It’s the fall of 1999 and my Paladin is sitting on a pyramid in the eastern commonlands of Norrath waiting on the start of a raid. Our raid leader is barking instructions, to the extent one can bark in a /shout channel. Fairly soon 30-odd player characters take a trip up to the Plane of Hate to fight the minions of a god.
That raid in Everquest was my very first raid and it left me totally hooked. Up until that point I had run a number of dungeons with a somewhat static six-person team. Dungeons in MMO’s are immense fun for me and really realized the promise of multiplayer gameplay initially suggested in games like Baldur’s Gate. Raiding, though attaches massively to multiplayer for me.
Whether you are a fan of raiding or not, there’s one unarguable fact. Raiding is one of the few aspects of MMORPG’s that no other genre of games really duplicates. Massive player collaboration is one thing that’s uniquely the property of MMO’s. Realm vs. realm PVP does this as well, but this column focuses entirely on the PVE side of gaming.
I don’t want to make this too nostalgia ridden, though. Raiding back then had a lot of drawbacks. You only had a half-dozen or so raid-worthy targets. Those targets were non-instanced and on a semi-fixed weekly spawn. This meant that server competition for raid targets was a source of constant drama. Only about a half dozen people on the raid had involved roles. For everyone else,raiding involved knowing how to assist (e.g. hit your assist button) and staying out of cleave attacks (e.g. if you see the target’s face, you are doing it wrong). You brought 25-40 people along because the monsters had a few billion hit points, not because the encounters really required it. There was no raid interface and since most of us played on dial-ups, there was also no voice chat. I’m not sure that Sony Online Entertainment really intended raiding to exist or whether it was one of the gameplay mechanics that arose dynamically back in the day when none of us knew what an MMO was. There were no party or raid loot systems in place, so you had to trust that the people you brought along on your raid would not “ninja loot,” grabbing an item not intended for them and quickly gating off. Those things are largely, and thankfully, properties of the distant past.
But even with all of the admittedly bad stuff that went into raiding back then, there were a few really good things too. Raiding was, largely, a social event. You weren’t numbers capped, you brought the numbers you felt like you wanted to bring. The more elite guilds ran with very tight numbers, but that was largely for loot efficiency, fewer people require fewer cycles of gearing to advance. For the other raiding crews, you built a social network across guilds to facilitate raiding.
I learned raid leadership tagging along with raid leaders from two different guilds from the guild I was in and both of those guilds cross-raided with each other. At some point, my small two-team guild teamed up with another similar sized guild and organized our own raid core. The two guilds I had previously raided with committed people to our raids just as we continued to commit people to theirs. Doing so let all of us raid every week or so, sometimes running things and sometimes just being a good passenger.
My experiences back in Everquest are a far cry from modern raiding. Today’s raids are typically instanced with weekly lockouts. Raid composition has a fixed size with rigid role allotments. The encounters are generally movement oriented in which succeeding at a boss fight is a lot like learning to line dance, everyone on the raid needs to know all the right steps or the attempt fails. The user-interface for raiding provides a wealth of information and visual tells for phase changes and movement checks are the norm.
While these changes are largely for the better, raiding today is far more exclusionary and asocial than it was in the past. It’s rare to raid outside your guild these days and progression through raid content often leaves you having to decide between succeeding and leaving friends behind or failing while keeping friends near. Does it have to be this way?
Raid size has been on a reductionist trend for the past decade. What used to be “bring all you want” in EQ was turned into fixed 40-person rosters in World of Warcraft. That forty was later reduced to 25 or 10-person raids in WoW and 24 or 12-person raids in EQ2. RIFT subsequently dropped the raid roster size to twenty or ten. Star Wars: the Old Republic took that down to 16 or 8-person raids. The Secret World provided a pair of raid targets for ten-person content. Final Fantasy XIV lowered the bar further, offering eight person content. The Elder Scrolls Online chose to just ignore raiding altogether, launching with no large-scale PVE content.
Realistically, raid size reduction makes the logistics of raiding easier. Without a doubt, getting seven people is easier than getting thirty-nine people. However, several of the changes that accompanied size-reduction confound the complexity of raid logistics which exacerbates the logistics problem of raids.
Raids now have fixed role allotment; one too many healers and you leave someone out, one too few and you all sit out. Mechanic complexity for fights can be increased as raid size decreases which, in turn, necessitates experienced players on your raid runs. It’s very hard to carry a few truly new players through an encounter while they learn the ropes. I give a sad chuckle when I see raid leaders whose requirements for raid membership includes gear from the raid-target. This means that raid recruitment largely requires you to have already experienced the encounter before you can experience that encounter, Catch-22 anyone?
Raid crews are shrinking and becoming rigid, making it very hard to break new players into the raid scene. Raids now feature weekly lockouts on zones or bosses and your team has to keep their lockouts synchronized. Have friends that really need one more tank? If you go with them, you can’t go with your team. Even with raiding down to the size of a small dinner party, coordinating a raid team is a recurring headache featuring all the joys of synchronizing day planners. This has led to raiding, of the more inclusionary aspects of multiplayer collaboration, reduced to isolated island-guilds. Admittedly, this is best for progression and bleeding edge players, but is that worth the cost to everyone else?
There is an emerging social raid scene, though.
RIFT started a shift back towards casual raiding with their zone invasions and raid rifts. During the former, raid coalitions formed up organically to react to the dynamic rift-content in the game. In the latter, summonable raid bosses can be completed with largely pickup groups. Guild Wars 2 uses open-tapping (everyone gets credit) and personal looting to facilitate their world bosses and its not unusual to see “old style raiding” numbers show up when one of their signature dragon events cycle. World of Warcraft added a “raid finder”system with pickup (e.g. low) difficulty raiding. Final Fantasy XIV brought in Crystal Towers where three different eight-person raids parallel-play in a pickup system. Lockouts are much more forgiving in these casual friendly systems, coordination largely turns into “who’s available?” Each of these systems is a nod back in time to the more social, casually friendly aspects of raiding.