I commented on this (a bit) in my last post, but I wanted to toss out some further thoughts from an old post draft I had.
Is WOW too hard or too easy? Well, it depends on your skill level. Skilled players get frustrated with “easy,” because it’s boring. Less-skilled players get frustrated with “normal” or “hard,” because they aren’t having any success. This is obvious. Of course, difficulty levels in multiplayer co-operative games like WoW get much more complicated, because there are SEVERAL different types of skill for the developers to test, such as:
- Theorycraft Skill: can a player analyze and determine the best ability usage/gear selection for their class/role?
- Time Skill: can a player invest enough time to acquire all the resources needed for optimum performance?
- Arcade Skill: can a player implement their desired theorycraft in an encounter, while still following the encounter’s other rules? Can they manage scarce resources (mana/energy/rage/RP) successfully?
- Reaction Skill: can a player interpret and react to changing conditions?
- Recruitment Skill: can a player recruit enough players with similar skill to create a team, can he/she adjust that team as determined by assessment of the fight, and can he/she keep everyone happy?
- Leadership Skill: can a player assess others (and himself) to determine improvement, and communicate that in a respectful way?
History of WoW Difficulty (skip down to the bottom if you don’t want to read some background)
With all of these factors in play, WoW’s designers were initially very hesitant to provide any type of “user-selectable” difficulty levels. The general idea was that the difficulty of the content would increase with progression, so that players could only complete content up to the limit of their skills. Looking at BC, this meant that your top 90% of guilds could complete Karazhan, top 50% could complete Gruul’s/Mags (going from 10man raids to 25man raids lost a lot), top 30% could complete SSC/TK, top 10% could complete MH/BT (and “finish” the expansion) and maybe 5% would finish Sunwell (the “second” ending.) Obviously, this pissed a lot of people off who liked raiding but weren’t good enough to finish the content. (Of course, it was never them, it was their guild/schedule/something holding them back.)
BC also introduced “heroic modes,” for 5-mans only. While this was billed as a user-selectable difficulty choice, it was something that had to be unlocked (typically by multiple runthroughs of the normal 5-man). This created a progression path: run all the normal 5-mans for experience and rep; run them again on heroic difficulty for the better gear; then start your raiding. Essentially, this made it not a choice at all; normal mode was a prerequisite, that once completed, was generally never returned to.
Patch 3.0: Achievements
WOTLK introduced the “new model” of raiding. Every raid was available in a 10man or 25man flavor. Content became generally easier to complete, but an optional set of tougher conditions was added, that if satisfied, provided the player or group with a reward. In most cases, the reward was not game-affecting (achievement points, tabards, mounts), with the exception of one encounter, Sartharion. “Sarth3D,” as it was typically known, provided the group with extra, higher-level gear (that boosted player performance) for approaching the fight in a more difficult manner; players could engage Sartharion’s three lieutenants individually for an easier fight, or with Sartharion for a harder fight. As far as I’m aware, this was the first implementation of user-selectable difficulty in a raid. Blizzard had taken a few stabs at the idea before, but those challenges (DM tribute runs, ZA bear runs) were typically based around creating difficulty by decreasing time.
5-man instances also changed; there was still the normal/”heroic” split, but heroics were now free to enter at lvl 80, with no prerequisites. While this made selecting difficulty more of a choice, normal modes were generally ignored for maximum-level players due to the unsuitability of the gear (half of the normal WOTLK instances available at 80 grant rewards less powerful than that available from completing solo quest lines). Normal/Heroic really meant “introduction” and “normal.” (Well, excepting Oculus…which Blizzard changed after everyone complained.)
Patch 3.1: The Heroic Choice
When Ulduar came out, Blizz took its first baby steps towards standardizing selectable difficulty levels, by making most encounters in Ulduar similar to Sarth3D. You could simply kill the boss, receive the regular rewards, and continue, or you could kill the boss a certain, harder way, receive better awards, and get a bit more lore and story. Ulduar was difficulty done right. The very first boss had five difficulty modes; the easiest so easy that you could complete it without knowing any of the mechanics of the encounter; the hardest so hard that it was ranked as one of the toughest fights in the game. Each successive step up the difficulty scale added challenge, but also more/better gear drops. Finally, the choice was available immediately; no “unlocking” required. The best part was the “hidden” questline, that required defeating several bosses on “hard” mode in order to open a secret, final boss. Players interested in content and story got to see 95% of the storyline by completing the instance normally; players interested in full completion (and better gear) sweated through the hard modes.
Unfortunately, Blizzard didn’t agree. Setting the difficulty level involved a different process for each boss; what many players found “immersive,” Blizzard felt was “confusing to new players.” The trigger-based model of hard modes was scrapped, and vast changes were in store for Patch 3.2.
Patch 3.2: Redefining Badges, Heroic Means Something
The controversial 3.2 patch not only began the gigantic gear inflation currently found in the game today (via the obsoleting of lower-tier badges), it also completely redefined the nature of how Blizzard defined difficulty levels. Up to this point, the game UI referred to 10-man modes as “normal” and 25-man modes as “heroic,” even though they were supposed to be equivalent. Taking their cues from the design (which usually featured harder challenges and better gear in 25-man), most players had the same opinion as they did for 5-mans, seeing 10-man as “introduction” and 25-man as “normal.” 3.2 explicitly redefined Trial of the Crusader (the new raid content) into 4 different modes, 10/25 normal/heroic. Each mode was separate, meaning a raider could (and frequently did) clear TOC 4 times a week. This led to quite a bit of raider burnout, as many felt “raiding less” was not an option. (Can’t let your guildmates down, etc. Bah. If Gevlon’s taught me anything, it’s that raiding is based on skill, not gear). The choice was somewhat academic, though, as the heroic mode could only be unlocked by completing normal once.(Which, like heroics, meant that once the harder mode was available, there was no reason to go back to easy mode, excepting grinding for badges.) Of course, this hard mode wasn’t available until over a month past the release of TOC, since Blizzard decided to tightly restrict player’s initial progression.
Patch 3.3: Scaling ICC, Dungeon Findering
3.3 introduced the expansion’s final raid, Icecrown Citadel, and introduced a new time-scaled difficulty mechanic. On release, players fought in ICC at their normal power. As time progressed and their faction “gained ground” in ICC, they received a stacking buff that essentially made fights easier. This added another scaling factor concurrent with others (better gear, better experience with fights) that made the content much more accessible for all levels. Lesser-skilled players or latecomers can now challenge the Lich King with a 30% increase in character power, which markedly reduces the amount of time they need to spend on the other curves (gearing, gaining experience/skill). Generally, I think this is a good thing for the game. Unfortunately, on the tougher end of the spectrum, things were still tightly controlled. Content was tightly gated (the final bosses were not available for almost two months after ICC was first released) and heroic mode was locked until normal was completed.
Well, now that you’ve sat through a tiresome rehash of raiding history, what’s my point? I think Blizzard has done a great job throughout the expansion of opening up raiding (the core WoW activity, though certainly not the only one) and making it more accessible to the masses. Unfortunately, the other end of the spectrum (the skilled players) has suffered. Gated content and a forced progression path bore skilled raiders until they hit content that matches their difficulty level.
(Yes, world’s smallest violin, I know. Hear me out.) Obviously, it makes good business sense for Blizzard to cater to the majority of their playerbase. However, the serious players are the ones who create the value-added services that the regular players use. All the blogs, strategy websites, item databases, addons, etc. are created by players who are deeply involved in the game. Too much simplicity will eventually drive them away. We don’t want to make WoW into FFXI, but we also don’t want Farmville. Here’s a few easy-to-implement suggestions:
- Make heroic mode an actual CHOICE. Screw this “have to finish on normal first” crap. Make normal mode start out moderate-to-hard, which eventually turns into easy-to-moderate as some combination of better gear + more skill + scaling buff comes into play. (ICC is a good example of this.) Make heroic mode start out “OMFG WTF hard” and end it moderate-to-hard, as you’re releasing the next tier. The hardcore players can start out on heroic and have “fun” wiping 50 times on the first boss, while everyone else proceeds as a regular pace. Of course, if you do this, you’ll run into the problem that many players will want to do heroic before they should. Here’s how you thin that out: Don’t incentivize heroic mode with gear a tier higher then normal mode. (Put down the torches.) Think of all the benefits from a design perspective. Players will only do heroic mode because they want it to be HARDER, not because they want better stuff. Most players will still with normal; and that’s fine, that’s why it’s NORMAL. Want to incentivize heroic? How bouth this: bosses drop EVERY item in their loot table. And theirs glow, or sparkle, or have spikes, or have something that clearly sets them apart, for a while. (And give an achievement, of course.) This lets players and raidleaders make a tactical choice (remember, that’s what we like doing). Try the heroic mode to gear up the guild FAST and look cool, or stick with normal and what you know will work.
- Kill the forced gating, and just make it clear that the bosses on heroic will start out incredibly hard (think YS Zero-Light or HLK). Obviously, you want to scale it down eventually (or scale players up, like ICC) but make it at least possible to do.
- Introduce new challenges as part of the new Guild UI. We’ve had timed achievements…why not build in a timer that starts when “instance door x is opened” and ends when the instance is clear? Publish the times via Armory, and give progression guilds another things to compete over. It could definitely increase the longevity of older content. (Let’s split our 25-man raid into two teams and clear two Naxx wings simultaneously! Possible? Dunno. Fun? Oh yeah.)
Of course, I’m not a Blizzard designer, so this will never happen…but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it? Post your thoughts in the comments.