Wow, Dungeons are Hard!
We've seen and heard a lot of discussion about the challenge presented by the Cataclysm Heroic dungeons, and to a lesser extent the raids. I'm not sure this is the kind of issue where we're going to be able to change anyone’s mind on the subject, but I can try to provide more insight into our point of view as well as offer some suggestions for success.
First, let me state that we do hear you. We understand some of you aren’t having fun and preferred the Lich King paradigm, or at least something closer to the Lich King paradigm. We greatly appreciate the feedback and it always makes us sad when players aren’t having fun. We're not ignoring you. We get it. We may not always agree on every point, but we understand where you’re coming from, and we want to try to help you understand where we're coming from.
The bottom line is that we want Heroics and raids to be challenging, and that is particularly true now while the content is new and characters are still collecting gear. They’re only going to get easier from here on out. We want players to approach an encounter, especially a Heroic encounter, as a puzzle to be solved. We want groups to communicate and strategize. And by extension, we want you to celebrate when you win instead of it being a foregone conclusion.
On the other hand, we don't want you to stumble your way to victory. We don't want you to be able to overwhelm bosses without noticing or caring what they’re doing. We don’t want healers to be able to make up for all of the mistakes on the part of the other players. While at the end of the day, dungeons may just be gussied up loot vending machines, we want you to do more than push a button to get the loot.
Ultimately, we don’t want to give undergeared or unorganized groups a near guaranteed chance of success, because then the content will feel absolutely trivial for players in appropriate gear who communicate, cooperate, and strategize.
We didn't like that the Heroic dungeons in Lich King and early Naxxramas had become zerg-fests. It made the rewards feel like they weren't earned. It made all rewards except the best-in-slot items feel transitory -- why enchant or gem an item when you don’t need the performance boost and you’ll quickly replace it anyway? Furthermore, it set the expectation that everyone would eventually earn all best-in-slot items rather than those being rare and treasured goals. It made class abilities feel less useful and interesting. Who needs that crowd-control or survivability talent when nothing is hurting you? Who needs a mana-conservation talent if you’re never going to run out of mana? Who needs a crit talent if your heals often overheal anyway?
Finally, the encounters, even the bosses, ended up having a sameness to them because you could ignore their mechanics. It didn't matter -- in fact, you didn't even notice -- if the dragon breathes or silences or drops a void zone. The fights all felt the same.
In Cataclysm, the Heroic dungeons and raids are intended to be challenging -- and they are, at least until you overgear them.
So what can you do if you find the Heroics too challenging? Here are a few tips and alternatives.
Strategy and Communication
Tanks, you can’t pull and AE every group in a Heroic (again, until you overgear the content). It’s a good idea to crowd control at least one target -- and sometimes two. As long as you have someone with a long-duration and/or renewable crowd control and someone else with a short crowd control such as a stun or even a snare, you should be fine. We don’t have anything like Heroic Shattered Halls, and you don’t need 3 mages for CC. Caster mobs, which are weak but do a lot of damage, are good choices for crowd control. So are mobs that buff other mobs or debuff your group. Don’t waste the CC on non-elite mobs or others that will die quickly. The responsibility for marking and setting the pace often falls upon the tank, but sometimes other experienced players are happy to take the mantle. If you are setting the pace, you need to keep an eye on healer mana. Healers will generally have enough mana to keep you alive in any given fight, but you need to be careful not to chain pull repeatedly if their mana is low. Tanks tend to have good situational awareness and are experienced at reducing incoming damage. Where I have personally seen them get into trouble is when they slip into overconfident “I got this” mode and try to tank too many things at once.
DPS specs often get blamed the most for not knowing what is going on. It should be your business to understand the mechanics of the fights. You’re a member of a team, not a follower who can always rely on someone else to tell them what to do. Which are the spells that need to be interrupted? Which are the void zones that you absolutely must get out of? Which are the adds that must be burned down (and conversely, when should you ignore the adds and focus on the boss instead)? If you aren’t sure, then ask. Almost every group would rather take the few seconds to explain a fight than to wipe because you failed to dodge Glubtok's wall of fire or tried to AE Vanessa’s spiders or didn't understand what "Downwind of Altairus" meant.
Healers seem like they largely understand that Heroics are challenging, and sometimes get penalized when the rest of the group doesn’t understand that. If you feel like you can’t cast anything but your efficient heal or you’ll run out of mana, then something is going wrong with the fight. Likewise, if you feel like you must spam your inefficient heals to the exclusion of all else, then your group is ignoring key mechanics or is just undergeared. Boss fights in 5-player dungeons generally shouldn’t last more than two minutes or so (the last few Deadmines bosses can be longer). If you’re running out of mana because the fights are going too long, that is a problem with the DPS or tank in your group. Gear also makes a huge difference for healers, which leads to my next point.
For everyone, regardless of role, I suggest running the dungeons on normal mode until you feel more comfortable with the pulls. Those runs can be quick, the penalty for mistakes isn’t as high, and you can often still earn a little reputation, cloth, or enchanting materials. As a bonus, you’ll probably make a group really happy if you’re geared for Heroics but helping them out in a normal dungeon.
If you just can’t make progress and you are literally wiping on trash pulls over and over, it may be time to analyze your gear. The Dungeon Finder's Heroic item level requirement should be considered a minimum -- and remember, it doesn’t look at enchants or gems or even if the gear is appropriate for you. We are assuming an entry-level Heroic player has a lot of item level 333 gear from Twilight Highlands, normal dungeons, or any of the reputation vendors. These 333s are probably mixed in with a few 318 quest greens, but offset by a few 346 items. If you finished the Hyjal quests, you are probably Revered with Guardians of Hyjal and have access to their 346 items. Questing might only earn you Honored with some of the other reputations, but that is easily rectified with daily quests or dungeon tabards (and don’t forget the Tol Barad reps). There are some nice crafted items. No, the weapons aren’t purple, but when you look at their stats, they are quite competitive.
The item level requirement is intended only to keep out players who have no idea what is appropriate content for them. We know you can game it by getting PvP gear or hiding off-spec gear in your bags. Congrats on being sneaky! If you’re sophisticated enough to try and game the item-level requirements, you should be sophisticated enough to know if you can actually handle the content.
Don't be stingy and decide you aren’t going to mess with gemming, enchanting, or reforging until you have epic gear. Note that you don’t have to always apply the most expensive enchants or gems. Gear matters a lot. It increases DPS, survivability, and mana sustainability. Healers who get, say, 1750-1800 Spirit notice that they can go a lot longer without gassing out. Go ahead and get enchants or gems or reforge to get a lot of Spirit. Some DPS specs who don’t reforge hit at those gear levels would struggle a lot as well. The new Cataclysm flasks are fairly expensive, but the Lich King ones aren’t, and there are elixirs and food consumables you can use as well. Archaeologists can even unlock small bonuses in the new dungeons.
Furthermore, once 4.1 comes out, you will have access to more powerful gear that will let you then revisit the content you couldn’t do before. Your Justice points will let you purchase epic items at that point, and Heroics that were challenging will become a lot easier. Players who have raid gear currently are already starting to burn through the dungeon content again, which is totally expected. You’ll get there too. In Lich King, the content patches tended to completely invalidate the previous tier of content. We don’t want players to feel like they need to farm Naxxramas when Icecrown Citadel is out, but at the other end of the spectrum, it was unfortunate that we largely killed Ulduar raiding when Trial of the Crusader came out.
LF3M 9600GS PST
I love the Dungeon Finder. I worked on it a lot personally. It is quite successful at finding you a group. It doesn't guarantee a successful group. It's a huge improvement over spamming trade chat trying to find a tank for your three-rogue party. But throwing together up to 5 strangers and asking them to do challenging content that some of the group may have never seen before is always going to be risky.
World of Warcraft supports a lot of solo play. However, we want dungeons to be a group experience. In fact, we think the game is more fun overall when you play with friends, which is why we put so much effort into encouraging players to join guilds for Cataclysm. Running a hard dungeon with friends tends to be a much better experience. Communication feels less awkward, and everyone is generally more supportive of mistakes. You learn the strengths and weaknesses and nuances of players that you run with regularly. There tend to be fewer loot arguments as well. PUGs have their place -- don’t get me wrong. But we don’t want to sacrifice dungeons being fun and challenging for organized groups in order to have everything be conquered by any possible group. Make sense?
I’ve PUGged the Cataclysm content a lot. So have all of the designers. We want to stay in touch with what players are experiencing. Heroic PUGs are definitely harder than going with groups of people you know, but they aren’t impossible. If things start to go wrong, you might want to take a moment to analyze why they are going wrong before you bail. I do weep for those players who join an in-progress Heroic Rajh attempt (with suspicious player skeletons everywhere), immediately pull without any discussion, and then have the tank leave the group following the first wipe. That’s not fun for anyone and not going to lead to success. These aren't the original Scholomance or Arcatraz runs that could take four hours with respawns. Making a couple of concerted attempts on Rajh is probably going to be faster than going into the queue again.
We've seen a few threads that suggest that we're too proud to admit mistakes. I find that logic strange, because we do it all the time. Example one: we reverted the 10x honor from Tol Barad pretty quickly. It was a mistake. Example two: Heroic Strike is too dominant an attack for warriors. That was a mistake. Example three: the Lich King Heroic dungeons (and Naxxramas) were too easy to zerg, setting up an expansion-long expectation that purple gear would come easy and often. In retrospect, that was a mistake. We don't at all view the Cataclysm dungeon and raid balance as a mistake.
However, I can name at least three things related to dungeon difficulty that we either did wrong or could do better. We're our own worst critic, and we are very hard on our own decisions.
First, item level is a necessary -- but not sufficient -- hoop to jump through when using the Dungeon Finder for Heroics. We should have also made sure players had at least seen the content on normal mode before. Maybe we should have had Burning Crusade-like attunements. Maybe we should have made the item level requirements pretty relaxed if you’re going with a premade group and much stricter if you’re going with a pick-up group. We’d love to implement (and have some long-term plans that include) better ways to detect if you know what you’re doing other than just the gear you’ve accumulated. Overall, we just needed to state more clearly that Heroic dungeons are intended as a destination, not a first step.
Second, there are only a few level-85 normal dungeons. For a level-85 player who isn’t ready for Heroics but wants to run dungeons, these can get old pretty quickly. Perhaps another way to handle it would have been to have introductory Heroics and harder Heroics. We’ve also flirted with having three difficulty levels before, but that does add an extra level of content to develop and complexity to explain.
Third, the game could do a better job of telling a group why they failed so that so much blame doesn’t fall at the feet of the healer. We talk a lot about not standing in fires, but equally important is the number of bosses that spawn in adds that must be gathered up and/or burned down quickly, or in some cases ignored. We’re also asking a lot of DPS or tanks in those situations, but that information isn’t always conveyed well except through trial and error.
We do understand that some healers are frustrated and giving up. That is sad and unfortunate. But the degree to which it's happening, at least at this point in time, is vastly overstated on the forums. We also know that plenty of players like the changes and find healing more enjoyable now. Both sides need to spend a little less effort trying to drown out the other side claiming that everyone they know -- and by extension, “the majority of players” -- agree with their point. You shouldn’t need to invoke a silent majority if you can make an articulate and salient point.
As always, we're keeping an eye on things. There are a few bosses that seem responsible for more wipes than the others: Commander Springvale, Beauty, Altairus, and Admiral Ripsnarl perhaps. By the time you read this, you might have seen us implement Restoration druid buffs intended to keep them competitive in raids. We also just tend to nerf content over time because the original players hitting that content have moved on, so we want to open it up to a wider audience.
In any case, we want to ensure that everyone is having fun and enjoying their time with the game, and I hope that this post may serve to some as the "tare" button that helps you zero in on the intended dungeon difficulty scale. For others, just know that we are actively reading feedback. For everyone offering constructive posts and points about their experience, we thank you.
Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer on World of Warcraft. He has four dogs: three epic retrievers and one green terrier suitable for disenchanting.