This week I've talked about a number of problems with dungeons, and suggested that many of the perceived problems with heroic dungeons are really caused by normal dungeons being marginalized. I've criticized the awarding of Justice Points of normal bosses as an ineffective solution to this problem because it only serves to further marginalize normal drops.
Now I am going to present some of my solutions to these problems. These are real solutions designed to create a space for normal dungeons. With each of these solutions, I present what I think is a realistic timeframe for when this could be implemented given the current state of the game. These changes are radical, but probably the best thing about WoW and about Blizzard is that radical changes are considered if they are good changes. I will be submitting all of these on the suggestion forum.1
Fully Separate Normal and Heroic Difficulties
I've talked about this before, but it really is part of the solution. The current model for progression is normal dungeon to heroic dungeon to normal raid to heroic raid. The ideal would be to have two separate streams, normal dungeon to normal raid and heroic dungeon to heroic raid, possibly with some heroic players running a few normal dungeons just after reaching maximum level to get some gear.
Whether you choose to approach normal or heroic difficulty should be a legitimate choice based on your preferred playstyle and time commitment. Normal difficulty should not be a stepping stone on the way of heroic. Currently every progression stage has to be two things: 1) challenging for those who will never reach beyond that stage and 2) a gear grind for those who don't think of that stage as an accomplishment. At the same time as many people are struggling with heroics, many other people are already bored of running them every day for their 70 Victory Points. Having these groups play together is a recipe for conflict.
In this model the gear from heroic dungeons should be equal level to the gear from normal raids and heroic dungeons should be harder than normal raids. Both normal dungeons and heroic dungeons should be beatable in quest gear with good play - good play being a relative term depending on the difficulty level. Raids would be tuned expecting players to be mostly geared in appropriate dungeon gear. Because normal raids and heroic dungeons would give the same gear, those who played normal dungeons would be ready to try heroic raids to see see if they wanted to switch streams. But this would be a function of practice leading to increased play skill, not a function of getting more gear.
Timeline: I thought it was important to bring this is as an ultimate goal, but it is completely unrealistic to implement this until the next expansion. Changes being made now should be seen, in part, as preparation for this new state.
Less Gear from Vendors
When the emblems system first premiered in Burning Crusade it seemed like a really great idea. We all know the frustration of waiting for those last one or two drops to complete our gear sets, so having a way that we acquire a few pieces of gear for certain with sufficient work seemed like a good remedy. But in Burning Crusade, gearing up for raids involved a lot of running heroics for drops. In Cataclysm faction vendors and Justice Points provide so much variety in gear that dungeon drops are becoming insignificant. Waiting for that one drop your need is even more frustrating because it was the only drop you needed in the first place. Sometimes I would wonder why dungeons even had cloth gloves in them at all.
The amount of slots that can be covered by reputation vendors should be reduced, and the rate at which points are earned should be reduced as well. Points should be a way to fill in for slots you just can't seem to get rather than the primary reason to run dungeons. Each difficulty setting should earn points only at their own difficulty. So heroic players earn Victory Points but not Justice Points. This would prevent the marginalization or normal difficulty gear.
Timeline: In Cataclysm this ship has already sailed at the gear cannot be taken back. It might be possible, though, to hybridize this concept in with the current one by not giving out Justice Points like candy in heroic dungeons as soon as the next major content patch.
Three Dungeon Difficulties
Normal difficulty dungeons are currently trying to fulfill two incompatible roles. First of all, they are the ends of the stories of each zone. The storylines presented through quests end in assaults on enemy stongholds that are the dungeons. For this reason, normal dungeons need to be extremely accessible to everyone, and they need to be accessible at the level appropriate to the zones. As a result, only a handful of those dungeons are appropriate for maximum level characters, and it creates the impression that normal difficulty is a throwaway to be played through once only.
I am proposing a third difficulty be added - Story mode - that is intended to be played through at a level appropriate to the zone the dungeon is in. This difficulty would replace the current normal difficulty (i.e. all current normal dungeons would instead be the "story" dungeons) and a new normal difficulty would be placed between heroic and story. Normal difficulty would be for maximum level characters, and would present many of the same challenges as heroic difficulty but be more forgiving in terms of damage outlay, dps checks and time to adapt to or avoid fatal attacks.
This would mean that those who want to play at a lower difficulty level would have a full range of dungeons to experience, including dungeons like Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep that have been updated for maximum level. Normal dungeons could be something that people choose to play with their play time, rather than being seen as just glorified group quests.
Timeline: I honestly think this should be implemented in 4.1 or 4.2. That may sound completely crazy because of the amount of work involved, but I think it's pretty easy to overestimate how much work it would really be. These new dungeons would be exactly the same as heroic dungeons, but with some numbers dialed down. Because they are being tuned to be easier, they do not need to be tuned as tightly, so applying a ratio across the board for damage and health would probably suffice as a first pass with a second added here or there to abilities that you have to react to to stay alive. With future dungeons more care could be put in to balance properly based on lessons learned from the first batch. The infrastructure already exists for difficulty levels, so it is hard to believe that adding another would be a more massive project than is normally taken on in major content patches.
Dungeon Fragment Finder
Limited play time is a definite hindrance to experiencing content, especially if normal dungeons were a little harder than they are now. With the current dungeon lockout system, however, it would be possible to implement a system where someone could essentially save their progress through a dungeon2 and then later look for a group to finish it. I necessary people who were not saved at the same point could be brought in, since people are generally pretty happy to join a dungeon run already in progress to reach the end boss faster. A good progress saving system would also be helpful for guilds running dungeons together who play for limited amounts of time.
Timeline: Patch 4.2 or 4.3. I'm sure there are some technical challenges to implementing this system, and it is a lower priority suggestion. It would be a valuable upgrade to the dungeon finder, though, to make dungeons more playable with limited play time.
Normal Difficulty Achievements
Achievements add a lot of replayability to heroic dungeons. When a boss has been mastered, there is something else to try for. Similar achievements should exist in normal to add the same amount of replayability.
Timeline: I think this could be added any time after the third difficulty, but if another difficulty is not added then achievements would need to wait for the next expansion. Unfortunately normal dungeons are just too easy to overgear to make these achievements even feel like achievements, and most of the normal difficulty dungeons are not for maximum level characters.
Less Loot Inflation
Reduce a "tier" of gear to only 7 or 8 item levels. This would help with scaling problems from the beginning to the end of the expansion and also reduce the role that overgearing plays in defeating content.
Timeline: I'd really like to see this change in 4.1, but I'm not holding my breath.
Better Information About What Went Wrong
This is actually something the developers have mentioned they would like to do and I wholeheartedly support it for normal difficulty. If you are killed by Rajh's Inferno Leap, getting a message telling you that that was what killed you, and that in order to survive it you have to get away from where he is landing, would be a great addition. I know that currently this is primarily intended for heroic difficulty, but in the long run if normal and heroic difficulty were separate then I don't think this would be necessary for heroic difficulty. Playing heroic would indicate a level of comfort with figuring things out on your own.
Timeline: I think we'll see something like this in patch 4.1 or 4.2.
Suppose all of these things had been done for Cataclysm, what state would we be in now? Imagine that by the time you completed all of your solo play you had access to one piece of 333 loot from a quest chain and two pieces from getting to revered with all the factions. The rest of your loot is 325 from quests. You choose, based on your own preference, whether you want to play normal or heroic difficulty and start looking for dungeons of that difficulty.
In terms of execution and play skill requirements - not in absolute terms - heroic bosses are close to the same challenge level as the easier normal raid bosses currently are. A heroic boss dungeon boss would put up nearly as much of a fight for a newly geared 85 as Halfus, Double Dragon, Magmaw or Omnitron would right now for a full 346 geared group. If you choose normal you find that those bosses are a little harder than current normal bosses, expecially in the sense of being less forgiving of mistakes, but that they have significant amounts of instruction in terms of raid warnings plus indications of what went wrong if you lose. By succeeding in these dungeons you would be able to gradually upgrade all your gear to 333 for normal or 341 for heroic, giving you in the neighborhood of a 10-12% increase in suvivability, healing and damage. Introductory raid bosses would be toned down in their difficulty from where they are now by a noticeable margin (remember that if you were playing heroic you would not do the bosses on normal first), and final bosses could be either a little easier or stay the same given appropriate adjustments for lower gear numbers.
Casual players would feel that they were accomplishing something by playing normal dungeons with their limited play time. "Hardcore Casual" players would get to approach heroic dungeons with like-minded players. Servers would have a small number of heroic guilds and a larger number of normal guilds. Raid accessibility would be increased - a goal of developers since Wrath - without watering down content for those who like the hardest challenges.
This would allow a wider array of players to access dungeon and raid content, generate less friction by putting players with very different play styles and goals together less frequently, and give players more space to set their own goals instead of being forced down the one progression path.
If you think these changes sound insane or counterproductive, I'd love to hear about it how terrible I am. If you think that they sound awesome, help to spread the word. Blizzard is very responsive to customer feedback, and the more a good idea gets echoed in the player base, the more likely the are to notice it.
1. So far I have quite a remarkable record of my suggestions being implemented, which probably means that I generally have made suggestions that the developers were already planning on doing anyway. I hope I'm behind the curve on this stuff too and they already have it in the works.
2. This is already essentially possible with the lockout system by just extending your last instance, but the interface is somewhat hidden and not user friendly.