Grinding is bad, reaching goals is not

For the past couple of weeks, ever since I hit Concordance on my main hunter’s artifact and hit level 40 on my Artifact Research, I have taken a vacation from BS and World Quests. Just haven’t done them. Grinding out hundreds of millions of AP for a marginal increase in power simply is not worth the effort, in my opinion. I am close to the one billion mark for getting the next level, and that number just makes my head explode. I took the AP bar off my UI because I can’t stand to see myself getting, say, 9 million AP and having the bar progress less than the width of a human hair. It’s too demoralizing.

This effect, of course, is more or less what Blizz said their goal was. They actually want us to think it is not worth the effort. In fact, they have jiggered the AP accumulation rate and Concordance costs so that it is not just difficult but impossible to max out one’s artifact traits.

Think about that for a minute, and you will see what a remarkable move this is. For almost the entire history of this game, character progression has been primarily based on two mechanics: racking up achievements and getting gear. Sometimes the two are even combined — remember that sense of satisfaction each expansion when you get the achievement for all blue gear or all purple gear?

Getting “that” weapon used to be one of the highlights of an expansion. Remember when you got that cool heirloom weapon after downing Garrosh in Siege of Orgrimmar? Hunters, remember when you finally got that awesome bow from Deathwing? (I loved that bow, still use it a lot for transmog.)

The esteemed Game Director, Ion Hazzikostas, has lectured us many times on the evils of “grinding” — it is no fun™, he has said repeatedly, to “grind” for gear, to build up tokens if you know within a certain amount of time you will be able to get the gear you desire. No, people! That is not fun™ at all, it is much more fun™ to be surprised when you win the gear lottery, or even better to be unlucky enough to never win it at all! Whee!

And yet, Legion’s artifact weapons are the antithesis of even this supposedly baseline design philosophy. You are given them via a small quest line when you reach level 100 (removing at least one piece of gear from the normal “getting gear” game pillar), and then you spend the rest of the expansion upgrading them, by grinding for AP (violating the “grinding is evil” pillar). Mind, you are not grinding for cool new weapons, no indeed, you are grinding knowing you will never get another weapon in Legion, all you can do is get some incremental increases in the one you have. Furthermore, after a certain point, it is mathematically impossible to grind enough AP to get even a small upgrade. So what the “grinding is evil” group at Blizz has done is implement a mechanic that is not only a pure expansion-long grind, but one with no end goal.

The mind boggles.

Which brings up the question: what exactly constitutes a “grind” in the game? It’s a term each of us understands perfectly, yet which I suspect few of us would agree on. (It’s like “content” that way.)

To me, a grind is a process in which I spend a period of time doing certain activities not for their own enjoyment, but for the purpose of achieveing some other desired end. The activities themselves are usually boring and tedious, but they are worth it to me because the goal is something I really want. The grind is made tolerable by the fact that the goal is great, and by the knowledge that each time I crank out a few more of the boring activities I am closer to my desired goal. So, for example, I did the endless dailies in Mists because I wanted the rep that would give me the profession recipes and gear I wanted. I did those uninspired weeklies in BS because I wanted to open up the hunter mount quest line.

So the grind itself is almost always not fun, but reaching your goal is fun. This is a basic truth that is apparently beyond the grasp of Ion Hazzikostas. Yes, nearly everyone hates grinding, but nearly everyone likes knowing that if they just stick with it, they will get what they have set out to get. The root of much of the dissatisfaction with Legion’s eternal AP grind is pretty much that it is the grind without the reward. Yeah, I know, you get some small increases in your weapon power, but realistically the rewards are not enough to justify the grind in many people’s minds. We are all Sisyphus, doomed to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, knowing we will never be allowed to reach the top with it.

WoW has conditioned us to chase achievements and gear/mounts/pets/whatever. It is true that we play the game in the big picture for relaxation and fun, but in the micro picture once we are playing we keep doing so for the tangible rewards. Very few people would keep playing the game if all it consisted of was a series of quests that gave no “things” as rewards. We all yammer on about the fun of raiding, for example, because of the satisfaction we get from a team effort, but would any of us keep doing it if there were no gear or achievement rewards also? Seems doubtful.

So for Blizz to introduce a mechanic like the artifact weapon and all its peripheral mechanics just flies in the face of everything they have established as game motivation since the beginning, and it seems to violate the very philosophies they espouse as fundamental to their game design.

Time for another weekend.

This game we play

It is a sodden, dark, wind-driven rainy day today in Virginia. For much of my adult life such a day would have meant my job as a soldier would be just that much more challenging. Now that I have left off being a soldier, on days like this I can sit inside, warm and cozy and sipping fresh brewed coffee, watching the wind whip the bare trees and the river outside my window. I can contemplate life leisurely, abstractly, rather than –cold and wet — do my best to survive its rapid and sometimes terrifying barrage of events. I am profoundly thankful for this, and I understand what an incredible privilege it is to be able to do so.

So it is in this contemplative mood that I consider this game of Warcraft we play. Last night as I sat down to spend a few hours with it, I actually sighed in contentment, there was a palpable feeling of weight being lifted off my shoulders. I do not mean to imply that I live a burdensome life of worry, but all of us carry around our grown-up responsibilities, and any chance we get to set them down for a bit is welcome. Like coming home after a long day on your feet and kicking off your shoes. Ahhhhh……

I am actually not sure where I am going with this, but I guess my point is that I feel extremely lucky to be able to play this game, to have the leisure and technological infrastructure to do so. I would certainly be fine if it were not available to me, but since it is, I spend a big part of my leisure time playing it. For all my hundreds of thousands of words dissecting it, criticizing it, complaining about the minutiae of it, the fact is I love playing it. When I have discharged my grown-up duties for the day and sit down to log in, I feel like I am coming home after a long trip.

WoW is a complex game, but its basic idea is very simple: Good versus Evil. Support the Good, kill the Evil. There are seldom any gray areas in the game, characters you meet are either friends or enemies. This is the heart of the game’s attraction for me. I get plenty of nuance in real life, thank you very much, and it is a relief to spend a few hours in a world where everything is clearly defined. (In fact, I think that is the reason I am not happy with the whole Legion Suramar design and quest lines — too conflicted with the whole notion of enabling addiction to make the burden of tyranny bearable.)

I am sure in my next post I will be back to blasting Blizz about one thing or another, but today I am grateful to them for creating and continuing to develop this extraordinary diversion.

And now, time to go shape some mud into useful vessels, and maybe throw another log onto the fire and brew up some more coffee. I am SO lucky!


Philosophical thoughts on endings and beginnings

These days I feel as if I am perched on some kind of virtual bungee cord platform, all harnessed in to leap off into the abyss, but I am in a holding pattern because there are some last-minute safety checks and wind adjustments to be made. I am ready, I’ve made the decision to do this, but the hold gives me a little too much time to rethink it all, to look behind me rather too fondly and to start to worry too much about what could go wrong as soon as I leap off the platform.

Draenor is, for all practical purposes, behind us, and we are about to hurtle into Legion. But just now we are stuck on the platform, balanced on our own little fulcrum in time. Was Draenor really so bad after all? Wouldn’t it be comforting to be back there, raking in the gold from garrisons, raiding in familiar places made easier by nerfs and gear we worked for months to get? Will Legion be as much fun as we hope it will be, will it give us the rush of excitement we sought when we plunked our money down? Or will it turn into one of those Really Bad Ideas we seem to come up with far too often?

As life moments go, changes to a game — even major changes to it — are very small potatoes indeed, tiny blips in a specialized environment. But one of the reasons games, especially the MMO genre, appeal to humans is that sometimes they allow us to better frame the complexities of real life — and indeed of ourselves — in smaller, more easily understood chunks. Are we idealists who believe in a good versus evil world (Alliance-centered), or do we have a more nuanced vision where people are neither entirely good or evil, they just are (Horde-centered). Even if we know we are idealists, do we play Horde characters because we want more nuance in our lives? If we are Horde-type realists, do we play Alliance characters because we long for a more binary view of the world?

In real life, we often find ourselves teetering on the point of a time fulcrum. Just one tiny move will tip our lives forever in a certain direction and nothing will ever be the same again. No matter how much we may want to make that move, for a brief moment we hold our breaths and look at what will be left behind. Hearts racing, we pause in equilibrium before taking that courageous leap. We do not always have the chance to realize when we are at such tipping points in our lives, sometimes we can only see them after they have passed. But when we do have the chance, we should savor the experience, we should allow ourselves to be exhilarated both by the looking back and the looking forward.

Like scattered leaves
Slowed in midfall
Into the streams

Of fast running rivers
Of choice and chance
And time stops here on the delta
While they dance, while they dance …

From Crosby, Stills and Nash — “Delta”

The impending Legion expansion in WoW, of course, does not even register on life’s Richter scale. But like a good game should, it has led me to think more clearly about some of the most ephemeral moments of the human experience.

On that note, let the weekend begin.

Blizz Takes Away Readiness — For the Toon and for the Player

screamMost of the betting for 5.4 going live puts it around the first or second week after Labor Day in the U.S., about a month  from now. At the risk of annoying those of you who were whining about having nothing left to do in game two weeks after Mists was released, I say to Blizz, “For crying out loud, give us a break!”

As I was thinking about some of the hunter changes coming up in 5.4, it occurred to me that removing Readiness from our abilities is fundamentally a matter of removing choices from play style. Hunters are pretty much at the total mercy of a staggering array of cooldowns, and while Readiness itself is really just a meta-cooldown, it at least offers us a once-per-boss-fight way to control the assembly line. I’m sure there are hunters out there who can control every cd so precisely that they manage to do mad dps as well as orchestrate every major cd so they are available at exactly the right moment, but the rest of us like to know we have a little slack. If we have slovenly failed to calculate the convergence of the 6+ cooldowns — each with a different reset timer — in our 7-10 shot rotation and suddenly it’s THE MOMENT on the boss, there’s good old Readiness waiting for us, ready to absolve us of our sins at the push of a button. It’s a very tiny way for me to control my game play on my own timeline, and it offers a respite from Blizzard’s relentless auto timers.

For me, the end of an expansion or a major patch serves a similar base function to Readiness — it’s a time when I can control my game play on my own timeline, with no pressure to push through Blizzard’s progression gates. I finally get to breathe a little. My main is relatively well geared, I have a few level 90 alts, and my professions are producing some respectable income. Since I don’t have to grind LFR-instances-scenarios-rep on my main, I get to have fun running some lower level stuff on my alts, doing some of the achieves I haven’t had time for, leveling my monk and figuring out how to heal on it, and generally enjoying guild chat and activities.

I know, I know — no one forces me to do a full opt-in at the start of new content. But come on, anyone who really loves this game can’t help but put pressure on themselves to move through to whatever their goals are as soon as they can. It’s human nature. Right? For me, the process is complicated by my pesky day job, so that I can only play a couple of hours a day most days, so I add more pressure to myself to move forward when I see others in my guild progressing at a faster rate. Not that I am competitive, mind you!

Blizz, I am pleading with you — save me from my Type A personality! Delay 5.4 as long as you possibly can. I’M NOT READY!


Fiannor, Inc.

gold   Shortly after I leveled my hunter in WOTLK, it dawned on me that I was spending a lot of gold to buy things I needed from other people. People who made these things. People like me.  I could make these things too if only I weren’t so cruelly limited to two major professions! But if I had a few alts, they could make stuff for my main, and I would not only save gold but would likely also get filthy rich!

Well, it turns out that was not such a unique idea. And sadly, I did not get filthy rich. But I’ve been thinking about this lately as I struggle to profession level my 10th and 11th professions — after which I will lack only Blacksmithing in my Grand Conglomeration Scheme. But what are the effects of becoming more or less economically self-sufficient in this game? I am not an economist, so no great insights, but here are some of my random observations:

  • Just blindly throwing crafted stuff on the AH and hitting some preset undercut pricing is not a winning strategy. There are tons of excellent forums, blogs, and tools out there to help you make gold by selling stuff on the AH. I read a lot of them, and there are some excellent tips in them, but I discovered that I am just not that interested in spending the time and gold necessary to be wildly successful. What I finally settled on as a compromise is to concentrate on making a bit of gold once a month or so by concentrating on making and selling hot items while they are hot, then backing off until the next month. The rest of the time I make items for myself or my guild, and do a little gathering and shuffling to make a small profit on a few items. Oh, and by the way, I also had to learn, with few exceptions, that most items you make while leveling are not usually worth selling on the AH. Better to just not waste the time and gold trying, and go ahead and vendor or DE
  • I would be lost without the Profession Leveling Guides 1-600 at Awesome site. I don’t always follow the guides completely, but I did power level my Jewelcrafter from 1 to 525 in Cata in about a week using this guide. And it only took that long because after leveling to 500 in a day and a half, I was at the mercy of cooldowns for the remaining 25 skill points.
  • In spite of the fact that I am not willing to spend the time to get really wealthy, I find I do have a lot more gold than I did before I started leveling professions. Some of it is because of selling stuff, but a lot of it is also just savings because I don’t have to pay AH prices for most consumables and some gear/mounts/etc. I cannot remember the last time I had to buy a raid flask or a water walking potion, for example.
  • Early on, I discovered I absolutely had to have a bank alt. It’s just not efficient to have your profession alts running back and forth to get to someplace with an AH and bank. Similarly, my bank alt pretty much has to own a one-person guild and spend the gold necessary to max out guild bank tabs to the guild level. This setup made a huge difference in my leveling and crafting operations — most all mats are in one place, and my banker can run to the AH to buy up a few items if necessary to complete some craft projects, vendor off a few items, monitor items for sale in the AH, mail gold to a needy alt, etc.
  • Another essential tool is Trade Skill Master — an extremely powerful add-on with several plugins. It takes awhile to set it up for your particular style of economic play, but it is well worth it. There are tons of forums, tutorials, and how-to’s out there to help you. Just get it. It will take your profession leveling and goldmaking to an entirely new level.
  • I can’t help but wonder what macro effect it has on a server’s economy to have some percentage of players largely self-sufficient. Does it make consumables cheaper or more expensive? Does it create niche markets for mats that fill a tough leveling spot for profession levelers (items like Cobalt Ore, Hypnotic Dust, Volatile Air)? Does it change the overall character of the economy on a server that has a very high percentage of self-sufficient players?  How about a server with a very low percentage of such players? I’m telling you, there’s a Master’s Thesis there for someone, if not en entire PhD Dissertation!

Anyway, as I mentioned, no great insights here. I am intrigued by the possible link between my approach to making and spending money in WoW and in RL — any observations from anyone else on this?

The hunter as bodyguard

Way back in WOTLK (I know, I know, I’m a newcomer!) when I was a baby hunter and just starting to run dungeons,  the grizzled old druid healer in my guild explained that a hunter has one and only one duty in a group: Protect The Healer! So I learned to start every encounter — trash as well as bosses — by laying out whatever traps I had in a sort of defense in depth around that old druid. Sometimes I would leave my pet on growl and in passive mode to just stand near the healer to be handy in case a mob wandered over. I was always interrupting my shot rotation to check on the druid, re-lay my traps, reposition my pet, or fire off a distracting shot then kite like mad over to the tank. This of course was not conducive to high, or even respectable, dps. But it didn’t matter. I was always invited to guild instance runs, because every healer in the guild loved me. And I liked thinking of myself as a protector.

Fast forward to today’s game. I can’t remember the last time I gave much consideration to protecting a healer, beyond firing off the odd distracting shot once in awhile. Certainly there are a host of reasons for this — the healers I run with in my current guild are good, the tanks likewise know what they are doing so stray mobs usually don’t get loose, and EVERYBODY has high hp, great gear and outrageous dps.

But I think it also shows one of the turns the game has taken. The current dungeons don’t allow the luxury of devoting one team member to bodyguard duty, even if it were needed, which it is not. This is especially true in 10-man raids, where the mechanics are so strictly choreographed that a single moment’s inattention to their primary role by even one team member can — and frequently does — cause a wipe.

This is not a grumpy “It ain’t near as good as it used ter be” tirade — I really like playing the game as it is now. But every once in awhile it’s instructive to look back and see the direction we’ve come.

And, OK, I do kind of miss that grizzled old druid healer.