WildStar preview: 40-man raids and no mercy

"When you fail," Brett Scheinert says, "we want you to fail spectacularly." Scheinert is the lead raid and dungeon designer for the upcoming MMORPG WildStar , and from the way he and his team laughed as whole 40-player raid teams died on screen from single mistakes, I could tell he means it—even enjoys it. He crams his raids with bosses that change abilities from week to week, along with scores of mini bosses and trash mobs that vary with the same frequency to keep the raids from devolving into monotony. Folks like Scheinert want to make hardcore 40-man raids sexy again, and the footage half made me ready to believe.

I'd come to California hoping to try out the raids myself. Forget WildStar's Rachet-and-Clank aesthetic and flashy 40v40 Warplots , it's raids that have kept me coming back to it in my hunt for a new MMO to replace Blizzard's aging beast. I admired Carbine's cheeky disregard for an industry that tries to appeal to everyone, right down to lead designer Mike Donatelli's dismissal of a casual player lamenting that he wants to get sweet gear without joining 20- or 40-man raiding guilds. "Then don't play," Donatelli had said. Ouch.

As it happens, I didn't play either. I got to frolic through the starting zones and the new (and highly anticipated) PvP Warplots, but my initiation to the two raids scheduled for launch was limited to watching week-old footage of guilds on the test server bumbling their way to death. Oh, how they bumbled. The presentation illustrated how WildStar's system of telegraphs —which show the direction and area of an attack—comes into its own in raids, where they splatter the ground like splotches on Jackson Pollock canvases and demand frenetic games of violent Dance Dance Revolution.

"We want to make sure that each player is doing something exciting for the entire encounter," Scheinert says. "We don't want a case where these five guys are doing something really exciting and these 35 guys stand in this circle and shoot at this thing." It shows. Based on the videos and my own experiences in WildStar's five-man dungeons, I could tell these weren't going to be the fights I could half fall asleep in as I often can with ranged classes.

Roused by new footage, the 30 or so of us in the tiny ballroom inched in to watch a hapless player sprinting from a raid boss called Experiment X-89. It resembled a giant purple bullfrog. Around the raider, a circular telegraph the size of Mercury's orbit contracted as it ticked down to the player's doom. Boom. And so ended the player's existence, along with that of approximately 75 percent of the floor the telegraph had covered at its fullest extent. The survivors struggled to complete the fight on the few remaining tiles, but in time, they fell as the bullfrog bounded to and from suspended titles they couldn't reach. It looked gloriously painful, and I wanted to feel that pain myself.

The pitiful truth is that we couldn't play the raids because we didn't have enough people. That's been the concern voiced on forums and tweets since Carbine announced its intentions to revive the old 40-man raid template: it's usually a hassle to get that many people together for one night, let alone several days a week. (But not impossible: I was a member of a guild with world firsts in early World of Warcraft for years and we seldom had trouble.) A 10-man raid we could have pulled off; we might have been able to pull off WildStar's 20-man Genetic Archives raid, too, if we were willing to excuse some slack from the raiding tenderfeet. But as it was, the best we could manage were God-mode flythroughs of both the archives and the 40-man Datascape raid.

Not that our ragtag group of journalists would have been able to do much anyway. Beta players have had access to the raids for around four weeks, Scheinert says, and for all that, no one's even close to clearing them. Considering that some of these guys are experienced raiders, it gives some idea of the timing we can expect once WildStar goes live. "Of the 13-15 guilds I've seen in there, two guilds have made a lot of process, a third guild that just reached Act II, and everyone else is not even halfway through the instance," Scheinert says. "For the most part, a lot of people have killed the first of the five bosses and 10 mini bosses; only three guilds have killed the second."

But the WildStar team isn't just interested in introducing new challenges and variety on classic raiding; they're resurrecting other trappings such as raid attunements as well (which bid you fulfill a set of requirements before you can even enter a raid). Mike Donatelli, WildStar's lead designer, assures me they'll be fun. He tells me of a long quest line focusing on the Eldan—WildStar's lost genius race, a la Elder Scrolls' Dwemer—that'll lead you into dungeons, fights with world bosses, and other activities before you can raid. "I'll even give you this secret bit of info: at one point you have to raid the enemy faction's ark ship," he says. Donatelli's referring to versions of the ships that bring players to WildStar's homeworld of Nexus in the first couple of levels, although the instances in the attunement line won't be the same ones newbie players are running through.

Donatelli insists that there won't be any gating to the process, so players won't have to worry about running out of chances to complete the attunement during a week. "You're not jumping through hoops with me saying, 'Nope, you can't jump through the hoop today because I've turned the hoop off,'" he says, "but if you're hardcore, you're going to get to get in before everybody else does." Donatelli said the team was still hammering out how long the process could take, although he mentioned seven months as a timetable in some of the earliest conceptions. That'll likely change drastically by the time WildStar launches on June 3, though, particularly after meeting that Donatelli says will take place this week.

I left Carbine with the impression that all the pieces were sliding into place; now the WildStar team needs to convince an MMORPG populace that's grown used to smaller raids that 40-player ventures like the Datascape are worth running. If they pull that off, they could more than justify their subscription fee and reignite server communities that the genre hasn't seen in years. Brett Scheinert thinks they can. WildStar's focus on challenging encounters, massive raids, and fast-paced raid combat scratches an itch other studios have neglected for years, and he believes that mix delivers an experience that will keep players coming back even after the raiding content grows old.

"Even if you know what you're supposed to do," he says, "the hope is that it'll be really fun when you do it."