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"There are no simple solutions" -- Design diversity in WoW

Matthew Rossi

In a recent post on the forums, Bashiok responded to the idea that 1.35% of all WoW players have completed normal Firelands and what that does or does not mean for the recent changes implemented to the raid instance. It's a very interesting and information-filled post that I think deserves a thorough examination, as it reveals elements of Blizzard's current design philosophy and how and why it chooses to alter raids from their initial difficulty levels.

I intend to go over the entire post carefully, but here are some highlights to ponder up front:
  • The 1.35% number is just plain wrong. Blizzard has its own numbers that it's not going to share, but the 1.35% is probably as accurate as could be expected without access to Blizzard's internal data gathering.
  • Blizzard's design intent is to make content for all of the playerbase. "It's both a blessing and a curse that the WoW player base is as large and diverse as it is."
  • Players raid for many different reasons, some challenge, others loot, and others just to see the content. Some players are happy if they just see a boss once, while others enjoy weekly clearing.
  • The idea of being willing to wipe a hundred or more times to clear a boss, a staple of the raider mentality for years, is not appealing to most players.
OK, so now that we've picked out a few highlights, let's go over the entire post and really consider the implications of designing for as many players as possible.

Hardcore or casual, I'm the one holding the mouse

Bashiok - 1.35% of all wow players completed normal FL
As others have pointed out, your 1.35% is just wrong due to the stats MMO is stating, but whatever, we're not going to reveal any of our internal numbers to show how wrong you are, or discount the numbers posted on MMO for that matter. I will say they're likely as accurate as they can be. Meaning, they're wrong, but at no fault of theirs simply due to the data they have available to them. While we do have data we pull and review very regularly, it's not always a true measure of success or failure without considering the context.

We try and make content for all of our players. It's both a blessing and a curse that the WoW player base is as large and diverse as it is. "Hardcore" players for example tend to dramatically underestimate the skill gap between themselves and the vast majority of other players. A lot of games handle this problem through multiple difficulty settings. That is harder to do in a game as content rich as World of Warcraft, but it is something we're looking at more and more with new features like Raid Finder essentially adding a more accessible setting.

But even with a system (we believe) as awesome as the Raid Finder, there are no simple solutions.

One of the points Bashiok makes in this section of the post needs to be examined because it's not just the hardcore players who underestimate that skill gap. A great many people who play this game don't understand how far guilds getting world firsts and raiding heroic content will go for those kills. Hundreds upon hundreds of wipes, class balance ruthlessly examined and the absolutely optimal raid comp chosen, leveling alts for the express purpose of seeing the content and learning it before lockouts. Combine this with skill (yes, the players in guilds getting world- or even region-first kills are most likely far better than most of us reading Bashiok's post), and we're talking a level of skill and dedication that could make raiding impossible for the average player if normal mode raids were designed to meet it.

World of Warcraft effectively is about to have several difficulty settings for raiding. Raid Finder raids will be the baseline of difficulty, with 10- and 25-man normal raids the next level (and there will be players on both sides of that divide arguing which is harder; it's not germane to this post), and then heroic content as the third level of difficulty. This is the most diverse level of difficulty in raiding since 10- and 25-man raids were given a shared lockout, and it is directly due to the wide variety of skill, dedication, and gear spread across that diverse playerbase.

Bashiok - 1.35% of all wow players completed normal FL
Players are motivated to raid (and do any content for that matter) for a lot of different reasons. A sizeable number of players are satisfied with seeing most of the game content once. If they kill the dragon or slay the Lich King, they (appropriately) feel like they have won the game. That view is pretty heretical to the traditional raider, who is used to working for weeks to defeat a boss and then spending the next few weeks or months farming that boss so that their group has a leg up for the next tier of content. Other players can be motivated by gear, and once they accrue their rewards they are done with the content. Others are motivated by the challenge, and if things are too easy, they lose interest. These players also tend to assume that everyone shares their mindset and they will be happy to wipe on a fight over and over and over with hopes of improving.

In reality, we know from data that a lot of players might be willing to wipe a few times, and then after that, they're done raiding and potentially even playing. It might be easy to dismiss those players and argue raiding is not for them, but that's not really our design goal. Raids represent an enormous commitment of developer resources. In the same way that we would never make 20 new Arenas just for Gladiator-level players, we don't want to develop a raid that only 2% of our raiders can see. We will make sure that there are challenging encounters for players who enjoy that sort of thing (as many of us professional game developers do), but then our goal will be to, over time, broaden the potential audience by bringing the content difficulty down. We think the shock with Firelands for some players was that the nerfs were so severe instead of gradual. For the 4.3 Dragon Soul raid we plan on gradually nerfing it over time, sort of like we did with Icecrown Citadel, except by nerfing the content instead of buffing the players.

What I find fascinating about this passage of the post is how up front Bashiok is about the design challenge inherent in trying to design raiding content for these widely disparate groups of players. To a degree, the Raid Finder is a means to an end, and that end is helping satisfy players who are not willing to invest the time required for higher difficulty in raiding, making it possible for them to get in and see these boss fights.

The evolution of content and the raid

Raids are being tasked (and have been tasked throughout WoW's existence) with two fairly divided challenges. Raids are where the biggest lore reveals in the game are, and they're also where the hardest, most complicated, and most rewarding fights in the game are. If you're a total lore nerd (guilty) like myself and you actually want to be able to see fights like the most recent tier's Ragnaros fight, you need to either figure out a way to get yourself into the cutting edge of raid progression, or you can watch a video somewhere. No one pays to play a game so they can watch someone else do it. But for the player who has invested the time and effort to clear the fight when it was cutting edge, the idea that all that work was for naught can be enraging. And that's just two different kinds of playstyle; it doesn't take those that raid for gear or those that raid for technical perfection into account.

This leads to the current and evolving design paradigm where, if all you want to do is see the fight, you can use the Raid Finder and do exactly that. If you just want to gear up, you can run RF for a few weeks, get solid gear and valor points, and you're happy. If you have a few days a week you can dedicate to it, you can raid normal mode content, experience more challenges and get better gear. And if you hunger for the most difficult fights in the game, you're welcome to focus on heroic modes and achievements.

Furthermore, all of this has to have some level of pick-and-choose in order for the system to work. Raiders who want to push the absolute bleeding edge of content are going to make use of RF to gear up their alts and get familiar with fights. RF-geared players still have the option of running a normal mode pickup group and will have the benefit of not going into the harder version of the raid blind or undergeared.

The difference coordination makes

Another element of the argument to discuss is this willingness to wipe and how it influences when content is lowered in difficulty. One of the barriers in getting players to see raid content is the ability to assemble a raid team, which is an aspect that the Raid Finder is aimed at addressing. Another, however, is purely in terms of the content's difficulty and in how much skill and coordination it requires to complete it. There is a vast difference between a raid group that has experience working together and a group of strangers unfamiliar with raiding itself. What Bashiok said about hardcore players underestimating the skill gap can also be used here: The average WoW player who raids even in a normal mode capacity does not understand how much of an effect their knowledge of each other, of how to communicate and how to adapt to each other, has on their ability to complete the content.

I am not saying that you are better than a pickup group's players because they are bad. I'm saying you're better than they are because you have overcome a barrier: You have familiarity with each other, with your strengths and weaknesses as players, and that you know how to communicate with each other. This is a barrier to raiding that you have already overcome, and it should not be underestimated or ignored.

Your group has already found its wipe threshold, also. Designing content for as many players as possible means that the entry level has to be wipe-friendly, that it has to be capable of being completed without the same level of coordination that more challenging difficulty settings require. And one of the weapons in the designers tool kit for new raiders coming into this content, especially as time passes, is to progressively lower its difficulty.

I haven't changed my mind about how Blizzard nerfed Firelands, but I also agree with Bashiok here that it was the "how" of those nerfs and not the "why" of them that took me by surprise. Content will always be nerfed as it loses relevance, even if it is only nerfed by gear progression. Building an awareness of that process into design can only benefit more players. If you only want to see the content once, wait a few months -- it'll get there.

Bashiok - 1.35% of all wow players completed normal FL

There is another portion of players that are just not interested in raiding no matter how accessible it is, and that's fine too, but we do keep track of how player behavior in the past may match player behavior currently or even in the future as we make these choices. Overall our goals are to ultimately get as many people seeing and downing Deathwing as saw the end of Naxxramas in Wrath of the Lich King. That's not all going to be day 1 of the patch, or even in the first month, but with the Raid Finder and gradual lowering of content we think we can create that initial super high barrier to test the true worth of the hardest of the hardcore, while also providing some fun and accessible content to a much wider swath of players.

What this ultimately does is work the predilections of as many players as possible into design iteration itself. If you know you have this wide variety of player motivations, you also know you can't possibly succeed in designing for all of them initially. But you can gradually broaden the scope of the accessibility of the content. When patch 4.3 launches, there will be new 5-man dungeons for players to gear up in while dedicated raiders hurl themselves into the new raids, and some players hit the Raid Finder to see the content in a "story mode" difficulty setting that will allow more than one kind of raider to gain what they're looking for.

What progression means depends on who is asking

Over time, as some raiders move into heroic modes, others will step up from the Raid Finder or heroic 5-mans to normal mode raiding, be it 10- or 25-man. Then, as content is reduced in difficulty, more and more players will make use of more and more of these options. While it may never reach a level of accessibility wherein all players raid, it will be much more likely that all those players who want to raid will at least get to do some form of it, and therefore, all that content gated behind the barriers inherent to raiding will be available. Just as PVP currently has normal and Rated Battlegrounds as well as Arenas for all kinds of PVP players, from the player who likes to run AV to blow off steam to the player who is going for a 2,200 rating, so will there be options for raiders as well.

This is quite possibly the greatest challenge to design Blizzard has ever undertaken, an attempt to satisfy as many players as possible. Whether it will be successful or not is as yet unknown. It's an extremely daunting task, designing for players who will wipe on heroic Ragnaros 500 times in a few days and for players who would rather not wipe on normal Rag five times. It may not even matter if it can actually be done. The effort of trying to do it, of trying to include both kinds of players and everyone in between, may be more important and more informative for the future than anything else.

Brace yourselves for what could be some of most exciting updates to the game recently with patch 4.3. Review the official patch notes, and then dig into what's ahead: new item storage options, cross-realm raiding, cosmetic armor skinning and your chance to battle the mighty Deathwing -- from astride his back!

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