Loot Accessibility and the Role of Guilds

I read a post on a bluetracker last week (and forgot to bookmark it – again) in which the poster asked “do you need a guild now that we have the dungeon finder tool?”.

Thinking about that leads me to consider the changing role of the guild in WoW.  Since the initial release, guilds have changed from being the only path to high-level gear to a primarily social organization that provides access only to the highest tier of gear and the latest content.

While the response to patch 3.3 has been overwhelmingly positive, it has pushed a major change in the social dynamic of WoW.  For those who are not driven by the pure challenge of raiding the latest content, the argument for joining a guild as a way of gearing up no longer has as much weight.

Let’s look at what your guild could do for you with regards to loot from release until today.

Vanilla WoW

If you weren’t in a raiding guild, your loot capped out at Dungeon Set 1 (commonly called “Tier 0”), and later on Dungeon Set 2 (Tier “0.5”).  The later parts of the quest chain to upgrade your gear from dungeon set 1 and dungeon set 2 were quite challenging and can arguably be called the first “hard mode” in the game, but once you’d finished it, that was the limit of your progression.

The only raids available were 40 people, and in the early raids like Molten Core and Zul’Gurub the number of warm bodies was more important than individual performance.  As you progressed further, the level of technical skill required increased, as did the rewards.  Still, the raid size requirements meant that you didn’t necessarily join a guild for social reasons.  On any given realm there were a limited number of guild capable of fielding a team into the later raids.

Several encounters (Twin Emperors in AQ40 and the original Four Horseman come to mind) were known as “guild killers” because a few weeks of wipes against them could break the tenuous bonds that held some guilds together.

If you wanted PvE loot, you joined a 40 man raid guild.  There was no incentive to go back and run the old 5 man content on your main.

Importantly: if you ruined your reputation in a large guild, your weren’t likely to get into another top-tier guild that easily.  There just wasn’t as much choice as there is today.  This pressure helped keep some of the drama in-line compared to the nerdrage explosions we see today.

The Burning Crusade

The introduction of the 10 man Karazhan raid was somewhat controversial, as it forced guilds to create teams within themselves to get upgrades for the 40 people they brought with them from vanilla.

While it was possible to be a “10 man guild”, your prospects were limited – until the release of Zul’Aman in patch 2.3, you were limited to weekly Karazhan badge runs supplemented by running heroics to collect Badge of Justice.  Because there was only one badge type for all of TBC, you couldn’t gear up that quickly – it would take something like six months of running three heroics per day plus PUGing Karazhan to outfit yourself in a new tier of gear, and you didn’t get access to the exact same gear as you could get in raids – just items of the same iLevel.

Heroics weren’t the pushover that they are today – until you vastly overgeared the instance you had to plan your pulls, use crowd control and coordinate between members of the group to make things go smoothly.

The fastest way to get gear remained to join a 25-man raiding guild and progress through the tier 5 and tier 6 raids.  While PUGs of Mount Hyjal and the first bits of Sunwell were common on some large servers, other servers saw very little grouping outside of a guild.

Wrath of the Lich King

Release

WotLK brought several important changes:

  • 10/25 sizing for all raids
  • shorter, easier heroic instances (you could do twice as many in the same time as TBC)
  • tier gear available for Emblems of Heroism as well as drops from raid bosses

For the first time, this made a primarily social 10-man guild viable for raiding.  So long as you progressed from tier to tier in order, you could belong to a small guild where you knew everyone pretty well and get the best gear available for that size of raid.

The number of guilds on a server exploded with this change – making recruiting harder and member loyalty

If you weren’t in a guild, you were limited to a few pieces of tier gear, but you could still outfit yourself about twice as fast as you could in TBC.  This was another first: there was a “slow and steady” route to the same gear you could get from raiding if you didn’t want to join a guild.

Patch 3.1

The introduction of Emblems of Conquest broke the “slow and steady” path, as you could no longer get gear equivalent to Ulduar raid pieces by chain-running heroics.

Patch 3.2

When all heroics started to drop Emblems of Conquest, everything changed.  Now you could get the second best gear without being guilded at all.  By a few months after the release of the patch, both of my main characters were wearing full tier 8.5 with a couple of pieces of tier 9, even though I never stepped foot into Trial of the Crusader.

The major downside to the new availability of gear was the focus on GearScore and the assumption that with a high score came some level of skill.

It was now possible to be a member of a purely social or vanity guild that did no organized PvE content yet still get the second best gear in the game.  It was still helpful, in that you could get one or two people you knew you could rely on, then fill the rest of the group with pickups, but by no means a requirement.

Patch 3.3

The introduction of the random Dungeon Finder tool and the upgrade of Emblems only made gear acquisition easier.  With downtime of no more than 15 minutes (and in the case of a tank or healer as little as 3 seconds) between runs, you can afford to be less picky about your group members because you make up in volume what you lack in quality.  Even a group that falls apart halfway through a heroic doesn’t prevent the members from returning there later on, if the RNG falls their way.

If you didn’t need a guild in patch 3.2, you need one even less with this latest patch – so long as you weren’t determined to see the latest content or get the best gear in the game.  It has never been easier to gear up.  The downside now is that people don’t appreciate how much things have improved, even from the release of WotLK.  Take a look at Gravity’s latest post, specifically the bits about “righteous entitlement” for more.

So Where Are We Now?

From an absolute requirement at release to a “nice to have if you’re not hell-bent on progression”, the role of guilds has changed considerably.  If you are an endgame progression raider, then a solid stable guild is as important as it has ever been.  You’re not going to see the Lich King in a PUG, at least not for several months after he’s made accessible.

If, like me, you are between guilds or trying to form your own, you can still stay competitive, ready to move up to the latest tier of content when you have the people to do so.

I’m kind of surprised that these latest changes have unfolded the way they have, as they seem to be at odds with the announced changes to guilds in Cataclysm.  Or perhaps the shift in guild role is intended: if gear availability is normalized, and any guild of 10 or more people should be able to see all the raid content on normal mode, then what differentiates guilds is their people, policies and fringe benefits.

Advertising Your Intangibles

Guild Leaders should take this into account, especially if they aren’t at the leading edge of progression.  Top-tier guilds know what draws people to them, and usually don’t have trouble filling spots as they open up.  Guilds who are in the wide middle band with everyone else should take some time to think about what makes them stand out from the alternatives.  Do you offer some kind of profit-sharing?  An alt-friendly loot policy?  Perhaps you have a solid reputation on your realm and that makes you stand out.

Take a look at a few of the guild recruitment posts on a site like TankSpot.  They mostly deal with the mechanics: when do they raid, what level of gear / enchants / knowledge do you need, how do they distribute loot, and where they are in the progression curve.  The intangibles, when mentioned, are often at the end of the post, and can mostly be summed up as “you need to fit” (whatever “fit” means for that guild – you’ll learn when in your trial period).

Depending on what motivates you to raid, you may want to look deeper into guilds when applying.  If you’re looking at five guilds, all of which give you access to the same gear and have similar progression, what will sway your decision towards one or the other?  What would it take to get you to hop to another guild?

Is this shift a good thing?  I’m not sure.  Certainly guilds put a lot of work into progression and gear, so to turn that into a commodity seems a bit unfair.  But shouldn’t guilds be more about the people than the gear?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially once Icecrown is truly doable by PUGs and the last difference between raiding with and without a guild falls away.  This patch has been an incredible change to WoW, and I suspect we’re only seeing the start of a shift in perspective that will affect guilds, raiders, newbies and everyone in between in the lead-up to Cataclysm.

Until Next Time

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