Give Raid Leaders a Chance: Restricted Free Agency

World of Warcraft needs some way to address the fundamentally selfish attitude of most raiders.  We are playing a “team sport” where the general manager and coach have almost no tools to properly incentivize their players to stay with the team.  My solution: implement restricted free agency.  Yes, it’s a complicated and potentially radically solution, but read on.

The Problem

Let’s see if this situation sounds familiar to you.  Your raid group has been making steady progress throughout the current content.  Lately, you’ve hit a bit of a snag and haven’t downed a new progression boss in a few weeks.  Either you’ve found a boss that is just really challenging for your skill level or composition, or maybe the attendance bug has hit a few key raiders.  As a guild leader, you’re feeling the pressure to do whatever it takes to get that boss down.  Unfortunately, after a week of frustrating wipes, you get the news.  You log on to the forums to see a “So Long Guys” post from one of your best raiders, who is heading off to greener, more progressed, pastures.

Depending on the size of your raid team and the importance of this player, that one decision to leave the team can have drastic consequences.  If a 10 player raid loses a main tank or amazing healer, it can often be hard to simply plug in a replacement.  While every good raid leader strives to have a talented rotation of backup and bench players, in reality, it’s often hard to do.  Worse still, that one player leaving can start a chain reaction, as his closest friends decide to jump ship as well, or other talented raiders start to sense that things might be going downhill and scramble to find another place to raid.

All of this because your group was having trouble with a progression boss (which is kind of the point of progression raiding).  The problem here, and it’s solution, is setting proper incentives.

The Current Incentives

Right now, the only thing keeping your raiders from server transferring is the $25 realm transfer fee and any sense of loyalty they have to your existing guild.  Everyone is a free agent all the time.  For most working adults, the $25 is not going to prevent them from transferring pretty freely.  We play this game to have fun, and if we’re not having fun in our current raid, well then we’ll just leave and find out if the grass is greener elsewhere.

Loyalty, in my experience, is nearly non-existent unless you are part of a group of people that has been playing together for many years or has substantial connections outside of the game.  Even then, it’s not unusual to see people leaving to join a more progressed group.  More often, you have a group of raiders that is constantly changing, with only a few core members who stick around from content patch to content patch, much less expansion to expansion.  Everyone seems to be engaged in a search to find “the perfect guild.”  Loyalty is amazing when you can find it, but as a raid leader, you just can’t count on it to keep your team together.

I’ve fallen victim to this myself.  I’ve left a guild because I knew I was talented enough to see more progression content.  I’ve left a guild because some of the people and leaders were tools that I didn’t like spending time with.  Unless you have found that perfect guild home that matches up to your skill, desire for progression, social standards, and play times, there is always some appeal in the idea of transferring to another group.  No matter how well your current raid leader runs his group, there will ALWAYS be someone in your raid team who is unsatisfied on one of these accounts.  If you don’t believe me, you’ve probably never run a raid.

The Solution: Restricted Free Agency

Sports teams don’t often have this problem.  Imagine if, halfway through the football season, all the good players from the 2-6 teams decided to jump ship and join the 6-2 teams.  Or at the all-star break, all of the best baseball players migrated to the top teams in each division so that they’d have a better chance of making the playoffs.  Essentially, that is what the current unrestricted market for raiders has created.  And yes, I’m sorry for making a sports analogy to WoW players, many of whom are not that into sports.  But what progression raiding resembles most is a competitive team sport, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find similarities with more traditional sports.

We have a completely free market for labor in WoW, which more or less mimics the “at will” situation of most employers and employees in the real world.  If you don’t like your job, you can (usually) just quit today and stop going.  Your employer can do likewise and tell you to hit the road.  The relationship lasts only as long as it is mutually beneficial.  And in 99% of the jobs out there, this is the right way to do things, because it allows people to freely and easily change jobs and run companies efficiently.

In sports, there are difference incentives.  Sports teams are organized around a common goal of winning a championship.  The season lasts a defined length of time and requires full commitment from all members (and if you want to get technical, there are all kinds of strange incentives created by the essential monopoly that a sports league enjoys).  Accordingly, players are signed to binding contracts.  The length of these contracts can vary.  However, in most sports and for most competent players, the minimum length of the contract is at least one full season.  The reason is pretty obvious: as a manager, you don’t want your best players jumping ship halfway through the season.

If a player wants to stop playing in the middle of the season, he can do so, because as a society we don’t generally enforce contracts requiring people to work (too close to slavery for our tastes).  But, and this is the key point: he cannot simply go play for another team until his contract expires or is voided by his current team.  Instead, he has to wait until his contract expires and he becomes a free agent.  Then, he is free to transfer to any team that is willing to pay what he thinks he is worth.

Applying Restricted Free Agency to WoW

How would this system work in WoW?  In my vision, at the beginning of each content cycle, guild leaders and officers would have the option of offering a raid contract.  The contract, if the player chooses to accept, would restrict that character from entering a raid in the current content tier that is not run by his guild.  The contract would be in effect until the next major content patch, unless cancelled by the guild leadership.  If the player wishes to raid on that character during the current content, he has to do so with his guild, or negotiate to be released.

The guild can decide whether contracts are required from progression raiders.  Maybe it will only require them from officers, or from tanks, or maybe everyone on the roster has to sign up.  The choice would be up to each team individually.  The leaders can let people out of contracts for extenuating circumstances.  Or they can charge people gold to get out of their contracts.  Or they can say, screw you, you said you’d raid with us so you’re not taking this character to another raid until the next content patch.  Leaders would finally have some leverage, and players would have an incentive to stick around and be a part of the team.

Note that this does not force a player to raid, or even to stick with his current guild.  No one is stopping him from taking a break from raiding.  He can pug older content with whoever he likes.  Or, he can abandon his main and start raiding elsewhere on an alt.  What it does, do, however, is provide guild leadership with some incentives that can help keep talented raiders on the team.  At the end of the content patch (so in our current case, when 4.2 hits), all existing contracts are void, and there would be a period of free agency where raiders can freely transfer guilds and/or realms.

Like other aspects of WoW, this system puts control directly in the hands of the players, rather than Blizzard controlling things from above.  Guild leaders would have the option to implement raider contracts.  For many casual raiders, the idea would be somewhat ridiculous.  In that case, the option can simply be ignored.  However, in more serious guilds, there is often an implied commitment to the team.  The raid leader assumes people are going to stick it out for a reasonable length of time.  If he wants to ask his raiders to put their money where their mouth is, he can offer raiding contracts.  If people can’t commit to raiding with a guild on their main character for at least one content cycle, then the raid leader has a good sense of how interested they are in the team aspect of raiding.

Conclusion

I suspect that many people will find this idea somewhat ridiculous.  We live in a culture where absolute individual freedom has become almost a religion.  We expect to be able to leave our current obligations in the endless quest for happiness.  What most people don’t consider are the aspects of happiness and satisfaction that can only come from long-term commitments to other people.  Instead of constantly worrying about whether your fellow raiders are going to bail on you, you can focus on making things better.

By applying a system of restricted free agency, Blizzard would be able to give raid leaders the option of offering raiders a more committed experience.  Raid morale would improve, and players would feel much more a part of their raid teams.  Since the system would be completely voluntary on the part of both leaders and raiders, I don’t think we have much to lose by giving it a shot.  Choosing to sign up for a longer term commitment doesn’t remove any of your freedom.  Instead, it gives you some assurance that your fellow team members are actually interested in accomplishing shared goals with you, and thereby frees you up to focus on achieving them.