One of the constructs from EQ that existed in the early days of World of Warcraft was the concept of content gating. It still exists to a lesser extent but nothing like it did when there were formal quest requirements for entry to most of the raids. These were extremely frustrating barriers, not because they existed but because they required the entire raid to complete. Potentially the worst was the Vials of Eternity quest chain needed to enter Mount Hyjal. At the time this meant that in order to run the Tier 6 content, you had to find a group willing to take you through the Tier 5 content in its entirety, as you needed drops off Vashj and Kaelthas the end bosses of the two Tier 5 raids.
At the time this posed so many logistical problems for raids, as you were left with two somewhat unsavory choices. Firstly you could stop what you were doing in your current progression and run the Tier 5 content to prepare newer players for Tier 6. This took time, and most raids already had pretty tight schedules as it was. Secondly you could end up recruiting someone away from an already successful tier 5 raid, creating a farm team like scenario that caused so much bad blood between guilds. The best possible scenario was to pull a player away from a raid that had died, but this was a bit of a rarity at the time. Needless to say there was much cheering when the content gating systems went away in Wrath of the Lich King.
Must Be This Tall
While overall removing these raid based requirements was a good thing, as greatly simplified the care and feeding of raids, it did however introduce a lot of unplanned uncertainty. It was out of this uncertainty that things like Gearscore spawned. Gearscore was a concept of creating an overall quality rating for a player based on the gear they had acquired. The system was popular enough that with Cataclysm Blizzard introduced the iLevel system formally in your character sheet and began creating content gates based on this requirement. For example currently you have to at least be iLevel 480 or higher to be able to do a Heroic Scenario. The game keeps you from being able to queue for the content until you hit that magic number.
The problem is that the iLevel system of measurement is fundamentally flawed. Gear acquired tells a raid leader absolutely nothing about the overall play ability of the player. If you try hard enough you will be able to acquire gear regardless if you have the skill expected of that quality of gear. This is why you see players in Siege of Orgrimmar LFR that are legitimately only doing 20,000 dps instead of the 75-100k dps you would expect from the 496 iLevel requirement. iLevel is easy, so it has stuck around but it does nothing to tell you what to expect from a player. As was proven in the past, skill is much more important than gear, and players who really know their class will always out perform those who don’t regardless of how much new shiny gear you throw at them.
WoW Needs the Gatekeeper
The problem at hand is that people that are building raids have no non-subjective means of determining if a player is ready for the content until they have actually taken them into the instance. You can drag underperforming players along, but you need to have players that are performing past the expectations of the content to be able to make that work. The single best content gating mechanic that I have seen in any game came from The Secret World. At the top of Agartha there was an encounter that is collectively known as The Gatekeeper. He stands as the gateway to the nightmare level dungeon content, that drops the best gear in the game.
He presents to the player three tests, one geared towards Tanks, another towards Healers and a final one towards DPS… which in my experience was the most difficult. Each of them is a test of personal accountability and that you can perform what will be expected of you in the nightmare level content. They are fairly brutal, especially coming from the overall easy Elite mode content before them, but they do in fact very accurately assess how well you will do in the Nightmare content. Back when my circle of friends keyed for Nightmare mode, we struggled a bit, but we were still able to compete based on the skills displayed by the test. Waren and I both prided ourselves for passing the dps trial, without switching gear and going after either the healer or tank trials that were seemingly a bit easier.
Essentially the trial was designed to make sure you could move out of things while still maintaining a certain level of dps on the boss. These are the basic skills that any dps player needs in a raid encounter. The player could retry the encounter over and over until they succeeded only then allowing them to move forward into the Nightmare content. I know personally it was exhilarating when I managed to beat the Gatekeeper. I am certain I tried it some 20-30 times before I finally landed upon the way that I finally beat him. Sure there were guides to doing it easier, but the players till had to execute well enough to be able to get through the encounter. If you stepped in anything, you died instantly. If you allowed an add to catch you, you died instantly. If you failed to interrupt something, you died instantly. Finally if you failed to maintain a certain level of damage… you also died instantly.
Once upon a time, in another life I was once a Boy Scout camp counselor. One of the things that happened every year during that first week before the kids arrived was that each and every counselor had their First Aid, CPR and Swimming Lifesaver certifications renewed. In each case it involved some sort of skills assessment, the Swimming Lifesaver being the worst of these. However each and every one of us passed it, and while we were cheered on by the rest of the staff each was a personal trial that we faced alone. I feel like raiding should be gated by some sort of non-subjective skills assessment similar to this. It sucks being the one to tell a player that they just are not good enough to be able to do the content. Without hard facts as to why, it often feels like the leader is playing favorites or simply singling a player out unjustly.
World of Warcraft has already created a system similar to this in the Proving Grounds. The problem is these are optional encounters and most players either don’t know they exist or since they are not required for anything… they never actually go through them. I myself have never done them, because they were not required for me and did not reward anything meaningful. If they took this concept and somehow integrated it into creating a ladder to climb towards raiding, it would be extremely beneficial in the long run. That has always been the problem with raiding in general, there is a nice clean linear path to climb to get from level 1 to 90. However once you enter the endgame all this player guidance goes away.
The iLevel system tells the player that having the gear is enough, however in reality we all know that success in raiding is about so much more than just gear. Having a similar endgame ladder to climb that even rewards pieces of gear to help the player progress would make what happens after you cap, so much clearer. Additionally having one of these Gatekeeper like encounters that controls entry to the new content provides a very clear “you must be this tall” sign that players that strive for. Sure it sucks because it introduces a “keying” process again, but in this case it would be one of personal responsibility, not of raid responsibility. Additionally it would give those really good but also very timid players a boost of confidence if they knew that beating this solo encounter… where there is no one to judge them… means they will do just find in the larger group setting.