2 Feb 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Raidgroup

I wanted to focus on a particular experiment that Blizzard’s been working on over the years – that of the optimum raid size.  We’ve seen raid sizes start at 40 players in Vanilla, but slowly drop to 25 in Burning Crusade and then 10 players in Wrath. With the new lockout system in Cataclysm, 10-player raiding seems to be becoming the default.

Is smaller raiding the best result through? From a content standpoint Blizzard certainly seems to think so – more groups are running 10-player dungeons than ever before, defeating more bosses and getting more loot from it. Don’t trust me – Lissanna  from Restokin did an excellent analysis of the available stats. The stats might encourage Blizzard to go further down this route by either dropping 25-player raiding entirely or producing 10-player exclusive content. After all, it’s easier to balance for ten players than both ten and 25.

Hang on a minute though – weren’t we raiding dungeons with 8 or 15 people back in Vanilla? And didn’t we think back then that they were just dungeons but nothing special? Sure, they might take an evening to clear but that was the same 5 years ago.

A Veteran’s Tale

It’s probably best to start right at Warcraft 1.0. Back then raids consisted of one size – 40 people. It didn’t matter if it was an indoor boss or an outdoor one – you needed 39 people with you in order to clear the content. The notable exceptions were some unique dungeons. Stratholme and Scholomance were both classraided – you assemble a team of 8 players (one of each class) in order to clear the instance. Upper Blackrock Spire required 15 people – 2 of each class plus a spare – to clear.

One of the common criticisms of 40-man raiding was that just organising a team that size was hard work. The sheer logistics controlled the number of raidgroups that sprang up on each server. Finding well-geared and skilled raiders before the days of server transfers was difficult and guild rivalries were fierce. The other criticism was that slackers got a free ride. While that was certainly true in the early days of raiding, tools quickly evolved to help assess player performance. Damage and threat meters came out towards the end of Vanilla, providing raid leaders with the information they needed to ensure that slackers were managed appropriately.

Burning Crusade started the Great Shrink with the change from 40-player to 25-player raiding for the majority of content. The idea was that this made it easier to start raidgroups, and it largely worked. More players started raiding, and raids happened more often. I also remember Blizzard stating that 25-player raids would be easier to tune and balance, providing encounters that would be more challenging and rewarding. There was an unsaid subtext to all this – we’d get more raid content more often because it’d be easier to churn out.

Wrath further changed the raiding model, with each raid dungeon offering 10 and 25-player modes. The experiment to find the optimal raid size continued apace, with guilds being able to try either mode, or go greedy and do both modes for the best gear. There was also a switch to using a single raid instance for each tier of content, with the boredom from repetition giving raid guilds more headaches than overcoming the encounters.

And here we are with Cataclysm and the further raid tweaks. Guilds can no longer do 10 and 25-player raids – instead they must choose one or the other. Most took one look at the headaches they had with retaining the interest of 25 raiders over the last expansion and decided that the smaller size was the best for them.

Measuring that “Raid Feeling”

Have Blizzard delivered a good raiding experience? It’s debatable either way. Certainly more people have got to experience the content and more raid groups have formed. Nowadays it’s much easier to find a group that can raid at the same hours you can, to the same level you want. All in all, this is a good thing.

But in doing so have we lost that feeling of what raiding is? Is it just the experience of playing the game with other people to a schedule, talking over voice chat and sharing great experiences? Or is it something more – being part of a large group of people all working to achieve the same thing together? Have we diluted the raiding experience so much that it doesn’t feel like raiding any more?

I think it’s fair to say that the 10-player raids we have to day have replaced the role of Stratholme and Scholomance in Vanilla WoW. These don’t “feel” like raids to veteran players, just fancy dressed up dungeons that have the difficulty tuned to 5-man heroic plus a little bit. They’re becoming popular because players treat them as exactly that – harder than normal heroics that you prepare for.

I ask veteran players –did the ICC10 pug shouts that you saw in Trade during Wrath remind you of the same Stratholme and Scholomance and UBRS shouts back in Vanilla?

For me at least, raiding doesn’t feel epic. Call me a jaded veteran who’s never had it so good, but 10-player raiding just feels small. It doesn’t matter how great the people you raid with are, there’s only going to be nine others in the group with you.  It feels like I’m no longer fighting great battles in desperate wars, but instead just a policeman breaking in to the villa of a crime lord.

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