Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reviving 25-Man Raiding

It seems to me that there is a perception (whether based on reality or hyperbole, I cannot say for sure) that the growth of 10-man raids has created a stranglehold that is slowly - but inevitably - suffocating 25-man raiding to the point of extinction. There are many reasons for this: blog articles such as "The last gasp of 25-man raiding" on WoW Insider and "Dont let the 25man raids die..." from the official World of Warcraft forums , as well as my own personal experience indicates that there is, at least, some truth to the notion, but whether it has been a mostly-completed shift in average raid size due to changes to raid design philosophy made for the start of the Cataclysm expansion or remains a continuing trend of 25-man raid erosion is uncertain.

Regardless, whenever people call for Blizzard to instigate a revival of 25-man raiding, they always seem to not only cite the same reasons for its demise - at the forefront of which is the substantially higher investment of leadership and organizational effort required to run and maintain a larger group - but also propose the same solution: incentivize larger raids with better quality or greater quantity of loot. (I admit, I have been guilty of this very thing, myself.) However, Blizzard has rejected this approach, so it's time to reexamine the problem and see if any other viable solutions present themselves.

When we break the problem down to its base factors, here is what we get:
  1. Blizzard does not want to offer incentives to run 25-man raids over 10-mans.
  2. Blizzard's philosophy seems to be that roughly equivalent effort should yield roughly equivalent reward (on average).
  3. 25-man raids necessitate significantly more logistical overhead than 10-man raids.
  4. 25-man raiders feel the additional organizational requirements negate the "roughly equivalent effort" portion of part 2 above.
You see the point of conflict here, don't you? So where are the potentially viable solutions? If Blizzard's stance is "equal effort -> equal reward" and 25-man raiders' stance is "25-man raid logistical effort > 10-man raid logistical effort" and therefore "inequal effort should -> inequal reward", where is the flexible point from which a compromise can be reached?

Right here: "25-man raid logistical effort > 10-man raid logistical effort". In other words, Blizzard needs to reduce the organizational overhead encountered by 25-man raiders. How? By investing some development time and energy into improving the in-game tools used by raid leaders for raid management.

I don't believe it will ever be possible to eliminate the differences between 10-man raids and 25-man raids, but significantly improving certain in-game tools can serve to bring the two groups into greater parity. It's not true in all circumstances, but generally speaking: simple tools favor smaller groups whereas feature-rich tools favor larger groups. This is because leaders of smaller groups can mentally compensate for tool deficiencies much more easily than in leaders of larger groups, where the sheer volume of additional details to keep track of can quickly become overwhelming.

With that said, below are some concrete examples of how tools can be improved, as well as why these suggestions would benefit 25-man raids in particular.

In-Game Calendar - While significantly better than no calendar at all, the design of the in-game calendar facilitates 10-man raiding far better than 25-man raiding, because the information it provides is so limited. Organizers of smaller groups can more easily memorize the information that the in-game tool leaves out, whereas organizers of larger groups may feel pressured to use out-of-game tools (which are more difficult to get Average Joe raiders to use) to compensate for its lack of features.
  • Problem 1: What does "tentative" even mean? I don't mean in terms of dictionary definition, but rather in terms of how invitees to events use it. Does it mean "maybe, if I feel like it"? "Probably, but there's a chance something might come up"? "I might have other plans and I'm waiting to hear back from people"? "I'll be half an hour late, so don't hold a spot open for me, but if you can't find a replacement I'll be there eventually"?

    • Solution 1: Add an ability to attach short notes to attendees for both event organizers and invitees. That way people have a way to communicate important things (such as what they mean by "tentative") in a place that organizers are much more likely to see it and keep track of it.

  • Problem 2: "Do we have enough tanks and healers?" The in-game calendar tells you what class characters are, but not which roles they are willing to perform. It's easy enough to just remember who can do what for 10-man raiding, but keeping track for 25-man raids can become a real pain, especially when you add raid-ready alts to the equation.

    • Solution 2: Allow event creators to also require invitees to select which role or roles they are willing to perform when signing up for the event. Display this information not only in a format easy to read at a glance (similar to the display the current calendar has for how many of which classes have signed up), but also allow event organizers to see a list of everyone who signed up for a certain role and the option of confirming a single role for each attendee who has selected multiple roles (that way there's no confusion amongst leadership and amongst attendees about who is doing what). Oh, and don't forget to assign confirmed roles automatically in the raid frames when an organizer presses the invite button!

  • Problem 3: "Wait, who's alt is that, again? Did he really sign up on all 7 of his characters?! How many people do we actually have, then?" (i.e.: The current in-game calendar system is character-based, while actual raid attendance is player-based.) Again, this is pretty easy to mentally keep track of in 10-man raids. Not so much in 25-man raids.

    • Solution 3a: Allow event organizers to invite RealID and BattleTag friends, not just individual characters. Consolidate characters from said RealID or BattleTag invite into a single listing to avoid confusion (possibly with each signed up character listed in a mouseover tooltip or as an expanded drop-down listing under the consolidated one), and allow each eligible character to be signed up and select roles individually so that the invitee can pick and choose which character(s) to attend with. To preserve privacy, such multi-character listings should be displayed as BattleTags (minus the identifying number) and no character should be listed until and unless the invitee has signed up with it.

    • Solution 3b: Implement a "bring the player, not the character" toggle for event creators. If the toggle is enabled, any player invited to the event on any character can sign up with any other eligible character in addition to the invited character. This includes selecting roles individually for each character. The initially invited character would serve as the "primary" character for display purposes. Again, to protect privacy, no character other than the initially invited character would be displayed on the listing unless the invitee has chosen to sign up to the event with that character.

      • By "eligible characters" in Solutions 3a and 3b above, I mean either institute Blizzard-set general eligibility requirements (such as requiring the character be level 90 to sign up for a Mists of Pandaria raid); or allow event organizers set a custom minimum character level and/or minimum average item level; or some combination of the two. Any character that does not meet the eligibility requirements would be prevented from being signed up for the event, thereby assuring some measure of quality control for event organizers.

  • Problem 4: Calendars are meant to be a convenient way of keeping track of various events. Having to swap characters to check the in-game calendar events for each character is not at all convenient.

    • Solution 4: Give players the option to share their in-game calendar across all their characters (or at least all characters of that faction on that realm), rather than having to log into and out of each individual character to check and reply to event invitations. The fewer hoops players have to jump through to access and use tools that make raid planning easier, the better.

  • Problem 5: Who gets to raid? Since 25-man raids require a larger bench of extra raiders to fill up raids during times of lower attendance, deciding who gets to raid during times of high attendance becomes a significant concern. The current in-game calendar offers virtually no tools to help raid leaders make informed decisions.

    • Solution 5: Implement significantly better sorting options for event invitees. For example, the ability to sort or filter invitees by role as proposed in Solution 2 above; by sign-up time, since the current mouseover display requires parsing the tooltip of each response individually and is inefficient for larger groups; or even by past event attendance for events created by the same person. The goal here is to put 25-man raid organizers on a more even footing with 10-man raid organizers by ensuring they have all the tools they need to plan and manage raids without having to resort to more feature/data-rich out-of-game alternatives (such as requiring raiders to sign up for raids on websites or via forum threads) since that only serves to raise a barrier of entry to larger raids that smaller raids can avoid.

Loot Distribution Tools - Loot distribution is one of the most important duties held by raid leadership, as loot itself is one of the driving factors for many raiders. Sadly, the tools for distributing loot are largely lopsided in favor of smaller groups due to the fact that fewer pieces of loot have to be distributed per boss kill and fewer players are likely to be interested in any given item that drops. This means that while 10-man raids can get by with simpler looting rules - or even automated looting systems such as Group Loot or Need Before Greed - and thus can sort through drops fairly quickly, 25-man raids often spend a sizable chunk of time waiting for some poor loot officer to sift through all the whispers and bids and loot council discussions before finally having to manually dole out the goods via Master Loot - and as a result are more susceptible to having the entire raid grind to a halt because half the players have suddenly turned into immobile Gorlocs who are too busy coveting potential shinies to actually keep the raid progressing.

  • Problem 1: "Whisper me your bid for [Item] now!" "If you want [Item] please link what your currently have." "[Item] - /roll now if you want it!" (i.e.: Master Loot does absolutely nothing to help inform the loot master's decision, so loot masters waste a lot of time gathering basic information.)

    • Solution 1: Add a new feature so that when an item that a player can equip drops and loot is set to Master Loot a small window pops up (similar to the roll window in Group Loot or Need Before Greed) on which the player can click a button to indicate interest (or disinterest) in the item. For the loot master, rather than players be sorted purely by which group they are in within the raid, interested players would be sorted first, and the item currently equipped in that slot by any given interested player would be shown upon mouseover. This way the loot master can focus more quickly and easily on distributing the loot.

      • It also might not hurt to allow the raid leader and raid assistants the ability to access this loot information as well, so that the loot master does not have to pass that information on to them in the event of a loot council. If that's too much to add to Master Loot, consider adding it as a new Loot Council choice.

  • Problem 2: "This boss' corpse smells! Why does my face have to be so close to it?" With the addition of the 2-hour grace period for trading Bind on Pickup items, it is more efficient for the loot master to simply take everything first and trade it to the winners later rather than have to kneel over the boss' corpse for the next few minutes sorting things out.

    • Solution 2: Allow loot masters assigned under the Master Loot system the ability to keep the loot window open even after moving away from the corpse or chest they are looting. This way the loot master can proceed to the next trash pack with the rest of the raid and distribute loot without interrupting the pace of the raid, and without feeling like they have to circumvent the in-game loot distribution tools to actually distribute the loot.

Guild Finder - I've never actually used this tool, but I've heard tales of its inadequacy. Extremely vague options for activity types and times, severely limited space for guild descriptions, inability to offer invites to offline applicants, etc. If the stated intent for raid sizes is going to be to let players decide which raid size they enjoy the most, then the tools for finding such raids need to be worth using. This is especially important considering that larger raids already have a greater barrier to entry in the fact that they require more like-minded people just to exist, in addition to suffering from a higher rate of natural attrition purely due to the numbers involved, so guild/raid finding tools are especially critical to their health.

That's quite a lot already, so I will do everyone the favor of stopping there, but the above is just the tip of the iceberg. There are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of other potential solutions Blizzard can consider to ensure a more even playing field between the raid sizes. Everything from improving the in-game voice chat feature (smaller raids can more easily make do with self-hosted VoIP programs whereas larger raids often have no choice but to pay for professional service) to ensuring that setting one's graphics to bare minimum will still accurately convey raid mechanics (since 25-man raids naturally require a larger share of any given computer's resources) and beyond has an impact, and though it may seem insignificant at first, the cumulative effect holds the promise of 25-man raid revival.