Abandoning the moral high ground

Last night I ditched what was left of my principles and bought a virtual ticket for Blizzcon 2017.

Yeah, I know. I’m not proud of it. For years I have haughtily disdained the groupie-like behavior I stereotyped Blizzcon-goers as. It was a kind of badge of honor for me that I could wait, like an adult, and see what announcements were made and consider their implications patiently and soberly. I am not a Big-Bang Theory kind of Blizzcon nerd, I told myself. I am a grownup.

But then…….

The thing that tipped the scales for me was the mount. Not so much the horde version, since I do not have a horde character, but something about that Stormwind Skychaser caused great lust to arise in my heart. At raid last night, a couple of our guildies had them and as soon as I saw them my only thought was, “I have got to get me one of these!” IMG_0279

So after raid, head hanging, looking around furtively as if I were buying porn, I plunked down my money and bought the ticket.

I have mentioned several times in this blog that I am not a mount collector, that I look at mounts as transportation, nothing more. I think that is generally true. Still, once in a while one comes along that I just have to have. The headless horseman mount was one such — I luckily got it the very first time I ever ran the holiday event many years ago, and it is still my go-to mount for every character. The engineer-crafted chopper was another, and I actually changed a profession on one of my alts from alchemist to engineer specifically so that I could craft this mount. There are one or two others, but those stand out in my mind.

And now the Stormwind Chaser.

Beyond this, though, I suppose now that I have a virtual ticket I will probably (virtually) drop into some of the Blizzcon 2017 activities. There are many of them that I am just not interested in — anything not related to WoW, any of the esports stuff, or the cosplay, for example. But I confess I am curious about what if any “big announcements” we may get about WoW.

I honestly do not know what to expect in that area. There are a great many players expecting The Big Announcement About The Next Expansion, and of course that may happen. But it also may not. Especially with the addition of Argus, Blizz has structured Legion to be almost infinitely expandable on its own. Relieved of the need to make the WoW world contiguous, new Legion content is mostly a matter of adding limited-terrain scenario-type instances one gets to via portals. Though I would not be in favor of it, there is really nothing stopping Blizz from using this mechanic for the next year or even two to extend Legion.

I stumbled across an interesting post from about a year ago by Nathan Grayson on Kotaku. It contained some quotes from Ion Hazzikostas at last year’s Blizzcon. It’s a short piece and you can read it for yourself, but one part in particular struck me:

“We’re working on a new expansion,” Hazzikostas told me. “It’s gonna be great. But we’re setting ourselves up to be much more flexible in the amount of patch content we create. We’re making sure that we’re always gonna be working on the next step, the next link in the chain. To keep our players engaged, to make sure there’s always something new to do in Azeroth. The expansion will be done when it’s done.”

“I don’t think [this will impact how much content is in the next expansion],” he said. “Obviously, the expansion will come out later than if we decided to make less patch content and focus on the expansion. But there’s always a process of iteration that goes into making our expansions. That’s gonna happen regardless. I think it’s more about making sure we have a contingency plan in place so that when it’s done, there hasn’t been a gap.”

I may be way off base here, but to me this hints strongly at Legion being close to a 3-year expansion, giving us two more years of it, not one more like many people think.

And what that may mean for Blizzcon 2017 is that instead of a detailed announcement of a new expansion, we will get more of a schedule. Something like approximate release dates for 7.3.5 and at least 7.4, along with some details of what those will contain. Any mention of the next expansion will be very sketchy, possibly limited to typical coy hints. Because what the Legion “content” approach has given Blizz is the luxury to not rush a new expansion. This is good and bad — we all saw what a disaster a rushed expansion could be with WoD (even though it seemed to take forever to go live it seemed undeniably to have been hastily slapped together and ill-conceived). On the other hand, Blizz is acutely aware of player impatience once an expansion hits about the 15-month time — no matter how much “content” is introduced, players think of it as the “old” expansion and start to look for other things to do, often moving to other games. (Blizz may hope these other games are Blizzard franchises, but they cannot be sure they will be.)

So, yeah, I bought the virtual ticket. Mainly because of the awesome mount. But I will be interested in some of the live streams, too.

Meanwhile, let the weekend commence. I got some air cruisin’ to do.

Let the speculation begin

Well, it’s that time again — rumors are ramping up about WoW’s next expansion. This is one of my favorite seasons in the cycle of the game, a time when anything is possible, when you can hope for your fondest game wishes to be fulfilled, when you can be excited about something new and shiny and fun. Anticipation is one of the greatest feelings in life.

The first hopeful harbinger of a new expansion is the fact that Gamescom 2017 is just two weeks away, and that it likely will coincide with the release of Patch 7.3, which some believe will be the last major patch of Legion. (Not sure I agree, but it is possible.) Blizz has not always reserved just Blizzcon for major announcements — Legion was unveiled to the world at Gamescom a couple of years ago, and that announcement alone did a lot to stem the flow of players exiting the game as a result of WoD. So hoping for a next expansion announcement at Gamescom is not unreasonable. Raider’s Tavern has a summary of what we know so far about Blizz’s participation in Gamescom this year, and they don’t discount the possibility of a new expansion being unveiled, but neither do they hype it too much.

And now there are also rumors of leaks. Suzie Ford at MMORPG had a post a couple of days ago that purports to give us a significant amount of supposedly leaked information about the next expansion. It seems quite detailed and I suppose it could be legitimate, but who knows these days — it could just as easily be someone’s fertile imagination, or Blizz starting to hype the next expansion. The original leak was posted on Imgur by someone named elderu. It’s a fun read, though, so check it out if you have a couple minutes. If nothing else, it might get your creative juices flowing.

About a month ago, Steven Messner at PC Gamer had a wildly speculative piece on the next expansion, based on a bunch of subreddit comments about certain data mined armor features. It seemed pretty far-fetched to me at the time, but it was kind of fun and honestly some parts of it track with the most recently “leaked” information.

Others are thinking about a new expansion, too. Matthew Rossi at Blizzard Watch posted a piece asking if people are really ready for a new expansion yet, given the wealth of content in Legion. And there is a WoW forum where people are indulging their favorite pet theories and either hyping or pooh-poohing the latest “leak”.

I guess the point is, Legion is now pretty much officially the “old” expansion. Sure, there is still a lot of content left and a new raid tier to come, but generally when speculation about the next expansion starts to be widespread, it marks the psychological end of the current one. If we do not get a Big Announcement at Gamescom, I feel certain we will get one at Blizzcon. Which probably means we are about a year out (give or take a couple months) from it going live. If so, it will be a real achievement for Blizzard, because they will have carried out their promises not only about patch and raid tier timing, but about length of an expansion.

I don’t know what I want in a new expansion, haven’t given it more than a few passing thoughts. I have a better idea of what I don’t want:

  • Artifact weapons in any form. No single piece of gear should dominate every aspect of game play the way they do in Legion.
  • Garrisons in any form, whether they are renamed “order halls” or anything else. I was sick of the concept about a month into WoD, and I am way past sick of it now.
  • Cattle-chute approach to end game, where every end game activity forces you into raids or Mythic dungeons.
  • Legion-style legendaries. These are possibly the worst gear idea Blizz has ever had, and they are nothing but a headache for nearly every aspect of game play, from gear calculations to spec switching.
  • Profession levels of proficiency for every item, especially when the only way to advance them is by getting lucky with RNG. This sucks.
  • Nomi. He was an annoying little snot in Mists, and he is an arrogant incompetent boob in Legion.

I suppose there a few things from Legion I would like to see continued in the next expansion, though:

  • Zone scaling. I was not sure I would like this when it was first announced, but I think it is a real success. Above all, I like the fact that you can select any leveling order you want. It just makes the whole process more pleasant and varied, especially as you start to level a few alts. I also like the idea that once you get decent gear the mobs become mostly trivial — you should not have to struggle for the entire expansion just to pick a few herbs or do some mining.
  • World quests and emissary quests. Although these are really just dressed-up dailies, I find them much more enjoyable than I did, say, dailies in Mists or WoD. I like that you can pick and choose how many you want to do, what type of reward you want, and that you can skip a couple days and still catch up. The main improvement I would make to them would be, once you exceed the gear level they offer as rewards, you get an option to get gold or some other expansion valuable instead. (However, I do not like Blizz’s practice of forcing you into doing them almost forever because of some endless artifact or other requirement. I would like to do them because I want to, not because I have to grind out some infinite currency.)
  • Getting a special hearthstone to the hub. Seems minor, but I really like having more than one hearthstone. And while I am on the subject of travel, keep the taxi whistle, too. It was invaluable before flying was authorized, but I still use it a lot even now that I can fly myself.

I’ll have to think more about what I would like to see in the next expansion. (It might be time to actually rename all the various time-limited cities, for example, beyond “Old Dal”/”New Dal” and the like…) I’m not in a hurry, though — in addition to having a ton left to do in Legion, it is kind of tantalizing to just imagine what the next expansion might bring.

The weekend is upon us. Enjoy yours.

Wild theory time

We are coming up on a year of Legion, so it might be a good time to stand back and take a look at it from a little more long-range perspective. And, since I am coming off a short break, indulge myself in some unfounded speculation.

So when I step back and look at Legion, the main question that comes to my mind is, where exactly are we in the expansion? At the start of Legion, then-assistant Game Director Hazzikostas stated that expansions starting with Legion would be 2-year expansions, and that the plan was for new raid tiers to be released every 4-5 months. If Blizz adheres to this plan (and so far it they have done so for the raid tiers), then we are about halfway through Legion and should expect the 7.3 raid tier not later than November and a 7.4 (final) tier around April 2018.

After that it all gets kind of iffy. In theory — sticking to the 2-year expansion model — we should get a fully-developed new expansion going live around September 1, 2018. This would mean a robust alpha/beta/whatever test would have been in place for several weeks by the same time the last raid tier is released, and a PTR should be available not later than June or July of next year.

I would like to believe this is what will happen, but I am extremely skeptical about it all. Blizz’s historical pattern (WoD was a slight but only slight anomaly) has been to announce significant project details of their next expansion at Blizzcon the year before implementation, initiate early invitation-only tests around January that continue for at least 4-6 months, then begin the PTR a couple of months prior to live.

This would mean Blizz should announce the next expansion at this year’s Blizzcon. Of course, they might do that, but we see absolutely zero indication of it — normally there are plausible rumors circulating about such topics shortly after tickets go out. Also, the timeline I described would mean Blizz would be working full bore on a new expansion at the same time as they are still cranking out major new raid tiers for the current one, and I have not seen evidence that they have the resources to carry out such a schedule. What we have witnessed for the last two expansions is that resources get moved to the new one at the expense of anything significantly new for the current one. I am not knocking this, it is just prudent business practice, but I think what it means is that we will not see anything public about the next expansion while Blizz continues to put out new Legion raid tiers.

What this could mean for players is that we will not hear anything official about the next expansion until after the last Legion tier is released. I don’t keep up with international gaming events, but Gamescom 2018 might be a venue that would fit that timeline. Which would mean announcement of the new expansion next summer. Since the typical public development part of a new expansion is about a year after initial announcement, that would mean in effect we would not see the next one until summer of 2019, making Legion in effect a 3-year not a 2-year expansion.

It all depends, I think, on the development resources Blizz has available from now until the end of Legion. But with the other franchises Blizzard is running, I just don’t see WoW getting the lion’s share of them — certainly not enough to go all out concurrently on new Legion tiers and the final stages of a new expansion.

This is all wild speculation, of course. I would love to be wrong, and to be able to welcome a new expansion in about a year. But I think Blizz has set Legion up to be  elastic in terms of longevity, so as to provide themselves with maximum flexibility on the next expansion. Look at the ways they have maintained current content, for example — ever-expanding artifact traits, use of the mythic+ mechanism, world quests, extending professions by adding on new quest lines that usually require older content such as dungeon completions, bringing back classic instances in challenging form, enticing play with things like class mounts, weekly bonus events, etc. They can keep iterating on these themes almost indefinitely.

Additionally, Blizz seems to have found a cheap technical way to add on mini-expansions, a way to give players the appearance of new worlds without the full overhead needed for actual new cohesive zones. The Argus model, with its portal system, seems to be a way to add on almost limitless new “zones” without the need for complex transportation systems or even artwork beyond the immediate ported area. Prohibiting flying in these new mini-areas further lessens the development cost.

As I said, this is all just speculation, I have no inside information about the timing of next expansion or even of the length of Legion. But it seems likely, given Blizz’s history along with their approach to content in Legion, that we will not see a new expansion until late summer/early fall of 2019. I think there is a slight possibility that we could get a next-expansion announcement very early next year — say in the first quarter — and Blizz might make use of the Argus model to fill in the rest of Legion while they work mainly on the new stuff. This might bump up 8.x by 6 months or so, making its live version appear in spring 2019 instead of late summer or fall.

But whatever, I think we are way less than halfway into Legion, and we have 18 months to two years left. Legion is not a bad expansion, and the possibility of two more years of it is not really horrible. Still, I hope I am proven wrong on this, and that by next year at this time we are eagerly anticipating the next expansion going live.

So many questions, so little time

Looking back over my education, I think the single most important skill I learned was to ask questions. The Jesuits who schooled me were big believers in the Socratic Method, so we were not only encouraged but required to ask questions as part of every learning process. Sure, fractions and Shakespeare and the date of the Magna Carta and the underpinnings of an agrarian economy are all good to know. But when it comes right down to it, asking the right questions at the right time of the right people has saved my bacon in life more times than I can count.

So today I have been thinking about Patch 8.x. Yes, I know we are not even a year into Legion, and the hints from Blizz are that we have a lot of time left to experience it (my bet at the start was that we are looking at Legion being with us for very close to 3 years). Still, I feel like speculating a bit, in the form of a series of questions.

Location.

  • Is the 7.3 excursion to Argus a prelude to the next expansion, or is it just that — a one-off adventure?
  • Will we ever see the other side of Azeroth? Is there an other side?
  • What if any lessons did Blizz learn about time-travel worlds like Draenor and underwater zones like Vashj’ir? This is less a question than it is a hope — I hope they learned both these ideas were big mistakes.
  • Will Blizz expand its recent trend of making classic parts of Azeroth relevant to current game play? 

Stats.

  • What will be the nature of the next stat squish? I think a dev mentioned that much of the code has been rewritten to accommodate very large numbers now, it still is cumbersome for humans to speak of character health in the millions and boss health in the billions, for example. What about ilevel? Very soon even in Legion we will break break into 4-digit ilevels. Will secondary stats and damage/healing numbers be squished in 8.x?
  • Will stats be simplified in the next expansion? What is the official Blizz view of the complexity of stats in Legion? Do they understand the frustration of players when a higher level piece of gear is not an upgrade? Are they happy with the proliferation of web sites and apps designed to do the intricate math necessary to determine a piece of gear’s worth to a player? 

Quest hubs and population centers.

  • Will we see new faction capitals? Blizz seems — both in WoD and Legion — to have concluded that faction capital cities are too resource-intensive to justify them. If Sanctuary Cities are the norm for the foreseeable future, will we see more of them in Horde areas, with Horde racial architecture?
  • What has Blizz learned about the garrison concept? It was innovative but not well liked in WoD, and it was extended — as Class Halls — in Legion. Is this idea now a core game mechanic going forward? Will we see the concept applied as guild halls in 8.x?  More wishful thinking on that last one, I am afraid.
  • Why is Blizz so dead set against player housing? This is really more of a pet peeve question and not so much of an insightful one about the next expansion. Certainly the technology is there — that was proven with garrisons, and with Sunsong Ranch before that. And there is player demand for it, though I am not sure how much. Yet Blizz steadfastly refuses to do it, citing from time to time the “war footing” nature of the game as being antithetical to cozy homesteading. My own opinion, completely biased, is that there is a culture at Blizz that insists WoW is a “hardcore” game, and to give players housing is just too girly and frilly for them to contemplate. They put it in the same category as playing house or cutting out paper dolls, and that would destroy the manly studly war aspect of the game. (Yeah, yeah, let the hate mail begin. But deep down you know I am right.)

Class development.

  • Will there be another major rewrite of classes in 8.x?
  • What is Blizz’s long range vision of class roles and balance? Are they on a path to achieve this, or do they have none and merely make change for change’s sake each expansion?
  • And the big question: Can Blizz stop screwing with hunters for at least one expansion? (Sarcasm flag.)
  • Will we see the pendulum swing once again towards class-provide raid buffs?

Gear.

  • Is the concept of artifact gear a one-and-out for Legion, as Blizz has claimed? 
  • Are there any big contemplated gear changes in 8.x, for example cutting the number of gear slots, maybe by eliminating necks and rings?
  • Will we see some sort of non-RNG mechanism for getting gear in 8.x?
  • After the debacle of legendaries in Legion, what is the future of legendaries going forward? Will we return to a single long-questline legendary, or have we crossed a line and henceforward they will fall like candy?

Miscellaneous.

  • Is Blizz happy with the complexity level of the game now? If not, in which direction do they think it should go?
  • Are there in-game advertisements in the works? Tie-ins with other Activision franchises, such as the King line of games?
  • What is the future for professions? Will we see them get less relevant and more complex, or will we see some semblance of a return to their classic role? Will Blizz move towards a Final Fantasy approach? Are they indeed an integral part of the game’s economy, or would it be possible to eliminate them altogether?
  • Will alt play remain viable in 8.x? It is narrowly so in Legion, but Blizz’s clear preference is for players to have very limited number of alts.
  • Are there significant quality of life improvements in store for 8.x? Off hand, I can think of a few: account-wide banking, better group finder interface, unlimited quest log, *coughplayerhousingcough*, removal of that ridiculous talent-changing tome requirement, improving exit process from caves once a quest is completed, increasing the number of stable slots for hunter pets, adding mythic dungeons to the auto-group finder, probably lots more.
  • Will Blizz help to make the role of guilds more robust? Like alt play, the trend since mid-Mists has been to make guilds less and less relevant, with the removal of most guild perks and advantages to guild membership.
  • With the apparent advent of interplanetary travel, will we eventually see honest-to-goodness actual working space ship “mounts”? Will space actually be a working environment — like an underwater area only without water — or just more of an abstract concept?
  • What will be the eternal-grind mechanism of 8.x? Because we know there will be one, just a matter of how Blizz repackages AP (like they repackaged garrisons into class halls).

And last but certainly not least:

Will we get a concept of the next expansion at Blizzcon this year?

What questions do you have?