The Evolution of ‘Raiding’ in MMORPGs: from scarcity to entitlement

First, some context. I’ve been playing EverQuest a bit lately, on the Time Locked Progression server known as Fippy Darkpaw. The notion behind Time Locked Progression is that the server is opened without any of the 17 (yes, seventeen!) expansions unlocked. The idea is that as the content (read: raid bosses) is defeated a certain time period will pass, and then a vote will be held where all players above a certain level can have a say in deciding on progression to the next expansion. At the time of writing the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark (originally released March 2000), has been opened. The server provides an experience somewhat like that of the original game in 1999. This kind of server, and the forum drama accompanying it, provides a real benefit for MMORPG genre enthusiasts like myself. It gives a stark look at how much the concept of raiding has evolved in the last twelve years.

Raiding is as old as pen and paper RPGs. On a smaller scale, a group of players try to best a difficult foe, usually at the culmination of a story line, and receive rare or valuable items as a result. MMORPGs bring more players together, and raids naturally get larger. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine myself to talking about Player vs Environment or PvE raids, which means we really get started with EverQuest. The game that kicked off the MMORPG genre as we know it today also introduced players to an activity that would very quickly become a staple of successive games. When EQ was released, three ‘raid’ mobs came along with it. When players reached max level (50 at the time), they could band together in large groups to take out the estranged dragons Lady Vox and Lord Nagafen, or the underwater ruler Phinegal Atropos. The actual number of participants was only limited by server hardware, internet connections and group management. In 1999, these were significant limitations.

With lag, player disconnections, zone server crashes, a very loose aggro system, non-instanced content and week-long respawn timers on the raid bosses themselves, raiding was something many did not participate in. In fact, many initially didn’t ever expect to participate in it. Over time that changed – with new expansions older content became available to those not on the bleeding edge of character advancement, and gradually even the newer content became more accessible.

Newer MMORPGs brought new innovations to the way raids worked. Most important were raid functions built-in to the user interface (originally multi-group frames but eventually so much more), more rigid aggro and kill tagging systems, as well as enhancements outside of the genre, such as better server and client hardware, and the mass uptake of ADSL connections or better. Perhaps the most fundamental change to MMORPGs was the rise of content instancing. Initially used in some titles as means of controlling population in outdoor zones, instanced content really came into its own with the 300-pound gorilla, World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW showed game developers, and perhaps more importantly corporate investors, that the MMORPG genre was not niche and could be very successful. This led to many of the ideas, systems and methods of WoW becoming staples of the genre. Instancing is no exception, and is one of the most long-lasting legacies WoW has given to the genre.

Now, this post isn’t meant to debate which title has brought most to the genre. The genre is iterative, and wherever its origin, instancing is now in every modern PvE MMORPG title. No longer did groups of raiders need to compete with each other to make it to the raid boss. No longer were raid bosses a scarce resource that needed to be fought over in order to get the ‘phat lewt’ players drool over. Every player, if they could muster enough prepared people (and this in itself has become easier), could raid at their own pace and be entitled to items, titles and experiences. This has fundamentally altered the genre and massively increased the importance of what we now call ‘end-game’.

When EQ was first released, no-one knew that raiding would become the final gaming goal for most MMORPG players. Now, a title’s end-game is an important contributor to its’ success, and when we talk of end-game we almsot exclusively mean either PvE raids or Player vs Player (PvP) combat. So raiding went from something that only certain people did, to something that almost everyone did, in the space of five or six years. Which brings me back to the start of my post: forum drama. At present, raiding on Fippy Darkpaw has been locked down by a small handful of guilds who compete with each other for the relatively few raid bosses in the game. While many don’t care, accusations of cheating, camping, and flawed game mechanics abound – ultimately many people are disgruntled with how raiding is going down on the server.

The bottom line: people are now part of a genre where everyone is entitled to raid, yet Fippy Darkpaw is a throwback to a time when that wasn’t the case. Arguably many things make the current raiding scene on Fippy Darkpaw (and its emulated equivalents) more cut-throat and potentially unfair than in 1999. But illegal third party programs, a hodge-podge of new and old game mechanics, and an extensive game knowledge base are merely contributors to the problem, not the heart of it. The fact is, like it or not, our genre has changed extensively over the years, and a sense of entitlement to raid is the new standard. To play in memory lane, you either persist with a sense of entitlement utterly unbefitting the era, or treat it as a visit to a particular type of MMORPG, fully understanding and expecting its flaws. I think I’ll be doing the latter.

Perhaps the most important question for discussion is – what next? Much like how competitive raid races have fallen from favour with the majority, it seems that instanced content/raids are soon to follow. New titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic are attempting to limit how much players are ‘absent’ from the wider world. Will we see a return to non-instancing, or some other innovation?