Flex Raids – World of Warcraft’s new content for serious casuals

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The final raid tier for Mists of Pandaria, 5.4 – The Siege of Orgrimmar – is getting closer and with it will come a new raiding tier – Flex Raids.  Personally, as someone who is too time constrained/antisocial to raid in a guild any longer this new system will add a lot of value compared to the slog that is LFR.  So what are Flex raids and who are they aimed at?

Flex Raids will provide a higher level of challenge than LFR, but less challenge than normal modes.  They’ve been likened to the difficulty of Wrath of the Lich King 10 man raids, which I enjoyed back in the day.  They will require you to form a raid so they won’t have the anonymous feeling of LFR groups and will hopefully maintain a higher quality and encourage civil interaction among the participants.  You can form them with cross realm groups so I would expect them to become a big deal on OpenRaid – that’s how I’m planning to get into them.

The really neat part of Flex Raids is that they can be anything from 10-25 players.  Boss health and damage will be scaled directly to the number of players you have in your group.  So if you have 13 friends who want to go raiding together you can do it and not have to force anyone to sit out.  Loot will be done the same way as LFR with per-player loot dropping and bonus rolls with whatever token is introduced in 5.4.

Considering the way that LFR degrades as progression players stop doing it for fill-in items you often find at the end of a raid tier LFR is nearly impossible to do without witnessing huge amounts of name calling, griefing, or players not fulfilling the role they queued for.  Hopefully Flex Raiding, which will have to be managed through Forum groups or a 3rd party service like OpenRaid, will attract a higher level of competence and decorum while giving casual players a good challenge and better rewards.

World of Warcraft subscriptions down – What can Blizzard do?

In a recent financial report Blizzard announced that subscriptions for World of Warcraft have dropped once again last quarter, down another 1.3 million subscribers and bringing the game’s current subscriber accounts to 8.3 million.  This isn’t great news, but it’s also not unheard of in the middle of an expansion pack and we have seen a lot of new competition rearing its head lately in the free to play arena.  So what can Blizzard do to improve its game and continue to retain subscribers?

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Content.  The death knell of any MMORPG is lack of content.  Once players start having trouble finding something worthwhile to do in the game they go try other things and once they’ve stopped paying that monthly charge they become less likely to pick the game back up.  Blizzard claims to have addressed this issue by increasing the frequency of their major content patches, but I feel their increased patch schedule is disingenuous or doesn’t deliver the solution they’ve promised.  Let’s look at the progression of PvE content in Mists of Pandaria and consider ways the flow of the game could be improved overall.

Mists of Pandaria launched with 9 heroic dungeons, 3 raids, 16 raid bosses, 2 world bosses and numerous scenarios.  Gear progression was fairly straightforward – normal dungeons/scenarios -> heroic dungeons/justice gear -> LFR -> Normal raids/valor gear -> heroic raids.  But after that blizzard dropped the ball with patch 5.1.  Yes it was listed as a major content patch but it didn’t offer any new raiding or dungeon content.  The only thing it made available for gearing purposes were a few more valor items.  5.2 added a host of new raid content – 12 new raid bosses in all and a few scenarios, but offered no new 5-man content.  This created a bit of a hurdle for leveling new characters as the gear progression now required normal dungeons -> heroic dungeons -> 5.0 LFR -> 5.2 LFR -> 5.2 Normal/Valor -> 5.2 Heroic.  Basically for casual players blizzard didn’t create any means to bypass the original 5.0 LFR for progression while at the same time it gives no incentives aside from a few valor points for people to play 5-man content.  So the only way for many players – dps players in particular – to progress is to either sit through one hour plus queues for Mogu’shan Vaults or very slowly build up valor points through 5-mans until they can enter Throne of Thunder LFR.  5.3 was released just recently and again it has no new raid or 5 man content, but it does add heroic scenarios which will have gear that is slightly better than 5.2 LFR.  However, you have to form specific groups for heroic scenarios so it is unlikely that many players will participate in them.

The current content progression looks like this:

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For Blizzard’s vaunted claim that they’re putting out content faster than ever we see that there has been very little PvE content added to Mists thus far, and that content that has been added is not gated in such a way as to be easily accessible to casual players unless they are willing to grind for valor points.  Now you can also gain valor through daily quests and that seems to be the content that blizzard is prioritizing.  Rather than new dungeons, we get lots of daily quests tied to the current main story arc.  I assume that Blizzard has prioritized this way because daily quests are easy to implement and have a higher impact on the general population than 5-man dungeons do, but I don’t think that necessarily makes them the better solution.  I do daily quests all the time and I hate them but I have no choice in doing them because of reputation requirements on valor gear.  As soon as I hit revered on any reputation I immediately stop doing it, though.  So daily quests, while they might statistically show as being more significant for the game as a whole, aren’t fun for many people and they aren’t going to be what drives people to resubscribe.

What blizzard needs to do if they really want to preserve WoW’s image is increase their current development team and segment their patch development.  They need to have a simple content creation process with standard releases designed to tie together intelligently that will offer new players easy inroads to current content while giving current players lots of options and things to see.  My idea for how this would best be achieved is thus:  Have monthly patches.  Have ‘big’ raid jumps every 3 months, one development team should be assigned to do nothing but large raid content with 8-12 bosses.  On large content releases we should see gear ilevel jump considerably, as it did from 5.0 to 5.2 and would also have gated LFR and new valor gear. Next month, release a new smaller raid with 3-4 bosses.  This would be an optional raid not necessarily tied to the current story arc with gear only slightly better than the previous tier (maybe 2 – 4 ilevels).  Heroic content for this tier would be -by design – tuned to be extremely difficult.  One development team would be assigned to always be working on these more exotic encounters.  Next month, new scenarios, 5-man content, and perhaps 10 man content would be released.  These new dungeons and scenarios would drop gear equivalent to  the LFR modes of the previous tier and provide a way for new players to gear up or current players to fill a slot they just haven’t had luck with.  Also blizzard should consider bringing back 10-man dungeons for a more epic feel in daily dungeoning and that content should drop gear which is equivalent to the current tier LFR.  This would give players another way to enter normal raiding.  One Dev team should always be working on dungeon and scenario content – not necessarily tied to the main story of the current expansion.  A random cave filled with monsters somewhere and a bit of backstory is just fine.  The next month is another big content patch which starts the process over again.

I’d like to see the content progression look something like this:

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OPTIONS OPTIONS OPTIONS and loads of content – that’s what will help you keep subscribers, Blizzard.  And while I know that, sadly, 10 man dungeons are probably never coming back nor will Blizzard ever produce this much content no  matter how much money they make, hey I can dream.