Thy Dungeonman! Thy hunger! (Part 3: Challenge)

Welcome to another entry about the evolution of dungeons in World of Warcraft. We’ve already looked at several changes like dungeon size, time investment, quests and more in the last couple of days and today we’ll investigate the challenge dungeons used to pose and how that changed over the years. Contrary to other changes, this isn’t a constant evolution in one direction as the difficulty has constantly been going up and down through the expansions and with the addition of heroic versions.

 

We never wiped!

Let me give you a quick summary of todays topic.

To make dungeons more accessible, Blizzard made a lot of changes to the way players can participate in them. Searching for quests is no longer required, looking for a group doesn’t take any effort anymore and the rewards (which we’ll cover as well), are much better these days while being awarded after shorter and faster instance runs. These changes attracted more players to the dungeons and due to the anonymity of the cross realm LFG tool, trying hard or having put effort into gear, enchants etc. didn’t really seem necessary to most players. Also, new players with much less game knowledge also got easy access to all kinds of dungeons.

But we didn’t arrive smoothly at this state, there were a couple of ups and downs and instance difficulty changed quite drastically over time, which is why I’ll be looking at each expansion individually again. Let’s start with WoW classic.

This (undead side only) run took almost 4 hours...

Dungeons in WoW classic were something special, at least they felt special, especially during leveling your first character and during the early endgame. You didn’t and couldn’t run them as often as today and because dungeons required more time and class knowledge back then, you were usually more hesitant to enter them. Even if you were part of a huge and organized guild it was still a much larger time investment than now.

How difficult, and why, were the classic dungeons?

Dungeons had trash packs, patrols and bosses. Unless you outgeared the content, you had to be careful not to pull more than one trashpack. Focusing down specific mobs could make a huge difference and a patrolling enemy was usually something to watch out for. The bosses themselves didn’t have a lot of abilities and rarely different phases or special gimmicks. Let me give you two examples:

  • Baron Rivendare in Stratholme, a dungeon visited by high level or max level characters, has an aura which deals damage to players and occasionally summons a bunch of skeletons
  • Darkmaster Gandling in Scholomance, a dungeon of a similar level, teleported a group member to an adjacent room, where they had to kill a couple of non elite mobs to return to the boss fight

That’s it…they don’t do anything else and these abilities were something special back in 2005. In fact, due to the difficulty of getting and maintaining aggro the Baron’s skeletons were something a group could easily wipe on repeatedly.

Trash packs themselves were a challenge. Improper pulling, accidental adding of another group or running into a patrol (which usually alerted another trash pack) was usually enough to wipe the group. Players had to watch out for fleeing mobs and CC was greatly appreciated. Rogues actually used crippling poison, mages were sheeping, priests used shackle etc. Of course not all players were aware of their classes abilities and the necessity to apply them properly, but in general, the class knowledge was pretty good. If you played with friends in a coordinated group, the chance of a wipe happening was much lower, but that didn’t reduce the challenge. You still had to be aware of the fight, the surroundings and make good use of your skills.

Bossfights were usually an endurance test to see which would last longer: The boss’ hp or the healer’s mana pool, or boss dps vs. group dps. Tanks had to work on keeping the aggro and healing aggro was a pretty big deal. All those requirements weren’t necessarily extremely strict, but they were there and it made a notable difference.

There wasn’t a whole LOT to pay attention to, but if there was, it was usually somewhat important and often required use of your class abilities. This is important, remember it!

 

On to the Burning Crusade!

 

We need more CC!

The biggest change with TBC was probably the introduction of heroic dungeons.

Regular dungeons weren’t a whole lot different from WoW classic, except the changes mentioned in the previous posts, but these rarely affected the actual encounter difficulty.

The gameplay was pretty much the same. Some of the risky factors were toned down a little bit, like patrols, but they were still there. Hellfire Ramparts had patrolling trash packs and even a boss with adds patrolling through trash packs.

Heroics however, were a different thing. Tuned for max level characters with good gear from the regular instances, these things were just insanely hard. The enemies hitpoints and especially their damage output were increased to ridiculous levels. Accidentally pulling another group, the healer getting aggro or missing a critical CC meant a wipe, period. Class abilities, threat management, crowd control and awareness of the fight were crucial for success. There was no easy LFG system yet and Blizzard implemented prerequisites for these heroics (I’ll talk about prerequisites later in this series) so you’d always have group members with somewhat decent knowledge of the instance and encounters. Running these heroics in random groups was NOT a good idea. Usually you had to kick one or more members, because they couldn’t even enter the instance and even if you managed to get in, the sheer amount of coordination required was usually too much.

Later in the game players began to outgear the heroics and runs got easier, also Blizzard lowered the requirements to enter them, but at that point the content was already nearing the end of its lifespan only to be revitalized shortly by the Magister’s Terrace instance which was tuned for much higher gear levels and even the normal version was really difficult. The heroic version is probably one of the hardest 5 man dungeons ever, but the classic TBC heroics (at proper gear levels) like Shattered Halls are almost at the same levels.

These heroic instances were obviously not designed for all players. They were supposed to be a challenging feature for people who didn’t have the time or guild to raid and also an additional source of gear upgrades for people starting to get into raiding, parallel to Karazhan. In any case, these heroics proved to be a huge success and ended up being highly popular, but still, not everybody was able to clear them, so some players were frustrated. But the high level of popularity and praise these heroics achieved were due to the high difficulty. What else could it have been? There wasn’t really anything else that got changed over the normal mode….except for the rewards, which I’ll also talk about in a few days.

Boss fights also recieved a slight change, but people liked it and it didn’t make that much of a difference. Bosses now had more abilities and more often different phases where their abilities and the gameplay of the encounter changed slightly. It was a nice balance, but it wasn’t meant to last.

 

 

Next? Wrath of the Lich King!

 

Yawn...

Players want to run heroics for epic loot, but they don’t want to be challenged. Tough luck you’d say? If you want high level rewards you must work for them you’d say? Well, Blizzard didn’t agree and heavily reduced the difficulty of the WotLK instances and especially the heroic difficulty. Don’t get me wrong, the heroics were still harder than the regular dungeons, but compared to the old TBC heroics, they were a joke.

Patrols, trash pack density and the overall chance of failure were all reduced by a lot. Players had to act a lot stupider to wipe the group by running into the next trash pack. It still happened, though.

WotLK introduced two big game changers.

The first was an evolution of the more complex boss mechanics from TBC. WotLK made boss fights a LOT more gimmicky. Almost every fight had a crucial item, phase or other element that required players to click on an object or use an item on another object at a specific time etc.. One important fact is they usually couldn’t be ignored unless you significantly outgeared the encounter. Scripted or times sequences were introduced which resulted in fights not getting faster after a certain point, no matter how good the groups gear was.

While these changes allowed Blizzard to create more varied fights, it also affected something else by a lot: In order to win a fight, players didn’t have to rely on their class abilities anymore (or at least not as much) as clicking the harpoon or standing behind a pillar became more important. What this did, was reduce the significance of the player’s ability to play his class. For each encounter you had to learn everything from scratch. Being able to gracefully kite a boss through an instance as a hunter or interrupt and stun with absolute precision as a rogue didn’t help you anymore at all. If you didn’t know that you had to kill a specific add or click item X at time Y, you would lose. Your class suddenly didn’t matter as much anymore.

The other significant change was the addition of the cross realm LFG tool introduced in a later WotLK content patch (3.3). This allowed players to enter a dungeon without doing anything while adding a huge level of anonymity. The requirements to enter heroic dungeons were now tied to your equipment’s average item level.

WotLK dungeons and especially heroics were much easier and players would outgear them a lot faster making them even easier. While the atmosphere and storyline was nice, players complained about the difficulty being way too low and Blizzard actually listened…

 

What did they change in the next expansion? We’ll explore that in tomorrows posting where we’ll analyze Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria and top it off with a nice summary. See you then!