I’ve wanted to do a retrospective on tier 11 before Firelands comes out, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realised that actually, for me, tier 11 hasn’t been defined so much by Blizzard as by the folks I’ve raided with, and by how we’ve chosen to conduct ourselves through the content. ‘course, that’s always true to an extent – that the game is at least partially what we make it – but I’ve noticed it a lot more this tier. I think as an ex-theorycrafter I’m more aware than I was of that interplay between how the game works and how you make it work for you personally.
So it’s not so much the game itself I want to mulch over, but rather how it works when a lot of the folks I raid with, myself included, are simply getting tired. Not so much tired of WoW itself, but tired of the endless treadmill of content that constitutes the endgame. For me personally, tired also of having led raids, raid groups and guilds for six long years. Despite all the changes to my raid group over the years which have made that role easier in some ways – we’re more a group of extended friends than a raid group now, and the leadership chores are shared among four of us – in other ways that just heightens the responsibility of keeping raids going and progress coming while making sure everyone’s enjoying themselves and feeling socially included.
I still enjoy a lot of what the game has to offer, even to an extent including all the multiplex components of that intricate content-treadmill of rep and gear and enchants and gems and consumables and points and tokens and achievements and all the other stuff that ties together the endgame as a coherent entity. Cataclysm has taken familiar concepts developed over three incarnations of the game and assembled them into a confident, directed experience based on accumulating the stuff your character needs or wants through various means. It’s the same stuff we’re well used to by now, but further refined, tweaked and with a bit of a challenge increment since WotLK too.
Now that should be pretty great – take something which has worked well, and make it work better. But the context has changed. For me, something of the sparkle, the unquantifiable, subjective allure of the game as a whole, has diminished. Cynicism is setting in and I’m seeing less of the positive aspects of something like, say, a daily quest and more of the negative aspects. Not because I was blind to the latter in days past, but because the former has less ability to distract me from it now. The mechanics are starting to overshadow the game. The work is less fun, the rewards less appealing, the deficiencies in the systems more glaring and harder to ignore.
Into this exaggerated and depressing picture I want to introduce the increase in what you might call challenge that Cataclysm brought. Succinctly, stuff got harder. And that’s a really tough thing to put a qualitative label on. If I was to try and break it down simply, I’d say that the opportunity for increased personal performance is tempered by the general decrease in capability of the WoW population as a whole. For every person who relishes the extra opportunity to excel at something difficult, there’s a person who feels excluded from content they were previously welcomed in. Which is of course dramatically oversimplifying something I could ramble on about for hours, but it’s only peripheral to my thought here – which is that the increase in challenge has not only made WoW more potentially fun, it’s also made it more unavoidably tiring.
The increase in difficulty changes where the margins lie between a kill and a wipe, between competence and incompetence, between what’s acceptable and what’s not. Success requires a higher standard of play from everyone involved. Mistakes are easier to make and more costly. That can be invigorating, energising, thrilling – I remember how pleased my group was to be actually wiping again on normal mode content – but it can just as easily tip the other way into draining, stressful, frustrating. Especially if you have folks who were previously at an acceptable standard now struggling to make the grade while simultaneously relearning their class or role.
It’s class and mechanic changes that are the second factor I want to introduce. Most specs are now more complex to play, some considerably so, in the sense of juggling timers, procs, situational requirements, spell interactions and so forth. Healers got a double whammy in the form of a fundamental change away from twitch whackamole to mana management and spell selection. I really really like that change, but by way of example, it was really hard for a few people to adjust to when we started raiding, and combined with the rather more challenging normal modes put an extra barrier for entry in front of someone who was trying to learn to heal for the first time. Other folks who were more than passable at their class/spec previously have ended up struggling to make it work with the heightened complexity which, while not usually raid-breaking in normal modes, is at least distressing for the players who feel they’re not pulling their weight in raw numbers.
The elemental AoE change is another example – it went from a simple task anyone could perform without having to think about, to something really complex and challenging and intricate which requires you to really know what you’re doing and why and be spot on with timings and targets. That was a massive leap up in difficulty (with no attendant increase in reward) and a considerable increase in the gap between cans and cannots.
It’s not you, it’s me
I’m not saying the game’s getting too hard I’m also not saying it’s getting too complex. I’m not even saying that the old mechanics and accepted ways of implementing work/reward are losing their lustre, because that depends on the person and perspective. All I’m saying is that when you’re tired, when you’re a little burned out, when the game is starting to lose its shine… all these little molehills become daunting mountains of weariness, little Everests in your own personal Himalayas of “why am I still playing, again?”.
WoW is more tiring than ever, but only because I’m more tired of it than ever. Objectively (inasmuch as that word is appropriate), the game is better than it’s ever been. Subjectively, there are only a few things which keep me playing: the people in my guild, some other friends, the shiny pretty gear I can festoon my avatars with and the fact that I’m still a bloody good player at everything I do, thanks very much.
Which brings me lengthily back to touch again on that thought I started with: for Fancy Hats, the game is increasingly defined not by itself, but by the ways we choose to play it.
And I think because WoW is better than ever, tier 11 has probably been better than ever at supporting different ways of approaching play. The main deficiency that comes to mind is that it’s lacked an accessible, rewarding, easy raid tier to train up newcomers and provide something for alts to do on offdays. And that’s precisely what tier 11 could become in 4.2, provided it doesn’t get so hideously faceroll easy that it’s of no value whatsoever.
As for Hats, we’ve been able to progress steadily and without much pain despite a late start, a very relaxed schedule, many cancelled raids, a huge reliance on offspecs and a lot of general roster-related headaches.
Replenishment has been a huge annoyance for the leaders – it makes fights so much less taxing as a healer, but our Survival Hunter can no longer provide it for us. When our Warlock was busy with work (which was often), we had to perform alt and offspec gymnastics to get it because – bearing in mind what I said above about challenge and change – it was still preferable to not having it. Raid composition in general still tends to be a minor headache for 10-player raiding, but thankfully not one which affected us too much.
It’s nice that several encounters give one or two players a specific responsibility without foisting it on the whole raid. It adds to an encounter’s complexity without punishing players who simply can’t fulfil an unusual role, and gives those who need a bit of extra interest something to keep them busy. Way preferable to something like Ghosts on Gorefiend where anyone who made it to level 70 and tier 6 without being able to play a frost mage would suddenly find themselves wiping your raid for no apparent reason.
There has also been an impressive amount of variety for all the roles I’ve tried – healing, tanking and ranged DPS – with the healing variation especially noticeable given the new mana management game – as well as some nice opportunities to use class abilities to help the raid.
Aesthetically, none of tier 11’s raids really pleased me. I know, I know, evil lairs are meant to be dark and sinister and stuff, but I really like raiding through pretty places. Blackwing Descent was a lot more tolerable than I thought it’d be – I really hate that rocks-n-lava thing in general – but none of the instances really stood out as special or beautiful. The gear, on the other hand, was generally fairly nice looking.
All these mundane and abstract observations are really just my way of saying it was an OK tier. It kept us playing together, it kept us having something to do, it kept us interested. It didn’t blow us away or inspire us to new heights or reinvigorate our interest in the game. It had its frustrations, its problems and its obstructions. It simply functioned; it did what we needed it to. Far more memorable are the conversations, the dirty tricks, the hilarious exploits, the dramatic saves, the hard-earned first kills, the players lost and the players still with us. Not what we play but how we play it: WoW is less and less a game we play and more and more a context we play in. Tier 11 supported that, mostly.
So where does that leave us, approaching 4.2? In an odd place, not placing too many requirements on the content but just hoping it’s good enough to keep us together a little longer, and that in doing so it isn’t going to punish us for playing the way we do or force us to do stuff we don’t want. Grudgingly prepared to give the new dailies (sigh, dailies) a try and step back on that relentless gear treadmill for the sake of a few more months with old friends, a few more nights at the top of the DPS meter, a few more over-zealous DPS getting 60k greater healing waves at 1% health, a few more core hounds figuring out how to operate machinery.
Beyond that, who knows?
As for me and Razz, well, I’ve finished my dissertation but have still got another year to go on my (part-time) (I initially mistyped that as party-time!) degree, and he’s had stupendously heavy exam-related workload for the last couple of months which thankfully ends this week. So we’ll be venturing into the Firelands with everyone else to seek our fortunes and explore tier 12, no doubt generating melancholy and rambling blog posts to punctuate the experience. As always.
Good luck in the Firelands folks – see you in 4.2.