I have come to a conclusion recently: raiding needs to die.
Through my extremely scientific method known as "what do I recall reading about in the past few years", I've established that the major thing that turned many off from WoW was that the very nature of the game changed completely at max level. What started out as a fun romp which mixed the then-innovative solo questing with remarkably accessible small group dungeon crawls, suddenly and sickeningly shifted to become a heavily gated gear grind that required organizing 40 people. Barriers to entry slammed closed suddenly in the faces of the masses as they dinged 60, as player-gatekeepers sprang up in charge of their elite guilds and what had once been a social and constantly novel experience became both impersonal and repetitive overnight.
The Bait n Switch
The bottom line is, people loved the game they thought WoW was. Like so many crack addicts, they fell for the free samples of high-quality product, and were already invested by the time they discovered they were going to have to take 10 times as much of the shitty crack sold at a premium to the addicts to get the same high. We loved the game, so we'd take whatever content was given to us. Mindless 10-man grinds of 5 man dungeons? Not what I really like, but I'll do it. Become a faceless number in a clusterfuck of 40 people because that's where the rewards and "elite" social status lay? Um...OK, I guess, at least I still get to play WoW. Those who wouldn't raid either quit, or were treated like second-class citizens and subject to lower social status in a game they loved. They continued to play the game they had originally fallen for - solo questing and 5-man dungeons - but never got new content, having to watch their meager rewards rendered trivial as the 5% who had gotten past the gatekeepers and had time to burn were gifted huge raid instance after huge raid instance that almost no one got to see. And I say this as one of the people who got past the gatekeepers!
And that brings me to one of my favorite horse-shaped punching bags: 25-man raids. Ghostcrawler is often quoted as saying 25-man raids will die if they don't give rewards a tier higher than 10-man raids. Having fond memories myself of 40 and 25 man raids in the past, I used to think that losing them would be a shame. Now I say: to hell with them. Put Old Yeller down, already, instead of the current artificial life support.
Too Many People!
I've run a 25-man guild before. Yeah, it's harder to organize than a 10-man guild in some ways, but easier in others. Just take my word for it for now, I don't want to go off on this tangent and water down my main point. My main point is that people really like smaller groups. For the most part, the gravitation toward 10-man raiding isn't that it's easier to organize: only the leaders even have to worry about that. No, the real reason is that the majority of people prefer smaller groups. This is for a variety of reasons: they are more intimate and social, there is room for everyone to talk and feel like a part of the group, each member is important, and the group is small enough to largely avoid the factioning inherent in larger groups. I can't remember where I read this research, but I do recall that around 5-8 people is the default human social group. We are hardwired, regardless of culture, for this. Our brains are set up to store and process information about a close social group that size. In a 40 or 25 man guild, you'll always see factioning and cliques. In a 10-man group, this is a lot less pronounced. In 5 or 10 mans, you can be together because you are all friends. In a 25-man guild, you by definition cannot all be friends, and in fact are just a few disparate groups crudely taped together by the promise of loot and social status.
So instead of forcing something almost nobody wants down our throats because the main devs happened to have played too much EQ (EQ made this same "the endgame is giant groups all of the sudden" mistake, much to its detriment), why not make the game people want to play? The one we all fell in love with? Instead of the one that only a small percentage even get to see? When you have to twist the raiding game so brutally in order to make it "accessible", maybe that's a sign that the original concept is fucking broken.
Change the Game
The key to the solution is to renew focus on 5-mans. There's plenty of solo questing content, and the dailies give appropriate rewards through rep, tokens, and money (as I've said in the past, the best fix is to attach Crusade rewards to all non-daily quests you haven't done yet at max level, so I have a better reason to clear out Icecrown). But aside from a big dose from an x-pac every 2 years, there is almost never any new 5-man content. Everyone runs 5-mans, and almost everyone likes them. Remarkably fewer people raid, and only a small percentage of those prefer raiding to five mans (most only do it for the gear and social status). So instead of focusing all of the developmental energy on a giant epic new raid instance every patch, focus on a new 5-man (or 2 or 3) every patch. Mimic the tiered progression of raid gear, similar to the new Coliseum 5 man coming out, which drops Naxx-level epics on normal mode and Naxx 25 epics on heroic.
But I don't think the ability to raid should just be taken out of the game. As much as I love 5-mans, I also love 10-mans, and could enjoy a larger raid from time to time. People liked 10-15 manning UBRS. Take that original emergent gameplay and systemetize it. Make all of the new 5-mans scale to group size. To make it easier on yourself, just offer versions tuned for 5, 10, 20, and 40-person groups. Tuning should be easy enough: just pump up the damage and HP appropriately (and make it standard for bosses without adds to do a cleave that is distributed amongst everyone in front of it, requiring multiple tanks at higher group sizes). Make the raids drop the same rewards, just more numerous, with some extra vanity items and monetary rewards thrown in. For instance, maybe killing a boss on 5-man heroic gives you 1 Hero Badge, one Crusader Badge, 1 Epic, and a bit of money. 10-man gives you twice as much, plus a chance at a non-combat pet. 20-man gives you 5 epics, plus 3 of each badge, plus a bag of gems and a chance at the pet and a tabard. 40-man gives you 12 epics, plus 5 of each badge, plus a bag of gems and a better chance at a pet, tabard, and giant bag dropping. Just for instance. Suddenly, bigger groups don't give you better gear, but they do reward you more than smaller groups. So if you enjoy a bigger group, you have the option to run the instance that way, and you are rewarded appropriately for the added investment.
As an added bonus, every group size can go in on heroic and fight a pumped-up version of the bosses to get loot half a tier higher. Make this actually challenging, and it gives the hardcore types something to do. After the initial expansion tier, the average group should not immediately get new heroics, even 5-mans, on farm. You still have Ensidia getting world firsts, it's just that the community can define what group size they want to have "matter". Admittedly, this is the weakest part of my plan, and is more a bone thrown to good players that want to differentiate themselves from the "bads". But the bottom line is that good players will still have fun (as long as all instances have a "hard mode") and this system makes everyone happier and more included without us losing much of anything. If 90% of us are having a blast while Ensidia quits in disgust, then even though I like Ensidia and raiding, I call it a win.
Now you can also pump out patches more quickly, since you are designing fewer bosses per patch, and most of the development effort is in balancing and less of it is in time-consuming and costly artistic assets. If you release one raid dungeon every 6 months, then we're going to be pissed when the models of the bosses are recolors of current models (coughColiseumcough). If you release two 5-mans every 3 months, then I promise we won't complain when those bosses are mostly simple recolors.
Wouldn't the Loss of Raid Superiority Ruin the Game?
As we saw when TBC came out, and again with Wrath: the players drawn to do what it takes to be elite don't care what type of content they are doing. If you change things, then they will simply move to the new "elite" activity. The 40-man guilds bitched and moaned, but they've simply transitioned to 25-mans, and kept doing it even as they became more accessible and less gated (no more attunements!) and 10-mans kept getting more legitimized. As long as there is something to do that is considered "elite" (in my design, this is clearing cutting-edge heroics before others can farm up the gear to clear them and catch up before the next patch), they will keep playing your game and just focus on that new activity, even if it's supposedly "easier" or less exclusive than the old activity.
Rather than ruin the game, I think this change would make WoW what it really always should have been. Let the game we all fell in love with continue after we ding 80, instead of mutating into the raiding monster we see today.
Inspired by this article by Jeff Hollis on how WoW is committing suicide: Part 1 Part 2 Which btw is COMPLETELY wrong about raiding only taking time and not skill, so don't think for a second I endorse the entire article as correct. I just used his ideas as a jumping-off point.
Thanks to Syp at Bio Break for linking that article originally.