When RIFT came out, I was one of the first folk to hit max level. I took a different approach to leveling in that game, with a lot of work being spent in dungeons and rifts, and a rather streamlined approach to zones. That process led me into a guild (more than one actually) and had me grouping with a bunch of people during the leveling process. When I hit 50, my friend list was a dozen or so other players at the same level. For a while, there were only 2-3 healers doing group content, so I ended up chain running dungeons and gearing up even more. It was really the front end of the bell curve.
I was in the grey zone on the far right. It took a few more weeks and then the more people started hitting 50, and over time, nearly everyone did, at their own pace. By the time most people hit 50, I had no more reason to run dungeons (aside from guild runs to help people).
In design, a waterline is determined early on in the process, a point where the majority of people need to be in order for a system to work. In some games, this is the ilvl requirement to start content, others it’s attunement, others it’s reputation… sometimes a combination of them works as well. The line has to have requirements where most people can meet them, otherwise it’s design for the sake of design. It’s a specific skill set you want all players to have in order to have a solid shot at completing specific content.
Heroic raids (up until the end of Cata) are a good example of design for the sake of design. Blizzard put content behind a gate that less than 0.1% of the population ever saw. Now, 0.1% of 10m players is still a lot of players, but from an economics standpoint, it didn’t make sense. LFR came about and a total rejigging of raid groups/sizes – most notably the flex system.
It’s also understood that the waterline is achieved through investment (or simply time). Some people will be gung ho and get it done super fast, others take a more leisurely pace to it. Some will simply give up.
For the first couple weeks of an expansion, top-end content is usually the domain of the dedicated. People understand the class, the mechanics, read about what’s going on and generally pay attention. Top performers, or perhaps just people that are more heavily invested.
As time passes, more people pass the line and can do the content. You find people who are learning a class, or are remembering how to play a class. Legion requires people to do dungeons while leveling (well… maybe not a hardened requirement but everyone gets a quest to close a chapter), so you’re also getting people who are not accustomed to group settings.
I was in a group yesterday doing the Eye of Azshara and the snake boss took the group to town. The tank was going straight to the boss without clearing the trash, and the Hunter never swapped targets and used Barrage to pull the zone. This is to be expected behavior as more people are leveling up, where the general skill level drops as more people pass the waterline. Thankfully the tank wanted to learn. The hunter… well, they were playing a hunter.
Tweaking the Line
This is really the challenging part, where picking the waterline where you want the majority of people to be. Just selecting some arbitrary criteria doesn’t work if it doesn’t match up with the players. More so if the content past that line has nothing to do with the criteria being measured.
Let’s say that the line opens up content where you need to interrupt spell casts, but the line doesn’t ever challenge you to interrupt anything. The Secret World addresses this through the boss challenges that unlock top end modes. You need to know how to heal, DPS and tank to move on, and the skills tested are used moving forward. FF14 forces you to interrupt and pay attention from the start, slowly adding more complicated elements as you level up.
WoW gives you 4 skill buttons and a lottery wheel to get above a certain number to do top end content. Which is cool if that’s really the intent, and I think in Legion it actually is. Sure, heroic dungeons are in LFG, but they are marginally more difficult than normal mode. It’s mythic dungeons that are where the challenge resides, and they are not in LFG. And I sure do hope that they don’t show up there – at least not without a proving grounds medal for a given role to start.
It’s interesting to see the various design schools at play between the games. As much as I see myself at one end of the spectrum, I can see why people at the other can have fun as well. And fun is the entire point of it, right?