Alpha beta soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A, and servers, fail

Yeah, so I watched the latest episode of the Hazzikostas show, and it ranks right up there as one of the crappiest ones Blizz has done. You probably should not waste your time watching it, but if you insist, or just want the text summary, MMO-C has both.

Here are the takeaways from my notes:

Allied races are now available with BfA pre-purchase. This was a pretty badly-kept secret, lots of people seemed to be privy to the “leak” several days ago. The amazing thing to me is how ineptly Blizz rolled it out. Clearly they had been planning it for a while. But the rollout, combined with whatever they did in yesterday’s maintenance patch, was a total disaster. That they finally got many of the worst parts under control by about 9 PM ET last night does not mitigate what a total technical failure it was.

The first thing that happened was that the Blizzard store crashed, apparently under the stress of lots of people rushing to pre-order BfA. Blizz claims it was not their problem per se, rather the money people that handle that sort of thing for them let them down. Whatever. Blizz’s customers were kept in queue for hours, usually only to eventually be kicked out of it. Some people actually seemed to get to the “click this button to charge your credit card” part only to once again be flung into an endless loop that kicked them out of the process. Others had their credit cards charged multiple times, with some of this group actually getting the pre-order and some not.

Whether part of a cascading failure or merely by unlucky coincidence, some set of the game servers also crashed, with the result that no one could log into the game. Blizz issued an emergency patch around 7 PM ET, but that only worked for Windows users. Unlucky Mac users were forced to wait another two hours before Blizz got their butts in gear to fix whatever that problem was. (But not before a clueless CM made the blue comment that Blizz was “actively working” the Mac problem, but they had other higher priority stuff they were working on, the implication being just shut up and wait until we get around to it. Oh, and any readers tempted to make a snarky comment about Mac users, be aware I am in no mood!)

Was Blizz really surprised that a whole bunch of people would try to pre-order BfA immediately? I mean, how long have they been in business? And where the hell was their stress testing before going live — any testing at all, really?

I have said it before and I will say it again. Blizz is a worldwide company that still operates like two guys in a garage. They are woefully incompetent at what they apparently think are the un-fun parts of maintaining the game. Their attitude seems to be, “Yeah, but that part isn’t kewl, dude!”

PvP. A lot of people were pretty annoyed that Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas and Mr. Emcee Lore spent probably 30 minutes of the hour-long session talking about PvP. I will admit, I was one of them. Yeah, I get that PvP is a major part of the game for some people (although I doubt it is half the player population). Truthfully, if I had known they were going to spend so much time discussing PvP, I would not have even watched the event.

Upon reflection, maybe that attitude is why they did it. I am getting the definite idea that Blizz is very slightly ramming PvP down people’s throats for BfA. All servers will be for both groups, just a matter of setting a player switch to decide. (I can hardly wait until that goes live, no chance for disasters there….) BfA will also feature scenarios that are basically modified PvP arenas, the only difference being that the game will simulate PvP opponents using AI for their NPCs. These scenarios (“islands” in the BfA parlance), in addition to being pseudo-PvP in nature, seem designed for esports — they are short, timed events, basically a new addition to Mythic+ dungeons for BfA.

“Utilities pruning” for classes. The main thing that came out of this for me was Hazzikostas officially lecturing us that “Bring the class not the player” is a good thing. And in fact, he pedantically Blizzsplained to us that we have stupidly misunderstood the whole “Bring the player not the class” thing from the beginning — if we had not been so dense, we would have grasped that it never meant groups should have the freedom to bring good players irrespective of class, nor was it any sort of design philosophy.

“Four legs good, two legs bad” has at last morphed into “Four legs good, two legs better”. It has always been so, we are just too confused to remember, poor brainless little things we are…

We will, of course see how this utility pruning campaign works out. But I remain skeptical. There is almost no way to structure it to avoid clear winners and losers in the pruning lottery. Some classes will get the “always good” utilities (hero, battle rez, etc.) and some will get the “good for a few types of fights” utilities.

Of course, I am particularly interested in this because until Legion hunters were the utility class. We had all kinds of useful stuns, traps, mobility moves, misdirects, pet saves. Nearly all of these were removed at the start of Legion, then begrudgingly a few were restored in an early patch. But we are still nowhere near the level of utility player we have been for almost all of WoW. And now it appears even our meager set of utilities will be pruned once again, all in the name of “class uniqueness”. Whatever the hell that is, other than an excuse for designating winners and losers in the class lottery.

BM hunters may be screwed. Clearly, Blizz’s plan is to make SV the winning hunter spec in BfA. We don’t know exactly what it will look like yet, but apparently, according to the esteemed Game Director, it will remain melee-ish, but in a kind of ranged way(?). Hazzikostas actually admitted they went too far out of the hunter play style when they destroyed SV and replaced it with what was effectively  another class. And so this spec will receive a rather major makeover in BfA.

In a sense, I suppose I should be glad that my beloved old-style SV may begin to make a return. But honestly I am still pissed that Blizz treated us SV hunters so shabbily, that they forced many of us to switch to BM to maintain any semblance of what we loved about hunters, that they arrogantly dismissed every comment we had to make on the change, and now they are saying “Oops, heehee, guess we went too far, silly us.”

Worse, it is starting to look like SV will get some major changes at the expense of the BM spec. Apparently Blizz picks one hunter spec each expansion now to be the one they make unplayable. It was SV at the end of WoD and pretty much in Legion, and it could easily be BM in BfA. So all you hunters out there who begrudgingly gave up your SV for BM: Psych!!! Blizz was just kidding, you should go back to SV in BfA.

Hahahahaha! They are such great kidders! Screwing with hunters just never gets old for them.

BfA release date. We now know this will be “before Sep 21st”. This is before most of us were predicting. I am happy to eat my words on this if it indeed comes to pass. (I predicted not before November.) But it means that BfA is further along, more set in stone than we had thought, and it really seems what we see in the alpha and beta will be very close to what we get in the live version.

Anyway, that was pretty much it for yesterday’s Q&A. If you did not watch it, congratulations, you just saved yourself some wasted time.