Group size, challenge and reward, or why do raiders need more powerful gear anyway?

Earlier this week, I was watching Unicorn Duck Shadow Puppet (the Wildstar show) on Gamebreaker.  In the episode, and in chat, there was discussion about how an MMO should cater for different play styles.  A few points from the discussion included:

  • If you aren’t raiding, you don’t need raiding gear.
  • Should an MMO cater for solo players since it is inherently multiplayer.
  • Raiders deserve more due to the increased effort they put in.
  • A game should be consistent in catering for different play styles throughout the game and not change at end game.

Underlying assumptions
I’m going to assume only the following here:

  • MMOs are built by companies who need to make money in order to keep producing your game.
  • MMO companies are not inherently evil for wanting to make money.

Some of you might disagree with these, but they underpin everything I am saying here.  Lets boil this down to the primary goal of developers being player gain and retention.

Solo play in a multiplayer world
This is an interesting dilemma.  Should an MMO cater for solo play when it is a multiplayer game by definition?  I would argue yes, but that solo play should be combined with at least random play, and preferably group play for a richer experience.

  • Solo content is filler content.  Its what you do when your group isn’t around.
  • Solo content is important for players with irregular schedules.
  • Solo content is an important confidence building and training ground for group play.

Solo content should be about player retention.  The aim of solo content is to fill gaps, to engage players when they might otherwise lose interest and to prepare players for group play.  Solo content needs to have progression in order to maintain engagement.

A good example of solo content might be the Brawler’s Guild in WoW.  It is progressively more challenging and it is in the open world so that a community can be developed around the arena.  It best meets the requirements above.

Random play
Random play is aimed at the same people as solo play, but involves grouping.  It serves the same needs as solo content, but forces interaction with others.  PuG raiding, looking for raid functionality, etc. are all parts of random play.  Random play is really important in MMOs because most players start off solo or in small groups when they come to a game.  Random play helps set the stage for interactions that lead to group play.

Group play
Group play should bring together organised groups of players in regular activity that provides a substantial challenge.  This activity should vary in length from a couple of hours to repeated interaction over months.

How many players will it take to make my group play engaging?  How many to make it challenging?  How many to make it epic?  Answer: as many as you like.  Raids do not automatically become better if you add more people, though the number of people is one contributing factor I agree.  Karazhan is still one of the most epic raids in WoW, but was the first to only need 10 people.  Raiding is epic because of the scale.  Raiding takes time.  Many people will raid a single raid for months on end, progressing slowly, week by week.  The problem is that as the epic nature of encounters increases, so does the difficulty of organising them.  40 people are harder to organise than 25 which are harder to organise than 10.

This is where I have the biggest problem.  The question was asked: why do non-raiders need raid gear but it’s the wrong question.  The question is: do raiders need more powerful gear than other players? If increasingly powerful gear is to be the reward for challenge, then all challenging play should reward it no matter what the group size.  The gear could be different if there really is a need to denote raid gear separately.  Raid gear could be pink, small group gear could be turquoise and solo gear could be black.

I think the key is that gear is awarded for overcoming a challenge and that challenge should be substantial.  Seeing people get purple gear from daily quests is disheartening.  Seeing people get gear over time in challenging content should be fine no matter the number of people or nature of that content.  Rather than relegating other content to second place, developers should seek to put it on an equal footing with raiders. MMOs should seek to maximise participation whilst still rewarding the overcoming of challenges.  If I was focusing on Challenge Modes in WoW only and they did not award Valor, I would end up being way behind when it came to participating in world content like dailies, world bosses, etc because all the rewards are cosmetic only.  If I decided I had more time and wanted to raid, or my guild asked me to raid one night because they were short, I wouldn’t have the gear for it.  This makes no sense given I may well have been participating in more challenging content than some of my better geared fellow players.  It also doesn’t help the game at all because it segregates players from engaging in group content.

One final note here, notice I say challenge.  I don’t say skill, or time spent though these may both be factors in a challenge.  Completing the holiday meta What a Long Strange Trip Its Been, for example, is a challenge, just one of organisation and perseverance rather than skill.  Challenges should vary so there is something for skilled players, grinders, etc.  Also, challenge needs to come on a smooth scale with opportunities for gradual improvement.  The best rewards should be given for the greatest challenges, but there should be rewards and opportunities to work towards those challenges for people at all levels of skill, time and experience.

Ulduar: Fiero with friends

Theres been some talk recently about Ulduar and the nostalgia people feel for Ulduar.  I wanted to delve into that a bit.

My Ulduar experience
During Ulduar I was in a guild called Forgotten Heroes that raided 25 mans.  In the first tier we had cleared 3 drakes while the content was relevant.  It took a long time, but since Naxxramas was so easy, we had a lot of time.

Ulduar was definitely harder.  We cleared Ulduar while the content was relevant and did at least one hard mode (XT).  We worked on others and got a couple in 10 man I think.  We may have done slightly better in 25 man – I can’t recall.

The drakes weren’t removed from Ulduar, so when Trial of the Crusader came and died we started going back to Ulduar on 10 man to work on the Hard Modes.  In those Hard Mode runs were the foundations of my current guild, Dreamstate.  We had way more fun doing that than we did raiding 25 man Trial of the Crusader.  Once we started Dreamstate at the beginning of Icecrown Citadel we made a point of going back and finishing off Ulduar.

Why Ulduar was good
Ulduar was the last raid of the old regime.  It was good because people it allowed people the challenge of Hard Modes, with the satisfaction of a Normal Mode clear.  Let me explain.

One of the reasons we raid is for that moment of victory.  The psychologists call this moment fiero – the cheer when you down a new boss.  It makes us feel good.  In Ulduar, you could ‘complete’ the instance by killing Yogg-Saron.  You could then do some Hard Modes.  On the surface that doesn’t sound so different to today.  However, the Hard Modes of Ulduar were very much ‘optional extras’.  They didn’t exist on every boss, they were gradated so you could come at them gradually, and in some cases they were insanely hard so that the expectation of completion just wasn’t there.  The fiero moment given by downing Yogg-Saron was therefore more significant than downing a final boss on normal these days.  When you downed Yogg-Saron you had ‘completed’ the instance (Algalon never counted).  Now, when you downed Ragnaros you face the option of starting all over again.

That wasn’t the only thing.  Ulduar had a good difficulty curve with progression through being smooth.  That contrasts to Firelands, for example, where the step up to Ragnaros was too steep, especially on heroic.  The fact that Algalon was insanely hard didn’t matter as most people didn’t count him.  Thats the same model that worked so well with Sinestra in Bastion of Twilight.

What the numbers say … and what they don’t
Theres likely a part of the nostalgia for Ulduar that is just ‘rose tinted glasses syndrome’.  As I said, it was the last raid of its kind, before the Heroic Mode raiding we see today came in.  But I suspect that a lot of the love for Ulduar comes from people who aren’t on the chart published by MMO Champion.  I suspect that a lot of the love for Ulduar comes from people like me who went back later.  Especially while Trial of the Crusader was out.

Trial of the Crusader was an odd raid.  But I would suspect that Blizzard knew what it was doing more than we might think.  Trial of the Crusader was essentially the equivalent of an Ulduar nerf.  By giving us a little tier, we could gear up and go back to Ulduar!  That would explain a lot.

Ulduar’s success, in my mind, comes from its ability to transcend raid tiers.  Even two tiers later there was still motivation to go back.  That is not something Blizzard have managed to repeat in this expansion.  When players return to an older tier its often not through guild organised, formal raiding.  It was for the fun of trying to get the Hard Modes they never managed before.   By not nerfing tier 11 Heroic Modes, and by having Heroic Ragnaros be so very hard, players were less motivated to go back.  In Ulduar, the increased gear of the next tiers made the Hard Modes about as difficult as normal mode content.  So you could go and have fun in Ulduar with friends knowing the content would not be out of your reach.  And theres nothing more appealing in the game than fiero with friends!

So if Ulduar’s success is because of its social connections, and its easy access to fiero moments, then thats something Blizzard should look to achieve in all its raids.  Maybe then we’ll wax lyrically about up and coming raids too.

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