2 February 2010

On heroic difficulty

We are used to a linear end-game progression route that starts with heroics and steps through each raiding tier in turn. This is essentially what happened at the start of the expansion, although Naxx proved to be such a low starting point that many people skipped heroics and dove straight in to raiding.

Subsequent patches raised the level of badges dropped by heroic bosses and consequently the level of gear available through heroic grinding. In essence, heroics become a shortcut for bypassing the conventional route of progression and spring-boarding straight to the current tier of raid content.

There's a lot to commend about this design philosophy, which gives unlucky rollers an alternative to boss drops for gearing and ensures a manageable route into raiding at any time during the expansion — good for alts and good for late bloomers. But it also, unavoidably, devalues the heroic experience by encouraging higher and higher geared players to faceroll their way through content that mostly sits, in difficulty, somewhere below Naxxramas.

So here then is a basic flaw in the philosophy — the place of heroics in the progression path keeps getting higher, while the relative difficulty of them keeps getting lower. And what shocks even an unapologetic casual player like me is that they keep making them easier.

This doesn't make much sense to me. The longer an instance is open, the bigger the pool of people who are over-geared for it gets — and current end-game design ensures there will always be a plentiful supply of over-geared players willing to run the easy instances. If Blizzard is intent on replicating the current badge system in Cataclysm, I hope they recognise that, far from working hard to ensure they are easier over time, their biggest challenge will be in keeping the instances interesting and enjoyable to all players at all levels of raid content.

New five-man instances definitely help break up the monotony of grinding content you massively over-gear. The heroic versions of the ToC and Icecrown five-mans are very well-designed instances in their own right, and at their time of introduction gave many players access to improved rewards. But there were no new five-mans with tier 8 and only one with tier 9, so in Wrath there just haven't been enough new instances to balance out the originals.

Achievements are another way that heroics have retained some attraction beyond the basic challenge of the encounter and the gear they drop, and some of the most interesting fights were the ones that — for a time at least — challenged you above and beyond the standard encounter.

So I think Blizzard would do well to learn from its successes in Wrath and stop over-analyzing the accessibility of instances. More five-mans at each level of raid content would add a stronger feeling of progress and achievement in heroic grinding while a greater emphasis on soft-trigger hard modes would serve to extend the freshness of instances at each level.

Hard isn't always bad, difficult doesn't have to mean annoying — even to 'casual' players like me.


Anonymous said...

I view most of the 'making easier' they are doing as 'making it feel less tedious for overgeared groups', with incidental reduction in difficulty.

The challenge on those bosses (and I so remmeber when they were hard) is now 'do we have a group where 3/5 people don't do actively stupid things?' for almost every group that actually faces them, so the difficulty reduction is irrelevant.

grayhammer said...

In the random system more often than overgeared players I'm finding woefully undergeared players who, to top it off, are naive re: boss fights.