Last Friday, Reddit hosted an “Ask Me Anything” livestream for Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas and a few devs. I watched some of it unfold but had to go do something else about an hour into it. If you did not see it at the time, probably the easiest way to review it is to read the MMO-C collection of questions and responses here.
I thought it was a good sign that Blizz was willing to do this, though I am not sure if it was truly just a desire to communicate better or if it was the first of some panicked efforts to avoid a repeat of the debacle that was Warlords of Draenor. It may be telling that Ion made sure to say that this AMA is “a beginning of an ongoing conversation”, followed immediately by the announcement that on Tuesday there will be a Twitch livestream for Blizz to discuss the first major patch, 8.1. Also there was a suspiciously-immediate change made to beef up the loot and/or drop rate from Island Expeditions.
Still, whatever the motivation, the AMA was at least an attempt by Blizz to address some of the most pressing player objections to BFA. Ion and the devs could have selected softball questions from the thousands submitted, but they did not. What this tells me is that Blizz is very well aware of the problems with BFA and they absolutely want to make players feel like they are being taken seriously. In this vein, it is difficult, I think, to overstate the nose-rubbed-in-it lesson Blizz took from WoD.
So, what was my main takeaway from the AMA? It was that, while Blizz is aware of the major shortcomings of this expansion, they are at a bit of a loss as to how to correct enough of them in short enough time to avoid the dreaded “Fail” judgement for BFA. Quite a few responses were not “this is how we will fix it”, but rather “this is why we did it that way” or “in several months you will think this is a good feature”, or sometimes “it’s hard to fix without breaking something else”. I don’t mean to imply Ion and crew were whining — the tone was decidedly not that — but they just did not seem to have any answers likely to satisfy players who think the expansion has some very major problems.
I did think the answers on problems with Warfronts were decent. Ion pretty much admitted they did a shitty job on the details of implementation, and that the compressed schedule on alpha and beta versions gave players the wrong impression of how they would play out. One dev briefly addressed the 340 gear giveaway, said it was regrettable but in essence suck it up, some people got over but Blizz was not going to let others do the same. Harsh, but honest. I can respect that. I think it is shoddy planning, but they at least owned up to it. (I still think Blizz owes some perks to Alliance over this incident, though.)
I thought the answer on Azerite armor was informative although unsatisfying. Basically, Ion said the team is not happy with the way the armor is playing out, mainly because there are so many possible traits (216 spec-specific ones for the first ring alone!), and they vary so widely in utility, that there are times when a 370 piece can actually be worse for a player than their current 340 piece. He wrote this off to “tuning” and said they are working to ensure every piece has a “good” trait choice at all levels. He also said they are nerfing/buffing traits to make them all more even.
This was another transparent, honest answer, so it deserves some respect. But I ask myself, isn’t this all the kind of planning Blizz should have done months ago? Surely this team has access to the same or better simulations players now use on web sites. Couldn’t they have run a few sims to see how unbalanced some of these traits were when combined with the rather unbalanced class talents and abilities? Couldn’t they have anticipated the bad reaction players would have when they realized that shiny new piece of gear is — once again — not as good as their old worn out stuff? I mean, this is not Blizz’s first time at the dance — this is what they do, shouldn’t they be better at it?
Similarly, I thought the answers on class imbalances were unsatisfying. They pretty much boiled down to, “Yeah, we know some specs really really suck, and we’re sorry, but eventually we will try to fix them so just be patient, ‘k?” Here’s the thing with really bad specs at the beginning of an expansion: it’s very difficult to recover from that situation. I am willing to bet, for example, that a lot of players abandoned their elemental shamans because the spec just stinks. Same with the long-suffering shadow priests in the game. When your chosen spec is so bad for more than one expansion, you eventually figure Blizz wants this spec to stink, so why should you continue playing it. Even more insidious, a spec that gets a rep for being bad at the beginning of an expansion suffers from that for months even after it is fixed — that spec is denied entry into pugs, considered a “carry” for guild M+ runs, etc.
So I have to ask again — why is Blizz so bad with class balance expansion after expansion after expansion? I get that it is hard, no one disputes that. But they have been at this for many years now. They know that major revisions in classes causes huge problems with balance. Yet they insist on remaking classes every damn expansion, and then utterly fail to put in the resources to make them work. Most of us thought classes were in decent shape at the end of Mists, but Blizz embarked on a set of sweeping changes in WoD, Legion, and now BFA, with predictable results. Why? I cannot figure it out.
Even more puzzling has been the Blizz standard non-response to alpha and beta class design and class balance comments from players who obviously care, many of whom take a lot of time to document their concerns. We may have finally gotten an answer to that. The clear thrust of a couple of dev answers to this topic was that Blizz uses the beta mainly to find actual bugs, not to do any class balancing. They leave that to the live to address. I really do not know that we have had such a clear statement about this previously. Makes me wonder if the theorists who traditionally put in a lot of effort on the alpha and the beta are really wasting their time.
I thought the non-answers on alts and professions were terrible, though telling. For one thing, Blizz apparently fails to realize the sweeping importance of faction rep on nearly every aspect of character leveling, including buying gear and obtaining profession recipes. So when answering the question on alt rep, Ion airily dismissed it, saying it’s no big deal so why do you need it? What this answer told me is something I have long suspected — he does not give a shit about professions, therefore no one else should either. If he cared, he would not actively promote the now-established practice of profession lottery winners each expansion. (Alchemists always, one or two others selectively each expansion.) He would not tolerate the gross inequity that allows tailors to sell their high-end bags but prohibits armor crafters from selling their similar high-end wares. He would not have allowed the practice of requiring Mythic dungeons just to level a profession, as was the case in Legion. He would have mandated a redesign of the antiquated skinning mechanic several expansions ago. But he didn’t. Which means he doesn’t.
Last, one comment from Ion struck me:
The only metric we care about as a development team is whether you’re having fun. And even if you don’t believe me and take a more cynical approach, from a business perspective, one of the nice things about the subscription model is that our only commercial incentive is to make a game that as many people as possible think is worth their time and money. Which pretty much comes back to us just wanting you to have fun.
Mark me, obviously, as one of the cynics. Still, I do not believe Ion was telling an untruth there. What I do think is that he and the rest of the dev team have allowed themselves to get into an elite bubble, where their judgement of “fun” is pretty much a case of mirror-imaging. If they cannot imagine it to be fun, then it is not. Period. A perfect example of this is the whole notion of RNG-ing everything in the game. Ion insists that getting a surprise loot drop that has perfect stats is “fun”, whereas working to accumulate currency to get that same piece is not. Well, who says? I personally — and I am not alone — think that working to achieve a goal, and watching that goal get closer, is a lot of fun. I also think — and again I am not alone — that not getting the loot you need/want for weeks or months on end is decidedly not fun, and even when you get it after all that, it is more a relief than anything approaching “fun”.
Similarly, I enjoy the end game, not the leveling process, so the across-the-board changes to leveling difficulty and the extra time now required to get an alt to true end game status is in no way “fun” for me. I get that it may be for some, but certainly this is one mechanic that could have individual options — fast track for those who want it, those who don’t can just not use the fast track. There are other examples — there are players for whom professions are the most entertaining feature of the game, but every profession change since WoD indicates neither Ion nor most of the devs think such a style can possibly be either “fun” or encouraged.
We are pushed into one man’s version of “fun” — in spite of Blizz’s protestations that they design the game for a wide range of play styles, every major change for the last two expansions belies that. So no, I do not think Ion was lying when he talked about it, but I do think he is woefully out of touch.
Still, I applaud the latest communication effort, and we will see if it is actually the first step in a new, more open relationship between Blizz and its player base, or if it is a single-use tourniquet to staunch what appears to be heavy bleeding.