That’s what he said

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.

Actions speak.

10 thoughts on “That’s what he said

    1. I remember back in WoD there was a real tinfoil hat conspiracy theory kind of thing making the rounds that Blizz had determined there were too many hunters in the game, and that was the reason they were screwing with the class so much. It kept going for the first part of Legion but then dropped out of the netosphere. 🤪

      1. I’ve seen that commented in the past. That if a specific class/spec is being abandoned due to underperformance they would buff damage, and if one was over represented they would nerf to the ground.

        The infamous Ghostcrawler picture.

  1. As you point out, many now see Mists as the perfect modern version of class design, and even end-game. But they re-made the game after Mists.

    My subjective experience of the game is that it is now almost completely instanced: I use flight paths to get my world quests done with, then do M+, raids, islands or war fronts. The zones are gorgeous, but I don’t do anything meaningful related to them. Meanwhile, most of the engaging content (raids, M+) is skewed towards increasingly professionalized modes of playing — MDI, world first races, timers, and trash more complicated than dungeon bosses so that the MDI will be more challenging and fun to watch for viewers. Even my pet collection has a score on the Wow head profile. Luckily, the pet battle trainers don’t run add-ons to check my pet score before I am allowed to battle them.

    Not surprised they admit that Beta is mostly bug testing, and the feedback is ignored, since it has certainly seemed that way for awhile. Senior theory crafters run this game for them and for the rest of us, but their feedback is not taken into account. The people who run simcraft, do the class theory crafting, and promote their game by taking part in the world first and MDI races are providing free design input and labor. Unless they were to step aside, which won’t happen, the game will still be playable. And I am still playing, and enjoying it. But like many of us, I wonder where we are going with this.

    1. It is definitely a game of instances. I suspect part of the reason is the tech advance we saw at the end of Mists and in garrisons in WoD, where Blizz was finally able to shard players pretty much at will, in any size groups down to the individual. I do not have any idea of the mechanics of this, but I am certain it allows them to make optimal use of their server resources and therefore is a desirable capability.

      Sometimes when something CAN be done, the people using it take that to mean it MUST be done at every possible turn. And Blizz has certainly not been known to show restraint when they find a new mechanic, so I suppose the “instancing” of the game is not a surprise. But like you, I regret having little or no reason to explore the amazing details of the world zones — more so because Blizz seems to cattle-chute me more and more into the instance parts.

  2. Communication is definitely positive and needed. But I don’t think it’s going to change the already-settling WoD 2.0 perception. When there’s a commendable increase in communication alongside jaw-droppingly extreme buffs and nerfs to classes and especially Azerite traits, the overall impression I get is that it’s chaos on the dev team. It’s good to acknowledge that most of the new expansion’s systems are, to one extent or another, broken. But the team shows no clear evidence of understanding exactly what’s wrong, let alone how to fix it. If they want to turn this around, they’re going to have to scramble and introduce quick system and mechanics reworks, not just numerical adjustments. But nothing I’ve ever seen suggests that this company is capable of such a thing. They saved Diablo 3, sure — but it took years. If Azerite, warfronts, islands, classes, new pet content, etc. are all in this same state four *weeks* from now, the loaf is probably baked…

    1. You are not the first person I have heard express this opinion in the last couple of days — especially the part about the team seeming to have no idea how to salvage the mess they have on their hands. The fact that a significant number of players have already categorized BFA as a WoD-level failure is not good news for Blizz.

      I think you are right that there is little hope for any significant remedies. For one thing, I think Blizz is cranking hard to get their Classic servers up and running. They certainly also are working on the next expansion, not to mention the planned raid tiers for the remainder of BFA. When you add in the fact that many of the worst problems (Azerite gear, the Warfronts and Islands mechanics) are fundamentally problems with the baseline concept of each, it starts to look pretty grim for any meaningful changes.

      I think their initial across-the-board percentage nerfs and buffs to classes pretty much shows how over their heads they are — it seemed really to be an act of desperation, one you do when you know the real fix is impossible with the resources you have.

      I will wait to pass judgment on BFA once we see what is planned for 8.1. If that shows me some meaningful baseline changes, I’ll believe the expansion can be salvaged. If not, well, I guess I will be doing a lot of alt leveling and flower picking for the next two years. 😉

      1. I’m optimistic that 8.1 will be better than 8.0. One problem seems to be that they decided to hold a lot of stuff back — either because they thought we would be so busy with launch stuff that we wouldn’t mind, or because they were behind. And in my opinion, BfA is in fact much better than WoD — but I’m in the minority I guess because I didn’t like really anything about WoD (including the leveling zones, the dungeons, and the raids). But the broad perception seems to be settling that they belong in a tier together, and I don’t know how malleable those perceptions really are.

  3. I wonder if 8.1 will be new stuff to do like the introduction of a new faction or will it mostly be “fix it all”. I agree with your commenters, the design crew feels over-whelmed; best guess is that the game has gotten really big and they have pressure to put a deadline on release.
    Some have suggested that the AMA Reddit response was due to pressure from high-end youtube guys being very critical: lets hope those guys keep the heat on them.

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