Monday, August 9, 2010

Unintended Consequences: Why Badges and Expansions Don't Mix

Many World of Warcraft players these days, especially those on the higher end of the raiding spectrum, have been taking vacations from Azeroth.  Claiming everything from burnout to boredom, there is a certain dissatisfaction amongst the harder-core adventurers that has lead large numbers of raiders to hang up their epic boots until Cataclysm.  This sort of migration is not at all uncommon in the summer, where real life events and trips hinder raid scheduling.  Further, a certain sense of player fatigue near the end of an expansion's shelf-life is to be expected.

This time, however, something seems different.  Rather than being limited to just a hand full of progression pushers, even middle tier raiders are feeling the need to spend some time without their spellbooks.  Some have speculated that this migration is simply a sign that the level of Warcraft participation has reached the top of its bell curve.  I, however, believe that certain design choices made in Wrath of the Lich King as well as changes planned for Cataclysm have contributed to the recent decline in player activity.  Find out what they are after the jump.

Accessibility of End Game Content

Anyone who knows anything about my World of Warcraft philosophy knows that I am a huge fan of making content accessible.  The good folks at Blizzard spend a ton of time making amazing instances full of entertaining boss encounters and why shouldn't as many people experience them as possible.  Unfortunately, the gates to these instances have traditionally been barred by pretty heavy gear requirements, generally expecting gear equivalent to that available in the prior raid for smooth, consistent clears.

Back in Vanilla and Burning Crusade, the only reasonable way to get the gear needed to move to new levels of raiding was through repeatedly running the prior tier.  If you hoped to attempt Ahn'Qiraj, you would need to spend time clearing Molten Core and then use the gear you found there to clear Blackwing Lair.  Similarly, Sunwell Plateau was not a viable option for your raid if you did not at least possess gear from most of the prior Burning Crusade raids.  This meant that even as the Burning Crusade drew to a close, many guilds were still running the expansion's starter instance, Karazhan, for progression and loot.  The result was that many raiders still had several levels of content to work through even as the expansion came to a close.

In Wrath of the Lich King, the tiered system of raiding remained.  Generally it was still expected that a raider have gear equivalent to the prior level of raiding loot to make strong attempts at the latest content.  The "equivalent" qualifier is necessary because, with Blizzard's revamp of the badge system, it became possible to use heroic dungeons to skip entire tiers of raid content.

When Ulduar was introduced, there was no need for guilds to continue running Naxxramas.  Ulduar ready gear could be gained just as easily by farming badges in heroics.  Sure, some guilds continued to run Naxxramas, but it was no longer a necessary step to moving on to bigger and better raiding.  With Trial of the Crusader, the need for guilds to run prior raiding tiers diminished even further.  Not only would heroic badges land you gear strong enough for the new raid, but the Trial of the Champion five man instance would do so as well.  At this point hardly anyone seriously engaged Naxxramas or the other introductory raids and only those who were exceptionally hard-core or who had extra time on their hands bothered with Ulduar.

With the Fall of the Lich King patch came Icecrown Citadel as well as three new five man instances.  As with the prior patches, the badges from heroics were upgraded to allow for the acquisition of prior raid tier level gear.  Making things even easier, each of the three new five mans were also filled with raid equivalent drops which were more than sufficient for players to begin working towards the Frozen Throne.  Players could even start getting Icecrown level gear by slowly gathering Frost Badges through daily random heroic runs and rolling over lower tier bosses.  With very few exceptions, Ulduar gear had become completely obsolete and even drops from the prior raid tier were mostly side-grades to the gear available from badges and the new heroics.  The need for a player to run any instance besides Icecrown was eliminated and replaced with a need to run heroics.

As a result of increased accessibility, there are really only one large raid instances that any level 80 should bother running for anything other than novelty or a select upgrade: ICC.  All of Warcraft's standard issue 80s are then either working through ICC or running heroics so as to work through ICC.  Since the level 80 ladder now only has two rungs, it is much easier for individual players and guilds to reach its top.  Until Blizzard patches in a new top rung, a full raid instance tier above Icecrown Citadel, each passing day sees more and more raiders with nowhere left to climb.  It is then no surprise that an increased number of players have decided to bench themselves for a while.

In my opinion, accessibility is great when new substantial raid tiers are constantly on the horizon.  At the end of this expansion's life, however, accessibility has left too little content for players to meander through as the developers shift their full focus to Cataclysm.  I guess there are always heroic modes, but...

Heroic Modes are No Replacement for New Instances

It is fair to say that no raider can truly claim to have run out of raid progression opportunities until they have killed the Lich King and Hallion

In my opinion, there is a big difference between a progression opportunity and content.  Sure, heroic modes are clearly another step in the progression path for players to take.  I would argue, however, that at least as far as your average Warcraft player is concerned, heroic modes are not content.  At the very least, the effort reward equation for heroic modes is askew.

In the old days, you would invest hours of raiding and loot gathering and your reward would be the ability to enter and clear entirely new raid instances and seek out new, more powerful loot.  Today, you can spend hours of raiding and loot gathering in Icecrown Citadel to eventually be able to enter and clear nothing more than a harder version of Icecrown Citadel.  Even more disappointing, the material reward for continuing to struggle through the same content you have already beaten is nothing more than the word "Heroic" next to your loot's stats and an extra 13 item levels.  When faced with the proposition of easily obtained replacement gear in Cataclysm, raiders cannot be blamed for deeming heroic modes not worth the effort.

I guess if level 80 content is drying up, you can always add a couple alts to your character roster...

The Promise of Improved Leveling in Cataclysm Kills the Alt Time Sink

When a brand new level 1-60 experience is just on the horizon, why would you bother leveling an alt now?  Aside from trying to get one last run through what will become outdated and inferior content, there is little reason to invest time in any alt this side of Outland.  Cataclysm promises more streamlined and varied questing along with additional design tweaks to make the process of bringing your toon through Azeroth all the more enjoyable.  These new changes will be great for those of us who have been altoholics since Vanilla, but they certainly drain all desire to invest anything further into alts before Cataclysm hits shelves.


I am a big fan of Blizzard's shift to making content more accessible.  Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of accessibility is that it takes relatively little time for a dedicated player to make the transition from fresh 80 to King Slayer.  During the times in Wrath of the Lich King where a new top-tier raid was always right around the corner, the period of time between the average player hitting the current tier's cap and the release of new content was relatively short.  The build up to Cataclysm, however, has and will continue to take months.  As a result, more and more people are finding realistic endgame goals hard to come by and apathy has settled in.

Similarly, heroic modes are a poor stopgap for extending the progression path beyond the instances themselves.  They feel more like artificial progress than genuine achievement and their rewards simply are not enough to justify their effort.  This combination leaves the average raider disinclined to pursue them after having cleared the content the first time.

Lastly, the prospect of easier, better leveling in Cataclysm has tainted one of the strongest raider time sinks for the remainder of this expansion.  There is a strong argument to be made that time spent with alts during the remainder of Wrath of the Lich King's shelf-life is time wasted.  At the very least, every alt level gained now is one less level to be gained in the new content.

This, of course, begs the question: What can Blizzard do to avoid this end of expansion apathy when Cataclysm is preparing to close its doors?  I would suggest not much.  New leveling areas and enhancements are a great way to reinvigorate World of Wacraft and add tons of play time without the need for adding onto endgame.  Also, accessibility keeps players from being left out and allows Blizzard's creativity to impact as many subscribers as possible.  Lastly, Heroic modes do fill a niche roll amongst the hardcore and give them something to shoot for even with the game's enhanced accessibility.

Perhaps Blizzard simply needs more major content patches up it sleeve as an expansion rolls to a close.  Even then, however, many would likely forgo putting full effort into a new raid where there is a loot reset on the horizon.  In the end, Blizzard may in fact be pursuing the best course.  Sure, interest in Azeroth is waning, but Blizzard is simultaneously putting together an expansion with enough punch, meat and variety to bring everyone back.

Do you think I missed the mark?  Do you have any suggestions for Blizzard on how to keep players invested in an expansion on life support?  Do you have a tale of your own "vacation from Azeroth" you would like to share?  Let me know in the comments.

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