The other day my esteemed co-tenant Razzmatazz posted about how he dislikes raid trash, generating a variety of comments both here and elsewhere in defense of the humble trash mob and its ilk. Amongst the many excellent counter-arguments was my own pathetic “me too”, because by and large I’m actually very fond of trash, at least as a concept, despite being extremely aware of how badly wrong it can go in execution. I was actually mildly surprised that Razz held up Karazhan an example of a great raid instance considering how utterly jam-packed it was with dangerous, difficult and sometimes downright obnoxious trash, and also a little surprised that he only mentioned Trial of the Crusader (ToC) in passing. Because of course, what most people remember ToC as is “the great trashless raid”.
Thinking back, though, I don’t actually think that absence of trash was the primary distinguishing characteristic of that raid. I don’t even think it was what caused it to leave such a sour taste in so many raiders’ mouths. Oh sure it probably didn’t help, but the placement of trash is something of a fine art: for every example of it being horribly annoying (hello, Sindragosa spider event thing, you horrible scrap of rank filth you) there’s a counter example of it being pedagogical and fun (such as the skeletal giants before Marrowgar – trap roulette included!). Similarly it’s easy to think of examples where different amounts of trash are used for different effect. Though I know Razz was arguing the case for a different pacing mechanism to the now-familiar trash pack, I think ye olde trash packe still has a fair bit of mileage left in it. And of course the absence of trash between bosses is a pacing design in itself.
Trial of the Crusader, though, was unique in a whole bunch of respects, to the extent where it could be considered the great counter-experiment to the Great Experiment of Ulduar, and one I’ve wanted to ruminate on in text for a very long time. Unlike Ulduar though, most of the lessons learned from ToC were probably of the “let’s not do this again” sort.
The thing ToC is most infamous for other than its lack of trash is its setting: “room of the crusader”, as Tam referred to it. While I’ve heard plenty of complaints recently about the deficiency of winged raids, ToC didn’t have any wings, or legs, or fingers or toes or any other metaphorically tenuous example of anatomy. It just was. And what it was was just a big boring room.
Not that there’s anything wrong with big boring rooms. Heck, the thing was set up as a sort of coliseum in the best traditions of epic gladiatorial showdowns. Exactly why this concept didn’t translate that well to WoW could make for an interesting discussion. Perhaps because gladiatorial arenas are principally designed for the spectators rather than the participants, who were at risk of being fed to large hungry felines even if they won. Perhaps because such a design focuses so intensely on the quality of the combat taking place in the arena – but then, ToC had its fair share of interesting fight mechanics. For whatever reason though, the Big Dumb Room just didn’t work. Even at the end when it collapsed and you fell and fell and FELL you ended up in… another big dumb room. (Or dead thanks to hilarious water walking antics, which I would NEVER do to a fellow raider, of course.)
One possible contributor to the failure of the Big Dumb Room was its setting, which was basically colourless, gloomy and miserable. Again, these are not necessarily bad things, but they can be done poorly. I am one of those despicable people who never liked the Icecrown zone in the first place; I didn’t like MC, I didn’t like BWL, I didn’t like ICC – all way too gloomy and harsh on the eyes. Strange as it is to say, I like my evil megalomaniac lairs of doom to be, well, pretty. Or at least interesting. I have no idea how to do that with a place like Icecrown, but there have to be some ways of alleviating the depressing and oppressive effects of a gloomy surrounding. There’s a fine line to walk between “impressively evil looking” and “depressingly forlorn” – or perhaps an even finer line between creating an effective atmosphere to engage players, and creating an atmosphere that’s too overwhelming.
Either way, ToC was dull, dull, dull. It failed to inspire visually on any level, even on the outside where it was kinda cool to be able to see the whole structure take shape. That’s still the thing I dislike most about it. Heck, I even hated the armor sets added with ToC. I resented having to swap my pretty tier 8 for the ugly tier 9.
ToC’s place in the narrative should’ve been simple and well defined: the leader of the upcoming siege on Icecrown sets up an event to recruit the world’s best champions and whittle them and hone them into an effective fighting force. You’re there to prove your worth and to earn the rewards which will equip you for the final assault – there should be a sense of importance and anticipation. Somehow those were missing. Somehow it all felt a bit farcical. Yes Tirion, we understand you want us to be big strong goats and gnomes but how is being killed by these giant worms going to help.
Added to that was the uncomfortable nature of some of the in-instance narrative. I always felt the faction champions fight in particular was very poorly introduced, though I can’t honestly think of how they could possibly have done it any better. Wilfred Fizzlebang’s antics are now legendary, but when the Lich King showed up at the end to taunt us and like totally ruin the laminate flooring they just had put in, for cryin’ out loud, and oh I didn’t know we had a basement I guess that’s cool but what do you mean there’s already a tenant? – um, as I was saying – the Lich King appearances by that point just felt cheap and pointless because we knew he was just going to taunt us and run away. It was only in the last, last moments of the last, last fight of the entire expansion that we finally found out WHY Arthas had been showing up to taunt us into killing all his servants, and by then it was too late to salvage all those earlier appearances. Rather than the LK’s appearance helping to make the instance seem more important, the instance’s perceived triviality tainted the LK’s appearance and degraded his image even further in the eyes of at least some of us who experienced it.
Ultimately I think the daily quests, while brilliant in many respects, really harmed the overall narrative as they contributed to the feeling of “silly” rather than “important”. Or maybe that’s just me. The whole package – along with the jousting and the 5-man instance – should have made for a narrative bonanza. Instead the jousting felt silly and the 5-man just hastened the process of us getting sick of that Big Dumb Room.
Blizzard ‘fessed up to this themselves – they released ToC too soon (insert Executus joke here). A lot of folks were still getting plenty of mileage out of Ulduar, and suddenly the entirety of its rewards were rendered irrelevant in one fell swoop. The only reason to keep raiding Ulduar was to finish off achievements, which were effectively nerfed anyway by the influx of new gear from ToC. I’m sure plenty of raiders from the more hardcore end of the spectrum were through with Ulduar, but were they really ready for another massive grind yet themselves? Because ToC forced raiders into doing exactly that – grinding and grinding and oh boy, grinding.
The main mechanism governing this grindfest was the emblem loot system, whereby the only way to get the new tier of gear was through Emblems. Lots of emblems. And ToC was the main source of these emblems. Even upgrading to the next sub-tier required yet more emblems. It was meant to be a pacing mechanism for gear which was (arguably) introduced too soon, but what that meant was players who cared about upgrading their gear just wanted to get as many emblems as possible as fast as possible.
Normal, Heroic, 10, 25…
And this is how they did that, because ToC was the raid which pioneered the normal/heroic distinction. Remember that? Ulduar had hardmodes which built on the Sarth+drakes idea, but ToC was the first time we had that toggle between “normal mode” and “hard mode”. It was also unique in that the toggle switched between unique instance IDs which didn’t share lockouts, which meant that you could do normal and hard modes in the same lockout. And, as with all Wrath of the Lich King raids, the 10 and 25-player versions were also on separate lockouts.
The upshot of this combination of lockout mechanics was that a hardcore 25s raider could feel obliged to do ToC a mind-shattering four times a week, and that’s if they only had one character they raided on. I know of many less progressed 25-player guilds would do the 25 normal, 10 normal and at least part of the 10 hard versions every week. And even the few 10-player “strict” guilds out there who avoided 25-player normal because of gear pollution (which was itself at its most serious during ToC) had to do both normal and hard modes each week to maximise their emblem gain. It was a truly brutal regime.
Coming so soon after the difficult and lengthy (though considerably more entertaining) Ulduar grind and combined with the Big Dumb Room with its many attractive shades of grey and the (in my opinion) unattractive armor pieces themselves, this was a total disaster and I’m pretty sure the main reason so many folk got so utterly sick of ToC so fast.
RNG and gear walls and other minor inconveniences
The proverbial icing on the cake, at least in 10-player, was the RNG of faction champions (in this metaphor, cake is bad) which could really screw with your raid if you had the wrong “comp”, combined with the stringent class/spec requirements of heroic Anub’arak and the gear brick wall that he presented. When my raid group finished clearing ToC heroic, we had a few shots at Anub’arak. We tweaked our strategy, we practiced, and we practiced some more… and eventually realised the only way to get that final 7% off his health bar was to gear up the entire raid a whole lot more. It was over a month of solid grinding before we came back, but the plus side is we spent remarkably few tries on him before getting that first kill.
I also remember, fresh out of 10-player Ulduar, how utterly punishing Northrend Beasts was on our tanks and healers and how easy the rest of the instance was by comparison. The same was true in heroic, with Beasts being The Gear Check™ and nothing else posing a serious challenge until heroic Anub himself. I’m not going to flat out call that bad design, but I did think it a bit odd at the time. I do also wonder if putting the (second) hardest fight first kinda spoiled the flow of the instance, especially given its lack of trash mobs for pacing.
Which brings me to, yes, it possibly went wrong with trash. Trash can give a great sense of space, place and pace to an instance. But ToC already lacked those in its raw architecture and setting , as well as in its surprisingly weak narrative context. Would trash have helped? I don’t think that lacking trash is inherently bad, because in many ways the absence of trash can be as useful in building a convincing environment as its presence. Ultimately, though, I don’t think ToC had what it took to do that with or without trash.
The real problem with ToC, though, was probably just that it came after Ulduar, an instance many of us fell in love with very quickly and which itself came after a tier of content most people felt decidedly ambivalent about. Ulduar was truly special and would’ve been hard to follow up by anything, so it’s no wonder ToC felt poor by comparison. Nobody who’s just assaulted the vast Siege area, travelled on Mimiron’s tram or witnessed the celestial pyrotechnics of Algalon’s pull is going to be impressed by a big grey room. Nobody who’s fought through 14 unique encounters, many of which had several unique variations through hard/harder/achievement modes, is going to feel much excitement at the prospect of a mere 5 new bosses who are basically the same on every raid size and difficulty setting. And it’s worth remembering that Ulduar even had a cinematic trailer to generate hype.
The sad thing is that ToC did a lot of really creative things, not just with its experiments in setting and trash and whatnot, but in terms of interesting and unique boss fights and mechanics. Arguably the most boring fight in the place was Jaraxxus, and even he involved interrupting, tanking and DPSing adds, DPSing portals, kiting fires and all sorts. Twins used a totally unique and hilariously arcade-esque variation on the traditional “two bosses, two damage schools” idea. Beasts made us fight three totally unique bosses in a row with no break in between, each of which would’ve made an interesting encounter in and of themselves. Faction Champions was possibly the most frustrating encounter ever designed for anyone who’d avoided PvP, and even for PvPers was frustrating precisely because it was so different from PvP. And Anub’arak is I think the first time healers ever had to keep the raid at as low health as possible.
I still have plenty of fond memories of ToC to go alongside my general loathing of the place, and honestly I’m glad it didn’t have any trash because it would’ve been pointless and unhelpful. Despite that it’s easy to see why it was received so poorly and remembered so harshly, and why it’s become essentially a byword for bad raid design. As an experiment, though, it was presumably a complete success – it’s helped Blizzard understand how to make their future raids better, even while admitting that they can’t go back to some of the stuff I liked most about a place like Ulduar.
Before I go, just a word about my posting or lack thereof. I’ve got several drafts I’m still sitting on because I’ve not had the energy to finish them off, and I don’t feel I have the expertise or authority at the moment to be comfortable commenting on matters of theorycraft or strategy. My order of priorities is roughly University > Guild > TotemSpot > Planet of the Hats, and only the first two of those are getting even remotely the sort of level of attention I’d like at the moment. So I’ve not, and will not, disappear, but it’s likely I won’t be posting a huge amount in the near future either. Plus I’m doing less blog reading at the moment than I’d like and I always feel a bit uncomfortable posting without a bit of blogosphere-perspective!
(Also sorry Razz for posting right after you like some kind of attention usurping usurper, but… you gotta play it where it lands, and stuff.)