Q&A – informative for a change

Yesterday I had a lot going on and was not able to watch the Q&A live, so I watched it this morning. I kind of wish I had made some time to watch it yesterday, because for a change there was quite a lot of very good information in it, and if I had had a few more hours to think about it I would probably be able to make some more thoughtful comments about it today. As it is, here are some of my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on it. And you can check out both the full video and the text summary courtesy of MMO-C here.

Allied races. There was a lot of discussion about these. To me, it was all of passing interest, but I know there a lot of players for whom this is an extremely exciting part of the game. I think the bottom line here is that Blizz will be introducing lots of new allied races over the course of possibly years. Though Hazzikostas did not admit it, the major reason will be to entice players to level new characters (and thus possibly beef up MAU numbers over an extended period of time).

How best to communicate with Blizz. Basically, don’t whine and don’t try to pass your comments off as representing all players. Meh.

Class balance. I thought this was a decent discussion because it did yield some insight into Blizz’s current guiding principles for class design. Hazzikostas reiterated the idea that the goal is to “make each class unique”. (And by “class” I am pretty sure he meant “spec”.) I do not disagree with the goal, but he failed to address the related designs. For example, it is all well and good to make a class that excels in the ability to DoT targets, but if you design raids and dungeons that only make this a valuable trait for a couple of bosses, then the “unique” aspect of the class is not worth much. Blizz has thus far not shown much success in coordinating raid and dungeon design with class abilities, and every expansion they end up creating winner and loser classes because of this failure. Thus, the idea of “class uniqueness” sounds good, but only if your class is one of Blizz’s design winners.

Similarly, he did not address the idea of “utility” balance — that is, some group utilities are way more valuable and widely useful than others. A combat rez, for example, is probably always useful, whereas something like a hunter Tranq shot is highly specialized. Not all “unique” abilities are created equal, and this again leads to winner and loser classes. Will Blizz realize this and develop a system to minimize it? I doubt it.

Gear. This is where there was some good news, on several fronts. It was apparent that Hazzikostas fully understands the mess Blizz gave us with Legion gear. He said no one should have to sim gear before they can determine if it is an upgrade for them, and he also said they had gone too far with secondary stat importance in Legion. He did not promise that all gear with higher ilevel will be an upgrade every time, but he did say most of the time it will be, and he also said the calculus of determining the worth of gear will be considerably easier. We will see, but to me it sounded positive.

Loot. Somewhat related to gear is the question of loot in group situations. It sounds like the only option in BfA will be personal loot. Some guilds will not like this, but the change has been coming for some time. I know with my own guild, at the start of Legion we tended to prefer a system of Master Looter with rolls, along with a very light determination of who could roll on a piece. Very shortly, however, we saw that Personal Loot dropped significantly more gear (a design by Blizz for Legion), and we switched to that and have not gone back.

Hazzikostas came right out and said the BfA move to all Personal Loot is being made mainly to reign in the top guilds, the ones who routinely game the world-first Mythic competitions by using group loot runs to overgear their main raiders before they even start Mythic runs. This practice has meant Blizz has to compensate for the idea that the professional guilds will be overgeared for Mythic raids at the start, thus they need to make the raid difficulty with that in mind. This has a cascading effect, because it means the raid bosses — particularly the end ones — end up being overtuned for everyone else.

Anyway, it looks like Group Loot will be a thing of the past come BfA. What Hazzikostas did not address, but what I would like to have heard him on, is whether there will be some adjustments to the more annoying parts of Personal Loot. For example, a user-friendly interface for sharing loot. Something like a pop-up loot roll window similar to what we now see in dungeons, except in this case it starts with the person who got the loot selecting if they want to offer it up and checking a simple yes/no. If they do offer it up, then a loot roll window automatically pops up for all players eligible for the loot, maybe a need/greed kind of thing to also allow for people to roll on it for transmog.

Another Personal Loot improvement might be a refinement of what loot is shareable and what is not. There is a lot of loot that may technically be an upgrade for a player but in truth it is useless to them, and currently they cannot offer it up for trade.

Talents. Lots of discussion here, but the one thing that gave me cause for optimism was the statement that the idea of selecting either the AoE or the Single Target talent in a tier just feels bad, and in fact it doesn’t make anyone actually choose, rather it just makes them burn a tome to adjust for each boss fight. Hallelujah.

The other interesting thing about talents in BfA is confirmation that Blizz will use them as a sort of testing ground for baseline abilities. That is, if one talent for a class is always selected by most everyone, then that begins to look like something that should become a baseline ability, and Blizz may change it to that in a patch. We kind of suspected this is what they were doing in the latter parts of Legion, but now we know that is indeed the case.

Mission tables. This was probably the most disingenuous part of the Q&A. Hazzikostas blathered on about how they will not serve as time gates in BfA, that they are more for auxiliary game play, they add a nice dimension to the game, they fit with the BfA story line, blah blah blah. What he did not admit was the obvious — that it is a mini-game within WoW that works well with the mobile app, and if they get rid of it then they might as well trash the app, too. And of course, every time a player logs in on the mobile app it counts towards MAU for the game.

Mythic+. Without saying so outright, it was pretty clear that Blizz sees this part of the game as increasingly important going forward. Hazzikostas was at some pains to explain that raiding is still important, but it was obvious that Blizz is looking to Mythic+ as the main end game group activity at some point. Just my opinion, of course, but I would have liked to hear a more robust defense of raiding and I did not.

Professions. There will be some changes for the better here, I think. The change to having professions grouped into expansion-specific ones is a good move. Also good was the comment that crafted items need to be more relevant throughout an expansion, not just at the beginning. Last, on a less optimistic note, I am not really a fan of the recipe-leveling mechanic introduced in Legion, but it sounded like we are stuck with that for BfA.

Alts. Sounds like what we have now in Legion will be what we have in BfA in terms of alt-friendly or alt-hostile (whichever side you come down on). There will be some concessions to alts in terms of grindiness — like we have now for AP catch-up — but Hazzikostas is digging his heels in on his personal conviction that the only reason to have alts is to play them as you would a mini-main. Playing them to farm items for a main is strictly frowned upon and Blizz is doing everything they can to make that as hard as possible for you.

Guilds. The introduction of “Communities” is interesting to me, and honestly I do not know if it will spell the virtual end of guilds or not. Likely I will be writing a lot more about this as we learn more of the specifics. Of note, Hazzikostas did not indicate there would be any new perks to guild membership, only that guilds would have “all the same things as Communities”, plus a guild bank. This is one that bears watching.

Anyway, those are what I saw as the highlights of the Q&A yesterday. I did think it was one of the more informative ones lately. If you find yourself with some free time it could be worth an hour to watch.

Speaking of free time, it is time to start a weekend. See you on the other side.

Whose line?

A couple of weeks ago a WoW player created an addon to inject a little pizzazz into quest giver voiceovers. You can read more about it here and here, but the basic story is this:

The player created an addon that substituted player-created voiceovers for standard Blizz voice-acted quests. The community was invited to upload their own voice renderings of quest dialogs, and these could be added to the repertoire in the addon. I did not use the addon, nor did I submit any voiceovers, so I cannot speak with any authority about the details of how it worked in practice. But the bottom line was, this was an attempt to inject some player whimsy into the game.

Predictably, Blizz shut the project down pretty fast. Here is the Blue post explanation, courtesy of MMO-C:

Hello TioMiklas,

I’m Josh Allen, from the World of Warcraft Community Team. We came across your Voice Acted Quests project, and I have to say, the work you’ve put into it is very impressive!

Unfortunately, I’ve been told that this project infringes on our intellectual copyrights in a way that we can’t allow. You may recall a similar situation with an addon called “Warcraft Tales” a few months ago. While your project is slightly different, it’s still considered a re-performance of our established works.

Because of that, we have to ask you to stop production and distribution of the Voice Acted Quests project. Rather than going straight to delivering a legal notice, they’ve asked me to contact you directly to deliver the news and answer any questions you may have. Like I said, it’s a very impressive project and we recognize the amount of work you’ve put into it, it’s just not the sort of thing we can allow to be created using our copyright.

Sorry for the bad news.

Hey again, sorry for the delay in getting back. I managed to sync up with the higher-ups here again with your questions.

The issue isn’t about any potential monetary gains. The issue is simply that Blizzard doesn’t want third parties to create in-game story content for WoW, and creating a vocal performance for existing lines falls inside that. No one here thinks you’re trying to be malicious – I’m being completely honest when I say we found your work impressive!

That’s about the extent of what I can comment on myself. Anything further would need to come from our legal team.

I am completely with Blizz on this one. The addon does seem to me to have been an infringement on their copyrighted intellectual property. I suspect they were more or less amazed to find out such a project could be created using their approved API. I think there was some back and forth between the author and Blizz about the author making money off the project, etc., but I believe Blizz when they say the main issue was copyright infringement. And it appears that they handled the whole thing with understanding and finesse — they simply told the author to cease and desist, they did not bring any legal proceedings against him, did not ban him for life.

Having said that I support Blizz in this, I can’t fault the addon author for giving it a try. Perhaps I am being naive (it would not be the first time), but it strikes me that his project was exactly what he said it was: a chance to inject some community fun into the game. Maybe he was trying to make a few bucks off it, maybe not, but it doesn’t feel like he was deliberately trying to infringe on Blizz’s copyrighted material. He saw that the addon interface made the project possible, and he went for it.

Couple of thoughts on this. First, it is clearly a gray area that Blizz did not anticipate. I suppose that is one of the reasons they have an army of lawyers on staff. But when you think about it, the project was really only a tiny step over the line that represents Blizz’s intellectual property. For example, anyone engaging in RP is essentially adding to Blizz’s copyrighted story line. Same with some of the fan fiction.  And addons like DBM and Bigwigs inject additional voice drama/warnings into the game. The difference, of course, and the part that put this particular project over the line, is that none of the examples I cited actually alter existing game art or story. But the Voice Acted Quest project did.

The other thing that strikes me about this affair is that it shows how engaged in the game some of the community remains, and how attracted they are to enhancing whatever escapist fantasy the game represents to them. This desire is not something Blizz should treat lightly. We have seen it manifested time and time again. It is the foundation, I think, for such things as:

  • The desire for player housing
  • Tailored music (the WoD jukebox)
  • Individual interpretation of “class/spec fantasy”, and how Blizz implements it
  • The push for classic/vanilla servers
  • Much of the dissatisfaction with WoD’s “time wrinkle” story
  • The not-yet-dormant question of flying

All these examples, in one way or another, have their roots in how each player perceives the fantasy of the game. Of course, it is not possible for WoW to be all things to all players, nor is it possible to allow every player to configure major aspects of the game as they wish. Each small player option has the potential to bring the game to a halt by virtue of the cascading complexity of permutations it introduces. I get that, and I can see why Blizz is often reluctant — if not downright mule-headed — about allowing more player options. Still, I wonder if they truly understand the almost-primal desire many players have to make the game their own, to put their personal stamp on some part of it. That is a powerful force, and Blizz would do well to heed it whenever possible.

So yeah, Blizz was right to put a stop to the Voice Acted Quests addon. And from a personal standpoint, I am not big on listening to any kind of long drawn out NPC speeches no matter whose voice it is. But you gotta admit, it was kind of a cool idea.

One of those nights

Last night our raid team made a Three Stooges comedy look like a PBS documentary in comparison. We — and I include myself in that — stunk. It was just a really bad night, one of those nights most guilds have from time to time, but it was tortuous.

Ever since we completed our heroic progression, we have routinely been clearing Antorus in something a little over two hours on our regular Tuesday raid nights. We know the fights, we all know our jobs for each one, and we have all gotten some decent gear which also helps. But not last night. We probably should have just called it when we carelessly wiped on the first boss, Garothi. Garothi! Just an aberration, we said, we were a bit short on healers, we said, a couple of our regular players were not there yet, we said. Pffft, no worries. Similarly, we overlooked problems with the next few bosses — sure, execution was a little rough, but hey we killed them so no harm no foul.

Then we got to Varimathras and wiped repeatedly. Varimathras, the Patchwerk boss of Legion! To be fair, a large part of the problem was Blizz’s extremely piss-poor raid design, in which Coven is visible (and at time inadvertently targetable) through the hole in the ceiling. In the past, we have had a little problem with this, but it has not usually been a big deal. But last night several times a wayward Sidewinder shot from  one of our MM hunters went into heat seeking mode, targeted one of the Coven, and then transported the hunter up into the Coven area, causing a cascading set of damage that wiped the raid. Individually, the glitch was kind of funny, but when it happened repeatedly it just compounded our already high level of frustration.

Design stupidity aside, though, even when Coven did not gang up on us, we were bad at the mechanics. After many frustrating wipes, we finally gave up and decided to just go to Aggramar and Argus and be done with the torture.

HAHAHAHAHA! Aggramar, too, was a comedy of errors for us. Our dps was down, small adds kept getting their cc broken out of turn, people died to fire and other easy mechanics…. the list goes on. Finally our usual raid leader got home from work and logged in, and we killed the boss by the hair of our chinny chin chins. Argus was not as horrible, and we did one shot him, though it was not our most elegant performance. A couple of people wanted to go back and get Varimathras, but as soon as Argus was down people bailed as fast as they could. (I was one of them, even though Varimathras is one of the very few bosses that have loot useful to me. I, along with most others, had had enough.)

I don’t have an explanation for why we were so bad last night. It is true we were missing a couple of our usual top damage dealers, but most of our problems did not stem from lower dps. The glitch with Varimathras and Coven was bad, but it was not the cause of our wiping every time on that boss. People — myself included — just were kind of sloppy, and it had an effect. I know for myself I am pretty much done with Legion in terms of being excited about anything, and I feel  burned out on Antorus. The only reason for me to run heroic at all any more is to help some of our guild non-raiders get their AotC. I am happy to do this, but curiously very few have expressed any interest in getting the achievement. The GM put out an announcement that anyone wanting to get it should contact an officer, and we would carry a couple of people each week. I don’t think more than one responded. I think quite a few players, raiders or not, are feeling expansion burnout.

One other thing happened last night that had an effect on me, and possibly on some others. We have a guildie who rarely logs on after maybe the first couple of months in a new expansion. (I will refer to this person as “they” so as not to categorize them, even though it will result in very tortured grammar, which I apologize for in advance.) This person is the Significant Other of another guildie, and they are not especially interested in the game but they play once in a while, apparently to please their SO. Interestingly, they seem to play only when the guild is doing something that will result in loot or a mount for them, and as soon as the guild has enabled them to get the thing, they disappear for weeks or months, uninterested in helping anyone else get the thing. (Also, whenever they do decide to play, their SO is always begging for loot for them — “Do you need that tier piece? [Name of SO] could really use it.”) To each their own, I suppose. They are not a bad player, and they are pleasant to chat with, but they clearly are out only for themself.

So last night when this person showed up for raid, I assumed they wanted to get the AotC achievement. Maybe they did, or maybe they just wanted the mount from Argus, but it turned out they also wanted something else. About halfway through the raid it came out that this person was streaming it. It seems they are trying to establish themself as a popular streamer, and apparently they thought streaming a raid would give them a good platform to add a few more followers. This may or may not be an effective strategy, but I — and a couple of others in the raid — felt duped and used.

It would just seem to be common courtesy to ask the raid before it started if it would be okay to stream it. I have not watched the stream, and I do not intend to, so I do not know what options the person has in place. I assume they do not have name plates visible, and possibly they have music playing that more or less keeps raider verbal comments from coming though clearly. I have no idea if raid chat is visible in the stream. I also do not know if the person streams under their character name, and I do not know if anyone watching would figure out which guild was performing so abominably. It does seem kind of low to stream a raid on a night when everything is going wrong.

Still, all other considerations aside, there is something very unsettling about someone using the raid for their own personal gain, about someone assuming they can just capitalize on my game play for their own advancement. I don’t know if I would have played differently or made different comments if I had known up front about the streaming, but it is the principle. And now that I think about it, I am not sure I would have participated in the raid at all had I known about the streaming in advance. I am not a public person, I have spent most of my life actively avoiding publicity of any kind. That aversion to being in the public eye transfers even to virtual avatars, and I am decidedly not comfortable with someone putting my game play out for public comment regardless of how many or few followers they may have.

Like I said, one of those nights. I am glad it is finally in the rear view mirror.

SEC Form 10-K – more interesting than you think

A few days ago, Activision Blizzard made public its Securities and Exchange financial filing (Form 10-K). This is an annual requirement for publicly traded companies, and it essentially lays out the general financial health of the organization as well as its business plan and strategy. It is of interest because it contains quite a bit more information about the company than does the annual financial report. Think of it as a company statement that lays out who they are, what they do, how they make it work, and what keeps them up at night.

Don’t look at me like that and roll your eyes, there are some interesting nuggets to be gleaned from it if you are persistent in plowing through the accounting jargon. Luckily for you, I did the plowing so you don’t have to. As you go through this, it can be helpful to remember that Activision Blizzard (ATVI) is really three companies: Activision, Blizzard, and King.

ATVI sees their success as dependent on continuous player participation. For some intellectual properties, such as World of Warcraft, this is a real challenge because the nature of MMOs has historically been cyclical. Thus, there is a huge emphasis from Corporate for WoW to stretch out player engagement over the life of an expansion, to lessen the peaks and valleys of participation that have been more or less inevitable with the WoW design.

We design our games, as well as related media, to provide a depth of content that keeps consumers engaged for a long period of time following a game’s release, delivering more value to our players and additional growth opportunities for our franchises.

Though I did not quote any of it, the 10-K includes a rather lengthy discussion of Monthly Active Users and its role in assessing the popularity (and thus profitability) of a game. In simplified form, if I log on to WoW for 4 hours Monday and 20 minutes on Tuesday, that counts as 2 MAU. Thus, the challenge to WoW developers and executives is to design the game to strongly encourage its players to log on as many times as possible during the month. Length of game play time is less important than number of times played. 

Seen in that light, lots of recent WoW designs start to come into focus: gated content (Suramar, Broken Shore, class hall lines, invasion scenarios, emissary quests), never-ending weapon enhancement, and the extreme use of RNG for all aspects of the game (legendaries, profession recipes, mounts and pets, relics) are just three of the examples that come to mind immediately.

It’s all about enticing you to log in to WoW as many days a month as possible.

Corporate strongly believes that future revenues will depend in large part on customer purchases peripheral to the games themselves.

In addition to purchasing full games or subscriptions, players can invest in certain of our games and franchises by purchasing incremental “in-game” content (including larger downloadable content or smaller content, via microtransactions). These digital revenue streams tend to be recurring and have relatively higher profit margins. Further, if executed properly, additional player investment can increase engagement as it provides more frequent and incremental content for our players. In addition, we believe there is an opportunity for advertising within certain of our franchises, as well as opportunities to drive new forms of player investment through esports, film and television, and consumer products. We are in the early stages of developing these new revenue streams.

I do not know for sure how this Corporate goal will affect WoW, although my suspicion is that it will be less affected than some other ATVI properties. Still, we can see the Mythic+ competitions (and almost certainly the Islands scenarios in BfA) as a reflection of the push to monetize ATVI game peripherals. The fact that Corporate indicates they are in the “early stages of developing these new revenue streams” gives me pause, because I see a strong push from above for WoW to produce more revenue than just game subscriptions. This usually translates into game developers feeling pressure to be “creative”. Think about the mostly-failed initiatives to incorporate Twitter and Facebook into the game — were those attempts to monetize the game through indirect advertising? I don’t know, but I do get an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades.

The two Corporate goals of eliminating the cyclical nature of some games and extending monetization opportunities are connected:

Providing additional opportunities for player investment outside of full-game purchases has allowed us to shift from our historical seasonality to a more consistently recurring and year-round revenue model. In addition, if executed properly, it allows us to increase player engagement as it provides more frequent and incremental content for our players.

Blizzard is now responsible for ATVI’s entire venture into esports. I did not realize this until I read the 10-K. I am sure there was an excellent reason to place MLG under an existing company structure rather than leave it as a standalone entity within ATVI. But it makes me wonder how significant the move will be in terms of Blizzard’s resource allocation. Will it have an effect on the number of resources they can devote to WoW support and development? No clue, but it may be something to keep an eye on.

As part of the continued implementation of our esports strategy, we instituted changes to our internal organization and reporting structure such that the Major League Gaming (“MLG”) business now operates as a division of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. (“Blizzard”). As such, commencing with the second quarter of 2017, MLG, which was previously a separate operating segment, is now a component of the Blizzard operating segment. MLG is responsible for the operations of the Overwatch League™, along with other esports events, and will also continue to serve as a multi-platform network for other Activision Blizzard esports content.

WoW remains one of the top ATVI franchises, even if it has lost some popularity in the last couple of years. Also, if the WoW devs come up with another failed expansion (such as WoD), Corporate understands the loss could be significant. There is thus a lot of pressure on Blizzard to make Battle for Azeroth succeed. We can expect them to tout its success, even if it turns out to be a dog. More importantly, the realization that BfA must succeed could shape Blizz’s responses to any widespread legitimate player concerns about it. (Either ignore them and continue to shout about how great it is, or alternatively pay great heed to them in order to stave off “WoD syndrome”.)

For the years ended December 31, 2017 and 2016, our top four franchises—Call of Duty, Candy Crush, World of Warcraft, and Overwatch—collectively accounted for 66% and 69% of our net revenues, respectively. For the year ended December 31, 2015, our top four franchises—Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Destiny, and Hearthstone—collectively accounted for 75% of our net revenues.

We expect that a relatively limited number of popular franchises will continue to produce a disproportionately high percentage of our revenues and profits. Due to this dependence on a limited number of franchises, the failure to achieve anticipated results by one or more products based on these franchises could negatively impact our business.

Best job title in ATVI:

Brian Stolz became our Chief People Officer in May 2016.

How big is ATVI?

At December 31, 2017, we had approximately 9,800 total full-time and part-time employees.

Last, one of the major risks ATVI sees in their business model is that players may not like their games:

In order to remain competitive, we must continuously develop new products or enhancements to our existing products. These products or enhancements may not be well-received by consumers, even if well-reviewed and of high quality.

Additionally, the amount of lead time and cost involved in the development of high-quality products is increasing, and the longer the lead time involved in developing a product and the greater the allocation of financial resources to such product, the more critical it is that we accurately predict consumer demand for such product. If our future products do not achieve expected consumer acceptance or generate sufficient revenues upon introduction, we may not be able to recover the substantial up-front development and marketing costs associated with those products.

If any of these issues occur, consumers may stop playing the game and may be less likely to return to the game as often in the future, which may negatively impact our business.

Further, delays in product releases or disruptions following the commercial release of one or more new products could negatively impact our business on our revenues and reputation and could cause our results of operations to be materially different from expectations. If we fail to release our products in a timely manner, or if we are unable to continue to extend the life of existing games by adding features and functionality that will encourage continued engagement with the game, our business may be negatively impacted.

So, do WoW player actions such as unsubbing or even just failing to log on as often matter? Yes, they do, though of course only on the wholesale level — something on the scale of WoD defections will get the attention of Corporate, not one individual  rage quit.

What measures they might take to remedy a situation where players hate a new expansion is unclear. In response to WoD outcries, Blizz backed off of the no-flying-ever-again decision, they rather profusely apologized for their miscalculations about the expansion, and they typically overcorrected in Legion. But if other Blizz properties significantly overtake WoW in revenue production, it is entirely possible Corporate could see the franchise as no longer worth the resource expenditure, so in that event a catastrophic failure could spell the end of the game.

There was a ton of other absorbing information in the SEC filing, but I have rambled on way too long already, so I will call it quits. My point is that these dry forms actually give us great insight into design decisions and possible future directions for ATVI in the big picture and for WoW in the smaller one.

If you have managed to read this far, congratulations, and if you want to further torture yourself and read the original Form 10-K, you can do so on the ATVI web site here.

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?



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.