Flex raiding is fascinating because it evokes such different reactions from different groups of players. For example, my first reaction was pure enthusiasm. “This is great,” I thought, “I’ll be able to do more raiding on my favorite alts without having to commit to another scheduled raid night.” The fact that it’s cross-realm means I can join up with friends on other servers and help out, and automatic scaling means that I don’t have to feel bad if I can’t make a night.
I was also optimistic that the introduction of a new difficulty level that was parked squarely between LFR and Normal would help revitalize a guild that several of my real-life friends play in. They hit a brick wall in normal-mode Throne of Thunder, struggling to score a single Jin’rokh kill, and their raid team decided to stop bothering. Many of them stopped logging in and let their accounts lapse. It’s a story that is all too common nowadays – a casual friends-and-family guild that broke upon the rocks of tier 15. Flex seems well-poised to fill the void that these guilds fell into. Accessible content that’s still aimed at organized groups rather than consumption with random strangers. Not having to force anyone to sit out on the one night a week that they can make is just the icing on the cake.
My biggest reservation is actually the loot system. Personal loot certainly makes sense, both in LFR and in Flex. I don’t object to it from an intellectual or game-design perspective. But the personal loot system feels like an awkward fit in this case – a glove that’s a size too small, as it were. You can wear it, but it just doesn’t feel quite right. There’s something special and exciting about killing a boss and seeing the loot it dropped on its crumpled corpse, even if none of that loot is for your class or spec. The personal loot system has never evoked that same feeling for me, for some reason.
And I think that it will work less well in Flex than it does in LFR. At least in LFR, it’s an unorganized group of strangers that you wouldn’t want to share your loot with. Even when you don’t get something, the large number of players and limited communication shields you from the feeling that the effort was worthless. In Flex, it should be fairly common to down a boss and have none of the ten players present get loot. And that will feel far worse because it’s an organized group of friends rather than faceless strangers.
In fact, if there were one thing I’d change about the Flex concept, that would be it: the loot system. Rather than using personal loot, I would use a progressive probabilistic system. The boss would drop an average of 0.2 items per player in the group. Items would be guaranteed at certain thresholds – i.e. it would drop one item for every five players in the raid (so 2 items for a 10-man, 5 items for a 25-man). For partial groups, each player would contribute to the probability of an additional item.
To illustrate: a ten-player group would always see exactly 2 items. An eleven-player group would get 2 items and a 20% chance at a third item. A twelve-player group would get 2 items and a 40% chance at a third item. And so on, such that the fifteen-player group would get exactly 3 items. I realize that it’s far too late for this sort of system to be implemented for 5.4, and would probably require some subtle technical changes in how boss loot is handled server-side. But I hope that it’s considered for 6.0, especially since I think it’s a safe bet that Blizzard will get a lot of (negative) feedback about personal loot in Flex once players get the chance to experience it.
But overall, I was still completely optimistic about Flex raiding. So it was a surprise to me that the first few pieces of feedback I received when discussing it with other hardcore raiders was entirely negative. Though in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have been, as the complaint was familiar enough. “Great, now I’ll have to run Siege of Orgrimmar three times a week on my main.”
So while Flex raiding introduces some great opportunities for the player base as a whole, it presents a fairly complicated problem for a small subset of that player base at the extreme upper end of raiding. Heroic raiders in particular are faced with yet another potential time sink and an increased likelihood of burnout.
This concern spawned a long and involved thread on maintankadin discussing what, if anything, Blizzard should do about it.
It’s easy to write this off as an irrelevant problem, or to characterize it as a fabrication; a self-imposed problem created by deranged players that simply can’t exercise self-control. But I think that’s a mistake. Despite the lower ilvl of LFR and Flex-raid gear, tier bonuses and trinkets have traditionally been powerful enough to more than overcome the ilvl disparity. So there’s a clear incentive for players to run this content even if their skill level far exceeds that content.
And where there’s an incentive, one must consider human psychology. The vast majority of these players are not incapable of self-control. They are sharp minds making calculated decisions about how to spend their time in-game. Raiding at any organized level is being part of a team, which means there are complicated social interactions involved. Some players will do whatever they can to help the team, either out of altruistic motivations or to ensure that nobody can accuse them of giving less than 110%. Others will do the bare minimum that is required. Either of those cases can involve a weekly LFR and/or Flex raid for extra chances at overpowered gear.
Perhaps more concerning is those players raiding on limited schedules. They may be skilled enough to raid at a high level, but the demands of the regular raid schedule already stretch them near the limit. Additional LFR or Flex raids outside of the usual schedule may very easily be the tipping point that pushes them out of raiding entirely. And those players are rarely content to scale back to a shorter raid week with weaker progression. They’re more likely to get frustrated with the game, quit, and move on to other games that have a similar skill cap but don’t require the same time expenditure.
But it isn’t just heroic raiders that are faced with this problem. That’s a convenient way to try and marginalize the effect, but the truth is that even normal-mode raiders are presented with this dilemma. In some ways, they even have it worse: those Flex-raid items are a bigger upgrade for a normal-mode raider’s previous-tier gear than for a player with double-upgraded heroic loot. And there are probably more potential upgrades in Flex mode for those normal raiders as well.
We tend to focus on heroic raiders as the ones most inconvenienced by these additional time sinks, but in reality I think normal raiders are more heavily impacted, as they’ll have incentives to run LFR and Flex throughout the tier, long after they’ve become irrelevant for heroic raiders. And normal-mode raiders are no less susceptible to burnout than their heroic brethren.
I don’t think there’s any question that the problem exists. It’s hard to argue that the incentive isn’t there, because it’s fairly evident. And burnout is a major concern, not just of the player base, but of Blizzard. The developers have made it quite clear that the shared lockout between 10-man and 25-man that was instituted in Cataclysm was explicitly to stem burnout caused by running both formats each week. So the question is not whether there’s a problem, merely whether or not Blizzard should do anything about it.
Much of the linked thread is focused on exactly that question. What can Blizzard do to mitigate the incentive to run and re-run the same instance multiple times per week? Should they do anything at all?
Even though there’s a problem, sometimes there’s just no good solution. One argument is that this problem need not be addressed because it’s temporary. Flex raids are provided in wings, and those wings will be gated much like LFR will be. By the time all of Flex mode is available, heroic raiders will already have several full instance clears under their belts, and the number of upgrades to be had in LFR or Flex will likely be small. There will always be a few players that get unlucky with drops and feel compelled to keep going back for that one item they’re missing. But with a winged implementation, even that isn’t so onerous, as you’ll only be running 3-4 bosses one extra time each week.
Of course, that again focuses on the heroic raider’s experience. Normal-mode raiders may well find themselves running multiple wings of Flex throughout the tier for gear upgrades. For those players, the problem will feel a lot less temporary.
But perhaps the best argument for leaving the “Flex Problem” well enough alone is that most of the proposed solutions are worse than doing nothing at all.
The Nerf Bat
Predictably, the first few solutions trotted out involve nerfing LFR and Flex loot ilvls so that they’re not attractive to heroic raiders. If the problem is that the gear is an upgrade for heroic raiders, perhaps the solution is to nerf it until it isn’t. I think the reason that this solution is the first to be suggested is tied to the fact that the argument has worked before.
In cataclysm, it was only 13 ilvls behind. And at the time, I wrote a blog post opining that the separation should probably be a little larger to further disincentivize LFR farming by organized raiders. In the first two tiers of MoP, the gap between LFR and normal-mode gear was increased to 20 ilvls (if you’re keeping score, I suggested 19 in that post). In T16, that gap is increasing even more (up to 28 ilvls) to accommodate Flex-mode gear, which will be 17 ilvls below normal-mode gear. So it’s clear that Blizzard has been sympathetic to the “increase the ilvl gap” argument.
However, I’m also not convinced that solution actually works all that well in practice. It’s fine when you’re just comparing raw stats, but the problem areas are traditionally unique effects from tier bonuses and trinkets. Neither of those are beholden the traditional rules of “higher ilvl = more stats = better.” In both T15 and T16, we see trinkets with unique and interesting effects that can be exploited for large DPS gains compared to higher-ilvl trinkets. And especially when it comes to tanks, set bonuses can be game-changing and hard to compare to a fixed stat increase.
Further, there’s a social problem with increasing the ilvl gap even further. Nobody likes to feel like a second-class citizen. But as the ilvl gap between LFR and Normal increases, that’s exactly what LFR players feel increasingly like. There’s no question that the rewards for heroic-mode need to be greater than normal, which needs to be greater than flex, and so on down the line. But remember that each ilvl is approximately 1% character power. An LFR player is already about 20% less effective than a normal-mode raider, and 33% less effective than a heroic-mode raider. Tuning open-world content gets much harder when that sort of performance gap exists. Content that’s challenging for the heroic raider is impossible for the LFR player, while content that challenges the LFR player becomes trivial and boring for the heroic raider. It adds another constraint on the problem of making compelling open-world content, which is something Blizzard has been struggling with all through Mists of Pandaria.
Nerfing LFR and Flex-mode gear also sends a very clear message to LFR and Flex raiders, whether that message is intended or not. It says “we value the opinion of these heroic raiders more than yours,” because the majority of players calling for LFR gear to be nerfed are outspoken heroic raiders. I’m sure Blizzard would never agree that this is the message they’re sending, and honestly don’t believe they think that way in the first place. But perception is what matters, and there’s no question that this is how such a change would be perceived. In essence, “GG, Blizzard caving again to the elitist heroic raiders that don’t want casuals to have nice things.”
So I really don’t think that nerfing the ilvl of LFR and Flex loot is a viable solution, nor do I think it’s any more likely than removing LFR entirely. I think the drop in ilvl to accommodate Flex raiding was probably a contentious compromise even within the halls of Blizzard HQ, seen not as ideal but as necessary to preserve the impression that there’s a significant skill divide between normal/heroic and LFR/Flex. I’d be very surprised to see LFR loot drop any farther behind.
Another idea put forth is to share loot lockouts between difficulties. In other words, if you run Flex, you’re locked out of loot in LFR for that week. Depending on who’s making the suggestion, it could even extend to being locked out of normal and heroic as well. And I can see the reason this option looks good on paper. It’s simple to understand and keep track of: one boss, one chance at loot, once a week. Period.
That said, it’s also a fundamentally flawed proposition. LFR and Flex raiding weren’t just instituted to provide an additional difficulty level for standard raiding. They’re explicitly designed to mitigate or eliminate some of the organizational and logistical “strings attached” that come with normal raiding practices. The need to agree on a particular time and date, to maintain a specific roster size, to choose which ten players to bring for each boss and which to sit on the bench, to have consumables prepared beforehand, even the need to review strategies before raid time. All of these are issues that LFR and Flex attempt to eliminate in the name of accessibility. These formats are doing everything they can to promote social raiding – to encourage friends to get together and have fun without the sorts of burdens that raiders have traditionally been unable to escape.
I’m certain that Blizzard wants a player who rarely has time for more than LFR to be excited when they get a chance to join a Flex raid pick-up-group. If it feels like an exciting opportunity, the player is happy and the format is doing its job. But it will just feel like a disappointment to the player if they’re unable to receive Flex loot because they’ve already run that wing of LFR this week. Suddenly, a layer of planning and optimization has been forced on a format that felt free and unburdened otherwise.
And that’s really the reason that loot lockouts won’t solve this problem. To ignore the social aspect of LFR and Flex is to completely overlook the intent of those modes. They are meant to be flexible and accommodating, so that you can jump in with some friends and help out without worrying about exterior consequences. Any sort of loot lockout subverts the freedom that makes LFR and Flex raiding attractive to the majority of its audience. While it might fix the incentive problem that heroic and normal raiders have, it causes so much collateral damage to the social raiding formats that it’s untenable.
So far, the suggestions have focused on adding or tightening restrictions on LFR and Flex, which inevitably makes the format worse for its intended audience. And I think that any solution trying to walk that path is doomed to failure. The problem is very limited in scope. It only affects normal and heroic raiders. The solution should be similarly limited in scope, in that it should try to fix the problem in a way that has the smallest (ideally no) impact on LFR and Flex raiders.
In that thread, I suggested a method that tied your LFR loot roll to your bonus rolls. In short, if you hadn’t used your LFR loot roll on a given boss that week, you would get an increase (maybe +10%) to your bonus roll chance if you used a coin on that boss in normal or heroic mode. Using a bonus roll would then make you ineligible for loot from that boss on LFR.The idea is very straightforward. If a normal or heroic raider is after a specific item, then increasing the bonus roll chance from 15% to 25% on their highest difficulty level is more attractive than another 15% chance to get a weaker version of the trinket through LFR. There would no longer be an incentive to run LFR for a powerful item because that LFR roll was now an additional resource that could be leveraged to better effect on heroic mode with a bonus roll.
However, having given it more thought, I’m not sure it’s a great idea either. For one, it actively discourages raiders from going into LFR. While most heroic raiders would be happy for a reason to actively avoid LFR, it does add another layer of restriction. What about players who like to run LFR for valor, or to help out a friend in a less progressed guild? They’re suddenly restricted from doing that because it impacts their bonus rolls in progression content, at least until after main raid is completed for that week.
You could work around that limitation by making it an option, but now you’re talking about introducing a new UI and building an entire system around the idea of “LFR loot rolls as a resource.” And while I like the resource idea, I think this amount of complication clearly sets it aside as something too large and complicated for a mid-expansion patch.
There is an alternative implementation of the bonus roll idea that would probably make LFR and Flex raiders happy. Or at least, amused by the irony. A bonus roll on normal or heroic could automatically lock you out of LFR loot from that boss, and vice versa. This is interesting in that it primarily punishes the normal and heroic raiders. An LFR or Flex raider would be unburdened by the restriction, while the heroic raider would suddenly find their three most attractive bosses worthless on LFR.
But ultimately, even that idea has its share of awkward consequences, including punishing the LFR raider that can occasionally make it into a normal-mode group. While I think the “rolls as a resource” idea is interesting and worth investigating, it would require a lot of careful tweaking to get it into a form ready for implementation.
The idea I’ve liked the most so far is one proposed by Thels. For lack of a better term, I’d call it the “Cumulative Loot System.” In short, when you kill a normal or heroic boss, you also automatically get your personal loot rolls for LFR and/or Flex. You could imagine various permutations of how this would work; maybe a normal kill gives you your LFR roll, while a heroic kill gives you both LFR and Flex rolls. But the simplest case is just that you get both rolls on any normal or heroic kill.
What I like about this solution is that it directly addresses the problem at the source. The problem is that players clearing normal and heroic feel compelled to run LFR and Flex for additional chances at marginal upgrades. The complaint isn’t that the LFR and Flex loot is “too good,” or “more than LFR deserves,” strictly speaking, though I’m sure we could find a small subset of players who would argue those points. The problem is that the extra LFR and Flex clears require more time on top of an already demanding heroic raiding schedule, and that a player with the skill to do heroic modes doesn’t find these watered-down difficulty levels fun.
Rather than trying to take anything away from LFR or Flex raiders, this solution instead just gives “extra” or “free” loot to heroic raiders to remove the additional time sink. And I think that’s a much wiser move at this point in the game’s life than trying to impose more restrictions on the LFR and Flex raid population, which even now accounts for the vast majority of raiders.
The main objection that’s arisen to this suggestion is that normal/heroic raiders don’t “deserve” that extra loot, because they haven’t “earned” it. But I think there are a number of reasons that this objection is nonsensical. First, there’s the obvious: the argument rests on the abstract and arbitrary nature of what anybody does or doesn’t “earn” or “deserve” in a fictional online universe where rewards depend on the whims of a team of developers. If you ask 100 players what a raider deserves for killing a heroic boss, you’ll get 100 different answers. What anyone “deserves” is arbitrary, and determined entirely by what the boss actually drops.
More importantly, there’s already a precedent in-place that heroic raiders do “deserve” more for killing a boss than normal or LFR raiders get for killing a boss. And that’s above and beyond the increased ilvl loot that heroic bosses drop. Whether it’s a guaranteed vanity mount drop from an end boss, a raid-wide achievement like the Glory achievements, or access to a special heroic-only boss like Ra-Den, Sinestra, or Algalon, heroic raiders have always received extra perks for clearing harder content. You could argue that they don’t deserve those perks, but Blizzard keeps implementing them, so they clearly disagree. Trying to draw a distinction between vanity mounts and extra LFR loot and argue that heroic raiders “deserve” one but not the other seems specious to me. Both are just a small extra reward for putting in additional time and effort and demonstrating a higher level of skill.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that time is the real reward here. In most cases, the “free” extra loot is nothing more than extra satchels containing 28 gold. Certainly some lucky players will get that trinket they would have run LFR for, but for the vast majority of heroic raiders this reward structure would just mean freedom from the additional time sink of LFR and/or Flex. And the excess gold could even be compensated for by reducing the gold that heroic bosses drop. I doubt many raiders would hesitate to pass up the extra gold they’d get by running LFR for the freedom from ever having to run LFR again on their main.
There’s also a subtlety here that I think most people have overlooked. If normal and heroic automatically grant LFR or Flex rolls, then it’s no longer a problem if those items are attractive to normal and heroic raiders. And if there’s no longer any problem with them being attractive to heroic raiders, it means that LFR and Flex loot wouldn’t have to be kept at an artificially low ilvl. There’s no point in having a 30-ilvl gap between normal and LFR just for the sake of keeping normal and heroic raiders from feeling obligated to run LFR. The gap can be adjusted more freely by the developers, which could make LFR and Flex feel even better for their intended audiences. I wonder if the players arguing against giving heroic raiders more “free” loot would stand firm on that position if the alternative was getting better loot in LFR.
The other potential downside is that fewer heroic raiders will run LFR, lowering the average skill level of a randomly-selected LFR group. I’m not sure that’s going to have a significant impact on the average LFR raid, though. In many cases, guilds will queue together to “get the pain over with quickly,” so nobody suffers if we remove those groups from the LFR queue. And many of the players who run LFR on a geared main may continue to do so for valor, to help out a friend, or just to epeen meters. Or they may go on an alt that can benefit from the loot instead. So they won’t be completely absent.
But more importantly, LFR was never tuned with those players in mind. The encounters are easily clear-able by a group that contains no highly-geared champion to carry them. I’ve been in groups on my mage where I topped DPS meters despite only having an ilvl of 500, and we had little trouble killing bosses. While some players might bemoan getting carried by a handful of heroic-geared players, that was never how LFR was supposed to work in the first place.
In fact, I wonder if it wouldn’t have a positive effect on LFR overall. It’s fairly common to find players that join up and AFK bosses, relying on that handful of players to carry them to free loot. And that cycle perpetuates because it works. If you remove the “carriers,” such that every player’s contribution was more important, I think the remaining players might take enforcement more seriously too, and vote-kick players that clearly aren’t contributing. If carrying an AFK player had a significant downside, such as a noticeable increase in the likelihood of a wipe, players may be less willing to shrug their shoulders and say “whatever, we’re going to kill the boss anyway.”
In my mind, it’s pretty clear that any solution has to have as little an impact on LFR and Flex as possible. Because to be frank, while the problem exists, I don’t think it’s as severe as most heroic raiders make it out to be. Sure, it’s an inconvenience, and it’s definitely going to cause some players to burn out. But I think it’s probably a very small percent. At least, a very small percent of heroic raiders, who will out-gear Flex mode to the point of irrelevance very rapidly.
So I think that any solution that hurts the LFR or Flex experience probably isn’t worth it. Sure, it might be a quality-of-life improvement for us, but that shouldn’t come at a significant quality-of-life decrease for a much larger population of raiders.
If we really want to eliminate the incentive to spend time in LFR, we should be focusing our effort on solutions that don’t actively punish LFR and Flex raiders. A solution like the Cumulative Loot System idea, which nullifies the incentive without taking anything away from social raiders, is exactly the sort of idea that can gain widespread support from more than just a small subset of elite heroic raiders. And the possibility of decreasing the LFR loot gap could even win it the support of LFR players. An idea that works for everybody is far more likely to be considered by a developer than one that’s divisive, and our best chance at avoiding a return to Wrath-of-the-Lich-King era burnout conditions.