The resurrection of Zulgurub and Zulaman in 4.1 and the following release of the Firelands raid instance in patch 4.2 is a departure from Blizzards typical method of releasing content. In the past smaller 5 man dungeon instances were bundled in with raid patches. This has been the case throughout The Burning Crusade with Sunwell Plateau and Magisters Terrace and in Wrath of the Lich King with the Trial of the Crusader and Icecrown Citadel raid and dungeon complexes. Why the change?
Change is Good
During Wrath of the Lich King a major complaint from a big part of the playerbase was that raid content was too inaccessible and there wasnt enough small scale content. Having to wait until a raid release to get a small afterthought dungeon instance wasnt really a pleasant experience for players who werent able, for whatever reason, to participate in the raids themselves. Releasing dungeons on their own when theyre ready gets those players their content when its ready, not on the timeline of the raiders.
Better yet, the benefits of the gear from the new 5 man instances will kick in before the next raid tier. This means that rather than getting stale, outdated gear that isnt even at the level of the previous raid tier dungeon runners will have access to gear that is nearly on par with the current raid tier. This has a number of benefits that are good for the game.
Smaller patches means faster content delivery. How can that possibly be a bad thing?
First, the new dungeons will be a viable method of gearing up for the Firelands. Theres a big difference between having a raid patch released with some additional instances, farming those instances for a few weeks to get all the drops, then saying okay, now my gear is up to par, Im ready to raid the Firelands and having that gear already when the raid is released. Raiding guilds want players who are ready from day one of a new instance, not a couple weeks after the fact. These instances will give players who are coming late to the party an opportunity to catch up to the people who have been raiding Bastion, Blackwing, and Throne of the Winds for months and set them up with gear that is only a few item levels lower. It will also supplement the gear of the players who are having trouble with the current raid tier and help them with existing content before it becomes outdated.
This sort of dynamic is good for the game. It will also give real incentive to play the new dungeons and give them the kind of popularity and exposure that a major content release deserves. In the past 5 player instances have been relegated to a place where non-raiders and alts gear up. Now theyll be a resource for low to mid level raiders as well. The shelf life on these zones is never terribly long since people tend to stop running them once they have got all the gear from them that they want, releasing them when the gear is actually pretty damn good is a good way to increase that shelf life.
The More the Merrier
Some players dread patches because of the research they have to do to catch up to changes in the game and the effort they need to go through to fix all their UI mods, etc. Most players seem to like them though. The more the game is patched the more obvious it is that were really getting our moneys worth when we subscribe to World of Warcraft. Blizzard has already made leaps and bounds in Cataclysm in terms of seamlessly patching the game with hotfixes that dont require lengthy downtime or restarts. Theres something to be said for a bit of anticipation, but when a patch is announced players are going to want it to go live as soon as possible (unless their class is getting nerfed, of course!).
Having a more frequent content patching cycle adds vitality to the game and renews the interest of the playerbase. For that reason alone I think its a great idea to patch things into the game the second they are ready to go live.
Bigger is not always Better
What are the real advantages of big patches? Well, theyre probably easier from Blizzards standpoint. If there are going to be bugs or restarts or downtime then its easier for them to just deal with it all at once rather than in a bunch of small installations. Thats tough to argue with. Blizzard seems to have their act together to the point where thats no longer an issue so how about from a player standpoint? Big patches are obviously exciting, so many new things to do at once that it can sometimes become overwhelming. The truly big patches change so much about the game that you practically have to re-learn everything you thought you knew. Thats definitely different, but Im not sure that it is a positive thing at all let alone a big enough factor to outweigh faster content delivery.
Okay, 3.3 was pretty damn epic I'll admit it. However, who really wants to wait a year between content patches?
Patch 3.3 was the epitome of the monster patch. Icecrown Citadel in all its glory replete with a huge raid complex, 3 new 5 player instances, new gear, new craftable items, and of course the purchasable Frost Badge gear. That patch also lasted for over a year, after which many players felt like killing themselves or quitting the game out of sheer boredom. Even with very heavy content gating the content soon felt stale to many players and extreme boredom set in. If Icecrown had been released in smaller segments or perhaps had the 5 player instances released in advance in preparation of the big raid then maybe the longevity of the content could have been extended somewhat. Big patches will always come far apart, and once the initial rush wears off youre left asking whats next and when and oftentimes the answer is were not sure, but its not coming any time soon. I for one will always welcome quicker and more spread out content releases so that I can stay engaged with a steady flow of new content rather than being burnt out after a giant release.
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