The 6th expansion for World of Warcraft came out a few months ago and I’ve been playing a lot. Early expansion is hectic when you’re a raider. It may only take 1-3 days to level your character to cap depending on how hardcore you are, but there’s a lot of gearing to do in the 2-3 weeks before the first raid opens. To understand what I’m talking about, you need to adjust to the MMO mindset. In a normal rpg, you level and by the time you have finished, the game is essentially over. In an MMO, leveling to cap is really only the starting point.
I tend to look at the leveling experience in 2 ways, it gives you the bulk of the story and serves as a tutorial for your class. I say the bulk of the story as each zone tends to introduce its own plotline related to the overarching plot of the expansion. Each zone usually has a dungeon or two that either resolves that subplot. The rest of the plot is resolved through raids, where the big plotlines are carried out. Prior to the Looking For Raid (LFR) system, most players missed out on major plot since some 90% of players didn’t raid. Second, even veteran players who’ve been playing for several years still benefit from the tutorial process of leveling their class. Each expansion brings revisions to the dozens of class and specs (short for specialization, each class has 2-4 specializations with varying gameplay and theme based around a core concept) in the game – some drastic, some minor. This gives players time to practice their rotation until it becomes rote or muscle memory. This is important because raiding provides unique challenges that draw the player’s attention, such that performance suffers if a player is still learning their class as their attention is split among too many things and they get overwhelmed.
As raiding is a team activity, a few weak links will spur many hours of wiping to bosses, large amounts of frustration and a high cost in time. Raiding gets pretty expensive in game, and the worse you are, the more expensive it gets. It should also be noted that the more aggressive your guild’s progression, the more you’ll wipe as well as you take on challenges with less and less margin for error. Each death wracks up a repair bill costing in-game gold. Each attempt on a boss costs more materials for temporary buffs like flasks (hour-long buffs that persist through death), damage potions (25-second long buffs with 2 being used per attempt), healing potions and food (hour-long buffs consumed on death). All of these things cost time spent farming for materials or gold. Resentment is an ever-present specter during the stresses of progression raiding – the act of downing a boss for the first few times until people have mastered it. When players on a team are of unequal skill or unequal work ethic, the ones lagging behind can draw the ire of the more talented or serious-minded players who feel held back. It may be a game, but the amount of time and effort that go into it runs counter to relaxing games and places this in the corner of competitive games. Of course, each team has its own community and atmosphere and there’s a vast spectrum in attitudes as to how seriously people take this whole thing. Finding the atmosphere that’s right for you can take a few tries, and being in the wrong community can be humiliating or frustrating.
So, what does getting geared up mean? Like most rpg’s, growth in power is a linear thing. Levels bring new abilities, but there’s also the parallel track of gear. In Warcraft, gear is measured by its item level. A 5 point difference in overall item level is small and not very noticeable, but at 10 item level becomes a noticeable difference. The reason for this is that all abilities do a range of damage and how they can line up with temporary bonuses or randomly triggered effects can amount to a 3-5% variance in performance. That’s an oversimplification really, as fight length, boss mechanics and class balance are major factors here as well, but that’s a massive topic in itself. What does noticeable difference mean? – about a 15% shift in performance or output. That’s an estimation of the current game balance, in a prior expansion when escalation of power from gear was out of control, a 10 point shift was closer to a 30-40% jump in performance.
When a player hits level cap, they generally need to go up about 30-40 item levels to be considered geared up for the first raid. As you can imagine, that’s a big jump in player performance and requires multiple steps up to progress that far. Bear in mind, a player has some 14 pieces of gear on their character, whereas most games keep this closer to 6. So, there’s a lot more time spent collecting the necessary gear. This quota increases over the course of the expansion as each new raid is more challenging and establishes a new floor of what gear is required – roughly 20 item levels for each new raid.
In most rpg’s, gear is purchased from vendors. The availability and amount of currency required has generally been calculated and baked into the game’s level experience so players acquire gear at the time they’re supposed to. But MMO’s require players to spend time playing the game and not ever really finishing playing the game – this is referred to as the gear treadmill. Gear is acquired by killing elite bosses in dungeons and raids but drop a random piece of gear forcing players to return to kill the boss again and again until eventually they get what they want. To some, this is tedious, and if the content isn’t fun to play, even players who accept the randomness of the system get bored and burn out.
The first step to getting geared, a player goes into dungeons and raises their overall item level several points. Dungeons are generally quite easy and can be run rapidly, so gearing out of this doesn’t take long, maybe a few days at most. Players then progress to the heroic versions of these dungeons, the same dungeons but tuned for players with better gear and adding in an extra twist to each boss to up the difficulty. While entry into this tier is roughly halfway through the required item level gains, players spend the rest of their time here until the raid opens. The increased difficulty of these dungeons slows the rate at which players can complete them and gain access to gear. The increase in difficulty highlights skill and gear gaps as players wipe and must start over, losing time. Players who have friends bypass a lot of this by forming more coordinated groups of players they trust to tackle these challenges. All during this period, players can shave time off this process by mastering craft professions to make gear for themselves. This process is costly and time-intensive though, but can provide temporary or permanent gearing options based on time and resources available.
Lastly, just having a high item level is no longer the goal. While a basic threshold must be met, now stats become a real concern. In Warcraft, these stats are Haste, Critical Strike, Mastery and Versatility. Haste increases the rate of attack speed or reduces time spent casting a spell. Critical Strike provides bonus damage, generally 2.5x. Mastery provides a unique benefit for each of the dozens of specs. Versatility provides a raw bonus to all damage dealt and reduction to all damage taken. And herein lies a chunk of the game’s complexity, as each spec favors different stats to perform optimally. The difference in performance can be drastic, with two players of the same item level but different stats having a 30% variance. If you recall from above, 10% is considered enough of a shift to take seriously. So, while hunting for gear, much of it gets tossed aside until the player finds the piece with the proper stats they need.
So, after weeks of running dungeons, the player has a good item level and pretty close to perfect stat configurations. In their downtime, they’ll pursue gathering or craft professions in order to secure all the accoutrements considered necessary for raiding. A player goes to a jewelcrafter to secure gems which provide bonus stats for any sockets on their gear. They seek out an enchanter to enhance a few pieces of gear for bonus stats or random chances to earn bonus damage. They go to an alchemist to get flasks and potions, providing bonus stats for both long and short term effects. They’ll either take up cooking or seek out a chef who makes food that provides more stats bonuses. All of these are acquired from players, which also correspond to other professions or skills wherein players must hunt for materials to make all these things. The total sum of all of these bonuses provides roughly a 5-10% increase in performance. These are considered necessary by most every raid team as every little bit helps during progression.
A 1% difference in performance can be the make or break to getting a kill. That may sound incredulous, but it is not an exaggeration. I can’t count the number of times a raid has wiped with the boss at only 1% health. A few extra seconds of having stayed alive, just a little extra damage per second over the course of a 5 minute fight would’ve made the difference. First time kills of a boss are usually very ugly, with half of the raid team dead and players trying to stay alive just a few more seconds to score the kill. A raid may have upwards of 13 bosses, and a raid team may only be able to kill 2-4 each week and then suddenly hit a wall because they simply can’t put out the necessary damage to down a boss in time or the tanks and healers be able to keep up with the amount of damage being taken. The gear allotted from those first few bosses though, will empower a team where suddenly the next boss or two becomes beatable. Progression is like that. Each boss killed opens just a little more gear, and each week a handful of players begin dealing 1, 2, 3% more damage, and that suddenly makes the difference. Each time players fight the boss, he gets a little easier, and eventually it becomes “farmed”, the act of being able to complete content with relative ease with little chance of failure for the sake of getting an item.
Depending on how skilled and serious a team is, a raid can be on farm in weeks or months. The goal isn’t to simply beat the raid once though, you keep running it to score all the best gear like you did in heroic dungeons. Why, there’s a few raid coming out in a few months and you need to be geared up for it because it’s going to require a higher item level and offer new and better gear. Then progression begins again. Sure, you can focus on the loot, getting gear to gain access to new places to offer more gear, and then you’re truly on a treadmill. But the journey of learning each boss, figuring out how to beat them and then mastering it until it becomes easy before moving on to the next challenge, is a cycle I look forward to. The act of pursuing such stimulating challenges with a team and the camaraderie that forms, it’s the nerd equivalent of what goes on in sports. That is why I raid.
But those first few weeks of a new expansion, raiders are on a timer. You get a few weeks of pre-season before the rush to progression begins, and you need that time to prepare.