My first excursion into a heroic dungeon was somewhat challenging. It was Stonecore, which is undoubtedly one of the harder heroics, and Corborus gave us a bit of a run for our money. Of course it was because we were playing terribly, getting hit by his charge while he was underground, but it left me with a good feeling that heroics really were harder now, and that encounter mechanics could not be ignored in favour of overgearing. As much as I like the new heroic design, there are clearly many who don't, and they regularly show up on forums to talk about how heroics are no longer fun for them. My gut reaction is to defend heroics because I don't want them to change or to be made easier, but that adversarial relationship is just masking the real problem. It's not that heroic dungeons aren't fun, it's that normal dungeons aren't fun.
This post is the first in a four part series on what went wrong with dungeons in Cataclysm from the perspective of a casual player. Today I'll be talking about how players can acquire gear and why normal dungeons are out of place in that progression. Tomorrow will be about how the current system of dungeons creates a dichotomy between normal and heroic dungeons where the best way to beat a heroic is by playing well and the best way to beat a normal is by having better gear. Thursday I will look at the role of Justice Points and what we can expect from the change to the way normal-difficulty players can earn Justice Points in 4.0.6. On Friday I'll present some real solutions to some of these problems.
Before I get to the topic I really want to discuss, and that is where gear comes from for non-heroic players, I want to talk about a few of the common concerns that are echoed around the forums. I don't want to dismiss 45 minute queue times for dps, the length of time it takes to clear heroic dungeons, or the challenges of doing difficult content with people you don't know through the dungeon finder, because I think all of these are legitimate issues for some people. But I think that too many people are trying to find solutions for problems that they perceive with heroic dungeons when they should be trying to find solutions to problems with normal dungeons. Almost everyone wants content to be tuned so that it feels like a challenge but it is ultimately surmountable. Unfortunately, a single dungeon cannot be that to all people - it has to run the gamut from unbeatably hard to boringly simple depending on the players that enter it. In focusing all efforts on finding ways to fix heroics, we are trying to make them into something they can't be - content for everyone. There are two levels of difficulty for dungeons, and if we work on fixing the problems with normal difficulty dungeons then instead of having one level of difficulty that is meant to be something for everyone, we could have two meaningful levels of difficulty and allow people to play the one they have the most fun with.
So why aren't normal dungeons working? One problem is definitely that there are only three of them for level 85 characters. This doesn't give enough variety for players who want to player normals dungeons. Even if all eight heroic dungeons were playable at level 85, though, they still wouldn't see nearly enough play.
A casual player, or any player, has most likely leveled up by going through the various zones and doing the quests. While some people have have leveled mostly from archaeology, this is certainly the exception rather than the norm. Having done all those quests means having gathered quest rewards, and having a decent amount of reputation will all of the new factions in Cataclysm. Questing alone will get you to, or pretty close to, Revered with the various factions. That means a lot of gear, including many 346 pieces, are readily available to players who have done nothing but solo content. Let's take a look at what a cloth-wearer1 could have in terms of gear from solo content alone.
You can get 346 items in the following slots: Back, Chest, Finger, Finger, Weapon (2-handed)
You can get 333 items in the following slots: Feet, Hands, Head, Legs, Waist
That means you are settling for less than 333's for your Neck, Shoulder, Wrist, Trinkets and Wand. Of course there are dungeon quests that give you 333's for Shoulder and Wrist, so one run through each of two dungeons guarantees those upgrades. That leaves you with only 4 gear slots that do not have 333 gear in them by the time you have run two normal instances even if you don't get any drops. Some drops in normal instances may be side-grades for some of your slots, but you already have many 346 items making many of those drops completely useless.
In fact, with a little bit of effort and an appropriate profession, you can hit the 329 ilvl requirement for heroics without actually doing any normal dungeons. Normal dungeons are a stepping stone that most players don't even need to step on if they want to avoid it.
Given this is it no wonder that players are complaining about heroics instead of enjoying normal dungeons. What is there to enjoy? Normal difficulty dungeons were virtually designed as throw-aways to be run once at most. Furthermore, many of the upgrades you could in theory get in normal dungeons have Justice Point vendor items in the same slot, making any upgrades that can be found feel temporary at best.
Some blue posts have suggested to people that if they find heroics too hard, they may want to consider gearing up a little more. This advice from blue posters would be helpful if normal dungeons were actually a place to gear up, but for the most part they are not. While it is possible that running a few normal dungeons could increase average item level by 1 or 2, either by filling out a rep to revered or by actually finding a drop, that kind of gear upgrade is not really what people who are struggling with heroics need.
Wrath of the Lich King gave a large part of - probably most of - the player base the impression that for dungeons (if not for raids) these difficulties should really be called easy and normal. There was no hard mode for Wrath dungeons, but there was a very trivial mode that people spent little or no time in. Part of making heroics harder, should have been trying to reverse this impression. Normal mode for dungeons should be what it is for raids: the difficulty that the majority of people find success in. Unfortunately by making the rewards of normal difficulty dungeons easy to match or beat through quests and solo play, the developers trivialized the rewards of normal dungeons and left players little reason to want to spend time in them.
Tomorrow I'll talk about why running dungeons on normal difficulty could be making things harder, rather than easier, for players who want to graduate from one to the other.
1. I am assuming that they can make use of either Spirit or Hit, so I guess I am excluding shadow priests.