Rethinking Casual vs Hardcore due to WoW TBC

There is a longstanding discussion in the MMO community, that talks about casual players and hardcore players. These discussions are often tricky simply because the very definition what a casual player really is and what really makes someone a hardcore player always appears as an undercurrent in the discussion.

If I sat down and tried to put me into one of the two categories as a say, WoW player, I’m really kind of hard pressed. I’ve read and even contributed to theorycraft discussions, I have lead raids for a long time, I have developed boss strategies, I have lead my primary class in the raid group, I have seen a lot but not all of WoWs original content. Looking at this description I’m probably hardcore.

But I have never had a server first, I’ve never raided 6-7 days a week, more like 3-5. I abhor potting and have never gone into anxiety disorder if a few items didn’t have the best of the best enchants on it. I never raided to participate in a global or local “who kills a boss first” race. Raiding was always a collaborative activitiy and not a competitive one (and more on that a little later). And I actually never have had a server first and I don’t even care.

In my raid group I was at the hardcore end of the spectrum. We had people who had virtually no enchants, who raided typically 2 days a week, we never obsessed about gear or spec, and WoW raid design up to mid-Naxx allowed this to be possible.

There isn’t a whole lot of discussion that I know of where developers themselves outline how they feel about content and types of players. Or how to deal with blurry boundaries between these types of players. Rob Pardo of WoW fame gave a keynote at the Austin Game Conference in 2006 and did touch on this issue. Raph Koster took notes and put them up on his blog.

Let Pardo quote the key passage:

It all starts with a donut. Allan Adham (original designer & founder at Blizzard) would draw a donut to explain what Blizzard is about. The middle of the donut is the core market. The casual market is the rest. We see Blizzard as being about both, and that the casual market grows faster than the core.

So in the very design concept Blizzard there is a concept of separation of what they call core (without hard) and casual. Of course one has to be careful here, a core market actually doesn’t define the playing style. And a casual market doesn’t either. But reading this I had a sense that really for Pardo there wasn’t a very strict separation between core subscribers and hardcore players. This comes from the final remark that the “casual market grows faster”.

What is interesting about this is that it also induces a design philosophy. Design the game for both who is perceived as casual by the designers, and for those who are perceived hardcore. That decision itself begs the question: How should they related? How does content for hardcores work for a casual and the other way around. And finally where is the boundary set? What does the core market want and the same for casual market? How is that reflected in the game?

In term of actual design here is where Blizzard apparently set the boundary:

Dungeons too, we wanted them to be a much more hardcore experience, we wanted only groups in there, and so on. The dungeons are there to serve more of the core market. It’s something to strive for, a bridge for the casual players to become a little more hardcore.

The group concept really seems to serve as the defining aspect of the game. You are “a little more hardcore” if you do dungeons.
This definition for the WoW design also is reflected in later remarks by Pardo.

What is interesting here is that Pardo too describes transitions and he describes the tradeoff of having all out access over rewarding certain playing styles.

Tradeoffs. Every decision comes with tradeoffs. designers are greedy by nature — we want everything, moms, dads, cats and dogs playing together. Nothing in game design is black and white, it’s all shades of gray. Whenever we can, we try not to compromise. It usually results in both sides being dissatisfied. If we had solo dungeons, then he group dungeon fans would feel their achievements would be cheapened. So we chose specifically not to have solo instances.

Of course for a long time WoW player and someone who has now played LOTRo the particular description here begs another question: Is the assumption that group dungeon fans actually “feel their achievement cheapened by solo dungeons” true? LOTRo has solo dungeons and I certainly never felt my group dungeon experience cheapened. But I do think there is something true to this given the reactions to WoW TBC.

WoW TBC has changed a number of things. Leveling has gotten more polished and is more streamlined, less travel heavy and more rewarding overall. This isn’t really a change in the core design philosophy, but just something that makes what it did before better. There are other motions that also go in that direction.

Pardo said in 2006:

Bite-sized content: we try to tune our quests for accomplishment in chunks. We aim for a 30 minute session, lunchtime battlegrounds. We are doing more “winged dungeons” in the expansion, because we kinda stumbled upon it. We split up the dungeon into separate wings that can be done in 1/2 hour to an hour — like Scarlet Monastery. This was a lesson we learned during development, so we weren’t able to apply it everywhere in the original release. You want to avoid getting to a place where the content of your game doesn’t allow people to play unless they have X amount of time that night.

Indeed 5-man content can be cleared in 60-120 minutes, whereas a full Uldaman run with a level appropriate group certainly could be longer than 120 minutes. This is an improvement and a realization of a successful concept. In short “time should not weed out too many people from trying content”.

TBC has however also changed a number of other things, specifically around the raiding game. Raiding must be the crown of the “core market” content for Blizzard. But overall things that changed already start in 5-mans. A few things that I think Blizz did in TBC are:

  • Make instanced content more challanging.
  • Make access more time consuming.
  • Make access more linear. I.e. to progress you need to have beaten all early tier content.
  • And by extension exclude some people from content access unless they meet certain requirements.

In the original WoW game there was no pre-raid content that was inaccessible for any player who didn’t have certain prerequisites to show. One could enter Scholo, Strat UD, Scarlet later wings or UBRS with just one person holding a key. So if two people wanted to do an instance together and one had the prerequisite (key), they were guaranteed to have access independent of the second persons requirements.

Blizzard invented the heroics concept to make 5-man content more replayable. But heroic content is not accessible like 5-man content was in the original game. Everybody needs the key hence two people are not guaranteed to be able to go if one has the key.

Blizzard did have game content that required everybody to meet prerequisites before, but this was exclusive to 40-man raid content. No content for smaller groups ever had this requirement. Zul Gurub and the Ruins of Ahn’Quiraj were open access and all other content either had no or the single-player key concept. But even 40-man content access was generally easy. The only real time investment cases (more than 3-4 hours total) are certainly Onyxia (especially but not only horde-side) and Naxxramas. The Temple of Ahn Quiraj was open access content, once the server as a whole met the requirements.

In TBC every raid content needs keying (“attunement” in WoW parlance, a word that came from the first keying process to Molten Core, the quest called “Attunement to the core”). In some sense one can think of heroics as 5-man raid content by their keying type. The keying for Karazhan, the first keyed raid content of 10-man size is certainly more involved than both Molten Core and Blackwing Lair dungeon attunements. Two very short 25-man dungeons need no attunment (Gruul’s Lair and Magtheridon). The first longer size 25-man instance needs success of all raid members in Gruul’s Lair and Karazhan.

To understand the impact of the design decisions made here, I think it’s worthwhile to go back to the concepts of “casual” and “hardcore”. There are really multiple dimensions along one can place these labels. Some people claim that the defining factor is “skill”. I.e. how well the player can play their class, how deep they understand the mechanisms etc. But another important dimension is “time”. How much time is a player online and what kind of activities is he interested spending time on? Is grinding for materials acceptable, is spending time on long attunements acceptable, is raiding for more than 3 hours acceptable?

If one separates these two aspects, suddenly I’m skill-hardcore but time-casual (at least roughly half as hardcore as someone who raids 6-7 days a week for 5+ hours). Of course Pardo’s keynote doesn’t really address in any way what time commitment to the game separates casual versus core.

What TBC before 2.1 had was the following:

  • Increased skill requirements in terms of encounter design and tuning. Hence a more stringent definition of raid-level hardcore by skill.
  • Increased time requirements in terms of attunement design. Hence a more stringent definition of raid-level hardcore by time.

The second aspect is tricky because of the content design itself. While Magtheridon and Gruul are fairly short, Karazhan is very long and has a mid-instance entry to accommodate that. Time requirement for Karazhan is not really low either.

The 2.1 patch addresses a lot of tuning questions. Hence one of the two points got addressed and the boundary between the game-definition of casual versus hardcore by skill got changed. The 2.1 only in two aspects address the time question, namely reduction of consumable influence and introducing a backflagging mechanism for Serpentshrine Cavern, the first longer 25-man content via a drop off the last boss. Nothing else in terms of the time-definition of casual versus hardcore got changed.

WoW TBC raiding by moving around the boundary of Blizzard’s donut concept. By increasing the requirements and linearizing access, the boundary became more distinctly defined and hence also begged the question: Does the game place it where the actual customer set is at? Before 2.1 there were a few aspects that did get extensive discussion. Specifically consumables. This did get changed. But also attunements. This didn’t. Overall entry and continuation of raiding remains more time-intensive than it was in the original game.

In my circles, of skill-hardcore but time-casual raiders, raiding as it was possible has mostly ended. Some have become time-hardcore. Some have joined skill-casual, time-casual groups. Some have quit.

Overall the donut has a more defined separation of hardcore and casual and the question will be, was that a good thing?

The effects of this is yet to be seen. Subscription tracking sites haven’t updated recent time spans, though I hear that MMOGData is looking to fill that gap, that MMOGChart left since last summer.

I’ll leave this for now. The also very interesting question of social groups, diverging playing times and access is another long topic, for another time. This is long enough already.

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