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Does World of Warcraft need to be more difficult?

Anne Stickney

The above video is a bit lengthy, but it's well worth the watch simply because it does raise a few valid points along the line. And lest you think this is yet another player whining about the endless hardcore vs. casual debate, it's not -- this is simply a player who is incredibly passionate about the game we all play. In that passion, he's decided to talk about the direction that raiding in WoW has taken and how it has gone downhill, in his opinion.

On the one hand, he has a point. There is a stark difference between the feel of raiding back in the days of vanilla, The Burning Crusade, and now. There's a stark difference in numbers, which any graph can illustrate. More and more people can complete raids now from one degree or another, which leaves people barreling through content at light speed and doesn't really give that same feeling that raiding had in years past.

On the other, is changing the difficulty in WoW really the way to accomplish that goal? I don't think so.

Does WoW need to be more difficult
WoW and the learning curve

I've already discussed the idea that there is a giant chunk of WoW players who are quite simply bored with the game, although that idea seemed to have gotten lost in translation. But I'm going to approach it again a little differently here. WoW has a learning curve, and a lot of that learning is content. In vanilla, we had a lot of people who were on that same learning curve. Players were not experts at this game, and nobody had any idea what to expect around the next corner.

As time has gone on, that shift has changed in a dramatic way. Now we're all experts, to one degree or another. Most of us, the giant chunk of us who have been playing this game for more than a few months, are well aware of how to play our classes. We're aware that fire is bad and you probably shouldn't stand in it. And for those who have been raiding all of this time, raid encounters in Cataclysm were by and large fairly easy to complete. There wasn't the months of hang time to murder the first few bosses of the expansion. The months that the video above discusses, between the release of The Burning Crusade and the first kill of Kael'thas? That doesn't exist anymore.

It's not simply a matter of the game's getting considerably easier, however. It's that raiders have an innate understanding of how to play their characters. They've been through tons of content in the past, and they have learned the various mechanics of the various bosses out there. In Cataclysm, the bosses presented didn't pose enough of a challenge because they by and large used the exact same mechanics we'd seen before, in a slightly different light.

Does WoW need to be more difficult
To boil it down to the most basic components: We know that if there is something different on the ground, we probably shouldn't stand in it. Before that concept was introduced, back in the days of Molten Core, we barely paid attention to the floor at all. When that problem was introduced as the norm, we had to learn how to effectively play our class and pay attention to what was on the floor. Believe it or not, that took time to master. Now that we've mastered it, if we hear there is something on the floor we shouldn't be standing in, we move out of the way automatically.

What we are being presented with in raids currently is a lot of the stuff we have spent years learning to do effectively -- and since we have learned that material already, it's not really that hard to adjust to seeing it again. Think of it in terms of riding a bicycle. Once you've learned to ride a bicycle, you know how to ride it. You've learned how to balance your body while pedaling. You can swap out the bicycle with any other model, but it's the same concept, and it's still something you know how to do -- so there's not really a challenge to learning to ride.

Does WoW need to be more difficult
Learning as content

But there's more to this puzzle than a simple, innate knowledge of how to handle various aspects of a fight, and it lies in things like beta testing and datamining. There isn't really anything wrong with datamining, nor is there anything wrong with beta testing -- obviously we'd like to get our games bug-free. But there is now a depth of information about encounters out there readily available prior to any content being released. People can test raids and post video guides on how to best complete them well before we ever see those raids on live.

This means that the how-to guide is already out there before we've even gotten a chance to try and explore that content for ourselves. One of the highlights of raiding back in the day was the simple concept of "pull the boss and see what it does." Nobody had any real clue what abilities a boss had or how they would put those abilities into effect. It wasn't until you pulled the boss and got a look at what it did that you really started learning an encounter -- and you learned as the fight went along. You weren't following a prescripted guide.

Things like the dungeon guide are almost a detriment to raiding. Are they handy? Absolutely. Are they needed? That could be argued. While yes, it is nice having the bosses abilities outlined for you prior to that first pull, it takes a lot of the struggle of learning and adapting out of encounters. That time spent between "pull the boss and see what it does" and a successful kill was content. That was part of the unique lure of raiding. It wasn't just nabbing the loot and moving on; it was puzzling out how to get that loot in the first place.

Does WoW need to be more difficult
The tricky problem of accessibility

What that piece of content, the learning curve between finding a boss and figuring out how to handle it, inadvertently did, however, was limit the number of players who could see those raid encounters. There was a specific amount of time that really had to be devoted to learning these encounters, and it took a lot of hard work and a lot of repeated failures before you finally saw success. This aspect of raiding was not for everyone. People simply didn't have the time to devote to learning how to murder that rabid, frothing corehound to collect bits of loot.

But they really wanted to murder that rabid frothing corehound, and they really wanted that loot.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. If you're playing a video game, you should be able to see everything you paid for. If you've spend months, possibly years working on designing an encounter and creating content, you want as many people to see that content as possible. If there is story going on in a raid dungeon, people should be able to see that story. Locking it out from players who just don't have the time makes the story a disjointed experience.

But the problem is that by creating content that can be more easily accessed, by creating content that more people can complete, those players who enjoyed the part of content that involved puzzling things out are left in the dark. That's where this whole casual vs. hardcore debate comes into play, and I'm not really going to step into that debate at all. What I'm going to point out is that we all play this game because we love playing this game, and everyone should be able to play everything about the game that they love.

You cannot create content specifically for one subset of the playerbase without alienating another subset. You cannot please everybody. What you can do is try to please as many people as possible, and Blizzard has tried to take that on as much as it can, providing content that is both enjoyable and accessible. The Raid Finder was designed specifically to pull as many people as possible into raiding and let people see those encounters, and it worked brilliantly.

Does WoW need to be more difficult
The double-edged sword of instant gratification

But here's the issue with the Raid Finder: Guilds that are specifically raiding guilds are doing the raids because they want to go through the process of learning everything. The Raid Finder is just another item that narrows the content that involves the learning process, like the dungeon journal. Go through the Raid Finder, see it on easy mode, defeat the encounters with little difficulty, and you can then go in and defeat normal mode content with that basic understanding of where to stand and how the boss works.

To go back to the bicycle analogy, raiding guilds are like a kid learning to ride a bike. They throw themselves at the bike and try different ways to make it work, possibly injuring themselves a few times in the process, before they finally take off and ride, pleased at their efforts. The Raid Finder is like a set of training wheels. If you practice with the training wheels, it makes riding that bike once the training wheels are off all the easier. It eliminates the possibility of getting hurt, which is half the thrill to a raider.

More and more people are looking at that bike with the training wheels and going, "Well, it gets me from point A to point B effectively enough. Why the heck would I want to take the training wheels off? What's the point in doing that, really?" They are content. They've seen what they wanted to see. There isn't really any lure to taking those wheels off; they've already gotten what they wanted -- the speed of travel -- without having to injure themselves in the process.

Relating that back to WoW and raiding, what this means is there are fewer and fewer people interested in raiding. It is getting harder and harder to recruit for raiding guilds. Why would people want to bother with the process of getting into a guild, passing the trial period and hammering their heads on content for months when they've already seen that content? What's the motivation for doing so?

Does WoW need to be more difficult
How do you solve the problem?

So what do you do about that conundrum? Do you remove the Raid Finder altogether? Oh, heck no. Getting rid of the Raid Finder would be horrible. I love the Raid Finder, and I love the opportunity it presents for people to see that content who ordinarily never would. But at the same time, it also means that there are fewer people interested in moving onward and seeing that content again and again and again. The awe of finally reaching the last boss of a raid dungeon for the first time is gone.

Perhaps the Raid Finder needs to be treated in the same fashion as the zone-wide buffs we see in ICC and Dragon Soul. Perhaps the Raid Finder shouldn't be available the moment a raid dungeon opens; perhaps it should be reserved until a reasonable percentage of raid guilds have passed through that content. What's a reasonable percentage? I have no idea -- that's Blizzard's job to sort out. But after that period had passed, the Raid Finder could open and let everyone who wants to see that content through it.

Would that solve the problem of "the journey" that the video discusses? Not really. Not entirely. There is no moving back to the days of the journey -- not unless we are presented with raid encounters that are so vividly different than anything we've seen before that we have no idea how to handle them. That's what's missing from current raid content -- the period of time in which we try to puzzle out how something works and how to avoid it. It's not a matter of difficulty; encounters are just as difficult. It's that we've mastered the tricks needed to deal with that difficulty.

That isn't the fault of Blizzard. It isn't anyone's fault, really. We're simply smarter than we were eight years ago when we began playing this incredible game. We know the tricks and ins and outs. We've figured out the maze, and we know how to get to the cheese at the end. It's up to Blizzard to try and be smarter than we are and give us content that has us scratching our heads. Can Blizzard do that? Well ... I don't know, honestly. I suppose that's up to Blizzard to show us.

It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!

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