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Fresh from clearing Lich King in two days, Euro guild Ensidia starts whining about difficulty.

Eleven million people worldwide play World of Warcraft (WoW). Wrath of the Lich King, alone, sold 2.8 million copies in the 24 hours after its launch. As far as PC games go, it’s the all-time heavyweight champion of the world. I think it’s safe to say that Blizzard knows the needs and wants of its audience pretty well.

Not so, according to newly-named WoW super-guild Ensidia. Formed from former top European dungeon clearers, SK Gaming and Nihilum, the guild had previously been known as 25th November and is the group that ‘finished’ Wrath of the Lich King in a weekend.

According to its website, WoW is in a horrible state with Blizzard dumbing down the content. Everyone is in danger from this, as it takes the challenge out of the game. It is obviously in no way related to the fact that Ensidia is a privately-funded professional gaming team, which has a vested interest in Blizzard producing nearly unbeatable content.

And that is where the real issue lies with how WoW pitches its content. There are quite a few WoW players who pride themselves in being on the bleeding edge of content. These are the people who can dedicate five nights a week to 25-man raiding. The sad fact of the matter, though, is that these are still a very small part of Blizzard’s audience. There are many more players who pride themselves on clearing content at their own pace, with their own group of friends.

It is important to realise that the raid game in WoW has evolved a long way since its origination. Historically, Blizzard has deftly employed speed humps to artificially slow the progression through a dungeon, creating a massive barrier to entry for even starter raids. In vanilla WoW, it was the need to build up fire resistance gear over time to brave the latter depths of Molten Core, while there also needed to be eight people revered with the Hydraxian Waterlords (reputation gained gradually over time spent killing things in Molten Core) in order to summon the final boss.

In Burning Crusade it was ridiculously high gear requirements and a complex chain of dungeon-based quests that slowed the move into raiding. It took Blizzard many patches to get even basic raids like Karazhan into the challenging-but-clearable raid that people would remember.

For guilds that completed Karazhan before those ‘nerfs’, the experience of rerunning that place over and again for a certain item would not be fun, as Ensidia points out. Continually repeating the same content at any time can be a drag, but Karazhan stands as the most popular raid dungeon Blizzard has produced.

And there, as Hamlet said, lies the rub. No game developer wants to make content that very few people see, which is why, this time around, the barrier to entry has been set relatively low. While the hardcore may see this as a failure, it is a deliberate design decision targeting the game’s player base.

Leaving jokes about normal distributions and WoW players aside, one of the most basic foundations of statistics is the bell curve. With any bell curve, the majority of the population is in the middle of the pack, with the melee-using, spell damage-packing night elf hunters falling into a smaller group at one end and the dungeon-stomping Ensidias of the world at the other end. If you tailor your game to these relatively smaller populations, then you don’t get a player base of 11 million people.

This is why the burgeoning world of competitive dungeon clearing lacks true ‘e-sport’ potential. In player versus player games, be it WoW’s arena or a shooter like Counter-Strike, there is unlimited potential for different games playing out each time. No matter how cool it is to be the first to clear a dungeon, it’s a scripted experience designed to be beaten. This makes any major bragging rights a rare thing, as it is completely dependent on Blizzard’s design schedule. And because of the nature of MMOs, Blizzard often tests the dungeons beforehand, anyway, which basically gives plenty of training time for those serious about being the first in the world to kill every boss when it goes live.

While there is mild spectator interest, especially from those unable to participate deep into endgame, the changes being made by Blizzard to the raid game are designed to open it up to everyone. Given the choice between watching YouTube videos of others and actually going to the big scary dungeon yourself, I know what most players would choose. This is what the changes to raiding in Wrath of the Lich King really mean.

All the best of luck to Ensidia, though. If only it could keep its ego under control enough to realise that it is the rarity and Blizzard’s priority is making a game that everyone enjoys, not just those with the rarest swords.

Anonymous Gibbon

2008.11.28 08:21

hardcore in-game rewards should still exist but not compete aganist the high-end(now dumbed -down) regular content, lets say have the same stats but look different , that way hardcore players could be distinguished from the ordinary players without having better/more powerful gear… same gear just different looks/colors/models,, i dont know… i wish i could express this idea better , my apologies english is (evidently) not my native language.

EnthusiasticianJohn Gillooly

2008.11.28 09:09

I understand what you are saying. There does need to be a challenge, but Blizzard needs to find a balance that still brings in the wider audience. Ulduar will be a very interesting test of how things can evolve to meet the needs of hardcore guilds as well as the masses. Once more tiers of raids come in there will start to be the spread of gear levels when chilling in Dalaran that we are used to.

The Amani Bear mount was a good way of signifying hardcore - I wouldn't be surprised if latter raids had more of this kind of reward, much like Sartharion has the drake mount for 'hard mode'.

Anonymous Gibbon

2008.11.28 12:14

Thank god people like Ensidia don't control where the video game industry is headed. They'd crash it straight into the ocean.

Anonymous Gibbon

2008.11.28 12:35

I dont even know how anyone can take a 'competative' WoW guild seriously. It is cooperative player vs enviroment, and as you say, designed to be beaten. Even in PvP, stats and equipment gained outside the PvP setting have too much of an influence for it to be really competative.

I think there is a big future for competative gaming and e-sports, but anyone who is serious about competative gaming should play a game where there is actual competition!