Thy Dungeonman! Thy hunger! (Part 4: More Challenge)

Yesterday we stopped right at the dungeon difficulty of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Towards the end of that expansion, Blizzard released the Icecrown Citadel content patch which brought the ICC raid instance, but also three new dungeons, which were suddenly more difficult than previous heroic dungeons and quite a lot of fun, especially as a tank or healer. Using crowd control on mobs wasn’t really necessary, but in some situations it helped a lot. Another great addition was a lengthy questline for a weapon players could forge by finding an item in these dungeons, but that’s just a sidenote as I’ll probably make a seperate “quest” article someday.

But these three instances were a precursor of the changes to the dungeon difficulty Blizzard intended for Cataclysm. If you remember yesterdays posting, I mentioned how dissatisfied a lot of players were with the WotLK difficulty and wanted to go back to the previous TBC model of incredibly difficult heroic instances. Well, Blizzard listened and made some changes with Cataclysm.

Oh god it's Ozruk...

Regular dungeons in Cata weren’t really difficult, but an important change could already be observed here. The step to less class responsibility and more environment responsibility (clicking on stuff) was progressed with another addition: Dancing!

Dancing? Well, not the promised, but never released dance studio, but something else. Bosses in Cataclysm now had even more gimmicky abilities and a LOT of them required players to just move around. Run behind the boss, run through the boss, get away from the boss, dodge the falling spikes, seek cover behind the spikes, get out of the lava, don’t stand under the meteor, get out of the laserbeam and some boss phases were just completely trivial like pulling some levers while killing a bunch of snakes.

All these abilities didn’t require any actual class skill at all. They didn’t even require any gear at all and the difficulty of each boss fight wasn’t to be able to properly play your character but to learn when you had to run where or what to stay away from. Dancing! Players were running, dodging and doing all kinds of acrobatics…if you failed, you took huge amounts of damage which quickly got the healer OOM and resulted in a wipe.

So a tank and a healer could basically kill almost every dungeon boss in the expansion if they knew where to stand, almost regardless of gear.

But heroics still were hard…VERY hard! The damage output of trash packs was incredibly high and not using CC often caused AoE damage that just couldn’t be outhealed. Players who ran heroics in TBC loved it! I loved it, because even though you had the ridiculous gimmicks and dance elements, you still had to use your class abilities and try to avoid damage as a damage dealer. Especially smaller guilds who couldn’t really raid, but were still skilled and had good coordination were very happy.

But the LFG crowd didn’t approve! They started running heroic dungeons with the toned down WotLK instances and didn’t know how to deal with this level of difficulty. Granted, the heroics in Cata weren’t as hard as the ones in TBC, but they were still leagues ahead of WotLK. This was also an issue for highly skilled solo players. Due to the new mechanics, there wasn’t anything they could do to prevent a wipe when one braindead tank didn’t move out of the bad stuff and got himself killed. What did Blizzard do? Nerf the dungeons! A LOT! Heroic dungeons were nerfed in many many patches after the game was released until they were just as easy as the WotLK heroics.

Before those dungeons were nerfed entirely into the ground, Blizzard introduced two new heroic dungeons, Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub in a content patch. They were retuned and slightly redesigned versions of older dungeons, something we’ll also take a look at in a later article. Those two dungeons were, again, quite difficult and required a lot of coordination and encounter knowledge. These dungeons weren’t affected that much by the overall nerfs and stayed somwhat challenging throughout the expansion…unless you outgeared the content, as usual.

Another thing that changed with Cataclysm was the rise of AoE damage. Previosly, especially during Classic and TBC, mobs were focused down one by one. This was due to several factors. You had to reduce incoming damage as quickly as possible, so killing a single mob was the best option. Healer mana was limited and dragging out a fight a bad idea. With the constant class changes (I talked about those briefly during the leveling articles) almost everybody got an area of effect ability and could deal damage to multiple enemies at the time. Something that was originally reserved for classes like a mage or warlock. Combine this with the overall reduction of incoming damage and ease of threat generation by the tank and you have a whole new, and much simpler, way of fighting trash: Just AoE it down! Now the group would just pull a bunch of mobs together and aoe them. This required even less skill than anything you had to do in previous expansions and also marked the point where trash finally went from a challenging hurdle to a mere time consuming obstacle. You didn’t question your triumph over a bunch of trash mobs anymore, you just wanted to kill them as fast as possible to get to the loot pinata, I mean endboss. So the trashmobs became a pure time sink, which I find almost insulting.

Just like during WotLK, Blizzard released three new 5man dungeons during the final content patch (which also introduced the notorious Looking for Raid tool, another article for later) which were tuned a lot easier. Because the players who started running a lot of heroic dungeons with the introduction of the WotLK LFG tool were constantly complaining about the difficulty of Cataclysm’s dungeons, Blizzard decided to introduce dungeons of lower difficulty again. But there was something strange about these dungeons:

  • They were so easy, that the previous two instances were still a lot harder. But the newer, easier dungeons provided MUCH better item rewards, which resulted in the old content being completely dead the second the new dungeons went live
  • These three new dungeons were only available as “heroic” versions, which was a first. Previously all dungeons were available in two difficulties. The normal mode, which included dungeons for leveling and dungeons for gearing at max level and the heroic mode, which included all dungeons tuned to max level at higher difficulty. But suddenly the new dungeons didn’t have a normal mode.

Because these new dungeons were so easy, it didn’t make sense to include even easier versions of them, which would have been a total joke. But instead of just gettig rid of the “heroic” moniker, Blizzard stuck with it. Now we had dungeons, just as easy as other regular dungeons, which were only available at that one low difficulty and they were supposed to be “heroic” dungeons. Why they should actually deserve that title remains a mystery. I think Blizzard kept the heroic title to con players into feeling more heroic and powerful than they actually were.

The way players ran dungeons towards the end of Cataclysm was basically just grinding them. Queue for a dungeon, rush through it and repeat until you had all your desired loot and/or your valor points were capped for that week. During the 4 hours it used to take to finish one dungeon back in WoW classic, you could almost do all 7 dungeon runs to reach the weekly cap. I think I ran those three dungeons almost 100 times on two characters over the course of a few months. That’s probably more dungeon runs I did in three years of WoW classic.

Just like it was with WotLK, the new difficulty of the dungeons in the final content patch foreshadowed the way things were going to be with the next expansion: Mists of Pandaria!

 

 

That's right...

Mists of Pandaria continued to follow the late Cataclysm model. From level 85 to 90, the game had four dungeons available, which wasn’t a lot. Leveling took a while (about 40 hours playtime if you were thorough) so seeing the same four dungeons over and over got boring really fast. After hitting level 87 you didn’t even get new dungeons anymore but still had the longest part of the leveling process ahead of you.

Mists of Pandaria also didn’t have any max level dungeons anymore, at least that’s the official version. The reality is, that Mists of Pandaria got rid of the heroic dungeons, made all new dungeons (and a couple of redesigned old favorites) and the leveling dungeons the new max level dungeons and called them heroics. But there’s nothing heroic about these dungeons, they are probably the very easiest dungeon instances World of Warcraft has ever seen. Some of the “heroic” instances are even easier than their lower level counterpart due to the much higher health pools at max level.

Previously Blizzard used the average item level of a players gear to check if he was remotely ready for running heroic dungeons. In order to reach that item level you had to run max level non-heroic dungeons or outright cheat by buying high level PvP gear, or keeping high level items that weren’t even for your class…they still counted. If a new tier of dungeons was released, the item level required for them could usually be obtained from the previous set of heroic instances, so players would have to put at least some minor amount of work into their gear.

This item level requirement is still in Mists of Pandaria, but it’s pretty much just a check to see if a player has at least quested through all the solo content. If you finish questing all the zones you were at the required item level for heroic dungeons. Nowadays, because players were obviously too stupid to complete quests, the required level is lowered, so you’re above the required level for heroics by just equipping crappy solo quest rewards. Since there are no max level dungeons to gear your characters, the heroics take their place.

I’ve run my fair share of MoP “heroics” and I have yet to wipe with a random group in one of them. No, players haven’t gotten better…these dungeons are just so incredibly easy, making it almost impossible to die in them even with really bad players.

So, heroic dungeons are dead! There’s nothing heroic about these new dungeons and nobody should have any feeling of accomplishment or pride after finishing one of these.

 

But there was one more thing Blizzard introduced with Mists of Pandaria: Challenge modes.

These are the “new” heroics, tuned for highly skilled and organized players. They are more difficult than the heroic versions and to make things more interesting it’s impossible to outgear these dungeons as your equipment gets scaled down when running those. Now, that doesn’t really make any sense in the reality of the game world, but it’s an interesting feature. In addition to that, you are being timed and awarded gold/silber/bronze medals for completion. There are also rankings within guilds and for the entire server, which is a really nice feature.

But two things are strange about these dungeons:

  • You can’t use the LFG tool and while you don’t have to play with players from your own server, you still need to know players on other servers to group up with. If you are in a guild or have a huge friendlist, that’s probably not as much of a problem, but picking up a random group as a solo player on one of many (!) dead servers is next to impossible.
  • There are only cosmetical rewards for completing those dungeons. That’s right, the hardest dungeons in the game offer no actual reward. Bosses don’t drop loot and at best you’d get some ugly armor set with no stats for transmogrification (this feature allows you to take your current gear and make it look like other items).

Because there is so much content you feel obligated to do in MoP, a topic I’ll visit some day as well, you might not even be in the mood for spending a few hours on challenge modes. Challenge modes are essentially speed runs, which offer a totally different gameplay experience from the old TBC heroic dungeons. You don’t carefully pull mob groups after you’ve put half of them in CC. You still have to be able to play your class very well if you want to get a gold medal, don’t get me wrong. But it’s more like challenging you to figure out dumb ways to speed up the process, which doesn’t have a lot to do with actual gameplay. Rogues are used to skip groups past trash mobs by AoE stealth, you use invisibility potions to bypass more stuff or enlist the help of a Shaman, run through a couple dozen of mobs, die and the shaman uses his ankh to resurrect himself on the spot, pick up the other dead players and continue from there. Great.

One thing that still makes me scratch my head, is that players didn’t complain about the low difficulty anymore like they did in WotLK, they were perfectly fine with running the easiest content ever made in World of Warcraft…well okay, second easiest. As I mentioned before, Blizzard implemented scenarios with Mists of Pandaria. 3 player dungeons without tanks or healers, so easy you could probably solo them. They’re highly scripted gimmick-fests and almost not worth mentioning. I’ll talk a little bit more about them when I get to the dungeon rewards in this series.

What did change a little bit in MoP is the amount of dancing required during a boss fight. There are still things you shouldn’t stand in, adds you should kill, but if you don’t actually do it, it just results in slightly more work for the healer. Some effects can kill you if you completely ignore everything, but almost everything can be ignored and healed, just like it was with older heroics when players started to outgear them. But players still don’t need to do anything “special” like get aggro off a healer, cc a mob or interrupt a quick cast. If you’re a damage dealer you usually just stand there and press 2 or 3 buttons for your dps rotation and that’s it.

 

BRD is probably the largest instance in the game

So, what’s the verdict on dungeon difficulty?

Dungeons have gotten a lot easier over the years. The encounter design was changed to remove class responsibility and real player skill. You had to memorize the boss fights and do all sorts of gimmicky stuff or else you’d die, no matter how good you were at actually playing your class. This gives me an idea…start a new character and use only the suggested core abilities for the specialization. Nothing else, no talents and see how far I can get. Maybe I’ll level my old healer from 85 to 90 in instances that way…oh boy!

Anyway, getting back on topic. Victory over the bosses and endboss wasn’t an “if” anymore, it became a “when” and with trash mobs being reduced to pure time sinks, Blizzard has total control over the “when”. They might just as well put a thick wall before every boss with 50 million hp. It would pose the same threat as enemies (hint: none) and take just as long.

Dungeons went from a thing you respected to a joke. The challenge posed by todays dungeons doesn’t deserve to be called “heroic”, but it still is, because players want to feel special and powerful. Good grief. The heroic dungeons from TBC, which you had to experience when they were introduced or you wouldn’t be able to comprehend their difficulty, went from a true test of skill to something that replaced the regular (already easy) max level dungeons with something even easier.

The role of the player is almost irrelevant and besides doing some damage, you as a player are completely useless in a dungeon. Your actual skill besides doing a proper dps rotation is null and void and a lot of the activity in a lvl90 heroic dungeon can in theory be done by an ungeared level1 character as it’s just moving around, clicking stuff and jumping every now and then.

 

Great, now I need something to cheer me up. Tomorrow I’ll most likely talk about the direct and indirect rewards from dungeons and maybe dip into character progress and/or attunements, as those are probably not very long topics and they sort of tie into the whole rewards thing.