I've played World of Warcraft for the entire history of the game, since about a month after launch (my wife actually played in beta, and she's the one who got me into WoW in the first place) and I've raided for pretty much the entire time - I took a few months off after The Burning Crusade dropped, and had to catch up in BC raids. Since that time, though, I've raided - I was in my server's most progressed guild in Wrath, switched servers but ended up in the same situation in Cataclysm, and have settled down to a still well progressed but less aggressive heroic raid in Mists of Pandaria, cruising at 10/14H and working on Thok. We have one pally, so Thok's a bit of a gigantic cinderblock wall, but we're still plugging away.
Being that I've been raiding so long, I sometimes see patterns. There's one I saw in BC, and repeated in Wrath and Cataclysm - the end of expansion lull. Once we get into the last tier of content, there's a surge of interest and everyone leaps to get in there and work on it... and that lasts a couple of months. After that, however, interest starts to wane. Players get burned out, stop playing, need to be replaced. Each player who needs to be replaced causes tension as the guild slows down due to the losses. Recruitment means bringing in people with less gear, less experience, and even if you manage to get a player with both the gear and the experience, it doesn't always mean they know how you do things. I was once recruited, after my Horde guild had killed all of Heroic Dragon Soul, by an Alliance guild that was on Spine. I took the jump because I wanted to play Alliance again - and even though I was geared as well or better than they were, I still had to relearn the fights based on their strats, and make suggestions based on my own experience that meant delays as they learned these new ideas.
This can lead to a feedback loop - players burn out, leave, this stresses the guild, more players get burned out. It's always present in raiding - churn is inevitable, recruitment must be continuous - but the promise of future content to come creates a counter pressure. You don't just raid to see the current content, you do it to be ready to get into the guts of the new stuff when it drops. But when you get into the last tier of raiding, there is no new content to keep you interested. And so, when that last raid tier takes months and months - sometimes, as in the case of ICC in Wrath, over a year - it becomes very difficult to keep guilds focused on progressing through it. Talking on twitter about all this after reading multiple posts on the issue, I started thinking about how it works out.
I think that in the case of Mists of Pandaria that a couple of problems have led us to one of the potentially worst end of expansion lulls in the game's history. What are those problems?
- The speed of earlier content patches was too great. Even with their being patches that had no raid content at all (5.1, 5.3) these patches still had content to distract players from that sense of 'there's nothing new to do' that has plagued WoW ever since it's first development cycle. Spacing out every patch by as little as a month more would have meant that we'd have gotten Siege of Orgimmar in December, and thus, would still be flush with how new it was right now at the three month mark instead of complaining that it was six months gone.
- There is no patch 5.5 to distract us from this problem. Patches 5.1 and 5.3 didn't offer any new raid content, but they offered things to do (especially 5.1) that kept people occupied. Even though patch 5.4 brought the Timeless Isle, it did so at the same time as the raid, so that content is also six months old and most people have run it about as much as they want to. Wrath of the Lich King introduced a short raid with three minibosses and a boss to fill in some itemization holes - while no one took the Ruby Sanctum terribly seriously, it was still something new that they hadn't seen before.
- Ever since Wrath of the Lich King we've had the problem of heroic raiding, which looks like new content, but doesn't feel like new content. It's harder, to be sure, but it doesn't bring with it that new content smell that keeps players engaged. Working on heroic Thok, it's as if the raid has suddenly forgotten how to do Thok, not a great sensation. Intellectually, it's understood that the fight is much harder now. But viscerally, it feels like the same content. With LFR, flex, normal and heroic raids all basically seeing the same fights, it's only exacerbating the burnout as players see the same bosses time and again on their alts and their mains.
- The lack of news about Warlords of Draenor hasn't helped. People knowing that Cataclysm and Mists were coming, and moreover, having some idea of what they were bringing really helped stave off burnout. It still happened, but at least you could point to the future. We don't have that now, and guilds are looking at that Fall 2014 release and saying the same things. Six months of this? With no idea if it will be more? A year in Siege? It's very hard for guilds to keep their people focused on progression when they see no reason to hurry and nothing new to log on for.
The problem is, not all guilds can survive the lull. With people knowing that flex is coming and that Mythic raiding with be 20 player, we're already looking at a lot of churn even if we weren't going to be spending a year in Siege. With that year all but established, there's a combination of simultaneous pressure to quit your 10 man and go find a Mythic guild and pressure to quit running heroics of any size, maybe even just stop raiding, and take a break from WoW until the new stuff is ready to play. It's not necessarily a bad decision - if you're not having fun, why play? But the guild structure isn't really set up to weather mass groups of people making that decision at once. One or two in a month is probably survivable for a large guild that is constantly recruiting. A casual guild made up of RL friends and friends of friends can't sustain that kind of attrition and keep doing anything.
Each guild has to find its own solutions, of course. Some switch gears, de-emphasize progression and just try and do stuff that people find fun. Others shutter, hoping that enough people come back for the new expansion that they can pick up and go. Still others manage to keep going by picking up as many of the strays from other guilds as they can reasonably fit, or even by playing other games in the lull period. Many guilds have become cross gaming communities as the result of just such a move. But Blizzard could absolutely make it easier on those guilds in a couple of ways.
Frankly, the recent move to allow cross-server raiding of Siege of Orgrimmar was a good step towards helping guilds get people in to keep going. But another move that would really be helpful would be to release some info, and not just info about changing systems - preview some raids, some zones, give players an idea of what the first tier of raiding will be like, who we'll be fighting, how it will be broken up. Anticipation can work for guilds, if it's served up appropriately. And it definitely is easier to keep players motivated if they see light at the end of a tunnel.