Following on from last week's somewhat lacklustre effort (I had intended it to be far bigger, but I ended up editing a lot of it out because it didn't add anything), it's time to post what I've been thinking about for a long time. Essentially, there are many terms that the average MMO gamer has to come to terms with and it's to two of those terms that I turn today. Because game, encounter and class design are all facets of a consumer product that has to consider "the consumer", said consumer base will be comprised of a great many people that the company wishes to keep happy. And with something as big as WoW, we're looking at a heck of a lot of people that have diverse wishes regarding what they want from a game.
But for me, distilling these two types of player into casual and hardcore is horrendously misleading.
I know, I know - why would you bother reading yet another diatribe about who falls into what category? But I'm working from the knowledge that the same could be applied to EVERYTHING I write, so I'll continue safe in the knowledge this piece is no better or worse than my usual offerings. :)
The problem here, of course, is that Cataclysm has blurred the lines to quite a significant degree. Previously, a "casual raider" was someone that didn't put a lot of time and effort into the raiding game (particularly with outside sources), yet still managed to be relatively successful in low-pressure content. At this stage, the word "casual" has become synonymous with "bad" and this is an unfortunate development when even community patriarchs such as Lore are failing to make the distinction. Funnily enough, the assumption that being a good player makes you hardcore isn't quite so widely held.
The problem here is that there is a huge difference between people who are casual with their time, or merely casual with the amount of effort they're willing to put in. There are players who spend ten hours a day on WoW, but do little more than level alts, farm dailies, play the AH or do a few dungeons and random battlegrounds. On the other hand, there are people who play four hours per day every second night but all of that time is spent in guild-sponsored rated battlegrounds or heroic raids. When you then consider the fact that skill and time investment are entirely separate considerations when judging a player, the terms become practically meaningless outside of the two extremes:
1) The top 100 raid guilds who raid upwards of 50 hours a week when progressing and are committed to being the best player they can be. We can safely call them hardcore.
2) The player who has a subscription, but logs in every few nights to do a bit of questing, dungeoneering or levelling, and not much else. We can safely call them casual.
The reason this is important in the wake of 4.2 is because it ties directly into what type of player certain content is aimed at.
With only seven available bosses, it's fair to say the Firelands is... Short. Yet, PuG groups are only willing to clear trash and not willing to actually have a go at any of the bosses. It's fairly obvious that this will change as the patch moves on, but seven bosses is a very short demand on time when guilds such as my own managed four out of the seven in one imperfect reset. Of course, difficulty is subjective - those not used to raiding to any standard will find the bosses extremely tough, while those who notched 13/13 for tier 11 will have gotten through all seven bosses in no time.
If we follow some of the commentary from the top guilds regarding tier 11, the common theme is that the time demands to remain competitive were absolutely brutal. Sco from the EU's Method was shocked to see people raiding over Yuletide and would have appreciated a gated system that allowed for some time off. Paragon and Premonition agreed. When the lifeless few willing to put the most time into WoW complain that it's taking too much of it, it's worth paying attention and we can only assume that the developers did so.
In saying that, this has an impact on everyone. If we say (tinfoil hat) that the Firelands was deliberately small so that hardcore raiders weren't at it for months, while more casual players can consider one boss a week to be progressive, then where does that leave the guilds like my own who will likely clear it next week and who aren't necessarily bothered about heroic modes? Yet again, we're shoved into the heroic "obligation" because there simply isn't enough content for us. What purpose do the heroic modes serve this time around, anyway? Are they the separators for the best guilds in the world such as many were in tier 11, or are they the "real" content just as Trial of the Grand Crusader was back in the days of yore?
To be blunt, decent guilds clearing the Firelands in a single reset implies the latter - is that the direction we want the game to go? Considering the fact Trial of the Crusader ended up reviled before long, I find it hard to believe that's the direction Blizzard want to go. I'm an educated man, but I honestly cannot say what type of player T12 encounters are aimed at and I've yet to read a lucid explanation from anyone else. The problem is finding a way to keep progression competitive, while keeping the content accessible and interesting for a larger percentage of the player base, for longer. More and more, I'm coming around to an idea that I strongly disliked when it was previously implemented:
Gated raids are the way to go.
The problem, of course, is that people will cite the examples of Trial of the Crusader and Icecrown Citadel as cases in point where gating didn't work. However, both of those models were imperfect and also very different from one another. I totally agree, Trial of the Crusader was ridiculous - one boss a week was a ludicrous way to gate progression but, like everything else to do with that raid, Blizzard had to "try" it and I don't think they'll go there again. Icecrown Citadel actually did it largely correct in my opinion, with the only exception being that each gate was potentially closed for too long before opening. In saying that, did it successfully elongate the content to the point where players were truly ready for the next gate to open (rather than rushing into content you're undergeared for and exploiting it instead)?
Of course, there is another aspect to gating that should be considered - it has the potential to make the content more readily available to EVERYONE. I shuddered at the recent blue post insinuation that "casual" players are expected to be a tier behind more organised raiders. Frankly, I think that type of thinking contributes to a lot of the ill feeling that is around these days and a lot of cancelled subscriptions. By gating instances, as was the case in Icecrown, less organised raid groups are given some time to gear up a bit before hitting the first few bosses, hopefully clearing them, and then grabbing more gear before the next gate opens. Of course, they could easily do that without gates implemented and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But there is more excitement when you can consider yourself geared for that next set of bosses to arrive and you can get right in there and have a go. Frankly, I fail to see what would excite a more casual raider about getting into content that was binned by others months ago.
But then we have the hardcore raiders, don't we? Those that race one another to claim world first kills and will spend inordinate amounts of time raiding if they have to. What about the challenges they want to come up against in order to prove themselves against one another? Well, why not release the heroic modes for each gate prior to the opening of the others? Sticking with the Icecrown example, the initial killing of Deathbringer Saurfang could have unlocked the heroic modes for Lord Marrowgar, Lady Deathwhisper, the Gunship Battle and Saurfang himself. This would have been easily enough content for the hardcore progression guilds, while also allowing them breaks between each burst and a chance to catch up should they have fallen behind. This would potentially make the esport fans more interested in what's going on, as one guild falling behind wouldn't bedevil their efforts for the rest of the race.
Lastly, you could use gating to make gear more exciting. The most sought after pieces of gear are typically weapons and trinkets, as they're the biggest contributors to whatever it is you happen to be doing. You could use the gate system to stagger gear so that weapons won't drop from the early bosses, while being more common from end bosses. This could ease the frustration of big loot tables not dropping what you want, while also implying the act of "earning" your most identifiable purples. Heck, when you think about it, this could even make class scaling issues easier to balance for the developers. Let me paint it like this, with a three gate system for tier 11:
Halfus Wyrmbreaker, Valiona & Theralion, the Conclave of Wind, Magmaw and the Omnotron Defence System. All major armour types, no weapons or trinkets.
The Elementium Monstrosity, Chimaeron, Atramedes and Maloriak. Very small chance of weapon or trinket, potential random tier (as in, Baradin Hold).
Cho'gall (Sinestra), Al'Akir and Nefarian. Small to medium chance of weapon or trinket, tier token guaranteed.
In this example, I've slotted in random chance of random tier gear and am assuming that weapons and trinkets for most specs will be available from end bosses.
In any event, I've waxed enough lyrical to last a lifetime on this topic. We all want content that is compelling, accessible, challenging and durable - we also want enough content to last us so that we're not bored stupid with it after a month (which is where Firelands is heading). The two main options, as I see it, is for Blizzard to continually release new content more quickly, which they've proven incapable of doing, or making current content last longer without frustrating everyone. I've come around to thinking that gating would be the best way of doing this, while keeping content relevant for longer as people chase down the gear they really want for challenging heroic modes.
What do you guys think?