In my preview of the Serpent's Spine I had one major criticism: the ultra-high-end difficulty of Ashengate and Frostcrypt, the two high-end hunting zones in the expansion. As I understood it, Ashengate and Frostcrypt were designed for "ultra-high-end" players. While the definition itself was not clearly explained, I assumed that meant it was designed for those hunters equipped in high-end raid gear.
Upon release, the difficulty matched the power of these ultra-high-end raiders. The only hunters capable of effectively hunting in these two zones were those in very high-end raid armor. The orcs, drakes, golems, and oozes of Ashengate unleashed catastrophic levels of damage. High-end raiders spoke well of their hunts there except for one complaint:
For high-end raiders, the rewards were too low powered.
Now we get into the twisting argument of raid-level single group hunting. There are four rules which overlap and half contradict one another, four truths we have seen since the days of Velious.
Truth 1: Raiders want challenging content.
Truth 2: Single-group hunters want to progress to the most challenging single group events.
Truth 3: All players want meaningful tangible rewards.
Truth 4: Single-group content cannot drop raid-level rewards or raiding becomes obsolete.
When the development team builds high-end encounters, events, or zones, and sends them through the filter of these four truths, they end up with weird results:
Result 1: Events are too underpowered for high-end raiders because they have to be tuned so single-group hunters could eventually reach them.
Result 2: Single group hunters can't progress to raid-level power because they don't raid.
Result 3: Raiders rarely receive meaningful equipment rewards from single group hunts.
Last Friday night, on 29 September, Ashengate changed. The mobs hit for a lot less and had fewer hitpoints. Suddenly the high end raiders started carving down the beasts that troubled them before and high-end single group hunters or raiders of lower powered raid targets could hunt effectively and profitably within Ashengate.
The boards lit up with anger at the change from the high-end raiders who enjoyed the challenge of this beautiful and entertaining zone. After pages of discussion, Rashere, the lead designer of the Serpent's Spine, had this to say:
"It's a no-win situation. If we tune the content to be a serious challenge for high-end raiders in a single group, you'll complain that the loot is worthless since the only upgrades you could use are raid-level upgrades and those aren't going to come off single group content. If we threw that aside and tune up both the content and the loot so that its an upgrade to your raid gear, you'll complain that there's no reason to raid anymore cause the gear is available from single groups. And, obviously, if we tune the content to the point where its challenging to players who can use the loot coming out of it, you'll complain that the zone is too easy."
For years the equipment power gap between high-end raiders has been discussed. In one of my favorite historical articles, Moorgard describes the gear canyon between the single group and raid gear in Scars of Velious over five years ago. I've written half a dozen articles on that topic alone and referenced it hundreds of times elsewhere.
Now it comes to a peak in Ashengate. Now we have a zone that both raiders and non-raiders want but only one of them can have. Now the twisting logic of high-end raiding versus high-end single grouping is articulated in that one statement by Rashere.
What can solve this no-win situation? Is there a solution? Many people propose many theories, including myself, but almost all of these theories are swayed by the play style of the theorist. They all boil down to the following:
Solution 1: Put in content difficult enough that it challenges high-end raiders. Put in rewards that matter to them but won't make raiding obsolete. Of course, what would that be?
Solution 2: Tune all single group content around single-group players. Raiders raid and non-raiders don't. The problem is, raiders don't raid all the time and they don't want to. They like single group challenges too and being a high-end raider shouldn't cut them off from that. As a counter argument, however, non-raiders are cut off from all kinds of content in every expansion so why is it a problem that raiders are likewise cut off?
Solution 3: Put in two versions of a zone with a "normal" and "hard". They tried this in Depths of Darkhollow but the differences between the two versions were slight. People can't so easily be broken down into those two groups and improper tuning could make both versions worthless.
Solution 4: Close the gap. Make equipment progress from level 1 to high-end level 75. Offer clear equipment paths for single group hunters all the way up to the highest single group content and make the power of that gear closer to the power of raid gear. The problem with this could be quite severe. If its too powerful a lot of high-end raids of previous expansions get cut out.
This also brings up some questions better asked and answered by SOE. For a long time SOE has remained fuzzy when it comes to the tuning of content. They speak of difficulty compared to old zones, not compared to the levels, AAs, and gear power of players. Level, gear, and AAs are specific good metrics against which to tune content but it is largely avoided. So lets ask SOE these questions:
Question 1: How can SOE apply metrics to gear just as they have to level and AAs?
Question 2: How can SOE tune content around levels, gear, and AAs instead of basing it on the difficulty of underused or outdated content from the past?
Question 3: What can SOE offer high-end raiders that will reward them for single group hunts but not make raiding obsolete?
It all comes down to the same general philosophies held by the designers and held by the players. Who deserves what? Do high-end raiders deserve as much challenging single group content as one who only does single groups? Who deserves high end equipment and what should be required for them to receive it?
There are some other questions worthy of consideration. Recently, Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft would be moving to a 20 person maximum raid count. Everquest 2 caps their raids at 24. This leaves Everquest alone as the game with the largest raids of any MMO. I would aruge that Everquest has the largest and most well developed raid game of any massive online game.
Should SOE capitalize on this? Should they further develop this raid game? Should they seek ways to get more players into that area of the game as players progress? Or is the raiding game a black hole that will never have enough players willing to spend the kind of time required to progress through Everquest's vast raid content?
Most importantly, what would Loral recommend? I'm glad you asked.
Loral's recommendations to SOE:
1. Begin tuning content around existing player power including level, AAs, and gear power. Come up with a simple metric for gear power that consolidates damage output, statistical bonuses, combat bonuses, and focus effects. Each piece of gear should have a well defined "power level".
2. Tune content around the current and proposed breakdown in player power. If most players are level 70 raiders, tune content towards them. Tune expansion content at the percentage breakdown equal to the power of existing playing players as well as where you expect them to be and where you would like them to be.
3. Clearly decide when raid content can be acceptably trivialized by single-group drops. Is it one year after release? Two? Three? Right now single group equipment just barely reaches the power of raid equipment from Gates of Discord, an expansion released five expansions back and two and a half years ago.
4. In instanced expansions, offer well-tuned "normal" content for high-end non-raiders and "hard" content for high-end raiders.
5. Shorten the equipment gap. Make single group gear 75% of raid gear in the same expansion. If raiders can now receive 400 hitpoint and mana gear average from the expansion's end-zone, offer 300 hitpoint and mana gear for high-end non-raiders.
6. Build in content that helps non-raiders get into the raiding game. The raiding game is a clear strength of Everquest. Establish strategies that will reveal this strength to more players. Make it easier for non-raiders to become raiders. Locate the gaps faced by those who want to raid and those who do and address them. Build in better pickup-raid tools and content.
As the spine of the world continues to settle, our eyes watch the burning fires of Ashengate. Therein two armies battle against each other in a war that has lasted six years. Therein lies the foundation for the future of Norrath.
5 October 2006