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The LFR Impasse

April 26, 2013
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I’m going to say something that may be painfully obvious to the rest of the world, but which has only fully formed in my head in the last week or so:

  • The more challenging, innovative, and interesting a raid encounter is on normal, the less efficient it will be on LFR.
  • The more efficient, troll-proof, and straight-forward a raid encounter is on LFR, the less interesting it will be on normal.

The reason for this is simple – LFR and normal mode raiding have fundamentally different goals:

Normal raids are (generally) worked through by an established, consistent raid group over the course of several weeks and months, throughout the life-span of a raiding tier.  They require significant cooperation and planning.  Additional challenges like achievements and heroic modes are designed to prolong the shelf-life of that tier, and provide additional rewards for repeating the content.

LFR is a system designed to be accessible to all max-level characters.  It is supposed to provide the “feel” of raiding, but without the time commitment or coordination.  In addition, it provides exposure to new encounters for normal-mode raiders who are there to learn, and for players who raid exclusively in LFR, it is a chance to experience current raiding content.  The gear and Valor point rewards can be desirable to both raiders and non-raiders.

See the problem here?  Normal raiding is about prolonging the experience and challenge of a raid tier.  LFR is designed to abridge it.  As much as Blizzard has worked to improve the system since it was first released, this is a problem that simply will not go away because the fights themselves are not designed to be able to serve these two purposes simultaneously.

Please enjoy my super-scientific graph illustrating this.

Please enjoy my super-scientific graph illustrating this.

The “best” LFR was pretty inarguably Dragon Soul.  It generally went quickly, the fights required minimal explanation, and the raid itself had been designed so that only one major boss ability could be removed from the normal version of the encounter in order to make it translatable to Raid Finder.  There were a few fights that required significantly more coordination (Hagara, Spine), but many could be reduced to a strategy something like, “Stack up for healing, DPS the boss.”

Of course, Dragon Soul was not a very good raid.  No small part of this was because Dragon Soul wasn’t particularly challenging, nor did it call for innovative strategies.  The fights were more complex on normal than they were on LFR difficulty, but because they had specifically been designed to be translatable to the LFR setting, many of their strategies could also be reduced to “Stack up for healing, except during X,” X being the additional mechanic that had been removed for LFR.

This type of fight, a “brute force” or “turret” encounter (think Patchwerk, Ultraxion), works very well for LFR.  It requires minimal explanation and it means that your group will not wipe if a few people aren’t doing their jobs very well.  By contrast, an “execution fight” (Spine, Elegon, Durumu) can be extremely fun and interesting in a traditional raid environment, while making you want to delete your account after wiping repeatedly to it on LFR.

Throne of Thunder has been described by Blizzard as the next Ulduar, and while I’m not exactly certain about that comparison, I can say that ToT is easily the most fun I’ve had in a raid instance since Wrath.  That said, I don’t go anywhere near the ToT LFR unless I have a group of guildies with me, and I have absolutely no intention of bothering with it on my alts.  It’s really a great and unique raid, and that means it is necessarily a terrible LFR experience.  If the primary goal of the LFR system is to provide an abridged, efficient experience of the normal version of the raid, the ToT LFR has failed in this regard.

How can Blizzard’s encounter designers serve two masters in this sense?  How can they create boss mechanics that are challenging, creative, new – while also being easily explainable, immune to sabotage, and not overly dependent on individual performance?  The simple answer:  They can’t.

What’s the solution?  Well, I have two ideas, each of which pose their own sets of problems.

Option 1:  Buff the Rewards

The simplest change to implement would be to significantly buff to the rewards provided by LFR.  In tier 15, LFR rewards are a substantially lower than the comparable normal-mode gear, only slightly higher than normal-mode gear from the previous tier, and are actually lower than double-upgraded normal gear from the previous tier.

As such, there is little incentive for many normal-mode raiders to complete the ToT LFR each week.  There are plenty of alternative ways to cap Valor, and since few of the early fights in Throne of Thunder have hard DPS checks, there is little reason to attempt to replace any gear that wasn’t already 489 or better prior to the current patch.  For players whose only raiding opportunities come from LFR, the difficulty and time commitment involved are major reasons to avoid the ToT LFRs for the moment.

Frankly, I think merely buffing the rewards would be a poor choice.  It solves none of the inherent problems with the conversion of raid encounters to LFR difficulty, and it doesn’t change the time commitment required to complete ToT’s LFR.  It may also serve to make LFR even less accessible to non-raiders who do not know the fights and who are more undergeared than traditional raiders who use the system.

Furthermore, buffing the rewards from LFR only increases the incentive to run LFR for those people who are motivated by  improving their gear.  This is not a universal motivation, and it is a motivation that Blizzard has frequently said they would like to de-emphasize if they can find a reasonable way to do so.  As such, this solution would only motivate a portion of the playerbase now, and might end up being completely ineffective if WoW’s gear system is someday given a major overhaul.

Option 2:  Change the System

Alternatively (and requiring much more effort), Blizzard could keep the rewards exactly as they are, but alter the content of the LFR system drastically.  In order for LFR to be successful, and for it to be successful even in raid tiers that have significantly complex and challenging mechanics, encounters would need to be substantially redesigned in order to make them nearly fail-proof.

Essentially, what we would need is a system that constantly provides us with a steady stream of clear instructions, delivered in a way that isn’t overly immersion-breaking.  We need fights that are very forgiving of mistakes and which have few mechanics that can easily kill a player.  We need NPCs who are capable of tanking and healing effectively for situations when players aren’t able or willing to do so – possibly even to the extent that LFR could create a group with 25 DPS players if no dedicated tanks or healers were available at that time.

Fortunately, this system already exists in the game.  It’s called a scenario.

The intelligence of tanking and healing NPCs isn’t perfect, obviously.  We also can’t force anyone to listen to the instructions given by these NPCs, or stand in the healing circles and buffs they provide.  But imagine an LFR version of Durumu in which a Shado-Pan warrior is always the target for the blue, red, and yellow beams, and knows how to move the beams correctly to complete that phase of the fight.  Or, better still, imagine another member of the Shado-Pan assault who bravely hops into Durumu’s maze and shouts, “Follow me!”  Would some people still die to the maze?  Of course.  As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.  But we would be providing players with a more consistent and accurate form of instruction than dropping them into a group with 24 strangers and hoping someone knows or cares enough to explain.

A giant totem with a glowing blue arrow?  Maybe this heals me!

A giant totem with a glowing blue arrow? Maybe this heals me!

I would love a system like this.  It sounds a lot more fun than the current incarnation of LFR, and it would be a much more appropriate difficultly level for the rewards provided.  I have no doubt that there might be some objections to such a severe nerf or alternation to the raid encounters, and certainly it would make LFR have less of the “feel” of a traditional raiding environment.  The biggest downside would be the sheer amount of time Blizzard would have to invest to create a system like this.  Each fight in a raid tier would essentially have to be redesigned from the ground up as a mini-scenario.

A scenario, however, is a much better model for LFR than what it is now, which is something closer to a random battleground.  Battlegrounds don’t provide much in the way of guidance when it comes to strategy or objectives, and rely heavily on players to explain these to their group (with what can be disastrous results).  Whether this is the best way to deliver information in battlegrounds can also be debated, but there is a clear distinction that makes it less problematic than in LFR.  In a battleground, there are always players who win.  Even if we have two teams who are totally clueless about how Arathi Basin works, someone is going to win the battleground at the end, or at least receive a minor reward of Honor Points if all either team manages to do is kill each other a few times.  If a group wipes repeatedly to Durumu and never manages to down him, there is no consolation prize.  There are no players who win.

Something’s Gotta Give

It is in the best interest of normal-mode raiders for Blizzard to continue to create new and unique raiding tiers.  It is in the best interest of anyone who regularly uses LFR for Blizzard to create efficient and fun translations of those encounters.  Working within the confines of the current systems, these goals are mutually exclusive.  While Tier 14 probably came the closest to achieving both simultaneously, but the breakdown was clear in fights like Elegon and Garalon.

A steady stream of nerfs to LFR content after it has been released isn’t the best answer, either.  Many players shy away from a particularly difficult LFR encounter after they’ve seen just how bad it can be, and may be unwilling to return to it even after it has been nerfed.  Additionally, there are plenty of encounters that simply are not easy to nerf in a correct way, or in any way, that will make them easier to complete on LFR.  In many cases, it is not simply a matter of removing one mechanic or decreasing damage across the board – a more creative and nuanced solution is required.

In a perfect world with unlimited developer resources, I think the best answer would be to make LFRs more like scenarios in the ways discussed above.  Properly implemented, this would not only solve some of the issues with difficulty and trolling, but also reduce the long queue times for DPS and tanks.  In order to ensure the success of LFR in the long run, Blizzard must find some way to revamp the current system so that it is a fun experience and not a weekly chore that seems to eat up more and more time each tier.

Do you agree that better raids make for worse LFRs?  How would you solve this problem?  Would you enjoy LFR if it were more like a scenario?  Or, do you think that would make LFR too easy and unfairly reward those who participate?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2013 8:27 am

    Given the disparity in usage between LFR and normal/heroic, the solution will probably be “don’t make complicated encounters”. Blizzard may have wanted ToT to be the new Ulduar, but it certainly didn’t turn out that way. Normal mode completion rates stink. I seriously doubt ToT will be remembered fondly by many people.

    Ultimately, the devs need to get over their challenge dogma. The vast (and I really mean vast) majority of players don’t want challange.

  2. Daniel permalink
    April 28, 2013 6:32 pm

    First, let me say that this is an excellent article that addresses a major issue in a thoughtful and thought provoking way. Good job!

    Superficially, making LFR as a scenario has an appeal but the discussion overlooks one major issue: grouping. Blizzard is leery of making too much use of NPCs because they do not want, for a variety of compelling reasons, to turn the game into single-player. Using NPCs for solo content such as the Shado-Pan dailies in the Dread Wastes is one thing. Using them in small-group scenarios is another thing. But using NPCs in raiding becomes a big concern because an NPC is supposed to help and not carry the player, let alone carry the raid. In theory, Blizzard could get rid of ten man raiding entirely and every time a raid had less than 25 people just throw in some NPCs. There is no inherent programming challenge in doing so; the issue is that the “feel” of the game would be quite different. It would feel less like an MMO. Look at it this way: how would you feel as a player if you played a game of chess against a computer when the computer makes 1/2 of your moves in addition to its own? In essence, the computer is doing 2/3 of the work and that hardly makes for a compelling game. So the issue isn’t simply one of time and effort; it is the much more basic one of “is that compelling game design?” NPCs are cool but they shouldn’t be a magic spell that the developers cast at every troublesome design issue.

    My own opinion is to remove LFR entirely as I wasn’t a fan of putting it in the game in the first place. I felt then and I feel now that Blizzard’s reason for wanting it in the game were not healthy for the game as a whole. I felt the same way when they introduced Arenas and time has proven me right on that score because of the endless PvP vs PvE balance drama. However, Blizzard will never admit a mistake in that regard and remove such a major feature from the game. So I know getting rid of LFR is wishful thinking.

    So the honest answer is that while something must give it usually is player sanity. One of the biggest advantages Blizzard possesses is that because of its huge player base it can afford to make major design mistakes that would kill a lesser game. Blizzard has the luxury of kissing a million players goodbye and not even blushing. Everyone knows this so people keep playing though the screw-up when a weaker game would have fallen apart by now.

  3. Percy permalink
    April 29, 2013 3:46 pm

    The second “solution” just completely baffles me. Make LFR “nearly fail-proof”. I mean… what? This is a game.. games have challenges… right? And gear inflation will nerf it over time anyways. Why make it a complete joke at day 1?

    Really LFR is already -ridiculously- easy. If they make it nearly fail proof people would queue up and afk for an hour until it was done and collect their Valor and occasional loot. Lots of people already afk through much of LFR! I just can’t imagine the purpose an even easier version, seriously, just trying to is making my head hurt.

    I’m ok with buffing the rewards though. Giving normal mode raiders more incentive to go in and help out would be a good thing. Some form of increased ilvl loot or other bonuses such as greater valor or.. something. If there was some magical way to reward the individuals that did most of the work in any given run that would be ideal (or punish AFKers).

    And as for the question of better raids making for worse LFRs? Eh… Its really all on an encounter by encounter basis. The general theme of LFR is to remove most one shot mechanics and greatly reduce dps and hps requirements. Boss mechanics are already ignored, doesn’t seem to matter to me if the group ignores one mechanic or five.

  4. April 30, 2013 9:57 am

    Great post Tzufit! You really hit the nail on the head – LFR and traditional raiding do have two completely different goals. As players we love interesting encounters but it always backfires in LFR and the tension between the need for interesting design and LFR-ability is beginning to show.

    The purpose of LFR atleast to me, was to give folks a chance who had never seen raiding or had unpredictable schedules an alternative to the standard guild raid commitments. This changed this tier with gearing, when LFR became part of the linear gearing process (since we had no new 5 mans to bridge the gap). Thus players feel like they need to do LFR to be competitive, regardless of whether they want to or not. It’s not about a chance of seeing content anymore when regular raiders need to weave in LFR as a chore. And that to me, has really made the problem much worse.

    I agree that LFR in its current incarnation doesn’t work in the least. Buffing rewards won’t do much imo, and I’m not entirely sure that the scenario method is the way to go either. I’ve often used LFR to try out healing cooldowns and work on mechanics that I had trouble with – so taking it out entirely isn’t a great option to me.

    One thing that might work is simply not providing valour/loot rewards in LFR – maybe gold/flasks/other rewards would be more appropriate. It would just take it out of the gearing equation and thus people running it would have to be those who are interested in learning/practicing the fights rather than capping valour.

    I’ve taken a month long break from raiding due to a bad experience and initially, LFR felt godsent to me. It was a way to raid without really raiding. But as the fights get more complicated, I find myself simply avoiding the queue for ones like “Pinnacle of Storms”.

  5. May 7, 2013 11:13 pm

    I don’t think either of your solutions will work. The assumption you seem to have made is that the LFR players just need clear directions to succeed, which directions can be provided by an npc. From my personal experience, the bigger underlying problem is that players now have an expectation that LFR is ezmode and hence, don’t feel the need to exert themselves. In most LFRs I’ve joined, there is always an experienced player providing instructions on the mechanics (fulfilling the same role as your npc guide). He is often ignored with cries of “This is only LFR”. We have skilled players marked with raid markers running the paths for Durumu. Half the raid or more choose not to follow him. Blizzard itself has provided dungeon journals on boss fights. These are often unread. I doubt the addition of another npc player will make much difference.

    My point is, bad players feel no need to improve. They still collect loot if the raid downs the boss. My solution then is to make it such that players who fail to survive for more than half the raid encounter, get no loot. This will give them a personal interest in studying the encounter, if nothing more than to stay alive.

  6. June 14, 2013 3:09 am

    I enjoyed this article. I am one who would love to be raiding normals, but can’t commit to the huge amount of time required. Unfortunately, I am now sick to death of LFR and actively avoid ToT as it just takes such a long time to do. There are other – more efficient – ways of capping VP/getting gear.

    I LIKE that LFR forces people to communicate with each other, however, usually those conversations tend to go along the lines of “ffs noob move” or “wtf stupid healers” etc etc. For me personally on Durumu, Primordious, even Elegon, my lag is such that there’s no way I can stay alive. I cross my fingers and hope I catch up before the floor despawns and/or maze happens. Unfortunately, the horrid people that exist these days don’t find that a plausible explanation and I refuse to be subject to the abuse.

    What I wonder, as a relatively new player, is how new people are finding this? It’s so easy to get your gear level up to that of LFR while understanding very little. Then thrown into this situation, to be raged at when they make a mistake. Hardly fair and not at all productive.

    As much as I agree with the above “bad players feel no need to improve” – getting no loot is not a viable solution, in my opinion. By all means, kick the afk-er! If you’re dead, perhaps – like me – you always lag (and therefore die) in the same place, perhaps you stole aggro, perhaps bad RNG with tornado spawns.

    Perhaps what we need to do instead is educate new players in a friendly way and re-assess how we interact with each other. This would make the whole of LFR a more pleasant chore!

  7. February 6, 2014 1:52 pm

    LFR in its current incarnation is incredibly draining. I remember doing it all of once in 4.3 (it took me that long to gear up that the patch was over when I completed DS) and, besides a 4-hour long Ultraxion wipefest, it was immensely easy, enjoyable and engaging. It wasn’t the challenge of a regular raid, but it was what it said on the packaging.

    LFR since has been so tough, long and unrewarding that it’s hard to see why I bother beyond transmog. With the 5.2 rep grind it became even more of a slog, because if you wanted new valor gear you were required to do 4 wings a week. On a bad day, that could equal 10 hours or more.

    Going into WoD, I really hope this changes, and the suggestions you make above are ones that sound very very cool. It’d be awesome to actually do some raids with the NPCs not just talking to you, but joining in the fights in active roles in the same way that the Shado-Pan companions help out during their dailies.

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