Friday, October 24, 2008
What you can do or not do in a single-player game is strictly defined by the program code. A massively multiplayer online game adds a social dimension to that, there are things that are theoretically allowed by the code, but practically not possible due to other players. The more players are involved in any given game activity, and the more they depend on each other, the more important the social rules for that activity become. In World of Warcraft raids are the activity that requires the most cooperation, and has thus been subject to the most social conventions and rules. But raiding changed from the original game to the first expansion, and it will change again in the second expansion. While the social rules aren't hard-coded into the program, they are nevertheless a logical consequence of the coded game rules. And as the code changes, so will the social rules. Whether we are considering ourselves as "raiders" or not, we will need to rethink the social rules of raiding. How do we define raiding in the new context of the Wrath of the Lich King?
The first thing to do here is to carefully separate what are actually coded rules for raiding, and what are only social conventions. For example you might be surprised to find out that many TBC raid instances can be entered at level 65. The "you need to be level 70 to raid" rule is a social convention. And did you hear the story about the druid soloing Onyxia? Well, we know for a fact that he needed *some* help, because you can't enter a raid dungeon unless you are in a raid group, for which you need at least 2 players (even if the second player stays outside). If they aren't hard-coded, why do social rules exist? Players make up criteria for inclusion or exclusion in reaction to the difficulty of the raid encounter. If 10 random players at the level cap can't beat the first raid dungeon, players have to organize a raid with a better mix of classes, talent builds, and equipment to improve their chances. That results in two lists: One list of inclusions of what you absolutely need to succeed, for example 2 tanks, 3 healers, and 1 warlock for a banish during a special encounter. The other list is a list of exclusions: You don't accept anyone who is not at the level cap, who has not a certain quality level of equipment, who does not have a certain talent build for his class, or who is not available to play at certain times for a certain amount of consecutive hours. Even if you exclude the hard-to-measure variable of player skill, there is something like a perfect raid composition for a given raid boss. The difficulty level determines how far you can stray from that perfect composition and still succeed.
In the Burning Crusade, when it came out, two factors made raiding relatively hard: The raid size was reduced to 10 players for the easiest raid, Karazhan, so after filling your list of must-haves, there wasn't much room left. And the difficulty level was high, so that as long as people were wearing blue gear, the raid composition couldn't be far off from perfect to still succeed. There were even guilds who changed raid composition for each boss, because they didn't have one composition that was able to beat them all. That strengthened the image of raiding being an elitist activity, that the average WoW player shouldn't even attempt. And raiding being only for the "elite" of most dedicated players was even supported by the developers, to the point that when other sources for epic gear were introduced, Tigole called those "welfare epics". But what is important to realize here is that raiding is *not* inherently elitist. This has been well proven by patch 3.0.2., which made raiding a lot easier by reducing all raid mobs health by 30%. Given that change, and the higher probability to nowadays find somebody who is well-geared and knows Karazhan already, the chance of success of a "pickup raid" to Karazhan is now much, much higher than last year. Guilds are taking their alts raiding, and while it isn't quite "raiding for everyone" yet, Karazhan is much more accessible to the average player now than before.
And if we believe what Blizzard tells us, raiding is supposed to remain more accessible in Wrath of the Lich King. And if they want to do it, there is nothing to suggest that it can't be done. Of course a raid dungeon which is easy enough to be completed by a pickup raid full of casual players will be way too easy for those who were into hardcore raiding before. But so what? There is more than one raid dungeon, every raid dungeon exists in two difficulty levels (easy for 10 people, hard for 25), and if the first dungeon is too easy for you, you just try the next, and the next, until you find one that is challenging enough.
This is a huge opportunity for Blizzard to redefine raiding as a possible activity for a much larger percentage of players. The difficulty of the raid dungeon determines the social rules of inclusion and exclusion that guilds and players will draw up to say who can raid and who can't. If the difficulty is low enough that most players can at least kill a couple of bosses in the first raid dungeon with minimum requirements of raid composition, gear level, and time commitment, then the image of raiding will change. The more people are participating in raid content, the better the business model of Blizzard that offers raid content as main course for the endgame holds up. Whatever else you think of WAR and its PvP endgame, at least that PvP endgame is totally accessible to anyone at the level cap, and nobody will be kicked out of a group for having the wrong class or talent build. WoW can't afford to keep their endgame exclusive for a small elite, they must open it up to a larger public to hold onto more players for longer.
If Blizzard really makes raiding a lot easier in Wrath of the Lich King, the only remaining barrier is in the heads of people. Social rules are slower to change than coded rules. Some people who didn't raid before will continue thinking that raiding isn't for them, even if they would perfectly be able to succeed in a raid. And some of the old raiders will resent not being that much of an elite any more. Which is silly, because of course the more hardcore players will always advance faster and further than the average player. It is just the entry into raiding that gets more accessible, and that can only be a good thing.