WoW Factor: MMO raid design and the antagonistic GM

Slightly disappointing context.

Last week’s column about World of Warcraft prompted some really interesting comments that I think are worth talking about; in fact, I very nearly wrote an entire column about one of them. But instead, I wanted to talk about another thought that occurred to me when it comes to WoW’s raiding focus because it’s something that I’ve brushed against multiple times but never really highlighted beyond how the game’s focus on raiding actually hurts overall progression recruitment.

As I’ve said before, WoW wanting raids to be the pinnacle not of achievement but of content is not a new thing or something that happened in the most recent expansions; it’s something that has been a core part of the game from launch and has only gotten more pronounced over time. The developers decidedly want players raiding as early and as often as possible, which makes it interesting that raiding in the game is… actually really annoying.

This is not something that no one else has expressed before, but it has started to become more and more prevalent even among the raiding community. It’s beyond just the “new expansion means relearning what talents to take, what my rotation is, and how my spec even plays” element, it’s that raiding represents a massive investment in time. And I don’t just mean the time investment that progression gameplay represents in any MMO where you need to get consumables, watch strategies, and refine your own gameplay loops.

For example, you need addons. Not just one or two; a bunch of addons. Every single raid is designed around the assumption that players will have addons. As I’ve alluded to before, this is not a case of “well, the designers can’t stop people from having addons” as if the design is value-neutral; the designers have killed numerous add-ons they don’t like over the years. Designing content with the expectation that players will have many addons is a developer choice, and letting so many addons become necessary is just as certainly a decision.

Even beyond that, though, you need the game to be ugly. You want to turn down your graphics, turn off your music, and so forth. You want as little distraction as possible along with all of the torrent of information that your addons are meant to display. Again, we’re not talking about serious race-for-world-first stuff; this is just how the game is expected to be played by designers and people knee-deep in Mythic progression. It’s not about being first; it’s about getting it cleared.

And WoW raids are, let’s face it, long. Aberrus has nine bosses in it, and even if no one in your raid needs anything that drops from the first four bosses, you have to kill them first. There’s also trash in the way that can be complicated. Even just clearing the whole thing on Normal can take upwards of an hour, and that’s assuming that these are fights with no wipes or mistakes anywhere along the way. There is no reliable way to skip fights you don’t get anything out of – which can be really relevant if, say, the fourth boss isn’t really on farm status but you don’t need that boss.


None of this is helped by the fact that you are dealing with weekly lockouts and a self-sustaining ecology. Raids drop gear that will be really useful in re-clearing the boss that just dropped that gear. Only next week, though. There’s not only no way to get ahead of the curve, but the curve is based largely on luck, which can also mean that you’re stuck doing M+ endlessly even if you don’t like it because you need gear upgrades from somewhere and that’s another turn on the roulette wheel.

Obviously, this does not make the raids unplayable or anything. But it makes them annoying. And it’s because of the way that WoW still designs its raids, which is very much with the philosophy of a specific type of tabletop GM that sees every dungeon as a test players either succeed or fail at.

The obvious adjective to use here is “Gygaxian,” as Gary Gygax loved making dungeons full of devious traps that players could fail to understand and then die to. It was, in truth, a nod to the still-present wargaming roots of the genre, a sense that it was a clash between two opposing sides. However, it’s also a philosophy that tabletop gaming has gone from obliquely endorsing to actively fighting because after a moment’s thought you realize that if the GM wants to kill your characters, she doesn’t actually have to try very hard.

“And now the world blows up. Roll a DEX save to see if you die instantly and painfully or slowly and painfully.”

WoW doesn’t just make its raids difficult; it makes them difficult in unfair and annoying ways that break the boundaries of the game. There are lots of challenge runs that do similar things, like trying to beat Dark Souls with a Guitar Hero controller… but that’s self-imposed. Hidetaka Miyazaki is not breaking into your house and throwing vinegar in your eyes unless you play the game on an unsuitable controller, nor is he trying to lock you out of content unless you figure out how to do this.


It all gets even more annoying when you realize that other games in the big five don’t do this. Big raids are usually more segmented into understandable chunks, they’re less painful, and they generally do not require addons or killing your graphics or anything just to be playable. Heck, other top MMOs outside of the big five don’t do this, either. This is just a thing that WoW does with making these fights far, far more annoying to do… coupled with talk from people like director Ion Hazzikostas who say that this content has prestige and has to be restricted to the elites.

This is a laughable stance because none of these things I’ve described is generally what any of us think of when we actually talk about hard gameplay. Having a nightmare of addons to update with every patch on top of finding consumables and watching videos and assembling a strategy and assembling everyone’s schedule and putting up with wipes until you get a boss down and then get to the next one… a lot of this is just annoying stuff aside from the boss fight that’s supposed to be the centerpiece. It’s filler.

It’s the sort of thing that makes it very easy for someone who actually does like MMO raiding gameplay to decide that at the end of the day, this just isn’t worth it. It’s too tedious. There is too much crap to do to get to the part that you find fun, and it’s not actually something you have to do. These are not accidental things that happened and the designers were helpless to avoid them; they were intentional choices, and you can just opt out.

It’s not that WoW is incapable of making decent fights, although the game’s general fight philosophy is… not my choice of how to make a fight challenging. (That’s a column for another day.) It’s that the list of chores needed eventually makes it just unfun, like a GM designing a dungeon to kill you as if that’s harder than making everyone have a good time.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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