No matter what you think about World of Warcraft, few can deny that it is an immersive MMO experience that manages to cover the many aspects of the genre with a level of polish that one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere in one package. Whether you are into PVE, PVP, or RP, you can find it all in WoW at a level that few games are capable of reaching (although, some RPers would adamantly argue that the lack of a housing system is one of the great pitfalls of the game that is yet to be rectified). However, my favorite aspect of the game is PVE; and, further still, raiding. There is nothing like getting together with 9 or 24 guildies - or maybe even a PUG if you are desperate or not willing to be tied down - and downing the great, big baddies that the game has to offer.
As someone who started playing the game during the second expansion, The Burning Crusade, I have only seen some of the evolutionary process that WoW has gone through over the years. However, the one thing that has remained a constant in all my time with the game is the hardcore versus casual raiding debate. This topic has sparked many a flame war in the WoW forums. Casuals believe that they should be able to experience the content that the more hardcore players do because it is part of the game that they are paying for - even if they lack the skill and/or time to commit that the more hardcore players do - and understandably so. During the Burning Crusade, there were long atunement quest chains, nigh insurmountable gear checks, and *gasp* skill - yes, skill - barriers that prevented them from doing so.
So at first, after the most hardcore of the hardcore had downed bosses or after a boss proved nearly invincible, Blizzard would respond with nerfs that lowered the skill level needed to down bosses; however, they remained a formidable challenge for most, and the attunements were still there, as daunting as ever before, to the general gaming populace. Then, shortly after the release of the Black Temple content patch, Blizzard removed the need for attunements altogether. With the advent of the Sunwell Plateau, Blizzard utilized daily quests to open the gate of the instance. The more people on your server that did the daily quests that were made available on the Isle of Quel'Danas, the quicker the gates were opened, which was a great compromise. However, what awaited you on the other side of that instance portal was perhaps the most diabolically difficult raid that Blizzard has created to date, garnering praise from those who could overcome its challenges and scorn from those who could not get past the first pack of trash mobs, who seemed to be as difficult to overcome as Kael'Thas and his lackeys at the end of Tempest Keep - which we all know was merely a setback for the great leader of the Blood Elves.
Then there was the patch, Echoes of Doom and the 20% health and damage nerf to all Burning Crusade raid bosses in addition the massive buffs to player damage and healing in the pre-expansion patch that, in hindsight, almost seemed to presage the easy mode raid dungeons that the expansion pack would bring upon release. Players jumped at the opportunity to faceroll through every instance in the Burning Crusade, and, when Wrath of the Lich King was launched, all the raid bosses then available in the expansion pack were cleared within three days of release. So previous raids were too hard, and the new raids were too easy.
What was Blizzard to do? Well, the answer to their dilemma came in the form of hard modes. Other games have them right? You see it in your shooters, platformers, and many other genres, so why not MMORPGs? Blizzard's first foray into the world of MMO hard modes was Sartharion. He has four levels of difficulty. Besides him, there are three mini-bosses in his volcanic domain: Vesperon, Shadron, and Tenebron. You can choose to kill one, two or all three of the mini-bosses before attacking the big dragon himself, or you can clear the trash mobs and attack him with the full force of the three other dragons to contend with. It seemed that Blizzard had found the perfect compromise.
However, with a player base as large as World of Warcraft's, Blizzard can never seem to please everybody. With the next content patch of the expansion came Ulduar, and Blizzard threw in enough hard modes to make any hardcore raider jump for joy. However, people complained about how they were implemented. Some said that Blizzard should have released easy modes first, and then enabled hard modes once the easy modes were cleared for progression purposes. Some said it should have been the other way around. Then with Trial of the Champions, Blizzard used a staggered release system for the five bosses in the instance, and then they enabled hard modes for all bosses with a 50 attempt limit per week. The fewer attempts a guild uses to clear the bosses, the better the loot. However, people still weren't happy with the attempt limit, and criticism abounded once again.
I can personally attest to being in both camps during my WoW career. For most of The Burning Crusade and the beginning of Wrath of the Lich King, I was in a middle of the road guild that cleared most of the encounters in the game at an average or below average pace. I had no complaints in TBC, but when WoTLK came out and we started raiding, we had lost a few key members, and our 25 man raiding team proved to be subpar. I am personally glad for the 10 man 25 man model that Blizzard employs now, because while our 10 man group, which was made up of some of the better players in the guild, blew through content, our 25 man group was sorely lacking. Sadly, even with the super easy raids, our 25 man group never even managed to kill Kel'Thuzad before our main tank/raid leader quit either out of frustration or burnout. After a while, I jumped the sinking ship that was my guild to one of the best guilds on the server. The difference was like night and day. We blew through Naxxramas without trouble, Malygos was only a slight bother, and the only true challenge came in the form of Sartharion with the 3 drakes in tow. But he too, eventually fell to our blades and spells, and we also got server fifth for the Twilight Zone achievement.
After experiencing what it was like to raid in a guild that was more than decent, I could definitely sympathize with the more hardcore guilds. However, I also can't forget the guild that I was with for a large part of my raiding career. As hard of a time as we had Naxxramas, I doubt that we were the only guild in the world who found it to be a bit of a challenge. It is was a wise move on Blizzard's part to account for those who find their raiding content more than a bit challenging, while keeping the option for a bit more challenging experience available for those who want it. In the ever changing landscape that is World of Warcraft raiding, our next foe will be the Lich King himself, the most recognizable figure in the Warcraft franchise. With such a prominent figure being the next one to go down, Blizzard has to promise both an epic and accessible experience. Perhaps they will finally find a raiding format in patch 3.3 that will make everyone happy and that they can stick with for the rest of the game's life. Only time, or maybe the Public Test Realm, will tell.