it'll still be a viable option. And for those that need an easier option than working with 25 people, heroic scenarios will offer that challenge they're looking for. They'll offer the gear players would like to have, in content that is far easier to access and much more easily developed for everyone involved.
Is this the final resting place for 5-man content? Maybe, maybe not. If there is one thing that Mists is absolutely excelling at right now, it's experimentation. New methods of gathering reputation, new methods of obtaining gear, new ways of delivering content. Each of these methods are likely being watched to garner player response and see what works best for a particular situation. If enough people miss new 5-man content, we may see it make a return in later portions of the next expansion -- or it may keep the place that it has established in Mists. Either way, Blizzard is working its hardest at something it's incredibly passionate about -- giving us content that shines for everyone that chooses to play.