A rung on the gearing ladder
The raid finder, when it first appeared, was famously exploited for gear by guilds -- and indeed, it still is, although within the rules. Gone are the days of the glitches exploited by Paragon, landing themselves a ban. But those issues aside, the raid finder has become very much a step on the gearing ladder for any new character, and guilds put this to good use when gearing up their colleagues, going into the raid finder as a group or with several people all on the same token. So if a guild member had a new priest to gear up, a guild might join as a party of paladins, priests and warlocks to get that new priest several rolls on token drops, as the tokens could be passed between players.
Offering as it does not only higher item level gear than heroic dungeons but also tier pieces and the associated set bonuses, the raid finder was a valuable source of easily obtained upgrades for a new character. And so as it progressed, more and more players came into it that were cheating the item level requirements, making the fights longer and the rage more ragey. Do you remember the start of the raid finder? When the instances were new? How polite and excited people were to see the new boss mechanics! It was actually fun then.
However, the problem is that, as the original poster on the EU forums said, people feel obliged to grind gear through the raid finder to increase their item level. Sure, with the debuff at its full 30% strength now; you really can do Dragon Soul 10-man normal with an item level of 378. But certainly in most of the guilds I hang around in, a player would be advised to run the raid finder for a good few more drops before they came along to a raid.
Maybe that's just the guilds I spend time in -- but I don't think it's an isolated event. Draztal's response to this complaint was short and sweet:
Furthermore, as many responders said, if your guild is suggesting that you ought to do something you don't want to do, then you could jump ship and go elsewhere. But I can sympathize. I don't know of any guilds right now that didn't push for raid finder runs to gear players or imply that you ought to run raid finder to gear new characters.
Mists raid finder changes
Come Mists, though, as Draztal and Taepsilum elaborated, systems changes are intended to alleviate the pressure on guilds to run the raid finder to gear up their teams.
What both blues seem to be saying, in its essence, is that the raid finder changes will shift it away from being an apparently necessary rung on the gearing ladder. Draztal focuses his sights on the Mists progression path and seems to indicate that the raid finder in Mists will follow very much its own path without really clarifying how normal and heroic raids fit in with this path. Taepsilum focuses more heavily on the redesign of raid finder loot rules, whereby the roll system was redesigned for the raid finder, meaning that the actual rolling part is removed and loot is no longer tradable.
Content without confines
In the initial description, Zarhym clarified that changes to the loot system were partly to prevent hostility. They will also, Taepsilum adds, prevent guilds from taking control of the loot system like they can in its current iteration.
If you read the full thread and all the blue posts from it, it seems that Blizzard's vision for the raid finder was that it would be a way for people to easily see raid content without the requirement for a raid team. No longer did players have to adhere to guild or group raiding schedules or endlessly spam trade chat in the hope of finding a group just to see what a Hideous Amalgamation's Nuclear Blast looks like.
And many, many players have taken advantage of this element of the raid finder. I don't know anyone who hasn't run it at least once. Would all of these players have been able to complete Dragon Soul on normal mode? Well, not the ones whose jobs keep them away from the game at the normal raid times. Not the ones who are too busy to gear up to a higher item level or the ones without a raid team. And Blizzard said as much in their Raid Finder Q&A in November 2011:
It seems to be that the original focus of the raid finder was principally for players to see content, but it has evolved into a rung in the gearing ladder, as we explored above. Frankly, this disparity between the intended purpose and the actual comes at no surprise in a game where the player is encouraged to ever pursue a higher item level. If that weren't the case, everyone would only go through content for the pleasure, and it might be consumed far faster, so it's no big shock that the few additional item level points gained from raid finder gear were enough of a pull for players, and may well continue to be.
Will the planned Mists changes swing this in the opposite direction, with the redesign of the loot system? I'd like to think so, but I suspect the lure of the additional points will remain. What do you think? What's the purpose of the raid finder? Have you used it purely to see content you'd otherwise have missed or simply to attain a higher item level?