World of Warcraft has made so many positive steps since I wrote the single most read article ever on gamasutra.com (literally). Most of my concerns in that article have been addressed. Back then, the PvP's honor system was so grueling that it actually endangered players' health. These days, you can create a level 70 character with any gear you want in fair competitive tournament setting. Impressive. Back then, "raid or die" with 40 people was the overriding design ethos. Today, there are no more 40-person raids and even the 25-person raids can all be done in 10-man versions.
Anyway, I just couldn't let this video go. I don't get why World of Warcraft has taken so many steps towards being reasonable and yet can't take the last, logical few. The key point here is that 10-man raids will get worse rewards (one tier lower in WoW-speak) than the 25-man versions of the same dungeons. Kaplan (lead designer) explains that 25-man raids are much harder to coordinate, have more logistics to worry about, and are more work. No argument there, I think we all agree with that. But this is the *reason* that they need to have better rewards, he says. That sounds a bit backwards.
To put this another way, there are two versions of each raid dungeon: the 10-man version and the less fun one. If they had the same rewards, not enough players would play the less fun one. So...why even have the less fun one? Shouldn't players be encouraged to play the content that is the most enjoyable to them, rather than encouraged to play content that is more logistically difficult to coordinate? (10-man versions can be tuned to take just as long, of course.)
Kaplan has moments of clarity in this video where he explains that both sizes of raids should have easy dungeons and hard dungeons. The size of the raid is not a judgment call on your worth, it's simply about how many people you feel socially comfortable hanging out with. Either one can be hard or easy, depending on the specific dungeon design. Yep! (And either can have the same rewards? No, apparently.)
Then in the same video Kaplan mentions that they considered solutions(?) like having the final 25-man raid on Arthas *unlock* the 10-man version. (What??) Or maybe when you get to the end of the 10-man version, Arthas just isn't there. Perhaps he left a note behind: "Hey guys, this is Arthas. I only value players who play in large groups and I'm a little grumpy about whole no-more-40-man-raids thing. I won't even fight second class citizens such as yourselves."
I think Kaplan knows on an intellectual level that 25 is not better than 10. (He flat out said it, in fact). He might also know that 10 is not better than 5, that 5 is not better than 2, and that 2 is not better than 1. They are just all different. Each one of those sizes can have tasks and challenges of extreme difficulty. Each one can have endless time-sinks. And yet the 40-man values of WoW's past still echo today. "Yeah, yeah we'll *have* 10-man raids, but they can't have equal loot!"
One last thing I'd like to point out is the years-old argument that players who enjoy large raids would enjoy them regardless of the loot. For the majority of raiders, this is false. I know it's false, you know it's false, and Blizzard definitely knows it's false. The last place I'd look to find people motivated by intrinsic rewards is a 40-man World of Warcraft raid. (Dear both of you who really do enjoy big raids for the own sake, even with no rewards. You are not like the others.) The actual case is that the vast majority are motivated by gear-rewards to spend time in dungeons that they would otherwise not choose to play in. If I'm right about this, why not let the rewards be equal so that they can play 10-man raids and have more fun? And if I'm wrong about this, why not still make the rewards equal? In that case, 25-man versions will be full to the brim anyway because raiders love the intrinsic rewards of completing a logistically difficult task, after all.
To summarize, challenge should lead to rewards. (A separate gate of time-spent can also lead to rewards since this is an MMO. I'm not ruling that out.) Challenge can come 25-man or 10-man. If you accept all that, the final step is that it's true for 5 man...and 2 man...and 1 man. You can have just as much challenge (and require just as much time spent, if you like) in any of those sizes. Different players will have a sweet spot group-size that they prefer, and no size is really second-class. The value judgment shouldn't be on group size, but rather that we judge inclusive design as better than exclusive design.
If there were challenging 2-person dungeons that I could play with my girlfriend, I'd still be playing World of Warcraft today. I get the feeling that if I made it past a gauntlet of virtually impossible monsters in a 2-person World of Warcraft dungeon that the final boss would disappear and say, "Sorry, but the princess is in another castle."