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 25-32 dedicated people or 25-50 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.

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