Tech troubles

I am having a cascading set of technical problems today starting with no electrical power. While I like my smart phone, I am not about to write an entire blog on it. Going to write it off as a bad day and will catch up with you all on Monday.

Pass the crow, please

Today I am going to eat a little bit of crow. Blizz just announced they are rolling back the new loot rules they implemented a few weeks ago. Recall that, with the new leveling zones and processes introduced in Patch 7.3.5, there was a change that put personal loot automatically into effect for all leveling dungeons. What this meant was that anyone running old dungeons for transmog or mounts or recipes or whatever would only be able to get loot appropriate to their spec, for one player, as if they were running in an actual group.

You can see the problem — and probably many of you experienced it. It effectively drastically curtailed your chances of getting the transmog or legacy items you were looking for, and of course you could no longer run them on, say, your very powerful warlock and hope to get that cool transmog you wanted for your alt paladin. (Not to mention it put an even further dent into the amount of gold you could clear — whether by selling BoE transmoggables in the auction house or even by vendoring everything.)

Predictably, and justifiably in my opinion, there was a huge outcry over this. For years Blizz had allowed — nay, encouraged — players to use their most powerful characters to go back solo into old dungeons and rapidly romp through them for the express purpose of gathering all the mats and loot their bags could hold, and try for elusive mounts or pets. Some players have run the same dungeon for years looking for that one item their heart desires.

For Blizz to suddenly say, “Sorry, changed our minds” about this practice seemed especially capricious. Players vented in the forums, on Twitter, every venue they could think of.

And with today’s Blue post, it appears Blizz listened to these players and took action to remedy the problem.

Yay Blizz.

I have frequently stated in this blog that I believe Blizz has stopped listening to the majority of its player base in favor of catering to the elite. This is where I eat the crow, because this latest move pretty clearly was in response to the 99%, not to the 1%. Fixing the problem they had created, in response to the protests of large numbers of casual and semi-casual players, was a move worthy of the old Blizz. Recognizing the importance of this activity to a large number of non-elite players heartened back to the roots of a game originally designed for millions of ordinary players.

Still, there is a cynical side of me that thinks maybe the Patch 7.3.5 move caused a downward blip in MAU. Almost certainly some players who used to spend hours roflstomping through old instances stopped doing so, because what was the point any more? I don’t know how many players this might have been, but Blizz has shown us that any decrease in the monthly active user metric, in any activity, causes them to take immediate remedial steps. (And yes, they almost certainly track MAU by activity, not just overall.)

But the end result was action taken for ordinary players. So yes, I am eating crow, but just one serving of it, not the whole damn bird. In this instance, Blizz did the right thing, and they did it relatively quickly and completely, without adverse impact to other parts of the game. Good job, Blizz, now maybe you could keep the trend going, think about giving alpha access to BfA to some regular non-special players?

*munch munch* Needs a little salt, don’t you think?

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Epiphany

Over the weekend, as I was cooking for, cleaning for, picking up after, and entertaining relatives, out of the blue I had one of those forehead-slapping moments. For months now — maybe even a couple of years — I have been baffled by Blizz’s apparent business model shift from a game accessible to nearly everyone to one that:

  • Is increasingly complex, to the point that it is almost impossible for new players to navigate without accessing third-party explanatory sites
  • Is moving to funnel all game play into a structured end game model
  • Is designed to require ever more game play hours each week in order to reach and maintain end game level
  • Often implements “fixes” that serve to penalize casual players but are in response to elite player exploits or perceived exploits (example: the rules for loot trading in raids)
  • Gives early testing access only to elite players or “image shapers”, and structures entire expansions based on their feedback

WoW made its reputation and early MMO dominance by being a game tens of millions could play and find their own leisure niche in. Anyone with a computer could subscribe and go about finding their happy place picking herbs or exploring or being fierce in the face of marauding gnolls or hanging out with friends in chat or venturing into raids and instances with their guild or a pickup group. And for the most part, players could pursue their pleasure on whatever schedule they wanted — there were weekend warriors, some who played an hour or two every couple of nights, some who played more intensely, some who played only a couple of days every few weeks.

The point is, these players were not penalized for whatever play schedule they adhered to. They could structure their game time to meet their personal goals. Starting as early as Mists, Blizz began to gate significant content behind time requirements. For example, to get certain profession recipes or gear, there were  fairly stringent rep gates, and you could only gain faction rep according to a rationed weekly and daily schedule. It is that last part that in my mind started the slide into “enforced game time”. Suddenly the weekend player — even if they were only interested in profession crafting and not end game raiding, for example — was at a significant disadvantage. No matter how many hours they might have to play on a weekend, they could not “catch up” with the gated dailies that gave them access to their game goals.

In WoD, we saw the garrison mechanism used as a similar hammer. Players had to fully develop their garrisons if they wanted to see the final patch zone (in spite of Blizz’s early fabrication that garrisons would be “completely voluntary”) and garrison development was limited by a resource that could only be earned in measured amounts, doled out according to weekly and daily activity rations. Garrison development was even further impacted by completion of time-bounded quests in the mini game of champions and ships.

Legion, of course, has seen the exponential growth of game mechanisms designed to penalize the non-regular player. I won’t detail them here, as I have written extensively about them for the past year, but they include the chase for AP, the legendary RNG system that rewards frequent play and penalizes infrequent, the RNG aspect of profession learning, and so forth.

Yeah I know, Get to the point, Fi! So here was my forehead-slapping revelation:

Blizz considers the future of the game to be wholly contingent on esports, not on mass appeal. 

Maybe some of you have taken this as a given and are not blown away by it as I was, but that realization finally put into context for me nearly all of the company’s heretofore-inexplicable expansion policies.

Blizz considers the future of the game — if it has a future — to be masses of people watching the elite play it, not so much playing it themselves. Oh sure, they can dabble in it if they’ve a mind to, but doing so will be akin to a weekend touch football game if you love the game of football — the real players get big bucks and you pay big bucks to watch them playing in the NFL.

This explains a lot.

For one thing, the increasing complexity. Professional athletes spend hours understanding and maximizing the nuances of their sport. They are fascinated by the small details of it, and they pride themselves on being able to shape those details to enhance their performance. Is it possible to not pay attention to the myriad of details and still play? Sure, but of course not at the pro level.

In pro sports, it is fairly important to have a dedicated fan base that understands the game from a player level, that knows they themselves do not have the wherewithal to compete at the top, nevertheless they are rabidly interested in how the pros can perform so perfectly. It will be the same with esports.

In WoW, if the goal is merely to keep the current loyal player base, it is not especially important to make the game accessible to masses of brand new players. Sure, some will be brought in by veterans, but in general it is not a high priority to simplify the game or to make its user interfaces more friendly or to gently lead players through quest lines, because most of the current player base already understands these processes.

The shift from subscription numbers as a metric of game success to Monthly Active Users is simply a way to measure how dedicated the fan player base is. Moreover, Blizz wants this loyal player base to stay engaged. This explains the catering to “vanilla” players, the emphasis on “how it used to be in the old days of leveling”.

The strategic goal of esports as game direction also explains the introduction of fast mini-competitions within the game, things like Mythic+ dungeons and Islands in BfA. Players can try these for themselves (have a quick touch football game at the park on Saturday), but the real Blizz emphasis will be on spectator versions of them carried out by the pros.

If you are trying to build an esports fan base to cheer for pro teams engaging in end game activities, then another thing you have to do is ensure every player who reaches level is funneled into those pro-friendly end game activities. Can’t have a whole group of leveled players who care nothing about the core end game activities, who have interest and experience only in crafting or gathering or whatever. So the answer is to force even these players into at least a passing familiarity with dungeons and raids and gearing up and soon Island scenarios.

Last, if you believe the future of the game involves people watching the pros play it, then of course you structure it to favor that aspect. This explains Blizz’s catering to the less than 1% of elite players and world-first guilds. It explains why they do not for the most part allow casual players to be early shapers of a new expansion. It even somewhat explains why they seem to abandon some classes and specs every expansion — if the pro players consider the spec not worthy of serious play, then there is no need to focus any more resources on it. The game is no longer being designed for casual players, except insofar as to give them a taste of what real pro play involves. 

So, yeah, I know — I have veered rather deeply into tinfoil hat territory here. And yes, it may be time for my meds. But think about it and apply Occam’s Razor or lex parsimoniae or any of the standard problem-solving paradigms.

If it is a far-fetched explanation, it is at least a simple one requiring few assumptions.

110 character boost stinks

This will be a short post today, due to “surprise” in-law visit. 😡

When Blizz announced a 110 character boost as part of the pre-purchase of Battle for Azeroth, I was pleased. I have made use of boosts for several characters, have even separately purchased at least one. I always thought the benefits of the boost were worth the money, particularly since I usually got my characters to level 60 first so that I would also get the profession max perk.

But Blizz seems to have pushed the 110 boost out the door with the absolute minimum work they could possibly do and still rake in the $$. There is no longer any profession perk. That is, even if you boost after level 60, you get your professions to 700 but still have to go through the maddening series of Legion professions hoops to get your recipes and to get to level 800. When people discovered this, they rightly assumed it was just a bug and reported it as such. No, came the response, it is “working as intended”.

Another thing that is “working as intended” is that boosted characters no longer get the Level 3 garrison from WoD. I do not know if this means there is no access to Tanaan, as I have not used my 110 boost yet, but I would not be surprised.

The auto level 3 garrison with the level 100 boost was, I thought, reasonable. Basically, Blizz was giving us full access to WoD content by doing that. But now, if you want full WoD access, you need to get out there and grind your little butt off.

Basic access to expansion end-game content was, I always thought, the purpose of marketing the character boosts in the first place. But this bare bones 110 boost seems pretty cheesy. I say that because in the past a full-level boost actually gave you some ability to participate in end game activities at a reasonable — not OP, but reasonable — level. One would naturally assume that the Legion boost would give the boosted character some progress on the long drawn-out class hall quests, champion quests, AP chase, zone unlocks, and profession lines. One would be wrong. The 110 boost does not give anything close to the ability to engage in end game activities — you are stuck with playing Legion catch-up to be able to get to that point.

Blizz apparently cannot step away from their all-powerful MAU master, even when players pay hard cash for what used to be decent perks. The new character boost is nowhere close to the decent shortcut it used to be, it is a scam no longer worth the money Blizz continues to charge for it.

I want the company to make money, I am glad that they do. But it seems to me that with Legion they have crossed a line from making profits to maliciously squeezing every dime they can out of players, frequently stooping to deliberately misleading them in the process. The 110 boost is far less value than previous boosts for the same money.

Enjoy your weekend. Mine unfortunately will be spent catering to in-laws.

Look out! The Blizz pendulum is coming at you again!

Today Blizz gave us the first detailed look at their vision for hunter pets in Battle for Azeroth. Interestingly, they posted this information in a forum that requires a “beta” ticket to even comment in. I am trying to talk myself out of the opinion that this means they are too chickenshit to subject themselves to the huge outcries they know they will get from virtually every hunter in the game. Yes, you can make a case for them wanting to only hear from people who can actually try the changes, but who are those people at this stage, the only stage when significant changes will be made? No one but Blizz knows, of course, but my suspicion is that very few of the favored friends and family and streamers actually have BM hunter as their main. They may be familiar with the mechanics, but how many of them really have a passion for the spec and the kind of gut understanding that comes with that?

You can read (but probably not comment on) the Blue post for yourselves, but for a more balanced exposition of the changes, I recommend Bendak’s post on them or Delirium’s from a couple days ago. My logical side says time will tell if these changes turn out to be a boon or a bust for hunters, especially BM hunters, but for now my lack of trust in Blizz makes me very suspicious. Part of me imagines that Blizz, in typical fashion, took the hunter request for more pet talent variety (say, like we had in WoD), and went berserk with it. I can almost hear them sneering, “You little whiners want pet variety? I gotcher pet variety right here! BWAAAAAHAHA, guess you won’t be asking for that again will ya, you little snivelers?”

My initial take is that Blizz is getting ready to do to pets what they did to gear in Legion — make them so complex that we will need a bank of computers to select the most effective one for any given situation. In the process, they are once again demonstrating their complete lack of understanding of the role a pet plays in the overall BM hunter experience, and they may be setting the stage for screwing over BM hunters in BfA.

Start with the complexity issue. They are adding a bewilderingly large matrix of “pet family uniqueness”, endowing certain pets with a single raid cooldown, and assembling a multitude of varied “pet ability packages”. In the process, they are:

  • Removing the option of speccing any pet into Ferocity, Tenacity, or Cunning, because apparently it “feels outdated”. One gets the idea they do not want us to have to bother our little heads about this thing — the same way they solicitously took away reforging so that we would not have to do that icky old math.
    • According to the Blue post, “we’re going to shift all pets to a setup that will work as though they’re specced into both Ferocity and Tenacity”. So what happens with Cunning traits? They just go away? They will be limited to PvP? Or did the Blue poster just forget about them, because who the hell can keep track of all those hunter-ish things anyway?
    • Even though they claim they are rolling all Ferocity/Tenacity traits into the  merged sped, they are removing the powerful Charge spell and buff, no explanation why.
  • Adding Bloodlust to more pets and removing Battle Rez completely from hunter pets. Blizz’s reasoning for this is a textbook example of obfuscation, designed to cover their real reason which is “OMG! Hunters as actual raid utility players? Sound the alarm!” Here it is, for your reading and dining pleasure:

    In a world where we are proliferating abilities to many families, our first inclination was to add Battle Res to a separate third of those families. After seeing that landscape, it felt odd to fully embrace Resurrection as part of the Hunter kit. Further, moving into Battle for Azeroth, we are solidifying Bloodlust and Battle Res as the strong shared cooldowns that a group can bring – one offense, one defense. In that world, Hunters having access to both of the super powerful group benefits didn’t feel appropriate.

  • While Blizz is removing the pet roles of Ferocity, Tenacity, and Cunning, they are keeping the terms as a way to categorize pet families. So every pet will fall into one of the those three categories. These categories form the basis for the matrix of abilities hunters will have to choose from in selecting a pet for a given situation. I am not going to go into detail on this, but it looks like there will be some permutation of at least 18 different abilities (more with Spirit Beasts and maybe Exotics) combined into 3 (or more with the special beasts) each that the hunter will have to select. (I am wondering if Blizz has stock in one of the sim web sites…)

Second point here is that this system completely disregards one of the coolest aspects of being a hunter — the bond you actually form with one or two pets. Blizz is making them just another piece of gear or a second talent tree — pick what works best for each situation. Forget that you always level with your favorite wolf pet, forget that you love Gara and have raided with him ever since you got him early in WoD, forget that your turtle pet has saved your skin more times than you can count while questing solo.

No, just roll-a-pet depending on the situation, they are just another piece of gear, who cares? Certainly no one at Blizz, where no one understands the emotional bond hunters have for their pets, much less ever experienced that for themselves.

Further, this announced change still does absolutely nothing to bolster the whole idea of BM being “Master of Beasts”. One additional active power button does not give us much more control over pets, we remain essentially leash holders whose main function is to drop the leashes and let the pets do what they will, while we stand back and fire off one or two puny little shots. One could actually argue that both MM and SV will have greater control over pets in BfA. MM will be able to call a pet — say for a quick Bloodlust — and dismiss it in a few seconds, thus hardly even touching their 18% Lone Wolf buff. SV seems like it will work hand in hand with their pets, and increases to hunter damage through higher level gear and more secondary stats will scale very well with their pet damage. This is not true of BM hunters, at least so far as we have seen — Blizz is willing to see SV pets as an integral part of their power, but they are opposed to pets scaling equally for BM hunters.

Last, what do these pet changes mean for the future of BM hunters in the next expansion? Given the dearth of BM hunter changes so far — especially when compared to the very significant changes announced for SV and MM — is this Rube Goldberg-esque pet matrix what passes for major BM changes in BfA? Does Blizz think they can switch a few talents around and give us this pet complexity and call it done for BM? I am getting the uncomfortable feeling the answer is yes. So far, I am seeing nothing close to compensating for the damage we will lose when we lose Hati and our artifact weapon, and bear in mind even with those things in Legion we are close to the very bottom of damage charts in nearly every fight.

And as an aside, what is going on with Tranq Shot and A Murder of Crows? The Blue post seemed to hint that the vaunted restoration of Tranq Shot for hunters may actually turn out to be a pet ability, though it was a bit unclear. If that is the case, it certainly waters down the already-puny raid utilities left to hunters in BfA (which were already watered down in Legion). As for Crows, all the changes I have seen now clearly label that talent “Marksman Hunter”. It seems ludicrous that MM would be gaining this and BM would be losing it. As I indicated above, who the hell is supposed to be the Master of Beasts, anyway? A spec whose fantasy is flailing away with super-high potency guns or bows suddenly can call in a flock of crows and the Master of Beasts suddenly cannot? I hope I am wrong about both of these things.

As a further aside, when are we going to get a bigger stable for hunter pets? You can have hundreds of mounts and foo-foo vanity pets in the game, but no no no, absolutely must limit the number of hunter pets? Blizz, could you at least try to appear a bit more even-handed? 🙄

Anyway, get your sims and spreadsheets and matrices ready for pet selection in BfA. And maybe say goodbye to your favorite pets — just explain to them they are not “optimal” any more, and it is time for them to go to a nice farm where they will always be happy and run in the sunshine…

Oh, and watch out for that nasty pendulum.

Are target dummies obsolete?

I had a very laid-back weekend, game-wise. Friday night I ran our alt raid with my resto druid and managed to not embarrass myself too badly. I took Saturday off and did actual real world social things. Sunday I devoted a lot of hours to grinding away at leveling my void elf mage (still only level 68, it is a LOOONNNGGG grind). I also managed to squeeze in a half hour or so on my main, whaling away at target dummies.

The last activity got me to thinking — with all the gear and talent complexities of Legion, and the inevitable proliferation of computerized simulations, do most players still even use target dummies? Anecdotally, I have noticed that there are almost never any other players using them when I am, and I remember when it was almost always pretty crowded, before Legion. I suppose for one thing we now have them in more places than we used to. We are not stuck with going to a capital city if we want to use them, we have our garrisons and class halls. (Although I am continually annoyed that there are none in Dalaran. If we are on such an emergency war footing for Legion, and if Dalaran is the center of the resistance, you would think there would be accommodations for troop training. Sheesh.)

When I first started using target dummies (early Wrath, I think), I would usually go to Ironforge, plunk myself in front of one, and blaze away at it. I don’t think I even knew exactly what I was trying to measure or test. Eventually I got a damage meter addon, and then I used it to have a damage number I could tout in whispered exchanges with someone looking to fill a raid.

Sometime along about the middle of Wrath, an excellent raider took pity on me and showed me how to get a whole lot more out of target dummies. Standing in one spot was useful for a couple things, he told me, but just because the target dummy was stationary did not mean I had to be. So I learned to strafe and jump disengage and move while using them, I switched targets, I called my pet off and sicc’ed him back on, I simulated stuns on myself, I would pick some hapless player next to me and aim a mid-fight Misdirection at him (it didn’t do anything, of course, but it was good practice for me). I varied my regular rotation with some of the then-abundant utility shots and even traps we hunters had, sometimes vaguely simulating a particular boss fight where I knew, for example, that a tranq shot was needed for an add or that I needed to keep my healer protected by traps.

I even spent hours perfecting the hunter turn-around jump shot, where you run away from the target, then rapidly turn around to face it again, simultaneously executing a disengage and a concussive shot and then face away from the target before hitting the ground to keep running. I am woefully out of practice on it now, but I was damn good at it for a while, thanks to hours with the target dummies. (The ones in Ironforge were never any good for this, I had to use the ones in Stormwind. Later, in Mists, the ones in the Shrine were ideal, as you had that entire long and broad front platform to use. Even now, neither the garrison nor the hunter class hall begin to approach the Shrine in terms of running space.)

I thought it was a terrific quality of life move when in WoD Blizz gave us healing and tank versions of target dummies. There are still some problems with them, of course. It would be nice, for example, if you could create a group with the friendly dummies you need to heal. Also, there are times when the game doesn’t really consider you to be in combat when you are engaged with target dummies, along with times when you can’t easily get out of combat with them. I have not often used the tanking target dummy, so I can’t speak to how well it allows tanks to practice.

I always had high hopes for proving grounds to be the equivalent of target dummies on steroids. Sadly, they did not really work out that way. The mini-scenario structure of them limits you in terms of working on a specific thing, and you are stuck with the scenario playing itself out, even if, for example, you are just working on openers. Where Blizz went wrong with proving grounds, I think, is that they made them into achievement-based competitions rather than leave them as a vehicle for simple practice.

My ideal of proving grounds would be that they would be more player-configurable. For example, you could select from a list of different types of fights — trash, Patchwerk boss, boss with adds, boss with movement, etc. Kind of like the various sim scenarios you can pick. Also, I think it would be useful if players could bring in other players to the proving grounds. So for example if two tanks need to practice something, they could both go in. Or if someone was having a problem with damage numbers, that person could go in with a mentor and practice better techniques while getting immediate feedback and advice.

We basically have three different levels of practice activities in WoW now — target dummies, proving grounds, and LFR. (Maybe four if you count battlegrounds.) Each of them has their own pluses and minuses. I don’t mean to denigrate LFR — I actually think the latest tiers have restored a little more of the challenge to it. But I often use it just for practice on alts, rather than for gear or other reasons. This is especially true of my healer alts where, for example, people stubbornly standing in fire are a pretty good simulation of a heal-heavy boss fight. If I know I will be a designated tank healer in an alt raid (not often with my resto druid, but still…), I may step into LFR and take it on myself to heal the tanks, watching closely to see where the big damage points are.

But back to target dummies. I still use them quite a bit, even on my main hunter. I use them to practice new rotations (for example if I switch from a BM zoo build to a dire frenzy build, or if I equip a legendary or trinket that changes my rotation), or to field-test a couple of competing simulation results. I also use them to test out addons from time to time, especially new Weakauras I want to use. Sometimes I just need to retrain muscle memory I have gotten lax on.

What about you, do you still use target dummies? Do you want to see Blizz improve them, or should they be just a holdover from earlier days of the game?

What do corporate goals mean for WoW?

We recently got the public Q4 2017 report from Activision Blizzard (ATVI), along with the investors’ conference call transcript. The actual report, unless you are a real accounting geek or investor, is pretty dry reading (okay, it is dead boring), but the conference call is often interesting because you can get some excellent ideas of priorities for ATVI and then use some deductive reasoning to gather pretty decent insights into what is going on in WoW and more importantly what the future may hold for the game.

Usually the main content of the conference call is the various CEO’s and financial execs touting how great they did and what they are “excited about” for the immediate future, followed by a couple of questions from the investors. The Q4 2017 transcript went a bit lighter on the canned presentations and included a few more investor questions. Here are some notable quotes from the transcript (lightly edited for clarity), along with my observations:

Bobby Kotick (ATVI CEO): Blizzard delivered their highest operating income ever for year with no major game releases.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): Blizzard also delivered a $2.1 billion of revenue and $712 million of operating income. Blizzard generated record results for the year with no major game release, fueled by a steady stream of content and events across their franchises, in particular Overwatch, Hearthstone and World of Warcraft. Revenue, operating income and segment operating income margin were down year-over-year as expected given the difficult comps to last year’s World of Warcraft expansion and Overwatch release. We did see some incremental margin compression in Q4, primarily due to additional marketing initiatives. Nonetheless, with 33% full-year OI margins, the team did a nice job delivering the core business while investing in key growth initiatives across the Overwatch League, mobile incubation and MLG network.

What we see here is the CFO doing a bit of reality-speak to amplify the CEO’s comment. Kotick said that Blizz is doing fine, considering that there were no major new releases in 2017. Neumann basically went on to say Blizz actually did worse in 2017 than they had in 2016, but there are reasons for it. Plus, Blizz is still making a profit.

What can we take from this? My opinion, only, of course, but Blizz is still hampered by the cyclical nature of its games. Without major new releases in its franchises, it struggles to compete financially with other elements of ATVI. Pushing constant new “content” (like we have seen in Legion) helps in the off years, but it cannot begin to match the revenue generated by new releases.

This in no way means Blizz is going away, nor does it portend the imminent demise of WoW, but one thing it means is we can expect to see a continuation of what many of us perceive as “enforced grinding” in expansions from now on.

There’s also this —

Amrita Ahuja (ATVI Senior Vice President of Investor Relations): Starting this quarter, we are introducing a new operating metric, net bookings. Net bookings is defined as the net amount of products and services sold digitally or sold-in physically in the period and is equal to revenues plus the impacts from deferrals.

Cut out the accounting babble, and we see that Blizz will now have a separate quarterly reporting category called “net bookings”, where they will be accountable for “goods and services” they sell. They have always been accountable for this, of course, but the numbers were all kind of rolled up into other reporting vehicles. Now, though, it will be a big glaring number that can be held up in direct comparison to other corporate entities like King.

Remember the turn WoW took when ATVI imposed the “Monthly Active User” reporting metric? The game started a long slide into “enforced grinding” — everything became RNG to encourage the “just one more nickel” Las Vegas gambler approach to gear, Legion brought us artifact weapons and the never-ending chase for AP, professions became months-long slogs to max out, leveling new characters became longer by about 33%, and so forth. Again just my opinion, but the introduction of MAU as a reportable metric was a significant factor in bringing the game emphasis redirection we saw in Legion.

So how might the introduction of “net bookings” change the game? Certainly there are some obvious possibilities, like pushing Blizz store sales (can you say, “Purchased character boost”?) and Blizzcon virtual tickets. There are also some less direct avenues, such as really hyping spectator participation for M+ dungeon competitions — so far, this is “free”, but of course everyone is subjected to advertising, which in turn inevitably results in revenue in one way or another. Not to mention, how long these events will remain free probably depends on how popular they become.

But there was another somewhat ominous thread during the conference call.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): We expect in-game revenues to be a primary driver of our growth for both the top and bottom line. Coming off a record year in 2017, we expect in-game net bookings to grow by a double-digit percentage in 2018 as we continue to innovate and deliver more engaging content to our players.

We expect Blizzard to grow year-over-year with the release of World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth this summer. I am glad to say the presales for Azeroth kicked off last week and are off to an encouraging start. In addition, Blizzard has exciting plans for live ops and additional in-game content across franchises, including Hearthstone’s three expansions in 2018 and Overwatch’s in-game events.

At this point, I am likely veering into some tinfoil hat theories, but here’s a trend I am seeing:

  • Just before Legion went live, ATVI imposed the MAU metric on all its companies, including even the subscription services like WoW. This never made sense to me, since if players are sending the company a set number of $$ every month, who cares how many hours they play, or indeed if they don’t play at all?
  • Now that there are established MAU baselines for all ATVI games (including WoW), there is a corporate push to maximize “in-game” sales and services. Presumably, this push came about because of some math projecting new revenue from expected average active player response in that area. And the first part of the above quote tells me that ATVI is really going to lean on their companies to meet their expected “in-game net bookings” goal for 2018.
  • Blizz has thus far done a good job of keeping extraneous commercialization out of WoW. They have prided themselves on their principle that the game is a not “pay to play” genre, and they deserve credit for that. But I am wondering if they will be able to hold the line in the face of what is clearly a corporate push to sell sell sell? Will we see things like in-game advertising? Rare in-game mounts that players have been grinding for years for sale in the store? Special-skinned hunter pets for sale?

There might be zero WoW fallout from the push for in-game revenues, but I am going to remain watchful on this one.

Last, a couple of  miscellaneous interesting quotes (emphasis mine):

Blizzard finished the year with 40 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 40 million monthly active users or more.

I am not sure I have had a baseline number like this for Blizz before — it would be nice to know what that number is specifically for WoW. (Also, if the MAU had dropped to 1 million, would we have had a comment like “Blizzard finished the year with 1 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 1 million monthly active users or more”?)

Hearthstone’s monthly active users increased year-over-year this quarter as players enjoyed the latest expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs and the introduction of new free content. While net bookings did not match the prior expansion’s record performance, players did log more play time, which brings me to our second strategic pillar, deepening the engagement. For Activision Blizzard and King overall, daily time spent per user was over 50 minutes for the second quarter in a row, placing us on par with Facebook’s time per day across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Now, that 50 minutes per day is just the time spent in our games; it does not include the growing popularity of watching our games on other online platforms.

Some day we will look back at Legion as the good old days, when “enforced grinding” was just getting started…

Blizzard will also start to see the benefit of its investment initiatives, as we expect the Overwatch League to be profitable in 2018, its first full year of operations.

I don’t play Overwatch, but I guess all of Blizz’s hype on it as such a major franchise led me to believe it must be a money-maker for them. Apparently not yet.

And, though I am not going to go into this in detail, the conference call really hyped ATVI’s “all in” stance on esports. There is no doubt they see esports as one day rather soon being as big and as all-encompassing as the NFL or any of the top soccer leagues, with screaming fans and godlike heroes and everything else that goes along with it.

And with all that, my head hurts. I believe a weekend is in order. See you on the other side.