Patch 7.3.5 do-over

Well, we have had a few days of Patch 7.3.5 now, and it appears today Blizz is going for a do-over of the patch install, as the servers will be down for what appears to be a major-patch amount of time.

What’s going on?

Anyone who has logged in this week has noticed something wrong  — from minor annoyances to really major bugs, sometimes enough to make the game unplayable. The forums are lit up over this dismal patch. After an initial attempt to blame the problems on “addons”, Blizz has seemed to accept that the patch is buggy as hell and today’s extended maintenance is their Hail Mary to straighten much of it out.

Just a few of the game areas that have developed significant bugs since implementation of the patch:

  • Old dungeons and raids (for example, boss health — many heroic bosses ended up with significantly less health than normal bosses).
  • Current dungeons (I was in a heroic Court of Stars last night, and the spy kept stopping in his tracks and refusing to move further. A guildie experienced some bosses in keystone dungeons arbitrarily assuming affixes that are not part of the ones in this week’s rotation.) Several dungeons became impossible to run for M+ because of the serious bugs.
  • Archaeology
  • Pet names (many just disappeared) and some pet skins (reverted to box)
  • Transmog
  • Lag and frame rates — as low as 1 fps for some people. Basically the game becomes a slide show at that rate.
  • Sound — choppy, interrupted, or just missing, like bad cell phone coverage.
  • Profession quest lines — NPCs you have to talk to become unresponsive.
  • Mat exchange. If you were given a stack of “Light Illusion Dust” in exchange for the now-defunct vanilla enchanting mats, and you tried to change it to “Rich Illusion Dust” at the rate of 3 light —> 1 rich, you found that whatever size stack of light you clicked on turned into exactly 1 rich, using up the entire stack of light.
  • Current raids — floor effects in Antorus, for example, very squirrelly.
  • Major unintended consequences of the zone leveling paradigm. (Unintended, perhaps, but not unforeseeable for any competent project manager. This point may be a future post for me, it is so heinous and irresponsible.)

Other than (finally) admitting the bugs and promising to fix them, Blizz has been mum on what is going on with the patch. Their silence, as usual, only serves to fuel speculation. One reddit thread advanced the intriguing theory that adding the extra backpack slots caused a cascading effect on the entire game, and actually it’s not such a bad argument. For a couple of years now, the standard Blizz response to request for more backpack space has been to explain that the backpack code is original game code and that changing it at this point could have a large number of unintended consequences. There is, in fact, some indication that many of the items and gear for characters (our “inventory”) are managed by means of a single array (!!) in the game code. I don’t pretend to have any knowledge beyond Basic Computer Code 101 level, but I know that arrays can be very touchy, and changing the parameters of one — if not done very carefully — can require you to chase down every single line of code that points back to it and make sure it still points to what you want it to. For a game with millions of lines of code, this might actually be an impossible task.

My own theory is that Patch 7.3.5 suffers from what I call the Blatchford Effect.

Blatchford Effect. (My own term) Some years ago, there was an Olympic-caliber speed skater named Neil Blatchford. Excellent athlete and very decent guy. My uncle went to school with him at Macalester College in Minnesota, and I heard this story from him. During the skating off-season (this was back in the day when there actually were such things as off-seasons), Neil ran track to keep in shape, specifically the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. Anyone who has ever run track knows that this is one of the most grueling races in the sport. It calls for sprinter-type speed, endurance, and hams/quads of steel, exactly the same requirements as for speed skaters.

One other feature of the race is that, in order to maximize performance, you need to take the exact same number of steps between hurdles, and the steps need to be the exact same distance each, so as to arrive at the next hurdle in perfect position to get over it most efficiently. The optimum number of steps for Neil was something like 15. Naturally, as the race progresses and the athlete gets more fatigued, it gets more and more challenging to maintain both pace and form.

The story my uncle told was of Neil running in an NCAAAA meet, where for some reason he lost part of a step early in the race. Nevertheless, he 15-stepped it for the entire distance, even though that meant that by about halfway through, he was actually stomping on the hurdles and driving them to the ground rather than hurdling over them. My uncle was in awe of the strength and determination it took to do that and combine it with sprinting for 400 meters, though of course “determination” can also be plain old ordinary “stubbornness”. Whatever you call it, Neil’s rigid adherence to 15-stepping contributed to losing the race.

Whatever the technical reason(s) for the disaster that so far has been Patch 7.3.5, to my mind the single biggest mistake Blizz made was rushing it to production before it was even close to ready. I am absolutely thunderstruck at the nonexistent quality control they exercised over this patch. Once again, Blizz has reverted to their two-guys-in-a-garage approach to this game.

I did not participate in the PTR (kind of sick of doing Blizz’s QC for them only to have them ignore valid concerns and actual demonstrated bugs), so I do not know if the patch was this bad when it was still being tested. Maybe it was fine, then Blizz decided to throw in some new stuff without testing just before it went live. (Was the extra bag space part of the PTR? I do not know.)

More likely, though, is that Blizz’s reputation for ignoring player PTR evaluations has brought them to a point where the PTR is of extremely limited value as a broad test vehicle. People dabble their toes in the PTR to check out one or two areas they are interested in, or merely out of brief curiosity, but the players who used to really dig in and give a test realm a thorough evaluation have stopped doing so. Why should they waste their time when Blizz refuses to listen to them?

At the start of Legion, Blizz — still stinging from the disaster that was WoD — promised frequent and regular content patches. They have kept that promise, though at this juncture it seems like they are committed only to the schedule, quality be damned. They are 15-stepping this expansion, come hell or high water, no matter how many hurdles they have to stomp on in order to get to the end. As Neil Blatchford could have attested, there may be a grim sort of satisfaction in such a course of action, but that is not how you win the race.

We’ll see if today’s round of maintenance can give us a workable patch. I hope so. But I think there is at least a 50-50 chance that what we will get is one that is still buggy as hell but has a few of the game-stopping problems fixed. The patch problems seem far too extensive to be fixed with even an 8-hour extra maintenance cycle. This patch was not even close to ready for prime time, yet Blizz foisted it on us anyway. That may bode well for executive bonuses and shareholder approval in the Activision-Blizzard world, but it stinks for the players. Unfortunately, player satisfaction is pretty far down on the list of important business considerations these days.

Time for the weekend. See you on the other — hopefully brighter — other side.