I have fond memories of Vanilla WoW. I remember the feeling of awe when I first walked into Molten Core as part of a 40-man group. It made such a mark that I can even remember in detail how I ended up in the group; I can remember the first time we killed Ragnaros; I remember rushing home from class to make it home in time for the raid. There are plenty of fond memories but that is because I blocked out most of the negative ones. Like the dozen times the raid almost shattered over loot or strategy disputes. The times we had to cancel because we couldn't get 40 keyed people. Spending hours standing at the beginning of the raid while we tried to fill spots. The list goes on.
But Wildstar is not WoW and Carbine deserves a chance to try to do it right, but the way I see it, there is a good reason Blizzard moved from 40 to 25/10 (and eventually Flex) and I am concerned that Carbine is forgetting lessons it ought to have learned. Wildstar, as I understand it, is doing both 20 and 40 man raids with the latter having the best loot. It is unclear however whether they will be like WoW, the same raid but tuned for different numbers of people, or if they will be completely separate raid encounters. If it’s the former then I have no issue because it gives people a choice. I only have an issue if they are creating content that will not be seen by a majority of the players.
For the sake of argument let us say that Wildstar does go the "40 mans are unique instances" route. Personally I think this is the wrong choice and to explain I invite you on a brief retrospective of some of the problems with 40-mans that you might have forgotten, not experienced, or not heard of.
Headache for Leaders
One of my favorite bloggers (who also wrote a post on this, you should read it) titled her blog "HerdingCats" surely in part because it is one of the most astute ways of describing what it is like to lead a 40-man. In each of the two raid groups I joined I became good friends with the leaders and I watched the same thing happen. Raid night after raid night, they had to deal extreme stress so that 39 other people could have fun. Like a president, every bad thing was blamed on them but they received little praise for the raid’s success. Plus, with forty people in a game with 6 classes (like Wildstar) you are going to have on average 6 of each class which basically mandates having class leaders or officers. Each of those officers has to deal with the drama of sitting people, helping less-skilled players improve, recruiting, speccing, and managing them during the raid. Ten to twenty man raids do not come with as much of this; 20 people means maybe 3-4 of each class (which does not typically require a leader) and 20 is a number that coincides well with the rosters of small-to-medium sized guilds.
Remember a 40 man raid demands a large guild or a large alliance of guilds (which can create its own problems and power struggles). Not everyone in an MMO wants to be in a huge guild where they are just another name on a list. In fact I'd venture to say that the vast majority do not. I think we would prefer a small-to-medium sized group where everyone knows everyone else. In a 40-man this is less likely, and it is more likely that smaller internal groups, the dreaded cliques, will form.
Clique and clack
A 40 man raid does not mean you have a roster of exactly 40 people, it means you have a roster of 50+ because on any given night you're going to have at least a handful of people that cannot make it for one reason or another. I don't blame them, life happens and this is a game we're playing. Even if people DO make it sometimes things come up mid-raid: drama, illness, or emergencies. Invariably this means that you'll invite "friends of a friend" and if you step back you can see a series of small groups forming. That's natural, but it creates problems. Not everyone will get along, not everyone will agree, and all too often a disagreement between two people turns into a disagreement between two cliques. If a clique bails that means a handful of spots to fill. Even if they don't it can lead to ultimatums, fighting, or just disruptive conduct.
It's not to say that this does not happen in 10 or 25 man guilds. With 10 people, however, it is more likely that everyone knows everyone and with fewer competitors for loot/spots it is easier to keep a fair rotation. Twenty five man raiding has the same issue, but fewer cliques which leads to less likelihood of their occurrence.
DKP, spreadsheets, EPGP, rotations; a thousand systems were created primarily to deal with handing out loot in 40-mans, because when you are getting ~4 items per boss there are going to be a lot of people eligible (except Felheart cause that crap dropped like water). In a 10 man, or even 25, someone passing loot to someone else is less disruptive to the flow, and in 10 especially it can foster a feeling of unity. In a 40 man that kind of behavior had to be discouraged because it could mean people were handing things around inside cliques or gaming the loot system. I remember people passing early items so they would have priority on later, better items.
Even if you do have a good system, handing out loot often takes time. Whether you are bidding, rotating, or checking a spreadsheet, the leader is going to spend several minutes standing over the corpse trying to figure out who gets what item.
All that said, this particular issue could be addressed by modifying the loot system to resemble that in WoW’s LFR. Making gear an automated, individual determination would eliminate the need for a group to have a system of distribution.
The good, the bad, and the carried
Tuning 40 mans is rough. Blizzard knew people would die so they couldn't make DPS requirements too tight and often erred on the side of keeping it loose. Damage had to be widespread or spiked because with 8+ healers any non-lethal damage would usually be healed (and vastly overhealed) almost instantly. When AoE healing is prevalent (as it looks to be in Wildstar) the need to stack is enhanced. Any "perk" a class brings often makes it required (e.g. 8 warriors for original Naxx). Having 40 people and thus easy access to each class amplifies the issue of any class being "the best" because now the raid can have 2 warriors tank the boss they are “best” at, then 2 engineers tank the boss they are “best” at and so on.
So raids tended to be fairly generous with things like DPS timers which leads to the oft lamented "30 carrying 10" feeling, the idea that the majority of players were having to pick up the slack for the lesser-skilled/geared members. This adds fuel to frustration fires and leads to finger pointing amongst the group.
Furthermore, it makes each individual into a single cog in a huge machine. For the 25+ DPS you are just another number on a meter. You are but 1/25th of the group’s DPS and if you die the group will usually prevail without you. Forty man raids diminish the individual contribution for most of the raid’s members (while adding it for others like tanks) and as a result tend to trivialize individual skill. Smaller raids such as 10 and 25 do not diminish it to the same degree and in 10-man raids especially individual skill is very important. Now MMOs are social games and thus it should not be all about the individual, but I think that raid sizes that encourage individual skill while also requiring mildly large groups are worth rewarding with the best loot in the game.
40 people broadcasting
One of Wildstar's main attractions is its heavy use of broadcasts for both player and boss attacks. Think about that...there are going to be 40 broadcasts going off at any given time, PLUS the boss's. 8 different healers, whose broadcasts do you choose? Will you be able to adequately sift through the good broadcasts, bad ones, and irrelevant? Carbine may have ways to address this but it’s going to lead to an extremely busy screen. Now you can adjust the broadcasts substantially; but as of yet it is still in chunks like “Ally Beneficial” which will reduce the problem, but not necessarily solve it.
"But 25 isn't EPIC!"
I have trouble with this idea; some proponents of the 40 man layout claim that it feels sufficiently epic. Personally I never noticed a difference between 25 and 40 people; it's a LOT of spell effects on the screen and a lot of people around me. Plus, is the number of our team what makes a fight epic? We're playing games for experiences, usually to simulate experiences similar to what we've read about or seen. I can't recall many situations I would want to play out that were basically a swarm of bees bringing down a bear. More often, the "epicness" of a fight is more about the odds that the smaller group faced. We glorify the Spartans at Thermopylae because it was 300 against thousands, we watch Lord of the Rings and see a handful of people take on armies of orcs. Rarely in other media are the "heroes" the ones with vast numbers.