Though the story was definitely worth telling in its own right, I actually brought it up in part to introduce a bigger (and possibly more contentious) question, which I decided to bump to a second post to give it the space it deserves.
What good are large raid groups anyway?
Let's be clear, I'm NOT suggesting that Blizzard take 25-man raids out of WoW tomorrow. We've already changed the raid cap once post launch, and it was hugely disruptive to existing social structure. My server alone has 35 guilds that have cleared Naxx-25, most of which would experience significant drama shifting to a smaller raid format. Blizzard can't change the size again midway through an expansion cycle, and possibly shouldn't change it at all. For the sake of this discussion, though, I hope we can agree that "because that's how it is now" is a social issue specific to the current population of WoW, rather than a design issue that dictates that the most recent iteration of raid caps (10 and 25 man versions of everything) is the best.
Consider this quote from Ghostcrawler without the historical artifact that the raid caps are what they are:
"If your contention is that 10 player raiding is harder than 25 player raiding, then we disagree. The logistics of managing 25 players in our minds outweighs the "marginalizing individual effort" that you mention. I could see a way to have 10 and 25 drop the same loot but also share a lockout. Anything else will just kill 25 player raiding IMO, which is not something we want to do."My response, again, absent the consideration that 25-man guilds are the current raid size, is "so what?" Why is the game offering rewards for the purely out-of-game logistical activities required to field larger raid groups? Let's take a closer look.
Compensating for other players
Tobold's piece sums up the indictment against the "unheroic raid" nicely - the larger group allows better (whether in terms of gear, skill, experience with the quirks of the encounter etc) players to cover for worse players. He also points out that the problem is not anywhere near as simple as adding X% to each boss and calling it a day.
As I put it in the comments on my post from last weekend, the game can't distinguish between a competent group of players who are making a good faith effort, and a group where some overgeared members are carrying some less-than competent individuals (which, in all fairness, certainly includes me from time to time, as I try to learn encounters on a whirlwind tour of farming zergs) averaging out to the same overall effect. All the game can do is ramp up the difficulty to the point where the whole group has to perform at the higher level, kicking the underperformers out of the raiding game altogether. Some folks may be alright with that, but I'll quote the crab again to sum up the issue:
"Previously the answer was basically “You aren’t worthy to face the end villain of this game you have invested hundreds of hours in,” which we thought was sort of a lame answer. Now you can see Arthas, but you aren’t going to get his best, most prestigious loot if you aren’t awesome.Or, as I would put it, the old way was a good deal if you make the cut, but not so much of a good deal if it turns out that Illidan was right when the first thing you heard after buying the TBC disc was that you were not prepared. Blizzard apparently felt that the only way they could justify the budget required to field high quality raid content was to produce accessible raids that could, in theory, ramp up with hard modes. The current expansion cycle is going to put that theory to a huge stress test.
One big difference between smaller raids and larger raids is that size allows the developers to make assumptions about group make-up. A 10-man group is going to struggle to field more than 2 traditional tanks or 3 healers. You almost certainly cannot presume an optimal mix of buffs and debuffs. In short, the capabilities of a 10-man group are going to be much harder to predict than the capabilities of a 25-man group, because the designers have less control (short of making certain classes massively over- or under-powered) over which 10 players end up in the group. It's easier to just make the group larger and therefore presume that somehow all the buffs etc wound up in the group.
(This also raises various balance issues, which I have discussed previously.)
That said, now we're back to precisely the kind of out-of-game logistical issue that seems to have nothing to do with a raid's in-game effort or performance. Last night, I re-visited Naxx-25 with a PUG and turned out to be the only source of the improved scorch debuff (the other two mages were arcane specs - and yes, I actually respecced to a real Frostfire build, because I feel like I need to not be embarassing myself on damage meters if I'm going to do these PUG raids, so I get invited back), in a raid that also did not have a source of replenishment.
This was obviously not a guild, but, if it had been a guild run, should they really have been punished for not having these major buffs? Should 24 players have been forced to sit and wait until they could find not just any mage, but a mage with precisely those two buffs (looking ahead to the 3.1 era)? This argument isn't new, and in some ways isn't different from a group of 24 waiting while dozens of DPS are LFG because they need a healer, but adding more specialized slots to fill exacerbates the problem. (Which was, in turn, why Blizzard has been buffing hybrid DPS and nerfing the value of raid buffs this expansion cycle.)
The difficulty of balancing parallel content
As I wrote in the context of the leveling PVE game, balancing two parallel content tracks is hard, which is probably the reason why Blizzard tried to avoid doing so for as long as they did. The current system is a bit of an experiment - the crab implies that they're watching to see whether players will actually use the hard mode 10-man content in Ulduar. However, he also notes that it's been very hard to get the balance right because encounters don't always scale well to both group sizes - in many cases, the 10-man versions are harder as a result.
Obviously, if WoW did move to only having 10-man raids, they'd have to deal with group composition issues more often, but at least they wouldn't have to get two versions of every encounter up and running.
Tackling the content shortage
As I pointed out, the current 10/25 man split is Blizzard's attempt to make the content sufficiently popular to justify its continued development costs. They make the content once, tune it 2-4 times (10/25, regular and hard), and hope that it will somehow keep everyone happy. How could this still work if there were no 25-man raids?
Well, who said that the accessible content and the hard content actually needs to be the same content? Blizzard can't actually develop two whole raid zones, but they wouldn't need to; they already have a dozen mostly unused raids from previous endgames. Would less-hardcore guilds really be that said if the two choices in patch 3.3 were a hard-mode only 10-man Icecrown showdown with Arthas and a non-hard-mode 10-man level 80 version of the Black Temple and the chance to finally meet Illidan? An accessible form of Icecrown would follow at level 90, as the Sunwell-capable guilds of 2011 are tackling the all-new hard modes for the next expansion.
I suppose we might see forum posts complaining that the hard content isn't worth doing because it is hard and only offers one tier's worth of loot upgrades compared to the accessible stuff from 2+ years back that suddenly offers upgraded loot. Then again, we'll always see forum complaints, and I suspect that the actual number of unhappy peple would be far lower than we have at the moment.
Keeping a balance with accessibility
I didn't mean my last post to say that I think that all raids everywhere in Wrath are too easy. Tobold argues that Naxx-10 is in the perfect place balance-wise for an entry level raid. Watching my guildies in the Knights of Honor progress through Naxx and finally down Kel'Thuzad last week (just in time to take a crack at Malygos before the patch), I think Tobold is spot on. A competent guild that isn't going to run its members into the ground should have access to content where they can make slow and steady progress over the weeks between patches, and Blizzard may end up dropping Ulduar at exactly the moment when KOH needs it.
My point is simply that the current "1 raid, 4 versions" philosophy requires Blizzard to juggle a lot of separate things at the same time, and it appears that they dropped at least one of those four balls (normal-mode 25 man content at expansion launch) during the attempt. Perhaps they really will have everything exactly right in Ulduar, but I suspect that things will continue to be a work in progress. Is the increased social interaction (some positive, some not so much) that having larger 25-man raids offers really worth all the challenges that the attempt to maintain both tracks requires? I guess we're going to find out.