Thursday, March 10, 2011

OT: Firelands, Difficulty, and Cataclysmic Malaise

As you have no doubt heard by now, Firelands has been delayed until patch 4.2. A lot of people are looking at the delay as a good sign, or perhaps dismissing it as irrelevant considering 4.2 is scheduled to hit (the PTR) "soon after 4.1 goes live," thus looking at it as though we are getting ZA/ZG early rather than the next tier of raiding late.

From my perspective, this announcement is the unequivocal admission that Blizzard has screwed up the difficulty of this expansion.

Stay a While, And Listen...
Let me start at the beginning. In the beginning, Blizzard created Cataclysm. Blizzard saw that it was hard, and judged it as good. Here is Zarhym on 1/7/11:

We don't think it was a mistake to start with the difficulty we did. We're happy overall with the progression path we have in Cataclysm. I think we've set an appropriate standard for this expansion, but we'll continue fine-tuning things (nerfs and buffs) to make sure the end game feels right as time passes. (source)
The forums were filling up with complaints about the LFDisaster tool though, so Ghostcrawler released a rather lengthy blog post called WoW, Dungeons Are Hard on 1/24/11, which can be summed up as "L2P." In it, he panned the design direction of Wrath with its "zerg-fest" dungeons and breezy Naxx difficulty. It is also the first time we hear about how they lamented the killing of Ulduar by releasing ToC too soon.

Then the numbers must have came in. At least that is the only thing I can imagine prompted this almost complete 180° in less than two weeks:

On the other hand, maybe things have come too far in the other direction. While we're seeing that player assembled groups have very good success, Dungeon Finder groups are having significant issues. That's something we're planning to address. [...] 
Are you basing this conclusion off of forum posts or in game data?  I hope it's the latter so you get a truly accurate picture.

That's an analysis pulled from hard data. We always try to base improvements an accurate overall picture.
 (2/3/11, source)

The intent of Luck of the Draw is to help make up for the lack of coordination, communication, and familiarity that pick up groups suffer relative to organized groups of guild members and friends. Cataclysm dungeons, especially on Heroic mode, are quite challenging and ask for more group organization than the Wrath of the Lich King dungeons did. Therefore, Luck of the Draw became relatively weaker in Cataclysm. I'm painting the picture with unfairly large brush strokes here, but in general, Heroic dungeons are of appropriate difficulty for organized groups, but just brutal on Dungeon Finder groups. Players wonder, and rightly so, why Dungeon Finder supports Cataclysm Heroic dungeons at all when the chance of success is so low.
(2/4/11, Ghostcrawler's hilarious follow-up blog post)
The Luck of the Draw buff, however, is being made in response to the feedback we're seeing on the forums, as well as the statistics we've been reviewing which reflect all types of dungeon party trends. We feel it's a good way of closing the disparity between the success of pick up groups and the success of preformed groups, without trivializing the content for some players to appease others.
(2/5/11, source)       

Direct from Blizzard's mouth, we see an admission that the success rate for LFD groups is abysmal. Players actually in the system need no such prompt; we already know the 50+ minute DPS queues and the constant wipefests of Stonecore, Deadmines, etc etc. There are a bevy of precision nerfs to heroic content, followed by a blanket ICC-esque 15% buff to players.

Always Darkest Before It Goes Pitch Black
Things are a bit more dire than that though. The 2200 PvP weapons, equivalent to hardmode raid drops, are delayed twice. In the announcement, Blizzard says:

The decision to further delay availability of weapons requiring 2200 rating was not made lightly. Currently very few guilds are clearing PvE content that drops weapons of this caliber, which would make rated Battlegrounds and Arenas the primary source for top-tier weapons. We of course don’t want players who are pursuing PvE content to feel as though they must engage in heavy PvP to obtain these weapons in order to be competitive or successful.
(1/25/11, source)

Read it again. The only reason why Blizzard would need to delay these weapons is if they anticipated one thing, and then something unexpected happened. In other words, Blizzard expected (more) guilds to have been downing heroic raiding content by the end of January. The 2200 weapons are released mid-February, and here we are at the beginning of March when we are informed that things have not improved:

In an interview at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, lead producer J. Allen Brack said that players were not sufficiently advanced through the raid content that shipped with third expansion Cataclysm in December to handle the challenge of Firelands. He also suggested that Blizzard was thinking of creating "smaller" content patches for World of Warcraft.

"We feel like the player base isn't really ready for the next raid yet," he said. "And that led to some changes where Firelands is now actually going to be in 4.2."
(3/4/11, source)

The above came from an interview with Eurogamer, not the PR-whitewashed version on the forums. In other words, a month later, there still are not "enough" players progressing through endgame raiding content. The objective statistics available to players also bears this out. Take a look at these numbers from WoWProgress:
  • Beasts (10): 86187 (98.74%)
  • Magmaw: 45140 (93.69%)
  • Nefarian: 8943 (18.56%)
I picked 10m Northrend Beasts because, as far as I am aware, it is the most defeated raid encounter ever. Thus, that will give us the baseline number of guilds out there remotely interested in raid content, at least circa Wrath. Now look at the most defeated encounter in Cataclysm: Magmaw. Where are the 41,000 missing guilds? Difficulty of content does not necessarily account for 100% of those 41k, of course. There could be attrition, there could be churn, there could be guild consolidation, indeed, it could merely be the death of PuG raiding (which may have registered non-raiding guilds simply because X number of individual members got the achievement via Trade pugs). I do not find the argument that the bottom half of the raiding population is still leveling/gearing up three months later particularly compelling (e.g. "Beasts was out for years!"), but it probably accounts for some.

Or perhaps we should just look at what we have now. Magmaw is the most defeated raid boss this tier with 45,140 guilds claiming victory. It drops down to less than 9,000 guilds for Nefarion. Looks fine, right? I would even agree that such a difficulty curve looks good... if it were not for the fact that 13 heroic bosses exist. Were the hardmodes designed exclusively for the top 15-20% of successful raiders? Does it make any sense for them to be?

Blizzard obviously expected a more robust completion rate months ago. Why has that expectation not been realized? Based on the above, I think it is beyond any doubt that Cataclysm was overtuned, from heroics to raids. You may not have needed any convincing on this, but I find it necessary to lay this groundwork so that I may offer a prediction. I predict Firelands in 4.2 will be easier than this tier of raiding.

It has to be.

Miasmic Malaise
This heightened level of difficulty and barriers against PuGing is what I feel is behind the general feeling of Cataclysmic malaise. It feels like we have jumped from one immediate grind (endgame ICC) to another (heroics/T11). Wrath heroics were easy because that is the point when it comes to 5m daily quests, which heroics have been since Patch 2.3. Meanwhile, Cataclysm heroics were 5m raids, taking upwards of 1.5 hours after 40 minute queues, and you were expected to do them daily. On the raiding front, Naxx trash was AoE-friendly from the very start and people were able to breeze through Naxx itself, yeah... but that was because the concept of hardmodes as we know them was not introduced yet. Naxx hardmodes would have solved the "problem" of challenging content while still fostering an environment that gets people excited about raiding.

Look, this is the first tier of (raiding) content for the expansion. The bar cannot be set here, for the exact reason other bloggers have noticed: burnout and malaise.

Anecdotally, my guild is in this position right now. We are 5/12 only by taking 2-3 raiders from a "sister" guild, and I look at our first few Atramedies attempts and think of Defile all over again. We have two months before ZG/ZA come out, and I cannot imagine mustering the strength to zone back into Bastion or Descent in May, let alone however long it takes Firelands to come out after that. I have not done a heroic on my main in more than a month because 70 VP an hour is not worth my time even with a tank queue. My guild has lost 14 members of a 10m guild between May of last year and Cataclysm's release, purely from burnout and boredom. I don't even bother looking at the raid loot tables because what is the point? We aren't clearing half the raid, gear upgrades are so infrequent as to not be exciting, and the gear itself is not particularly enticing anymore or have that big of a perceptable impact.

Looking at the bigger picture, I think it ultimately comes down to fallout from the 10m/25m gear merge. Blizzard would have to err on the side of caution lest the "25m gear" be given too easily in 10m raids, so 10m was tuned higher. Certain 10m hardmodes, like Magmaw for example, are reportedly miles harder than the corresponding 25m heroic encounter. So, we may in fact have a reversal of Wrath insofar as the 25m raiding tract is easier than 10m, leading to disjointed progression. Meanwhile, if you will remember, the gear back in Wrath contained more meaningful upgrades from 10m tier to 10m tier since it had to leap-frog the 25m gear to get there - getting 251 upgrades after 232 is a 19 ilevel jump as compared to 359 after 346, which is 13. Six ilevels may not seem like a lot, but just look how the reported 353 gear from ZG/ZA placated the "epix are too easy" crowd.

In Conclusion, [restate thesis]
Contrary to how I may come across with the massive wall of text that sits above this, I have no particular issue with difficult content per se. My philosophy has always been that players want content tailored to their skill level. Period. There is nothing selfish about that, or any reason to feel embarrassed by it. One thing Wrath proved rather well is that relatively easy content could in fact exist next to extremely brutal content (Sarth 3D when it was current, 25m H Lich King, etc). The pendulum has simply swung too far the other direction, and it is rather a shame that it has occurred in the first tier of an expansion that should have came out 6-8 months ago.

If you agree, disagree, and/or think I should have directed this 1900-word payload at the AH instead, feel free to let me know in the comments below.


  1. The problem I find with cata raids is not so much that its hard, because I do not think that it is that hard, the problem I am finding is that the margin for failure is to thin. One death on 10 man and its a wipe. That is a lot to ask from a "casual" guild. I feel a few more B-rezzes or give a few more classes the shaman self rez ability would go a LONG way in helping the content be a little more friendly.

  2. I think that most people want "hard content" when they're asked. That's what was on the forums, that's what Blizzard implemented, but yet it seems like most people cannot estimate their own level appropriately.
    We've seen where that has lead us when the Cataclysm started.

    Of course, it's also a negative side effect that making content too hard let's people fail that usually are "good enough" to succeed, simply because nobody plays alone and you can't compare all players in a (raid) group or even in a BG/Arena team.

    There are always some that are better, and some that are not, no matter the observed level.

  3. The problem isn't the difficulty of the content, rather the player.
    Most of the players which started during WotLK have never played during Sunwell or BT for example, where it was normal to wipe on a boss for 2 or 3 weeks before downing him, as a semi-hardcore guild (realm first on a backward realm).
    The people feel they have a right to play badly and still kill the bosses. Even more so in 5 mans.
    On the other hands the LFGwhipefest you described never happened on my realm group, which is kinda weird as most realms are pretty bad raidwise. Most of the time you clear the instance with no or 1 wipe max, once in ten attemps you get a real bad party, but I just leave them and idle in OG some more, making even more insane amounts of money...

  4. It's just not clear to me that many of the points you've made are all that compelling. "86k guilds have killed Northrend Beasts in nearly two years and only 45k guilds have killed Magmaw! Cataclysm must be *too hard*!" is not very persuasive - why is it even remotely useful to compare those two numbers, given the massive disparity in time frames?

    How many players killed Northrend Beasts in the first 4 months? That's a more relevant statistic, and I'll wager it's much more similar to the Magmaw number.

    I agree that heroic raids are probably a touch on the difficult side, but I think that has less to do with encounter design and more to do with class design errors. There's a massive disparity in AOE dps between classes, Aura Mastery and PW:B are live-or-die abilities on many encounters, and so on.

    Once you control for that, I don't really think that what we've got now is dramatically different than the difficulty curve in say, Icecrown Citadel.

  5. Here's a better comparison number: Magmaw has been available for 3 months. So I looked at a few realms to find a guild that had downed the Beasts 3 months after their release (aka Nov4th 2009), and that guild was world 60,800 or so.

    Lets add to this the caveat that there are really FOUR starting bosses to this raid tier, not 1 - Conclave, Magmaw, Omnitron, Halfus. A guild can viably start working on any of those - Magmaw was not the first boss that my guild went after. Whereas everyone *had* to do Beasts before they could do any other bosses. If you had to do every boss in strict order and Magmaw was first, then I would imagine that around 5k more guilds would have downed him (as they'd be working on that and nothing else).

    Obviously that is still far more guilds that downed Beasts in that 3 month window - but quality is not quantity. TOC was the worst raiding tier they've ever had. Boring environment, boring boss mechanics....aside from TOGC Anub, there was nothing fun or challenging about that tier.

    ICC had a bad difficulty curve because it was all or nothing. Some heroics were cake, and many were far easier than LK normal. While it was good that they wanted to make the LK fight special, Heroic LK was so much tougher than everything else. Heroic Putricide and Sindy were simple in comparison, and everything else was a joke compared to those two (with the exception of heroic Lady D - damn ghosts).

    4.0 is overall more difficult and requires cooldown coordination in a way WotLK did not, but at least it doesn't go from simple to IMPOSSIBLE in a heartbeat. Its heroics are meant to teach people basic skills that WotLK made people forget (CC, healing choices, fire-avoidance). And even the non-end bosses are still rewarding and challenging on heroic mode.

  6. There is nothing oppressively difficult this tier, ala HLK or yogg-0. If people stopped being terrible they would have many fewer problems.

  7. Yea top tier guilds really enjoyed 25HlK, I mean other then the fact that the only way to feasibly kill him was to either be in paragon or wait till the stupid ICC buff stacked high enough to hold their hands through the encounter. It wasn't a hard fight, it was a shitty gear check along with bullshit rng =/ I mean guilds were probably only actually killing him without the buff once they had everyone decked out in full heroic ICC gear.

    OH and the toc tier of raiding was a complete disaster, using it as an argument for whatever reason is shitty.

  8. I brought up Northrend Beast for the exact reason stated: it gives us the closest thing possible to "Total Raiding Guilds Ever." Naxx completion rates would probably be better, but unfortunately WoWProgress stats only start at Ulduar.

    As for the "It's not hard, it's slim margin of error/class imbalances/cooldown imbalances," well, yeah. I would consider that almost splitting hairs, although I can appreciate the granularity of the argument. Was the 15% shaman healing buff a nerf to content? It had no effect on guilds without Resto shaman, but no doubt could have been the boost needed to get Resto shaman guild groups past X boss that much easier. "Difficulty" for Resto shaman groups went down without the difficulty of encounters themselves changing.

    I suppose my overarching point is that there are 25 encounters this tier: 12 normal and 13 hardmodes. If your guild has downed 2 hardmodes, you are automatically in the top 10% of all guilds worldwide for having downed 56% of all encounters. Is that intelligent pacing? Then again, "average" guild is 9/12 right now, so perhaps Blizzard has nailed it. I suppose we can check back in on this for 4.2, assuming there isn't (anymore) sweeping nerfs to the content itself that may skew the numbers.

    P.S. Regardless of any argument, as the rest of the Blizzard posts demonstrate, Blizzard designers expected more people to have been downing hardmodes by the end of January. The "Why" and "What Happened" of that can be debated, but not the expectation itself.

  9. Very well stated. A careful analysis with pinpoint accuracy, I just hope your predictions on Firelands is true. I am in a guild at 3/12 progression, and we are really struggling to keep the group together.

  10. Wasn't the entire idea of adding hard modes in the first place the ability to create encounters for the highest level of raiders while letting the average raider see all the content? I'd say that this tier of raiding has accomplished that MUCH better than anything in WotLK.