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.

Hopes for tomorrow’s Q&A

Tomorrow (August 3rd) there will be another in what has become a rather sporadic series of “Q&A” sessions, in which the ever-cheerful Lore selects players’ mostly-softball questions to pose to a game developer — in this case it will be none other than the Game Director himself, Ion Hazzikostas.

There is always a forum prior to the Q&A where players can submit their questions. Submitters are cautioned to pose short questions only, usually limited to 40 words or so. In what to me is always a stunning display of — stupidity? arrogance? failure to read instructions? — invariably most of the posted questions are long treatises on everything the poster thinks is wrong with the game or their particular class or whatever. (One has to wonder if these are the same folks who refuse to listen to raid instructions because, y’know, THEY are special and allowed to stand in fire due to how awesome they are…) There are other venues to submit questions, too (Twitter, for sample) — although the full list remains a bit murky, possibly by design so as to allow some conveniently-leading topics.

At any rate, the Q&A questions are pre-selected, I suppose in order to allow Blizz to focus on whatever their intended message is for the session. Often these events occur just prior to release of major patches, and the “questions” take the form of, “I love the new [badass mount/questline/gear/etc]! Can you tell us what other awesomeness is in the new patch?” In answer, of course, Hazzikostas launches into a 20-minute advertisement for the patch.

Another category of “questions” are ones that really have no impact on how the game is played at all, which tend to be ridiculously boring to me but which I suppose are of some interest to a certain segment of the player base. For example, “Is there any chance we will see Bigevilorc finally get his comeuppance in the next raid tier?” This is usually my cue to go get a cup of coffee, because it is absolutely certain that Hazzikostas will kill at least 10 minutes of the hour-long session being coy about the answer, and Lore will interject his own hopes on this vital issue.

From time to time, however, Hazzikostas will choose to address concerns that have bubbled up in the community and he wants to prevent them becoming a huge thing. (Example: Flying in WoD.) Or he wants to introduce a new design philosophy, possibly feeling out the community for a future expansion mechanism or major game change. The mechanic is that Lore will read a short question on the subject, and Hazzikostas will launch into a very detailed answer, almost as if he had prepared to address it! To me, these are the most informative parts of any Q&A session, because they reveal insights into the bigger picture and often give us a glimpse of how the game might evolve in the foreseeable future.

These are some of the meatier topics I would love to see addressed tomorrow:

  • Gear — whether the current stat of complexity is by design (and thus we will continue to endure it in coming expansions) or is just an unintended consequence of the whole artifact/legendary/class balance intertwining. I would also love to hear him explain why, for example, old tier gear and even 860-level trinkets are still “required” for some specs. And are we stuck with the horrible Legion legendary design from now on, or will Blizz abandon it in the next expansion?
  • RNG — whether the intent is to increase its reach even more, or whether maybe it will be dialed back a bit in the next expansion. In particular, I would like to see him address the role of RNG in gear, and ideally would love to see him back off a bit from his absolutely asinine insistence that RNG for gear is fun™.  (Not hopeful here, but we are basically optimistic creatures…)
  • Plans for more catch-up mechanisms for alts. For example, making Blood of Sargeras BoA, compressing order hall quest lines even more, instituting profession catch-ups.
  • Hints about class design changes, both in 7.3.5 and in the next expansion.
  • While he is at it, hints about the timing for the next expansion — will we actually see Blizz adhering to their stated 2-year expansion goal and thus se th next one about this time next year?
  • Zone design — is the preferred design now small, closed areas rather than the exploration-friendly open spaces of the past?

As far as I know, there have been no announcements of the focus of tomorrow’s Q&A. That makes me think it will be either an advertisement for 7.3 or an explanation of some issues Hazzikostas deems important. It would be fun if it were a vehicle for dropping some bombshell about the next expansion, but I think that is highly unlikely. I will be happy if we get a few words on even a couple of the subjects I listed above.

PS. Any guesses as to how many times uber-polite Lore will apologize for mangling someone’s name? I am betting on 6.

Ummmm, patch notes?

Patch 7.1.5, a “semi-major” patch, goes live in a few hours, and rather than looking forward to it, I feel a certain sense of dread. True, in theory BM hunters are getting some buffs, including the return of traps, but still I can’t shake the feeling that this patch will do nothing to fix the chaotic state of Legion classes, just move the annoyances around a little.

I did not play much on the PTR, on purpose. The Legion alpha and beta test cycles completely destroyed any illusions I might have had about conscientious players being able to influence development in any meaningful way. If good hunters and good warlocks, and other top players in their classes could not staunch the class chaos that ended up being Legion, then there is no chance that any PTR comments will have any meaningful effect. The PTR is just like the dummy thermostat in some offices — there to make the employees think they have some control over their environment.

As I write this, at about noon Eastern Time, we still have no official Patch notes. They may be out by the time this is published, but that does not change the troubling nature of what we are seeing. Whatever term Blizz may give the patch, it is in fact a major one. It includes, according to everything I have read, major changes to classes/specs and to the legendaries players have come to rely on to overcome the initial shortcomings of their main characters. It introduces significant new content in the form of the micro-holidays and Pandaria timewalking dungeons. There will be a new season of the Brawler’s Guild.

It is a maxim in many endeavors that “The job’s not over until the paperwork is done.” In any project, failure to allocate time and other resources to final documentation is judged to be just that: failure. It often means that for whatever reason, the project manager was cutting corners, maybe to meet a looming deadline. When corners are cut in documentation, it is always advisable to look for what other corners may have been cut. If there was insufficient time for producing a user manual, for example, maybe there was also insufficient time for thorough testing of the product.

It is maybe a tad early to say, but I get the feeling Blizz has painted themselves into a corner with their Legion promises. Yes, it is good they recognized the major shortfalls of WoD and are trying to make up for them, but I wonder if their commitment actually made it all the way up the management chain so that appropriate additional resources were allocated in order to fulfill those promises. I always felt that Legion release was rushed by some number of weeks — witness the scrambling Blizz has been doing for the last couple of months to fix the legendary and class balance problems. And I feel like 7.1.5 is being similarly rushed — either Blizz recently promised more than they can deliver in the patch, or they are holding themselves hostage to an arbitrary promise of new raid tiers — and thus major patches — every “4 to 5 months” (per Ion Hazzikostas).

Nighthold will be released next week, and that is right on schedule. Good for Blizz. But I have to wonder: Have we moved away from the meme of “that will cost a raid tier” to a new one of “that raid tier will cost your class satisfaction”?

Just a thought. Here’s hoping for a smooth patch day tomorrow. Oh, and Blizz, not trying to be pushy or anything, but



Help build a hunter community response

Late edit: The first hunter forum thread hit max less than 24 hours after it appeared, so the current active thread is here. Also be aware there appears to be a posting bug that results in your first attempt at a reply just sending it into the ether, although a second attempt will succeed. I recommend you copy your entire forum reply before trying to post it, so if it disappears you can just paste and try again.

A couple of days ago I published a piece about Blizzard’s months-long practice of completely ignoring valid hunter concerns about class changes in Legion. Lo and behold, last night Ornyx, a Blizzard Community Manager, started a thread asking for input on hunter concerns. (No, I am sure my post had nothing to do with it, but if it did I solemnly vow to use this power only for good …. 😉)

First things first. Any of you who play a hunter, whether main or alt, please take a moment and go to the new thread and make your feelings known, in a calm and professional tone. (Emotion about the subject is fine, spittle-flecked invective and hateful language is not.) If you do not have the time to post, at least peruse some of the comments and give some feedback in the form of a Like or even a Dislike. It seems that sudden and massive response is the best way to get Blizz’s attention these days.

I have to admit, I was excited by the fact that there was finally a Blue post acknowledging the existence of hunters, and even soliciting feedback on the massive changes to the class. This of course is a sad commentary, because there have been literally thousands of pleas over the last 8-9 months begging Blizz to respond to serious and legitimate concerns about the current state of the hunter class, all stubbornly ignored. So it feels a little bit shameful that when we finally get one small acknowledgement that there might be some problems, my response is to wiggle like a happy puppy.

I commend Ornyx for starting the forum thread — nothing bad on him over this — but we simply cannot ignore the big turd in the punch bowl here:

Why now? And why a brand new thread, when there is a massive amount of forum input from hunter class forums as well as from Legion test forums?

With 5 days to go until Legion launch, the timing certainly seems strange. I have more questions than answers at this point.

  • Is Ornyx’s thread something he is doing on his own initiative, or is it part of a larger Blizz plan to lay the foundation for significant class changes in 7.1?
  • Why is it necessary to restate points already stated multiple times in other forums — in fact, in the very forums Blizz told us to provide feedback in? Do they not read those forums? Are they trying to see if hunters still really really feel the same way?
  • What is the point of this exercise? Are there actual plans to address the deep flaws in every hunter spec, or is this just a mechanism to allow hunters to release a little steam? Worse, is the move designed to give false hope, just to shut hunters up for a while? (The disconnected office thermostat ploy.)
  • Will we ever get the results of Ornyx’s initiative — that is, will we get an official response to the concerns, beyond “We hear you and we are thinking about it. There, there.” He stated in his original post that he intends to take the compiled responses “to the devs”, but what that means is a little unclear.
  • If in fact the initiative is the basis for 7.1 changes, is there any hope that they will be anything but superficial? The small responses to date indicate Blizz fails to understand — or is unwilling to deal with — fundamental flaws in spec design.
  • Slightly off topic, but not really: Ornyx admitted he does not play a hunter, which makes me wonder if any of the devs making drastic changes play a hunter seriously, beyond as a fun leveling and soloing alt (which btw is not really so fun any more). No one who has played a hunter for a long time, who has loved the hunter class, could possibly have made the class-altering changes we have seen. Come on, Blizz, come clean — Do any of you actually main a hunter?

Short post today, but I wanted to get this out there to help build the response. I choose to take Ornyx’s initiative as a positive sign of Blizz’s commitment to not abandon the hunter class. I hope I am not proven wrong.

A good start, now just a couple more requests

With today’s official post of rogue class changes for Legion, Blizz has made good on its Blizzcon promise of communicating in-depth class information to the players. I am very happy about this, but now the hard part starts: Blizz has to keep up a running dialogue with players on each of these blogs. I don’t mean they have to answer every comment or engage in whiny debates over each class change. I mean there has to be someone for each class whose job it is to sift through all of the various related Twitter feeds, forums, — and yes regular blogger comments — identify concerns that are trending, and address those concerns in a regular feedback session. I would prefer once a week but could handle every two weeks.

The devs will likely claim — justifiably so, I am sure — that they are swamped with other duties and simply do not have time to write web columns or put together videos. This is where corporate support needs to kick in, in the form of hiring some dev-savvy people to deal strictly with interactive dialogue. (Maybe they have already done this, if so I apologize for stating the obvious, but even Blizz has to admit they have been severely deficient for quite a while in the area of public relations.) These people need to be part of the class dev team, have their desks in the same area, attend all the meetings, get all the memos, participate in the section parties, etc. They need to be able to credibly talk dev talk and have the resume to show they have also walked the walk. But — and here is the key — they also have to be able to translate player concerns into dev speak, and technical obstacles and goals into explanations for players. Of course, this is a fairly specialized skill set — tech competence in game development, with the ability to effectively communicate tech matters to any audience from the geekiest code writer to your Great Aunt Bessie. But surely Blizz HR can find and hire such people.

Blizz clearly understands that the dark days of WoD, when company reps responded to player concerns with condescension and disdain, that is if they responded at all, put a stain on the company’s image. Certainly the recent series of class change posts is at least a partial attempt to get past that. And they must have anticipated the huge interest the change announcements would generate. From my vantage point, player response to this series has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of satisfaction that Blizz is letting players know details of planned changes. Of course responses for individual changes range from furious to gleeful, that is to be expected, but my quick perusal of some of the player comments turned up very few of the spittle-flecked vileness we saw for example during the awful flying debate. I am hopeful this means we have moved on from name-calling and pure anger on both sides, to a more productive dialogue.

The other thing I would like to see Blizz do — in addition to keeping the communication going — is give us an overview of their class development goals in general. I am not talking about the “class fantasies” (btw, I am already really sick of that term) — in my opinion those are some fluff pseudo-lore stories hastily contrived to justify new class mechanics that had already been decided upon. I suppose I am glad they finally exist, but honestly if these were really the guiding principles of every class how did the class mechanics get to such an out-of-whack state in the first place?

But I digress. What I would like to see is an explanation of the larger principles Blizz follows for WoW class development. For example:

  • What is the main difference between hybrid and “pure” classes? Originally, I thought hybrid classes were created for their versatility, and the tradeoff was that they would not be quite as good as a pure class in the same role. Over the years this distinction has been erased, so the follow-up question would be, why keep pure classes now, since they enjoy no versatility advantage. Why not give each pure damage class a tanking or healing spec?
  • Somewhat related to the question above, is the game officially moving towards considering spec switches to be the exception for most players? That is, is the class development process purposely encouraging a model of one character one spec? If so, why? And what implications from this do you see for raid teams?
  • There seems to be conflicting official communication about “homogeneous” versus “unique” class and spec characteristics — in various venues, both are touted as desirable, yet they seem to be opposites. What do you mean by each term, and how do you plan to reflect these principles in classes in Legion?
  • Is “Bring the player, not the class” still a guiding principle for class development? If so, what if any checks and balances do you employ to ensure this principle remains viable? It seems not to have been followed in WoD. For example, Watcher in one Q&A stated that if you were not including a disc priest in your raid, you were doing it wrong. Another example is SV hunters — by the third raid tier, very few if any raid teams would invite an SV hunter to HFC, no matter how capable the player might be, the spec itself was virtually unplayable.

I am sure I could come up with many more questions, but that is the idea. If players had some idea of guiding principles of overall class development, it might help us to anticipate changes and to see them in a broader context of the game.

Anyway, Blizz has made a good start at responsible dialogue with players, but now they need to continue it and help us to understand how our classes each fit into the big picture.