Aaaand we’re off!

I am pronouncing Legion officially ended.

Oh yes, I know technically we have months to go in this expansion, and lots of people are still totally engrossed in it, but for all practical purposes it has shifted from a windshield view to one we see in the rear view mirror. Battle for Azeroth is now the windshield view.

In my days as a soldier, I was transferred from one duty station to another about every two years (sometimes more often). Every time I did a PCS (permanent change of station), there was a defined point at which I stopped thinking of my last duty station as home and started anticipating my new one. When I returned from Iraq, for example, somewhere about halfway on the flight home, my brain did a sort of “click” and I pushed the previous months to the back of my consciousness and began to really think about arriving at the airport, reuniting with family, planning for my next set of duties, and so forth. I had a turned a page to a new chapter, and I knew it.

Last night I had that kind of “click” in my brain about Legion/BfA. It was an accumulation of news and events, I think. For one thing, our raid team downed heroic Argus, so Legion progression raiding has been officially completed. For another, in the last couple of days we have seen an avalanche of data about BfA — a rare Developer Water Cooler post, announcement of a Hazzikostas “Q&A” next week, the start of the BfA alpha test, and of course the first crush of mined data. Blizz has definitely kicked off its official next-expansion blitz.

Right now we are in an overload-induced lull in the face of all this information, but over the next few days, weeks, and months we’ll start to see a realistic picture of BfA emerge. So, a few (very) preliminary observations on the process we are beginning:

As always, I applaud the publication of the Dev Water Cooler post, but back in the old days before the Hazzikostas Dynasty these were much more frequent and thus gave us a lot more insight into game design and goals. Now we are lucky if we see one or two a year, and sadly they now seem mainly to be part of publicity blitzes in advance of a new expansion. Nevertheless, better one than none I suppose.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this one is that Blizz has almost completed their morph from “Bring the player not the class” to “Bring the class not the player” in their design philosophy. BfA will see — if the post is to be believed — class and spec utilities pruned and added with the goal of having only one or two classes with any given raid utility, and (in theory) raid bosses designed to take specific advantage of specific utilities. I think this is a big mistake, but of course Blizz designs for the professional-level raider, not for the majority of their players. (Most raid teams do not have the luxury of switching out specs to fit each boss — and in fact probably would not do so even if they could.)

I agree with Blizz that it is not very interesting if every class has every utility. But the hints are that BfA will see a typical pendulum swing that will severely limit and further specialize class utilities. This will be fine for classes that win the lottery and have generically useful utilities, like hero/timewarp or battle rez or group-wide speed bursts. It will be far less fine for classes that get highly specialized utilities and in the process lose their more generic ones in the name of promoting class “uniqueness”. One example I can think of right now is the fact that hunters will lose the AoE stun effect of Binding Shot — it will be simply an AoE root. But hunters will gain (get back, actually, after its removal in Legion) Tranquilizing Shot. I am not complaining about getting tranq back again, but its utility is far more selective than the current Binding Shot. Back when we still had tranq, I estimate it was useful for maybe one in ten boss fights. Contrast that with the current Binding Shot, which I use much more frequently in Legion, and very often indeed in M+ dungeons.

The net effect of this kind of selective specialization is that, for example, a druid with battle rez is always useful in a raid, whereas a hunter with tranq is useful in maybe a few boss fights. Multiply that effect across 36 specs, and there will be very clear winners and losers in Blizz’s attempt to bring back “uniqueness” in raid utility. Some specs will get the “always useful” abilities, and some will get the “once-in-a-while useful” ones. Blizz will undoubtedly try to even things out, but their track record in doing so is pretty dismal.

The other takeaway I got from the Water Cooler post is that Blizz is once again going to take a stab at redefining class and spec “identity”. This terrifies me, because the last time they did something like this, they demolished my chosen spec. In the run up to Legion, Blizz made a big deal about establishing class and spec “fantasies”. They actually did come up with narratives for each, but that was the end of it, because in many cases the spec implementation was not even close to the official “fantasy”. There was almost zero follow-through on what some class writer thought the spec should look like and what the developer implemented for it. BM hunters, for example — “master of beasts” — ended up with almost zero control over their array of pets.

(Bendak has a great discussion of this whole idea of class identity as applied to BM hunters in his recent post on what he would like to see for the spec in BfA. Hunters, check it out if you have not already, it is worth reading.)

Part of the whole fantasy/identity thing is that Blizz really has no good idea of how to really define some classes. Yes, they are pretty good with mages and the various druid specs, but they have struggled with classes like paladins and hunters among others. I do not know why, but they just do not seem to “get” certain classes. The result is that a staffer writes up some good boilerplate class/spec description, and that is the end of it — the abilities, play style, and rotation end up being nowhere near the description.

One last comment, this one on the alpha test (still waiting on my invite, sure it is on the way 🙄) and the data mining effort. Every post you see on these activities will be prefaced with something like “it is very early yet, and everything might change”. A necessary statement to make, but what I have observed over the last two expansions is that the live version very rarely deviates in any significant way from the very earliest tests we see. In the case of Legion, the only time Blizz even seemed to consider making changes was during the invitation-only alpha test, and even then they did not make many. By the time it got to beta and of course later to the PTR, the entire expansion was set in stone.

I believe that once again we are going to see the game’s elite players (the ones who got the alpha invitations) determine the course of the entire expansion, certainly in the areas of gear and class abilities. Additionally, in areas that pro players (basically Mythic world-first caliber) have little interest — professions, for example — developers will have full power to do whatever they wish, with little or no player input until we get to the “too late” stage.

I said at the time the Legion alpha test was going on, that it was a mistake to shape an entire expansion on the feedback of the elite, and it looks to me like Blizz is about to repeat that pattern.

One thing they could do to make me feel better about this whole test period would be to give the players frequent and robust feedback in the forums or by other means. I am talking about Ghostcrawler-type feedback, honest and even at times brutal, but reliable and transparent. In the runup to Legion we basically saw a few media blitzes, but crickets in responding to even the most solid and detailed player feedback. For months on end. It gave the impression of epic disdain for their customers. I know it is not developers’ favorite thing to actually *gasp* write or address questions/concerns, but I think Blizz could do themselves a huge favor by putting a priority push on player feedback for the next few months, even if that means they have to increase their resources devoted to it.

They will not do it, of course, but I have to make the suggestion. We are creatures of hope. We are (at least I am) also creatures who live for the weekend. Enjoy yours.

Let’s talk AP

I don’t normally post on Tuesdays or Thursdays, but today I felt the need to comment. With the reset,  Blizz announced in the latest hotfixes that the cap on artifact knowledge (AK) will now be 40 instead of 50, the level it was set to at the beginning of 7.2. Their reasoning is worth quoting (emphasis mine):

Developers’ Notes: We raised the Knowledge cap from 40 to 50 very late in the 7.2 PTR cycle, out of an abundance of caution: We wanted to ensure that players of all playstyles, as well as alt characters, would view the Concordance trait as accessible. However, between the additional Artifact Power gains added in 7.2 and others that were hotfixed in after the patch released, we’re now well ahead of that mark. Knowledge 40 now seems more than sufficient for players to reach Concordance, and the prospect of months’ worth of additional Knowledge still left to research makes some players feel like their efforts in the interim aren’t meaningful. Therefore, we’re rolling the cap back to 40.

Just so we’re clear — Blizz claims they rolled back the cap out of concern that we would feel like we were doing an endless grind for something we might never attain.

Yes, they actually wrote that. With no apparent sense of irony, much less shame.

First, let’s translate their concern into what I suspect is really going on: Blizz has noticed a decline in the number of players chasing artifact power through world quests and mythic instances. They theorized, possibly correctly, that these players were instead stacking AK so that when they did start chasing AP again they could accumulate it faster. That is, if now it takes you a week of world quests and the odd instance or raid to get that next trait that costs 300 million or 600 million AP, or whatever level you are at, why not instead just keep working on AK and get to the point where you can get that next trait doing just one or two WQs?

If you are reaching your saturation point with Legion anyway and would just as soon spend less time playing, this strategy seems like one way to make that happen. All you have to do is use your mobile app to keep hitting your AK research button on time, take a break from WoW, and when you come back you can easily catch up on your AP and artifact traits with just a few world quests.

This, of course, hits Blizz where it hurts: the Monthly Active User metric. Clearly, they had to do something about this threat to their bottom line. And the solution is to cap AK so that players cannot stay away for very long and still be able to catch up.

See, in my fantasy world, Blizz would admit this and we would move on. Instead, they tell us how concerned they are about us having to grind endlessly for something we might perceive as unattainable. When in fact what they are concerned about is that some players might actually have found a way to ease the endless grind for artifact power and traits. That grind, of course, is not only good according to Blizz, but is one of the finest features of Legion.

Puh-leeze. Once again, Blizz has demonstrated, with this specious explanation, their total contempt for their player base, their corporate opinion that we are all a bunch of idiots who will believe anything they say.

For the record, I don’t really give a rat’s ass about the rate at which I accumulate AP once I get my Concordance trait, because I don’t care if I get another tiny increase in artifact power or not. Ever. The implementation of endless artifact traits and endless AP to attain them is hands down the worst part of Legion, and for Blizz to claim that clicking a button to increase the rate at which we accumulate AP is a horrible grind they must save us from would be laughable if it were not so vastly hypocritical. I am insulted not by Blizz’s action but rather by their ridiculous lie about why they are doing it.

 

Miscellaneous stuff

No big topic today, just a few incomplete thoughts about the game that have been rattling around in my head.

Flying. At last, over the weekend, I completed Legion Pathfinder Part 2. The long pole in the tent for me was getting revered with Legionfall Armies. I had lost a couple days questing the previous weekend (in-laws from hell), so I had been scrambling all week. I finished all available Broken Shore quests Saturday and was still about 50 rep points short, feeling a bit frustrated to be so close yet so far. Then I completed my class hall missions, and lo and behold my Valarjar rep mission got a bonus token, and it turned out to be for Legionfall Armies! Ta-da!

I was honestly expecting some final admin quests, like visit a trainer or watch a cutscene or something, to actually start flying, but no, as soon as I got the achievement my flying mounts magically began flying again. Nice. Also my alts had no problems, all of them were able to fly immediately, no bugs in the implementation that I could see.

And how glorious it is! I was surprised at how far it goes to lessen the perception of eternal grinding in the game. It really speeds up the world quest times, and it is luxurious to avoid all those “en route” mobs that dog you at every step, especially in Broken Shore. It is terrific to not have to wait for a whistle cooldown before you can leave a completed quest area (although I love the taxi whistle). It is great to be able to swoop down on the way to another quest and gather a mining node or herb you happen to see. And it is just fun to see the zones from another perspective, to get an idea of their size and layout from the air rather than the worm’s eye view on the ground.

I am not especially opposed to Blizz’s new pattern of waiting until a patch to get flying in a new expansion, and I don’t mind completing some achievements for it. But I do think flying should come in the first major patch, not wait until what is effectively the third one (7.1, 7.1.5, 7.2). Seven months of slogging along on the ground seems a bit much to me. Most of us don’t need that much “immersion”, thank you very much, to get the artistic flavor of an expansion.

Flying will also help a lot with leveling and gearing up alts. I was able to take one alt through the Broken Shore intro stuff and get some of the class hall upgrades yesterday in about 3 hours. And I took a couple others through 3 emissary quests each in very short order, including being able to pick up enough ore on one to get the two turn-in quests for level 2 mining. Flying alone will not fix the horrible paths to professions and alt gearing that Blizz has set up in Legion, but it definitely will speed some of the process.

Plus, it is great fun — an element that has been missing in the game for me lately.

Class Hall efficiencies. In addition to flying, some 7.2 changes in class hall mechanics help with alt development. I don’t spend a lot of time any of in my class halls, basically only go there for required progression. For example, I do as few champion missions as possible. But Blizz’s streamlining of things like order hall resources needed for research and time required for completion of various steps do help. Also, the speeded up paths for gathering massive quantities of AP are a welcome addition. In the last week, I have lept ahead quite a bit in my order hall chores on a couple of alts.

Honestly, part of my angst with the whole class hall thing is that I find it “nitpickily” complex. I have yet to get a sense for everything that must be done to get up to speed in a character’s class hall, and I have now six characters at level 110. But I still feel lost when it comes to know what next steps I need in order to get to an end game state in their class halls. Artifact research, order hall research, class questlines, class hall questlines to get the third relic slot open, figuring out the ways to get assistants for my champions, figuring out how to gear my champions (not all class halls offer the same options), figuring out what the “extra” perk is for each class and then remembering to use it regularly, etc. etc. Not to mention the confusing physical layout of some class halls — I still wander aimlessly in the warlock one every time I have to go there.

It’s just too messy and confusing. Please, Blizz, if you are not going to give us a guild hall or player housing in the next expansion, give up on the whole garrison mechanic. You tried. It didn’t work. Move on.

World quests. I still like these. I like that they give decent gear if you are just starting out. I like that most of them are relatively quick to do. I like that there is some variety in the game activities (PvP, professions, pet battles, raids and instances, standard PvE) you can engage in to complete some of them. I especially like that the emissary quests persist for three days, allowing those of us dealing with real life to take a play break once in a while and not miss any of them.

The only puzzling thing to me is why Blizz decided to abandon the WQ model for Broken Shore dailies. Now that I have flying, I am not so annoyed by this decision, but I still don’t understand the reasoning. I think WQs in general have been well received by most players, so I am not sure why Blizz would essentially regress for Broken Shore.

And while I am at it, after a couple weeks of demonic invasions in Legion, I am not feeling any more receptive to the timing mechanics of them. I have one more to do to complete all four for the achievement, and when that is done, I will be done with them too. I find them tedious and long. I think I would have liked them better if they had just been scenarios like we had in Mists, or if they popped up frequently like they did in pre-Legion and were essentially always available and quick to complete,  or if they were just specialized world quests (without the final couple of required quests and the scenario) that slightly advanced the story line. Honestly, I am not sure what one thing I don’t like about them, but I am decidedly not a fan and will not be doing them as soon as I complete the achievement.

Obliterum forge. For me, the best thing about 7.2’s change to the obliterum forge is not the fact that you no longer have to do that ridiculous and expensive quest line in order to unlock it, but that finally that stupid burning cart is gone from from the commerce exchange area. Hallelujah!

Blizz and hunters. MMO-C had an interesting blue post summary a couple of days ago. It was a thoughtful blue response to some Brewmaster Monk concerns from PTR players. It struck me because this is exactly the kind of responsive dialog hunters have been begging Blizz for ever since the early days of Legion’s closed beta.

Dozens and dozens of hunters have given Blizz exactly the same sort of thoughtful, observant comments we see from the monk poster in the cited blue post, and Blizz has steadfastly ignored every single one of them, has never once deigned to even recognize there are fundamental problems with hunter class mechanics. Yet we see this very respectful and in-depth response to Brewmasters. And it is by no means the first such — months ago there was a series of blue posts that painstakingly explained Blizz’s philosophy on the Brewmaster spec and outlined where they saw the spec going in the future, how they envisioned it should be played, et cetera and ad nauseaum. All because a few Brewmasters had expressed worries over their testing on the beta.

I was particularly touched by Blizz’s deep concern over the perceived Brewmaster angst with a clunky, hesitating play style. Here are a few astonishing excerpts (emphasis mine):

As you can imagine, the numbers for Blackout Strike’s cooldown and the CDR from Tiger Palm are very important to get right on this; we’ll tweak them and try a few things. We started out with the 4-beat cycle for PTR; we may also try the 3-beat cycle soon and see how that feels.

The common Blackout Combo-driven rotation right now is, in a way, not GCD locked, because it spends a significant amount of its time off GCD, but in practice it feels more like GCD locked, because that time is in between every few GCDs with little empty half-GCDs, adding a stutter to your rotation that we’re trying to clean up.


Brewmaster is not a particularly popular spec, and the awkwardness of their offensive abilities is one of the prime reasons why. That sort of thing is shrugged off by some people, really bugs some other people, and contributes to a general discomfort with a spec to most (and is usually hard for them to describe exactly why, falling back to works like ‘doesn’t flow’ or ‘clunky’).

Now, I am not trying to dump on Brewmasters who have done such a good job giving feedback to the devs, and I am sure they are correct in their assessment of the spec. Good on ’em. But,

What.

The.

Fuck.

Blizz is suddenly concerned about a slow, clumsy, stuttering play style??? They feel your pain, Brewmasters, over how the spec “feels”????

This is just unbelievable. Beastmaster Hunters have made similar comments for months, actually for over a year, and Blizz has not even tried to respond, has not in fact even admitted the play style stinks, has completely ignored every hunter comment to that effect. They dash off some quick easy tweaks, like give us back a couple of traps, or rework some Cobra Shot graphics, and call it good enough. But Brewmasters mention a little clunkiness and the devs fall all over themselves to try and fix it, expressing how concerned they are and how yes they completely understand, and oh no this is awful we simply must do something???

If we needed any further proof that Blizz considers hunters the throway class, one they simply cannot be bothered with, here it is.

Hello! Blizz, how about some hunter recognition for a change?

What. The. Hell.

August 10 hotfixes to hunters:

  • Cobra Commander’s Sneaky Snakes (Artifact trait) damage increased by 25%.
  • Thunderslash (Artifact trait) damage reduced by 50%.
  • Thunderslash (Artifact trait) deals 30% less damage with the Dire Frenzy talent.

There are BM hunters who have built their entire play style and gear setup around Thunderslash and its interactions, have gone to some lengths to incorporate this into their BM hunter play since 7.2 went live, have concentrated AP in this and supporting traits. Now this.

No warning.

Not even the common courtesy of an explanation.

Not even any official recognition that this is a major change. It was announced with the same fanfare as a grammar correction in a tooltip.

Silly me, I thought these kinds of wild adjustments is why there is a PTR. Has Blizz now decided the PTR is only for stress testing and raids, and live is where you try to correct all the horrid imbalances of ill-advised class restructuring?

And not for nothin’, but what about the pre-legion pronouncement from Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas that “BM hunters are in a pretty good place now”?

What about his promise to not make huge changes to classes and specs in Legion because of the increased cost to players with artifact weapon investments?

His word is clearly worthless.

Why does Blizz bend over backwards to write pages of explanations to rogues and monks and warlocks about why certain changes were made and about their overall plan for the class, but they stubbornly ignore and insult hunters with these kinds of major changes AND NOT A SINGLE EXPLANATORY COMMENT?

And lest you think this is an interim step that will be remedied in 7.2.5 with the planned class changes then, think again. Hunters are not on the list as needing any special attention in that patch. Why should they? Blizz can always just screw with them at will, can intentionally destroy a spec mid-expansion like they did with SV in WoD, can make play-altering changes in a minor hotfix — all without the inconvenient necessity of showing a bit of respect by actually dialoging with hunters.

I had begun to think Blizz was turning around from the lies and dirty tricks of WoD, was just beginning to restore some of the lost trust, was finally realizing that dialog with their customers pays off. I see I was wrong.

Breaking news: Cobra Shot to wiggle more

It’s no secret that I am beyond disgusted with the way Blizz has treated hunters ever since they trashed and then abandoned SV hunters in WoD. After promising to make SV better in “the next expansion”, they proceeded to complete their destruction of it by making it a melee spec in Legion, and a pretty puny one at that. Then they moved on to MM, basically turning it into a turret style damage dealer, removing two of the signature features of hunters — mobility and pets — in one fell swoop. Last, after Ion Hazzikostas told us how BM hunters were “in a pretty good place” just prior to Legion, Blizz went on to ransack that spec, too, removing nearly all possibility of skill play in favor of a couple of cooldowns the player had almost zero control over except to mash the button as soon as they were up.

When the Legion Alpha test went live, skilled and well-respected hunters diligently measured, analyzed, and described to Blizz the many ways the hunter class came up short. Their focus was on play style, not on numbers, and they tried every way possible to make Blizz understand that the very soul of hunters had been ripped away.

Blizz ignored them.

Then when the beta test finally went live, a lot more hunters voiced their anguish to Blizz, again not so much about numbers, but about the fact that the class they had played and loved for years had been stripped of every trace of what made the class unique. Again, these players wrote thousands of pages of feedback in the approved forums, detailing all the factors that contributed to what they perceived was the death of the class.

Blizz ignored them.

By this point, sadly, the leading community hunters had pretty much given up, bruised and battered after months of talking to a brick wall. But then the PTR went live, and hunters who had not previously tried the Legion hunter class expressed their keen sense of loss and anger, again writing reams of comments about the mechanics that made them feel they were no longer true hunters.

Blizz ignored them.

And when I say “Blizz ignored them”, I mean not just that no changes were made or design explanations given, but that Blizz met the entire hunter outcry with a steadfast, impenetrable wall of silence. There were no blue posts that even deigned to acknowledge there might be some problems with the Legion hunter class implementation, no hunter class adjustments as builds were put out (even though there were tons for other classes), no dev mention of the problem, no recognition whatsoever of the near-universal condemnation of the changes they had made to the hunter class. Not even so such as a “F**k you, hunters, we like things the way they are.”

Then, one week before Legion went live, a CM had the chutzpah to make a blue post asking for hunter input on Legion problems. As if the thousands upon thousands of previous posts did not even exist. As if, one week before launch, it would make a difference. He even called the thread “Let’s Talk”, implying that at long last, this late in the cycle, Blizz’s wall of silence would finally be broken. Like Charlie Brown rushing to kick that football he just knew Lucy would hold still for him this time, hunters once again posted thousands of thoughtful, detailed, specific comments about every aspect of the class they felt had been ripped from them.

Blizz ignored them.

In the first Q&A after Legion launch, a few warlock trolls and scumbags bullied their way into it, spamming the pre-event thread and using flame and shame tactics to downvote every question not submitted by a warlock, and then further spamming the live event feed with spittle-flecked tantrums. After very slightly scolding them for their tactics and telling them such actions would not be successful, Ion Hazzikostas proceeded to explain how Blizz was going to fix perceived warlock class problems. Long blue posts were written on the subject, and immediate changes were made in hotfixes, along with a detailed plan for long term fixes.

Meanwhile, hunters, who had played by Blizz’s rules for feedback, who had not thrown public tantrums, continued to be ignored. Then, finally, months after the “Let’s Talk” thread appeared, weeks after the warlock meltdown, there was one relatively short blue post in the hunter forum promising significant changes to the hunter class, but hunters had to be patient, wait for 7.1 and 7.2 because of course these things take time.

Hunters waited. In 7.1, a few paltry changes appeared, nothing of course for BM, but a nerf for MM (as if that were all that was wrong with MM mechanics!), and some stuff for SV presumably to try make it at least semi-viable as a spec.

Hunters continued to wait. In 7.1.5, all hunters had traps restored, and a very slight adjustment was made to correct the awful Aspect of the Cheetah, but it cost a talent to do so. There were multiple other changes, but of note every change to BM dealt with numbers designed to buff the spec’s damage. Nothing Blizz did even began to address the fundamental problems with the spec. Pet pathing — other than slightly speeding up Hati’s slow amble to a target — remained horrible. BM hunters still had no surge ability beyond the worthless Stampede talent. Pet control remained problematic, hit-and-miss in terms of setting your pet on passive for example and having confidence it would remain so. BM hunters themselves had almost zero damage ability without a pet, effectively making them a melee damage dealer who operated out of melee range. The play style — unless you had “the” appropriate legendaries and a 4-pc tier set — remained clunky and slow, with no player control over focus generation, no skill abilities beyond mashing a cooldown button or key as soon as it became available.

Similarly, most of MM changes were to adjust numbers, little was done to address the turret play style, and nothing was done to address the underlying fact that all MM damage was RNG-dependent at its origin.

In short, in spite of months of hunter comments that the class problems were about play style, not about numbers, most of Blizz’s fixes have been to tweak numbers.

Now we are into the 7.2 PTR, and there seems to be no plan to make any further changes to hunters. Except one — shown here.

Yes, at long last, hallelujah! Hunters are finally getting the spell animation changes NO ONE has asked for! And what changes they are! Brace yourself now — Arcane Shot  will soon cause much bigger weapon kick and be more purple! Barrage will have more muzzle flash! Bestial Wrath will cause that symbol to only appear over the hunter’s head, no longer the pet’s!! (Of course, there is no change to that pleasant “I am having a really hard poop” sound that accompanies it…)  A few other similarly HUGE and MOMENTOUS changes, such as Black Arrow will have a bigger bullet!!  (I guess it is a bullet, the demo showed a hunter with a gun…) But the big one, and the one I know all BM hunters have been waiting for: Cobra Shot will wiggle more!!! OMG, I have to sit down, this is too much.

Really, Blizz? Really? Everything that is wrong with hunters, and this is what you decide has priority?

Words fail me at this point.

Unofficial and pertinent views

Admin note: We are having a terrific 2-day windstorm in my neck of the woods, and our power keeps going out, so today’s post may end up being a bit choppy.

Ghostcrawler has a piece on his Tumblr page that really caught my eye. If you have a couple of minutes, I encourage you to read it.

I was never a particular GC fan when he was with Blizzard and was the most visible dev interfacing with players, but in retrospect I wish we had someone doing that thorough a job now. Yes, he was often reviled — he took an incredible amount of player abuse — but say what you will, he was always out there explaining and debating design issues. Even when I disagreed with the path of the game, I always felt like GC was being honest — sometimes brutally so — with us, and more importantly that he respected the player base. Those feelings evaporated as soon as Ion Hazzikostas took GC’s job and began to put out piles of snarky, disingenuous doublespeak to a player base he seemed to disdain. That he has backed off this approach over the last year or two does not erase that first awful impression. Since Hazzikostas has gotten away from everything other than canned Q&A sessions, there is no one who has been able to fill the void and create a regular, trusted, respectful — if often contentious — dialogue with players.

All this is by way of saying that I think GC still has insightful things to say about WoW, even though he is no longer with Blizz. I like the fact that he still responds to questions about the game, and I take his comments for what they are — general views of how things developed years ago in WoW, and insights into much of the messy process of designing and maintaining the complex enterprise that is an MMO. Does he know anything about current Blizz design problems and plans? No, but he is still the only one out there willing to address valid player concerns in any meaningful way. He fills a void, even if imperfectly and unofficially, in Blizz’s customer interaction.

So the cited piece on Tumblr caught my eye. There are actually two discussions there, the main one answering a question about why players unsub, and a second one below that about why WoW players keep playing.

One part that got my attention in the unsub piece was that in the big picture, when you have millions of players, the vast majority who unsub do it for personal reasons of not having enough time, or their friends stopped playing or the like. It is rare indeed when there are significant numbers of people who quit out of protest for a certain game design or trend, and even then generally that group still ranks below, in terms of numbers, those quitting for personal reasons. (Translation: rage quitting WoW likely gets zero attention from any part of the dev team…)

Another interesting observation, I thought, was that games — like nearly every human enterprise — have life spans with long-term ups and downs in numbers of players. Unstated, but what I presume, is that sometimes there are identifiable causes for these fluctuations, and sometimes probably not. GC says there is usually a predictable dev set of responses to this:

When you see a lot of players leave over the course of say half a year, it usually spurs two diametrically opposed views on the development team. You will get one faction of “Players are getting bored – we must be bold and innovate!” You get another faction of “We are changing the game so much that we’re losing our soul! We need to get back to basics!”

I think we have really seen this scenario play out in Legion. A lot of players did in fact unsub in WoD — recall the famous 3-million player loss in the first quarter of 2015 — and there was much criticism of the expansion throughout its existence, most of which centered on some version of “There’s nothing to do” with sprinklings of “It doesn’t fit with the lore, this whole time machine idea stinks”.

So what did we get in Legion? I think we saw the “bold and innovative” group dominate, but there was a nod to the “back to basics” group in terms of the main story and lore. The dominant group led to many of the mechanics in Legion — complete class rewrites, the idea that specs become what amounts to their own class, artifact weapons and the eternal AP chase, the complete repudiation of the WoD profession model, severe curtailment of alt play, Mythic+ dungeons, world quests, zone scaling, etc.

But the kicker point made by GC is this:

My perception has been that the players and developers in the “We’ve changed too much!” camp tend to be those who are less engaged with the game than they once were. Losing track of change usually happens to players who once played every day and are now playing once a week or once a month. They remember being super engaged with the game and knowing everything that was going on, and so the dissonance of that no longer being the case for them is really striking, perhaps even alienating. On the other hand, players who are still really engaged are the ones most likely to need something fresh and new so that they don’t run out of stuff to do.

What this comes down to is a game company knowing who its intended audience is, understanding what kind of a player base they are courting. Do they want lots of new players, or are they content to design for what will almost certainly be a gradually-dwindling group of dedicated players? I think Blizz has still not figured out the answer to this.

Legion seems to be favoring the latter group, the dedicated player base. As I count myself in this group, I am not totally unhappy with that trend. But I can’t help but wonder if it is ultimately a strategy designed to gradually — and hopefully gracefully — ease the game’s final demise. I had hoped that Legion, maybe in conjunction with the Warcraft movie, would bring in a rush of new players who would soon love the game as much as I do. Sadly, that turned out to not be the case. The movie, let’s be honest, was a stinker for anyone not already involved in the game (and even for some of us predisposed to liking it, it bombed), and Legion added an incredible leap in complexity for what was already a complex game. The buy-in for new or even returning players, especially if they do not have someone to help them along, seems almost insurmountable.

We will see what happens in the next expansion, but it is looking to me like WoW is moving towards catering to a small group of dedicated players, and Blizz is not especially interested in significantly increasing its player base. Whether that vector is ultimately beneficial or destructive remains to be seen.

Bottom line and communicating

Yesterday we got the Activision Blizzard 4Q 2016 Earnings Call. It was — as nearly all these public announcements are — a rosy picture. The company is making money hand over fist — $3.6 billion, more than double the previous year. Blizzard itself is doing well, and World of Warcraft is still a money-maker even if it is no longer the main profit engine.

There were some interesting tidbits in the report. For example, ATVI customers racked up over 43 billion hours of time in 2016 either playing or watching  others play the company’s products. This is approximately on a par with the amount of annual time people spent watching Netflix. Never would have guessed that.

One metric, though, really caught my eye (emphasis mine):

Blizzard’s fourth-quarter play time surpassed the previous record set in the third quarter. Overwatch had its second and third seasonal events, Halloween Terror and Winter Wonderland, each one driving new records for engagement with the game. World of Warcraft saw an increase in total play time for the quarter, surpassing the Q3 expansion launch quarter and all non-launch quarters in the last four years.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am happy the game is doing well and continues to make money for ATVI. WoD gave me the distinct impression WoW was in its death throes, but Legion has erased such thoughts, and I am ecstatic at the apparent turnaround. Still, the professional worrier part of me can’t help but wonder if there is not some fancy smoke-and-mirrors manipulation going on here.

From my worm’s-eye view of the game, it is absolutely true that I have increased my play time in Legion, as compared to the time I spent playing in WoD and even in Mists. But that is not because I love the game more, it is because the game has changed in a way that more or less forces me to spend more hours playing. I have a certain set of personal progression goals that I pursue in each expansion, and before Legion I could accomplish those goals with a mostly constant amount of play time. But for me to accomplish the same goals in Legion, I find that I must significantly increase my play time. I suspect this is true for most players. We are faced with the choice of adjusting our personal goals or increasing our play time. Apparently, given the quote above, many players have opted for the latter.

I do not want to make this a Big Thing — it is after all just a game, and we all face far more searing choices in our daily lives. I do wonder, though, if this is actually a good long term strategy for WoW. It certainly looks good on paper, it probably reassures stockholders, and it is likely a featured bullet in a certain Game Director’s annual performance review. But how long can this strategy be sustained? How long before a sizeable number of players decide that the ever-increasing effort is no longer worth the ever-decreasing payoff? I don’t know the answer, obviously, no one does. I do think the question is worth asking as food for thought, however.

Shifting focus, I was intrigued by a spate of blue posts (nicely collected by MMO-C) about Blizz’s recent epiphany that they are lousy at communicating with their customers. Who knew?  (No, no I will not be snarky about this. Much.) Apparently Blizz has discovered that having an actual, formal communications team and organizational setup might be a good idea for a multi-million dollar worldwide company. What insight! (*slaps self* No! Bad blogger!)

Seriously, I do applaud the efforts of the CMs who seem to be the instigators of this change of course for the company, and I hope they are successful. But we have had a long history — pretty much ever since Ghostcrawler left — of Blizz promises to do better in this area, lots of fits and starts, and the end result is they still stink at it. It is a sad commentary, in this age of social media and well-established professional communications methodologies, that a world class company like Blizz still thinks they can wing it, as if they are a couple guys operating out of a garage and can just run out on their break and throw some pacifying words at a customer.

I think the CMs have a decent plan and a true desire to improve, but ultimately it is actions that will speak, not good intentions. For this to work, it will require company commitment of appropriate resources as well as dogged follow through on the part of the devs and the CMs. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have had at least one recent example of total communications failure when a CM started a “Let’s Talk” thread in the hunter forum, then proceeded to disappear for months, ignoring hundreds of pages of comments, effectively harming communications more than if he had done nothing.

Blizz is by no means unique in its desire to make everything seem successful and pretty with their product. Of course they want their stockholders to see growth in all areas, so they tout a mostly-contrived increase in quarterly play time for the game. It’s a good placeholder while they figure out how to actually improve player experience and satisfaction.  Of course they want to be seen as receptive to customer comments and concerned about customer complaints, so they talk about a great new communications process. Nothing to see here, folks, lots of companies engage in these mild forms of puffery. Legion has made good on many of Blizz’s promises after WoD — let’s hope they can also come through on these larger-picture ones.

And now, I’m going to start my weekend! Enjoy yours.