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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 stillare 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.