In their patch notes for version 2.4 of World of Warcraft, Blizzard removed the attunement requirements for entering Mount Hyjal, Black Temple, and Karazhan. These three raid zones have been the cornerstone of raiding in the Burning Crusade expansion. Until now, these zones have required a series of quests and instances in order for a player to enter the raid. With this patch, that requirement will disappear.
The same week that this was announced, my wife's Everquest guild went back to Planes of Power twice to get a few guild members flagged for the upcoming Everquest anniversary Fabled boss mobs. Planes of Power is over five years old now. Five years and SOE still hasn't released the flags of Planes of Power.å
Flag restrictions break guilds apart. Flag restrictions alienate players. Flag restrictions make it harder for players in a massive online game to play together. It is contrary to the primary purpose of an online RPG: bringing people together.
Flags can kill an MMO. Blizzard understands this. SOE does not.
For six years I've discussed flagging with game developers and other players. I've read all the articles about it. I've pontificated about it with hundreds of players; some who take a practical big picture approach, some more narrow-minded and exclusive. Everyone has an opinion about flagging and I will admit that, in some circumstances, it has a place. However, that place is fluid and changing - not static.
I've discussed flagging in numerous interviews with designers for Everquest. They have stated to me that the days of flagging entire expansions, like Planes of Power and Gates of Discord, are over. They state that the difficulty of the content will be the requirement for entering and battling in a zone. They state that any flagging will be minor and require very little for those who wish to enter.
Yet flags remain. New expansions still require quests to enter zones. Older zones continue to have the flags they required upon release. The designs intended to keep guilds that play four hours a day, seven days a week, from progressing too fast now get in the way of guilds that play far less often.
Flagging has wrecked guilds. Struggling guilds that lose members often have to recruit new members without flags, forcing the guild to move back to previously defeated raids. Now long-time members find themselves spending hours on raids they already defeated a year back in order to flag a handful of new people. These veterans, seeing how their time is wasted on events they no longer enjoy, rightfully leave to find better ways to use their time. Now the guild itself is even further back than before.
I have watched guilds self destruct like this for years. The guild that first entered Plane of Time on my server broke apart because flagging for Demiplane of Blood became too much of a burden. Now I see the same thing happening again with guilds facing those same flags today.
Flags also prevent players from returning to their game of choice. A player might leave a game and return half a year later to find that their friends have progressed so far as to leave that player behind. The guild either chooses to spend their time in raids they have long since defeated or that player cannot rejoin them. In a game as old as Everquest, any barrier keeping older players returning hurts their business.
People were surprised when Blizzard announced they would be opening up the attunement restrictions for their top raid zones in Burning Crusade. There was a public outcry from those who had spent their time attuning their characters and their guilds. They felt the removal of this attunement cheapened the time they spent "working" to get into these high-end zones.
Blizzard didn't listen. Blizzard sees a game with ten million players and knows that most of those players don't post on the forums, don't read the websites, and don't have the time to attune and re-attune others for high-end raid zones. Though the game doesn't often stress social interaction, they know that flagging hurts the ability for players to play together in these high-end zones. They learned that the requirement for flagging to slow down top end players ceases to exist when those players are well past the top end. They learned that attunement should be fluid and changing - not static walls that must always stay in place.
I managed to acquire my attunement for Karazhan over about two weeks. I fought through all the solo quests. I begged my way in to the three required instances. When I first stepped in, I remember how it felt to finally enter the zone for which I had spent those hours. Like many, when I heard the attunement would be dropped, my immediate visceral animal reaction was one of jealousy and pack security. How dare those who worked not at all enter the zone for which I worked so hard! That moment disappeared quickly. I know why Blizzard did it, and they were right to do so.
It would be inaccurate to state that World of Warcraft's high numbers and the dwindling numbers in Everquest are strictly due to flagging. These flagging restrictions in Everquest aren't the biggest barrier for new or returning players. The steep level and alternate advancement requirements are worse. Flagging, however, is the largest barrier for high level players. Flagging grinds up guilds and spits out those who remain. Some end up in a smaller and smaller number of high-end guilds. Others leave the game completely.
All is not lost for Everquest's flagging woes. SOE could, and should, take an aggressive stance on the removal of flags for older expansions. Removing flagging for every zone and raid in every expansion up to and including Prophecy of Ro would be a good start. Removing flagging for every expansion older than a year would be the next logical choice. Alas, such aggressive moves are not SOE's style. They choose to play it conservative, making small changes over long periods of time. This is wise. Why alienate the players they have left? Yet this must be balanced against the damage that older flags inflict on lower-tiered guilds.
Flagging and attunement requirements work against the strongest draw of massive online games. They prevent players from playing together.
7 March 2008