I am now at work, having finished up my interview with the Twisted Nether folks earlier. It was a lot of fun! Presumably I was pretty boring to listen to, but I had a good time. As happens so often with me when I talk with my mouth rather than my fingers, however, I didn't manage to convey all the thinkin's I've been having in my brain parts.
See, it seemed like a good idea to listen to a couple previous episodes before I went on, and the most recent episode was with Kurn from Kurn's Corner. I've been reading her blog for quite a while now, and I think she's awesome, which is why I was kind of saddened at her response to the question "what went right with Cataclysm?" ("nothing!") as well as her pessimism regarding Mists.
I got across some of what I wanted to say about those things in the show, but the big thing I didn't address was her complaints about the raid difficulties.
I think that you have to establish some background before you start talking about how satisfied you are or are not with raid difficulty in Cataclysm, because the game totally and completely changed the way it addressed difficulties over the course of Wrath of the Lich King.
In classic WoW and Burning Crusade, when you'd killed a new boss you had killed a new boss. Full stop, end of story. You weren't going to clear the instance and come back later and kill a different, more difficult version of that boss. You either killed Illidan or you didn't. Ok.
This approach to raid difficulty is intuitive and viscerally satisfying. It feels totally awesome and great to come together and work as a team and get that first kill on Lady Vashj or Kael'thas or Archimonde or Illidan. Man it feels good. And then you've done it! You've cleared SSC or TK or MH or BT and no one can gainsay that.
There are some problems with this approach, however, because it means that you're going to pour a really staggering quantity of development resources into assembling and tuning content that single-digit percentages of your playerbase are going to see, if that.
That isn't even the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that there is no cap on player skill and no cap on guild teamwork. I loved Lady Vashj and it remains one of my favorite encounters in the game, but if the modern top-10 guilds were doing SSC and TK, they would have laughed at T5. They would have just wrecked those encounters with a violence that would be sickening and terrible to behold, yes, even before they were nerfed. We were starting to see this with vodka's pre-nerf kill of Mu'ru, an extremely brutal encounter. There were, what, 6 or 7 guilds that were able to clear that before it got nerfed?
The thing to keep in mind, then, is that they did in fact clear it. The gulf between someone like me and someone in those top 10 guilds is much wider than the gulf between me and someone 10k DPS behind me in the raid finder. And then you have to remember that that gulf continues to grow wider.
I think the best way to think about this is to look at some illustrative examples.
I think I'm pretty good at WoW*, and I'm in a casual guild with people I like and a raid schedule I can live with. We're totally average, the perfect target market for normal modes. Roster difficulties in T11 meant we never cleared Nef or Al'akir before the nerf, but we got everything else. We went 7/7 normals in Firelands and never touched a heroic mode. We're the scrappy little kid in the school hallway, with a heart full of fierceness that's at odds with our awkward, uncoordinated exterior. We are currently 4/8 Dragon Soul normals on 10 and Ultraxion is looking like a formidable challenge on normal difficulty.
Kurn is the GM of Apotheosis. They went 7/13 25H in T11 and 6/7 25H in T12, which is awesome and amazing. They are some straight-up swaggering brutes, covered in rippling muscles and arcing with fearsome eldritch power, heirs to the eleven fatal secrets of Shaolin and masters of the most deadly arts. They are currently 7/8 Dragon Soul normals on 25 and will almost certainly be working on heroics within a couple weeks.
Beru is an officer (or perhaps GM? Not sure) of Monolith, who went 13/13 25H in T11 and 7/7 25H in T12. They are nightmares risen from the depths of a fevered unconscious mind, the formless given a form which is death unending. They are the coming of chaos and the rending of the world; from their manifold mouths issues a ululation that sunders flesh and from their uncountable eyes issues a light that sears all it sees to ash. They have already killed their first heroic boss in Dragon Soul.
The top guilds in the world are 6/8 25H in Dragon Soul.
The very best players are continually just getting better and better, inching farther off to the right-hand side of the bell curve. Any encounter which presents a challenge to them is rapidly approaching the state of being an impenetrable citadel to the rest of the world. Two encounters in this expansion have prompted Beru to write posts asking "is this fun?" and coming to the answer that no. No it is not fun.
Unfortunately, any encounter difficult enough to present the gentlest of speedbumps to those top guilds is pretty much doomed to make her give the same answer to that question.
So I can understand Kurn's disappointment that she's almost cleared the normals already, but I really think she underestimates the unbalancing effect of her own skill and the skill and teamwork of her guild. Presenting her guild with normal modes that challenged them would mean my guild banging into a brick wall at Zon'ozz, while presenting Beru's guild with normals that challenged them would have Apotheosis hitting a wall in the same spot. At the end of the day, if the normals are too easy for you, blow 'em up and move on to heroic modes.
I totally get that all of these difficulties sort of dilute the raiding experience. I agree with that. In fact I think she's one of the people that got the short end of the stick: normals are too easy for her to really feel satisfied at clearing them, but she's also not necessarily clearing the heroic modes. That's not very satisfying either!
What it comes down to, though, is that I think the choices were between dilution and destruction - the one-lockout model did not and can not scale with player skill, and just ignoring either the hardcore or the casual segments of the subscriber base would have ended up scuttling the ship. The very fact that there are millions of casual players is part of what gives meaning to the hardcore being hardcore, and without the accomplishments of the hardcore to admire, the casual playerbase loses interest.
*I think that a guild around the level that Monolith plays at would be happy to have me, even if my current progression doesn't reflect that.