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Loot, rationality, and the Sunwell effect

Allison Robert
Allison Robert|April 24, 2009 11:00 AM

Here at WoW Insider we don't always agree with each other. Whether it's debating the merits of various tanks on different encounters, the damage difference between pure and hybrid DPS classes, the ideal function of a particular healing class in raids, or the superiority of cake over pie, our back-channel discussion tends to be pretty interesting.

Eliah Hecht's article "25-man gear should not be better than 10-man gear" sparked a lot of great discussion with our readers and, I think, some illuminating poll results as well. The majority of responders believed that giving 10-man and 25-man raids the same loot table would result in a significant drop in popularity for 25-man raiding. Overall, I tend to agree with this, but I also think that Eliah touched on something that speaks to Blizzard's evolving sense of game design, much of which is evident in the transition between late Burning Crusade and Wrath.

I would like to call this the Sunwell effect, or "ingame rationality." To wit: don't incentivize players to behave in a manner contrary to your actual design interests. I believe this played a huge role in the differences between BC and Wrath raiding, and that it underlies why the 25-man loot table has to remain superior to its 10-man counterpart.

My approach to Eliah's article

For the sake of perspective, my main (a Druid tank) has several realm-first kills from Burning Crusade to present and was sitting on Heroic: Glory of the Raider well before patch 3.1 hit. My guild is serious, but I wouldn't necessarily call us hardcore. I didn't drop my professions to level Leatherworking and Jewelcrafting for the absurd stamina bonuses in bear form, nor was I expected to (hey, I like Alchemy). The guild is so chill that we even have someone who has stabbed the raid leader in real life --

ME: You're joking, right?

RL: Nope.

ME: Why the hell would you let him in the guild?

RL: He hasn't stabbed me lately.

-- and the guild is a fun and engaging place to be. Our success in 25-mans aside, our work in 10-mans ranges from the obsessive to the patchy to the wholly disinterested. We have people who did Glory of the Raider, but I'm not among them. Five months into Wrath, I still haven't set foot in a Malygos-10. I started Wrath doing Naxx-10 religiously, but since December my schedule's only permitted me to keep up with one set of raids, so 25-mans were it. I love 10-mans and wish I had more time for them, but I have an obvious interest in the continued attractiveness and stability of 25-man raids, and I'm comfortable admitting this in any discussion concerning 10-man vs. 25-man loot.

Eliah raised a number of points that, to my mind, were entirely accurate concerning the pre-3.1 state of 10-man vs. 25-man raiding. 10-mans did wind up being harder than 25-mans in many respects, and for all I know, that situation may continue through Ulduar. Certainly Sarth-10 3D was harder than its 25-man counterpart, although I don't believe the same can be said of all raid achievements (certainly not Immortal versus Undying).

Where I differ from Eliah is that I believe the problems he describes arise from execution rather than concept; that is, 25-mans were unintentionally easier than 10-mans, but Blizzard's actual intent regarding them -- similar overall difficulty, trending toward greater 25-man difficulty -- was sound.

In the end I think it comes down to the question of whether you want 25-mans in the game. If you do, I don't believe you can justify their existence without a superior loot table, and here's why.

When I look at the issue of whether 10-man and 25-man raids should reward the same loot, every argument I can make either for or against gear equalization proceeds from an unshakeable belief acquired over the course of raiding in Burning Crusade and particularly Sunwell:

People are relentlessly rational.

No, they're not. People are reactive and emotional

By "rational," I mean that people can reasonably be expected to act in their own interests and in the interests of people and goals they care about. It isn't always about self-interest, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It nudges players to get their jobs done in a more efficient manner and to search for better solutions to common problems. If Ralph figures out a way to do something, and Bob notices that Ralph's ideas would make things a lot less complicated while resulting in the same outcome, you can realistically expect to see Bob adopting Ralph's methods.

The thought process driving this works to both good and bad ends. It's what pushes raids to take a wide variety of classes in the first place, but it's also what pushed them to deny raid slots to good players in the "wrong" classes or specs. Why take another Paladin healer to Sunwell pre-3.0.2 when you could take a Resto Shaman instead? If you have a Warlock with a stamina set, why have your Warrior tank Sarth 3D when the Warlock's voidwalker is (or rather, was) functionally immune to one-shots?

Makes more sense to take the shammy, right? And wasn't it so much easier just to have the voidwalker tank?

...and doesn't that kind of suck for the Paladin and Warrior concerned?

How this influenced the shift from Burning Crusade to Wrath

The entire story behind the maxim of "Bring the player, not the class" and the overhaul to raid buffs is the story of Blizzard's efforts to change or fix game dynamics to work in favor of individual players instead of class and encounter design. Classes and encounters change all the time, but the person behind a given character usually doesn't.

I'll give you an example. During Sunwell and pre-patch 3.0.2, one of our best DPS, a skilled Mage who could pump out more than 2.2K DPS on Brutallus back when that number really meant something, literally could not come to that fight on his Mage half the time. He brought his Tier 4-geared Resto Shaman instead. Chain Heal, totems, and the extra Bloodlust that his Shaman brought outweighed anything he could do on his Mage. We couldn't give up the AoE healing or the additional Bloodlust, and that forced us to sacrifice one of our best DPS to the demands of Sunwell raid composition.

From an objective standpoint, it was pointless, stupid, and more than a little bit crazy.

From an ingame standpoint, it was entirely rational.

Why you should bring the player, not the class (TM)

The ultimate point of "Bring the player, not the class" is not class homogenization, or dumbing down the game, or any of the legion of insults typically leveled at it. It's about having the game make more sense, about having the rational be objectively rational rather than just contextually so. In other words, you tell your extremely good Mage to come on his Mage, you quit pulling your hair out over whether you have enough Shamans (or Priests, or Rogues, or Warlocks, or...) for an encounter, and your raid leader doesn't have to call the raid for the night if your Druid tank shows up but your Warrior doesn't. I would argue that BtPNtC accomplishes two very important goals:

1. It leaves raids much less vulnerable to the problems posed by class popularity (or lack thereof).

One of the enduring ironies of Sunwell raiding was that the class you needed most (the Shaman) was, at the time, the least-played. If you pulled up the guild recruitment forums at any point while Sunwell was cutting-edge content, you saw legions of thoroughly desperate guilds searching for a population of Tier 6 Shamans that simply did not exist.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, BtPNtC somewhat reduces the problems that inevitably occur when you have too many of one class. I've written previously about running a Naxx-25 PuG where I wound up with 3 Death Knight tanks and 3 Death Knight DPS. Was this ideal? No. But was it doable? Yes.

2. It prevents raid content -- and through it, raiding guilds -- from punishing people who rolled the "wrong" class.

It wasn't at all unusual in BC -- and in some guilds, still isn't -- to get benched for encounters where your class or spec just wasn't ideal for the content. As a Druid tank, for most of BC I simply could not tank Nightbane, Archimonde, Kael'thas, Phase 2 of Reliquary of Souls, or Illidan due to mechanics built into these encounters that made a Druid tank an insane choice at best.

Now, I love my Druid. I think I play the best class in the game, and I have always thought this regardless of how the class has changed. It would take something truly catastrophic for me to switch mains. But it was enormously frustrating that her effectiveness on encounters ebbed and flowed according to the wishes of the encounter design team rather than how well I actually played her.

So what does this have to do with 10-man versus 25-man loot?

It tells me that Blizzard, in the transition to Wrath, spent a lot of time considering how their game design had influenced people to play. They buffed hybrid DPS and tanking specs so that Paladins, Shamans, Priests, and Druids could come to raids as something other than a healbot or a heavily-nerfed form of a pure class. They worked on designing DPS rotations to reward better damage for greater effort (we all remember the macro-spamming BM Hunter and the facerolling Destro Warlock, I trust?). They got rid of encounter mechanics that made classes artificially undesirable.

In short, they transferred the larger share of responsibility for raid composition from themselves to raid leaders, and the larger share of responsibility for "earning" a raid slot to individual players.

And it's my contention that they thought equally long and hard about how to make both 10-man and 25-man raiding attractive when presumably you have the option of doing either, or even both. Blizzard was well aware that their 10-man content, principally in the form of Karazhan, was the most popular raid content they'd ever designed, so in many ways it made sense to divide future raid content into 10-man and 25-man tracks. If so many players got bottlenecked at Kara (and later ZA), unable to proceed to higher content because they just didn't have the guild for it, Blizzard reasoned, isn't that a strong argument in favor of opening all raid content to 10-man raids? And indeed it is. The worst thing about high-end classic and BC raid content was that most players never got to see it.

The overriding problem with that, however, is that given the choice of experiencing the exact same raid content in either a 10-man or 25-man raid, the advantages of the 10-man raid threaten to eclipse the desirability of the 25-man.