The problems of linear progression

| Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Yesterday I advocated returning to something closer to linear progression for raiding and heroics: raid X, then raid Y, then raid Z. The goal, and hopefully the effect of it, is to separate players out by skill and experience, so that if we are in a certain tier of content, we are with similarly skilled and geared players. Contrast this with heroics which throw everyone into the same group and raids which divide only into normal and heroic.

There are some major problems with a linear progression design.


One problem is the bottleneck guild-killer boss. Blackwing Lair was notorious for these. One boss that players just could not get down. After months of no progress players would quit, sometimes the guild, sometimes WoW altogether. Beside this, getting stuck with one boss as the only new one to try isn't fun at all. Variety is important and you can only wipe on Razorgore for so long before you get sick of the sight of eggs.

Don't have a single raid at each tier. Have two at least. Early Lich King had three different raids at the first tier, which while two were single-boss raids, they still served to give someplace different to wipe in, a needed change of scenery. These may also allow players to gear up a little more, reducing the relative difficulty of the boss they're stuck on and allowing for more progress. The extend to which one raid can make the other easier is important to consider, since the purpose of the other raids are not to let players skip difficulty content, but to give variety and some ability to self-determine the difficulty, without trivializing encounters.

Another way to bypass the bottleneck boss is to have a "one free kill" mechanic. Each week you get one free boss dead. It gives no loot, no achievement or meta-achievement progress, no quest progress, cannot be skinned, mined, or engineered. It's just not in your way anymore. Go on and die to something else. I'm not as enamored this fix, but I think it's worth thinking about, if only for the value in finding why it's bad.

Ideally every boss would be harder than the one before it, so that bottleneck bosses would be a measure of the skill of the guild/raid, with progress and skill being exactly linked. But skill isn't a number to be easily expressed as greater or less than a threshold. This means that there will always be earlier bosses which for particular raids are harder than later bosses, meaning that there will always be bottlenecks.

Left Behind

New players may find that the majority of the players have moved on past their tier. If they cannot find anyone to play with, they cannot advance, and so are stuck in limbo: lacking the gear and experience to progress, but unable to get the gear and experience if they're alone. We saw with in Lich King heroics when players had briefly gotten plenty of badge gear and had long outgrown heroic level gear, leaving alts and new players with very few people to play with. Blizzard's solution was badge loot inflation, driving raiders back into heroics, with what I believe were negative social consequences, mixing players with radically different expectations of performance and behavior. Now WoW has cross-server group formation, which I believe may increase the pool enough to address this concern.

There remains the rerolling problem. Switching classes can put an otherwise experienced player right back at the bottom for gear. While cross-server can help with the population problem, there are other problems. First off, being left behind means repeating all their previous gearing up, repeating content which may already be old. This process can be very slow, particularly if the gearing process means finding raids, meaning guilds, which the rerolling player intends to leave the moment they can. Possibly worse is that thus process means being unable to play with friends and guild members, which presumably was the reason for the reroll in the first place. For this problem I suggest a retirement system which would allow a character to be converted to another class, with some form of hastened leveling and gear conversion. Retirement would be a serious matter due to the cost of a character, but would allow much faster catch-up without making class something to change on a whim.

There is a third group: the players whose guilds exploded. They're not new players, so slogging through again may not be fun. They're not alts with a guild to catch up to, so the retirement system doesn't make sense, beside that they're not necessarily undergeared, just out of the system. These should be highly-desirable players: experienced, geared, and the last to give up (as opposed to those who quit after the first week of wiping), but they're not easy to find. A tool to help these players better find guilds, and guilds to find them, could help. Maybe it even already exists and is underutilized, but an armory tie-in would obviously be part of it.

Players Missing Content

There's an ongoing debate between "I pay $15 a month I should get to see content" vs. "why should noobs get everything?"

Vanilla used the solution which I will refer to as "lolwut?" Essentially no one did anything to fix it and maybe didn't see any problem. Burning Crusade used PvP and badge gear to help boost players up, which might have worked if not for the guild-wrecking 10 to 25 player raid transition. On the other hand, we ended up with "welfare epics". Despite being a retarded name, it somehow stuck. Lich King expanded the badge system further to give pieces of tier sets as well as badge rewards being upgraded with each new raid. This resulted in a whole lot of players in strangely high gear relative to their experience and skill, a recipe for disaster. This model also resulted in the opposite problem of new players missing the old raids as they became obsolete.

For this I have no good solution. Making the content easier ruins the fun of those already in it. Adding gear can ruin the focus of the game, turning it from experience-driven (meaning player experience, not experience points) to loot-driven, which can ruin it as badly as not seeing content. Flattening all raids to the same gear level would cause rapid burning of content, followed by a whole lot of bored raiders, and then the next raids may be too easy. Exclusive content sounds great, but often the excluded don't like it much.

I probably missed some problems, but those are the biggest three.


Nils said...

Thanks for looking at it from both sides. Often people forget why things were changed. In this case, of course, I think that, although the classic/TBC solution wasn't perfect, it was better than the current one. And maybe that was what Blizzard wanted to find out ?

Blizzard actually innovated a lot between TBC and WotLK. I didn't like the innovations, but they took quite a risk in changing the linear (more immersive) raiding to a everybody-on-the-same-level raiding. That's also why you hear the term 'welfare epic' so rarely these days. Today, nobody considers epics anything else, but a gamey character-power-adjustment.

Fun thing is that subscriber-wise it still worked in WotLK (although sub-number grow has almost abruptly stopped with WotLK release!).

But the wild mix of TBC/WotLK characteristics, that is Cataclysm, doesn't work well, I think. Cataclysm can be summarized like this: If you don't like raiding irrespective from epics, it's not for you.

It's ironical that Blizzard destroyed the carrot that were once items. But maybe it was inevitable.

Aracos said...

Another great post acknowledging the downsides of your proposed solution. Just a couple of things I would add based on my own experiences. "Gatekeeper" bosses can be both a blessing and a curse. For every guild that was blown up by wasting weeks on Ragnaros, or Razorgore, or Vael, there was another guild that triumphed. I had the good fortune of being in one of those that succeeded, and I can tell you, those are the BEST memories of my MMO gaming "career." I led the raid that got our first Hakaar kill in ZG. I was present for first kill's of Rag, and Razor, and Vael. And I can tell you... nothing felt better. Why? Because it was hard. Because we had to perservere. Part of the reason all my raiding accomplishments in Wrath felt meaningless was because they were too easy.

The funny thing is, if Cata is hard like vanilla was (and it is in a sense) then why isn't it similarly fulfilling? I'm not quite sure, but it definitely isn't. Hence the reason I walked away.

Klepsacovic said...

I'd distinguish between the last boss being a major challenge and bosses in the middle. If rag is causing a headache, well go try some BWL for a while. But if Razorgore is the problem, then the alternative is the step back to MC. Though in that case you'd probably still run it for the loot, but it's still disheartening to be stuck with no alternatives.

Sthenno said...

I think the "lolwut" solution to players missing content actually is the best one, but once you've forsaken it, you can't really bring it back. It's the expectation management thing. You've got to manage them up front because once people have the expectation that they get everything for nothing, you'll never get them to go back.

Mangara said...

The obvious solution to the "Players Missing Content" problem, courtesy of nearly all single-player games, is variable difficulty. Players who just want to relax and experience the content play on easy, players who like a moderate challenge pick normal and players who want to push themselves pick hard.

The current normal/heroic versions of raid encounters meet this goal, except that they seem to be missing the easy difficulty.

Masterlooter said...

RE: Bottlenecks and Players Missing Content - this happens in the current system, it's not a problem exclusive to linear progression. The only difference is where the bottleneck is (Vaelastraz, or Putricide), or what content they miss (never did Ulduar, or never did ICC).

RE: Left Behind

If the inteneded goal is to seperate players based on skill and experience, I'm not fully understanding how a new player would be left behind.

If we're assuming an even distribution between; below average players, average players, and above average players, then there should be enough of a population at each level to support new players - and to support players ready to jump to the next level.

The only way they would get left behind, is if there are no players in either of the two lower echelons.
Scenario 1 - All players are in middle and higher tiers, meaning no low end raids available to get started.
Scenario 2 - Players in the low and high end, but no middle end, making for a very rough transition.

Ngita said...

The problem with multiple routes and skipping gatekeeper bosses is it can offer the illusion of progress. T5 was a great example, in both instance you could skip a harder boss and get a easy boss, doing so incurred a double clear of trash, but hey boss kills. By the time you did that, you might have allready burnt 1/3 your raid time for the week, then you have a few attempts against something harder people cry tired. The next raid day for the week and suprise you do not have a full raid.

Mangara, the problem with 3 difficultys is most people only want to kill a boss once.

Masterlooter said...

RE: Mangara "normal/heroic versions of raid encounters meet this goal, except that they seem to be missing the easy difficulty"

In their current form, I would submit that they do not meet their intended goal. Currently, all players must play though normal mode raids, before heroic modes are available.

This has the same problem of grouping all players into the same content - but with different goals. You get an odd accordian effect of players moving in and out of the same progression paths, with the only difference being speed of completion.

Players should be seperated earlier on in the progression path AND they shouldn't reconverge, IMO.
Normal 5 man -> normal raids
heroic 5 man -> heroic raids
Or somesuch...

Klepsacovic said...

@Sthenno: I might change that to "not get them back soon and not without a LOT of disappointment along the way", but close enough.

@Mangara: Unfortunately this runs into the problem of rewards to go with each level, or if they all give the same reward, it drives a race to the bottom.

@Masterlooter: Let's imagine a bell curve, now turn it vertically and make that our raid tiers. Most players will quickly be out of the first raids and working through the middle tiers, with very few at the top. But also, very few at the bottow since most players have cleared out of there already. That means new players will be trying to form raids with garbage players (these are the extreme low end after all), who, ironically, there may not be enough of. This can be fixed by shifting the difficulty a bit so that it more closely resembles a pyramid, but that means that higher up content is blocked. Or in other words, scenario 1. Though vanilla did have some scenario 2 problems as well, since a lot of the barrier was of time rather than skill, so if a guild got over the time hump, they had [somewhat] smooth sailing.

Maybe I should try to draw this.

@Ngita: I don't think that illusion of progress it a bad thing by itself. Imagine if you weren't bypassing the hard boss, then you'd still hit the wall, just sooner. Though I will say that perhaps TK was badly-done, since it wasn't designed for the first boss to be skipped. That was changed later and caused some major disruptions.

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