Time for another game post. I thought this time I'd talk about what goes into the process of an MMORPG raid (well, a World of WarCraft raid,s ince that's all I know) in an effort to make the process more accessible to all the significant others out there who have either become WoW widows or made their raider stop playing due to "GF aggro." Fair warning, this is pretty long.
The mysterious world of raids can largely be explained by reviewing some terminology.
Instance. All dungeons in World of WarCraft are physical places in the game world, and dungeons are one of the main focuses of action in the game. There may be several thousand people in the game world at any given time, which raises the possibility of hundreds of people descending on the same dungeon at once. This raises obvious game design problems: how could you design the monsters in the dungeon to be challenging enough for hundreds of players that wouldn't be impossible for only two or three? The conventional game design answer to this problem is to create an "instance" of the dungeon - a discreet copy for a small group of players at a time. Thus five players can go to Shadowfang Keep, and when they enter the server creates an "instance" of Shadowfang Keep in a little dimensional pocket that only those five players are in. If another five players travel to Shadowfang Keep while the first group is still inside the castle, those other five players will enter another "instance" of Shadowfang Keep.
Raid. The question now arises, how many people should be allowed inside a given instance of a dungeon? A hundred at once? Fifty? Two? In WoW, instances are divided into three categories: instances for five players ("5-mans"), ten players ("10-mans") and twenty-five players ("25-mans"). These numbers designate the number of players the instance was designed for and therefore reflect the maximum number of players that can be inside a given instance. There is nothing stopping a group from entering a 25-man instance with only two players, but they will likely find it too challenging to complete. A 25-man instance is designed to require the carefully combined and coordinated efforts of 25 players to be successful. Any instance designed for more than five players is referred to as a "raid," and a player who enters such instances on a regular basis as a "raider." (Historical Note: Before the expansion pack released last year instances were categorized as 5-man, 20-man, or 40-man. Those larger 20- and 40-man instances are still in the game world, but they're less frequented since the advent of the expansion for a variety of reasons.)
Progression. "Progression" refers to the perceived/intended curve of gameplay difficulty in the game. Conventionally, progression is benchmarked in terms of instances, or in terms of raid instances particularly. Progression is a concept that is designed into the game. That is, the fact that (say) Blackwing Lair is a more challenging instance than the Molten Core is not simply player perception. The game design intuition behind progression is to provide players with increasing challenges, so they can develop their skills on easier challenges and then be rewarded by moving on to greater challenges.
In WoW, the progression curve roughly tracks the size of an instance. Roughly speaking, all 5-man instances are easier than 10-man instances, which are easier than all 25-man instances. There is no reason inherent to the game's mechanics that this should be so, but it is a MMORPG convention dating back to EverQuest in the late 1990s. It is also, as I shall contend later in this post, a source of confusion and frustration between players and non-players.
Loot. "Loot" refers to items that a monster "drops" that is of use to a player. WoW being a game whose mechanics are mostly combative, "loot" especially refers to armor and weapons (the former term including all manner of wizardly robes and the like). This brings us to our first insight that the non-player may not find intuitive: WoW is deliberately designed so that player skill is insufficient to defeat all challenges in the game. In many video games, a sufficiently skilled player can defeat all challenges in the game without the aid of the many and various powerful tools (weapons, etc.) the game offers him. Indeed, in many video games players consider it a mark of great skill to finish the game using a bare-bones set of tools. We might call this the "Robin Crusoe" model of game design (the mightier the hero, the lesser the equipment). WoW is the opposite. In WoW (and all other MMORPGs) there are challenges that cannot be defeated no matter how good the player is; he must avail himself of ever more powerful tools. This might be for obvious reasons (e.g., he must seek out magically fire-resistant armor to slay a dragon) or for slightly less obvious reasons (e.g., he cannot, no matter how skilled the human player, defeat this knight without finding a mightier sword than the sword he has now). We might call this the "Iliad" model of game design (the mightier the hero, the mightier the equipment; even a warrior of Achilles' skill cannot face the mighty Hector without magical armor). Implicit in the game world is the understanding that some weapons and armor are just mightier than others, even if they perform exactly the same tasks. For instance, Achilles' spear is mightier than Odysseus', despite the fact that on the physical level it is just another spear; Anduril is mightier than other swords despite the fact that it inflicts its wounds through cleaving and thrusting, just like any other sword; and an Arcanite Reaper is mightier than Lord Alexander's Battle Axe despite the fact that both are just axes. Indeed, an Arcanite Reaper is mightier than a Night Reaver, despite the fact that the former is physically just an axe and the latter is an axe that shoots bolts of shadow magic. The fact that WoW requires players to seek out ever more powerful loot is one of the fundamental mechanics driving the game.
Drop. And how does one acquire loot? Some of it can be crafted by players in the game from rare and exotic materials (e.g., special metals) that those same players have plucked from dangerous mountaintops after facing many perils (albeit perils which, in general, pale beside those to be found inside an instance). Some of it can be crafted or provided by computer-controlled non-player characters for whom the player has performed some suitably epic quest. Most of the loot required to climb the progression curve's higher end is literally looted from the corpses of monsters slain in instances slightly lower on the progression curve. Such loot is referred to as "drops" (the metaphor being that the monster is clutching his prized magical breastplate in his hand, which he lets drop to the floor as he is slain). All monsters have a "loot table" of useful drops that they could drop when slain; the actual piece of loot a monster drops is determined by the game server rolling a virtual set of dice and looking up the result on the table. Frequently a given player will want only one drop from the monster's loot table - and, given the statistical nature of selecting which piece of loot will drop, that player may have to slay said monster many times before the dice come out his way. (Side Note: Don't ask me why the monsters have all these magical weapons and armor lying around to tempt passing adventurers. I never did figure out what Baron Rivendare wanted with a druid's Wildheart Kilt.)
Trash. All dungeons in WoW, following established video game tradition, are populated by two kinds of monsters (or "mobs"): bosses and not-bosses. In WoW, not-boss monsters inside an instance are referred to as "trash." This is part machismo, part recognition of the fact that bosses are the focus of any game they appear in. Being the focus of the players' efforts is part of what makes a boss a boss. The loot dropped by trash (or "trash mobs") may be helpful to a player's progression, but it is rarely vital and usually of lower quality (i.e., less mighty) than the loot dropped by bosses.
Run/Clear/Down. To "run" an instance is to go inside of it and fight the monsters therein. To "clear" an instance is to slay every monster inside of it, or at least to slay all the bosses inside of it. Because instances themselves have miniature progression curves whereby, e.g., the first boss in the instance is easier than the last, "clear" may also be used partially (as in "this week we cleared Karazhan through the Shade of Aran"). If a boss is slain, he is said to be "down" or to have "been downed," and the act of slaying him is "downing" him.
Reset. Once you have cleared a raid instance, what do you do? Can you do it again? Or are all the monsters and bosses in there dead for all time? In WoW, everything you just slew will come back to life, ready to be slain (and looted) again, in the course of time (usually on the order of once a week for most raids). This is referred to as the instance "resetting." Resets are a necessary absurdity given the statistical nature of drops and the fact that the progression curve is loot-dependent as well as skill-dependent. Suppose a player needs a particular set of magical greaves in order to successfully challenge a great leviathan, and those greaves are known to be held by an evil death knight. He can (with the help of others) slay that death knight, who may drop the player's magical greaves but could just as easily drop a wizardly robe that is (because he is not a wizard) of no use to the player whatsoever. If the death knight stayed dead, our player could not get his greaves, and would forever be barred from defeating the leviathan (whose drops he would need to face yet greater challenges afterwards). And no - for reasons which are utterly contrived, the player cannot simply rifle through the death knight's corpse and obtain all the loot that he is presumably hiding in his back pocket. Don't ask me why.
There are also "soft" resets within a raid itself. If a raid has multiple bosses inside of it, the trash preceding that boss will generally be "linked" to the boss. From the moment the first "linked" monster is engaged, the raid will be on a hidden timer (anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour). If the boss is not downed within that timeframe, the trash will come back to life again and the raid will have to clear it all over. However, if the boss is downed within that timeframe, his linked trash will stay dead until the entire raid instance resets. This mechanic allows players to clear a raid over several days. If a boss is downed today, the raid can come back tomorrow and waltz through the halls that only yesterday were packed full of ravening monsters, until they get to an area of the dungeon that they have not yet cleared.
So now we have all the tools to understand just what raiders do all day. In fact, you probably understand most of the dynamic already.
Let us start with the basic premise: a player and twenty-four of his friends (or at least his comrades-in-arms) desire to down some boss. For instance, this very evening my guild will attempt to down a massive magical-mechanical golem type entity known as the Void Reaver. Our raiders have various reasons for wanting to do so.* The snarky way to put it is that they want to down the boss so they can get loot to down some other boss, etc. etc. ad nauseum. And this would be true, although it's probably no more or less trivial than a football team who wants to defeat this week's opponent so they can get the rating to defeat some other team, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Another way of putting it (which would be true for the football players as well as the raiders) would be to say that this week's target presents a challenge of skill that they wish to answer, for the inherent reward and sense of accomplishment that comes from defeating any challenge, whether or not it leads to further challenges down the line.
It is a common misconception among non-players, I think, that raiding is simply a matter of logging into the game at the appointed hour, journeying to the dungeon wherein the boss resides, and sallying forth to conquer and pillage. In some cases this is true; a player will generally have reasons to visit instances that are lower on the progression curve than his current level of skill and equipment permit him to take on. These instances are "easy" to him by virtue of his skill and equipment and therefore require no extensive preparation on his part to clear. For another player, less skillful or less well geared or both, that same instance might require careful planning beforehand.
In general, raiders are most excited about attempting instances that are at the very limits of what their gear and skill allow (this is particularly true of "new content," a boss or dungeon that the group has never hazarded before). Now, whether one's equipment is mighty enough to down a particular boss is a rather complicated and involved but reasonably mechanical assessment, since many thousands of others have attempted the very same boss and with the help of the internet it is fairly easy to benefit from their experience. Whether one's skill or the skills of one's comrades are adequate is another assessment entirely, and one that is prone to egoism.
There are a number of ways in which a raid can increase its chances against a boss at the very limit of their skill/equipment envelope. One way is to browse the internet for write-ups of others' successful (or unsuccessful) attempts on that boss, or to watch videos of other raids fighting the boss, or to post questions about the boss on an online discussion forum. I have never fought the Void Reaver before, so I read an article that discusses the fight. Alternatively, a player might notice (or be told) that his skill is lacking and he is a drag on the group. This player could go online and discuss with others what he is doing wrong, or what he could be doing better. The WoW forums are full of just such questions. Forewarned is forearmed.
Another way is to craft magical potions, scrolls, and the like (even magical war drums) that the raiders will use just before engaging the boss himself. The benefit from such "consumables" is short-lived, but will effectively expand the skill/equipment envelope for the duration of the boss fight itself. The use of consumables generally increases as the group's familiarity with the boss decreases. If the guild has slain this boss a dozen times before, they may feel comfortable enough to engage in the fight without this temporary augmentation. If the boss has only been downed a few times (or never at all) the group may attempt to compensate for their lack of skill at this particular challenge by essentially temporarily augmenting their equipment. Of course, magical potions are not cheap. They require rare herbs found in the far corners of the globe, and it is no easy task to scour the far corners of the globe in search of enough herbs to provide twenty-five people with five vials of potion apiece. Some players will sell such herbs or potions on the in-game auction house (which is like eBay, except that it's a physical auction house to which one must journey). Of course, since the labor involved in getting those materials for auction is considerable, players who intend to buy their consumables must spend a considerable amount of time in the game raising money.
Finally, a group can try to improve its actual gear before the "main event," so to speak. Another more or less common misconception is that everything needed for a raid is found within the raid itself. The game could have been designed this way, but it was not. In part this is an accident of design; loot primarily intended for one instance may well be useful in six or seven. In part it is also a deliberate design decision; Blizzard wants to contribute to the epic feel of the game by making players journey across the globe to many different locations. For instance, there is an orcish warchief named Kargath Bladefist who is known to drop bracers (forearm guards) that would enhance my druidess' capabilities in her bear form (like all druids in WoW, she is a shapeshifter). Bladefist resides in a 5-man instance called the Shattered Halls, half a world away from the Void Reaver in Tempest Keep. In preparation for this evening's assault on the Void Reaver, I could have found four other players with reasons of their own to visit the Shattered Halls in an attempt to down Bladefist and get my bracers. In point of fact I tried to do exactly that, and failed to find four other players willing to make the attempt (the Shattered Halls, despite being a lowly 5-man, has a reputation for being quite challenging. One of the changes in Blizzard's design philosophy since the expansion pack has been to make 5-man instances more challenging, so players without the time or social network to coordinate 25-man raids can still have a comparable level of challenge). Even if I had, the entire attempt would have taken two to four hours. First I would have had to find four players besides myself who wanted to go. Then I would have had to find four players whose gear and skill, in conjunction with my own, would give us a reasonable chance to actually clear enough of the instance to get to Kargath (who is the final boss of the instance). And then we would have had to go do it, which would take sixty to ninety minutes for even a very well geared and skillful group.
All of this falls into the category of "preparing for the raid," and all of it, as you might imagine, takes time. And then there is the raid itself, which can take anywhere from two hours to six depending on how the group's skill/equipment envelope matches up to the raid, and how persistent the raiders are. As a general rule, a six-hour raid means the group doesn't have the chops for their target, but they may persist in the hopes of learning more about the encounter through painful experience (or simple denial). In my personal opinion a "successful" raid should take two to three hours, but others have different tolerances and expectations (others in my guild, for instance, are perfectly happy with a raid that takes four hours).
I mentioned earlier that all of this preparation may be necessary for some players to run a 5-man instance just as much as it is necessary for another, more skillful or better geared player to run a 25-man instance. This was not really true. One of the things that I think can trip couples up is how much more time and effort must be spent preparing for raids than preparing for 5-mans. The truth is that most 5-mans require very little preparation, because they are simply easier. The progression curve, in other words, is not linear. The jump in difficulty from, say, Sethekk Halls to the Shadow Labrynth (one of the more difficult 5-mans) is not nearly so great as the jump from the Shadow Labrynth to Karazhan (which these days is the first raid that most players can handle). The demands of the game change dramatically when a player begins to raid, because the game has gotten a lot harder.
As I said before, there is no particular inherent game mechanical reason why the game should get much harder in raids (Blizzard has recognized this to some extent, with the addition of "heroic" 5-man instances that are more like raids in their challenge level but still only require 5 players). Nevertheless, that's the game. Blizzard has decided that the hardest challenges its designers can come up with should be placed in a raid context. Of course, that is the very thing about raids that makes them so exciting to most raiders. Unfortunately, because those challenges require 10 or 25 other players to experience, there are significant social reasons why the game takes much more time at the raid level. Schedules must be coordinated days in advance. People log in to the game late. Some members of the raid didn't do their homework, and must have things explained to them (thereby wasting the time of all those who did do their homework, for which the explanation is redundant). And these social barriers, each of which requires time, are compounded atop the added gameplay necessity for greater preparation. I think the effects in terms of needed prep time can be confusing for those around a newly minted raider.
The raiding lifestyle is not particularly conducive to romantic (or indeed, parental) relationships, but I think that understanding it can help. And so far I've been able to maintain my relationship with Thayet without giving up raiding entirely (in fact, although my play time has decreased, my progression has increased). Based on that experience I think the main component to the "romantic raider" lifestyle is that both parties value the other and their leisure activities of choice. Thayet loves spending time with me (and I with her), but it's also important to her that I have my alone time. It's also often seemed to me that it would help many couples if they both understood what the process or raiding involves. For instance, I think you can see by now why it isn't really possible to raid without playing the game outside of the scheduled raid time; such a player would have no time to prepare and therefore could not attempt new and challenging bosses. Of course, a player could always simply refuse to prepare, and there are usually several in a given raid who have done just that. However, their slack must then be taken up by others in the group (or else the group must accept this reduction in its capabilities): others must gather the herbs that he didn't, or spend valuable time explaining the fight. That simply isn't fair to the other players, who (although it is often forgotten) are human beings with lives and schedules of their own.
On the other hand, there's a difference between playing the game because you're bored (i.e., sending the message that you value WoW more than your girlfriend) and playing the game in pursuit of some particular goal. For instance, here are some items from my WoW "to-do" list:
Journey to Nagrand and gather rare primal shadow from the demons I slay there, which I will use in an enchantment I want cast on my cloak to enhance my healing spells, and in weaving into magical armor kits and a magical ring that will help protect me from the nature-based spells I will have to face when we challenge the mighty water elemental Hydross
Journey to the Zangarmarsh to gather rare motes of life from the fungal giants I slay there, which I will use in the aforesaid ring
Journey to Terrokar Forest to gather rare primal water from the water elementals in a lake high atop a mountain, which I will use in a different ring to protect me from the frost spells that Hydross and his minions will use
Journey to the Blade's Edge Mountains to gather rare primal fire from the fire elementals there, which I will use in the second aforesaid ring
Journey to Hellfire Peninsula to kill Kargath Bladefist in the Shattered Halls until my bracers drop to enhance my bear form, needed to tank many bosses
While I'm there, invade the various portions of Hellfire Citadel to prove myself a champion of the beleaguered humans of Honor Hold, as only then will they teach me to craft a particular magical armor reinforcement, which will enhance my panther form as well as many of my team mates
Journey across the world to slay various bosses in 5-man dungeons on "heroic" difficulty mode to earn badges of justice, which I can give to the angelic na'aru in Shattrath City to prove that I am worthy of the various pieces of magical armor they give to their champions, which armor will enhance my bear form
Journey to an entirely different world to run the haunted wizard tower of Karazhan, a 10-man raid, in pursuit of various and sundry magical armor and weapons
Journey to Stormwind City (or have another character journey to Stormwind City) to find on the auction house: armor that will protect me from nature spells, armor that will protect me from frost spells, and rare gems that when cut in a particular way can be socketed into my armor to enhance its mightiness because the patch Blizzard will release in a week or two will change the way my druid benefits from particular types of enhancements
Earn money to afford the aforesaid items on the auction house
That list will get whittled down slowly, but it's important that when Thayet is busy or what have you I spend my play time working towards some specific goal, as a way of honoring the time we have to spend together. Some of the things on that list I can do on my own at any time of day in chunks of time as small as ten minutes apiece. Others will require the aid of others to run various instances over the course of hours, which I can only do at certain hours of the day (when other people likely to help me are likely to be playing the game). I think knowing and appreciating a raider's "preparation list" could help a lot of raider/non-raider couples communicate effectively about play time.
* It is another common misconception that the players will want to down some boss for a particular story-based reason. In the majority of cases (I venture to say the vast majority of cases) this is simply not true. It may have been true the first time the players attempted to down a boss; perhaps the game provided them with some story-based reason to do so. Amen amen, I say to you, it will not be true by the time they are downing him for the tenth time, or even the fifth. WoW does tell a story, but it does so in a very strange way. Imagine a storytelling medium where what the audience experiences is only evidence of what happens, or an interpretation of what happens, and from that evidence or interpretation they are supposed to construct in their imaginations what actually happens. That is how MMORPGs (indeed, most video games) tell stories. It may be important to the player's imaginative reconstruction of the story to kill Illidan Stormrage the first time. Very quickly (as quickly as the second time; or indeed, for some players, the first time), the player's only immediate motivations for killing Illidan [again] will become the gameplay challenge he presents, with no story-based motivation at all. Whether this is a failing of game design I leave to you. Personally I just find it somewhat amusing. After all, there's no story-based reason for the activities of football, or basketball, or really any other team sport. I don't consider the lack of narrative motivation a flaw in the design of those games.