Alpha beta soup

The development of Battle for Azeroth has moved into the next phase. Late yesterday Blizz announced the closing of the alpha servers and a new start with beta. Accompanying this announcement was a new round of invites, presumably rather large in scope and permitting many of the actual customer base for the game to try out BfA.

(No, I haven’t checked yet to see if I got an invite, but since I think there were roughly a gazillion sent out, I suppose there is a chance. If I did, and if it goes like the schedule for Legion, we can expect the PTR very soon. 🤨)

Today’s post is just a couple of observations about what has become Blizz’s standard testing cycle for new expansions.

The alpha —> beta phases are new starting with Legion. Sort of. That is, in the run up to Legion, Blizz called its customer test phase “alpha” but was coy about saying what exactly that meant. In previous expansions there was only a beta and a PTR — at least those were the two phases Blizz publicly acknowledged. When we saw the term “alpha” for Legion, many assumed it was because development was at a cruder stage than usual for allowing some of the public to see it. This made sense, because WoD had been such a disaster that it seemed Blizz would do anything to refocus their customers on Legion. As far as I can recall, Blizz never did put out anything they called “beta” — they went directly from several months of alpha to the PTR. Still, there were a few discernible phases in the Legion alpha — it started with the usual favored few, then gradually — close to the end — was expanded to include representatives of the hoi polloi.

This time, the BfA alpha started out the same, but apparently Blizz is now comfortable with actually calling the early tests “alpha” and the ones where they let in some of the Great Unwashed “beta”.

Why the difference? I think there is a clue contained in a blue post quoted in MMO-C here. Basically, Blizz now permits the pros (big Twitchers, world-first guilds, top 1% on various servers, etc.) to have actual input on important development such as class and spec tuning and profession paths, while reps of the other 99% get to have input on things like travel glitches and wardrobe malfunctions.

Okay, that was maybe a bit snarky, but the blue post I cited pretty much announced that no one participating in the beta should harbor any illusions that they are going to actually shape any of the important stuff. That has already been done by the big kids. Just log on if you got an invite, and help Blizz find all their bugs and stress their servers a bit. Oh, and maybe rave about the marvelous new Island Expeditions which are of course awesome. Because another reason to send out a ton of beta invites is to help generate enthusiasm for BfA. Maybe we will get some explanation of the test phases in tomorrow’s happy chat with Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas.

HAHAHAHA! I crack myself up! More likely it will be an extended infomercial for the expansion.

To be fair, even during the alpha it was apparent that not a lot of class changes were going to be forthcoming. There were a few in response to alpha tester comments, but for a significant number of classes what we saw is what we will get. Blizz had already designed the winner and loser classes/specs for the expansion, and they would not be swayed by such details as actual comparison numbers and professional opinions about the feel of the spec.

Some of the only important stuff we might see tweaked in the beta, I suspect, is the interaction between class mechanics and quests/instances/raids. That is, if Blizz has failed to take the new class changes into account for their group encounter and quest designs (almost certainly the case), they might tweak some of the encounters to make them more compatible. Maybe. And of course, Blizz will happily accept actual bugs that beta testers find.

But if you got a beta invite and expect Blizz to listen to — much less take action on — your frustration with, for example, all the new actions now subject to the global cooldown, forget it. If you are lucky, there will have been a dev that actually plays and understands your chosen class and spec, and thus you will have an engaging play style in BfA and will routinely appear near the top of the charts (if that is something important to you). But if changes were made by a numbers geek who has no clue about the very soul of your chosen class/spec and who frankly could care less, prepare for a couple of years of frustration.

Hmm. I seem cranky today. Maybe I should go check my email.

Saddle up

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not much of a collector in WoW. Even though I am a hunter, I usually don’t go out of my way to collect hunter pets, I hate foo-foo “battle” pets, I rarely go after transmog looks, and there are very few mounts I find worthy of pursuing. I understand some people love these aspects of the game, and more power to them, but it is just not my thing.

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Thus, I was more amused than intrigued yesterday when MMO-C posted the video for the new parrot mounts in BfA. Yes, that is correct, a parrot. You know, “Wraaaak! Polly want a potion!” This mighty steed is one of the new BfA mounts, a list that also includes a bee, a frog, a hippo, and several creatures I can only describe as “Whut the hell is that?!?” These mounts will be added to the game stable that includes hundreds of weird, wacky, and whimsical modes of transportation as well as a lot of “regular” ones like horses, elephants, airplanes, motorcycles, boats, well you name it.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fun aspect of mounts. I have had — and will continue to have — my own giggly moments when I soar or gallop or galumph on some strange creature. And I admit I have actually lusted after a couple of mounts in the game — the Mekgineer Chopper, that Alliance flying boat from Blizzcon 2017, some of the jewelcrafting tigers, the Headless Horsemen mount, the hunter class mount, and assorted  others. And, even though I do not directly chase them, I like getting surprised with a mount from an achievement or as a loot drop. I just checked, and I have 114 mounts. You collectors out there are laughing your asses off at this number and muttering, “Amateur!”, but I mean how many can you ride at one time? Over a hundred is not bad for someone who is really an accidental collector. 😉

The one thing that really annoys me about mounts are the fly-only types that people insist on using on the ground. I really do not see the joy in riding along on something that is awkwardly wallowing along a road like a huge wounded beast, painfully galumphing through an environment it was never meant for. I enjoy soaring through the skies on some of these mounts as much as the next person, but clomping along on the ground, no thank you. Not to mention, it looks really ridiculous. I can’t help but think many of the players who do this on some ginormous bird or the ilk think they are really impressing others, when there are a lot like me who are laughing themselves silly.

Part of this has to do with the limits we all put on our game fantasy. This is an interesting phenomenon about fantasy games — we all set “rules” about which impossible things we will buy into and which ones we will draw the line at. We may easily believe in a world where there are orcs and big slobbering one-eyed monsters and flying horses. We have no problem believing in a world where no one ever has to go to the dentist or wash their clothes or pee or sleep or call their mom or deal with a grumpy spouse. (“You’re questing again today? Sure, go ahead, don’t worry about me stuck here with screaming kids and laundry and meals to fix!”) We do not bat an eye at magical portals or pink trees, or Jurassic-Park type areas full of dinosaurs, or hostile petunias. But when Blizz gave us the time-tunnel version of Draenor in WoD, tons of players cried foul — it struck them as “unrealistic” and a cop-out. Similarly, when Blizz arbitrarily designates some areas as permanent no-fly zones (like Argus), players complain about it not being believable because lots of things are flying there, including some of the very beasts we have tamed as mounts. Or think about this: of all the kinds of mounts there are in the game, there are no automobiles. Why? “Not realistic” in the game. Go figure.

The point is, we all — along with Blizz — draw our own boundaries about things we can accept in the game and things we refuse to accept. Things that are “believable” and things that are not. So, for example, while I can accept the premise of a flying boat, I am pretty sure I will draw the line at riding a damn frog! That’s just ridiculous! Or a lumbering hippo. And I have actually had a parrot in real life, and trust me, they can be nasty and mean and dirty and noisy and they have a vicious beak. No way would I ever try to ride a giant one, even in a fantasy game! None of this has any logic to it, except in my twisted brain, but there it is.

I pretty much stick to having four mounts on my action bar: my Headless Horseman mount, the water strider, my transmog yak, and one random one that I rotate out just for a change. I like the HH mount because it looks good both flying and on the ground, and I don’t have to worry about forgetting I have a ground mount and thus accidentally run off a cliff to my death. Often, early in an expansion when we do not have flying, I like to tool around on my chopper. But mostly I stick to rather mundane, “believable” mounts.

I may, however, have to have a bee. And maybe a bee hunter pet. Because that is totally realistic!

Main planning

With the formal announcement that Battle for Azeroth will launch August 14, those of us who are compulsive organizers can now kick our planning up a notch. More than 4 months is not exactly what I would call “imminent”, but still it is good to have an actual target date.

The date is about 6 weeks earlier than the “not later than” date we saw in the promos during Blizzcon. I don’t know of any other titles due to launch in that same general time frame, so I don’t think the date is calculated to be a competitive market thing. And I hope it is not a marketing-driven deadline that corporate has imposed on the WoW team just to be able to say they hit their intended expansion schedule — pushing the envelope such that there is not enough slack time built in to allow for unforeseen glitches. Most likely, though, is that Blizzard is pretty confident the expansion is far enough along that the mid-August date will be no problem. Also, the release date occurs before most colleges and universities start the fall term, so possibly Blizzard is taking that into account as a way to engage this key group of players at the start rather than have them have to wait until things settle down a bit before they have a chance to play, and then feeling they are playing catch-up.

Still, as I pointed out back when the exclusive alpha started, this somewhat earlier launch date means many parts of the expansion — certainly class changes — are pretty well set in stone. (Maybe that is why Blizzard also forbade any class development questions in the recent dev discussion at Pax East — they have zero intention of making any more significant changes in classes at this point.)

As far as I am concerned, this is bad news for BM hunters, who have received almost no love now for years. Almost the sole change Blizzard has graciously deigned to make for BM hunters is a questionable revamp of pet abilities (which applies to all hunters, btw, not just the BM spec). It seems like they are tossing us a crumb — a rather stale and distasteful one at that — and basically telling us to sit the fuck down now and shut up, that is all we are getting, quit pestering. I said early on in the alpha that I had an uncomfortable feeling about hunters, given the significant number of announced MM and SV changes but the silence on BM, and I think I hit that one dead on. I can only surmise from what I read, of course, since it seems every player but me has gotten an invite to try it out, but this looks very much like what Blizzard did to us in the run up to Legion — the silent treatment as a response to bonafide concerns, reports, and requests for information.

The best writing out there currently on trends for hunters in BfA is coming from Bendak over at Eyes of the Beast, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out his latest post. The bottom line is that both MM and SV are getting some much-needed and significant reworks, but BM is once again left out of the loop. It’s as if Blizzard hates the spec, wishes they could delete it, but instead will just make it so unpleasant, powerless, and boring that no one will want to play it. (This was their tactic back in WoD when they abandoned SV as too hard to deal with…)

Thus, a big part of my BfA planning will revolve around what to play as a main. Although it pains me to consider it, at this point I am still not sure that continuing as a hunter is in the cards for me. I feel like Blizz has dumped on me twice — first they destroyed my SV spec that I had lived and played for years, and now they seem in the process of also destroying the spec I switched to.

I will give both SV and MM a try, I suppose, but something in me just recoils at the idea of having to choose between being a hunter without a pet or one that is a melee spec. (Yes, even though Blizz has added a lot of ranged abilities to SV, its most potent shot is still a melee one.)

I have been having quite a lot of fun with my mages and my druid lately, so I suppose both of those would be candidates for a BfA main. And I have always had an attachment to my mistweaver healer, even though I have not paid much attention to her in Legion. (The main objection I have to maining a monk is that leveling and questing is most efficient with an off spec of windwalker, a melee spec…)

Fun is certainly one factor in my choice, but I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that relative power will be another. I enjoy raiding with my guild, and even though there is no pressure to tailor the team with “the right” classes and specs, still I feel it would be irresponsible to force a weak spec on the team. It is unfortunate but true that Blizz has in recent years not cared too much that each expansion brings clear winners and losers in terms of class/spec balances. Oh sure, they tweak a bit here and there as the expansion goes on, but they have become disturbingly comfortable with a fairly wide spread of results among the classes, as if it is too hard to compress the gap so if you happen to main a loser class, oh well sucks to be you…

What I am looking for in BfA is a class and spec that is reasonably powerful (upper-middle in the charts would be fine) and is a real rush to play. I stuck with BM in Legion, but honestly it was always sub-par in terms of performance and it never gave me the “whee!” rush many other classes have. I liked it because of the mobility and because I have an attachment to my spirit pets, and because I very strongly identify with my ideal of the hunter persona (mine, not Blizz’s) in the game. But the play style is just one long grind of grimly mashing short cooldowns as soon as they became available, with a very slight calculation of when to delay one or another of them for optimization. The combat animations stink (despite Blizz at one point “improving” Cobra Shot to make it wiggle more, oh what a wild and crazy change that was 🙄), there is no chance of getting any sort of exciting proc, the player has no control over focus generation, and there is no significant burst ability.

Just.

Mash.

Buttons.

On.

Time.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

So far, it seems none of this will change in BfA. In fact, Blizz is actually removing one button, the artifact weapon ability, and not replacing it with anything. And the pet changes may have the effect of limiting my choice of pets to whichever one provides a missing raid utility. (And even this consideration is not very significant since Blizz has removed combat rez as one of the options.) One pleasing aspect of Legion I have enjoyed is running raids with Gara almost all the time — I have a preference for wolf pets, I like the current additional spirit beast effects, and I really like the Gara rendering. I will most definintely not like it if even this one small player choice is slightly curtailed in BfA.

So, yeah. Almost everything is on the table for selecting a main for BfA. I hope I can come to terms with — and find actual fun in — one of the hunter specs, but if not, then maybe it is time to move on to another class.

Still, it would break my heart.

Possibly a weekend and some beer will help shape my thinking. See you on the other side.

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.

Through the glass darkly

As I have for the past couple of weeks, I spent most of my game time this weekend continuing to chug away at leveling my Void Elf arcane mage. I thought maybe as I got more into the leveling mindset, I might come to appreciate the finer points of Blizz’s throwback leveling mechanics.

Nope. I find it needlessly tedious and stupidly boring. Blizz has changed or varied some of the quest lines, it is true, so those are of very mild interest when I encounter them, but I am finding a lot of quest lines designed to force you to spend inordinate amounts of time simply shuttling back and forth:

  • Get a quest.
  • Go far away and do the quest.
  • Go back to turn it in.
  • Get newly available quest from same quest giver.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • zzzzzzzzzzzz…….. hmmm, what did I do with my toenail clipper?

I would have abandoned this whole project days ago if it were not for the fact I have all the Pathfinder achieves and thus can at least fly rather than gallop about. It seems clear that the “new” leveling protocol is all about stretching out the process as much as possible. Blizz can bray all they want about “restoring the experience”, but trust me, there is nothing interesting about commuting back and forth along the same path multiple times just to turn in and get new quests. (I am actually waiting for the change that will prevent us from skipping cutscenes, it seems almost inevitable it will happen. 🤨) Still, I suppose I am helping to contribute to Ion’s annual bonus by cranking out some MAU numbers for him, so at least that’s something.

Anyway, this post is not a rant about the ridiculous leveling changes (that will come later). It is about looking back and seeing expansions with the benefit of perspective.

I started playing WoW sometime around the very tail end of Burning Crusade. (I think I must have been about level 50 or 60 on my then-main hunter when Wrath of the Lich King went live.) One of the positive things about leveling my Void Elf is that it has given me a kind of retrospective on my history in the game. As I have gone through zones from each expansion, I am reminded of my first time through them years ago, and it is interesting that the things I see about them are not necessarily the things I would come up with if asked to list the highlights (or lowlights) of each expansion.

For example, if asked about Wrath, I think I would have remembered only two things. One, it was where I began my years-long search for Skoll and Arcturis. And two, it was where I finally found a guild I fit with and began regularly running instances and raids. That, and the Amberseed poop quest in Grizzly Hills.

What I would not have remembered, but which came back to me like a load of fresh Amberseed material falling on my head, was how much I detested nearly every quest in Zul’drak. Especially the seemingly-endless quest line where you put on that Ensorceled Choker disguise (you know, the one that keeps falling off exactly when you are surrounded by mobs that will kill a squishy mage in an instant) and run around playing with the Scourge. I hated it the first time I did it, and I hated it this time, too. If I had remembered how awful it was I would not have selected that zone to level in this time, but I only remembered about halfway through. I gritted my teeth and did most of it, but finally abandoned it prior to completion. It was just too long and annoying.

The main things I remember about Cataclysm are the zones — I hated the undersea one and loved Uldum. I spent hours in Uldum every week — even after leveling — gathering herbs and ore, and fishing. It was some of the most laid back, relaxing time I have ever spent in the game. I was having quite a bit of stress in my own life at the time, and putting on some music and flying my gathering routes was exactly what I needed to decompress.

I skipped all of the Cata zones leveling my Void Elf, opting instead for staying in Northrend until level 80, then going directly to Pandaria. I considered moving to Uldum, but I think I was loathe to overwrite what I want to keep as a sort of hazy pleasant memory.

The surprise revelation I got as I was leveling through Pandaria and now Draenor is this: I love the idea of a personal homestead in the game. When I got to Valley of the Four Winds, I couldn’t wait to get my cozy little Sunsong Ranch home. It was stupid, as I did not need to do any of the Tiller stuff for leveling purposes, but it was weirdly important to me to get a little place of my own.

Similarly, when I got to Draenor, I made sure to do the quest line to set up my Level 2 garrison. I did this mainly to be able to get the vendor for the XP potions, but I was astounded at the happiness that ran over me when I first walked into the gates of my Level 2 garrison. Yeah, I complained as bitterly as everyone else during WoD about the garrison burden, and if asked, I would have never listed garrisons as a plus for WoD. But there is no denying how good it felt to see this familiar scene of safety and sanctuary and know it was my own place. If I do anything with my Void Elf once she is leveled to 110, it will probably be to go back to Draenor and build up my garrison.

I am certain I will never have the same “coming home” feeling about class halls once Legion is finally history. I still do not understand why Blizz is so adamant about any form of player housing. They came so close with garrisons, but in typical fashion completely ruined the experience by ramming them down our throats. The unfortunate thing is, they now hold this venture up as an example for why player housing would be a bad thing — “See, we tried a prototype of it in WoD and you all complained bitterly and loudly about it! So no more of that, we promise you!”

Anyway, the best thing so far about leveling my Void Elf is that I am getting a renewed perspective on my history in the game, one that is frequently a surprise to me. Memory is often like looking through the wrong end of very dusty binoculars. We see tiny imperfect images and have a tendency to interpret them imperfectly, too.  And while we can never really go back, sometimes we get a brief chance to turn the binoculars right way round, and we can see the past a bit more clearly, and we can apply a proper perspective.

Epiphany

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.