Legion professions — sometimes it really is about the destination

Background (you can skip this part and still get the gist of the post):

For many years — probably most of my life now that I think about it — I have subscribed to the philosophy of “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” (For reference, I think this is a variation of the original Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”) I have previously described in this blog a personal tendency to make lists, create spreadsheets, and set goals for myself, and you may think that is at odds with the philosophy, but actually it is not. What I love is the process of planning and organizing, followed by flawless execution of the plan. Achieving the goal is rewarding, but it pales in comparison to the thrill of the process of getting there.

As an aside, you might think from this that I chase WoW achievements, but honestly they hold little interest for me, nor do things like mount or pet collections. These are prescribed goals in the game, and a big part of the fun I get is coming up with my own personal goals and carrying them out. I dislike being told what my goals should be.

Anyway, back to developing my point — and hang in there with me, because I promise you I do have one. Not to go all pop-psychology, but I think the thing that fascinates me about the process I described is that it gives me a feeling of control. For a variety of  reasons not worth going into here, I had a topsy-turvy childhood, trundled from one relative to another, from one school to another, sometimes 2-3 times a year. Control was not in my vocabulary, so when at the age of about 16 I realized I could actually be in charge of my own destiny, it was an epiphany.

It was the real start of my goal-setting, list-making, planning and organizing life style. Several years ago when I found a leisure time activity in the form of a computer game that let me indulge in doing this, it was a match made in heaven.

Blizz took what were broken professions in WoD and completely destroyed them in Legion. Stomped on them, ground them into dust, made a mockery of them.

Professions are now all journey with destinations so distant as to be virtually unreachable save for one or two per account. And there is only a single directed path one can follow, though that path is not specified but only discovered by stumbling about.

This is a part of the game many of us used to consider a nice side diversion that could provide some gear and gold along with being a pleasant distraction and a reason to spend some time on alts. But Legion has turned it into a confusing, protracted, RNG-dependent activity that is almost unattainable for any character other than a main. They have done this in the name of “content” as well as in the name of “play style choice”, but in fact it achieves neither of those stated objectives.

In fact, I would argue that Blizz was completely — and possibly purposely —  disingenuous when they tried to feed us those reasons, and that their true goals were to increase the metric of “Monthly Active Users” and to put an end to any sort of casual alt play style. MAU is the current standard of success for Activision Blizzard games (and presumably one of the metrics for calculating executive bonuses). It is a function of the number of hours played per month by users who actually log in, so it dovetails nicely with the “content” fantasy, especially the lazy content approach of artificially increasing the time sink requirement for heretofore auxiliary activities.

As to the concept of alt play, Ion Hazzikostas has several times stated his opinion that the only acceptable reason to roll an alt is to play it in the same way one plays a main, that to have an alt solely for the purpose of professions to supply a main is wrong and should not be permitted. And lo and behold, Legion professions now require a character to not only be at max level, but to be geared and proficient enough to participate in World Quests, instances up through Mythic level, raids, and in some cases high level PvP content. It is the ultimate insult for Blizz to cloak professions now as expanding options for players, while at the same time cramming this linear play style down our throats.

I had a short conversation last night with one of my guildies, and he went on a mini-rant — justified in my opinion — about how Legion more than any other WoW expansion is hostile to casual players. One of the points he brought up was the sheer amount of time necessary just to do normal activities — gear up, level a profession, gather mats, maintain progress in an artifact weapon, pursue the ever-elusive and possibly ghostly path to eventual flying, etc.

Blizz has said that Legion would give players many ways to achieve end game goals, but in fact what they have given us is an expansion that requires every activity be engaged in just to get to one goal. Those are not at all equivalent concepts. For true casual players — those who play 20 hours or less a week by my own personal definition — the time sink required just to get to end game is vastly higher than it has been for previous expansions. (I define “end game” as being geared about as high as you are going to be for the expansion, have your professions completed and well developed, routinely engaging in group activities you like such as raiding or rated battlegrounds, etc.) Some call this content, some call it MAU expansion.

Beyond these top-level deficiencies in Legion professions, there are other ridiculous and obvious shortfalls. For example, the tendency to include significant amounts of a wide variety of expensive mats from other professions to craft items. For example, to cook food, one does not just need fish, meat, and vendored sundries — the kind of mats you can get through diligent secondary profession gathering. Oh no, they require things like gem chips (mining and prospecting) and herbs (herbalism). And since the game is no longer conducive to getting these items from a lowly geared alt, either you were lucky enough to have years ago selected the lottery-winning professions on your main, or you can spend literally tens of thousands of gold buying these mats in the AH or in trade.

With the barriers to developing your own extended alt professions, I do not expect the prices of these items to come down very soon in the game. This, too, is a way to discourage play for casuals or for new players, because if you did not amass a fortune from the WoD gold giveaway, you simply cannot afford to buy these items. Even belonging to a guild is not much help, because most guilds cannot afford to buy them for their members, and anyone in the guild who can gather or make the items can make so much gold by selling them that there is no incentive to donate them to the guild bank or to another guildie, or even to sell at bargain prices to a guildie. Tin-foil hat theory would be that here is a golden opportunity for Blizz to sell a buttload of game tokens to those who need gold, but I won’t go there….

As I have said before, I do not object to having to do a bit of work to max professions out — I leveled my JC, my LW, and my Engineer when it was quite costly and difficult to do so. But I do object to a system that is not clearly laid out (even the third party sites are still murky about profession progression paths), that requires main-level game play and time commitment to achieve, and that so distinctly rewards the lucky and punishes the unlucky — part of the RNG run amuck trend.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any simple solutions to the mess Blizz has made of professions in Legion. I just know they have totally destroyed them, so there are no easy tweaks that will help. The only thing I can think of at this point would be to allow any character to have as many professions as they want. That way, since professions now require main-type play commitments, you could just spend the time on your main and get every profession of importance to you. I sincerely doubt that Blizz will do this, but still I feel like they should consider it, or at the very least start giving us what they promised: multiple ways to develop professions, instead of requiring participation in everything to develop professions. (Yeah, I get that Ion Hazzikostas doesn’t want us to use alts for professions, but somehow I feel that he could get over the trauma of it if he really tried, maybe buy himself some consolation gifts with all that MAU bonus money he will get.)

So, yeah, it is about the journey and not the destination, but the journey to professions is too effing long, too effing dark, and too effing linear.

Where do you see WoW a year from now?

Administrative edit: I am taking a holiday break and will see you all after New Year’s. To all my readers, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you warmth and happiness and love in this season of hope and throughout the coming year.

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Most of us have probably had to deal with this by-now trite job interview question. Over the weekend I was writing some job and college recommendations for colleagues, and I admit my mind was wandering a bit. I found myself fantasizing about interviewing Blizzard for the job of keeping my money and occupying my time in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

I imagined myself as an interviewer, and Blizz as a job applicant. Honestly, the interview did not go very well, mainly because my imaginary Blizz applicant pretty much assumed he had the job all sewn up, and frankly had not prepared for the interview at all.

Me. Mr. Blizzard, very nice to meet you, please come in and sit down.

Blizz (dressed in wrinkled khakis, untucked shirt, no tie, sneakers, could use a haircut). Hey, how’s it going?

Me. I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place. Can I get you some coffee or anything?

Blizz. Nah, I’m good.

Me. Well, fine, let’s get started then. My first question is one I ask every applicant: why do you want this job?

Blizz. Well, um, you know. Guaranteed monthly income, plus big chunk of change every time I put out a new expansion. Not to mention it lets me develop games way cooler than the one you play.

Me. I see. And what do I get in return?

Blizz. Well, you get a pretty nifty game, and you get to play it the way I think is best. Y’know, immersion and stuff. Oh, and something I’m really excited about, you have an opportunity to watch people way better than you play it. For a spectator fee of course. Awesome, huh?

Me. Uh huh. Well, let’s move on.

(Interview wraps up.)

Me. Last question. Where do you see yourself a year from now?

Blizz. (Long pause) Errr, Legion and stuff?

Me. I mean bigger picture, where do you see your subscriptions, the composition of your player base, your goals for the game, that kind of thing? And in particular, where do I fit into this bigger picture?

Blizz. (With perplexed look of a pig gazing at a wrist watch.) So do I get the job or not?

Where, indeed, will the game be a year from now? And will I or you still be in the picture?

In contemplating Legion, especially in light of Blizz’s ventures into eSports and Hollywood, I find myself wondering who exactly they see as their player base any more? More to the point, do they see me as a part of that player base beyond being a means to finance their “real” players?

When I first heard about the WoW movie, I thought of it as a giant advertisement for the game, the purpose of which advertising was to pull new players into an aging game. Certainly such a strategy makes sense after a year like 2015, which has seen the loss of something like 5 million subscribers. Even if Blizz no longer counts subscriptions as a measure of business success in the game, that big a loss has got to hurt. Another year like that and it will be the end of the franchise.

So there are huge stakes involved in both the movie and Legion. But what does Blizz see as the nature of those stakes? How will they measure “success” a year from now? And how are they structuring the game to maximize what ever their definition of success is?

On the one hand, we see the company going pretty much all in on eSports, although WoW being suitable for that genre is a bit dicey in my opinion. Still, it’s possible if Blizz has the right showbiz approach. An interesting question is, what kind of player base is needed to support WoW as an eSport? I don’t claim to know the answer to that, but I know what kind does not support it: the super-casual-futz-around-when-you-have-some-time-to-kill player that I am betting has historically been WoW’s bread and butter even if Blizz does not want to admit it.

These are the players who always felt like they could play once every few days and still get enjoyment from the game, so they kept their subscriptions current. These are also the players who decided that WoD took away that possibility of casual enjoyment and thus made their subscriptions not worth the money.

So how is Blizz shaping the game to win back large numbers of mom-and-pop and other  casual players, while at the same time trying to re-brand it as a fierce professional “sport”? Again, I have no answers, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, I am not entirely certain that Blizz itself knows the answer, or indeed if they realize it is even a question. I say this because of the conflicting messages we have gotten in the game for the last year, and which I see continuing as we move into Legion. (I am talking about big conflicts here, such as making raiding almost the exclusive end game activity while at the same time implementing designs that make raiding more and more elusive for large numbers of players.)

Second, if Blizz is indeed looking to swell its subscription numbers with new players as a result of the movie combined with Legion, I doubt if they will be able to walk the thin line between new player accessibility and enraged cries of “dumbing down”? Character boosts and professional catch-up mechanisms notwithstanding, the learning curve for a brand new player who has no friend to help is almost impossibly high. Without dedicated study of third-party web pages, I maintain that your average casual player will abandon the game within a matter of a few weeks.

In short, I doubt if Blizz is on a path that will result in significant numbers of new players. Like it or not, and whether Blizz wants to admit it or not, the game is moving inexorably to a hardcore player model. They simply cannot make the game suitable for eSport pros  and fans while at the same time attracting the millions of casual players they need to sustain the business model. They might be in the same position with this dilemma that they were in regarding competing demands of PvP and PvE — until they admit that it is really two different games both approaches will suffer, but game design will inevitably favor one over the other.

So: Where do you see WoW in a year? Where do you think Blizz sees it? And most importantly, if you are interviewing them will you give them the job?