Raid Sizes and Design Inertia

When I was raid lead in vanil­la wow, I arranged and lead many many runs on Molten Core, a few on Black­wing Lair, and many in Zul’Gu­rub and AQ20. When news of The Burn­ing Cru­sade’s reduc­tion in raid size came out, that the new raids would be 25 and 10, I cheered. My guild thought I was being sar­cas­tic (a rea­son­able guess), but hon­est­ly I was thrilled. I still am. Larg­er raids are for masochists.

Imag­ine the game as a series of eight 10-man instances instead of this strange mix of 25/10.

My wife and I were run­ning Mag­is­ter’s Ter­race for the first time a cou­ple weeks ago, and part of that instance is a pre­view of the Sun­well Plateau 25-man raid instance. It’s beau­ti­ful. Stun­ning! Epic! And so on! It made us both real­ly want to go there. Then we remem­bered that we’re not in a guild that’s capa­ble of 25-man con­tent. We’ve stepped into Gru­ul’s lair once, a toe in the water for our guild. Unless some­thing remark­able hap­pens, I’ll nev­er see Gru­ul’s Lair, Magth­eri­don, SSC, Mount Hyjal, or Black Tem­ple, nev­er mind the new hard­est-of-the-hard, Sun­well Plateau. So anoth­er 25-man raid instance does­n’t do any­thing for me except make me wish that the game were designed dif­fer­ent­ly: name­ly that raid­ing was­n’t try­ing to coor­di­nate a guild of between 2532 ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple or 2550 casu­al peo­ple. There are six 25-man instances, and two 10-man ones. Many, many more peo­ple go to the 10-man ones, just like many more peo­ple went to Zul’Gu­rub and AQ20 than ever went to Naxx. And yet, look at that ratio in total con­tent!

I have friends in 25-man raid­ing guilds. My guild, being a small-sized casual/raiding guild, is some­what stuck with the step­ping-stone prob­lem. Peo­ple come here, learn to raid, and either stick around or move on to 25-man raid­ing guilds. My friends in 25-man raid­ing guilds say that man­ag­ing larg­er groups is more work, and less fun. I raid­ed Molten Core, and you could have so much dead weight dur­ing a run that it was painful. In all but the most dri­ven raid­ing guilds, you still have this prob­lem.

If Bliz­zard wants to look at its game like a sport (still a ter­ri­ble idea), then let’s take a quick look at sports. Ok, step one: get 39 of your friends and have every­one play­ing on the field, on the same team, at the same time. Wait, I’m not aware of any sports like that. Ok, let’s bump that down to 25 peo­ple play­ing on the field, at the same time, on the same team. Again, noth­ing remote­ly like that comes to mind. Could we shoe­horn a 25-man team into any pop­u­lar sport? You could play foot­ball (soc­cer), just stack the extra 14 in the goal. Nev­er mind.

The real­i­ty is that most team sports have 11 or few­er peo­ple play­ing at the same time. Why? Because more than that is unnec­es­sary and unwieldy. At that size, every­one mat­ters. I mean, part of what makes foot­ball (amer­i­can) so incred­i­ble is that you have a large group of spe­cial­ized peo­ple work­ing toward the same goal, with fre­quent sub­sti­tu­tions based on the play of the game. Actu­al­ly, this part is sim­i­lar to pro­gress­ing through new raid con­tent. But not the size part.

So why does Bliz­zard have these huge raids?

Before WoW was a game called Everquest (EQ), which I have nev­er played but that won’t stop me from talk­ing about it. EQ had these mon­strous­ly large, fun­less endgame expe­ri­ences where you stacked 5000 peo­ple side by side and about the best thing you could say about that is that ‘you were there’, one of a zil­lion pis­sants pro­vid­ing a tiny frac­tion of the group’s util­i­ty, and that’s if the per­son actu­al­ly plays. When I think of my days lead­ing 40-man raid con­tent, the biggest thing I remem­ber (aside from “can’t we just go to ZG again? it’s fun!”) is that one-third or more of the raid was absolute crap at play­ing this game. I raid­ed with some­one who method­i­cal­ly cast fire spells at a boss immune to fire, blithe­ly ignor­ing the “immune” “immune” “immune” text flash­ing on his screen with every spell land­ing. He was a nice guy and a SPHO. Every raid guild has peo­ple like this to dif­fer­ent degrees, and every raid leader can tell sto­ries like this. Larg­er raids mean that more of a per­cent­age of peo­ple can suck, go afk or just in gen­er­al be lame and yet the group will still find suc­cess, which means that more peo­ple will be inclined to invite their 95-year old great-grand­par­ent to raid with the guild because he has noth­ing else to do and he will always be there.

Back to the orig­i­nal thought. Bliz­zard came along and did­n’t want their game to be derid­ed as the mini-everquest. Nev­er mind hir­ing one of the elite endgame raiders from EQ to design their raid con­tent. So, when it came time to design their endgame, they went big-group too, although not quite as big. Remem­ber, Bliz­zard actu­al­ly thought there was a chance of fail­ure in their WoW exper­i­ment. Their design reflect­ed cur­rent trends at that moment, which was EQ. Of course, then they did destroy every oth­er MMORPG, as then went cook­ie mon­ster all over the rest of com­put­er gam­ing, and basi­cal­ly print mon­ey now. Peo­ple who learned to play WoW came to think of endgame as this huge-group thing.

So why not change? The answer is risk. Yes, the devel­op­ers spend an inor­di­nate amount of time design­ing con­tent that less than 10% of the player­base will ever see. But regard­less of whether you agree with my opin­ion that small raid­ing is a bet­ter game expe­ri­ence than large-group play, there’s lim­it­ed finan­cial incen­tive to make such a large change. Bliz­zard is mak­ing piles of dol­lars with the cur­rent mod­el, with no gam­ing con­tender in sight. A change to endgame raid­ing isn’t going to get more peo­ple to sign on, but it might cause some per­cent­age of the base to leave. What does the com­pa­ny have to gain from such a move? High­er sat­is­fac­tion from the peo­ple already play­ing isn’t worth a risk in decrease to rev­enue stream.

So even though large-group play is not any more fun than small or mid-group play, that’s what we’ve got. Iner­tia wins.

In oth­er news, I’m look­ing for­ward to World of War­craft 2. Maybe they’ll ditch the whole huge-group play alto­geth­er on the reset.

More Words!