Gear and math

It’s been a nice relaxing couple of weeks in my WoW world. In my guild, we all took a break from what was becoming a very dull Nighthold raid circuit, and I seized the opportunity to work on a couple of alts — my balance druid and my destruction warlock. I find I enjoy playing them both, but the lock possibly a tad bit more than the druid. I still find the boomkin tedious for its long casts, but it gets better with better gear stacked for haste.

Both alts are hovering very close to ilvl 900 or a bit under, and the one thing that amazes me is how much better they are simply by virtue of having better gear. Trust me, in the last two weeks I have not suddenly become vastly more proficient on either one, but the difference in damage for both is pretty astounding. The only change has been upgraded gear. In some ways this is fun, because gear is relatively easy to get, even without subjecting yourself to LFR or mythic dungeons. But in other ways is seems kind of cheesy and not quite right. I guess it is an inevitable result of Blizz stepping away from the “bring the player not the class” philosophy — class/spec mechanics and gear seem to count for more and more these days. Nobody likes to blame gear for poor performance (well, okay, maybe some people like to), but that excuse is actually becoming more and more reasonable as Legion goes on.

I was thinking about this as I started last night to prepare my main hunter for resumption of raiding Tuesday when Tomb of Sargeras opens. Patch 7.2.5 brought some changes to BM hunters, and in spite of giving us a baseline 2-charge Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy, it is looking like overall we are in a worse place damage-wise than we were for Nighthold. Seems like Blizz just could not stand to have BM hunters close to the top, had to take away more than they gave. There will still be some class tweaks coming along in hotfixes, but honestly I am not holding my breath that any of them will include buffs for BM hunters.

At least two sites I read regularly have openly stated that MM is clearly — and by quite a ways — top of the hunter heap. From the IcyVeins BM hunter guide:

Now that 7.2.5 has released, we can say with reasonable confidence and assuming no major changes, that Marksmanship will be the optimal raiding spec going into Tomb of Sargeras, mostly due to the potency of its new set bonuses.

Beast Mastery remains a solid choice, though rather than being very competitive and sometimes even better at single-target than Marksmanship in ideal situations, it is now fair to say that its potential output is less than Marksmanship in nearly all situations.

And even the redoubtable Bendak, in his most recent BM post about Patch 7.2.5, is brutally realistic about BM, stating it will likely fall out not only in the middle of the damage pack, but likely in the lower middle at that.

Whatever. I am a hunter in WoW, that is who I am. And since Blizz has seen fit to destroy the essence of my vision of “hunterness” in MM and SV specs, I really have no choice but to continue playing BM. Numbers have never meant that much to me anyway, so what seems to be a sudden plunge from lower-top to lower-middle position is not a calamity. Some class/spec has to be in that position, it is the nature of rankings. Still, I will be interested to see what the actual numbers spread is when the ToS results start to become available. If the spread between top and bottom is large, then Blizz will have once again failed in its never-ending attempt to “balance” the class/spec mess they themselves caused.

My alt gear-centric push over the last couple of weeks also served to reinforce to me the utter insanity of Legion’s gear complexity. On my alts the calculus was relatively easy, since I never intend to actually raid with them: higher ilevel = good, secondary stats pretty much be damned. But when I started to weigh gear and talent combos on my main in preparation for ToS, I found myself once again despairing over the sheer mathematical enormity of the task.

It has gotten so bad that AskMrRobot is now implementing a SETI-like mass computer sharing approach to solving the gear problem for players. Mind you, modern computers already have pretty massive computing power. Certainly enough that even a middle-level server could perform general arithmetical comparisons, even for thousands of users at a time. But Blizz’s insane interdependencies of gear stats, talents, different types of raid bosses, RNG-dependent proc rates, and specialized legendary and set bonuses have gone exponentially past arithmetic calculations. To properly assess the relative value of gear, only massive computer simulations approach accuracy. One or two simulations at a time are handled (though slowly) on a home desktop computer, but if you are trying to do it for large numbers of players, you need vast computational resources, and the cheapest way to get them is to set up a distributed grid of community computers. (I applaud AMR’s ingenuity here, but honestly I would like to see a bit more detail on their app’s security setup before I open my computer to it.)

The point is, you need the power of modern computers to decide if a piece of WoW gear is actually an upgrade for you, or to decide which legendary works best with which set of talents.Ā 

But Reforging was “too much math” for us.

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See you after the release of ToS.

Gadgeteers and purists

Last night as I launched a new sim on my Balance druid, it occurred to me that I rely a lot on third party sites and addons to play this game. I mean, really, a lot. Here is a sample, off the top of my head:

  • Over 20 addons — DBM, GTFO, ArkInventory, Weakauras, Bartender4, Healbot for my healers, Shadowed Unit Frames, Pawn, Tradeskill Master, Skada, World Quest Tracker, TomTom, Paste — to name a few.
  • Wowhead — my go-to site for guidance on where to find patterns and recipes, mats needed for crafting, various Legion guides, gear info, transmog ideas, and quest info. The latter is especially important to me. If I run into a problem with a quest, I immediately turn to Wowhead for solutions to whatever is stopping me. I am not worried about “spoilers”, I am just interested in finishing the quest and moving on, and I derive no satisfaction from figuring it out on my own after beating my head on a rock for hours or days. Thank goodness for the Wowhead users who unselfishly post their insights into quests as soon as they get them figured out.
  • Icy-Veins — I use this for class/spec info as well as for quick and dirty raid guidance. When I am coming back to an alt I have not played in a while, it is always my first stop to brush up on rotations, talent builds, and the order of stat importance. In Legion, I use this site to make my way through artifact traits and to get their list of BiS legendaries. The class/spec guides are always up to date and are written by world class players. I can’t imagine trying to figure out a rotation on my own for every alt by evaluating the various spell and talent and artifact interactions.
  • Sims. I use SimC on my own computer, and I also use web sites like Beotorch and recently Raidbots to run quick sims for importing into my Pawn addon. I know sims are only partially useful, but honestly I do not know of a better way to evaluate the complex factors in gear these days. (It would be interesting, I think, to compare the results for a player using all these complicated methods to select gear and talents versus selecting solely on the basis of ilevel increases and gut feeling for talents. I wonder if there would actually be much difference?)
  • Quest guides. I confess I use a quest guide to speed my way through leveling and also through dailies, profession quest lines, class hall quests, artifact quests, and even long achievement chains. (I am not going to say the one I use because it is a paid service and I do not want to plug a commercial product.)

There are probably a few more outside resources I use, but those are the ones that come to mind immediately. As I said, it’s a lot.

I know there are purists out there who are horrified by a list like this. I respect that point of view. Intellectually, I am even drawn to it, but realistically I am far too impatient to actually try to deal with a Blizz-only interface.

The native game UI itself, to me, is clunky, un-intuitive, and not responsive to player preferences. This opinion is reinforced every time I log in to the PTR and have to set up the Blizz-only interface. It just does not work for me, from the lack of raid frame options to the multiple-bar action bar setup and separate keybind interface, to the horrible bag space viewer, to the inability to set up reasonably-located spell cues and proc notices.

Additionally, the game flow — especially in Legion — seems confusing to me, possibly even deliberately vague. Blizz sometimes thinks they are running a puzzle game, not an adventure MMO, and they love to obfuscate in the name of “challenge”. Sometimes, for example, quests follow logically from one to the next, but equally as often you have to search for the next series without knowing whether or not it is a line you are interested in or where it might lead. And the “secret” quests — they are not my cup of tea. If I wanted to figure out puzzles, I would be playing a different game than WoW. I honestly cannot imagine a new player figuring all this out for themselves with zero outside help.

So I tend to go a bit overboard in third party assistance. I know this. I wish it wereĀ not necessary for my enjoyment of the game, but it is. In an ideal world, Blizz would provide a wide range of player options, permitting an approach like mine as well as the purist one. But even I know that is not really possible — they seem to have all they can do to keep the game from imploding without adding in a lot of complicating player-option code.

To be fair, periodically they co-opt some third party ideas and try to bring them into the native interface, but to my eye they usually do it badly. For example, there is the in-game Dungeon Journal now, a Blizz version of third party raid and instance explanations. It’s okay, but it falls short of most outsideĀ ones, in my opinion. The bag-sorting algorithm introduced in WoD is a slight improvement over what we had before, but it does not come close to the categorizing and display options in an addon like ArkInventory. I could give a lot more examples, but you get the idea.

Anyway, I do not think I would continue to play this game if I could not use third party resources to the extent I do. I like gadgets and gizmos and convenience and efficiency too much to give them up. Those of you who are purists, I salute you — try not to judge me, I am weak!

Complexity, continued

World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game. (Thank you, Captain Obvious.) I’ve written about the technical complexity of the game before, but today I want to examine it from the player side.

CouldĀ you play this game without the aid of third party help sites?

Just think about it for a minute. What if there were no WoWHead, no IcyVeins, no Blizzard Watch, no profession leveling sites, no AskMrRobot, no YouTube videos of boss encounters, no [insert your go-to help site here]? Could you play the game at the level of involvement you do now without them? If you are a hunter, would you have been able to track down the incredibly complex quest line for Gara all by yourself? I could not, and I am betting you could not either.

I would not still be playing the game without outsideĀ helpĀ sites, because I would long ago have gotten too frustrated to continue. I am not saying it is impossible to play without help sites, I am saying that progress would be glacially slower than it is with them, and the average level of play would be vastly lower than it is now. As I am not by nature a patient person, there is no way I would have kept playing under such conditions.

Here is an example: My spousal unit used to play WoW. He started about the same time I did, with a hunter. His approach was to just wander around, killing mobs as he encountered them, getting quests as he stumbled upon them, turning them in only if he happened to see a big yellow question mark over an NPC’s head, discovering Azeroth by leisurely strolling around. He leveled mainly through killing random mobs, exploring, and mining. He is not goal-driven as I am, he is someone who lives in the present and enjoys every bit of it. (A trait I find both admirable and irritating IRL, but never mind.) Once while waiting for a boat in Menethil Harbor, he fell off the dock (no, I have no idea how) and decided since he was already in the water he might as well swim to Stormwind. It took him a loooooooonnnngggg time (hours) but he did it.

He no longer plays. Somewhere about level 50 the game became too complex for his play style, and he just lostĀ interest. He did not want to consult help sites, thought that was a bit too much like real world work research, was not interested in joining a guild, and he was just not able to keep playing unless he got some guidance. So he quit.

Had I not started reading WoWHead and someĀ of the hunter blogs (my guild at the time was no help), I probably would have quit, too. But I did research them, and doing so opened new levels of interest for me in the game. It also greatly speeded up my progress, further holding my interest.

I’m not sure I really have a point to all this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind. The first is, would Blizz be able to make game play as complex as it is if players did not have outside help sources? I think not. Many players would find the game far too frustrating to keep at it. Even activities like basic leveling become much more time-consuming without help. I doubt I would have found the WoD profession quests without help, nor would I have easily — if at all — found the various NPCs for some of the longer leveling and follower quest lines.

Second thought is, should Blizz provide more and better in-game resources for players to reference as they progress? From time to time they have attempted to do so, but almost always the results are half-assed and clumsy. The Dungeon Journal comes to mind. As does that ridiculous quest tracker thingie that annoys me every time I log in because you can’t turn it off and you can’t move it. So I think the answer to should Blizz provide better in-game references is yes they should but they are totally incapable of doing so, and most of the times they try, the result is they make the game interface worse, not better.

Last thought is, maybe the existence of the outside help sites is a kind of validation of the whole MMO concept. MMOs are designed to be social activities, to create virtual communities of like-minded individuals. PeopleĀ devote huge amounts of time, money, and effort to community help sites. Yes, sometimes they turn into actual revenue-producing businesses, but most of them did not start out like that, they started out as people in the community generously sharing their experiences and knowledge with others. This is a very good thing, something that makes me optimistic about the big picture of MMOs.

I hope Blizz realizes the huge contribution these sites make to the game and thus to Blizz’s bottom line. Ā And if you have a site you depend on for information, please support it in whatever way you can.