Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nerfs Again: Blizzard Recognizes the Dangers of the Skill Gap.

I've talked before about how dangerous having a profound skill gap in between bosses is harmful to the game. Blizzard has taken note of this, and has decied to implement a stacking debuff that reduces the health and damage of everything in Dragon Soul by 5% per stack, akin to the Strength of Wrynn buff in Icecrown Citadel. This debuff, called "Power of the Aspects", will apparently scale beyond the 30% that the ICC buff capped out at. When asked about the reasoning as to why they're nerfing normal and heroic modes, Bashiok spoke up:

Believe it or not there are actually guilds and raiding groups that are attempting to progress through Normal and Heroic raids, but are hitting a wall, and have been hitting a wall. We have actually statistical date we base our changes on, we know exactly how many people are clearing these raids each week, we know exactly how many people are able to down just a few bosses, and how many were only able to down a few bosses every week for weeks on end and then stopped raiding altogether.

The issue we're constantly trying to combat is the one where people feel like they're just out of options. One way this is an issue is the content is too easy, they blasted through it, have everything they could possibly want, and have nothing else to do. Ideally that's a small subset of very hardcore players. For everyone else it's a feeling of just being stuck with no possible way to progress. Very few players are willing to suit up, buff up, do all the necessary requirements to raid, jump in, and then do no better than they did last week for hours and hours, only to return next week and do the same.

This is the skill gap that I warned of. This is dangerous, especially in the year long wait that we're going to have to endure in this short tier. Running out of options this early is fatal. It's good to see Blizzard recognize this. However, in his later comments, and in the actions that Blizzard has decided to take in combating this problem, show that they don't really understand the problem and how it relates to the player base.

The first issue is the timing. From Bashiok:
We feel the content has been out for quite a while now, that most people who have progressed and downed Deathwing on Heroic have done so, they've had sufficient time to celebrate in their accomplishments, and these very small progressive alterations will only help guilds that are already doing well in the raid get over some hurdles they may be facing.
Bashiok, let's make this clear: The content will have barely been out for two months when you roll this nerf out. That's 1/3 of the normal six month life span of a raiding tier. Not only that, but one of those months was December. For those guilds that aren't commited enough to raid through Christmas and New Years, the content has only effectively been out for six weeks. Six weeks is not "quite a while".

Furthermore: "Most people who have progressed and downed Deathwing on Heroic have done so", huh? Most people with blonde hair have blonde hair. Obvious statement is obvious. This isn't about the Paragons and Vodkas of the world. This is about the other guilds. The guilds that would progress if given more than six weeks to down all current content that Blizzard also inexplicably expects to last us another eight months. Six weeks is not enough time for any guild with a reasonable amount of skill and who raid on a reasonable schedule to be hitting their limits. The insinuation here is that if you aren't in the 67 guilds that have cleared all content in the first two months of raiding, then you're toiling hopelessly and Blizzard needs to save you from your own incompetence. Not only is this insulting to the guilds who choose not to raid five+ days a week, it's also irreparably damaging. All kills from February onward will be tainted.

The second issue is the implementation. This is not the proper way to go about correcting the skill gap in content. Skill gaps exist because the content was not properly tuned. Each raiding tier should have equivilent difficulty when attempted at the appropriate level and gear. In properly tuned tiers, guilds will see similar progression on a similar timeline. A guild that cleared all heroic content in the first month should be able to clear all heroic content in the first month. A guild that takes six months to clear half the heroics should expect to clear half the heroics in about six months. A guild that struggles to clear normal mode in that six months should expect to take close to six months to clear all the normal content.

There should be a smooth distribution of difficulty across all the encounters. A guild that can clear one encounter should not find the next encounter hopelessly out of reach. Likewise, a guild that finds the previous encounter trivial should be able to clear the next encounter. The skill gap is created when there's significant jumps in difficulty. This is more likely to occur in stunted tiers like the seven boss Firelands and the eight boss Dragon Soul because fewer divisions means greater stratification between encounters if the end state remains the same as better developed tiers such as the 13 boss T11, 12 boss T10, and the 14 boss T8.

By implementing blanket nerfs, the gaps remain. All you've done is artificially lowered the end state. You've done nothing to remove the gap itself, which is the problem. You address the symptoms, but you allow the underlying cause to continue to fester, and that introduces new problems down the road. This is the equivalent of giving a person with an infected wound a shot of morphine and sending him home. He might feel better, but it's going to wear off, and he'll be in even more pain, and possibly have long term damage because of the short sighted approach to repair.

Blizzard, if you want to avoid running into these situations every tier, you have to bite the bullet, and actually balance the instance. Don't just throw some derpy blanket cut on the instance and call it good. Heroic Spine of Deathwing is an extremely poorly designed encounter. Forcing players to rely on short term burst on the only target that is beneficial to damage renders multiple classes completely useless. The solution to fixing Heroic Spine of Deathwing is not to nerf normal Ultraxion, it's to fix Heroic Spine of Deathwing. All that's happening with these blanket nerfs is that Blizzard is trading the long term health of the game in exchange for a little pain relief right now.


  1. Interesting post, I'd not thought of the stepped difficulty as such a big part of the problem before.

    As I work through a given raid I do indeed expect the bosses to become progressively harder, and I also expect that our team needs to acquire extra gear unlocked by defeating a previous boss (say getting heroic gear in an average of 5 slots instead of 3) in order to progress. In other words, we already have a progressive player buff/instance nerf equivalent: it's called gearing up.

    I also agree with you, more or less, that "A guild that can clear one encounter should not find the next encounter hopelessly out of reach. Likewise, a guild that finds the previous encounter trivial should be able to clear the next encounter."

    If the steps are the problem, is it because people are actually hitting skill caps, or is it that people are unwilling to spend a few weeks not killing the next boss while they gear up?

    If we say that in any given week your raid gets enough new gear to add X notional performance points (HPS, DPS, whatever you like), then Blizzard has the potential to set the pace by setting the performance points each new boss requires over the previous one. If this new boss requires 3X performance points, then you should expect to spend around 3 lockouts farming and learning before you can overcome the boss.

    I'd prefer it to be the former, that people are genuinely hitting skill caps, but I suspect it's the latter, and Blizzard is letting people skip to the kill by lowering the performance requirement, short-circuiting the gearing-up time required.

  2. This kind of reminds me of the Worgen mounts. When Blizzard wants to, it has the resources to make some incredible things; but when they get caught off guard and have to do something they didn't plan on, they seem to do it the quickest and cheapest way possible.

    Blizzard gave the Worgen Running Wild, thinking it'd be a cool Worgen thing so they wouldn't need a mount. But after a while there were complaints that this left the Alliance two mounts short for the achievements; and for Horde players doing a faction change, there was nothing opposite the Goblin mounts. Blizzard had to fix it, and they just took some of the mountain horses and gave the Worgen that, instead of taking the time to come up with something unique.

    It seems like this is Blizzard taking another quick fix to an existing problem, rather than spending time to deconstruct the real issue.

    I wonder if they got most of their developers working on Mists of Pandaria and only a skeleton team working on support issues.

  3. Well, it's been a staple of the Tom Chilton regime to release content and then hit it with blunt nerf, rather than the more refined methods used by Kaplan. I couldn't speak to how many people Blizzard have working on what projects, but I can tell you that this has been something endemic to the game since Chilton took over after T8.