Aaaand we’re off!

I am pronouncing Legion officially ended.

Oh yes, I know technically we have months to go in this expansion, and lots of people are still totally engrossed in it, but for all practical purposes it has shifted from a windshield view to one we see in the rear view mirror. Battle for Azeroth is now the windshield view.

In my days as a soldier, I was transferred from one duty station to another about every two years (sometimes more often). Every time I did a PCS (permanent change of station), there was a defined point at which I stopped thinking of my last duty station as home and started anticipating my new one. When I returned from Iraq, for example, somewhere about halfway on the flight home, my brain did a sort of “click” and I pushed the previous months to the back of my consciousness and began to really think about arriving at the airport, reuniting with family, planning for my next set of duties, and so forth. I had a turned a page to a new chapter, and I knew it.

Last night I had that kind of “click” in my brain about Legion/BfA. It was an accumulation of news and events, I think. For one thing, our raid team downed heroic Argus, so Legion progression raiding has been officially completed. For another, in the last couple of days we have seen an avalanche of data about BfA — a rare Developer Water Cooler post, announcement of a Hazzikostas “Q&A” next week, the start of the BfA alpha test, and of course the first crush of mined data. Blizz has definitely kicked off its official next-expansion blitz.

Right now we are in an overload-induced lull in the face of all this information, but over the next few days, weeks, and months we’ll start to see a realistic picture of BfA emerge. So, a few (very) preliminary observations on the process we are beginning:

As always, I applaud the publication of the Dev Water Cooler post, but back in the old days before the Hazzikostas Dynasty these were much more frequent and thus gave us a lot more insight into game design and goals. Now we are lucky if we see one or two a year, and sadly they now seem mainly to be part of publicity blitzes in advance of a new expansion. Nevertheless, better one than none I suppose.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this one is that Blizz has almost completed their morph from “Bring the player not the class” to “Bring the class not the player” in their design philosophy. BfA will see — if the post is to be believed — class and spec utilities pruned and added with the goal of having only one or two classes with any given raid utility, and (in theory) raid bosses designed to take specific advantage of specific utilities. I think this is a big mistake, but of course Blizz designs for the professional-level raider, not for the majority of their players. (Most raid teams do not have the luxury of switching out specs to fit each boss — and in fact probably would not do so even if they could.)

I agree with Blizz that it is not very interesting if every class has every utility. But the hints are that BfA will see a typical pendulum swing that will severely limit and further specialize class utilities. This will be fine for classes that win the lottery and have generically useful utilities, like hero/timewarp or battle rez or group-wide speed bursts. It will be far less fine for classes that get highly specialized utilities and in the process lose their more generic ones in the name of promoting class “uniqueness”. One example I can think of right now is the fact that hunters will lose the AoE stun effect of Binding Shot — it will be simply an AoE root. But hunters will gain (get back, actually, after its removal in Legion) Tranquilizing Shot. I am not complaining about getting tranq back again, but its utility is far more selective than the current Binding Shot. Back when we still had tranq, I estimate it was useful for maybe one in ten boss fights. Contrast that with the current Binding Shot, which I use much more frequently in Legion, and very often indeed in M+ dungeons.

The net effect of this kind of selective specialization is that, for example, a druid with battle rez is always useful in a raid, whereas a hunter with tranq is useful in maybe a few boss fights. Multiply that effect across 36 specs, and there will be very clear winners and losers in Blizz’s attempt to bring back “uniqueness” in raid utility. Some specs will get the “always useful” abilities, and some will get the “once-in-a-while useful” ones. Blizz will undoubtedly try to even things out, but their track record in doing so is pretty dismal.

The other takeaway I got from the Water Cooler post is that Blizz is once again going to take a stab at redefining class and spec “identity”. This terrifies me, because the last time they did something like this, they demolished my chosen spec. In the run up to Legion, Blizz made a big deal about establishing class and spec “fantasies”. They actually did come up with narratives for each, but that was the end of it, because in many cases the spec implementation was not even close to the official “fantasy”. There was almost zero follow-through on what some class writer thought the spec should look like and what the developer implemented for it. BM hunters, for example — “master of beasts” — ended up with almost zero control over their array of pets.

(Bendak has a great discussion of this whole idea of class identity as applied to BM hunters in his recent post on what he would like to see for the spec in BfA. Hunters, check it out if you have not already, it is worth reading.)

Part of the whole fantasy/identity thing is that Blizz really has no good idea of how to really define some classes. Yes, they are pretty good with mages and the various druid specs, but they have struggled with classes like paladins and hunters among others. I do not know why, but they just do not seem to “get” certain classes. The result is that a staffer writes up some good boilerplate class/spec description, and that is the end of it — the abilities, play style, and rotation end up being nowhere near the description.

One last comment, this one on the alpha test (still waiting on my invite, sure it is on the way 🙄) and the data mining effort. Every post you see on these activities will be prefaced with something like “it is very early yet, and everything might change”. A necessary statement to make, but what I have observed over the last two expansions is that the live version very rarely deviates in any significant way from the very earliest tests we see. In the case of Legion, the only time Blizz even seemed to consider making changes was during the invitation-only alpha test, and even then they did not make many. By the time it got to beta and of course later to the PTR, the entire expansion was set in stone.

I believe that once again we are going to see the game’s elite players (the ones who got the alpha invitations) determine the course of the entire expansion, certainly in the areas of gear and class abilities. Additionally, in areas that pro players (basically Mythic world-first caliber) have little interest — professions, for example — developers will have full power to do whatever they wish, with little or no player input until we get to the “too late” stage.

I said at the time the Legion alpha test was going on, that it was a mistake to shape an entire expansion on the feedback of the elite, and it looks to me like Blizz is about to repeat that pattern.

One thing they could do to make me feel better about this whole test period would be to give the players frequent and robust feedback in the forums or by other means. I am talking about Ghostcrawler-type feedback, honest and even at times brutal, but reliable and transparent. In the runup to Legion we basically saw a few media blitzes, but crickets in responding to even the most solid and detailed player feedback. For months on end. It gave the impression of epic disdain for their customers. I know it is not developers’ favorite thing to actually *gasp* write or address questions/concerns, but I think Blizz could do themselves a huge favor by putting a priority push on player feedback for the next few months, even if that means they have to increase their resources devoted to it.

They will not do it, of course, but I have to make the suggestion. We are creatures of hope. We are (at least I am) also creatures who live for the weekend. Enjoy yours.

7 thoughts on “Aaaand we’re off!

  1. I always have hope that they will redesign Shadow to have an option or two for how to play, most other classes have a few ways to DPS, Priests have 2 ways to heal, and I guess they made an effort to make Disc the hybrid in between spec. I will certainly be looking for my Alpha Invite, I will have to check my spam folder, because obviously it should be here by now.

    I will however be watching and reading everything they are saying, because unless I am a paying member at a certain class web site, the Alpha testing information is locked behind their paywall.

    1. Unfortunately, I will have to rely on the “influencers” and streamers, who are apparently the only people Blizz think important enough to give early alpha access to. If it is like prior to Legion, the overwhelming impression from these shills will be “OMG! This is awesome! Couple minor tweaks, but wow!” To do otherwise might risk their elevated status and access.

      I know that is cynical, but I feel like history indicates cynicism is warranted.

      1. I found out today that we have a Blizz employee in the guild. They have been told they will be getting a key by their boss. But no one has been given any yet. I hope they will share good and bad changes with us. And maybe we can get some information from someone playing that isn’t part of a 3rd party site, or a streamer working to gain subscribers.

  2. Man oh man, I remember AFTER Legion launched they opened a forum asking for hunter feedback on their class and the moderator said that they didn’t play the class: they’d simply pass it along. I was furious!!

    1. Yeah, and this “Let’s talk” thread came AFTER literally thousands of comments, over months, about how horrible the entire hunter implementation was for Legion. And these were largely very well-documented and well thought out comments, from some of the most respected hunters in the community. To completely ignore these and act like this was the first the CM had heard of any problem was grossly incompetent at best and insulting and disrespectful at worst.

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