10 < 25

WoW developers have recently been frequently indicating an interest in community feedback/discussion on the issue of 10 and 25-man raids (some examples).  In particular, they are trying to find ways to once again incentivize players to run 25-mans, but the Cataclysm approach of making the two raid types interchangeable in terms of rewards and achievements has made it very difficult to do that.  I think what I’m going to do is copy some feedback I already wrote about this, and then add a few notes underneath it.

One of the big problems here is that the discussion is now exclusively framed as “25s are harder logistically.”  The first issue with that is that I’m not sure it’s true.  25s take proportionally more work to run but also have proportionally more people available to help (i.e. more “officers” or whatever it may be).  And what “logistics” mostly means in raiding is getting everyone to show up, and 10s are hit a lot harder by the ordinary fluctuations of attendance.  A serious 10-man group has a much harder time dealing with one key raider missing for a day–one random class swap has more of an effect that it does in 25, one bad fillin player has more of an effect, and the chance of simply not being able to raid is higher unless you keep a larger bench (relatively speaking) than in 25.  I think this effect is masked by 10-man groups being the go-to for “just fill the raid and we can go” casual-type stuff, where logistics are obviously simple.  So people don’t associate 10-mans with the logistical foibles of managing a raid team.  But for two similar groups trying to do equally hard content for equal rewards, I don’t see why you’d assume the principal difference is one of logistics.  There are much bigger difference of substance:

This question of 10 and 25 can’t be looked at independently of the game’s class design.  We have 34 different classes to bring to a raid now.  And for example, a key role (tank) has 5 options but only 2 slots in the 10-man raid setup (and probably 3 slots in the whole roster of a putative “hardcore 10-man guild”).  This poses an obvious problem in designing and tuning raid encounters for the wide variation in class setup.  The classes aren’t all the same, and some raid setups are just going to have the class with the best solution to some boss ability and some won’t.  There have been obvious attempts to mitigate this (and I can only imagine 10s were a big motivation for a lot of these): raid buff homogenization, homogenization of healer and tank toolkits, etc. But the fact remains that if an encounter is tuned for a broad range of class setups, it’s going to be noticeably easier for a tweaked setup.  Or if tuning isn’t perfect, it’s actually hard for the meticulously planned setup, and ridiculous for everyone else (Sartharion), which I’m sure has to be avoided.

This isn’t about “class stacking,” but about having 1 (rather than 0) of a class that’s really helpful at any particular fight.  When you get to the fight where the Warrior has just the right tank ability set to make everything nicer for the group, there’s going to be some hardcore 10s guild that goes “well crap, that’s the one we don’t have.” The fight’s tuned so they can probably still win, so the other 10-man guilds have an easier time of it.  Not to mention, the 25-man guild running 10s or the “serious 10-man guild” with enough people for multiple groups.  These have the right person 100% of the time, and will inevitably comprise the premier echelon of 10-man raiding.

Alright, belabored that enough.  Simpler point: restricted encounter design in 10-mans.  There are fewer moving parts.  I’d guess that wearing your raid leader hat, you probably watched people mess up that second Defile (which coincided with Val’kyr) about 50 to 100 times.  10-man LK didn’t have the 3 Val’kyr, so the basic tension between clumping for Valks and spreading for Defile was gone.  By far the hardest part of the hardest fight in the whole expansion, and the 10-man variant simply doesn’t have enough pieces available to build that design concept, so it was dropped.  Then there are things where having multiple people addressing randomly-targeted spells simultaneously is exponentially more complex than one person doing it (Anub’Arak, Penetrating Cold).  And of course the whole slew of situations where spreading out within a room matters.  You can think of a whole bunch of things in all of those categories without me doing it.

So if you want to deal with this seriously, then (putting aside the tack you have to take in public Q&As, which is its own issue) you have to start by framing the issue: 25-man raids are harder.  Don’t suffix “logistically” because it’s both a copout and also less accurate.  It’s irrelevant that you _can_ make any 10-man fight as hard as you want by cranking up numbers–you won’t, because that leads to an even less accessible and more frustrating raid experience than 25s, for all the reasons discussed so far.

My hope is that I’ve spent the whole mail saying things you already know and just won’t say publicly, but, have to start somewhere.  So for your whole question about how to incentivize people to do 25s–you know the answer already because it’s the same as any game.  Make rewards commensurate with the challenge.  Before Cataclysm, you allowed yourself do to so.  Now you’re trying to create the incentive but have this newfound limitation of keeping the rewards the same, which is quite the quandary.

Now, I know many reasons you’re unlikely to go back to 25s being a tier up from 10s.  But in all honesty, I think this sheds light on your problem.  You’re not trying to design a reward system to incentivize people for increased challenges (that you already know how to do, and have tried and discarded).  You’re trying to design a reward system to maintain the deception that two things are the same which are really not, because that deception is now a conscious part of the way raiding is sold to people.  And in your first implementation–making the rewards and even achievements/recordkeeping indistinguishable, that deception was undermined by the invisible hand.  You put two types of content into the wild with the same rewards, and people flocked to one of them.  So it’s not “how do we incentivize the harder one?” but “what are the design principles causing us to refuse to do so?”

After thinking about the above and a little discussion with people, I can probably concede that encounter complexity isn’t an imbalance that’s cast in stone–after all, some mechanics affect an equal number of people in 10 and 25, and so are proportionally more prominent in 10s (e.g. Sinestra orbs).  However, I think the issue of class mechanics is not so easily dispensed with–it seems baked into the system of this game that 10-man is a less good fit for the large number of classes and their varied abilities.

What exactly is a “logistical” difficulty is a bit of a semantic issue that I don’t want to mire in too much, but let’s just observe this: downsizing a raid group from 25 to 10 is very easy (in fact, probably a huge relief if you were struggling to fill a 25), but upsizing from 10 to 25 is nearly impossible.  Regardless of what you call that, it means that if 10s and 25s are truly interchangeable game experiences, there’s very little reason to do 25s.  The only reason you would is if you happened to have 24 friends already gathered–but as those old 25-man guilds fade out, there would be no reason to make more of them.

Combining these two factors (WoW systems giving 25-mans more depth, but recent design defining away the difference as “logistics” instead of recognizing it) I think gets to the crux of the matter.  If we truly believed they were interchangeable game experiences–equally interesting/complex, equally (personally) rewarding, equally challenging and deserving of equal (in-game) rewards, then deleting 25-man raids would be the easy and obvious solution.  But we don’t think that.  Many people are very fond of 25-man raids, including people who now run 10-man raids as the opportunities for 25s dwindle.  By its nature a 25-man raid has a greater array of strategic options available, and more moving parts to successfully orchestrate at once.  However you define it, there’s an effort and challenge in getting all that done.

Unfortunately, Blizzard wanted to broadcast raiding as a very accessible activity for Cataclysm, and their chosen approach was a very hard sell on the fiction that 10s and 25s are interchangeable (even going so far as to have players’ achievement records not identify whether they had done an encounter on 10 or 25).  And restating once more–it is clearly a fiction.  If it were true, we simply would not care if 25s disappeared, and I think it’s evident that many people (up to and including top-level Blizzard developers) do care.  Even more unfortunately, they’ve cultivated a large population of 10-man raiders based on that fiction, and now they can’t unring the bell.  So they’ve worked themselves into a corner where the Cataclysm system is based on this fiction, but the fiction can’t be maintained in reality because, as I noted in the e-mail, players will go where the incentives lead them.

So it’s too late to go back to the, in my view, unequivocally better Wrath of the Lich King system where rewards reflected challenge in a way that was honest.  Solutions from this point forward are difficult and while I will see if I come up with any interesting ideas, I feel that some degree of irreparable damage has been done to the raiding game.  The focus of this post was digging into where the problem arises (which we have to understand first).  The decision going into Cataclysm to treat two things as equal which are really not teaches an important lesson about games: the rules of the game are the only reality.  You can’t make something else true just by saying it is.