After seven years of reserving the toughest “end game” content for the top 1-5% of players, World of Warcraft “cataclysm” concludes with a raid dungeon tuned for casual players. It’s epic online gaming now available at the drive-through, and it’s good.
Getting there was no easy feat for Blizzard. Historically, dungeons that required five players to complete demanded coordination and communication between teammates, and ten and twentyfive player raid dungeons were challenging enough to exclude the majority of players who did not have the time or dedication to devote to perfecting their characters and gameplay. To attempt the same dungeon with four (or twenty four) other complete strangers was folly. These latter types of groups were dubbed “PUGs”, or “pick up group” and were frequently, famously horrible bad dungeon attempts that would end in frustration.
The carrot, at the time, was to encourage players to team up with friends and make new friends to work together to defeat the toughest content. I could not find reliable statistics, but sources suggested only 1-5% of World of Warcraft players were successful in completing the toughest dungeons from each expansion.
Later, at launch of the most recent expansion “Cataclysm”, Blizzard introduced what seemed like a streamlined PUG making machine, for all horror and apprehension it was worth, called the “dungeon finder” feature. It was a match-making service that automatically paired you up with four other appropriately geared strangers to complete a dungeon, including players from another server. Given that the difficulty of the dungeons at the time rivaled the toughest dungeons from the original game and first expansion (Burning Crusade) this seemed like a fast track to frustration.
This same year marked a sharp decline in Warcraft subscribers – no direct correlation to any particular feature is necessary, some players were just ready to move on after six or more years.
Yet, with a little time and more content, Blizzard fine tuned many aspects of the game to keep it challenging and still friendly to the majority of players. The dungeons were softened up, but were still interesting and extremely accessible. Gear curve finally matched the content and story – if you let the improved quest system lead you to the content, you’d be ready to complete it with a group. In a way, they have “dumbed down” end game character advancement and dungeon roles to help ease more players into the final chapters of the game.
Once adopted, using the dungeon finder ushers your character to the next most challenging set of dungeons once you have sufficient gear. Assuming you learn your characters basic role in a party of five or more people, you will continue to encounter tougher dungeons until you are ready to begin the final three dungeons that tell the expansions closing chapter: The Hour of Twilight.
Following the Hour of Twilight dungeons, and assuming only minor attention to equipping your character with the best gear available from those dungeons, you qualify to use the “Raid Finder” match making service to join in the twenty-five man “easy mode” version of the final raid dungeon: the eight boss sequence concluding in the showdown with Deathwing the Destroyer, the enormous molten metal dragon from the TV commercial. It’s a blast – an “ah-ha” moment for World of Warcraft. Why reserve the “end boss” of a game for only the 1-5% of the most dedicated players? Whatever the reason was seven years ago, it seems short-sighted in comparison.
Blizzard, in the meantime, has been busy in the kitchen. Very busy. With “Diablo 3” and “WOW: Mists of Pandaria” both completing beta soon, and the top-secret “Titan” project coming later, the online gaming pioneer has no plans of fading into history.