Chasing the carrot

I am not what anyone would call an achievement hog (or the other terminology where you leave off the “g”). I do not really go out of my way to check off unfinished tasks in my WoW log. Most of my achievements are there as a by-product of my normal play style, and in any guild ranking by achievement points I am pretty far down the list. I am happy to participate in guild achievement nights, and I am always ready to help others get special achievements, but left to my own devices I generally do not directly pursue them unless they lead to something else I really want. (Achievements to unlock flying would be an example.)

But that does not mean I am not goal-driven. It’s just that I prefer to set my own goals rather than have Blizz list them out for me. As I have explained before in this blog, I set pretty much the same goals for myself at the start of every expansion, roughly:

  • Progress through every raid tier at whatever level of play my raid team is doing.
  • Gear my main to approximately whatever the “max” level is for the level of raids I run.
  • Max out all my professions on all my characters.
  • Level all my alts, at least to LFR minimums.
  • Spend enough play time with my alts to be minimally proficient with them.
  • Develop one or two alts to be able to do normal raid mode.

I get a real feeling of satisfaction when I judge that I have reached these goals.

My frustration with Legion is that, for many of these goals, Blizz has either vastly increased the time necessary to do them, or they keep moving the line to where I can never really feel I have completed them. Both factors tend to make most of these personal goals unattainable. I only have so much play time available, for example, and if gearing up an alt (mainly artifact AP) takes twice as long as in a previous expansion, then I will only be able to gear up half as many alts. (That’s not the actual ratio, but you get the idea.)

But the most frustrating part of all this has been that it is not possible to “finish” my main’s artifact (and thus gear) leveling because Blizz keeps introducing more and more levels of power to it. Consider:

  • They initially told us once we got all the basic traits done and got to the final gold trait, anything beyond that would be minimal and we should not feel we had to diligently pursue it.
  • Then along came a patch and lo and behold they added a whole new set of traits we had to build until we got to “Convergence” on our weapons.
  • But after that, said Blizz, no worries, anything beyond that would be minimal and we should not feel we had to diligently pursue it.
  • Then of course along came patch 7.3, and Blizz once again yanked the football away and pushed us to chase billions and billions of AP every week to fill in — yes, you guessed it — another trait table, this one based on relic slots!

As usual, now they are reassuring us that once we get all relic levels unlocked, any further increases to artifact power are minimal and we should not feel we have to bust our sweet little asses pursuing AP after that.

Mmmmmmm-hmmm. Sure.

This is all old news, of course. We should no longer be surprised when Blizz lies to us time after time. (Remember their progressive lies about the role of garrisons in WoD.) “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We have all rightly complained a lot about the endless AP grind in Legion, and even Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas seemed to realize it in a couple of oblique comments in yesterday’s dev Q&A.

The thing is, this will not change in Battle for Azeroth. We will not have an artifact weapon, but instead we will have at least 4 pieces of artifact-type gear. The mechanics will be different, but these things will not:

  • We will be required to have one certain piece of gear (the neck piece) in order to even function in the expansion. This is like our being required to have an artifact weapon in Legion. It is not possible to participate in the expansion without it.
  • The neck piece will in effect control the trait tables for at least 3 other pieces of gear. We will have to “progress” the neck piece in order to unlock various traits capabilities for other gear slots. Sound familiar?
  • Our artifact weapon special gear will gain power by our accumulation of massive amounts of artifact power azerite. We will get this by participating in the MAU-enhancing activities Blizz designates. For the entire expansion.

No matter what Blizz says about powering up the new gear, you can take it to the bank that the enhancement process will be never-ending. For anyone wishing to raid or even to do Mythic+ (Blizz’s new stealth raiding activity), there will be no logical stopping points. As soon as there starts to be a slight dip in MAU, Blizz will introduce an entirely new set of powers to be unlocked by diligently chasing more azerite. Count on it.

And so, finally, here is my point: I do not know how much longer I can continue chasing something I can never catch in this game. I am not sure I can reset my brain to give up a set of personal goals that have served me well ever since I began playing WoW. There is a slow burning anger in me that Blizz so cavalierly devalues my goals and my play style, and a growing nugget of rage that not only do they tell me what my goals will be but that they keep moving those goals further down the field. 

No, I am not going to rage quit. I will wait and see what BfA brings. In the big picture, when I engage my logic rather than my emotions, I know it is still an amazing game. I must certainly be having fun with it, because otherwise I would have quit long ago.

But I cannot shake the feeling that each time I log on I am being backed into a smaller and smaller corner, being forced into a play style and set of game activities set not by me but by Blizz. If I may shift metaphors here, I am sick of having a carrot tied to my head so that no matter how fast I run I can never catch it, and I am sick of Blizz telling me a continuous stream of lies about my chances of doing it.

I want the damn carrot, Blizz!

Next week is American Thanksgiving week, and I will be taking a blog vacation during that time to tend to relatives and cooking and football. Look for me back here on November 27th. For those of you who celebrate turkey day, enjoy!

Hati, we hardly knew ye

If we needed any additional confirmation that Blizz not only does not care about the hunter class, but that they have absolutely zero idea of what it means to be a hunter, it is this: Apparently Hati will just disappear when artifact weapons disappear in Battle for Azeroth.

Now, I admit I have not really been much of a fan of Hati, certainly not in the clumsy way Blizz implemented it. The intro quest to get him was, I thought, very well done, but unfortunately that was pretty much the highlight of the entire mechanic. It ended up promising something that Blizz never delivered on. BM hunters thought they were getting an awesome second pet, but it turned out to be nothing more than an unimaginative DoT visual, with worse pathing and attack speed than our regular pet, and far less control.

Hati could not be renamed, he had absolutely zero player-controlled special abilities, and he had (and still does) an annoying tendency to just disappear after portal events. For a while he could even rather easily die in combat and even after rezzing your regular pet, Hati would not rez for a very long time, leaving the hunter without a weapon. Blizz never really came to terms with the balance between the actual artifact gun damage and the damage done by Hati. BM hunters got the short end of the stick almost every time there was an artifact weapon upgrade, because Blizz for some reason cannot abide the thought of an ever-more powerful hunter pet. (In spite of the fact that they designed Hati to be the most important part of the BM hunter artifact!!)

Even the art model was sloppily (and apparently hastily) rendered, so that Hati looked like an animation from years ago. Only after BM hunters pitched a fit (because that is the only way to get Blizz’s attention — calm and logical comments will not do it) did Blizz give us a way to change his appearance. Even with that, though, Blizz deprived BM hunters of one of the fun aspects of Legion — the cool artifact appearance quests every other class had meant approximately zero to BM hunters, since they did not alter Hati’s color or other appearance in any noticeable way. The only way to really change his appearance was to make him look like a pet you already had in your stable.

So Hati in my opinion was a huge Blizz failure. Worse, it was one they appeared to not give a damn about.

But here’s the thing: as bad as Hati was, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with him. He is part of my posse. I feel unbalanced without two pets by my side everywhere I go. He has gone through every part of my Legion experience with me, from leveling to dungeons to progressive raids to world and emissary quests. I mean, he even went with me in my space travel to Argus, for crying out loud. For Blizz to now summarily dismiss him like he was vendor trash just seems wrong to me.

And the fact that Blizz does not recognize this goes to the very core of their approach to the hunter class: They simply do not understand the heart and soul of a hunter. A hunter pet is different from a mage’s water elemental or a warlock pet or a DK one, there is a far more personal level of engagement, a far greater degree of anthropomorphism. A BM hunter’s pet in many ways defines the player.

Unfortunately, I see nothing on the horizon that gives me hope Blizz will ever treat hunters better. Last week Bendak over at Eyes of the Beast posted a quick wrap up of some of his Blizzcon impressions and takeaways, including some reports he got about hunters from people playing the BfA demo. The BM hunter changes noted in the demo seem ok, but very minor and without an overall integrated purpose — more like a committee threw in some suggestions and voted on a few tweaks with no overall goal, just a requirement to “make some changes”. (Although Tranq Shot will be back, so that is exciting I suppose.)

MMO-C has been publishing various side interviews from Blizzcon for the last week. The one that got my attention was the one published today. An interviewer named Automatic Jak asked some pretty in depth questions of a class balance developer. Unfortunately AJ is, I guess, a healer, and the questions were therefore very healing-centric. But still there were a few interesting tidbits from the dev that I rather cavalierly interpreted in terms of hunter changes for BfA. It was actually the most informative interview I have seen regarding some of the team’s class balance philosophies.

  • The team went into Legion knowing that they might have to revisit some of the classes that received major changes once player feedback was collected
  • There most likely will not be complete class revamps again any time soon.

Here’s my interpretation of these two bullets from the hunter perspective:

  • The team made a deliberate decision to ignore all the insightful experienced hunter comments during the alpha/beta tests and figured they could wait to respond to the couple of things hunters howled the most about once Legion went live. Even then, they decided they could delay any response for several months. And even then, they decided they would merely respond to a couple of easy fixes, not do the hard work necessary to make the entire hunter experience smooth and fun again.
  • The whole SV hunter destruction was a mistake, and while it was fine to inflict it on the hunter class, no other class deserves such shabby treatment. Oh, and no real changes to the poor SV abomination that Blizz already created.
  • The team likes classes having unique abilities.
  • Going forward a big question is what unique abilities each class should have.
  • The team wants to spread out class strength and weaknesses more.
    Utility will be spread out and balanced more in the future.
  • Everyone should feel like they have some sort of cooldown to help them survive.

Translation: Blizz is proud of the fact that they have destroyed the whole super-utility role of hunters and wants to ensure they play no such special role in the future. Instead, everyone should be special. 🙄

So yeah, it seems Hati will be gone, hunters will get some scattered non-unified set of restored abilities, and “all classes will be above average”…. I am underwhelmed. And I will miss Hati.

Endless variation

As all of us are, I am still trying to piece together a coherent picture of Battle for Azeroth. It will come together more over the next few weeks, and of course will become clearer as soon as the beta or super alpha or whatever they decide to call it goes live. But my brain has been trying to digest one particular new approach to the game that emerged from Blizzcon: new technology that permits endless variation with minimal developmental resources. I think this may end up being the most significant development in the new expansion.

Let’s start with artificial intelligence. One of the big changes we will see in Battle for Azeroth is the introduction of advanced AI for NPCs. As I understand, these “super NPCs” will initially be confined to some of the special BfA “Island Expedition” scenarios. (I’m unclear about their role, if any, in the larger Warfront activities.) Basically, these NPCs will not be scripted, rather they will react to player actions. This summary from Wowhead:

The common creatures AI is generally well known. Melee mobs will generally walk to you and punch. If you walk too far, it’ll go back to it’s spawn. That’s why for these new islands, they are trying a different type of AI, that tries to beat the players at their own game. For instance, the AI will try to have tactical ability usage. It may try to Polymorph or Sap your healer.

The biggest advance is that the AI will have a good sense of map objectives; where are the big bosses? Where are the Azerite nodes? And also a greater sense of strategy; it may polymorph you and then just walk away as it has better things to do.

Also the AI will likely have personalities such as a rogue named “Sneaky Pete” that notices that you pulled too much, Sap your healer and then burst you down.

I can see the fun potential in this new technology, but part of me wants to think this is Blizz forcing us into PvP. I mean, variable and unpredictable actions are one of the big draws of PvP, right? (You PvPers out there feel free to speak up, all my PvP experience is limited to BGs as a bit player.) To me, one of the real benefits of PvE is that once you have figured out a boss or mob action you can rely on that happening, and the fun variable is how you deal with it. Consistency is something many players, me included, think of as a good thing in the game.

The science of AI is advancing by leaps and bounds — far beyond the primitive learning algorithms I played with in my graduate Comp Sci courses. (Check out this layman’s summary of the sophisticated set of machine learning tools recently released by the creators of the game engine Unity for a quick idea of what I am talking about.)

To paraphrase Alan Turing, at what point does the AI opponent become indistinguishable from the PvP one? And does it matter?

In addition to this non-scripted AI for some NPCs, the scenario-type activities in BfA will feature a large number of map variations, selected at random for any given instantiation of the scenario. Also, the items appearing on the random map will dictate various approaches to beating the scenario, so that any given victory strategy may fail miserably if you run the scenario again.

Of course, we haven’t seen this at work yet, so it is possible the mechanic will devolve into a “Oh, it’s setup X this time, implement the standard X strategy.” However, Blizz’s comments during some of the Blizzcon panels indicated that, although the possibilities are finite, there will be so many of them as to preclude this approach.

Fun? Yes, but for me only to a point. I actually kind of like it in an expansion when I can more or less put my brain into neutral and race through an instance (or scenario, as in Mists) I have done countless times before. It gives me a sense of progression and achievement — this was hard when we first started doing it, and look at us now! If it is hard every single time, it gets frustrating for me. (Add in the timed nature of victory, and it is doubly so — timed runs is one of the main reasons I do not enjoy Mythic+ instances now.)

I know there are a lot of players who will absolutely love this new kind of scenario, so I am sure it will be a big hit and remain a feature of the game for a long time. And of course it has great esport possibilities, so naturally Blizz will continue to develop it.

The result of these technical innovations is that Blizz will be able to give us virtually infinite content experiences using minimal development resources once the initial programming is done. This is good for the future of WoW, because it may mean that the game will continue to be viable for many more years. It is good for the player crowd that demands continuous new challenges. I am not so sure it is a plus for players like me, the ones who have grown used to a certain challenge cycle in every expansion: level —> progress —> achieve —> relax.

One wonders how long it will be before Blizz includes this new endless variation tech, along with AI bosses, in normal instances and raids and even world quests. If and when they do, how will that affect raid teams that rely on team learning and strategy development for their expansion fun? What if, every time you go into a raid, you have to figure out new strategy for each boss? What if you have to do it for pug dungeons? What does it do to the game if PvE eventually becomes indistinguishable from PvP?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, I merely pose them. Food for thought as we move into this Veteran’s Day weekend. Have a beer and hug a vet!

Destruction is the game

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Of all that we know so far about Battle for Azeroth, the one thing that has really made me angry is the revelation that Teldrassil will be burned. Honestly, this seems all out of proportion to whatever Alliance retaliation we may get in the form of sacking Lordaeron.

So, yeah, okay, I get that making everyone angry is pretty much the whole point of the expansion. Apparently we have all gotten just a little too buddy-buddy since WoD, and what is WoW without visceral faction hatred?

But Teldrassil? Hell, why not Stormwind again, or The Exodar, or — here’s a great idea — Goldshire? I mean, the latter would have a whole moral Sodom-and-Gomorrah flavor to it. The Horde could come off as avenging angels. But Teldrassil just seems beyond the pale.

Maybe I react to it so strongly because that is where I started my very first character in WoW — a night elf hunter. I was brand new to WoW, and the beauty of Teldrassil just hypnotized me. The whole idea of a Great Tree appealed to almost every otherworldly fantasy I had ever had. I loved those very early quests, I loved exploring further and further until I got to Darnassus, which, I thought, was surely the biggest and most marvelous city in the whole game. That I eventually discovered Stormwind and the rest of Azeroth never diminished my wonder at Teldrassil. I still go back there from time to time just to wander around and maybe spend a night in the Tree. To think that it will be lost to my first character forever is almost too much to contemplate.

I understand that conflict is the essence of drama, that the game would be pretty boring if we all went around blissfully prancing through fields of flowers and cooing at unicorns. (That would be Second Life…) I know the game is centered around battles and killing and such. But do we have to have such a fixation on mass destruction?

It seems like Blizz is fascinated by the process of building unspeakably beautiful worlds and then turning them into scarred and ugly wastelands. It reminds me of my brother’s approach to building blocks — to him, the whole point of meticulously building a structure was to knock it down, as violently and rapidly as possible. I never understood that.

And Blizz almost never rebuilds anything they have destroyed. Yeah, I know they finally repaired Deathwing’s destruction of Stormwind, but that was after years of player nagging. Left to their own devices, it seems very unlikely they would have done anything. Look what happened to the Vale in Mists, or to Menethil Harbor or Theramore or for that matter to any of the Wrath destruction. Nobody ever cares enough to fix any of this devastation. Blizz just goes gallivanting about looking for more beauty to destroy. Any untouched place is fair game.

While burning Teldrassil is despicable, I am hoping it may be a prelude to a regrowth that will come back even more glorious than the original. Fire is, after all, often a precursor to renewal — a way to cleanse and start again. It would be wonderful if, at the end of Battle for Azeroth, Teldrassil starts to grow again and continues to do so even into the next expansion. I don’t think the boys at Blizz care a rat’s ass about such a process, of course, and it will likely remain an ugly scar for the remainder of the game, but still one can hope.

I am beginning to get very demoralized with this continuous, unrelenting destruction. I need to go look at puppy pictures and cheer up a bit. And plot my horrible revenge on the Horde.

Intermission

There are almost certainly going to be spoilers in this blog for the foreseeable future — if you do not wish to have any pre-knowledge of the next WoW expansion, do not read it.

Blizzcon has come and gone, and we got the next expansion announcement many of us were expecting. Over the next few weeks we will undoubtedly learn a lot more about it, as Blizz gives out more information and the data miners get down to business and possibly as the beta kicks off. There are lots of sites that recap everything we know so far, and I am going to assume you have a basic idea of what was revealed at Blizzcon.

I have not really dug into all the details of what we know, but here are my preliminary and somewhat unorganized thoughts after watching a few of the meatier Blizzcon events about 8.0 (“Battle for Azeroth” — an expansion title certain to be abbreviated as BfA and of course lampooned with endless variations of Big F***ing Something-that-starts-with-A.)

Excitement. Specifically, there was not much of it, either from the dev team or the fans. No gigantic buildup like we had for WoD or Legion. No great unveiling of some cool new enemy, no major changes to baseline game mechanics, no new classes, no new planet. We are going back to Alliance v. Horde and staying on Azeroth.

I do not think this is a bad thing. As I have written before, I am kind of ready for a little break from fighting The Great Battle For Azeroth’s Existence. And I get a nervous tic whenever I hear Blizz talk about “exciting new changes” because lately that seems to have turned out badly. So I was relieved when I did not hear about any Really Big Changes coming in BfA. I watched most of the WoW events while connected with some guildies on Discord, and their overall reaction was pretty much, “Cool about the next xpac, but I am not super excited about it.”

BfA almost seems like an intermission expansion, a sort of place holder that allows Blizz to tweak many of the sweeping class and other changes they made in Legion. So I am kind of excited to not be excited, if you know what I mean. I think this is a good move on Blizz’s part.

Blizz attitude. I was encouraged by the general tone of the devs as they interacted with players and presented panel topics. In particular, I thought the Q&A session was the best we have had in at least a couple of years. The questions did not seem to be cherry-picked for the purpose of Blizz tooting their own horn, the dev panel gave what I thought were very straightforward and realistic answers, and the live questions were for the most part respectful and well-expressed. (With the exception of the idiot who wasted time by asking about the ceilings in raids… But even that was treated with more respect than it deserved and explained in terms of some of the technical camera reasons for it. Bravo, Blizz.)

Learning from Legion. Many of the announced changes were clearly a result of things that had not worked well in Legion, and I was gratified to see Blizz has in fact been listening to players about many of the real current annoyances. One recurring theme seems to be a move away from the extreme spec-unique approach to classes. Not only has this been the underlying cause of a lot of Legion player complaints, but I suspect Blizz found out how unmanageable it is to have what are basically 36 separate “classes”. A few of the changes I thought important:

  • No artifact weapon. The replacement mechanic — a neck piece that is essentially a relic-enabler for certain pieces of gear — echoes the whole 7.3 relic crucible, but Blizz did say that the neck piece will not be spec-unique, that it will work for gear for all specs of a class.
  • Possible gear simplification. I did hear Hazzikostas say something along the lines of gear level should matter, and that it is not cool to have to carry lots of gear around with you, so I am tentatively optimistic that BfA will un-complicate  many of the gear problems we see in Legion.
  • Somewhat related to the above, it seems like the neck-enabled gear will be a replacement for tier, eliminating the horrible Legion system that made old tier more useful than current tier and that forced complicated computer simulations for every possible gear combo.
  • Raid buffs will return. Blizz seems to understand that players like to feel they contribute something special to group efforts, and they as much as admitted that stripping away all raid buffs was a mistake. We will see.
  • When it came to the question of legendaries, at first I understood Ion Hazzikostas to virtually confirm what a terrible idea the Legion version of these had been and say they would not continue in BfA. However, in retrospect, I think there was less clarity than I thought, and I am not sure Blizz is done with bad implementations of legendaries. Still, it seems they do not plan to make legendaries unique to specs, which I hope will be an improvement no matter how they decide to implement them.

There were a ton of other things I both liked and disliked about the new expansion, and over the next few months I am sure I will have more to say about them. Just a quick mention of the ones that caught my attention for now:

  • Bigger backpacks are on the drawing board. Yes, at last we will get a somewhat larger basic bag, beyond the tiny 16-slot one we have had ever since the start of WoW.
  • Some sort of whole-character transmog. I was unclear about this, but apparently there will be some ability to morph certain classes-races into variations of those. Or possibly have pseudo-independent characters of these other races. For example there will be Darkiron Dwarves and Void Elves. It’s not obvious to me why this is so cool, nor under what circumstances it may occur, so stay tuned. Honestly, I missed the whole point of this, so maybe ignore anything I say about it.
  • Flying will be on the same basic schedule as for Legion, so I guess that means something like 6 months into the expansion.
  • A substance called azerite will be the new artifact power — it will enable the magic neck piece and we will grind it forever. Get ready.
  • Esports-friendly activities will continue and be expanded in the form of Mythic+ dungeons and the new Warfront scenarios.
  • Blizz is phasing out the entire PvP or PvE server system. All servers will be both, with a toggle switch players can set to determine under which set of rules they play. (I am assuming this may have similar implications for the dwindling number of “RP” designated servers, but I don’t know that for sure.)
  • There will be 6 new realm character slots added per account.
  • Blizz will have legal, Blizz-controlled Vanilla servers up and running in the foreseeable future. One hopes this will finally shut down the whimpering of the atavistic crowd that cannot seem to come to terms with change, but that seems unlikely. We will see.
  • Eastern Kingdom will be Alliance-controlled and Kalimdor will be Horde-controlled. There will be some “footholds” in each, though — for example, the Exodar will still be Alliance. Also, the starting areas will not change for the races, rather when one gets to something like level 110 the true nature of what happened will be revealed. And yes, Teldrassil has been torched by the Horde, so go back and get your idyllic screenshots now.

The only thing really missing from the entire BfA discussion was timing — we do not know when it may be targeted to go live, nor do we know when even the beta will start. I expect sometime after the first of the year for the beta (or more likely another “special alpha” for the select few), and the expansion going live by around November. Again, stay tuned.

It was definitely an interesting weekend.