Crossing the line in Legion

Blizz’s announcement yesterday that they are effectively making full artifact trait progression not only pointless but impossible got me to thinking. In every expansion I reach a point where I put my main into a “maintenance” mode and move my game into end-of-expansion pursuits — going after achievements I want, playing around with my alts, finding isolated spots and just chilling, spending a lot of time gathering mats while listening to music. At such a point in an expansion, I still do some raiding and gear improvement on my main, but that no longer is the focus of my game.

Last night I realized I have hit that point in Legion. I reached Concordance on my main, and there is no cost benefit to further pursuit of artifact power. As I have no intention of playing any hunter spec except BM, I am not interested in developing any other hunter artifact weapons.

The only reason I have been doing world quests on my main for the last few weeks is for a chance at legendaries and for AP, but those rewards are no longer applicable. I have more legendaries than I can use, so the prospect of getting another no longer motivates me. Blizz’s coy little tricks with artifact traits have rendered AP valueless to me now. I am exalted with all factions, and the rewards for extended rep stink, so rep is not useful to me. I have about 200k order hall resources, over 300 Bloods of Sargeras, close to 3k leather, and way more gold than I can ever spend. Gear rewards from WQs have long since ceased to be of interest to me — I am relatively well geared at ilvl 908 (904 equipped, because of Blizz’s bizarre secondary stat mechanism that makes my 860 and 880 trinkets more useful than the 900+ ones I have). In short, I am done with world quests on my main, other than the odd one here or there. Even emissary quests hold no value for me now.

I will likely continue to pursue the hunter class mount, and I will raid with my team when the next raid tier comes along, likely getting some better gear in the process, but other than that, I am done with this expansion on my main. In a normal environment, I would try to max out my main’s professions, but Blizz has made that close to impossible with their dice-roll approach and their introduction of the tiered crafting system — the minimal additional benefit from level 3 recipes is not worth the time required to get lucky enough to get them. In any other expansion, this would be the point at which I start crafting high level items to sell on the auction house, but again Blizz has made that too painful to be a meaningful pursuit — the crafted legendaries, which are useless anyway except as stat sticks, require completion of an entire quest line, including certain mythic dungeons, for every legendary you wish to craft. Something in me rebels at that kind of blatant manipulation, and I just refuse to do it.

Even when we get 7.3, I do not anticipate significant changes in my feeling of being done with Legion. Yes, there will be some new quest lines and possibly some spacey stuff people will oooh and aah about, but I do not see the new planet zone in 7.3 as being significantly different from Broken Shore. In fact, my prediction is that it will be Broken Shore remastered — same daily grind, some temporary world bosses, some kind of new currency to grind for, some sort of random space ship bombardment, possibly a new dungeon and raid in the area, etc. I give Blizz credit that they do often come up with creative ideas, but unfortunately once they do, they drive them into the ground, using and reusing them for months or years regardless of how players receive them. Garrisons is a perfect example — players hated them, yet Blizz doubled down on them with patch after patch in WoD and even recycled them as class halls in Legion.

7.3 will be Broken Shore with a different artistic rendering. If I am wrong, I will happily eat my words. But I am not wrong.

The thought that strikes me about reaching my “the expansion is basically over” point is that we are still only 9 months into Legion, earlier by some months than I have reached that point in any other expansion. This seems ridiculous in an expansion widely touted as the “more content than you can handle” expansion, the one Blizz presented as “we heard you loud and clear in WoD and believe us we are not making that mistake again!”

But here’s the thing: I am done with Legion because there is no chance of achieving the normal game goals I set for my main each expansion. No, let me amend that statement: there is no point in pursuing my normal expansion goals any further because their completion relies on a lottery system, and in the case of my weapon, completion is simply not possible. There is almost nothing I can do to work towards those goals in a meaningful way.

Legion, for all its touted “content” and innovation, has revealed its dark side — players may only aspire to the goals Blizz sets for them, and they must pursue those goals in a strictly prescribed manner. Any deviation will almost certainly delay, if not prevent, their attainment. Anyone who does not like this is free to set their goals lower or abandon them altogether. Blizz seems to think quantifiable content is all that is needed to make a game great, and they have sacrificed player options in favor of it. They have lost sight of the fun players have when they can set a goal, work towards it in the way they find challenging or exhilarating, and achieve it. Content is fine, but from my worm’s eye view, being able to chase a dream is better.

As demoralizing as this is, it does not mean I am about to abandon the game. (Yeah, I know, that is sad.) As I have said before, I am someone who actually likes the latter part of expansions, because it is then that I permit myself to just be free to do whatever the heck I want to do, with no thought that I am letting others down because of failure to gear up a main or something. Normally, of course, I go into this end stage of an expansion feeling good because I have met my goals for my main and can now move on. In Legion, the feeling is more acceptance that such achievement is not possible, but move on anyway. Still, the end result is pretty much the same.

Like all metaphorical lines in life, you are usually not aware of the exact moment you step over them. But sooner or later you know for sure that you have crossed them. I have crossed my Legion line.

Let’s talk AP

I don’t normally post on Tuesdays or Thursdays, but today I felt the need to comment. With the reset,  Blizz announced in the latest hotfixes that the cap on artifact knowledge (AK) will now be 40 instead of 50, the level it was set to at the beginning of 7.2. Their reasoning is worth quoting (emphasis mine):

Developers’ Notes: We raised the Knowledge cap from 40 to 50 very late in the 7.2 PTR cycle, out of an abundance of caution: We wanted to ensure that players of all playstyles, as well as alt characters, would view the Concordance trait as accessible. However, between the additional Artifact Power gains added in 7.2 and others that were hotfixed in after the patch released, we’re now well ahead of that mark. Knowledge 40 now seems more than sufficient for players to reach Concordance, and the prospect of months’ worth of additional Knowledge still left to research makes some players feel like their efforts in the interim aren’t meaningful. Therefore, we’re rolling the cap back to 40.

Just so we’re clear — Blizz claims they rolled back the cap out of concern that we would feel like we were doing an endless grind for something we might never attain.

Yes, they actually wrote that. With no apparent sense of irony, much less shame.

First, let’s translate their concern into what I suspect is really going on: Blizz has noticed a decline in the number of players chasing artifact power through world quests and mythic instances. They theorized, possibly correctly, that these players were instead stacking AK so that when they did start chasing AP again they could accumulate it faster. That is, if now it takes you a week of world quests and the odd instance or raid to get that next trait that costs 300 million or 600 million AP, or whatever level you are at, why not instead just keep working on AK and get to the point where you can get that next trait doing just one or two WQs?

If you are reaching your saturation point with Legion anyway and would just as soon spend less time playing, this strategy seems like one way to make that happen. All you have to do is use your mobile app to keep hitting your AK research button on time, take a break from WoW, and when you come back you can easily catch up on your AP and artifact traits with just a few world quests.

This, of course, hits Blizz where it hurts: the Monthly Active User metric. Clearly, they had to do something about this threat to their bottom line. And the solution is to cap AK so that players cannot stay away for very long and still be able to catch up.

See, in my fantasy world, Blizz would admit this and we would move on. Instead, they tell us how concerned they are about us having to grind endlessly for something we might perceive as unattainable. When in fact what they are concerned about is that some players might actually have found a way to ease the endless grind for artifact power and traits. That grind, of course, is not only good according to Blizz, but is one of the finest features of Legion.

Puh-leeze. Once again, Blizz has demonstrated, with this specious explanation, their total contempt for their player base, their corporate opinion that we are all a bunch of idiots who will believe anything they say.

For the record, I don’t really give a rat’s ass about the rate at which I accumulate AP once I get my Concordance trait, because I don’t care if I get another tiny increase in artifact power or not. Ever. The implementation of endless artifact traits and endless AP to attain them is hands down the worst part of Legion, and for Blizz to claim that clicking a button to increase the rate at which we accumulate AP is a horrible grind they must save us from would be laughable if it were not so vastly hypocritical. I am insulted not by Blizz’s action but rather by their ridiculous lie about why they are doing it.

 

Summer is nigh

We are in a kind of dry period in WoW news these days. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. We are still at least a couple of weeks away from 7.2.5, I think, and then a couple more weeks away from the next raid tier. It’s the normal ebb and flow of game development. To be honest, I am just as happy with no New Thing To Discuss — these days the world seems to be spinning so out of control that it is nice to have at least one space where things remain constant and un-newsworthy, at least for a while.

Still, no real news is tough on us bloggers. It means we have to rely on our creative juices to come up with interesting topics instead of taking the lazy way and nattering on about whatever new announcements are topical. Creativity is something that waxes and wanes, I have found, and unfortunately mine now seems on the waning side just when waxing would be helpful.

In addition to being between major patches, we are also on the cusp of the summer season, typically a time in WoW when players have a ton of other relaxation and entertainment options, and activity slows down pretty noticeably. I don’t know if summer will have an effect on 7.2.5 or the new raid, but my hunch is it might make the patch last a bit longer, since quite a few people will just be playing less and thus take longer to get their class mount or complete whatever level of raiding they do (if any).

Interestingly, what I have observed is that while game activity tends to slow down, trade chat ramps up in the summer. I chalk this up to children on summer vacation quickly being in the “I’m BOOOOOOOORED” mode and turning to WoW trade chat as a way to pretend they are sophisticated and worldly, usually by showing off their dirty word vocabulary or exercising their freedom from supervision by being rude to everyone they can. It’s usually the time I just turn the channel off. However, I am not sure that will be necessary this summer — Blizz’s now year-old policy of taking swift incremental action against reported bad behavior seems to have worked miracles, at least on my server. Trade chat has actually become almost civilized again, the trolls have pretty much disappeared, the vile spewing of hatred has abated, and there is even *gasp* quite a lot of actual trade going on. Amazing. This is one of the best quality of life improvements we have had from Blizz.

Most of the people in my guild are using this breather to tidy up loose ends in the game. Our raid team is very slowly working on a few Mythic bosses once a week, people are grinding out their daily AP on their mains then working on one or two of their favorite alts, and there seems time again to spend soloing old dungeons for mounts or profession patterns or transmog sets.

The Mythic+ group is frantically running as many as they can in order to get three chests while that is still an option. I guess anyone who is interested already knows about the changes to M+ loot and keystones in 7.2.5. (If you don’t, Wowhead has a summary here.)

I am not big into running M+ instances. I usually run one or two a week with a guild group, mainly to get the weekly chest on reset day and maybe some extra AP. But I am not really absorbed in them like some people are. So I am pretty neutral on the changes. The one thing I will note is that Blizz seems to be fixing a problem they themselves deliberately set up, and they are fixing it, once again, cheaply and at the expense of players.

The current loot setup for M+ is that if you beat the time by a lot, each player gets to loot 2 or sometimes 3 chests at the end instead of just one. The change will be that no matter how much you beat the timer by, there will be just one chest at the end, and instead of per-person loot chances there will be 2 or 3 pieces of loot to be randomly awarded. It’s a pretty big change, but here’s the real crux of it: people who currently run a lot of 3-chest M+ instances don’t do it for the loot, they do it simply to increase the number of boxes they are opening. The popular belief — borne out by quite a bit of anecdotal reporting — is that there is a significantly higher chance of getting a legendary from a box than there is from, say, a world boss or some other kind of drop. Thus, the more boxes you open the higher your chances of getting a legendary. By restricting all M+ runs to one  box instead of three, Blizz is in effect putting a bandaid fix on a problem they deliberately created by having what is apparently a different legendary RNG for boxes than for other drops.

The other aspect of this is that Blizz is still in cleanup mode from their original terrible Legion legendary design. They continue to apply surface fix after surface fix, yet the whole legendary system is still a mess. The 7.2.5 legendaries that grant a talent will only add to the problem, especially if simultaneously with the introduction of these powerful legendaries Blizz reduces the lottery chances of obtaining them. Stupid. Lazy. I don’t know how else to put it.

So, on a no-news day I have managed close to 1000 words. This ability to fabricate a lot of filler when I have nothing to say may portend a future in politics for me. (No! 😖)  I am so impressed with myself that I am going to start my weekend with a cold beer on the porch on this hot almost-summer day. If you have the weekend off, enjoy.

Legendaries — first aid for class balance?

Admin note: This post contains quite a few references to specific Beastmastery hunter talents. I have thrown in some Wowhead links, but if you want a more comprehensive picture of the talent table, check out the Icy Veins one here.

The latest development in Legion legendaries, reported by MMO-C as part of the most recent PTR build, is that now some of them will actually grant the wearer a talent from their spec’s talent table. For example, the new hunter legendary will grant Beastmasters the Dire Stable talent, a level 15 talent that increases focus generation while you have a Dire Beast active.

Well. Where to start?

I am not a theory crafter, so my take on this goes more to fundamentals than it does to actual numbers. But the first thing that occurs to me is this particular talent level has ever only had two choices for BM hunters — Way of the Cobra for single target fights and Dire Stable for multitarget fights. No one I know has ever selected the third talent in that row, Big Game Hunter, because it stinks and has stunk since it was introduced. It is a non-choice. So the new legendary effectively means BM hunters can have their cake and eat it too in this talent tier. It also means if you have the new legendary you have no other choices in this talent row, you will take Way of the Cobra. I am not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing out how it will play out.

The second effect this will have is to buff BM damage somewhat, at least for single target fights, because we will be generating extra focus. The effect on multitarget fights is less clear, I think, because Cobra Shot is not often used on those, so the extra damage may be moot. Number crunchers will undoubtedly play with various combos, including the desirability of using multiple Cobra Shots over Multishot for medium-size groups of targets.

Additionally, one of the basic complaints about BM hunter mechanics is that the player has zero control over focus generation — is completely dependent on auto-generation of this resource. With the exception of the really terrible talent Chimaera Shot, we have no power-generating shots, we are completely at the mercy of Blizz’s idea of how fast that critical factor should generate. One result of this early on was the clunky, start-and-stop nature of the rotation. It is still a problem, though most of us still playing the spec just grimly accept it after months of enduring it.

Dire Stable, while still not allowing control over focus generation, does increase the rate noticeably. So the fact that lucky winners of the new legendary will not have to choose between increased focus and increased single target damage will be nice, I suppose. I doubt if it will be a game changer, but it will be helpful.

But here’s the thing: Blizz is using legendaries to fix glaring problems with spec mechanics, problems that players identified months ago during alpha testing and have continued to point out ever since Legion went live. 

The most obvious and egregious flaw in this plan is — well, I hesitate to point out the obvious but here goes:

ONLY LUCKY PEOPLE GET TO HAVE THE FLAW FIXED.

What the hell, Blizz? If there is a mechanics problem with a spec glaring enough for even the most clueless dev to notice, shouldn’t the fix be available to all players? Why do you insist on making a lottery of everything? What is wrong in your brains? For the umpteenth time, Mr. Game Director Ion “I Am The Sole Arbiter of Fun” Hazzikostas, RNG is not fun except for the uber-lucky early winners. For all the rest of us who spend hours and days and months rolling the dice for that one piece of playstyle-changing gear, it is the furthest thing in the game from fun. Even when we finally get it — if we ever do — it is not a woohoo moment but rather a “oh thank god that is over” one.

Beyond the lunacy of basing spec mechanics fixes on pure luck, there is another aspect to this. It seems evident from WoD and Legion that Blizz is unable to adequately balance individual spec mechanics and numbers without ending up with obvious winners and losers — specs that are either overpowered or dismally puny performers. And when they have tried to fix glaring inequities the changes have frequently lurched from one extreme to the other. Everyone understands the class/spec balance and playstyle issues are complex. So why make them even more so by introducing additional factors?

Introducing a complicated artifact trait table made balancing specs more difficult by an order of magnitude. Introducing other gear — tier and legendaries — with significant spec-enhancing bonuses made it even more so.

If you are someone who is challenged when you are asked to bring microwave green beans to Thanksgiving dinner, it is almost certainly not a good idea to also volunteer to bring the turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Even though you hope it will help fix your green bean inadequacies, you are just setting yourself up for failure.

So, although I think the new legendary talents may help some specs in the near term,  using RNG gear to address known problems is a terrible way to do it. Not only is it a lazy approach, but in the long run it only serves to make the entire class/spec system more complex, more fragile, and consequently more prone to imbalance as a result of even tiny changes that can reverberate through the system in unexpected ways. Blizz should just stick to perfecting their green beans.

With that, I am out for the weekend.

So many questions, so little time

Looking back over my education, I think the single most important skill I learned was to ask questions. The Jesuits who schooled me were big believers in the Socratic Method, so we were not only encouraged but required to ask questions as part of every learning process. Sure, fractions and Shakespeare and the date of the Magna Carta and the underpinnings of an agrarian economy are all good to know. But when it comes right down to it, asking the right questions at the right time of the right people has saved my bacon in life more times than I can count.

So today I have been thinking about Patch 8.x. Yes, I know we are not even a year into Legion, and the hints from Blizz are that we have a lot of time left to experience it (my bet at the start was that we are looking at Legion being with us for very close to 3 years). Still, I feel like speculating a bit, in the form of a series of questions.

Location.

  • Is the 7.3 excursion to Argus a prelude to the next expansion, or is it just that — a one-off adventure?
  • Will we ever see the other side of Azeroth? Is there an other side?
  • What if any lessons did Blizz learn about time-travel worlds like Draenor and underwater zones like Vashj’ir? This is less a question than it is a hope — I hope they learned both these ideas were big mistakes.
  • Will Blizz expand its recent trend of making classic parts of Azeroth relevant to current game play? 

Stats.

  • What will be the nature of the next stat squish? I think a dev mentioned that much of the code has been rewritten to accommodate very large numbers now, it still is cumbersome for humans to speak of character health in the millions and boss health in the billions, for example. What about ilevel? Very soon even in Legion we will break break into 4-digit ilevels. Will secondary stats and damage/healing numbers be squished in 8.x?
  • Will stats be simplified in the next expansion? What is the official Blizz view of the complexity of stats in Legion? Do they understand the frustration of players when a higher level piece of gear is not an upgrade? Are they happy with the proliferation of web sites and apps designed to do the intricate math necessary to determine a piece of gear’s worth to a player? 

Quest hubs and population centers.

  • Will we see new faction capitals? Blizz seems — both in WoD and Legion — to have concluded that faction capital cities are too resource-intensive to justify them. If Sanctuary Cities are the norm for the foreseeable future, will we see more of them in Horde areas, with Horde racial architecture?
  • What has Blizz learned about the garrison concept? It was innovative but not well liked in WoD, and it was extended — as Class Halls — in Legion. Is this idea now a core game mechanic going forward? Will we see the concept applied as guild halls in 8.x?  More wishful thinking on that last one, I am afraid.
  • Why is Blizz so dead set against player housing? This is really more of a pet peeve question and not so much of an insightful one about the next expansion. Certainly the technology is there — that was proven with garrisons, and with Sunsong Ranch before that. And there is player demand for it, though I am not sure how much. Yet Blizz steadfastly refuses to do it, citing from time to time the “war footing” nature of the game as being antithetical to cozy homesteading. My own opinion, completely biased, is that there is a culture at Blizz that insists WoW is a “hardcore” game, and to give players housing is just too girly and frilly for them to contemplate. They put it in the same category as playing house or cutting out paper dolls, and that would destroy the manly studly war aspect of the game. (Yeah, yeah, let the hate mail begin. But deep down you know I am right.)

Class development.

  • Will there be another major rewrite of classes in 8.x?
  • What is Blizz’s long range vision of class roles and balance? Are they on a path to achieve this, or do they have none and merely make change for change’s sake each expansion?
  • And the big question: Can Blizz stop screwing with hunters for at least one expansion? (Sarcasm flag.)
  • Will we see the pendulum swing once again towards class-provide raid buffs?

Gear.

  • Is the concept of artifact gear a one-and-out for Legion, as Blizz has claimed? 
  • Are there any big contemplated gear changes in 8.x, for example cutting the number of gear slots, maybe by eliminating necks and rings?
  • Will we see some sort of non-RNG mechanism for getting gear in 8.x?
  • After the debacle of legendaries in Legion, what is the future of legendaries going forward? Will we return to a single long-questline legendary, or have we crossed a line and henceforward they will fall like candy?

Miscellaneous.

  • Is Blizz happy with the complexity level of the game now? If not, in which direction do they think it should go?
  • Are there in-game advertisements in the works? Tie-ins with other Activision franchises, such as the King line of games?
  • What is the future for professions? Will we see them get less relevant and more complex, or will we see some semblance of a return to their classic role? Will Blizz move towards a Final Fantasy approach? Are they indeed an integral part of the game’s economy, or would it be possible to eliminate them altogether?
  • Will alt play remain viable in 8.x? It is narrowly so in Legion, but Blizz’s clear preference is for players to have very limited number of alts.
  • Are there significant quality of life improvements in store for 8.x? Off hand, I can think of a few: account-wide banking, better group finder interface, unlimited quest log, *coughplayerhousingcough*, removal of that ridiculous talent-changing tome requirement, improving exit process from caves once a quest is completed, increasing the number of stable slots for hunter pets, adding mythic dungeons to the auto-group finder, probably lots more.
  • Will Blizz help to make the role of guilds more robust? Like alt play, the trend since mid-Mists has been to make guilds less and less relevant, with the removal of most guild perks and advantages to guild membership.
  • With the apparent advent of interplanetary travel, will we eventually see honest-to-goodness actual working space ship “mounts”? Will space actually be a working environment — like an underwater area only without water — or just more of an abstract concept?
  • What will be the eternal-grind mechanism of 8.x? Because we know there will be one, just a matter of how Blizz repackages AP (like they repackaged garrisons into class halls).

And last but certainly not least:

Will we get a concept of the next expansion at Blizzcon this year?

What questions do you have?

Time and the bottom line

Activision Blizzard conducted its public Q1 2017 Earnings Call yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with this quarterly ritual, it is a conference call conducted to inform ATVI stockholders of the company’s financial status. The company being traded publicly, the transcript of the call is published for anyone when cares to read it, and in fact if you really are into masochism, you can register with ATVI in advance and sign up to be on the call (in theory, that is — I have never tried this, can’t imagine why I would actually). This conference call accompanies the public release of the financial report for the quarter. I am not even going to give links to these things — you can easily find them if you search, and honestly they are very dry and dull. There is, however, a quick and dirty summary on MMO-C if you care to read it.

There was not much in the latest report/call that had to do with WoW. In fact, there hasn’t been much for a few quarters now, usually only a brief mention of a new expansion or some comment about Monthly Active Users or Daily Active Users. That in itself is sometimes eye-opening to WoW players, because it underscores the undeniable fact that WoW is no longer the flagship it once was, it really is a minor part of the growing ATVI empire. In the big corporate picture, you definitely get the impression that WoW is a bit of a dinosaur — it is still a revenue producer, but it is does not seem to be part of ATVI’s vision for the future of gaming.

There were one or two points that I picked up on in the report, though. The first was the opening statement by Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI. You can sum it up in one word: esports. A partial quote:

One of our big priorities is to unlock the full potential of professional esports by opening the sale of teams and media rights of our leagues. Over the years, we’ve become a leader in creating world class competitive experiences, sustainable franchises that engage hundreds of millions of people around the world, through gameplay competition and connecting players and communities. This success is driven by our ability to tap into the timeless power of communities, anchored through organized competition.

The esports audience includes some of the hardest to reach and most sought-after demographics for marketers and advertisers, with the share of millennials two to three times higher than any of the big four U.S. sports.

We’re also going to combine delivery of our spectator content with unique advertising opportunities that includes the ability for advertisers to have better targeting and analytics, much more so than what you would see in traditional forms of broadcast advertising today. And with over 400 million MAUs and extremely high levels of engagement, our potential to generate meaningful advertising revenue is substantial.

Of course, it is not news that ATVI is betting heavily on esports. And no one should be surprised that the WoW franchise plays only a tiny part in that expansion — it is really focused on ATVI’s other, newer, games. What did strike me, though, is the very strong implication that ATVI is more than willing to use its entire stable of games — along with the very considerable and detailed data it collects on player activities and preferences — to “generate meaningful advertising revenue.” I confess I do not really know what that means, but it does tend to give me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades now if I decide to click on the in-game Blizzard shop, or if I routinely check the Mac technical forum on the Blizz web site. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral about this, and it certainly is a widespread practice any time you use the Internet, it’s just that I had previously not considered it as part of WoW. Yeah, I know that is naive, but still Kotick’s comment got my attention. Are we on the path to becoming less valuable as customers and more valuable as ATVI mass data products?

The other major point I took from the report were a couple of related comments.

This, from ATVI COO Thomas Tippi:

Blizzard continues to see strong engagement from its players with time spent increasing by a double digit percentage year-over-year to a new Q1 record.

Blizzard’s strategy to release content and feature updates more regularly in World of Warcraft has been paying off with time spent up year-over-year, and with overall performance ahead of the prior expansion.

And this, from Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime:

So, yeah, this year for Blizzard represents a new type of pipeline, one that’s not necessarily based on full game launches, but instead on delivering new content updates for our games. This quarter, we have meaningful new content for every franchise in our portfolio. In fact, a few weeks ago we set a new DAU record on the back of these new content updates. This reflects the evolution of our business from focusing primarily on full game releases to also providing a consistent stream of content for our players. Even without any full game launches this year, we’re continuing to add to the depths of our games to serve a very highly engaged community with more content across our portfolio than we ever have before.

Anyone who thinks the grindy aspects of Legion is just an expansion peculiarity needs to think again. It is, in fact the plan for the foreseeable future. We can expect the next expansion to stretch out professions, leveling, gearing up, achievements — every activity in the game — even more than Legion does. Why? Because time spent in the game is the metric for game success in ATVI.

Is this tactic really “content”? Who knows? The fact is that whatever it is, it has succeeded — at least so far — in evening out WoW player engagement. Whether you like or hate Legion or are somewhere in between, it seems to have kept more players  logging in further into the expansion than previously. Legion’s strategy seems to be a financial success, as measured by MAU/DAU. It is hard to argue with that. And while it can seem grindy — hell, it is grindy —  it is also fun, certainly to those of us actively playing.

Still, there is this stubborn, contrary part of me that feels manipulated and used. It’s the same feeling you get when you suddenly realize someone is taking advantage of you. I feel like Blizz is pushing my loyalty to the game so as to get better quarterly numbers. Yeah, I know that is why they are in business, but this feels different somehow.

It’s like this: What if movie theaters suddenly changed their business plan to measure success by how long movie patron cars remained in the parking lot? So once you got to the theater, there were deliberate setups that ensured long lines for tickets, for popcorn, for the bathrooms, to get to your seat. They added a gift shop you had to pass through in order to get to the seating area. They tripled or quadrupled all the pre-movie ads and trailers and trivia games. They added several intermissions to every movie. They gave you a coupon of some sort if you stayed after the movie was over to complete a customer feedback survey. And so forth. How would you feel about your movie experience? Chances are, if you really wanted to see the movie in a theater, you would still go, but you would not consider most of the experience to be happy. Some would undoubtedly love all the new “content”, but many others would remember when they used to be able to do the movie experience in 3 hours, but now it took 5 or 6, and they would not be pleased about it.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about all this. It was, after all, just a financial report. Still, it did give us a couple of insights into what the future may hold.

Speaking of which, my future includes a weekend. Weather weenies tell us it will be cool and rainy in my part of Virginia — perfect for staying warm and dry inside and playing WoW or watching a movie.

Wait, what?

On Monday I wrote about Blizz’s surprising announcement of planned baseline improvements to BM hunters. Basically, I was encouraged because the changes addressed two of the most fundamental problems with BM mechanics — problems that had been identified and quantified as early as the alpha testing phase, and problems Blizz had stubbornly ignored for all of Legion. However, I cautioned that the changes were so significant that there would almost certainly be some power nerfs to the spec, and we would have to see what those turned out to be.

Lo and behold, within hours of that post, Bendak over at Eyes of the Beast broke the news detailing the first round of “tuning changes” designed to compensate for the new baseline abilities. You can read Bendak’s post for the details, but they are pretty brutal. As Bendak points out, and I completely agree, it is somewhat early in the process, and this is a first cut at balancing the new BM power structure, so no need to panic just yet.

Nevertheless, what we have seen time and again with Blizz in Legion development is that their final cut is frequently only slightly different than their first cut. They suffer from a strong anchoring bias, rendering them incapable of significant change once embarked on a course of action, even if that course of action is determined early in a testing phase. Too often for Blizz, FD=FD (first draft equals final draft). I do not know if this is due to constraints of resources or of mental agility, but the end result is that terrible ideas — even if beta or PTR testers point them out — often make it into live versions. Thus, while I am not yet in panic mode over the BM tuning adjustments, I am definitely starting to worry.

Two aspects of these changes puzzle me. One is the nerf to tier gear. As it currently stands, Bendak points out that the T20 gear will be worse than the T19 gear, and in fact the best way to incorporate it will be to equip basically 6 pieces of tier gear — some mix of T19 and T20. This is insane, in my opinion.

Such a move is a continuation of Blizz’s abysmal morass of gear in Legion, where it is frequently impossible to know if a piece of higher level gear is an upgrade or not without consulting web sites and running complex simulations. How in the hell did we get into this situation anyway? Remember when Blizz was so solicitous of our tiny brains that they removed reforging because it was too mathy? They didn’t want gear to be “complicated”.

HAHAHAHA! Good one, Blizz, we totally fell for that.

And now we are at the point where an actual piece of legendary gear may or may not be an upgrade, where ilevel is often meaningless, where in some cases secondary stats are more important than primary ones, and apparently soon where new tier gear is actually worse than the older stuff. And the mechanisms for weighing the relative values of gear are so complex that it takes sophisticated computer programs to decide.

Here’s an idea, Blizz: If it’s higher level gear, it should be an upgrade. Period. 

In complex systems, components are intricately interrelated, often beyond what a human brain can comprehend in any detail. WoW is an enormously complex system. The pattern I see in Blizz development is that their systems engineers and coders almost certainly understand this, but their class designers are only dimly aware of it. Thus, they happily redesign class structures nearly every expansion, then seem genuinely puzzled and surprised when it causes huge problems reflected in gear and in overall power balance in game activities ranging from PvP to raids to nearly every other activity. To compensate, they spend most of every expansion tweaking (sometimes mega-tweaking) numbers and adding bandaid gear fixes, until the whole system comes to some state of very delicate balance — usually by the end of the expansion. Sometimes they find they have painted themselves into a corner, and they write big problems off as unfixable, regardless of the effect such action may have on players. (Thinking SV hunters in WoD here.) Then, having learned nothing, they start the entire process again for a new expansion.

I think this partially explains why we are in such a terrible place with gear in Legion. Adding new gear, or tinkering with stats in sought after pieces like legendaries or tier, has to be easier than reworking fundamental class/spec mechanics once an expansion goes live. Certainly for hunters we have seen Blizz use gear to try and fix baseline problems. Remember the 4-piece tier for MM hunters in WoD — it was what made the spec at least playable though still not really enjoyable. Similarly, the legendary shoulders were introduced in Legion to try and fix the clunky unresponsive BM play style. These were problems players identified early on in test phases, but Blizz refused to address them at that point, apparently being too anchored to them to even consider moving away from them. Then, when live versions proved players right, Blizz seemed surprised and tried all sorts of complicated bandaids to fix what could have been more elegantly addressed in test phases.

So here we are yet again — devs deciding that BM hunters were actually right way back in alpha testing, that something like two charges to Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy is absolutely needed to breathe some fun into the spec. They tried to fix it with a piece of gear, but then they made that gear an extremely rare drop, thereby punishing every hunter unlucky enough to not get it. Having decided that all BM hunters should have this ability, they then announced that it would be baseline in 7.2.5. So far, so good.

But I said, there are two puzzling aspects to Blizz’s brutal nerf to BM hunters, and the second is this:

If Blizz was fine with some hunters having the legendary shoulders and therefore getting the perk of 2 charges for DB/DF, why are they now distraught at the prospect of every BM hunter having the perk, so much so that they must apply draconian nerfs to the entire spec? The power increase with two charges is significant, no argument there, but why was it okay for some lucky hunters to have that additional power but it is unacceptable for all to have it?

We all expected Blizz to extract payment from hunters for “giving” us something we should have had all along. It is what they do. (Remember the great flying crisis in WoD.) Still, these particular types of payments make no sense to me whatsoever.