Monday, April 6, 2009

What is the Value of Large Raid Groups?

It appears that my post on an unfortunate OS-25 PUG from last Friday hit a popular topic amongst the blogosphere; the post is already one of my most-commented posts ever, and will see more traffic today thanks to Tobold's take on Unheroic Raids.

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.

Accomodating specialization
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.


Anonymous said...

You have to hand it to GC for telling the truth: the hard part of 25-mans is getting 25 people together who are competent and awake.

It is interesting to me that the game scales differently between the two group sizes in different situations. Yes, you can probably hide undergeared people better in a 25-man. On the other hand, it's easier to find 10 people who can stay out of void zones than it is to find 25.

My guild has focused on 25-mans because that's where the gear is, and as a gear addict, I'm with that. However, I have wondered lately if we couldn't have gotten Glory of the Raider and 310% proto-drakes if we had also put together a 10-man daring, highly trained special mission force. For whatever silly reason, I care deeply about titles and mounts that say "I can hang with the best of them."

But we didn't, because the gear is better in 25s. I'll admit that 25s feel more epic, like you've got the whole family together, but the most fun times I've ever had have been in 10-mans, where there's a lot more personal interaction.

Regarding your point: I'm not sure what inherent virtue Blizzard sees in larger groups, from a business perspective or a game design perspective. I'm not absolutely sure there is one. Here's what I see as the problem: People run them now. Blizzard apparently likes this. No one would likely run them if they gave the same loot as 10-mans.

What if 10-mans were noticeably harder than 25-mans, and gave the same loot? That would create a whole new issue, because Blizzard rightly associates 25s with hardcore players, and 10s with groups of players who aren't hardcore enough to put together a larger group or guild. 10s are there for more casual people, so why make them harder than 25s just so they can share loot?

Well, you could do it by having a hard-mode 10-man and a casual 10-man, with the former sharing loot with 25-mans. I think that's an interesting option, but I still think it's easier to find 10 good players to do 10-man hard mode than it is to find 25 awake players to do 25s. And it's a moot issue, because right now there are hard modes for 25s.

In the end it's probably a non-issue; Blizzard probably figures that casuals are happy just to be seeing the content for once, and that they can gear up on easy mode and then try hard modes if they want better gear and more prestige. Meanwhile, they are still servicing the Insidias of the world by keeping the best loot in 25-man hard modes.

Daria said...

I'm still not really believing the whole "25-man raids are harder on an administration level that's why they deserve better loot" philosophy that Blizzard has.

I was in a small 10-man guild and actually found it more frustrating. Because if one person doesn't show up on raid night and you've got a very small roster, you can't fill that spot. Then you are faced with having to pull someone from outside the guild.

If you bloat your roster to avoid that, then you have to rotate players in and out, the chances of a raider being present for a full clear that week are slim.

Since I've joined a larger guild that can bring more healers to a raid, I haven't had to deal with sitting out.

DeftyJames said...

"I'm not sure what inherent virtue Blizzard sees in larger groups, from a business perspective or a game design perspective."

I have never been on a 25 man raid but I my perspective is that a 25 raid (does, or should) bring two things to the game. First, I have read many times that people like the "epic" feel to 25 raids. My first sorta taste of this was two nights ago when I went on a "raid" to get the Alliance war bear. Amazingly, we pulled it off and down all four Horde in one go, though it took us about three hours with people dropping in and out of the raid. I can assure you 100% that it was WoW as I had never experienced it before. Maybe some of you people who have been doing 25 mans for a long time have gotten over the thrill and no it's all about loot. But I think Blizzard would lose an important part of the game if they took 25 mans away.

The second is from a business POV. The more reasons people have to group, the more committed they are to the game. After all, the sin qua non of MMO is interaction. I am a little unclear why then it would make good business sense to reduce interaction. After all, it's supposed to be the world of "Warcraft." Wars are not normally fought with ten players. I think the drop to 25 from 40 was a big concession to organizational logistics. But at some point in time group size gets too small and you not fighting a "war" anymore.

LarĂ­sa said...

I think it varies a lot between different players how much we value the grandness of bigger groups. I'm really hooked on it myself. Even if I like the smaller, more social, tighter knit 10 man group, there's some epic, big feeling that only a 25 man raid can provide. It would really be sad if the incentives dropped for the 25 man raiding and they switched it so that 10 man was raiding for serious people and 25 man for casual slackers. Honestly I can't see how anyone would be bothered to arrange serious 25 man raids in that case. they would all turn into some silly sort of 25 VoA pugs... Meh.
If it was up to me they'd keep the best loot and the hardest encounters for 25 man raiding. But I guess I'm a bit conservative.

Anonymous said...

@Defty - the feeling of raiding the opposite faction's leaders is very different imho than the feeling of raiding a 25-man. I think the faction leader raid is a bit more exciting because you are putting yourself at risk, and on a PvE server that's a new feeling. Also, you probably have 40 people, which is a huge number by today's standards. And you're going into the bad guy's territory - just the whole thing is awesome.

Running a 25-man is still good, but it's like golf. You're basically playing against yourself, or your raid, in that the real battle is whether you can follow the right strategy to down a computer-controlled boss that has an aggro radius and behaves in a predictable manner.

I have often wondered what life would be like on a PvP server. ;)

Vndead said...

I love this post, could be one of the best ever. Keep it up:)

.. secondly, I would love to have old 5man content tuned to the heroic (max) level. All those dungeons in old azeroth + TBC.. wow, that'll just be a lot of fun!..

I can only dream but i hope they've already started working on them...

Green Armadillo said...

@Fed: If I understand the loot table correctly, the 10-man hard mode is something like half a tier above the 25-man regular mode, so they're kind of trying your idea. We'll see how that works out.

@Daria: Yeah, finding spots in 10-man raiding guilds is rough, it seems like it is hard to get a sweet spot where you can field a group without sitting half the guild. That said, this was a problem in the 40-man era too, and I don't see why it wouldn't be a problem for 25-man content as well, so perhaps your current guild just happens to have the attendence balance just right?

@DJ: Wars are not normally fought by having the enemy let you set up a summoning stone in the foyer and instructing their minions to patiently wait to be pulled in small groups. That's not to say that there are no benefits to scale (i.e. the devs can do things to a 25-man group that they can't do to a 10-man, because there'd be no way for the 10-man to handle them), but the realism argument always takes a back seat to playablility.

@Larisa: Not to worry, Blizzard is trying to make things work out that way. I just wish there was a way to make the logistics easier; I don't mind rewarding the scale, but I'm less fond of all the dead time you have to put up with as people are AFK or need to be replaced (or can't be replaced, ending a run).

@VNDead: Part of me wonders if something like that is on tap for the next expansion. It does seem pretty silly that there's tons of content that players have never seen, and tons of storyline where some poor town is being menaced by a level 20 threat who can be one-shotted by any of literally thousands of adventurers.

DeftyJames said...

"but the realism argument always takes a back seat to playablility."

I just don't agree with you there. I think there has to be a balance. Finding this right balance is more an art than it is an exact science, that's for sure. I think that with 40 man raids they went too far in on direction; it was epic bought wound up being totally unplayable. Now I concerned that they are going too far in the opposite direction.

A good example of this is Sunwell. It may be true that only 5% of people played that instance. But just because I never played it doesn't mean that it's not important for the health of the game for it to be there. I never PvP either, but WoW would be a very different game if there was no PvP that one could even try. In short, increasing playability shouldn't be about decreasing options, it should be about increasing them. Given that there are limited developer resources, it's always a trade-off. You eliminate reality from the game entirely, and you have Wonder Brite Barbie RPG.

Stabs said...

Here's my take :