Wednesday, October 16, 2013

It's not about LFR

Note: this caption has nothing to do with this picture. But if you'd like the shortened, TL;DR version of this post without the setup, scroll 4/5 down the page to the heading entitled "A Radical Way to Improve LFR."

I just haven't been able to make sense of it.

"It" being the feelings I get after the weekly raid reset, when I'm faced with the prospect of running LFR. Something this expansion with the auto-grouping facilitator of raid content. Even the temptation of an orange cloak wasn't enticing enough some weeks to pull me in. Wassa matter, Ross? It's 45 minutes, just grin and bear it. I'd try, but literally wouldn't allow myself to go through with it. I'd queue up as a healer for fast entry, it'd pop, and I'd decline.

When something like this bothers me to the point where I feel the need to be vocal about it, I require a secondary, simple assessment before I say too much: does the feeling persist? How exclusive to my own individual experience are these feelings? Where do my biases come in? I've allowed those questions to bounce around inside my head for the greater part of Mists of Pandaria. And I'm struggling still.

What is LFR? LFR is a grouping mechanism that matches players to create a 25-person group and places them in a reduced-difficulty raid environment. What is the purpose of LFR? I don't wish to abuse what lead systems designer Greg Street (Ghostcrawler) has said on several occasions, but I think it's important to highlight his words because it may provide a glimpse of how the Blizzard team views LFR. First, an answer taken from a pre-Dragon Soul interview on MMO-Champ about patch 4.3 features (bold emphasis mine):

Q: Do you feel like you are alienating any part of the player base when you make easier content or do you think the new three difficulty system might solve that?  

GC: We're hoping it solves it. I mean, generally this is an experiment for us. We're not sure how it is going to work out. We have a hugely diverse player base, and we want to be able to let lots of different players see the content. We felt in the past we were struggling too much to decide "Okay, heroic mode is for 5% of the population... that means normal mode has to be for 95% of the raiding population" and we were stretching ourselves really thin. So our hope is that by offering up an additional difficulty, it will free up normal mode to be targeted towards the kind of traditional guild it has been, where players who don't have a lot of time to raid or find the commitment too much can do Raid Finder to be able to experience the fights.

I don't think LFR by itself, or adding so-called "easier" content alienates players. Not so long as the challenging content doesn't get removed from the game. To each their own, right? But do you know what I think does alienate players? Being thrown into a group with 24 random humans and feeling no sense of community. That's alienation.

The "experiment" of LFR has failed. Isn't Blizzard admitting as much with Determination buffs, and now especially a brand-new difficulty level for raiding? It would look as if the re-targeting of normal mode didn't work out for a lot of "traditional guild(s)." While the goal of letting "lots of different players see the content" is most definitely accomplished with LFR, what value does that add in its current form, and what might it look like if it were changed to function in a completely different way? Because World of Warcraft, the largest multi-player online role-playing game in history can now be "beaten" as if a single-player game.

Don't think so? If you have the time, spend 11 minutes to watch this video of the "worst player in the world" leveling and progressing a character (Warning: NSFW language, English accent).

His stated objective is leveling up a new toon to kill LFR Lei Shen without the help of friends while striving to deal the least damage and take the most in every single raid group. An extreme example, I realize, but he accomplishes his goal with alarming ease, without much resistant at all. It's surreal to think that a fresh player could "finish" the game over the course of a couple of weeks -- without ever having to interact with another player or even correctly perform their role. Is that World of Warcraft?

The creator of the video raises good points, some which I won't touch here. But I want to be careful about devaluing casual players or giving the impression I think locking this content out of their reach is the way to go, because I don't think that at all (though one could argue the legendary chain may have accomplished just that). However, I don't know if you can argue with the notion that it may be difficult for a player to understand the value of end-game content if they can breeze through it without essentially having to try.

If you think LFR is meant to be challenging, you're fooling yourself. Once the devs realized, "Hey, when you throw 25 people together who are most likely using the content as a means to the end, they tend to see the other players they are with as potential obstacles to their goals. As a result, too many players don't often give a shit about others in the group, and that can create some nasty situations. Let's make it even easier!" That was the right call, but the devs didn't go far enough.

So LFRs were given the Determination buff which guarantees that if you are the unfortunate sap who gets placed in a group with all of the world's meanest, busiest (brb yo), most unskilled players, all you need to do is stick it out and you WILL kill the final boss of the game. If LFR was truly meant to be challenging, there wouldn't be such an I.W.I.N. buff. Instead of challenging, LFR is meant to allow players to see or experience the content -- some players bristle at hearing those words when describing LFR, but they're the truth. Blizzard wanted more people to experience the raid environment.

I'm not saying that a person can't feel accomplished after completing an LFR. However, what I am saying is that LFR has never been, and will never be akin to normal mode raiding. It's even pretty different from Flex. It's not about an elitist attitude. It's about the facts. It's about the numbers. It's about the nature of the game.
I'll say it again: I don't mean to twist words here, but this isn't the first time I've seen this sentiment brought out by a member of the Warcraft team. If LFR is really an option for a lunch-time raid, then it's not only failed in this objective -- it's failed miserably.

Let's look at a friend of mine's reaction to running LFR for the first couple of times---he didn't have an active subscription during Tier 13, so he's literally brand new to LFR. Let's see what sort of value he assigns to his initial experiences.

The returning super-casual

Meet Chris. He's been a pretty relaxed World of Warcraft player. He's played off an on since Vanilla, was in a raiding guild for a while, most recently having cleared BoT, BWD and some of Firelands. He tends to be away from the game for longer stretches of time. When he returns to the game, there's always new content to experience in addition to figuring out class changes. The other night he sent the following text message:

Serious question: why is LFR so epically bad?

After his 30-minute queue popped, he couldn't find an explanation of fights or mechanics, nor were players offering anything up. A veteran player might be quick to shout Dungeon Journal, but I'm willing to bet 50k gold that Chris doesn't know about the dungeon journal, let alone how to access it. What else...oh yes. From his text:

Everyone is fighting and bitching at each other. Biggest epeen contest I've ever witnessed. Top dps whines about carrying the whole raid. And it's mandatory for me to progress my character which sucks ass.

Just three or four LFR runs and this "new player" has realized that he doesn't want to return and is dismayed at the fact that he'll have to if he wants to continue progression on the legendary cloak -- which of course, is his choice. Is that what a new player to this game sees? Why are players so hateful towards one another all-too-often in this content? Why is it possible to fail so terribly in LFR -- sometimes thanks to sabotaging raid members -- in content that's there simply to let players see or experience it, not to provide a true challenge?

This is partly why LFR is so epically bad, but I think LFR is just a symptom of a greater problem in the game itself. I alluded to it earlier, but first, I'm throwing in another perspective on LFR, injected with bias from the get-go by yours truly.

The chef who's never played

Meet Travis. If my last count is still correct, Travis is one of two people following me on Twitter whose knowledge about Warcraft is shaped only by my tweets. Travis is a chef, and a good one at that. He's never played the game, and if there's some interest there on his part, I'm not aware of it. In fact, he might even think I'm a little masochistic for playing after I explained to him (in my special way), while in the midst of a mini-rant on Twitter, what LFR is. I strung this response together over several tweets, embellished a bit here since I'm not limited by characters:

Imagine you're preparing food for a special event. You know what you're making. However, you're forced to work with 24 other chefs.  Some have no idea what they are doing; several think & tell you your glasses & the way you cut tomatoes is gay and your hat sucks. Others still insist on burning your dish as they don't give a fuck because there's 18 other cooks to get the job done. If you were left with the handful of chefs who actually care and know what they're doing, you'd be fine, cause they're on their game and know what's up. Unfortunately, because of the other chefs described, your chance of actually serving this meal is slim to none.

Ouch. I know that's harsh, but again, too often the experience. Travis' response?

"Yeah I wouldn't want any part of that."

Even Travis, the man who's never played, can see something's not working here.

But is it LFR? No, just a problem that often manifests in LFR.

The problem is the addition or alteration of game elements and systems that have made it so that WoW can be experienced in complete totality as a single-player game. And here's why that's bad.

In single-player games, every character we encounter are NPCs, or non-player characters. No matter how awesome the AI, these characters behave in specific, predictable patterns. Lines are clearly drawn between NPCs who will potentially get in your way (enemies) and NPCs who will help you on your quest, or at least not get in the way of it (friends/neutrals). When WoW's systems begin looking and feeling like a single-player game, suddenly all of the characters controlled by living, breathing human beings are relegated to the status of NPCs who are expected to behave in a certain way.

Other players, without you saying so, should know to do this much damage or heals. To not kill that mob you were trying to kill. To not steal your nodes. To pull the boss when you think they should pull the boss. Cooperation ceases.

The single-player has many faces: they could be new to the game. They could be in a large, active and social guild. It's about how they view other players they encounter out in the world, and consequently how they behave towards them. The single-player may be the top DPS in your LFR. It's an attitude more than anything. For example, three guildies and I were farming Warbringers and came upon a death knight who'd just wiped trying to solo one. We asked if he'd like to join us, but he ignored us, then called us scum. Then he wiped again and the four of us killed the Warbringer while he was corpse-running.

The death knight didn't wave and say hello, because we weren't human -- we were obstacles. Scum. Essentially, the real people playing World of Warcraft cease to exist when you think you no longer need them. They only begin to exist as people when they make the mistake of getting in the single-player's way. And then, those other players are only viewed as an obstacle to the individuals' success -- not a fellow human who's simply playing and enjoying the same experience.

It's an ugly, ugly picture.

So it's not about LFR?

Not really, but the consequences of the single-player mentality shouldn't ruin LFR or large aspects of this game, either. It's almost like World of Warcraft has dual identities in its attempt to cater to both the single-player and the MMO-player. It appears it's becoming increasingly difficult to do both. Cross-Realm Zones are a great example of this---Blizzard creates "forced" connections between players instead of working to cultivate organic ones, and this leads to that level 23 rogue from a different server you encounter mining while in the Barrens to be viewed as a nuisance taking your nodes. Because all the nodes are belong to you, right?

Back in the day, we used to /wave when we saw someone out in the world. Today, you call them scum and tell them to get the fuck out of your area. So how does it swing back the other way? How does that culture change?

I say isolate it.

Because I know there are millions of players who are thriving in-game within vibrant communities. They are everywhere you look, but the difference today is they are no longer required to experience the game to its "fullest," which makes the community somewhat disposable to the average new player, or to the tired, burned-out veteran. If you took the time to watch the video I linked above, you'll see that this game looks starkly, almost frighteningly different to today's new player than it did to the new player of even two years ago.

Accessibility will always be an issue, and I'm all for maintaining accessibility, despite what you may have gathered from my arguments thus far. But if we continue at this rate, Blizzard's going to be announcing Heroic LFRs at Blizzcon 2014 in a bid to allow players to experience heroic raiding. Accessibility needs some reconstructive surgery to allow players to see content, but not shit all over the group experience. Players were given too much, too soon, and they're allowing it to deteriorate what I'd argue is the single most important aspect in the game: the community.

A Radical Way to Improve LFR

While I probably should be running LFR on my raiding character to ensure he's poised and in the best shape for our 1-night guild flex raid, I won't. Not until changes happen. LFR fosters and incubates that destructive attitude that I've referred to as the single-player mentality. I've spent a long time thinking about what things could be done in order to tweak the LFR experience into a more positive and rewarding one.

First things first, Looking for Raid has ceased to exist. Gone. The devs have decided LFR is no longer achieving the goals they had in mind for it, so they change it into something that looks like a melding of features we currently have in-game, flex raids and scenarios.

The Flexible Scenario

The flexible scenario is just as it sounds: like a scenario, but with the scaling technology of flex raids so that group sizes can vary dramatically. The flex scenario looks just like LFR on the surface. It still has 25 characters working together to kill bosses. What isn't immediately clear, though, is the number of characters that will be controlled by human beings and the number that will be controlled by AI. That's where the flex comes in: for these, you'd be able to queue with up to 24 other players. Or, if you prefer to fly solo, then it's going to be you and 24 NPCs who are designed to perfectly support your chosen role. Likewise, all twelve members in your friends and family guild could queue together and join thirteen NPCs in the flex scenario and experience the content.

There'd still be loot and valor to be won just like the current LFR, though perhaps the trash would be reduced and some of the more punishing mechanics would be scaled back or eliminated completely -- LFR is for steamrolling, and that's what the Flex Scenario would provide: loot pinatas. Sure, there would be some sort of fight mechanics that if not heeded would cause your death, but it'd be trivial at the end of the day.

Sounds like this would be really easy, right? I know. It would be. In an era of insta-queues and endlessly replaceable humans, it would seem the player base on average is becoming less and less tolerant of wipes overall. They queue for group content, and any delay in reaching their end goal is perceived as a personal slight and a waste of their time. And boy are they all too happy to let you know about it.

Remove that attitude from the equation, the one that sees players as disposable. Because there's almost nothing worse than players getting on each other's cases in these groups, and it's often detrimental to success. Looking to avoid a nasty chemical reaction? Don't mix bleach and ammonia. Looking to avoid a nasty situation in LFR? Don't mix idiots and asshats.

The Flex Scenario fixes that.

If any given player does need some work on their rotation, they're likely going to get more help when they queue up with friends -- they'd be at risk in a random group. And if that struggling DPS queues for the Flex Scenario by themselves and solos the place, who does it harm?

It's a huge change, I know, and a completely different-looking beast than what we currently have. But I'll tell you one thing: if LFR looked more like what I've outlined above, I'd be running it with friends every week. On multiple toons even. In its current form, it leaves much too much to be desired and I rarely return from LFR with a positive report. If Blizzard made some tweaks meant to strengthen player responsibility, accountability and community, I'd be all for it. Without them, LFR will only continue to deteriorate these ideas and promote the single-player, community-crushing mentality.

And if there's no community in WoW, is there much else left?


  1. LFR has never worked well for anyone who puts who they raid with above the rewards.

    Flex pretty much deals with that, and LFR has now become where those same people a) go to get their Legendary Cloak and b) see a). For everyone else they are, as patch release numbers increase, more and more Russian Roulette and less and less actual game. I can complete 5.0 LFR in 15 minutes for the Valor, and I bet you less than 20% of the people in that raid are there for gear. In that regard, at least, LFR preserves a measure of usefulness.

    People stick with LFR because that is where Blizz put the cloak stuff, other wise they're in there unless they are gluttons for punishment or have no choice, because this is the only way that they can gear in a time frame that works. The problem isn't them, it's that Blizzard made a raid that's so good this time around they can't dumb it down enough to make it academic for the people who need to run it because this is all they have.

    I hope the lesson has been learnt.

  2. What you are missing is that there are fundamentally two types of players. What I have called transient and extended players:

    Transient players will not schedule time to do content. They will not commit to showing up on Mondays at 7pm or whatever. That makes it impossible for these players to do Normal or Heroic raiding. Flexible raiding can accomodate some transient players, but it needs a core of extended players to work.

    You may think that extended players are normal, because you and the people you play with are mostly extended (this "community" you keep talking about), but you are wrong. It is the transient players who are the majority. And LFR is necessary for the transient players.

    1. I guess I disagree with you over semantics here---I think I have identified two different types of players here, and what's more, agree they NEED this content. I simply posit that it needs to look a lot different to function in a healthy way. Do NOT take away content from the transient players, as you call them---but I argue catering too much to that play style can be community-killing.

      Hence, my suggestion on altering LFR. Thank you for reading and for your comment!

  3. You make some great points. Maybe there should be chunk of content that's locked out, unless people actually team up and work as a team. I don't see (or I'm misunderstanding) how your Flex Scenario fixes the issue. If people can raid as single player, they will. But maybe it's a good way to get a start on some mechanics, before joining the real raid?

    Your remarks match up with the battlegrounds, too. At least to some extent. Bots, AFKers, people running around doing whatever, and a big chunk of chat is the "Ok, we lost" 10 seconds into the game and the usual collection of insults. People offering suggestions are often ignored.

    As for the scum... Heh. I often wave at the opposing faction and I'm on a PvP server. They only come to gank me about 50% of the time. ;)

  4. I have yet to actually experience Flex, so can't comment on its validity at this time, but in *theory*, it sounds like it a much better approach than LFR. Ghostcrawler has (as of late) had a lot of rapid-fire, from-the-hip responses to criticisms of LFR, and -- just like the one you posted -- miss the boat on a number of levels. Raids over a lunch break? There was a time not long ago when raids took hours of time and dedication, and that was just to clear trash! But let's be realistic: LFR queues do not pop quite as quickly as he claims they do.

    It comes back to your original claim: World of Warcraft was created as an MMO to take over MMO market share and appeal to the MMO mentality. That means involve people. Lots of them. Together. Doing things that required a mutual effort. The game has very much shifted to allow more and more folks to play it as though it were a single-player game, which is sad. Many past and present guilds will tell you their greatest experiences and memories grew out of the relationships they built over time in-game.

    Blizzard has always had a reasonably good track record for acknowledging when they've made a poor strategic decision, apologize to their community, and make an effort to right the wrong. When the servers buckled non-stop during Vanilla, Morheim stepped up and issued us refunds. When the RealID->Privacy fiasco sent WoW players into an episode, they back-pedaled, listened, and took another stab it. Most recently, they finally went on the record about the RMAH in Diablo III and are removing it -- they know very well it was simply the wrong way to go, undermining core gameplay.

    Yet...Ghostcrawler remains convinced that the current set up is still worth the risk: the risk of alienating the former player-base, who has grown disgusted with the game and won't have anything to do with it, while casuals continue to check-out...because they are exactly that. Casuals. Meaning...they won't stick to one game for very long or put in any more effort than is needed. So when both of these groups are gone, who is left?

  5. Well said!!

    Only thing i'd change is, no loot in the flex scenario. Why? Because if it's about the content leave the loot out of it. Which simplifies it. And it also weaves out most players since most players run it for loot. That'z why doing them mathz iz zo hardz.

    It will be very interesting to see how Blizzard chooses to handle the many problems they're facing after realizing that WoW isn't an immortal game by and of itself. And I do hope they win, cause i've got plans for many years to come.

  6. You are more thoughtful than most who oppose LFR, but I have to disagree with you about LFR destroying the community of WoW. I think its more accurate to say that LFR exists because the WoW community is a success for some, but fails much of the casual player base. I don't think that will change any time soon, thus LFR will continue to exist. Your solution -- creating raids which are soloable/Pugable at all levels is fascinating, but not sure how it would work out with mechanics and scaling.

    Personally, I've raided some Normal, some Flex, some LFR. I've had good and bad experiences in all three. What people often forget is that the same players inhabit all three types of raiding. They are good and bad, as are my experiences. I've had some of my best fun in LFR with the right groups. Just thought I'd say that, since nobody ever does.

    Wow has always had a single player side, and always accomodated players who wanted to progress outside of long term fixed groupings. It is part of its success, and with that comes a certain cost, but one that I think still works.

    1. Though it's probably due to the way I constructed this post, I didn't mean to leave readers with the impression that I think LFR is destroying the community. Rather, LFR fosters, even promotes the environment where symptoms of the "single-player mentality" (not to be confused with solo play) crop up too often -- all that stuff having to do with throwaway players, etc.

      I think we'll see that the "problem" with LFR will only continue to grow until some changes happen. I believe we're seeing evidence of this right now. A week and a half ago, Ghostcrawler mentioned that LFR queue times in LFR have gotten WORSE. Think about that...shouldn't they get shorter since everyone should be chomping to see the new content?

      Normally, yes, but it seems Flex might actually be pulling people away from LFR -- which to me indicates a good number of less-casual players were running it as a means to an end: filling gear slots. Flex essentially allows them to do the same thing, but with their regular (or manually pugged) group and for better gear than LFR.

      While LFR is clearly a success in its own right, especially for the casual player base, we're also seeing that LFR relies on a healthy percentage of "less casual" players to run smoothly. But to your point, I don't know how my solution would work, either. Just trying to think of a way to avoid "forcing" those players to group with others just to get to the content.

      As an aside, I took my tank through the Vale of Eternal Sorrows the other night and had a wonderful time. The group was fun, even communicative, and we 1-shot each of the bosses. I don't think LFR should go away (on most days), rather, I strongly feel the system could be improved -- I'm just not sure how.

      Thanks for your comments and insight.