First things first:
Are raids broken?
I think they probably are.
Not specific raids, but the architecture of raiding in general, as specifically implemented by World of Warcraft and Rift – the two MMOs I’ve raided in most recently. Raiding is designed to have certain difficulty levels; in Rift, some raids are 10-player raids and some are 20-player raids, while in World of Warcraft (at least in its most recent incarnation; it started out like Rift), each raid has a 10-player and 25-player version, plus difficulty levels within the player-count “flavors”.
The problem with this model is that there is always going to be some distance (and animosity) between players at different difficulty levels – “casual” players are derided by “hardcore” players for not being willing to put the time and effort into “real raiding” (and in some cases told that they shouldn’t even be allowed in the instances), while “hardcore” players are mocked as “no-lifers” by “casual” players. Moreover, it’s a system that fundamentally disadvantages players who don’t get an early start in raiding or skilled players who only have the opportunity to play with 10 other people, because by and large, when raiders are putting together a group for a given raid, they seem to want to trivialize it as much as possible.
(That is, incidentally, completely understandable – because raids require items beyond player skill, like food buffs and potions, each player death or group wipe is a set of consumables wasted, and so the fewer player deaths and group wipes a raid can manage, the better for everyone – or at least everyone who’s on farming duty.)
How to fix it
The most frustrating thing about WOW raids is that they almost have it – but not quite. The tiered-difficulty system still has the problems mentioned above. The solution is not to remove the difficulty – but to remove the tiers.
To fix raids, difficulty should be progressive, taking cues from more casual games like “Wii Sports” – or even from the games’ own leveling process. In the competitive games in Wii Sports, each player starts out at skill level 0, and – when playing against the computer – is matched with an opponent just a little above 0. If the player defeats that opponent, their skill goes up depending on how well they played, and the next opponent is just a little higher than their new skill. This goes on until a player plateaus at their actual current skill level – but over time, as the player improves, that number keeps climbing up, until they ultimately reach the peak of their physical and mental ability to play the game.
Raids in MMOs can take a similar tack. Assign each character – or even each spec – a “raid skill”*, which indicates how good they are at defeating bosses of the current level; average the raid skill levels of each member of the raid; and use that number to determine the initial difficulty of the raid. As the raid’s skill level goes up, the raids’ difficulties go up, and the value of the items dropped by the raid goes up as well. (This is nothing new in World of Warcraft, at least; we’ve seen that Blizzard can scale gear, thanks to WOW’s heirloom items – and we’ve seen that they’re okay with giving out multiple versions of the same item with different stats, thanks to Cataclysm’s three-tier approach.) At the top levels, allow raids to acquire unique mounts, legendary and artifact items, special achievements, etc.
As a further improvement, allow the leader of raid groups below a certain skill level to reset the raid as many times as she wants, but limit loot to the first boss kill per week. (In fact, given that loot is per-player in Mists of Pandaria, this should be extended in World of Warcraft to per player per week, so that players who join on the third or fourth run aren’t cheated of loot.) This lets low-level raid groups get practice and improve their play without giving them an excessive loot advantage.
The end result of this is that raiding will, interestingly, both become far more accessible and remain challenging far longer; entry-level players will be able to see the entirety of the content at a very low skill level (and receive very low-level loot for their efforts), and high-level players will constantly be challenged, because their next run will always be just a little bit harder than their last.
This idea came to me today, and I’m sure I haven’t thought it through completely; I’d like your feedback, because I’m positive there’s something I’ve missed.
* Yes, I’m aware of how much this sounds like GearScore; the difference is that this number reflects the player’s actual ability, and not just her ability to acquire gear.