Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On the Difficulty (or Lack Thereof) of Trial of the Crusader

Since Call of the Crusade, the 3.2.0 patch for World of Warcraft, went live two weeks ago, I've been hearing a lot of grumblings expressing disappointment in regards to the difficulty level of the new raid instance. It seems that no matter where I turn, people are commenting on how the content is just too easy and not at all challenging. To this, my response has consistently been, 'Well, duh!' Now, I don't mean that in a rude way, but it surprises me that people were expecting the normal mode of the raid instance to require a level of coordination and skill above and beyond that required for, say, the Keepers in Ulduar. There are several reasons why this was almost certainly never going to be the case in the first place:

First of all, over the course of Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard has worked to integrate their new view on raiding into the game. This view is that everyone who plays the game should at least have the ability to experience raid content. Now, this doesn't mean that people are going to be able to faceroll their way to beating Arthas (despite some peoples' complaints to the contrary), but it does mean that with some degree of effort, anyone who is willing to face raid content and improve their own play to overcome its challenges should be able to see the inside of Icecrown Citadel. However, with this philosophy, Blizzard was almost certain to run into the problem that if they made raid content too easy in order to accommodate the people who want to experience raid content but didn't really want to challenge themselves by raiding, then whatever raid content was introduced would just bore those who did seek to test their own raiding muscles. Thus, various hardmodes were introduced as a compromise so that those who sought a challenge would find one, and those who only sought to see content would not be hindered in their own quests for progression. So, why am I bringing this up? Because the people who complain about the ease thus far in the Trial of the Crusader raid are forgetting the fact that normal mode content is not supposed to be particularly difficult—it's supposed to give people a taste of what raiding is about while allowing them to see the storyline unfold first-hand. If Trial of the Grand Crusader, the heroic version of Trial of the Crusader, is too easy when it finally becomes available, then would be the time to complain about it.

First-and-a-half-ly, (since this point is ancillary to the one above, but still important enough to merit its own paragraph), I think that many of the people who have tried Trial of the Crusader and found it easier than expected are not the people the instance was designed for. In my mind, if you've defeated Algalon, Yogg-Saron, or even all four of the Keepers in Ulduar, then you've already surpassed the level for which the first few bosses in the instance were tuned. As such, my opinion of the complaints from this group of people is little better than my opinion of, for example, a group of people in full Naxxramas gear complaining that regular level 80 instances (i.e. non-heroics) are too easy.

I say this because it leads me very nicely into my second point, which is that I believe that the instance was most likely tuned for players who are still about halfway through Ulduar's difficulty curve. If you were to graph the difficulty level of each tier of raid content in comparison to each other tier of raid content within the same expansion, you'd probably find that the easiest bosses in each tier tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the difficulty levels of the previous tier. In other words, the easiest bosses in tier X are usually harder than the easiest bosses of tier X-1, yet are still not as challenging as the final bosses of tier X-1. Anecdotally, take the example of Magtheridon's Lair in the Burning Crusade's raid path. Magtheridon was designed to be the final boss of tier 4 content, however, he was perceived by much of the raiding community to be "too difficult". As a result, many raiding groups passed over him and went on to Hydross the Unstable, the first boss of tier 5. Similarly, there were many raid groups that skipped over Lady Vashj and Kael'thas Sunstrider in order to pursue Rage Winterchill and High Warlord Naj'entus. Now, this doesn't mean that Hydross the Unstable, Rage Winterchill, or High Warlord Naj'entus weren't designed to be challenging, only that they probably weren't very challenging to those who actually managed to best the final bosses of the previous tier(s), yet were likely challenging to those who were still working on Gruul's Lair or Fathom-Lord Karathress. Since I doubt Blizzard has dropped this design philosophy in favor of a more linear difficulty curve, this means that the Northrend Beasts encounter, the first encounter of Trial of the Crusader, is likely designed to be roughly on-par with the Antechamber or Keeper bosses. Thus, the people who the encounter was designed to be challenging for are likely those who have just recently beaten the Assembly of Iron or thereabouts.

Finally, if you look at the way Blizzard has designed raids in the past, you'll notice that raid bosses can usually be broken down into three categories: regular bosses, final bosses, and gatekeeper bosses. Regular bosses are, of course, the bread 'n' butter of raid instances. They basically exist to reward players for getting through their portion of the instance, and not to pose any particularly difficult challenge. I've heard them described as both "loot piñatas" and "glorified trash" (usually depending on whether the person describing them needs any of the loot they drop or not =P ). Final bosses are fairly self-explanatory—they're the bosses at the end of each tier of content that drop the most desirable items and are usually the hardest in the entire tier. Gatekeeper bosses, however, are the ones most pertinent to this discussion, and generally some of the more interesting ones to encounter in each instance. These bosses come in a variety of flavors, but their purpose is basically to act as a yardstick against which raids can measure their readiness for final bosses. Now, gatekeeper bosses can be actual gatekeepers, such as Sapphiron who blocks the entrance to Kel'Thuzad as well as drops the item necessary to access the Eye of Eternity, or they can be bosses such as Mimiron who essentially act as skill checks for progression, or they can be bosses like Thaddius, who somehow manages to wreck some raid groups for whatever reason. The most famous of these gatekeeper bosses are probably the Twin Emperors from the Temple of Ahn'Qiraj, and M'uru from Sunwell Plateau.

I bring up the subject of these gatekeeper bosses because when one thinks of the fun and challenging encounters in each raid tier, one usually thinks of final bosses and gatekeeper bosses. However, with a few exceptions (Blackwing Lair comes poignantly to mind), gatekeeper bosses tend to be found near the end of each content tier. Since this has been the overwhelming trend for the raid zones of World of Warcraft's expansions, it was highly doubtful that the earliest bosses of patch 3.2.0's new raid would be such gatekeepers. And since there was even less chance that the first encounter of the 5-encounter instance would be the "final boss", this meant that the Northrend Beasts and Lord Jaraxxus would most likely fall into the glorified trash/loot piñata category of regular bosses.

So, why was anyone expecting these bosses to be any challenge whatsoever for raid groups that had finished (or mostly finished) Ulduar? Now, I could see the point that the raid is "too easy" if groups that had never set foot in Ulduar managed to walk in and defeat the first few encounters of Trial of the Crusader with ease, but any group beyond that level of progression managing to down the content handily should hardly come as a shock.

1 comment:

  1. My issue with ToC isn't that it's easy - it is, and that's fine. I'm not expecting the first bosses in to be anything like Thorim hardmode.

    My issue is that the loot off of these unequivocally easy bosses is head and shoulders, no holds barred better than anything that drops in Ulduar - even the stuff that drops off fights like Thorim hardmode.

    For a step up in progression, I expected the loot to be better - but a step back in difficulty seems like a slap in the face to those of us that can't give up raiding Ulduar - but instead will do so only for... taking up time? Getting people some offspec gear? While we wait for enough ToC epics to gear up a 25 man raid. What does this say to raids that spend 3 nights a week that now only have three bosses that give loot that'll be needed for the next phase of progression?