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Shifting Perspectives: Tanks, bribes, and player behavior

Allison Robert

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Shifting Perspectives for cat, bear, restoration and balance druids. This Tuesday, we are not sure if we can be bribed.

As most of you are probably aware, Blizzard recently announced a new incentive structure for the dungeon finder system called the Call to Arms. In essence, it rewards players for performing what is then the most-needed role in the dungeon finder with a BoA bag containing gold, flasks, and, potentially, mounts and pets.

The Tuesday Shifting column covers the two roles most likely to receive the "goodie bags" -- tanking and healing (I don't think anyone's laboring under the delusion that groups can't get off the ground due to a lack of DPS) -- and the ensuing firestorm on the forums caught my eye. Predictably, players have mixed feelings about the change. Many (I think correctly) blame players' rudeness and uncooperative attitudes for driving off the tank population, but even more are indignant that Blizzard is "bribing" tanks for something they feel should have been addressed by role redesign.

Examine all the arguments in their totality, and I think there's only one real conclusion: I don't believe that Blizzard failed in its effort to make tanking more interesting and enjoyable.

I do believe that developers are struggling to deal with a problem created and driven almost entirely by player behavior. Modern heroics aren't fun, not because the content is bad (it's not) or overtuned (it's fine), but Cataclysm combines parts of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King 5-man experience that don't play well with each other. The dungeon finder contributes to these problems, but not in the way that you'd think.

I've split this article in two due to length and the difficulty I've had organizing the latter half. I apologize, but I've had to shift the second to next week. Today, I want to give some background on the tanking situation and why elements of the BC and Wrath 5-man experiences turned out to be a poor fit for each other.

The Burning Crusade and heroic difficulty

When heroics were introduced in The Burning Crusade, 5-man tanking wasn't something you did for fun. Pulls were large, and many of the mobs had abilities designed to wipe inattentive groups (e.g., the Nexus Stalker's Gouge in heroic Mana Tombs -- this was back when mobs dropped aggro on an incapacitated tank -- and the Cabal Shadow Priest's Mind Flay in heroic Shadow Lab are two of the more memorable).

However, what was fun was acquiring a reputation on your server as a competent tank. Logging on and immediately receiving a slew of requests for heroic runs felt great. While it didn't make tanking the more vicious BC heroics any easier or more enjoyable, being known as someone who could play these instances with the skill of a virtuoso was tremendously appealing. One of my proudest in-game moments was seeing someone write, "I have never wiped with Allison tanking" on my realm forums in a thread seeking 5-man tanks.

And it was good that you got some validation from fellow players, because frankly, there weren't a lot of things that were objectively fun about tanking at the time.
  • Warriors and paladins had the one-two whammy of limited farming capacity and monstrous repair bills.
  • Druids and warriors went crazy trying to hold aggro in dungeons like Shattered Halls and Shadow Lab.
  • Itemization sucked for the two "hybrid tanks" for the length of the game. Paladins literally did not have a single weapon designed for their use past the ilevel 115 Crystalforged Sword, and this column's addressed the problem of BC bear itemization.
  • Threat was a huge problem without Blessing of Salvation (at the time, a flat 30% reduction to all threat generated and a mandatory buff for geared DPS) but wasn't exactly a cakewalk even with it. Well-geared destro warlock in the group? You're screwed.
  • And for the proverbial cherry on top, 5-man tanking got harder as your gear got better. Paladins couldn't get enough mana back from heals, and rage starvation was all but guaranteed for decently geared druids and warriors.
The bottom line was that tanking was fun, not because the job itself was all that enjoyable, but because it gave you some wonderful social benefits and a sense of accomplishment in difficult content. In the absence of cross-realm LFG, a hard-won reputation on your server as an excellent heroic tank was something that followed you around and could even open doors. To this day, I'm still playing with people I met while pugging 5-mans in BC.

The Wrath model and introduction of the dungeon finder

Most players are familiar with the problems that resulted from a confluence of factors in Wrath of the Lich King. In short, buffs to DPS and tanking specs' AoE capabilities in tandem with easier heroics overall (more pointedly, a relative lack of mobs with dangerous abilities requiring the use of crowd control) reduced most heroics to runs where speed was prioritized over skill.

The dungeon finder, introduced in patch 3.3, was well-suited to a world where 5-mans weren't generally difficult, but the timing of its appearance was (with the benefit of hindsight) more important than anyone realized. By December 2009, we were more than a year into Wrath, and even non-raiding characters at 80 were up to their eyeballs in high-quality badge and crafted gear. Thus, the dungeon finder debuted to a game where the content it made more convenient had a high margin for player error due to stat progression.

Tanks doing their daily heroic with random groups lost the opportunity to build a server-wide reputation, but nobody noticed due to the ease of the average 5-man. You don't build a reputation off something that's not that hard to begin with, and group quality's almost a non-issue in any context where you're not dependent on your DPS for crowd control. A good tank during the Wrath era wasn't someone with precision pulling technique or an experienced eye for marking. A good tank was someone who pulled as quickly as possible, given the limits of his or her gear, in order to preempt the common "Gogogogo!" cry. Since Blizzard had removed the many annoyances listed above, tanking was also a lot more fun on its own merits. You could blast through a heroic secure in the knowledge that inexperienced or undergeared DPS exercised almost no impact on the outcome.

Cataclysm: Trouble brewing

The dungeon finder is perhaps more suited to a world with greater margin for group error. Tanks are generally unwilling to confront instances requiring heavy crowd control when they don't know what kind of group they're going to get. Guild achievements and reputation are also oriented around guildies' instancing together. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the dungeon finder will become obsolete, but I'm reasonably certain that the wait for a tank is going to get longer. When CC is more of a concern, a tank's control over the dungeon's outcome is necessarily limited, and there are increasingly few incentives to ply your trade for a random group. -- Shifting Perspectives: Bear druids in patch 4.0.1, Sept. 21, 2010

The potential problems created by this approach to 5-man content started to become obvious in the Cataclysm beta as Blizzard returned to the more difficult BC instancing model, and that's the situation in which we find ourselves today. Trash is harder, and trash mobs are more numerous. Mobs and bosses have nasty abilities requiring groups to interrupt and play cautiously. Crowd control and careful pulling are required. In short, DPSers have more responsibility for the success of the dungeon, just as tanks have more responsibility for directing the group ... And tanks have responded by leaving the dungeon finder in droves.

Tanking through the dungeon finder isn't fun nowadays, and I think this is why: The weight of expectation placed upon the average tank is not a new phenomenon, but the difficulty of BC heroics isn't well-suited to the anonymity (i.e., the lack of accountability) inherent to Wrath's dungeon finder. You can argue that it's the worst of both worlds. Rather than being influenced by the knowledge that poor performance will accompany him or her everywhere on the server, an uncooperative DPSer simply disappears back to his or her own realm with no repercussions. By extension, no matter how well I tank heroic Stonecore, I'm back to square one with another group that has no reason to believe I'm competent.

The greater the responsibility given to DPSers in random 5-mans, the less incentive that tanks and healers have to run with anything other than a guild group. While the current dungeon finder doesn't cause this behavior, it certainly enables it.

Shifting Perspectives helps you gear your bear druid at 85, tempts you with weapons, trinkets and relics for bears, then shows you what to do with it all in Feral Druid Tanking 101. We'll also help you gear your resto druid.

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