Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 16, 2009
Raid difficulty - The business case

Yeah, I know, lots of posts on the same subject this week, but A) having a theme week isn't bad, and B) I rarely get as much feedback on other subjects than on this one, both by comments and by mail. I'll promise to write about other stuff next week. :)

So, we had lots of people argueing raid difficulty this week, and there are commenters who find the current World of Warcraft raid difficulty too easy. But of course the use of the word "too" is already a judgement. And I have the impression that this judgement is a subjective one, that is people are complaining that WoW raid difficulty is too easy *for them*.

So I think at the heart of the discussion is the old battle for content. In the last expansion the casual players were complaining that the devs didn't make enough content for them, now it's the hardcore players turn. If Blizzard had put in not just one major raid dungeon (plus a couple of one-boss ones), but five, in increasing levels of difficulty, there would have been a lot less complaints, even if the first one was as easy as Naxxramas is now.

But unfortunately we suffer from Blizzard being slow to add new content. So if we look at the issue from Blizzard's point of view, who at one point decided that they didn't have more resources available to make more than one big raid dungeon for the WotLK release (and a recycled one at that), did they make the right decision in making that one easy? In absolute, business, dollars and cents terms, not in subjective "what is good for me is good for WoW" terms?

Imagine that you today had the power to change the difficulty level of the current raid dungeons, mainly Naxxramas, plus decide the difficulty level of the next raid dungeon, Ulduar. And you would receive 1 cent for every player who is subscribed to WoW in 6 months time in North America and Europe. Would you make the raid dungeons significantly harder? Or do you think that, even if in your opinion the less skilled players don't deserve those epics, they will be subscribing to WoW much longer if they have this easy raid mode available, and a somewhat, but not terribly, harder Ulduar after that?

Personally I think that easy entry level raiding adds to the longevity of Wrath of the Lich King. Ulduar should be a noticeable step up, not a brick wall, but requiring full Naxx epic gear. In the Burning Crusade lots of players quit the game after a few months, because they had leveled to 70, and found that there wasn't enough to do for them at that level, raiding being too hard for the average player. In WotLK raiding is not too hard for the average player, in fact many people find Naxxramas as it is still fun and challenging. Throw in a harder next step, Ulduar, and many, many players will have months and months of raiding fun ahead of them. Yes, the other side of the coin is that some players are bored now, will beat Ulduar in a week, and might well decide to quit soon afterwards. But as the extreme hardcore are few in numbers, there is a strong business case to be made for catering rather to the average player, not to the top. So, did Blizzard get it right this time, from the point of view of their business managers?
Given WoW's sharded nature Blizzard could solve this issue more or less instantly by just creating some 'heroic' realms. Since I'm talking out my ass here, I'll elaborate on my fantasy and state that Heroic realms would have no arena, no cross-realm BGs, the Alliance and Horde would be fixed at "Unfriendly" instead of "Hated" and, thus, would be able to group together but not do each other's quests. The world would be partially rebalanced to how it was at launch (e.g. Stromguarde would have elites in it and you'd level more slowly, but lv. 60 instances would stay like they are now, as would the actual talents that you'd have access to)

Levels would be capped at 60 and talents at 31 points per tree until you'd done a long progression quest chain involving going to all the old-school raids at lv. 60. Once you beat AQ40, you could go into Outland and do TBC content, and level to 70, with 41 point talents. You'd have to do another long, mandatory progression chain (all the attunements would come back in their original forms), and once you managed to get through Sunwell you could go on to WoTLK content, which would be similarly rebalanced to higher difficulty.

Also, just to keep things interesting, if you need to bring a new guy up to speed, when you're in lv. 60 content you'd revert to being lv. 60 (with your equipment similarly de-leveled). Sort of how EQ2 does with their mentoring system.

Would it be popular? Probably not. But it can't be too expensive in the big picture and it'd give all the people moaning about how easy things are a place to go. They could even go the other way and make realms that super-casual. Each realm could potentially be a different variation of the same game, catering to different audiences, from 'I play one hour a week' casual to 'MMOs are my hobby and I play 5 hours a day' hardcore.
Fist time poster, long time reader -

I always thought that Blizzard got it right and your article pretty much hit on exactly what I was thinking. The question is

"Who is more likely to quit and drop their subscriptions, hardcore raiders or casuals?"

I think the answer is obvious, the casuals are more likely to quit and drop their subscritption. I hope you dont mind, but I have a link to a pretty good gaming blog I check out every now and then. It is a great article (in my opinion) about the difficulty of WotLK raids and has some great picture graphs to go along with it. I also have the link permanetly on my blog as well...

Keep up the posts, love the blog =P
If they created a "heroic" server, I'd subscribe again.
You are absolutely right.
From the business point of view, it was the sensible strategy.
Unfortunately, World of Warcraft is more and more plain entertainment than the game it was initially.
About the resources of Blizzard for WotLK, I think they made the choice to implement more contents for the casual gamer of WoW who are, I think, really happy to access the High Level content and gain some epics. For this extension, Blizzard spent most for the casual than any before. They learn form there past mistakes, before TBC nearly no one have set a foot in Naxxramas thus the money spent in developing this raid content was nearly sent to waste (or so most people thought). They reinvested less money to let everybody see the hard work made for this raid instance.

I think it's better to wait & see for the next raid content. I think Naxxramas is like Karazhan in TBC or UBRS in WoW. An instance where you get stuff which will help you for the next one. But as it is, the heroic raids aren't as challenging as they should be. Before the extension I thought, 10 man raids will be for casual players to be able to access the contents, the 25 man heroic version would be for the hard core gamers. Ulduar might be more challenging, like SSC was at the beginning of TBC.

As for the raiding guilds that finished the content of WotLK in a week or two I can only feel sorry for them, since they didn't took the time to appreciate Northrend's wonders.
If TV worked according to Blizzard's business model, you'd get this conversation:

'so, you are build this nation-wide network of transmission towers, selling boxes into every home, and running a studio to film your fantasy epic soap opera. Impressive investment. How many episodes a year do you plan to make?'

'well, studies have shown that 70% people lose track of a long-running serial plot-line by the 22nd episode. So, 21 episodes should be enough, and given the amount of money we have to spend on infrastructure, we can afford to make 16 this year and 5 next.'

IF TV didn't otherwise exist, you probably would get a few million people to pay serious money to own a box that just displayed 21 episodes of a single TV series. And there would be big debates about exactly which characters should get the spotlight in that limited time. People who were more interested in the police-detective-solving-a-case plot-line would be pitted against those who liked the doctor-and-nurses love-lives, and so on.

Of course, when someone opened a TV station on the normal model, where multiple programs made by multiple studios shared the same broadcast infrastructure, the Blizzard-style TV studio would be remembered as an amazing historical curiosity, something you can't quite believe ever made economic sense.

Say a 30 person team licensed the Blizzard game engine, wrote 300 chained and seriously hard level 80 dungeon and raid encounters, ran them on separate servers, and allowed anyone to use an exact copy of their current WoW character in that content. You couldn't take anything off those servers to the main WoW servers, although perhaps you could find someone willing to trade expansion gold for normal WoW gold.

How much money would they make? How much longer would that keep people subscribed to WoW, at pretty much zero cost to Blzzard?
Woohooo casuals have won the battle, no more elitists... I see this cries of victory explode around the blogosphere, like some bitter pent-up flood had finally found a breach in the dam...
Except elitists are the people that actually care about the game, care enough to theorycraft, test the theorycrafting, develop addons... The thing is being good at the game is not rewarded anymore, so why bother ? I don't need to be at the top of my game for Patchwerk, 3K DPS is largely enough...
I really hope that Blizzard manages to produce a good enough hard mode / easy mode system in Ulduar so that I have something to play at...
Blizzard put a lot of work into the non-raiding game. Just look at all the zones and quests there are in Northrend.
If raiders really are the minority, then there is plenty to do for the majority without ever setting foot in Naxxramas or any other planned raid instance. Perhaps that is the reason the amount of raid content is so limited at the moment.
Slightly off-topic here, but how would people feel if Blizzard would remove the "one Naxx etc. raid per week," given the following stipulation: you could only receive loot/badges for your first run of the week. I'm in a bind. I play a holy paladin in a guild short on healers. I typically run Naxx each week with about the same 10-12 players. We have around 10-12 other players trying to get a second Naxx group going, but it never seems to gel because they're usually short guessed it - healers. I know there are several of us in the main group that would be willing to help 'em out if only we could run it more than once per week. Because while getting loot is nice, the main reason I play WoW is 'cause of all the great people in my guild.
Well I am starting think launching WotLK with 1 raid was a bad idea. We have cleared everything but OS +2/+3 drakes and Maylgos on 25 man and we are starting to loose raiders to boredom. The good players have earned enough badges and gear already they don't have many upgrades left and the content isn't a challenge. Farming content is just not that much fun.
In BC, I didn't really make it past T4/T5 - we were a casual guild, raiding once or twice per week. Within a month of Wotlk launching, on the same schedule, we had cleared all 10 man content except Malygos (weren't trying). Since then, Naxx 10 full clears happen in 2.5 hours easily, with lots of breaks. Some of us are more skilled than others, but with if you have dps all over 3k and are fairly raid-aware, Naxx 10 is a complete joke. How can a casual guild come within 1 mistake on Kel of achieving the Undying title?

Naxx 10 is fun/challenging for players who essentially never raided before, or struggled in Kara pre 3.0.2.
I agree. Right now it is amazing, there are more people out there raiding, and more people who actually have something fun to do. In TBC, their only options were reputation grinds or BG grinds. Neither of which were very fun. But with raiding you can progress your character, maybe even at a slower pace than those 2 options (for the casual player not in a raiding guild) and still get to do something you like. It is really refreshing to see LFG and general full of people again looking for pick up raids or heroics, people out there having fun, instead of people complaining about the grind.

"We have cleared everything but OS +2/+3 drakes and Maylgos on 25 man and we are starting to loose raiders to boredom"

This is a very interesting comment. There are still very hard challenges ahead, and yet people are leaving because they are "bored"? What does that say about them? How can they be bored where there are those challenging fights they haven't beaten yet? If more content were added, it would be easier than 2 or 3 drakes. Is that actually what they want?
Of course the masses are more important than a few self-proclaimed elite raiders. OK, let's dumb down the game so that every vegetable can do Naxxramas with two-three tries? Basically, they made gear farming easy for everyone.

I think people are just no longer content with mere stat progression on gear and this being declared endgame content! Only greed and addiction drive people to do the same dungeon over and over again for badges and gear.

WoW was never anything else, but after the 2nd expansion old players for sure get bored with that. They are not needed, a new generation of vegetables plays an ever-easier virtual placation simulator and fills Blizzard's purse.

Good catch.

I don't really know but if I have to guess ... is that Malygos/OS with Drakes is a different beast compared to Kelthuzad. For an average guild it might take a week or 2 to learn them. For some raiders that are not used to spending 3-4 weeks learning a content that's not fun for them. So they get bored at farming naxx but too lazy to make that next step. /shrug

Our Raid leader always reminds us when we were learning malygos and OS with drakes with this

"You are not in NAXX anymore so get your head outta your asses and don't expect epic to drop just by picking your nose"

Back to topic

It's a good move business wise. It's just amazing that no matter what blizz does they still get burned and hardly get credit for the good changes they have done.
Woohooo casuals have won the battle, no more elitists... I see this cries of victory explode around the blogosphere, like some bitter pent-up flood had finally found a breach in the dam

OK, let's dumb down the game so that every vegetable can do Naxxramas with two-three tries? Basically, they made gear farming easy for everyone.

Stuff like the second comment is probably where the first comment issue comes from. Instead of the big voice of computer gamers being something like "I would like more PvP", "More small raids would be nice", "This game would be much more fun with more difficult content", its "This game isn't for lazy, unskilled PvE players", or "Why make more content for no life raiders".

It just seems another example of how these computer games somehow bring out the worst in people, and get different groups competing with each other for attention, rather than bringing out a more cooperative attitude where other people can have their type of fun as well. (Which ultimately would be a healthier attitude that would likely produce more ideas for how different types of gameplay could interact with and exist alongside each other while being fun.)

(I also couldn't tell whether the second quoted section was meant sarcastically or not from the rest of the comment, but it was similar enough to the angry playing style comments ot be useful as an example.)
Hardcore raiders are essentially a captive market from a business point of view. At this point they are highly invested in the world and their characters and most of them have strong social ties which preclude them from leaving the game. And there aren't really any alternatives: LOTRO is clearly a casual PVE game, Warhammer is all about the PVP, and AoC is still trying to work its issues out. So it makes sense that Blizzard would take the hardcores "for granted" and focus on competing for the casual gamer.
In TBC, many true casual players were left stranded in Kara. By choice or bad planning, their guilds did not push forward into 25 man content (until patch 3.0). They spent a year of their gaming lives endlessly farming badges and doing the exact same encounters week in and week out.

In WLK these players are all cheering because now they can do 25 mans and don't have to min/max their gear, they don't have to spec optimally, they don't have to move out of the fire or learn DPS rotations. Naxx is just Kara 3.0 with new mobs and new bosses. The wool has been pulled over the casual players eyes so tightly that they don't see what is going on.

Blizzard is once again trying to strand the casual players in Kara, except now it's going to be easy mode bosses in Uldar. Enjoy your Karazan. Continue to collect badge loot and easy epics to allow you to overcome challenges that you will never face. Blizzard is once again failing the casual player base, but your eyes are just too glossed over in easily acquired epics to notice.
I think Blizz's plan is to release the WotLK raid content on about a quarterly basis over the life of the expansion. If they do that Wrath will be about on par with BC over the next two years. The difference is that you break up the periods of boredom into 1 month of progression and 2 months of farming rather than releasing 3 tiers of content at the beginning and getting 4-6 months of progression and then a year of farming. Overall, I think this is a good idea, especially from a business perspective of subscriber retention. If people get used to getting new content regularly they are less likely to unsub even if they get really bored and try out other games in the mean time.

On the other side of the coin, they had the idea to make at least the beginning raids more accessible to casuals. This, of course, has been discussed to exhaustion here and elsewhere. I do think that it is a good idea. Not that the content shouldn't get progressively harder but removing the wall that keeps most from ever trying it was a good move.

Two ideas that are each great in and of themselves but, in retrospect, when put together, produce the current problem. If you make the beginning raids easy enough for casuals and you only release a very limited amount of content at the beginning, it simply stands to reason that the more driven hardcores will run out of content too fast.

Simply put, they only thing I think Blizzard might have done differently would have been to release just a little more raid content up front. Not too much. Perhaps if wrath had shipped with Ulduar it would have helped. Alternatively, perhaps a little more of something half way in between. More Malygos level content perhaps.

I think the difficulty is that, from our current perspective it looks bad because we are gauging the future off of what we have seen so far but a year or two from now we will look back on this expansion and say, "Wow, they really planned it out nicely."

With regard to the relative difficulty of 10 vs 25 man, I will say that I too thought that 25 man would be much harder than 10 man and it probably should be. Then again, that may still be Blizz's plan, they may simply be starting off closer together in difficulty so that people can get going from the same set of heroics and then perhaps the gap will widen between the two in later tiers. We shall see.

I do find it pretty amazing that so many people think the game should revolve around them. Troubling might be a better way of putting it. Fear not, The end of the World (of Warcraft) is not nigh.
Yes, this is overall an improvement from Blizzard's point of view. What I would think about right now, as a Blizzard business manager, is dropping a couple of the 5-mans and a bit of the leveling content if it would allow me to have a second raid out at release, or at least ready to go in the first balancing patch. Particularly if the entry-level raid is now tuned such that a majority (?) of PVE players is raiding, and the gear is tuned such that a good chunk of players doesn't spend much time gearing up in 5-mans/heroics. But I don't know exactly how WoW is produced, maybe the content teams aren't that fluid Maybe I'm also underestimating the number of people who don't want to deal with organization above the 5-man PUG level.

I would also think hard about upgrading the instance servers. Blizzard has made instanced PVE more popular than ever before, and it's causing some real problems.
To me, Wow has always been a "numbers" game. That is, the fun (after you've gotten past the initial learning curve and exploration) came from understanding the mechanics of the underlying combat system and learning to use the abilities of your character (alone and in groups) to maximum efficiency to overcome monsters and bosses. There's not a whole lot more to WoW: the story is static and weak, the combat lacks the visceral "oomph" of an action game, the social aspect of the game is stunted.

So, I think that Blizzard made a big mistake by "nerfing" the game to the extent that they did. It breaks the fundamental Observe->Learn->Adjust->Win combat cycle on which this game is based. Beating the vast majority of current content requires little or no learning, with overwhelming brute force becoming the dominant strategy. And that is very bad, because now you essentialy just have a random loot generator instead of a game.

It puzzles me why Blizzard has chosen to make this sudden change of direction with the game. WoW has existed happily for many years on its "hard" form, capturing millions of subscribers. Evidently, the difficulty was not a roablock to getting the more "causal" customers. Now many people are getting bored and Blizzard is risking losing their subscriptions, while the aquisition of more new customers due to the change is by no means certain. As a business case for a long-running an sucessful business this look very bad to me: alienate the customers you have to (maybe) get more that you don't.
Yeah maybe they did it right from a "business point of view". however I think that's a pretty theoretical point, since I believe that blizzard make decisions more from a creative than a business point of view. Why? because the team love what they do, and that is why the game is so good. They love RP, they love the lore, and they love creating a game that other people love. That is why the game is so successful, and not because their business managers are crafty. Maybe you werent saying that, but if not, then I dont think your argument is anything more an interesting fiction.
I think Blizzard got it right, both from the view of their business managers and creative designers. On the business end, letting more casuals raid successfully will keep the subscription numbers high. Any way you look at it, there are far more casuals than elite-hardcores, so Blizzard makes more money by retaining the larger population. On the creative end, Blizzard got to include a number of new features: DK's, siege vehicles, Wintergrasp, better questlines. All of these have been widely adopted and appreciated by the majority of players, and it was a great choice to spend the time on those instead of including Ulduar with release.

My own guild only got to mid-T5 in TBC and never saw Kael or Vashj. When WotLK was released, we noticed our raid leader didn't log on anymore, and we had to reorganize a bit to appoint 2 raid leaders for 10-man teams. Now we are 3/4 way through Naxx-10, along with Sarth-0D. To me that's a pretty good pace for a twice-a-week casual raiding guild, 2 months into the expansion.
Of course it was my personal opinion and an absolutely subjective judgement, when I said that WoW is too easy _for me_(and most people in my guild). An opinion is always subjective.

Naxxramas was just wasted by Blizzard. I don't care if some wings in Naxx are easy, but to see how the epic fights against Sapphiron or Kel'Thuzad were nerfed to the ground just hurts me. We did Sapphi first try in Naxx10 including Club 100 Achievement 3 weeks after wotlk shipped. That's not progress, that's easy mode walkthrough.

Well, on to the next game...WoW is dead for the dedicated.
Except elitists are the people that actually care about the game, care enough to theorycraft, test the theorycrafting, develop addons...

Who says elitists or "hardcore" players are the only ones that enjoy those things. Just because casuals are "casuals" does not mean they don't enjoy theorycrafting. Plus, the definition of "casual" cannot even be agreed upon. What I consider casual may be considered "hardcore" to someone else that considers themselves casual.

Well, on to the next game...WoW is dead for the dedicated.

And again... how does casual not equal dedicated? Casual players can be and often times are just as dedicated to WoW as hardcore players.
Naxx is pretty close to Karazhan difficulty... slightly easier, but not much.

Blizzard's slow and meticulous development process may be hurting them a bit right now though as they only had one raid instance at launch for WoTLK -- TBC had Karazhan *and* SSC to keep more hardcore raiders busy until Black Temple. Ulduar will probably be released about the same amount of time as BT was after TBC launch, but there is no SSC to keep the more hardcore raiders entertained.

The question is whether Blizzard can put out more of the "Blizzard Quality" content in a shorter timeframe. Could they have got Ulduar polished enough to go live say 2 months after WoTLK shipped?
I feel that Blizzard has certainly taken steps to ensure that players who WANT to experience new content in Northrend have the opportunity to do so. Take a look at the implementation of Death Knights as an available level 55 alt for all players. Blizzard has designed WotLK to allow even the most casual players to acquire a hefty set of Tier 7 equipment or Heroic epic gear with just a weeks worth of dungeon runs. As far as the raiding goes, I think its substantially harder than any dungeon and requires more than just a simple pick up group to successfully complete, which is probably why organized guilds see it as too easy already... because they've been doing this sort of thing since BC.

Ulduar and future raids should naturally be harder, and yes, I do think that by making them near impossible it would force guilds to really have something to shoot for. The casual players will hang back with heroic dungeons and be content with that, while the more hardcore guilds will focus solely on completing very difficult dungeons. Both worlds can exist and bring happiness to both type of player.

Don't forget, there's always PvP for those absolutely upset with PvE.
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