Semantics and Tiered Rewards
Casual is to Hardcore, as a Banana is to ...
The arguments between Casual and Hardcore players can touch on almost any facet of the game. It is almost impossible to draw a line anymore with how many players have perceived themselves as more or less based on their personal ideals. Some players can spend eight hours a day and never enter a raid setting, but whether or not that is considered Hardcore is personal opinion. Other players are considered hardcore when they spend less than 12 hours a week, but due to their surroundings and happenstance, are on the near bleeding edge of content. They are not cutting themselves on it and gushing like the top of the top, but they plug along and make larger raid progress in a week than most guilds make in a month. That does not sound Hardcore at all compared to the first example, but many players would like to call themselves such. All this confusion came about due to the stigma associated with various words, and then the impossibility of such a large community agreeing on anything over the internet: Elitist, Hardcore, No Life, Skilled, Basement Dweller, Window Licker, Pro, Casual, Semi-Casual; the list goes on, most of them not the nicest of terms.
There are even arguments between the two major progression paths within WoW, the PvP path and the PvE path. PvE players consider PvP to be an inferior product, something that "their" game should never have had. PvP players on the other hand like to call themselves burned out raiders, they are tired of each boss having three abilities which are quickly learned and then the hassles of dealing with an entire guild of people you probably don't care for. Generally the term Hardcore has disappeared from the PvP scene though, replaced with the awesome, or laughable depending on who you ask, concept of Skill. Raiders like to call themselves Skilled as well now, so the word has about as much weight behind it as Hardcore these days. During the creation of Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard jumped on the Skill bandwagon and the game has never been the same.
So what is the difference between Hardcore and Skilled? Hardcore players were about dedication. They would sit down and work at a problem until they solved it, they would beat their heads against the wall until the wall broke. There was no begging for change, things were the way they were and that was the end of it, you were supposed to shut up and deal. Ever since Blizzard injected the concept of Skill into WoW, the idea of Hardcore has been on the way out. No one wants to be known as the person who spends forever to do something, you want to be known as the person who accomplished it first and in the shortest amount of time due to your vast Skill. Probably not that surprising everyone considers themselves Skilled at one thing or another. Each person takes a look at their personal situation and determines that either the game is broken and needs to be fixed, or that the game is perfect and everyone else needs to learn to play. There is arena and there is raiding, that is where a lot of players like to call themselves Skilled. Then there is the rest of the game, where everyone else likes to think that they are skilled as well. Skill is a pretty worthless concept at this point in WoW, it has become over-saturated, much like the term Hardcore was at one point. Unfortunately, Blizzard continues to use Skill as the measuring stick of a players return value in their MMO.
Skill = Reward
Blizzard loves to reward Skill. Unfortunately this tiered reward system is very antagonizing for anyone except those at the top of the heap, and also nothing more than an illusion. Obviously the gear itself is tiered by content level, but what is being discussed here is how players are stratified based on Skill to determine who is allowed access to certain rewards. Currently Blizzard rewards two paths of progression: Arenas and Raiding. Arenas were homogenized to new raid releases with the launch of Wrath. No longer do the two systems work independently of each other, which was one of the major causes of the entire Season Three welfare fiasco, but now arenas must coincide with raid content. That is all well, but it seems some people have not yet realized that a solution like this works both ways, raid content is now homogenized with Arena seasons. Almost everything to do with raiding in Wrath has actually come from the solutions to the TBC arena problem. Blizzard watches what percentage of attemptees actually achieve the various goals, and then they tweak numbers accordingly. In both systems, only the top percentage of players gain the final reward, a mount and a title.
Blizzard accomplishes this tiered reward system based on percentages of participants in two ways with arenas. First, they are able to adjust the maximum arena rating values so that, depending on the population participating, different numbers of players will achieve the various rewards. In other words, Blizzard can cause player ratings to inflate by increasing the maximum arena rating, or they can cause player ratings to deflate, by doing the opposite. The second, more noticeable method is the rating requirements on different pieces of arena gear. Only certain players are allowed. Raiding has taken the same turn. It may have been like this before Wrath was launched, but the picture has become much clearer. Blizzard only wants so many players gaining raiding rewards, very similar to the number of players they want gaining arena rewards. Blizzard always starts the raid very hard, and then over the weeks and months they nerf roadblock encounters. If too many players are killing a boss too fast, the boss will be 'fixed'. If too many players are stuck on a boss, the boss will be made easier. That's one way raids are tweaked. The recent announcement by Blizzard on the possible delay of removal of the Ulduar title and mount in 3.2 shows that they do have quotas. They want a certain percentage of the population to reach the end goal, and if that doesn't happen through the already tweaked bosses, they will just wait awhile until their numbers have been met and then tell everybody else; too bad better luck next time. Well, next season really.
This change in the reward system just does not make any sense. The original arena system rewarded players with faster results if they had higher ratings. Raiding worked pretty similar. Now, there's even hard mode raiding, but even that is not enough for the top players. Both systems, arena and raiding, have turned into a tiered season system. Raiding is taking many of their tier qualities from the gear reward system offered through arenas right now. Which is a little surprising considering arenas have not been doing well in Wrath. There is the low tier: honor gear and normal 10 man mode. There is the middle tier: low rating gear and normal mode 25. Then there is the high tier: high arena rating and hard mode 25. And lastly there is the Elite tier: Proto-drakes and titles. 3.2 brings about a further stratification of raiding with four separate lockout timers instead of two for the new Coliseum raid. Each tier is only allowed to have a certain of winners. Less ambitious players can no longer work towards an end goal because Blizzard consistently removes the end goal from the game every few months and adds in a new one before the majority of the player base can reach it. Obviously that's just content progression. But it is a different issue when the reward is removed completely instead of just having a new one added for the more progressed players. The current process devoids the majority of players from receiving what they are working toward.
Raiding has become identical to arenas. Each new season a new raid instance is released, and all the hard mode guilds can compete against each other for server firsts, while everyone else is left in a BG type status. Some raiders have not seemed to grasp the issue yet that each new raid season is the same as each new arena system. The Ulduar level badge gear from 5 man heroics is a great example of this. What a player has done in the previous season only means you have a leg up in the upcoming one. There is no PvE progression like there was in TBC. You are not forced to do Karazhan, then SSC/TK, then BT, then Sunwell. When the new raid season is released, you jump into the new raid season. Players hate it when what they have worked so hard for is just given to other players. Players hate it when what they have worked so hard for is removed from the game before they are able to achieve it. Blizzard turns a deaf ear to both issues.
Blizzard acts as if they've forgotten about the concept of illusion in a video game. Obviously behind all the magic there's just a bunch of code, but when you start revealing everything, players can become disillusioned with the game. A major example of this lack of foresight from Blizzard is the partial removal of the 2v2 arena bracket. This is not an argument that it's good or bad, or that it was balanced or not, or anything else. That is not the point. Blizzard has decided to remove the titles, mounts, and top gear, from the 2v2 arena bracket. In effect, the path of progression that used to exist with 2v2 arena is now gone. The problem has only compounded because the 2v2 bracket still technically exists, but because you ca not gain any of the end game rewards from participating in it the illusion is dead. For players who enjoy progressing in the end game through 2v2 arena, Blizzard might as well have turned the bracket into a 5 man normal mode dungeon. Even if the player was stuck in the 1300's, the possibility of eventually progressing is not there anymore, and so the player no longer has anything to work towards. And when you no longer have anything to work towards in an MMO, then there is no point in playing.
MMO's are not only about skill. They are not only about being in the top 5% of the player base. They are about character progression and fun. Some players enjoy being in the top 5% of course, but that still leaves the other 95% to please. When rewards are removed from the system once a certain number of players have achieved them, the illusion is removed from the player base. Making something difficult to obtain, requiring large amounts of effort, knowledge and luck, and then letting the player keep trying, that keeps the illusion alive. That makes the player go back to Strath for their 99th Baron Run. That makes the player spend hours camping the spirit beast in Sholozar Basin. That makes players raid, working through SSC/TK despite knowing they'll probably never make it to BT, because there is the illusion of eventually being rewarded with those warglaives. When the proto-drakes are removed, the illusion is gone. When the rewards are taken away, the illusion is gone. There is a reason no one ever talks about going to Zul'Aman anymore. The achievement system appears to be Blizzards solution for players who wish to continue character progression while not jockeying for the top spot, but it is an empty system. It is nothing more than a cop out when it came to developing real content for their game.