We addressed our views on dungeon difficulty several weeks ago, and in the interim many players have asked for us to comment on raid difficulty.
I chose to use the word "progress" in the title for this blog quite intentionally. We think progression is the key to players having fun. When groups stop making progress, the members get frustrated. When individuals feel like they are stuck, that's when they start to lose interest. I don't think it strictly has to do with the flow of loot being shut off. A big part of it is the sense that as you climb up that mountain, you are getting closer and closer to the summit instead of just sliding back down to base camp at the end of each day.
Let's consider two extremes. If you complete the raid content very quickly and have Sinestra on farm and everyone has acquired their best in slot items, then you're probably ready to take a break from raiding. If you worked really hard to get to that point, as many of the current "finished" guilds did, then you're probably pretty happy about resting until Firelands becomes available. However, if that break point happens too soon, too easily, for too many guilds, then the raiding game can feel empty. Players run out of content before they are ready to run out of content, if that makes sense. Now let's consider the other extreme, where a guild just has no realistic chance of ever beating a boss. This can be particularly demoralizing if it's the first boss, but it can happen at any time. That guild might not feel like they are making progress. Many guilds are willing to put in a few weeks trying to master a new encounter, but if it gets to the point where they are wiping for months, there's a good chance they'll start to see burnout and thinning ranks. The sweet spot in raid balance for us to hit is that everyone feels like they can still make progress. Content that is too hard or too easy doesn't meet that goal.
Raid encounters, to some extent, nerf themselves. This is because every week, the raid members acquire more and more gear. Secondarily, the community acquires more and more knowledge and experience, which translates into better videos, strategy guides, or even UI mods, as well as just more players who have experienced the encounters firsthand. Each week that you are able to kill any bosses, your group's gear improves overall, through Valor points if nothing else. When Firelands is available, everyone's gear will quickly take a step up in quality. This will give you an even better chance to beat those bosses that are blocking you now. We wouldn't be surprised to see some guilds try the first few Firelands bosses one night, while using the next night to go back to get the head and shoulders from Nef and Cho'gall in order to complete their set bonuses, that is until acquiring new set bonuses becomes feasible. On some bosses, though, better armor and weapons may not be enough because some mechanics just can't easily be outgeared. To mitigate that problem, our tendency is to nerf content over time just to make sure a wide variety of players see it. The trailblazers get to see the fights before anyone else, but we don't lock the dungeon door behind them.
Having said all of that, there are some encounters that still need adjustment. Heroic 10-player modes can often be the hardest to balance, because those groups just don't have access to the sheer number of tools in one group that the larger raids have. You've probably seen some hotfixes go out recently and we might make more adjustments in 4.1. We'll continue to monitor progress and make adjustments when we feel the time is right.
Overall, we are pretty happy with our current raid balance. Most guilds that are trying seem to be making some progress. On some realms, we're seeing pickup groups for at least the earlier bosses, which seems appropriate for where we are in the content cycle. The Heroic versions are particularly challenging, though even in that case, there is a gradient with easier and very difficult bosses. For those of you who feel like you are stuck on progression, we'd like to hear more about why. Are you trying to PUG the encounters? Do you have a very casual guild with a lot of different players each night? Is the problem that you're undergeared or that the mechanics are too unforgiving? What are the mechanics that are really hard for raid leadership to explain or even understand? Are your tanks exploding, or are your healers running out of mana, or are you failing the berserk timers? We have data on all of this, but it's useful to hear it from your point of view as well. Remember, our goal is that you beat the fight because you understood the mechanics and executed your tanking, DPS, and healing around those constraints. If you're just kind of powering through a boss ability or phase that you don't really understand, then it's going to be a lot harder for you. As always, feedback on which encounters you are enjoying and which ones you never want to see again is also appreciated, though we've gotten a lot of that already, and are designing your Firelands foes with that in mind.
P.S. I am as excited about the Firelands encounters as I am about the current ones. We can't wait for you to wipe to them, er... see them. Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer of World of Warcraft. He wipes to the elevator boss.