R&R

I don’t know about you, but after two expansions of The Great And Final™ Battle Against <insert name of evilest evil the universe has ever known here>, I need some down time. I want to have an expansion where the worst monsters I have to fight are some local badass tribes, not an entire mighty armada. I am sick of being invaded. I am depressed by the thought of space travel and worlds being torn apart. I am weary of always having to establish hasty and primitive military outposts.

It’s time for some R&R in WoW.

The last time we had any respite was in Mists. The enemies we fought were home-grown: mogu and sha and such, and none of them came from another planet or seemed capable of assembling vast armies. Even Garrosh was just a local boy gone bad. Mists allowed us to take a breather from saving the universe, and I think we need to do so again.

I have no idea what the setting of the next expansion will be, but I really want it to be back on good old Azeroth, with no interplanetary or time-warped excursions. (And, since I am wishing, no underwater zones either, please.) I mean, there is an entire half of the planet we have not even seen — surely there are land masses there we have not yet discovered.

You may have guessed where I am going with this, and of course it is a lost cause, but  my R&R wish for the next expansion comes with the The Great WoW Untouchable Subject: player housing. We have been fighting unbeatable enemies nonstop for two expansions now, and dammit we deserve to come home to a cozy fire, take off our boots and smelly socks, have a beer and some hot stew, and relax a little. Maybe putter in the garden or play with one of our hundreds of pets.

Blizz officially detests this entire idea, though I cannot for the life of me understand why. Every time a dev is asked about it, they do everything but spit to express their disdain. This, in spite of the fact that garrisons gave us proof of concept — separate instances for individuals or invited groups, the ability to have collected pets and mounts wander about, a productive garden and fishing area, even the ability to decorate and select guards. Garrisons were player housing in all but name (and of course they lacked an actual commander’s house).

Where Blizz went wrong with the whole garrison idea was that they — typically — went way overboard with them, requiring them for every player and making them the focal point for the entire expansion. But they could easily use the basic technology in the next expansion for player housing. Here’s how:

  • Make them entirely voluntary. Players wishing to obtain one could either do a quest line for them, or purchase after getting some faction rep, or purchase outright, whatever. Players not wishing to bother with them would not be disadvantaged, in the same way that players currently not opting to do pet battles are not disadvantaged in the game.
  • Severely limit the perks. A good model for this might be Sunsong Ranch, which offered a few gathered items if one “worked” the ranch, a mailbox, and a hearthstone. No profession huts, no auction house, no bank, no quest hub, no garrison-type scenario battles, and definitely no content gating.
  • Make the whole endeavor a kind of mini-game, like pet battles. Encourage special quests to obtain various cosmetic enhancements — interior design, bigger yard, picket fence, barbecue patio, stable for your mounts, permission to allow your pets to wander around and curl up by the fire, etc. Attention Blizz: Just think of the “content” potential, think of all those additional player hours!
  • Adapt the current transmog system to add a sort of transmog ability to the player housing, allowing cosmetic changes to suit the player’s mood. Whatever items you have collected would appear in various housing slots in a collection tab, and you could save entire sets and modify them at will.
  • Include the garrison ability to invite other players to your house, because what good is a house if you can’t throw a party now and then?
  • Allow players to choose from a small range of architectures for the housing — night elf, some kind of horde, worgen, etc. Along with the selected architecture would come appropriate landscaping to match.

Yeah, I know. It will never happen, even though there is exactly zero reason to not do it. Of course it would take dev resources, but honestly even if it cost “a raid tier” I think it would be worth it. Maybe not to the 1% hardcore players, but probably to the other 99%, though of course Blizz is not all that interested in them. Honestly, though, it would be a nice change if Blizz stopped designing for the minority of hard core players and threw a little love towards the great unwashed majority. No, it doesn’t lend itself  directly to esports, but it might keep enough people interested in the game itself to nudge them into esports spectators.

Come on, Blizz, we have all been good soldiers, we have fought every battle you asked us to fight, we have saved Azeroth over and over again, we have spent nights in cold, austere military camps, we have gone everywhere you have ordered us to, hopped from invasion point to invasion point, galloped miles and miles over fel-scarred hellish rockscapes. We have done everything asked of us. Is it too much to ask you for a little R&R in a cozy home of our own? I mean, when it comes down to it, what else are we fighting for?

Argus – second week

I am going to reserve my final opinion on Patch 7.3 and the whole Argus zone until after next week, which will give us nearly all we are going to see with it, but I have to say so far I am pretty underwhelmed. Absent some hugely fun new thing next week, I cannot see myself spending much time there once my main has gotten the rep to be allowed to buy some of the quality of life gizmos which in my opinion we should have had from the start of the patch. I am mainly talking about:

  • Whistle. Blizz, in its most patronizing and stingy fashion, is allowing us to spend 500 gold to “upgrade” our Legion whistle so that it will work on Argus, but only after we have ground out revered with the Argussian Reach. And just to make sure we get a sufficient amount of misery, they have apparently gone to some pains to ensure it will take several weeks to gather that rep.

I am not at all trying to start another huge emotional player fight about flying versus no flying, but here’s the thing: It is hard to not get the impression that Blizz is doing everything they possibly can to stubbornly dig in their heels and force players into slogging about on the ground for as long as they can in as many places they can, through as many obstacles and mobs as they can manage.

It is as if, having let the flying toothpaste out of the tube years ago, they spend every resource possible trying to cram it back in. They clearly hate that players can fly in the game, and since their attempt to remove it from all future expansions died a horrible death back in WoD, they are in sullen teenager mode over it, kicking dirt and muttering and pouting every step of the way.

The fact of the matter is — no matter how Blizz may protest it is not the case — that designing zones for flying takes significantly more resources than designing them for ground travel. The WoW franchise is becoming less and less of a moneymaker for Blizz as well as for the larger corporate structure of Activision-Blizzard, and they are cutting more and more resources from it with every patch and expansion. I would honestly have more respect for them if they would just come out and admit this, rather than patronize us with the whole “immersion” excuse or the “we never have flying on an island” one.

I could possibly buy into the “We never allow flying in a patch zone expansion, look at Timeless Isle for example” argument, but the fact is that ever since Mists, Blizz has made us jump through more and longer hoops to get flying for every expansion. (In Mists, as soon as you hit max level you got flying capability.) Part of that strategy is coming home to roost with them on Argus, since completion of the Legion flying quest line for many players came very close to coinciding with the release of 7.3, giving these players the impression that they just got flying only to have Blizz yank it away from them immediately, and causing them — with some justification — to howl in the forums.

Blizz was not required to implement flying in the game in the first place, but they did so in order to increase their player base and ultimately their bottom line. It was a business decision that they thought was appropriate at the time. Fine. But I recall that some devs, like Greg Street, warned there would be no going back once it was done, and that is absolutely the case. They are stuck with it, try though they might to throw a continuous tantrum over it and push its implementation further and further away with every expansion.

Argus is not Timeless Isle, nor is it Quel’Danas. (And for the record, the late patch zone in WoD, Tanaan, allowed flying, just sayin’.) In my opinion, Blizz should have designed it with some relatively short path to flying, if for no other reason than they were such dicks about the quest line for Legion flying. But they didn’t, and it will not happen now. But for crying out loud, do they have to also be mega-dicks about the lousy whistle?

  • Permanent augment rune. As was done in Tanaan, there is a permanent augment rune available for purchase once you become exalted with Army of the Light. The good news is, it is a lot easier to get rep with this faction than with the Argussian Reach. The bad news is, even after you become exalted, the damned rune costs 45,000 gold.

Yeah, I know there has been huge inflation in the game. (I won’t indelicately point out Blizz caused this themselves when they had to resort to massive gold giveaways in WoD just to bribe people into playing. Okay, I will. Yet another bad decision they cannot now undo and so are making players suffer as a result.)

But 45,000 gold for a rune? The current Defiled Augment Rune goes for about 150 gold on my server, and I suspect as more people shell out for the permanent rune the temp one will take a real nosedive in value. You can buy literally hundreds of temp runes for 45,000 gold. (300 at 150g, 450 at 100g, 900 if it goes down to 50g which is I think likely.) And as far as I know, LFR will keep awarding them, so I do not anticipate a shortage.

I have plenty of gold, but something in me balks at spending 45k for a damn rune that I will use only for raids. It just smacks of price gouging, and I do not like it, nor do I see why Blizz has priced it that way PLUS gated it behind rep. It is a mean-spirited “gotcha” that feels like someone is going “BWAAHAHA! Let’s make the little boogers work their asses off for it! My bonus goes up the higher we can force our MAU!”

Let’s see, what else am I underwhelmed about on Argus so far? Oh yeah, invasions. I honestly do not see myself doing very many of these. So far, the loot has been non-existent for me, and to be honest they are not really that fun. I really enjoyed the ones at the end of WoD, loved flying off to a place in old Azeroth to join in with dozens of other players, liked that even low level alts could do them and get really decent gear, liked that they had a set pattern of beginning, middle and end phases. I think a lot of people really enjoyed them.

So why, given a winning design, did Blizz feel compelled to “improve” on them, pretty much destroying much of the fun in the process?

The Argus invasions feel like just another daily or weekly quest, with worse loot potential. And getting an alt attuned to even get to Argus is no quick or easy thing. I put a new alt into the zone over the weekend — it had already been on Broken Shore, so I was not starting from zero. Even so, it took me well over 2 hours (closer to 3) to jump through all the Argus hoops to get to invasions, not to mention opening up Mac’Aree. And this process, I assume, will get even longer once the Week 3 requirements kick in. With WoD invasions, I could just hop on a (flying!) mount and jump into the fray with an alt. And once in the invasion scenario, I could fly madly from point to point, taking part in areas of the scenario I thought I could be most useful in. It was great fun. Argus is just not.

And I am not even talking about the Greater Invasions. I have done several of the Greater ones, either for myself or to help out guildies, and they are insipid and boring (the Greater invasions, not the guildies…). They have less complex phase structure than the WoD ones, they are not fun to gallivant around in, the bosses are only tedious not interesting, and the loot really stinks. On top of that, you have to participate in smaller ones every week just to be able to do them, and more often than not fight your way through mobs just to get to the portal.

Nope. I’ll do a few initially, I am sure, but there is absolutely nothing in these that makes me want to spend more time on Argus. I thought the demon invasions in Legion were a poor shadow of the fun of the WoD invasions, and I think the Argus ones are even worse.

So I am waiting until the reset Tuesday, hoping there will finally be something that makes Argus a desirable location for me. But I have not seen anything so far, and honestly I am not especially optimistic.

Hell — I am not a fan

Spoiler alert. There are some very minor 7.3 spoilers in this post, don’t read any further if that bothers you.

I have not played a lot of WoW the past few days, but I did get a chance to dip my toe into the 7.3 PTR. As a disclaimer, it was just a taste, I did not even get out of the starting area — I completed a couple of quests and looked around a bit. So I really can’t comment on anything to do with content. What I can comment on is the environment: Argus appears to be yet another ugly, rocky, brimstone-spewing chunk of hell. In fact, to me it seemed remarkably similar to Broken Shore in its landscaping and artwork. It is not a genre I am fond of.

In general, I am impressed with Blizz’s zone designs and the incredibly painstaking detail they put into every aspect of a new zone — geologic formations, roads, vegetation, building structures, animals, even insects. As I have mentioned before, I was positively blown away by the majestic, sweeping vistas of Pandaria. I think that was the high water mark of zone design for Blizz.

I understand that it is a matter of personal taste, but I just do not like slogging through dark, dismal, or scorched-earth areas. To enjoy the experience, I much prefer jungles or woods or farmland or deserts or mountains or even urban areas. I still love Uldum, for example, with its oasis areas interspersed with vast desert landscapes. I love that you can see the blowing sand and even hear it. Similarly, I am drawn to Pandaria’s Kun-Lai Summit and to the beaches of Krasarang Wilds. These zones are balm to my brain, and I still visit them every couple of weeks just to experience the peacefulness they impart. I select my favorite flying mount, and I swoop and soar and just immerse myself in the beauty.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that the esthetic experience of the game is important to me. As it happens, I like the kinds of zones I just described, but I know not everyone is alike, so there are undoubtedly many players who prefer dank, depressing, dismal zones devoid of vegetation, where the only “wildlife” is a species of cockroach that crunches under your feet or creepy spiders and vicious hyena-like creatures. To each his or her own.

But personally I don’t like it, and to me nothing represents this barrenness more than Broken Shore. So I was disappointed to see that at least the starting area on Argus is just more of the same.

There is another aspect to this, and it is what I perceive to be a fascination with destruction on the part of the WoW developers. Time and again, we have seen beautiful zones made ugly with destruction in the game. Some of it certainly has to do with the story of how evil and nasty “they” (Deathwing, the Legion, etc.) are, of course. But Blizz seems to take special delight in destruction scenarios. I will never forgive them for what they did to the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, for example. They took what was a fantastic end of quest line — a triumphant and emotional homecoming to an ancestral land of surpassing beauty — and rather than allow this small victory to stand, they turned the homeland into an ugly, scarred area of desolation and hopelessness.

Expansions like Pandaria and Legion start out with beautiful imagery in their zones, but seem to disintegrate into ugliness, at least in part. Broken Shore is only a bare-knuckled place of struggle and death, not a place anyone would choose to spend time in voluntarily. And now, the very image of Argus — a huge fire-spewing planet on the verge of exploding, filling the Legion sky — is a constant reminder of even more destruction to come, destruction that will be carried out, apparently, in a grim landscape devoid of beauty or softness or the gentle warmth of sunshine. It will be just another chunk of hell.

I know Blizz is hardcore on the philosophy of being on a constant war footing in WoW. I get that it is conflict that is interesting, not peace and happiness. But honestly that is getting kind of old for me. I am weary of always operating out of beleaguered temporary camps or cities in hiding.  I need respite once in a while, a break to appreciate beauty and peace even in small corners of this virtual world. I don’t want every end game quest to occur on barren chunks of rock. I don’t want the places I find attractive to be destroyed — because it seems like our side in WoW will never win, and the destruction will linger forever. Blizz should at least give us some hope.

As I said, I only dipped my toe into the PTR. Maybe there will be places of surpassing beauty on Argus. I want there to be signs that beings actually live there, raise their children and build their homes there, even if those beings are enemies sworn to destroy us. I would like to see some signs of life once in a while, not constant death and decay. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic. The next time we get anything close to that in a new zone is likely to be the start of a new expansion.

See you all Monday.

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?

A place for us

A couple of disconnected blogs I recently read got me to thinking about the human need to feel at home, an innate need identified and studied by psychologists, behaviorists, architects, interior designers, novelists, retailers — the list goes on and on. Think back to your Psych 101 class and you will recall this need is so basic it was identified by Maslow in his Hierarchy. (I suppose there are psychologists who take issue with Maslow’s work, but it always made sense to me. If you were not paying attention in Psych 101, you can get the gist of his theory in this totally unofficial Wikipedia article.)

The first blog I read that started me on this chain of thought was Matthew Rossi’s regular Blizzard Watch Q&A from yesterday. One of the questions was from someone complaining that the Blizz crossover promotion between Heroes of the Storm and WoW was ruining HotS for him, because there were all these scrubs jumping in and being stupid about how they played.

I have never played HotS, never intend to play it, and getting some big old ugly chunk of 1’s and 0’s to ride in WoW does not make me want to try playing it. But I can sympathize with the questioner. Remember back in Mists when everyone had to win some number of PvP battlegrounds as part of the quest line for the legendary cloak? (Now that’s when legendaries meant something! And you kids get off my grass!) Anyway, I always thought this was a terrible idea — the regular PvPers hated amateurs coming in and ignorantly screwing up established tactics, and the non-PvPers resented having to be there doing something they had no interest in learning or ever doing again.

Here was a prime example of Blizz deliberately messing with the basic human need to feel at home. The regular PvPers felt their space had been invaded by ignorant and clueless strangers — like when your in-laws suddenly show up at your door — and the non-PvPers were thrust into a situation where they did not know the rules of behavior or the terrain or how to interact with others. Neither group felt at home. It was a guaranteed lose-lose situation.

Now, I suppose Blizz did it because having a robust PvP play option attracts more people to the game, and maybe they were losing these kinds of players so they thought if more people tried PvP they would actually like it, thereby increasing this aspect of the game. I have no idea how it turned out, probably some players did in fact decide PvP was kind of fun. No matter. The point I am trying to make here is almost everyone involved in this activity at the time disliked it. Why did they dislike it? Because suddenly a part of the comfortable little niche they had made for themselves in the game was gone.

I would argue that much of the angst we players express with Blizz is due to the sudden removal of some aspect of the game we have come to feel at home with, in the Maslow sense. This is deeper than just stodgy old players uncomfortable with change, this is akin to having your home destroyed by a tornado. More than once.

Each of us defines the central aspect of WoW differently, or to put it another way, we each establish for ourselves what we believe to be our “home core” in the game. We may not even know that we do this, and we might be hard put to describe what that core is, but it is there for all of us. When that core is shaken or demolished, especially if it seems to happen frequently, then we start hollering. This I think is why the hunter changes of the last two expansions have seemed so heinous to me — prior to WoD, I doubt if I would have defined being a hunter as the home core of my game, but when Blizz began to demolish first the SV spec and later the entire hunter experience, suddenly I realized the very foundation of my game enjoyment had been removed. I was left to find another home core or rebuild on the old one. For humans, both these situations are difficult, just ask Maslow.

Which brings me to the other blog that got me thinking along these lines — a piece by Bhagpuss over at Inventory Full on player housing and the dilemma MMOs face on the subject. The quick summary is that there likely is a Goldilocks solution as to whether or not to have player housing and if so how much or little it should affect the game, but that this solution is difficult for most game makers to arrive at. In fact, recent history for MMOs shows that few companies have succeeded.

As some of you may know, I favor the idea of player housing. I really liked my little Sunsong Ranch home. In fact I still go back there every couple of weeks, just as a place to log off from, with a cozy bed and a bubbling pot of stew on the stove. It gives me a peaceful feeling of being at home, of taking off my boots and warming my tired feet by the stove, anticipating supper and reflecting on the day’s adventures.

If we had had just a few opportunities to customize that space — beyond becoming bff’s with whoever that was that decorated it for us — Sunsong Ranch would have been close to perfect as player housing in my opinion. It was completely optional, it did not in any way affect your game play beyond the initial zone quest sets, and it was instanced so that it was really just your own.But Blizz took this notion of an instanced individual space and made it into a monster in WoD in the form of garrisons, and into an annoyance in Legion in the form of class halls.

Anyway, my point is not to rehash all the problems with garrisons or class halls. (However, for crying out loud, can we get a lousy place to sit and maybe be able to buy a beer in the hunter hall??) My point is that some players — maybe even a lot of players, who knows  — really enjoy having a small space of their own, a place they can call home, even in a computer game. And Blizz has demonstrated they have the technology. The garrison technology was great — an individual instance that you could invite groups to, a few chances to do limited customization — it was just the typical Blizz overreaction that made it bad by requiring every player to have one and to develop it and make it the central jumping off point for an entire expansion, and by offering amenities like a bank and an auction house and portals so that you never had to leave it.

Maybe if Blizz gave us some decent optional and limited player housing — a place of our own — we would not be so quick to yell at them when they make huge changes to our class play style or professions or gear. No matter what they did , we could still come home at the end of a long day questing or raiding, kick off our muddy boots and put our feet up by a nice fire, and feel at home.

Maybe Blizz should dig out their old Psych 101 textbook. It might make them realize that always screwing with core player engagements like class and spec identity is more disruptive than it is helpful, and that maybe if they were to let us have a tiny space of our own in the game we might be happier. Just a thought.

It’s that time

WoW expansions, like many human constructs, seem to have predictable phases in their life cycles. This is in no way scientific, but in my own mind I list them as:

  1. Speculation
  2. Formal announcement/unveiling
  3. Testing
  4. Live implementation
  5. General player base fascination, often combined with righteous indignation over perceived Bad Design/Terrible Idea
  6. “Normalization” and acceptance of virtual life under the rules of the expansion
  7. Pundit analysis of the overall “flavor” of the expansion
  8. Interest in major patches
  9. Boredom and malaise
  10. Go back to step 1

I think we are at Step 7 in Legion, a conclusion I reached after reading some recent blogs — check out Marathal over at Deez Wurds and Ethan Macfie in MMO Games for a couple of examples. There are recent others with similar content, but these struck a chord with me.

For several weeks now, I have had a vague feeling of frustration with the game, but have not really been able to put my finger on the cause. The two blogs I cited have helped me at least start to define it a bit.

Let me say up front, I am not backing off my general assessment of Legion as a success, and as I have written before, there is a lot of fun to be had in this expansion. But remember the flap over “daily overload” in Mists? That same feeling magnified about tenfold is what I have been feeling in Legion.

The feeling is one of stress or burnout, insofar as these terms can be applied to a leisure activity like a computer game. No, of course it is not real stress — not like caring for an aging parent or worrying about the rent or raising a child or enduring an abusive boss — but it is a kind of “immersion stress.” When we play virtual games, we allow ourselves to be bound by certain sets of rules and expectations. We enter an imaginary world and operate in it on its terms. It is in that context that I refer to “stress”, and it can hinder our enjoyment of the virtual world in the same way real stress hinders our joy in real life.

Back to the dailies in Mists. There was a pretty significant backlash against them, and the main complaint was that players felt they had to do them and do them — lots of them — every day or risk “falling behind”. That is, the quests felt less like engaging content and more like a forced march that led first to faction rep and from there to gear and professions recipes and other items players wanted or thought they needed for their end game enjoyment. In fact, sometimes attaining faction rep only meant you could then start a different faction rep grind as a step in your progress.

The players complained about “too many” dailies, but I think their dissatisfaction was less about the number and more about the notion of “compulsory”. If you missed one or two days of dailies, that was one or two days longer until you were eligible to get the items you wanted. And yes, I understand there is a segment of the player population that will greet this idea with a shrug and a “So what?” But I think a sizable majority of what I would term “engaged players” — hardcore and pseudo-casual — felt pressure to log on every day in Mists just to avoid “falling behind”.

Fast forward to Legion. Mists gave many of us nervous tics if we could not log on for a couple of days, but Legion goes much further. For one thing, there are tons more “dailies” in the form of world quests, Mythic+ runs for the weekly chest, daily random heroics for the AP, and so forth. But another, more insidious difference exists: in Mists, there was an end to the grind, once you got your rep you could get your recipes and gear and move on to other parts of the game. But in Legion, there is never an end. We are all Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up the hill knowing that reaching the top only means we get to start all over again. Macfie, in the post I cited above, describes it as “the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing deluge of continuous progression”.

Blizz has confused the notion of “content” with “endless repetition”. I find this ironic, in that Game Director Hazzikostas has lectured us time and time again about the evils of “grinding” for gear, thereby justifying the use of RNG for everything because of the fun™ factor. Yet, Legion, with its endless chases after ever-increasing AP, random profession recipe drops, and lottery gear, is in fact one gigantic grind. The difference is, usually when you grind you eventually reach your goal — I guess what Hazzikostas believes is that grinding in and of itself is fun™, it is being rewarded at the end that is evil.

Once again, from Macfie:

Where it’s gone off the rails a bit is that this progression, after a certain point, becomes functionally endless, creating a situation where any player with even a semblance of a competitive edge feels an immense amount of pressure to grind to keep up. Those that don’t keep up with the grind run the risk of being excluded as AP levels gradually becomes the new gear score by which their character’s worth is judged (in addition to their actual gear score).

Many players feel like how well you play matters less and less compared to how long you play, and that’s not a healthy perception for your consumers to have. Whether you personally feel that way or not, artifact power is beginning to undermine the game’s other systems for a great many players.

And this, from Marathal:

There is so much to do, so why am I in a funk about wanting to do anything. Why is having too much to do, so depressing. Is it because there apparently is no end? I thought Artifact Power was done, until I saw it keeps going, I would like to finish leveling my professions, but they have made that “have meaning”. Maybe it has for some. The tailoring was engaging until the story stopped and kind of petered out. Did Enchanting have a story? I don’t know. The Class hall quests are so wrapped around Raids that I don’t know any more which I have to do and which I could skip. All of those missions every day. This begins a quest, so does this. No. No more raid or dungeon endless quest chains.

Attention, Blizz: Sisyphus is not an inspiring story, he is not someone schoolchildren are encouraged to emulate. He screwed up big time in life, and his punishment was an endless grind. Trust me, “Sisyphus the Game” is not a successful business model. 

And with that, let the weekend commence.

Patch 7.1?

Late Edit. After I wrote this, the Official 7.1 Patch Notes came out, and contrary to what we were led to believe from the initial patch notes, BM hunters — and to some extent MM as well — were once again pretty much ignored. The Trailblazer talent did appear, but none of the other talent items I listed below. Plus there was a 37.5% nerf to Posthaste, presumably so that Trailblazer would be more attractive as a talent in that line.

Unfortunately, what this means to me is that the real “Phase 2” of Ion Hazzikostas’s Grand Plan for Hunters has not yet been put into effect, and we can look forward to a long, slow process for hunters. If at all. I would have liked to see a short explanation of why the apparently-planned other changes did not occur, but that would imply respect for the hunter class. One hopes the reason is that there are much more sweeping changes in the works and so there was no point in making a couple of small changes now. But of course, one has been sorely disappointed before….

Tomorrow Legion’s Patch 7.1 drops in the U.S., a few hours later in Europe. There are plenty of sites with summaries and data mining guesses, as well as info gleaned from PTR experience, among them Wowhead, IcyVeins, the official Blizz site, the PCGames site, and no doubt tons of others. Check them out if you are the type that likes to do last-minute prep.

One thing that comes through loud and clear with Patch 7.1 is that Blizz is making sure they avoid the variations on “lame” they were accused of (with justification) for the first patch of WoD. No one can say this patch is not chock full of new content, with new world quests, new zone quest lines, a new mini-raid, and of course the much-anticipated Return to Karazhan.

You wanted content, all right, I got your content right here! Now stop whining!

I am not sure how RtK will turn out. I know there a lot of people — possibly many of you even — who look back on the original Karazhan as a highlight of your group play. You remember fondly the various bosses, the trouble you had and overcame as a group in figuring out the admittedly innovative mechanics, took delight in the way the dungeon intertwined with other forms of art and leisure activity.

As a disclaimer, I never ran Karazhan when it was current, I only experienced it as a quick “fun run” when we were all overgeared for it, or when we decided to do a naked run or a protect-the-baby competition or something similar just for fun. On those occasions, honestly, I found the dungeon to be boring and tedious. I did not have any of the “fond memories” others clearly did and still do, to me it was just another place to do some guild night activities in.

So I am not looking forward especially to returning to it. As a game design, I wonder a bit about designing what is basically a 5-man raid, a complex Mythic-only dungeon with 11 known bosses and almost certainly some hidden ones, with extraordinarily complex mechanics, that will take hours to complete. For loot, gear base levels increase with later bosses, starting off at 855 and ending at 875 (with of course the almost-negligible chance of significant random upgrades). So loot is not bad, although I wonder if it will be much of a motivator, since the kind of 5-man group able to complete it will likely have most of their gear already at or beyond the 860 level. (Will there be RtK Mythic+ runs? I already think of places like Arcway and Court of Stars as nightmarish for anything other than a regular Mythic run…)

I find myself wondering who the target player audience is for RtK. It is certainly not the typical guild group looking to knock out a few 5-mans after a raid or on an off night. It seems like it is not a dungeon conducive to pugs, nor to casual guilds with a continually-changing cast of logged in players. It seems to award gear too low to attract more than a once-through for the achievement for hardcore raiding guilds, yet be too challenging for groups that would greatly benefit from the gear. About the only players I see loving this a few diehard “good old days” types who will run it for the perceived nostalgia and who can find 4 other individuals who are either similarly nostalgia-imbued or who could use a couple targeted pieces of gear.

The other thing with RtK is that it will probably exacerbate the already-concerning problem of guild tank and healer burnout we are seeing from trying to get Mythic+ runs for guildies.

Patch 7.1 has a few economic and quality of life changes as well. The Blood of Sargeras vendor will appear in Dalaran, allowing players to buy mats with BoS. For example, you can buy 10 herbs with one blood, and the thing here is that number applies to any herb, even the still-overpriced Starlight Rose. (Late edit: Not so, see the comments below.) As herbs on my server still go for exorbitant prices in the auction house, it should be interesting to see what if any effect this will have on those AH prices.

The big news, and the one touted by Blizz as being a magnanimous concession to alt play, is that unlocking world quests now becomes account wide. It certainly is a step in the right direction, but I would have liked to see some significant profession changes, too. At least something that would alleviate the horribly high gear and skill requirements to run Mythic dungeons just to be able to get profession recipes, and removing the RNG component. (I have already abandoned my attempts to level LW on my main — getting even the vendored pattern upgrades is far too expensive to justify, especially when you realize that crafted gear, even if upgraded to 850, is pretty useless except temporarily for some rarely-played alts.)

There are also quite a number of class changes, mostly in the name of “balance”. The hunter changes seem less numerous than those for other classes, and they seem a mix of nerfs and buffs. Though I will wait to see how they play out, especially for Beast Masters, a couple of them stood out for me. Basically, the hunter changes involve talents, and they seem to be the “phase 2” part of what Ion Hazzikostas was talking about when he outlined upcoming hunter changes. One hopes this is the case, as it might indicate that actual core mechanic changes (the supposed “phase 3”) are in the works for 7.2.

One that got my attention was the removal of Dash from the level 45 talent line and its replacement with something called Trailblazer. Delirium, over at The Thrill of the Wild, had a nice summary of the change a couple of weeks ago:

Aspect of the Cheetah:
The first change is the return of Aspect of the Cheetah, sort of…
Trailblazer: Your movement speed is increased by 25% anytime you have not attacked for 3 seconds.
This talent will replace the currently very underused, if ever used, talent Dash, which adds an additional 3 seconds to the duration of Aspect of the Cheetah. Instead, now, we’ll have a buff that’s similar to the old Aspect of the Cheetah, giving us a run speed buff whenever we’re not in combat.

It’s very hard to imagine taking this over Posthaste, for me, but I’m still excited about this change. For hunters, especially Marks hunters, we have almost no choices in our talents. The disparity between talents is fairly extreme, even in very different situations: high mobility vs low mobility, single target vs multi-target, etc. The only time I change talents at all is if I want a pet tank, which really isn’t often, and is never in group content.

On the minus side, in terms of mobility, however, I see that Disengage is going from a 20-second cooldown to a 30-second one. Note that by increasing the cooldown for DE, there is the additional effect of decreasing hunter mobility from Posthaste. This is pretty significant and also pretty discouraging, because it means that Blizz will be continuing to nerf the “obvious” talent choices they engineered, rather than simply buff the weak ones. I do not know what the cumulative effect of this will be, but common sense says that it will serve to weaken hunter damage a bit. Whether that turns out to be significant or not remains to be seen.

I note that the teacher’s-pet mages, however, still have a 15-second cooldown for Blink… 

A Murder of Crows and Volley are getting some buffs, presumably in an attempt to make Barrage less of a must-choose for level 90 talents. (Recall that Barrage already received its 20% nerf a while back.)

MM hunters are losing their special extra-health version of Exhilaration (they will now get the same 30% health restoration that SV and BM do), and in its place they are getting the option for an additional 20 focus, bringing their focus to 120 (I think).

As I said, I will wait to see how the hunter changes play out after the patch goes live, but I really hope that these are indeed the phase 2 Hazzikostas talked about, and that as soon as we get some word on 7.2, there will be some significant baseline changes to hunter mechanics.

Meanwhile, on to Patch 7.1.