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OT: The Final Tanking Solution

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the systemic problems with the LFD feature when it comes to tanks, and quite frankly, a lot of truly bizarre “fixes.”

Rohan from Blessing of Kings thinks that maybe we should move from the Holy Trinity (e.g. tank, healer, 3 DPS) to something like 2 tanks, 2 healers, 2 DPS. While that seems out of the blue, apparently it is more similar to what Age of Conan was (is?) doing. Green Armadillo at Player Vs Developer thinks that since there are more DPS than the other roles, why not simply have a tank, healer, and 7 DPS? Gordon from We Fly Spitfires thinks that simply no one wants to play those roles, and so Blizzard should either make those things more fun to do or perhaps give up on the Holy Trinity model altogether. Adam from The Noisy Rogue asks why Blizzard is bribing tanks when they could simply make running heroics required for raiding by adding a (stacking) buff for completing them. Incidentally, Adam appears to hate non-pure DPS classes and wishes them pain. Gevlon from The Greedy Goblin thinks it is an “education” issue that should be fixed by somehow teaching people how to play better (or how to tank), and that no amount of bribery will work.

And to round it out, here is actually Blizzard’s official take on the situation:

We don’t feel the tanking and healing roles have any inherent issues that are causing the representation disparity, except that fulfilling them carries more responsibility. Understandably, players prefer to take on that responsibility in more organized situations than what the Dungeon Finder offers, but perhaps we can bribe them a little.

With Great DPS-Power, Comes… No Responsibility

All of these “solutions” flirt around the two problems, outlining what is really going on in the vaguest of ways. Tanking (and healing) carry more responsibility… why? Easy: tanks and healers cannot be carried. When a tank fails, by definition, the group wipes. When a healer fails, the group wipes. There can be sloppy play, for sure, like a tank not positioning the boss correctly, or not reacting to a certain ability the correct way. However, if the group is still able to rally and defeat the boss anyway, the “failure” really is not a failure. Conversely, DPS failing generally means that the DPS died, which is not that big a deal…

…until now.

Problem 1: Cataclysm dungeons are (still) too difficult for the LFD tool.

The first time I zoned into the revamped Shadowfang Keep and saw that there were actually three separate spells that a DPS could (and has had to in two cases) interrupt on Baron Ashbury, I knew I would despise this expansion. Commander Springvale, Lady Naz’jar, Rom’ogg Bonecrusher, Corla, Herald of Twilight, Ammunae, Setesh, Rajh, Corborus, (post-patch) Asaad, Foe Reaper 5000, Admiral Ripsnarl, “Captain” Cookie… all of these bosses from nearly every single heroic have mechanics that the DPS has to take care of or else the group wipes. Blizzard actually thought they could add responsibility onto the historically least responsible role and have everything work out? Nevermind the endless mob packs that need CCing along the way.

It might come as a shock, but bad players play this game. I do not subscribe to Gevlon’s “M&S” sociopathy, but there is a full spectrum of player abilities out there, and not every one is tall enough to ride this roller coaster, so to speak, especially after jacking up the scale a few more inches. You cannot keep these players out of the LFD tool though, because there are not enough “good” players to support the function – as I mentioned back in February, there has to be a critical mass of success going on for the tool to operate at a self-sustaining level. No matter what you think about the LFD tool, it is still entirely better than trying to make your own non-guild group, as otherwise you would be doing that instead of sitting in a DPS queue for 45 minutes.

I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed

Speaking of sitting around for 45 minutes…

Problem 2: Cataclysm dungeons (still) take too long.

It is bad enough that having one (or two) bad players from the LFDisaster lottery in your group can torpedo an entire heroic run. What drives the situation into an irredeemable farce that it is today is asking raid-geared tanks to slog through perfect no-wipe, no-death runs… in 50+ minutes. All for 70 Valor Points. Every other non-raid aspect of this game is designed around being completed in 30 minutes or less. TB dailies? 30 minutes. Battlegrounds? 30 minutes. Arena games? They can technically last for 47 minutes or whatever, but most games last no more than ~3 minutes * 10 games (assuming 50% win percentage), so ~30 minutes. What happened to 30 minute heroics? As I have openly opined in this space before, where are all the players asking for 5-man raids on their off-nights?

Blizzard seems to be addressing this particular problem, e.g. 70 VP/hour not being good enough, without actually addressing the equally (if not moreso) pressing Problem 1. This is why their bribing “solution” will be a short-term improvement at best: I actually do plan on running LFD more often, but only because the Reins of the Raven Lord is something I have been farming off-and-on again since TBC was relevant content. So I will either get the mount rather quickly, or I will become so frustrated (again) at the prospect of running these heroics that I would rather be farming Sethekk Halls the old fashioned way, and getting done in a fraction of the time.

Always the Last Place You Look

So what is the actual final solution to this seemingly tanking crisis? Does it involve fundamentally changing the way the game is played, perhaps with 8-9 person dungeons with two tanks or whatever? Nope. How about rating systems, or game tutorials? Bzzt!

Solution: Tune Cataclysm dungeons like Wrath dungeons were tuned.

Problem solved! Did you, or anyone you know complain about DPS queues in Wrath? Not a chance. DPS queues were 11 minutes back then. Eleven minute DPS queues. Can you imagine? I can! Despite the low queue times, I still tanked on three separate toons because it was faster and I enjoyed tanking more. How could I enjoy tanking and it’s responsibility? Because I had control over the outcome. You could be the worst player in the world and I would carry you kicking and screaming to a 15-20 minute LFD success. And then everyone could move on with their lives.

People did complain Wrath heroics were too easy. And you know what? Those people complain that Cataclysm dungeons are too easy. There is no satisfying those people, because they have such warped perceptions as to what daily group quests should consist of that placating them is a waste of time. These dungeons were new, relevant content the first few times you beat them. After that? They are farm content. Does anyone legitimately enjoy “challenge” on farm content? That seems like a contradiction in terms, does it not? If you are in heroic raiding content, does it please you to wipe on normal Magmaw? I find that unlikely. Challenge does not consist of RNG wipefests because you happened to be grouped with a stoned college student, a stay-at-home mom changing a diaper with one hand on the keyboard, a Fan of Knives bot, and/or the social bully studying to get his minor in Sadism.

Tanking and healing will always have more responsibility than DPSing. The goal should not be to “fix” that by adding more responsibility to DPS. All that will do is make tanking/healing more frustrating, because on top of what you already have to worry about, you have to worry about whether you will wipe through no fault of your own because Worgenlol of Random Server 316 did not interrupt the one-shot mechanic of a dungeon boss.

Challenging content does have a place in World of Warcraft and that place is in organized content. Grabbing five random players and sticking them into a group that will never exist again is not “organized content.” You can even still have challenging heroic dungeons for people that want it… just don’t stick those dungeons in the Dungeon Finder. The way the revamped ZA/ZG are rolling out is a bastardized version of this, but Blizzard could do it better. Have them exist as brutal 5m content for 1-2 months or whatever, and NOT be in LFD. Then, nerf them appropriately when you finally do add them to the tool. This solution actually appeases the “save the community (that we never interacted back in vanilla/TBC)!” camp, as you could get your local e-Street Cred up for successful ZA/ZG runs while anyone else who couldn’t be bothered could still get their daily 7/week VP the (now) old-fashioned way. Between the 353 gear and the doubled (!) VP gains from ZA/ZG, I do not think there would be any danger of there not being enough people running those dungeons. And when 4.2 rolls around at the end of August when it’s ready? Glide ZA/ZG right into LFD.

No matter what you thought about Wrath, the one thing it indisputably got correct was how to make a vibrant, healthy LFD community. Player activity only went down after nearly a year without new content, and the prospect of another gear-reset expansion. Cataclysm player activity is down four months after launch. No, seriously. Blizzard talks big game about the design iteration process, but as we know from Wrath they kept the same difficulty model the entire expansion. I actually have little hope that they will turn Cataclysm around before plowing into that iceberg, and what we are likely to see is another brutal raid tier in Firelands and less reasons to feel the need to log on every day. Design decisions like “let’s require endboss kills before they can get a 4pc bonus!” sound good on paper (and quells the forum trolls), but in practice it makes people less interested in ANY tier pieces. Cataclysm difficulty? Same kind of deal.

Sinking Ships

I think it is fair to say Cataclysm has not been going according to plan.

Right in the middle of my writing a very long post about the Great Tank Bribe of 2011, we get hit with a few more broadsides:

  • Honor is now purchasable from the Justice Commodities Vendor at 250 Honor per 375 Justice.
  • Justice is now purchasable from the Honor Commodities Vendor at 250 Justice per 375 Honor.
  • Conquest is now purchasable from the Valor vendor at 250 Conquest per 250 Valor.
  • Any cut of uncommon gem now sells to NPC for 75 silver instead of 9 gold.

Not to mention the things we already know:

  • The rate at which Honor Points are earned has been doubled.
  • Revamped ZA/ZG granting 140 VP.
  • Daily heroics –> 7/week heroics.
  • Tanks getting gold, gems, flasks, non-combat pets (including cross faction), and mounts.

All of this for Patch Four “WE SWEAR FIRELANDS ISN’T BEING DELAYED” Point One. Or perhaps it should be called Patch Four “Precipitous Subcriber Activity Freefall Solutions” Point One. Individually, each one of these could change the entire gaming landscape for millions of people, and they are all happening together.

The easiest change to grasp is the (data-mined) change of cut uncommon gems going from what we all knew was a ridiculous 9g vendor price down to 75s. This radically undermines the safety net of bot-bought ore for Shuffling purposes as the True Vendor Price (TVP) going from 54g for Obsidium to 4.5g a stack. Will that stop the bots from burying us under a mountain of cheap ore? Nope. What else will they farm? More herbs? It is correct that such a high TVP meant a fairly substantial inflation spiral, but honestly, all that removing the floor will do is send Shuffle components (gems, dust, scrolls, etc) down into further free-fall. The bots have to go; all the 9g gems did was act as a garbage bin for their goods.

But what of the other changes? It is almost impossible to even imagine all the interlocking synergy going on. For example, with the tank bribe deal? It is safe to say that the gems and flasks from the goodie bag will be normal gems/flasks (e.g. sell on the AH), but what about those pets? Can you even imagine having an X% chance of bam! opposite-faction pet in your bags and ready to be sold? If they are BoP when you get them, alright, but most flasks are still hovering at 100g apiece over at Auchindoun, which puts the gold total at 84g + 100g + however much extra that toss in the bag itself. It would take a truly ridiculous amount to bribe me to tank based on gold alone, but at some point I will do an otherwise useless gold/hour calculation. And, hey, while I am not a mount guy, Reins of the Raven Lord is something I have been interested in since Sethekk Halls was current content.

What is most interesting to me at the moment though, is the calculus involving the honor JP conversions. It’s set at 66% rate of return, which means you need to turn in 3375 honor for 2250 JP (e.g. a “tier” piece) and vice versa. On the face of it, that’s a fairly bad return… but remember that all honor gain is doubling per the PTR notes. We don’t know if that’s honor from HKs or what, but can you imagine the alternative? I get 240 honor from a TB win, plus another 200 from the weekly quest, plus X amount from just general HKs around the map – 880 honor + X amount, let’s just round that to a charitable 900. Random daily BG losses will be 90 per game minimum. All this stuff will add up pretty quickly. That 3375 honor target is actually 1687.5 honor post-patch. In other words, PvP will be the most efficient way to farm JP in that you can turn 1687.5 honor into 2250 JP. Conversely, you could simply be picking up the blue PvP gear for 1100 honor for the most expensive slots.

If it sounds like I’m all over the place here, well, I’m all over the place. It honestly feels like Blizzard is throwing everything at the leaking hull and seeing what will stick, to mix metaphors. The doubling honor deal went under a lot of peoples’ radars, but added to all this other stuff? Madness, all around.

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.