Opinion, WoW

This doesn’t feel very heroic

Trying to write is getting really seriously annoying at the moment.  Every time I’m pondering over something I’d like to write about I read another interesting, thought-provoking post in the blogosphere or on the forums, or chapter of a book, and get distracted.  It’s particularly annoying with all the elemental shaman developments in the Cataclysm beta at the same time as a slew of insightful posts relating to gender in WoW and WoW culture at the same time as I’m getting into more serious RL research towards my honours dissertation.  (Yes, I’m 26 and working on my honours degree – don’t ask.)

The only thing better than complaining about bad things is complaining about too many good things happening at once.

Out of this milieu of interesting topics that I just can’t wait to smother in my opinion comes a comment made by a friend about WoW hard modes.  I won’t quote it here because I haven’t asked his permission, but I’ve been wanting to think out loud through the way normal/hard raiding has been done in WotLK for ages and, seeing as I’m actually able to write today, I’m going to do it right now and I’m going to like it.  Specifically, I want to look at Ulduar’s design and what I liked and disliked about that, while complaining a bit about Icecrown and where the healing game has ended up.

Unfortunately that’d constitute an enormous wall of text and more than I can handle in one day, so today I’ll lay the foundation so I can write the nice bit about Ulduar tomorrow.

The heroic toggle

Origins

Icecrown uses the normal/heroic toggle which was actually designed for 5-man dungeons in TBC, but with clever technical changes to make it work only on bosses rather than the entire instance.  When these were first implemented for TBC 5-mans, I presume that the idea was to make the dungeons fun, challenging and rewarding even at level 70 (max level at the time) while still providing levelling content and places for new level 70 characters to get gear which could stepping-stone them into harder stuff.  The chief criticism I heard of this was that it was just re-cycling content because the designers were cheap – the same criticism levelled against reskinned tier 2 armor dropping in those dungeons.

Broadly, though, I like the idea, and I think it worked pretty well.  The only trouble is that eventually at level 70 very few people I know bothered with any of the “normal” mode dungeons, and heroics became the de facto standard for dungeoneering, something which I think made its way into the design philosophy of Wrath of the Lich King’s 5-mans.  Thus in WotLK heroics were relatively easier because of a wide variety of factors, not all of which were, I think, intentional.  So in addition to the slight undertuning of most 5-man mechanics there was the higher power of individual characters, the availability of high ilevel gear, the increasing sophistication of the “average” player (the vast majority of former level 70 players having been “trained” through the widely-accessible Karazhan raid to be much better at PvE mechanics in general) and the unexpected inflation in healer power.

Worryingly elitist ranting

Despite their reputation for being “easy”, even the original (non ToC/ICC) LK heroic 5-mans can be pretty tough.  I found this the hard way when using the new LFD tool to gear up tank and healer toons from scratch.  Put people in appropriate gear in those places and, unless all of them are great players, it’ll be a struggle – at least for the tank and the healer.  I say “appropriate gear”, but even with ilevel 213-232 epics they aren’t exactly trivial.  I actually don’t go into heroic dungeons until I’m already, objectively speaking, slightly “overgeared” – lots of BoE epics, 2 pieces of tier 9, that sort of thing – but many other players simply jump right in with their levelling greens (and why not?  that’s the gear they’re apparently designed for) and oh boy.  In my battlegroup, almost every DPS that I’ve done random dungeons with in the past week has been pushing between 1000 and 2500 DPS on AoE packs.  Maybe 3k on single targets if I’m really really lucky.  In heroic Halls of Lightning it can require some true healer “heroics”.  In Halls of Reflection it goes way beyond “heroic”.  Everything gets so much harder when people are dying in a couple of AoEs, the tank has to be babysat through every single pull with your finger on the pain suppression button, and you don’t have the benefit of being overgeared by 64 item levels to safely carry everyone through.  My last HoR run involved me desperately DPSing despite being nearly OOM to try and finish the Lich King escape event before he reached us and we all asploded.

(This is why, incidentally, I now avoid queueing as a tank or healer if I’m not with at least one friend who can DPS.  Unfortunately my dwarf priest can only heal so has to rough it out.)

Um, anyway, I think I was meant to be complaining about Icecrown.

Binary difficulty

The whole normal/heroic setting is the idea of the binary difficulty toggle – something is either level 1 or level 2.  In the case of level 80 normal vs heroic 5-mans, this is ilevel 187 rewards versus ilevel 200 rewards, a gap of precisely one tier.  This is the same pattern repeated through normal/heroic versions of the ToC and ICC raids.  Just as heroic 5-mans were intended to be completed by people who’d farmed normal 5-mans for the lower level gear, so heroic raids are designed to be completed by people who’ve farmed the normal raid for the appropriate gear.  And just as heroic 5-mans are more “difficult” – stuff has more health, does more damage, and uses more abilities – so too for heroic raids.

For a 5-man dungeon though, heroic difficulty is often a way to get you to experience the same dungeon that you probably did while levelling up at a difficulty which is appropriate for a max-level character (as doing a level 70 dungeon at level 80 is not very challenging) and with appropriate rewards to boot.  Very few dungeons are actually designed for level 80 players on normal difficulty.

Conversely for a raid, this binary heroic toggle is a way to get you to repeat the content you just did, only now it’s harder.  You enter Icecrown, you kill all the bosses, you get all the gear, and then you do it all over again.  Only now the numbers are bigger.  Nothing is, really, actually any different.  Or if it is, it seems that the only purpose is to distract you from noticing how much is still the same.  Case in point, the plague on heroic Putricide: the fight is basically the same but now you have this entirely arbitrary pass-the-parcel game going on in the middle.

The Healing problem

I’ve said it before in a segment of a post which didn’t attract much comment: one of the big problems I see with heroic modes in Icecrown is that they just seem to throw a whole bunch of different mechanics at the raid and say “cope with all this stuff for 6 minutes”.  There’s very little sense of elegance or choreography.  And there’s been a massive rise in the number of insta-death mechanics in heroic fights, which mean that even in mundane and trivial portions of an encounter (e.g. Sindragosa heroic phase 1) there’s an ever present risk that someone will get one-shotted for some inane reason.  Sindragosa is particularly obnoxious in this regard because the fight only actually gets difficult after about 5 minutes of avoiding multiple one-shot mechanics, and because it’s so easy for lag or idiosyncrasies in the way the game works to pointlessly and painfully cost you a player in that long, boring initial phase.

At least part of the reason for the rise in this style of design is because healers and tanks got “too powerful”, where the only way to challenge healers was to throw vast amounts of damage at everyone and demand they somehow put out enough HPS to keep up, and/or to engineer situations where people will die within a split second if the healers do not react fast enough, and/or putting in so many competing mechanics that the healers simply cannot stand there healing but instead have to transfer plague or run away from goo or chase after someone else running away from goo or even – SUPER FUN HAPPY TIMES – do all of the above at once.

That was a very long sentence.

I’d like to think that it’s this issue above all else which has made ICC, ToC and RS heroic modes so un-fun and that it’ll therefore be largely solved with the triage healing model in Cataclysm.  But what about the whole normal/heroic divide itself?  This is where, after having remembered back to the whole origin of a normal vs heroic divide in the first place, looking back to Ulduar is so fascinating.  Because I think it comes down to a difference between, “here, have the same instance, only HARDER!!!” and “here, have several different ways to do several parts of the same instance, many of which are HARDER!!!”

So next up, what I liked about Ulduar, and what I liked a bit less.  Unless I get distrac OH HEY A BUNNY

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Discussion

13 thoughts on “This doesn’t feel very heroic

  1. I think that’s another reason I like Ulduar the most (beyond the general awesomeness of the atmosphere, lore etc.) – some of the fights weren’t just binary hard/easy choices, they had degrees of difficulty. You could take Flame Lev down fairly easily if you destroyed all the towers, or you could leave one up to make it a bit harder, and so on til you get all four towers up and it’s really hard even now, when most people massively over-gear it. More importantly, like you said in your post, the hard modes in Ulduar weren’t just “normal fight with arbitrary extra complications”: the added aspects made logical sense.

    Posted by Andy | August 26, 2010, 5:39 pm
  2. Hehe. This post adresses a lot of topics, it’s very clear that you have a lot on your mind right now !

    On the heroic modes, wich is an idea i like a lot, two things really didn’t quite work and blizzard apparently feels it’s the way to go.

    First, the Toggle Hard mode ON/OFF via User Interface. That’s absolutely terrible. In game, it makes no sense at all, it was much much funnier when ppl actually TRIED to activate the hardmode, or had to control things around not to accidentally activate it.
    I understand it’s way too “design punishing” to ask for a mechanic for every boss just for the sake of activating it’s hard mode, but seriously, i believe Blizz can afford that kind of challenge.

    Secondly, the binary issue. Bosses are either hard or easy. No “2 drakes”, no “3 keepers just so we can have the feel of it”, nothing like that. I started raiding for real on WOTLK and thought that was a terrific mechanic ! “I can do harder modes, even tho i’m not hardcore, while the hc can do their thing!” . It’s a shame they abandoned that design.

    Raiding is the best part of wow for me and yeah i can’t agree with the term “Blizz is dumbing the game down” cause after all i’m still attempting 25Sindragosa hard, but honestly, killing putricide hardmode just felt heroic on our first kill.
    That may be because of a lot of reasons, one of them due to the fact ICC has been up for 6-7 months ? i don’t even know. And we’re plain tired of dodging valkyrs.

    (bad english is bad i know, but my portuguese is way better than that !)

    Posted by Hexlol | August 26, 2010, 7:46 pm
  3. The way I see hard-modes in raids is that they are the level old instances were designed at, and the normal modes are just cut back versions of the fight. Thats why things like PP’s plague and the 1 shot of sindys abilitys that would have been 1 shots at L70 dont exist in the normal modes. All they need to do is allow you to enter hard-modes just like you can heroics, without going through the instance on easy first. Even though I loved the Ulduar design, I wouldnt mind this binary design if they didnt make you use the cut back version first. It should be something people can use to see mechanics if they need the help, but otherwise let the masses experience an instance, not funnel more competent raiders through more gates ti see the real content.

    Posted by Zuzum | August 26, 2010, 11:04 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments folks! My responses are built into the follow-up post to avoid writing a bunch of long, repetitive replies ;)

    Posted by Charles | August 27, 2010, 1:51 am
  5. I have to say I disagree on a few points. I’d guess that this is probably because you are, primarily dpsing.

    Ten versus 25 mans versus heroics don’t feel very different to me on my mage – the only difference is how much I single target inssted of AOE. But as a healer? God, there are huge differences in my spell rotation and role. Normal versus heroic modes on five mans and raids feel the same way to me.

    In leveling healers in the dungeon finder, doing the Wrath normals is much much more difficult than doing the heroics…even with lousy gear at 80. You have a much bigger chance to get someone terribly geared or not having a clue who gets carried. Particularly trying to keep a tank alive can be very challenging in Normals. In a Heroic I’m more likely to get paired with a 50k HP tank who could do the damn thing without heals at all. (Don’t get me wrong I’ve had terrible experiences in heroics as well, but in general they were much easier.)

    As for raids, I feel like a lot (though not all) the encounters force you to change (or absolutely perfect) your strategy. I don’t generally think they are just regular mode tuned up a bit. For example:
    – Shadow Prison on Princes makes perfect placement a huge issue on 25 man.
    – Unbound Plague adds one more plate to juggle for everyone, the transitions fall differently…and the healing in Phase 3 is utterly insane. It’s stunned me seeing it the first time. I think PP was a beautiful transition between regular and heroic and added a lot more depth to the fight.
    – Even on LDW where one mechanic (ghost avoidance) moves from “bonus” to “critical” – it’s super important and generally guilds change their positioning and such to be able to down her.

    Maybe they aren’t the best examples, because I’m just picking the first couple I think of…But I really disagree that most of Icecrown is just like regular but “tuned up” a little.

    Is it because I’m healing? Or doing 25s? (I have no idea if you’re doing 10s or 25s)

    Posted by ecclesiasticaldiscipline | August 27, 2010, 7:22 am
    • I’ve actually DPSed and healed all the bosses in heroic and normal Icecrown-10 (and I’ve tanked most of them too). Healing is something I absolutely love doing, too – but it’s the experience of healing hard modes, or of watching other healers really struggle with it, which really gave me the sense of “the same, but bigger numbers”.

      I can’t comment with any integrity on the difference between 10 and 25 heroic because I’ve not done 25 heroic. I know that in 10-man princes, one of the biggest problems is keeping everyone in range of at least one healer, and making sure a ranged DPS is able to “cover” every part of the room for Kinetic Bombs. In 10-man Putricide you don’t have a lot of options for plague transfer and the likelihood of someone getting plague + add targeting at the same time is very high. Until you overgear and overbuff it significantly, heroic Saurfang can be nearly impossible without a holy paladin. This doesn’t mean I never enjoy healing these fights, it just makes them seem punishing rather than clever. When we kill these bosses I often feel relieved instead of triumphant, because it feels like we got through the fight despite all the horrible RNG and split second reactions and lacking a particular class/spec rather than because we truly mastered it. Heroic Halion is where raid healing really jumped the shark for me in this expansion – I’m sure it can be great to heal but I have no desire to ever try it again.

      I totally agree with you about normal vs heroic dungeons in LK – especially having recently levelled two tanks through them all – but my objective in the post was to remind people that the heroics can still be really tough if you do them in the gear they were designed for. I think the reason WotLK normals are tough is because it’s almost impossible to overgear them. Levels also make a big difference (tanking UP at level 78, even in the best blues available, was painful) and often people simply aren’t very good at their role in groups until they get to level 80 (or even lack a key talent/spell). Once you hit your first piece of ilevel 200 gear you are actually starting to overgear level 80 heroics already!

      Going back to the topic of ICC though, I could do a personal review of every boss fight on normal and heroic but I’m not sure it’d be very interesting to read. It’s interesting that you enjoy heroic 25 modes so much because I’m pretty sure they’re the part of the game I’d enjoy least. But not having tried it (and not having done a 25-man with competent people since TBC) it’s hard to say. Maybe the problem I perceive is more to do with the way 10-mans are designed than heroics in general, but perhaps it’s just that the design works for some people but not others.

      Anyway, my personal feelings about how “fun” healing them is aside, I do think that having a structure which goes:
      1) Do entire instance on difficulty 1 (“normal”)
      2) Do entire instance again on difficulty 2 (“heroic”)
      …is always going to be very difficult to make feel really engaging and exciting.

      Posted by Charles | August 27, 2010, 12:13 pm
      • *nods* It’s very interesting how one’s role and raid size change perspective significantly.

        I do wonder if a lot of why things to feel like they work is tuning them for two raid sizes and two modes, makes a lot of the fights feel tuned so differently.

        I fell in love with Blood Princes Heroic on 25 man…but it’s completely different from the ten man fight. On ten man, there’s a ton of room to spread out, but ranging healers, having range on the balls, and running the fireballs through people before they get to you are big deals. Unless you’re getting tossed around the “you can’t move much” mechanic isn’t that big of a deal. On 25H, keeping a full raid ten feet from each other is harder, and any movement is a much bigger deal, requiring good coordination. And the fireballs? I’m in the back of the room…I can just ignore them – it’s almost impossible for them to hit me without traveling through a few other people. The 25 man has lot less opportunities to be one shot and more coordination. Taking as few steps as possible becomes interesting and fun. But it was a brutal fight on ten man, and not in a good way.

        I think Sindragosa just failed as a fun fight all around. The tactics for success – stop healing/dpsing for long stretches, hide behind things and wait, and the few people who can actually do their jobs are *frantic* to make up for the mess. Add in the brutal one shots and constant room for error with a long “easy” phase, and a nasty end… Yuck.

        Ten mans can also be very difficult without very specific composition. I had a hard time when the expansion came out because we just needed to have a Paladin with a Druid or Holy Priest…with a third healer sometimes. The requirements were brutal enough that there wasn’t a way I could fit into our progression group as Disc. I truly hope the healing changes in Cataclysm will help with that, but I’m not holding my breath.

        Also I thought the metas were sometimes a better way to play with the content differently than the heroics. :) Except All You Can Eat, which was of course more hellish even than H Sindragosa.

        Posted by ecclesiasticaldiscipline | August 30, 2010, 5:13 am
      • I found that comment really interesting to read, thank you!

        When Blizzard announced that they would be releasing all content in 10- and 25-man versions for WotLK, most of my group believed that it’d be really difficult to make that “work” but that if anyone could manage it, it was Blizzard. I think now at the end of LK it’s easy to see just how difficult it was, as well as how some of the design philosophies which were never made explicit affected that.

        I’m in favour of the way raid size design is going in Cataclysm and very interested to see how it’ll pan out with all the class and mechanic changes attempting to explicitly make it easier to balance raids of different sizes. I’ve no idea how that will affect the viability or fun factor of the ToC/ICC normal-heroic paradigm. The thing about Ulduar was that it was so fun I was able to ignore the massive issues which plagued it as a 10-man raider.

        Posted by Charles | September 3, 2010, 6:03 pm
  6. As dps, I find that the HMs are just require more efficiency in your gameplay. Faster swaps, minimize movements, better cooldown management. Normals gave the opportunity to just wing it and brute force it. With the latest round of gear and the ICC buff, it’s slowly feeling like HM ICC is turning into a normal run for us. This week, we burned down HM BQ with no bites and no lust. (Some of our dps think it’s cute to get mind controlled and hope to take out someone before they die.)

    Healing on the other hand, while I enjoy it at times, it absolutely brutal on some hardmodes. Some of the fights are just poorly tuned. It’s all about taking bigger hits and more frequently. While I absolutely hate this method, it has made me a much better healer.

    No comment on tanking yet. That character isn’t quite ready yet.

    Posted by Maker | August 27, 2010, 1:49 pm
    • I have to agree about the healer thing – despite having healed through vanilla and still healing occasionally in TBC, and having healed through Naxx/Sarth/EoE on three separate classes, it was Ulduar that really made me a good healer. By the time we reached Mimiron, the combination of reaction speed, spell choice and situational awareness that was required even on normal forced several changes in my UI and healing style and has undoubtedly made me way, way better at healing than I ever was. The continued “training” and practise through heroic ToC and ICC means that I’m probably a better healer now, in terms of those three categories – reaction time, spell choice and situational awareness – than I’ll ever be again.

      Despite this, I still think stuff like heroic Halion’s twilight cutters are just a bridge too far.

      Tanking is – well, actually, I think tanking is miles more fun in ICC herioc than it ever was in SSC or BT. There’s not so much raw difficulty in basic mechanics (e.g. keeping shield block up or macro-swiftshift-potting to handle a healer lapse), but instead there’s far more interaction with interesting fight mechanics, and more interesting things happening to keep on top of. This varies fight-to-fight (some fights the MT basically has to just sit there and soak), but overall I quite enjoy it.

      Posted by Charles | August 27, 2010, 4:45 pm
  7. Ah, heroics…I love ‘em and hate ‘em at the same time. Love them for all my new level 80 alts that have sprung up as of late, for it allows me to get them geared to a respectable level thanks to the welfare…er I mean badge system.

    Of course, I absolutely hate it on any of my better geared characters. You know, characters that are only there for frost badges. Heck, I never run a heroic unless I need one or both of those badges to purchase a primordial saronite (and that’s only if I’m not raiding that day).

    As for the heroic toggle in raids…to me, raid design has gotten worse as this expansion went on. The Sartharion encounter and most all of Ulduar, with fights that could have varying degrees of difficulty, were amazing. ToC and ICC, with their going from faceroll easy normal to LOL 1 SHOT heroic difficulties…meh.

    Posted by Kazgrel | August 27, 2010, 2:30 pm
    • Funny enough, I actually prefer heroics on my ubergeared ICC mains, because my presence in the group basically prevents any wipes and ensures the run will go fast and smooth. It’s nice to be able to kick back and dominate DPS in an environment where you’re totally overgeared but still being “helpful”.

      Conversely, on my less well geared alts, heroic dungeons are often a painful and tedious way to slowly farm enough emblems to get to that point of delicious overgearing. With so many people used to having overgeared folks smash through instances without any cares or dangers, and a fresh wave of new toons who apparently lack the raiding experience that made the first rush of LK dungeons so “easy”, heroics seem to be getting generally more difficult for anyone who’s not ICC geared, rather than less :(

      If I was to graph raid design in this expansion it’d resemble a sine wave, zeroed on Naxx, peaking at Ulduar, troughing at ToC and then rising again towards ICC (though not as high as Ulduar). We’d probably think ICC was amazingtastic if we’d not had Ulduar before it.

      Posted by Charles | August 27, 2010, 4:52 pm

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  1. Pingback: Doing things differently in Ulduar « Planet of the Hats - August 27, 2010

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