Widening player gulf?

Legion is, in many, many aspects, a vast improvement over the nightmare of Draenor. The lore is more relevant, artwork is phenomenal, and there is tons of content both new and repeatable. Even the leveling process, which was one of the few highlights of Draenor, is if anything more engaging in Legion.

But I find myself wondering if Legion will ultimately be bad for the game. I am seeing what I perceive to be early indications of a widening divide between the player “haves” and “have-nots”. Just as in a thriving capitalist economy it is a robust middle class that drives the engine of optimism and opportunity, so it is in WoW that the majority player base of casual and semi-casual players drives extended game interest and engagement. When these middle groups start to dwindle, when they lose hope that they can achieve their aspirations, the systems begin to break down. It starts with economic disparity and inevitably spreads to nearly every other aspect of the system.

As with real systems, the WoW problem, too, starts with the economy.

  • Blizz’s decision to give away massive amounts of gold to try and staunch the WoD subscription hemorrhaging is a move we are still paying for. It has resulted in massive gold inflation, driving up the cost of materials and equipment to the point where only very wealthy players can afford these items.
  • Prices are driven even higher by Blizz’s decision to stretch out the time required to achieve even initial game goals such as profession leveling — even gathering professions. Not only are there quest lines for gathering, but Blizz has opted to place very few nodes in zones, compensating by making them theoretically multi tap. But the overall result is that it takes significantly longer to gather a stack of herbs or ore than it did in previous expansions. (Every time I say something like this, I get comments from self-styled genius gatherers that just the other day they gathered 100k worth of mats in some ridiculous amount of time like 30 minutes, and I must be doing something wrong. Please, spare me the tall tales.)
  • Prices are driven still higher by the decision to require non-related mats to craft almost anything. Food requires ore chips and rare herbs. (OK, I get the herbs, but who deliberately puts heavy metal chips in their food?) After years of telling us that LW/skinning is a winning combo, Blizz now requires buttloads of ore to buy LW recipes. (!!!) (Why is it not leather you need to buy them?) And we are not talking about the odd piece of cloth for mail pieces, or the odd bit of leather for a cloth belt. Oh no, we are talking about very high quantities of these mats.
  • There is a noticeable disparity among professions for usefulness, with alchemy/herbalism being the current lottery winner. Gear-producing professions are already for all practical purposes obsolete, as the same or better gear can be obtained via world quests and other means. The sheer amount of time and materials needed to produce and upgrade a single piece of crafted gear to 850 are no longer worth the cost. (The obliterum forge idea stinks, the quest to obtain it is ridiculously expensive and annoying, and the cost to produce obliterum is prohibitive given the mediocre result.)

The net result is that it takes vast amounts of gold to buy anything in the AH or even in trade. Yes, you can — if you were lucky enough to pick the right professions — make a fair bit of gold yourself, but for most people it is not enough to cover their costs for other things they need. (And if you were stupid enough to pick a gear-crafting profession such as tailoring or LW or BS, you might as well abandon it — it is not even worth reaching max level to say nothing of it not being worth grubbing for rng- and rep-granting higher level recipes. Any gear you could produce from it is basically worthless.)

Players who did not start this expansion with a great deal of gold, or who did not pick the right professions, or who have limited play time each week, will have a very difficult time catching up. For example, being able to raid or participate in Mythic and Mythic+ dungeons requires, at the very least, a certain level of gear and a certain supply of food, flasks, and pots. The time commitment for gear as well as the gold and/or time commitment for consumables is a very significant hurdle for all but the most dedicated players. (Not even talking here about gear enchants and gems, which easily run more than 20k each on my server.) Players might be able to raid with a team that is willing to overlook shortfalls in these areas for a while, but not for long. And pugs will certainly not put up with it.

Not everyone wishes to raid, of course. But the thing is, raiding and/or running high level instances is required now for nearly every end game activity in WoW. Want to just concentrate on producing/gathering for professions? Sorry, you gotta do all these other activities in order to do the one you like. Just want to putz around with a few different alts? Sorry, even if all you want to do is level them, you still have to pursue quest lines like class halls, artefact power, and time-consuming profession quest lines if you want to even gather a few herbs with them.

My point is that the combination of high cost and huge time commitment for virtually any Legion activity is starting to show a clear dividing line — those willing and/or able to do it, and those not. The former are becoming the game’s “haves” and the latter are becoming the “have-nots”. I do not in any way begrudge people who decide to put a lot of time and effort and gold into the game their just rewards. More power to them. Similarly, I do not judge those who simply want to spend a couple of hours a week at the game as pleasant diversion — it’s how they relax and have fun, and good for them.

What does give me concern is the possibility of the game’s “middle class” losing hope that they will eventually be able to acquit themselves adequately in their chosen end game activities. If they perceive that the road to gear or raid preparedness or profession completion or faction rep or certain achievements is too difficult or time-consuming or expensive, they will just stop pursuing these goals. If they drop out in appreciable numbers, then we will be left with what I think is an unhealthy mix of hardcore near-professionals and super-casuals.

The thing that drives many of us in this game is the thought that, it may take me a bit longer to get there than some, but I can very respectably compete in fill in your favorite end game activity here. But if you think the point at which you can do that is some ridiculous number of months in the future, then you might just give up. You have more commitment to the game than the super-casuals, but you cannot or will not devote the same time to it as the semi-pros, so there is little left for you but frustration. Nobody plays this game to be continually frustrated.

Now, as I said in the beginning, this is not the game’s situation yet. It is just what I think could happen, the situation that we have the right conditions for now. I even see it happening in the microcosm of my guild, where we have a small group of super-dedicated people with ilevels like 860 or higher, with artifact weapons into the high 20’s for development, with the Broken Isles Pathfinder achievement completed, who regularly run Mythic+ at the +6 or above level, and so forth. They have the highest level gems and enchants on their gear, and they always are well supplied with flasks, food, pots, runes, things that let them change talents on the fly, and so forth. They are incredibly generous with their time, offering to run regular Mythics or +2s with people just to help them gear up or complete quests, and they willingly make profession items if you can supply the mats. But even this — when added to the time burden of world quests/rep grinds/profession quests/mat-gathering/etc. — begins to exceed the limits of play time for many of us.

For many of us in the middle, it may not be possible to get to the same relative level in Legion as we did in previous expansions. That is diminished expectations, and it is not a goal that game developers should strive for.

Legion professions — sometimes it really is about the destination

Background (you can skip this part and still get the gist of the post):

For many years — probably most of my life now that I think about it — I have subscribed to the philosophy of “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” (For reference, I think this is a variation of the original Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”) I have previously described in this blog a personal tendency to make lists, create spreadsheets, and set goals for myself, and you may think that is at odds with the philosophy, but actually it is not. What I love is the process of planning and organizing, followed by flawless execution of the plan. Achieving the goal is rewarding, but it pales in comparison to the thrill of the process of getting there.

As an aside, you might think from this that I chase WoW achievements, but honestly they hold little interest for me, nor do things like mount or pet collections. These are prescribed goals in the game, and a big part of the fun I get is coming up with my own personal goals and carrying them out. I dislike being told what my goals should be.

Anyway, back to developing my point — and hang in there with me, because I promise you I do have one. Not to go all pop-psychology, but I think the thing that fascinates me about the process I described is that it gives me a feeling of control. For a variety of  reasons not worth going into here, I had a topsy-turvy childhood, trundled from one relative to another, from one school to another, sometimes 2-3 times a year. Control was not in my vocabulary, so when at the age of about 16 I realized I could actually be in charge of my own destiny, it was an epiphany.

It was the real start of my goal-setting, list-making, planning and organizing life style. Several years ago when I found a leisure time activity in the form of a computer game that let me indulge in doing this, it was a match made in heaven.

Blizz took what were broken professions in WoD and completely destroyed them in Legion. Stomped on them, ground them into dust, made a mockery of them.

Professions are now all journey with destinations so distant as to be virtually unreachable save for one or two per account. And there is only a single directed path one can follow, though that path is not specified but only discovered by stumbling about.

This is a part of the game many of us used to consider a nice side diversion that could provide some gear and gold along with being a pleasant distraction and a reason to spend some time on alts. But Legion has turned it into a confusing, protracted, RNG-dependent activity that is almost unattainable for any character other than a main. They have done this in the name of “content” as well as in the name of “play style choice”, but in fact it achieves neither of those stated objectives.

In fact, I would argue that Blizz was completely — and possibly purposely —  disingenuous when they tried to feed us those reasons, and that their true goals were to increase the metric of “Monthly Active Users” and to put an end to any sort of casual alt play style. MAU is the current standard of success for Activision Blizzard games (and presumably one of the metrics for calculating executive bonuses). It is a function of the number of hours played per month by users who actually log in, so it dovetails nicely with the “content” fantasy, especially the lazy content approach of artificially increasing the time sink requirement for heretofore auxiliary activities.

As to the concept of alt play, Ion Hazzikostas has several times stated his opinion that the only acceptable reason to roll an alt is to play it in the same way one plays a main, that to have an alt solely for the purpose of professions to supply a main is wrong and should not be permitted. And lo and behold, Legion professions now require a character to not only be at max level, but to be geared and proficient enough to participate in World Quests, instances up through Mythic level, raids, and in some cases high level PvP content. It is the ultimate insult for Blizz to cloak professions now as expanding options for players, while at the same time cramming this linear play style down our throats.

I had a short conversation last night with one of my guildies, and he went on a mini-rant — justified in my opinion — about how Legion more than any other WoW expansion is hostile to casual players. One of the points he brought up was the sheer amount of time necessary just to do normal activities — gear up, level a profession, gather mats, maintain progress in an artifact weapon, pursue the ever-elusive and possibly ghostly path to eventual flying, etc.

Blizz has said that Legion would give players many ways to achieve end game goals, but in fact what they have given us is an expansion that requires every activity be engaged in just to get to one goal. Those are not at all equivalent concepts. For true casual players — those who play 20 hours or less a week by my own personal definition — the time sink required just to get to end game is vastly higher than it has been for previous expansions. (I define “end game” as being geared about as high as you are going to be for the expansion, have your professions completed and well developed, routinely engaging in group activities you like such as raiding or rated battlegrounds, etc.) Some call this content, some call it MAU expansion.

Beyond these top-level deficiencies in Legion professions, there are other ridiculous and obvious shortfalls. For example, the tendency to include significant amounts of a wide variety of expensive mats from other professions to craft items. For example, to cook food, one does not just need fish, meat, and vendored sundries — the kind of mats you can get through diligent secondary profession gathering. Oh no, they require things like gem chips (mining and prospecting) and herbs (herbalism). And since the game is no longer conducive to getting these items from a lowly geared alt, either you were lucky enough to have years ago selected the lottery-winning professions on your main, or you can spend literally tens of thousands of gold buying these mats in the AH or in trade.

With the barriers to developing your own extended alt professions, I do not expect the prices of these items to come down very soon in the game. This, too, is a way to discourage play for casuals or for new players, because if you did not amass a fortune from the WoD gold giveaway, you simply cannot afford to buy these items. Even belonging to a guild is not much help, because most guilds cannot afford to buy them for their members, and anyone in the guild who can gather or make the items can make so much gold by selling them that there is no incentive to donate them to the guild bank or to another guildie, or even to sell at bargain prices to a guildie. Tin-foil hat theory would be that here is a golden opportunity for Blizz to sell a buttload of game tokens to those who need gold, but I won’t go there….

As I have said before, I do not object to having to do a bit of work to max professions out — I leveled my JC, my LW, and my Engineer when it was quite costly and difficult to do so. But I do object to a system that is not clearly laid out (even the third party sites are still murky about profession progression paths), that requires main-level game play and time commitment to achieve, and that so distinctly rewards the lucky and punishes the unlucky — part of the RNG run amuck trend.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any simple solutions to the mess Blizz has made of professions in Legion. I just know they have totally destroyed them, so there are no easy tweaks that will help. The only thing I can think of at this point would be to allow any character to have as many professions as they want. That way, since professions now require main-type play commitments, you could just spend the time on your main and get every profession of importance to you. I sincerely doubt that Blizz will do this, but still I feel like they should consider it, or at the very least start giving us what they promised: multiple ways to develop professions, instead of requiring participation in everything to develop professions. (Yeah, I get that Ion Hazzikostas doesn’t want us to use alts for professions, but somehow I feel that he could get over the trauma of it if he really tried, maybe buy himself some consolation gifts with all that MAU bonus money he will get.)

So, yeah, it is about the journey and not the destination, but the journey to professions is too effing long, too effing dark, and too effing linear.

My crystal ball

Last night as we were tidying up some loose ends for guild achievements, our GM remarked that we only have two more Thursday night fun runs before Legion. I knew this, of course, I mean I know how calendars work and I can count, but that statement really got my attention. Suddenly all my plans for gearing up my DH, for finishing up some profession stuff, for final bank reorganizations, for setting up my Legion leveling transmog outfits (hey, I’m a little vain, ok, don’t judge) — all those things got brutally reduced to a couple of must-do priorities. It was like someone took a chainsaw to my to-do list. It was at once both shocking and liberating.

I think I have mentioned once or twenty times before in this blog that I am by nature and by training an extreme planner. Lists, spreadsheets, and flow charts are my life. (It drives my poor spouse crazy — we are kind of an ant-and-grasshopper couple — but luckily for me he is an easy-going and tolerant type, nods and mutters “Yes, dear” a lot.)

Anyway, my point is that even though I love planning and organizing, what I love more than that is the freedom of knowing there is no longer any time for planning, you got what you got, you are where you are. Your work is done, you know you’ve done all you can, and it’s time to enjoy things. Last night was that point for me, and now I am going to just sit back and enjoy the ride to Legion.

And what a ride it will be. How do I think the first couple of weeks of Legion will unfold? In a word, chaos.

  • The rollout will be terrible — by now it is a tradition with Blizz — technical issues and probable denial of service attacks are almost certain to bring the entire game to a halt, likely several times over the course of a week. Expect to play the game only sporadically during this time, expect to be frustrated, expect things not to work even when you manage to log in. Should it be different, should Blizz anticipate the huge load on servers, should they have already implemented solutions based on their months of stress testing, should they have foreseen the magnification of small problems into massive ones with scaling? Yes, but honestly I think they have made the decision that to do so is too hard and expensive and what the hell everything will normalize in a couple of weeks anyway. I half-suspect that somewhere along the line Ion Hazzikostas has opined in a staff meeting that such chaos is part of the fun™ of a new expansion.
  • Some players will suspiciously be able to produce crafted items and provide vast quantities of gathered mats within 24 hours of launch, and these will be outrageously priced in the auction house. Based on what we have seen in the beta just for some NPC-sold items, do not be shocked if you see AH items priced close to or over a million gold. Expect to see gear routinely priced in the hundreds of thousands. Within the first couple of days, there will also be BoE gear for sale from raid and world drops, and these could easily be some of the items priced in the million-gold range.
    • Unfortunately for the WoW economy, we are likely to see  repercussions from the WoD gold giveaway for quite some time in the game. Blizz opted to try and bribe players to stay active by handing out massive amounts of gold for garrison missions, and that decision will haunt all of us for quite a while. One result will be huge inflation in prices for goods.
    • The other result of the WoD gold giveaway is that there will be a distinct divide between the haves and the have-nots in the game. New players who did not have a chance to amass gold fortunes from WoD — or those not-new players who failed to save much — will be hard put to compete with wealthier players. New players, of course, can take advantage of higher prices to sell gathered mats and make more cash than previous new players could, and Blizz will make a few feeble attempts to remove some gold from the game, but there will be a noticeable division between rich and poor players in the game for a while — with a greater perceived gulf between them than we have seen in previous expansions. Whether this results in an ever-widening gulf as the rich get richer and the poor get comparatively poorer, or whether it eventually all evens out, remains to be seen.
  • Inevitably, a few overachievers will play nonstop until they reach 110, causing normal (and by “normal”, I mean “sane”) players to scratch their heads and wonder either “How?” or “Why?” Trust me when I say this — Legion will last for a minimum of three years, and I would not be surprised to see it go even beyond that by a few months. (In fact, I predict Legion will be the longest expansion in the history of the game.) Doing everything you want to do in the first month or even the first year will not be a winning strategy. This expansion will be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • In spite of comments to the contrary, Blizz will do some significant class and spec “balancing” in the first few months. All of it will be perceived as nerfs to one class or another. There are still just too many outliers for this not to happen.
    • What this means is that no one should make a decision on class or spec based on how it is performing now or even in the first couple of weeks of Legion. My best advice — to myself as much as to everyone else — is just find what you love to play, what you will have fun playing, and stick with it at least until the first major patch.
    • And yes, you might feel you have lost out if ultimately you decide to change and therefore basically have to start from scratch with a new artifact weapon, but in the long run you will be happier for playing what is fun. Look at me, I am sticking with a BM hunter, what could be sillier than that?

So, expect confusion, frustration, and chaos starting August 30. If you are someone who usually likes to take a couple days off work to enjoy a new expansion, think about waiting until Sep 7 or so to do it. Trust me, you will enjoy it more. And remember, Legion will be with us for a long time. Pace yourself. (I am mainly giving this advice to myself — and I hope I listen for a change — but it may give you some perspective as well.)

And on that lecturing note, let the weekend commence.


Philosophical thoughts on endings and beginnings

These days I feel as if I am perched on some kind of virtual bungee cord platform, all harnessed in to leap off into the abyss, but I am in a holding pattern because there are some last-minute safety checks and wind adjustments to be made. I am ready, I’ve made the decision to do this, but the hold gives me a little too much time to rethink it all, to look behind me rather too fondly and to start to worry too much about what could go wrong as soon as I leap off the platform.

Draenor is, for all practical purposes, behind us, and we are about to hurtle into Legion. But just now we are stuck on the platform, balanced on our own little fulcrum in time. Was Draenor really so bad after all? Wouldn’t it be comforting to be back there, raking in the gold from garrisons, raiding in familiar places made easier by nerfs and gear we worked for months to get? Will Legion be as much fun as we hope it will be, will it give us the rush of excitement we sought when we plunked our money down? Or will it turn into one of those Really Bad Ideas we seem to come up with far too often?

As life moments go, changes to a game — even major changes to it — are very small potatoes indeed, tiny blips in a specialized environment. But one of the reasons games, especially the MMO genre, appeal to humans is that sometimes they allow us to better frame the complexities of real life — and indeed of ourselves — in smaller, more easily understood chunks. Are we idealists who believe in a good versus evil world (Alliance-centered), or do we have a more nuanced vision where people are neither entirely good or evil, they just are (Horde-centered). Even if we know we are idealists, do we play Horde characters because we want more nuance in our lives? If we are Horde-type realists, do we play Alliance characters because we long for a more binary view of the world?

In real life, we often find ourselves teetering on the point of a time fulcrum. Just one tiny move will tip our lives forever in a certain direction and nothing will ever be the same again. No matter how much we may want to make that move, for a brief moment we hold our breaths and look at what will be left behind. Hearts racing, we pause in equilibrium before taking that courageous leap. We do not always have the chance to realize when we are at such tipping points in our lives, sometimes we can only see them after they have passed. But when we do have the chance, we should savor the experience, we should allow ourselves to be exhilarated both by the looking back and the looking forward.

Like scattered leaves
Slowed in midfall
Into the streams

Of fast running rivers
Of choice and chance
And time stops here on the delta
While they dance, while they dance …

From Crosby, Stills and Nash — “Delta”

The impending Legion expansion in WoW, of course, does not even register on life’s Richter scale. But like a good game should, it has led me to think more clearly about some of the most ephemeral moments of the human experience.

On that note, let the weekend begin.

Of classes and sea changes

I have lately been doing some survey reading on principles of MMO game development, and I ran across an item that really struck a chord with me. It was from a blog called Tough Love Critic, in a piece on principles for MMO balance:

Metas get stale, especially if they’re bad metas that take excitement, flexibility, agency, or all of the above from players. But that doesn’t mean that when a meta needs to change the patch notes should rival a doctoral dissertation each and every time.

Huge changes might drastically change the meta, but just as easily it can invalidate a player’s favorite build, expensive gear, or in worse cases their entire class. If the only balance patches that happen change everything, then players dread changes rather than look forward to them.

Steady, consistent changes, tweaking here and there, work much better over time. The meta steadily shifts away from its previous moorings, allowing for a hybrid lake where new builds and old builds vie for dominance.

Caveat: Sometimes large changes are necessary because a lot of other aspects of a game are changing as well, but they should never be a constant.

Now, before I talk a little bit more about this quote, let me point out that in almost anything you read about MMO design, World of Warcraft jumps out as a textbook example for proper application of gaming principles. In fact, in some instances, the principles were actually deduced from analysis of WoW. The game, even today, remains the gold standard for nearly every aspect of MMOs.

But the reason I was so taken with the quote above is that I think this is where Blizz has made a big mistake. Over the past couple of expansions they have been pushing the pendulum of change into ever-widening arcs, particularly in areas most sensitive to players, and they are either unwilling or unable to slow it back to a nice steady tick. Many of the most controversial changes over the two years have in fact been controversial simply because they were so drastic and so sudden, whereas had they been implemented more slowly they would have been more easily accepted.

Sometimes, as in the example of Survival hunters, there has been a series of these sea changes coming one on the heels of the other. At the start of WoD, the spec was terrible, then in patch 6.1 it became pretty much overpowered, then in patch 6.2 it became unplayable, then in patch 7.0.3 it became a completely different spec as melee. That, my friends, is change that is too drastic too often. And indeed the resulting perception for many SV players was exactly as described in the quote.

As a side note, I think Blizz may actually have learned their lesson on drastic change in one area: flying. They saw what happened when they wanted to suddenly remove it from the game for all new areas, so they backed off. Backed off, but I still think that is their end goal. In Legion, it will be delayed for months, almost certainly for a year or more. My bet is that in the next expansion it will be delayed even longer, possibly until the last patch. After that, if there is an “after that”, I think it is a better than even chance that it will be effectively removed from the game for all new areas. Incremental change, not drastic change. It is the frog in the pot of water being gradually brought to a boil.

New expansions and new patches bring changes, that is a given. It is how MMOs evolve and grow. Changes in a game should be fun and exciting and challenging. There are parts of the game where people welcome change, and there are parts of the game where players are much more resistant to change. People enjoy content changes, quality of life changes, environmental/art changes. But people are much more conservative when it comes to areas of the game they have an emotional investment in, for example the essence of their game persona — class and spec.

And this is where I think Blizz has erred. They have insisted on making changes that are not only drastic but continual to classes and specs, to the very core of players’ self-identification. Rather than have a class evolve over the course of a couple of expansions, they have opted to swing them from one extreme to the other. They have failed to realize that these changes really, really matter to players, they are not just another game mechanic. (It makes me wonder if the real reason for such changes is that it helps to flesh out dev resumes — “Conceived of and implemented major changes to three character classes in World of Warcraft, resulting in …. bla bla bla … increased corporate revenue…bla bla bla…certificate of achievement…bla bla bla”)

For all the protestations that the devs are passionate about the game, I see no indication whatsoever that they are passionate about any class or spec. Yes, one dev may appreciate one set of mechanics over another, but do any of them truly love being, say, a hunter or a priest or a warlock? I don’t know, but I do know that if they had the same kind of persona investment in a class/spec that many players have, they would not treat them as they have for last couple of years. They would be more respectful of player-evolved fantasies for their spec and less eager to impose a Blizz-approved fantasy du jour.

The weekend beckons.

Legion – let’s just get it over with

We are now 34 days, give or take a few hours, away from the Legion launch. I am doing my best to work up some enthusiasm over it, but that is turning out to be a harder task than it should be.

I should explain that I am somewhat of a launch junkie. I am predisposed to love the anticipation before each new expansion. A couple of months out, I make preparatory spreadsheets and to-do lists (hey, that’s how I do “excited”, don’t judge), I enjoy all the usual bank and bag cleaning, I like evaluating my alts to see which ones I will level first. I even usually take a farewell tour of the outgoing expansion on my main, flying through the zones, snapping a few screen shots, stopping at out of the way places to take in the scenery.  On launch day I get up in the middle of the night an hour or so before scheduled launch, brew coffee, and log in — in my jammies, coffee and cereal in hand. Usually there are guildies doing the same, and we chat and giggle together in Vent. It’s great fun, even if later the expansion turns out to be not so great.

But this time is different. I suppose it is possible that I am just too cynical, that the novelty has finally worn off. After all, Legion will be the 5th expansion I have experienced. (Although probably Wrath shouldn’t count as I had only been playing the game for about a month before it arrived.) But I really don’t think that’s the reason. I think the long dry spell of WoD, combined with a year-long “beta” and with Blizz’s failure to roll out sweeping game changes in any sort of cohesive manner, have dampened my enthusiasm for Legion. And this is not even considering the almost-certain gigantic technical snafu that will make Legion unplayable for the first few days.

WoD, by most accounts, will go down as one of the worst expansions in the game. OK, fine. But Blizz made the whole experience even worse by basically abandoning it immediately after launch, at the same time embarking on a policy of contempt for their players and engagement in a kind of dismissive snarkiness seldom if ever seen in customer relations in large companies. (Even Comcast at least pretends to be more respectful of its customers than Blizz was during the first year of WoD.)  In the end, it was, for all practical purposes, a one-patch expansion (I don’t count 6.1 as a real patch).

Even though in the last year Blizz has  undergone a major change in attitude — for the better — they still did not back off of the policy of washing their hands of WoD. They could have at least given us a series of minor patches over the last 13 months, some little sop to generate some whimsy or fun into WoD while we waited for Legion, but it is as if the whole episode has been too painful to even think about. If nothing else, they could have given us some new jukebox tunes or Son of Pepe or a few more garrison decorations. But they left WoD out on the curb sometime around March of 2015, and we have been on our own. You would think, in the face of this, I would be ecstatic at the prospect of Legion. But really I feel just kind of weary at the possibility, even if remote, that we could be in for another WoD. What if they decide to write off Legion, too, as a bad job? I hope it is a stunning success, but if it isn’t? We will be stuck in WoD-style abandonment for likely at least 3 years. “Once burned…”

Then there are the Legion changes. I am still overwhelmed by them, they are really too complex to deal with all at once, and they are certainly too complex to even attempt to plan for in the way I like to. Consequently, I am doing virtually no planning for Legion, and this effectively robs me of my style of anticipation. My fault, I know, but there it is.

The pre-patch has brought us some of the biggest changes, but it is the worst of both worlds now and will be for another month. We have characters that are for the most part wimpier than at any time in WoD, and they are incomplete, since they were designed for an artifact weapon we do not yet have access to. So we are trying to operate in an end-game status using early-leveling powers. It is frustrating and seems to continue the string of WoD bad decisions. At a time when we should be experiencing the full power of our leveled characters just before being plunged into a whole new continent, we are instead struggling to deal with content we thought we had mastered months ago.

This could have been done better, with less pain. Blizz could have taken some steps to truly compensate for the changes in secondary stat mechanics and for the lack of an artifact weapon, but they chose not to. They could have done a better job of tweaking Timewarped instances to match the new reality of class changes. But it was apparently too much work, and their new mantra of “If the minimum were not good enough it wouldn’t be the minimum” has taken over. If we players feel weak and ineffectual when we should feel we are at the top of our game, too effing bad. We will get over it, at most there will be a small blip in subscriptions, but that will be eclipsed by the usual surge for a new expansion. Besides, Blizz doesn’t publish subscription rates any more, so who is to know? Certainly not the stockholders.

Then there is the new way Blizz chose to do Legion testing. They decided that the best early, development-shaping input they could get would be from professional players and from those who would derive an actual monetary benefit from being in on the new systems. They did not solicit opinions from the normal casual player, from the kind of player that makes up most of their base, and by the time they gave such people access it was far too late to make any significant changes. Thus Legion will be an expansion of, by, and for professional players, the elite guilds, the streamers, the eSport wannabes. The rest of us will have to just live with it.

People get excited about things they are invested in, things they feel they have a say in  and have helped to create — even if that is only a facade. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have zero investment in Legion, it is something being foisted upon me, not a shared endeavor. Any input I, and others like me, expressed to Blizz has been ignored, not even the courtesy of a “here’s why we are not going to change it” response. We are not big wheels in the game, we bring no revenue beyond our subscriptions, we are nothing in the big picture, so there is no reason to give us even the perception of investment in the game.

So that’s it. Legion will go live in 34 days, and the only way I am looking forward to it is to get it over with. After two years with a horrible expansion even Blizz apparently hated, after a year of elite players shaping the new expansion and Blizz ignoring all comments that were not strictly numbers, after giving up on being able to really grasp the new interactions of spec mechanics and artifact weapons, after a pre-patch that has only made me feel as if playing my hunter for all these years counts for nothing — after all this, no I am not excited about Legion.

Yes, I will probably do my coffe-and-jammies thing on launch day, but it will be with more of a feeling of “Thank god, at last” than “Wheeeee!” Right now my sense of anticipation can be summed up as, “Let’s just get it over with.” 

Farewell WoD


So it begins

Yesterday I wrote that I felt somewhat adrift in the game, basically marking time until Things Happened. No sooner had I posted that when Things Actually Began To Happen. Three events tell us that we are now into the final lead-in to Legion launch, and, for me, mark the official end of WoD.

First, Blizz announced what seems to be a public beta. It is a pseudo-contest on Twitter, and they are not calling it a public beta, but essentially anyone wishing to do the small tasks for it, I believe, can get beta access. It comes a tad later in the development cycle than usual, but it is an unmistakable sign that we are close to the pre-patch and launch.

This move was clearly intended to swell the ranks of beta testers, a necessary step for the second event, the announcement of a stress test on the beta to identify possible launch day glitches. As far as I know, this is the first time Blizz has conducted such a formal test in anything but a development environment, and I am gratified to see them doing so. It seems doubtful that it will completely forestall major glitches on actual launch day, but maybe it will show them some obvious bugs, so that possibly launch day catastrophes will be short-lived and not make the first week of Legion virtually unplayable as happened for WoD.

I am assuming that Blizz has a professional, robust test team, and that they have some complicated algorithms to predict scaled disasters from small ones. Unfortunately, in the world of massive networks such as Blizz’s, “inconsistencies” in the workings of 4-5 servers can become total shutdown failures when scaled to, say 100 or more servers. The butterfly effect and all. I also am assuming, given what have now become standard DDoS attacks on expansion launch days, that Blizz has a Red Team that will simulate a couple such attacks during the launch test today, to see how well their detection and defensive intrusion systems work.

Do I think today’s stress test — and possibly one or two follow-up tests — will ensure a smooth Legion launch? No, but with any luck it might help make launch day problems quickly fixable. If you have the time and are on the beta or can get on before the test today, I urge you to participate and report your experiences to Blizz.

Last, the pre-expansion patch (7.0.3 currently) is on the background downloader for most people. There was a little confusion over it yesterday afternoon, first it was on the downloader, then it was taken off, then finally it was back on. But it seems to be there now, a third sign that we are indeed in the final stages of Legion preps. We still have not had an announcement of the end of the PvP season, so in all likelihood we will not see the pre-patch go live on the 19th as some have speculated, but we will certainly see it, I would think, before the end of July. My guess now is the 26th. If it is delayed past that, then I think people should begin to have some legitimate concerns about the readiness of the whole project. It is almost inconceivable that the August 30 launch date would be slipped, so if the pre-expansion patch doesn’t kick in until the first week of August, that to me would signal some pretty serious development problems with Legion. Still, the Legion development cycle has been different in many ways from previous ones, so who is to say that maybe there will only be a one-week hiatus this time between the end of the PvP season and the pre-patch?

So yes, WoD for me is now well and truly in the rear view mirror, and honestly good riddance to it. There were some interesting and fun aspects to it, but I think the flaws — and Blizz’s seeming inability or unwillingness to admit them, much less try to make them better, until the player base pitched a tantrum over them — were so significant as to completely overshadow any good parts. I will not shed a tear over its passing. Buh-bye, WoD, take care that the door doesn’t hit you in the ass on the way out.

Completely off topic: Last night I took my rogue through the Legion initial artifact and class hall quests. It was a blast. I have leveled and played him in WoD as Combat, so in Legion I opted to retain the equivalent Outlaw spec. Serious fun, in my opinion. The class hall in the sewers of Dalaran works well, and I think Blizz has done a good job with it, “secret codes” to gain entrance and all. I did not expect to like the pirate fantasy of the spec, but I really found myself having fun with it, and it definitely was enhanced with the Booty Bay focus for the artifact quest. If I did not dislike melee so much, and if there were not already two new melee specs vying for space in Legion, I would definitely think about maining a rogue. It was that much fun.