Casual Versus Hardcore – A Debate That Shaped the World (of Warcraft)

My WoW history has been 12.5 years of gameplay.

Well, kind of.

Today’s piece is going to get more thinky and analytical, more focused on players and community than Blizzard and design. It is going to analyze something I think a lot about.

When I say I’ve played WoW for 12.5 years, that counts about a year-long abstinence from the game during Burning Crusade. I played starting in June 2005, and around the early summer of 2007, I took pretty much the rest of TBC off. I had server transferred Syladylin, my priest main, from US Cenarius to US Staghelm to raid with some co-workers, after the community I raided in Vanilla with had mostly fallen apart due to the raid size shift and apathy. I did Karazhan twice and Gruul’s Lair once, and then I quit. My ex-fiancee was pissed at how much time I was spending playing, even though it hadn’t really changed much, and after one particularly long Karazhan night, I quit playing for a while.

I came back in the Wrath of the Lich King pre-patch, dating my earliest acheivements to mid-October, 2008. I hadn’t much planned on really staying around, but I goofed around in-game a bit, and then on launch night for WotLK, I decided to camp the midnight line at my local Best Buy for the collector’s edition of the game and got it.

When I returned, I scarcely recognized the game I had returned to. The gameplay was still similar, but something felt…different. I found fan communities like MMO-Champion and the like discussing what would come to define much of the fate of the game – was WoW now casual trash, or was it still hardcore gameplay for elite players?

To me, it was fairly obvious early on that this was a false dichotomy. The game could be both – assuming, of course, that “casual trash” is really even a thing. I read these early debates with interest, as my opinions on issues like this were starting to form.

I loathe gatekeeping in almost any form. Doormen are fantastically nice people who deserve better, gatekeeper bosses in raids tend to be frustrating, and angry nerds that feel a need to limit access to the clubhouse are douchebags. WoW, in its earlier forms but particularly in TBC, was an accessible game who did have content behind gatekeeping walls. Raiding in Vanilla was limited by hitting the level cap – which was a feat. Then you had to assemble 39 others to tackle the content. Sure, we got some 20 player raids later, but these were altogether different pieces of content. This kind of paradigm was changed slightly for TBC in a substantially more hardcore way. Levelling was easier, yes – but hitting 70 took time, and then there were gear checks, attunement charts, multi-tiered quest chains, and the social obligation of assembling the raid group, which, while smaller, was still no small feat.

Wrath changed all of this – all raids were 10/25, with the same encounters, trash, and the like – gear varied, sure, but the social obligation had changed, as had the other gatekeeping tendencies of the older game design. It was possible to gear up to item level 200 quite easily through a mix of heroic dungeons and emblem gear – which, to be fair, did make that first 10 player tier a little less valuable on the loot side, but hey. This sparked a conversation about whether or not this was okay. I mean, to look back on it now, of course it was okay, and worrying about it was a bit silly, but I think Wrath of the Lich King was where a toxic element of the fan community around the game reared back, feeling threatened. Much like the people who decry “fake gamer girls” and other such bullshit, now anyone could raid. Sure, those early 10 player encounters weren’t necessarily any easier, but it didn’t matter much – reducing the social obligation so *those people* could play was seen by some as sullying their great hobby.

The debate about 10 vs 25 raged until the very end of Mists of Pandaria, when flexible raid size became the norm and high end raiding was constrained to one raid size that was neither of them (a bold compromise I think, in that neither “side” won).

But I think acknowledging this weird conflict is worth recounting the facts of Wrath of the Lich King. In truth, 10 player raiding for all raids didn’t spell the end of raiding – it gave top end guilds a more vibrant community with a larger, more geared pool of players to pull from. 10 player was easier in terms of social obligations, yes – but many fights in Wrath were harder on 10 than on 25. This still continues today in flexible raids, as smaller groups can often struggle more with mechanics that scale poorly (Kil’Jaeden’s Armageddon in ToS shows this well). Some of the 10 player fights were often brute-forced by guilds wearing 25 player raid reward gear, who would then go online to declare the encounters too easy, ignoring that they had a tangible advantage with the gear rewards they had received.

This debate was largely a silly one, simply a way to socially wall off the players unlike those debating – if you liked 10 player, you were casual trash. If you liked 25 player, you were a hardcore no-lifer like the South Park boys in the WoW episode on that show.

But I will leave the social side of the issue there for now, because I do think it is worth analyzing how Blizzard responded to these ideas.

Blizzard’s immediate response wasn’t very large – it was largely a community debate absent of much change they could really implement. They tweaked some encounters a bit, trying to balance difficulty a smidge to keep the two raid sizes about the same, and also using the implementation of Heroic raid difficulty to offer higher item level gear to 10 player raiders, while also then keeping 25 in the lead on gear.

Cataclysm was the first shift, where 10 and 25 player raids began to share lockouts and gear. The funny thing in retrospect is that this was greeted with wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it actually went relatively smoothly. The difficulties were actually really quite well balanced, barring a few examples. Some things were made easier for 25 player raid groups – Legendary item drop rates being the key example, but largely, Cataclysm saw Blizzard double-down on equalizing raiding. “Casual” groups and “hardcore” groups were on relatively equal footing. They were getting the same loot, the same raids, the same overall encounters, and…it worked. Sure, the debate was still there, but the shift had marked a change in the community too – the discussion was largely centered on 10 vs 25.

In Wrath, the casual vs. hardcore debate had encompassed large swaths of game design. If you were “hardcore” you probably debated the following:

-Emblem gear makes raiding too easy and unrewarding!
-Those scrubs with “welfare epics” make my acheivements feel less valuable!
-Heroic dungeons offering catch-up gear every tier hurts the work I put in during the equivalent raid tier for that level of gear!

It was a sea change for the game – shifting away from attunements, social obligations, and timesinks for more enjoyable gameplay overall – but it was a shift, and it did mark the point in the game where full purple gear slates became less of an acheivement and more of an expectation. This, I think, was the heart of the issue – in TBC, badge gear existed, but it was hard to acquire since badges mainly came from raids and heroics – much like Wrath, but the heroics in TBC were tuned far higher. It was, in many ways, the writhing of the old guard – the turning point at which WoW began to shift from classic models of gameplay into its own, newly forged path – where prestige came from acheivement mounts, Heroic armor tints, and the raw power given by that high end gear. While this was a good thing for the health of the game overall, I do think it is something you can mark as a milestone in the path to people’s fervor for Classic WoW – the point at which full epics was common.

The debate didn’t change much in Mists of Pandaria – continuing the model, although the raid size competition picked up one change in Throne of Thunder that lives with us, hauntingly, through this day and into the future. You see, Throne of Thunder added Thunderforging – which was statistically weighted to happen more in 25 player raids, offering an item level boost to drops. This became Warforging in Siege of Orgrimmar, which remained in place for nearly all content until Legion pre-patch when it became the current War/Titanforging systems. While that was pretty recent, it is so far back in the game’s history that it is hard to remember a system that is currently the bane of many progression raiders was initially a concession to their desire to be the most elite. Ironic, really!

With hindsight in our view, it is easy to see that the end of Mists of Pandaria changed the game fundamentally again. With the changes to raiding that flexible raid size introduced, Blizzard quietly and successfully has ended the debate, for the most part.

Overall, I find the idea fascinating. At the time, I saw the debate between raid sizes as 25 player elitists being dickheads to those they saw as lesser. This was even when I was raiding 25 player primarily! I was doing those raids, but I didn’t think the hardcore 25 crowd spoke for me. Even as I transitioned to primarily 10s in late ICC, into Cataclysm, Mists, and finally setting on a 12-14 raid size since.

To me, the debate was a simple social one – the gatekeepers, afraid of their hobby being co-opted by those they saw less-worthy of it. I said as much publicly once on Tumblr too, in a first attempt to frequently blog about WoW way back when. In a lot of ways, I hated the debate (still do) because the choices are false.

Casual gamers don’t really exist in WoW. I know, hold on. WoW is a game that engenders engagement, and while people can play it casually, I don’t think anyone reaching level cap and playing with any regularity are casual in the mainstream sense. They are casual in a WoW sense – one that still asks a large time investment and usually attains it. Likewise, I think most hardcore gamers in WoW aren’t WoW hardcore – world first Mythic races and top MMR Arena grinding notwithstanding.

And a part of why I believe that is that these labels are the wrong things to place value into. What you are within the game is not identified by how often you play as much as by what content you play – you might be a dungeon runner, a pet battler, an explorer, a raider, a PvPer, or some mix of these, but I’ve always found that there is a spectrum of sorts. There is a scaling line per task – I am a casual PvPer, an extremely casual pet battler, an explorer, and a casual-hardcore raider. But at the end of the day, that is a large array of tasks, each handled with a different level of focus and intent.

But this debate, unproductive as I thought it was, did lead to something good for WoW. Blizzard was able to try and craft this narrative, and the ideas that came out of their changes to help head this off led us to the game as it is today – flexible raids, warforging, and shared sense of reward – the raid is the reward as much as the gear, not chasing multiple difficulties and raid sizes weekly (although you can do this, ironically).

Overall, what started as a moderately unhealthy debate led to a change in the game, for the better, I would argue.

Next time I sit down to write a longer piece – I think the Dungeon Finder will be in the crosshairs.

4 thoughts on “Casual Versus Hardcore – A Debate That Shaped the World (of Warcraft)

  1. /played
    In my own opinion, the other thing that changed since WotLK is the pure and narrow min/max with the intent of … well, dps checks. The bosses today seem to hit less hard but take longer to kill with a comfy enrage timer. You still see it some (the two dogs in the valor raid) but it is more about the “play” than the “power” now, don’t you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It does feel like you can do more outside of raid to be effective, for sure. You’re no longer just putting on the highest item level gear and smashing face – there’s more nuance in how you gear, talent, use consumables – and then more in execution. Fights are more mobile than they were and that definitely started in Wrath, post Naxx at least.

      Also, after getting caved in by Argus a bit, at least one boss can hit decently hard 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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