Aaaand we’re off!

I am pronouncing Legion officially ended.

Oh yes, I know technically we have months to go in this expansion, and lots of people are still totally engrossed in it, but for all practical purposes it has shifted from a windshield view to one we see in the rear view mirror. Battle for Azeroth is now the windshield view.

In my days as a soldier, I was transferred from one duty station to another about every two years (sometimes more often). Every time I did a PCS (permanent change of station), there was a defined point at which I stopped thinking of my last duty station as home and started anticipating my new one. When I returned from Iraq, for example, somewhere about halfway on the flight home, my brain did a sort of “click” and I pushed the previous months to the back of my consciousness and began to really think about arriving at the airport, reuniting with family, planning for my next set of duties, and so forth. I had a turned a page to a new chapter, and I knew it.

Last night I had that kind of “click” in my brain about Legion/BfA. It was an accumulation of news and events, I think. For one thing, our raid team downed heroic Argus, so Legion progression raiding has been officially completed. For another, in the last couple of days we have seen an avalanche of data about BfA — a rare Developer Water Cooler post, announcement of a Hazzikostas “Q&A” next week, the start of the BfA alpha test, and of course the first crush of mined data. Blizz has definitely kicked off its official next-expansion blitz.

Right now we are in an overload-induced lull in the face of all this information, but over the next few days, weeks, and months we’ll start to see a realistic picture of BfA emerge. So, a few (very) preliminary observations on the process we are beginning:

As always, I applaud the publication of the Dev Water Cooler post, but back in the old days before the Hazzikostas Dynasty these were much more frequent and thus gave us a lot more insight into game design and goals. Now we are lucky if we see one or two a year, and sadly they now seem mainly to be part of publicity blitzes in advance of a new expansion. Nevertheless, better one than none I suppose.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this one is that Blizz has almost completed their morph from “Bring the player not the class” to “Bring the class not the player” in their design philosophy. BfA will see — if the post is to be believed — class and spec utilities pruned and added with the goal of having only one or two classes with any given raid utility, and (in theory) raid bosses designed to take specific advantage of specific utilities. I think this is a big mistake, but of course Blizz designs for the professional-level raider, not for the majority of their players. (Most raid teams do not have the luxury of switching out specs to fit each boss — and in fact probably would not do so even if they could.)

I agree with Blizz that it is not very interesting if every class has every utility. But the hints are that BfA will see a typical pendulum swing that will severely limit and further specialize class utilities. This will be fine for classes that win the lottery and have generically useful utilities, like hero/timewarp or battle rez or group-wide speed bursts. It will be far less fine for classes that get highly specialized utilities and in the process lose their more generic ones in the name of promoting class “uniqueness”. One example I can think of right now is the fact that hunters will lose the AoE stun effect of Binding Shot — it will be simply an AoE root. But hunters will gain (get back, actually, after its removal in Legion) Tranquilizing Shot. I am not complaining about getting tranq back again, but its utility is far more selective than the current Binding Shot. Back when we still had tranq, I estimate it was useful for maybe one in ten boss fights. Contrast that with the current Binding Shot, which I use much more frequently in Legion, and very often indeed in M+ dungeons.

The net effect of this kind of selective specialization is that, for example, a druid with battle rez is always useful in a raid, whereas a hunter with tranq is useful in maybe a few boss fights. Multiply that effect across 36 specs, and there will be very clear winners and losers in Blizz’s attempt to bring back “uniqueness” in raid utility. Some specs will get the “always useful” abilities, and some will get the “once-in-a-while useful” ones. Blizz will undoubtedly try to even things out, but their track record in doing so is pretty dismal.

The other takeaway I got from the Water Cooler post is that Blizz is once again going to take a stab at redefining class and spec “identity”. This terrifies me, because the last time they did something like this, they demolished my chosen spec. In the run up to Legion, Blizz made a big deal about establishing class and spec “fantasies”. They actually did come up with narratives for each, but that was the end of it, because in many cases the spec implementation was not even close to the official “fantasy”. There was almost zero follow-through on what some class writer thought the spec should look like and what the developer implemented for it. BM hunters, for example — “master of beasts” — ended up with almost zero control over their array of pets.

(Bendak has a great discussion of this whole idea of class identity as applied to BM hunters in his recent post on what he would like to see for the spec in BfA. Hunters, check it out if you have not already, it is worth reading.)

Part of the whole fantasy/identity thing is that Blizz really has no good idea of how to really define some classes. Yes, they are pretty good with mages and the various druid specs, but they have struggled with classes like paladins and hunters among others. I do not know why, but they just do not seem to “get” certain classes. The result is that a staffer writes up some good boilerplate class/spec description, and that is the end of it — the abilities, play style, and rotation end up being nowhere near the description.

One last comment, this one on the alpha test (still waiting on my invite, sure it is on the way 🙄) and the data mining effort. Every post you see on these activities will be prefaced with something like “it is very early yet, and everything might change”. A necessary statement to make, but what I have observed over the last two expansions is that the live version very rarely deviates in any significant way from the very earliest tests we see. In the case of Legion, the only time Blizz even seemed to consider making changes was during the invitation-only alpha test, and even then they did not make many. By the time it got to beta and of course later to the PTR, the entire expansion was set in stone.

I believe that once again we are going to see the game’s elite players (the ones who got the alpha invitations) determine the course of the entire expansion, certainly in the areas of gear and class abilities. Additionally, in areas that pro players (basically Mythic world-first caliber) have little interest — professions, for example — developers will have full power to do whatever they wish, with little or no player input until we get to the “too late” stage.

I said at the time the Legion alpha test was going on, that it was a mistake to shape an entire expansion on the feedback of the elite, and it looks to me like Blizz is about to repeat that pattern.

One thing they could do to make me feel better about this whole test period would be to give the players frequent and robust feedback in the forums or by other means. I am talking about Ghostcrawler-type feedback, honest and even at times brutal, but reliable and transparent. In the runup to Legion we basically saw a few media blitzes, but crickets in responding to even the most solid and detailed player feedback. For months on end. It gave the impression of epic disdain for their customers. I know it is not developers’ favorite thing to actually *gasp* write or address questions/concerns, but I think Blizz could do themselves a huge favor by putting a priority push on player feedback for the next few months, even if that means they have to increase their resources devoted to it.

They will not do it, of course, but I have to make the suggestion. We are creatures of hope. We are (at least I am) also creatures who live for the weekend. Enjoy yours.

Legendary follies continue

There are times when you almost have to admire Blizzard’s steadfast commitment to major blunders. Even when they publicly admit certain designs were mistakes, their response is usually to not only keep the bad design but also double down on it. (Think of WoD’s garrisons as a perfect example.)

It’s like there is a corporate attitude, when faced with the consequences of an obvious design mistake, of going big or going home. They seem incapable of any semblance of organized retreat, all they can do is cram the mistake down our throats.

Which brings me, of course, to the subject of Legion legendary gear. As I have written before (here and here for example), I consider the Legion legendary design to be one of the worst Blizz has ever done. Even Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas has, on more than one occasion, begrudgingly mumbled something about maybe they could have done a better job implementing the idea.

My main complaint about Legion legendaries is that Blizz tried to do too much with them in terms of their gear effects, and in the process they created a number of “must-have” pieces for a lot of specs. Sometimes these “good” legendaries were just bandaids to cover over bad spec design, sometimes they had effects that eventually turned out to be super powers for the spec. Bad enough, but then add in the whole RNG aspect of them, and Blizz created a world of player winners and losers based almost solely on luck. Eventually, even the RNGeniuses at Blizz realized this and made some tweaks designed to even out the relative values of legendaries. They were not entirely successful — there are still some “must-haves” for a couple of specs — but the endeavor met the new Blizz corporate standard of Good Enough.

Another fallout of Legion legendaries is that they made it difficult to easily swap to off specs, or to develop alts to the point where they were geared sufficiently to be fun to play. (And yes, I know I will get responses from some of you out there claiming you had no problem getting 6 legendaries each on all your druid off specs as well as on all 10 of your alts, and you did it in a weekend. Shut up. You’re lying.) Worse for unlucky players waiting weeks to get off spec or alt legendaries, Blizz’s claimed “bad luck insurance” algorithm apparently only goes so far as to increase the odds of a legendary dropping, it does nothing to help an unlucky player actually get a useful one once it finally does drop. (Yeah, Ion, nothing more fun™ than an RNG drop of a useless legendary and knowing it will be weeks before you get another chance at the lotto.)

For those few players who managed to get every legendary for every spec in their class, Blizz dipped once more into their Suggestion Box For Ways to Screw With the Players and came up with this: if a character has all possible legendaries for all specs in their class, the next time you win the RNG lottery, you will get — hold onto your hats —

A totally random legendary for a totally random class and spec you may not even have as an alt!!! What fun™!!

I am not even going to go into the doubling down actions Blizz took when they added a special raid-only set of non-legendary legendaries to the current raid tier. Or the fact that Blizz cheesed out and refused to upgrade our old ones (as they did in WoD) when the new ones rose in ilevel, instead opting to make us grind for weeks to get the stuff to upgrade each one individually. As if the mess they had made thus far was not enough.

And now comes Patch 7.3.5, and Blizz’s next installation of making the whole legendary mess worse and then shoving it in our faces.

On January 6, CM Lore grandly announced that Patch 7.3.5 would give us an additional way to obtain legendaries: we could use the same stuff (Wakening Essences) we now collect in order to upgrade our old legendaries. For the price of 175 of these things, we could get a token that would award a legendary appropriate to the class/spec of the character earning the essences.

OK, might be kind of cool, we all could see some possibilities there.

However, in typical fashion, this idea arrived half-baked. Some players immediately began to try to get 175 essences on as many characters as they could. They discovered that, if they had been diligent and already upgraded all of their legendaries, they could not obtain the quest to collect essences, thus they could not work on their 175. On the other hand, characters that had not rushed to upgrade legendaries still had the quest and could keep renewing it as long as they kept at least one legendary at 970 level.

This seemed like a bug, so a few players complained to Blizz.

Blizz did a double-take, because apparently it had not occurred to them that we sneaky players would actually try to collect essences before 7.3.5 went live. I mean, the very idea gave them the vapors! So they went into emergency session, and on January 8, CM Lore announced this:

A few additional details on the new Legendary token:

  • We’ve just pushed a hotfix live that makes Wakening Essences drop for everyone, regardless of whether you’re on the quest or not.
  • We’ll also be dramatically increasing both the number of Essences required to purchase tokens and the rate at which you gain them in Patch 7.3.5. The overall time investment needed to purchase a token will stay roughly the same, but this will minimize the benefits of stockpiling Essences ahead of time.
    • Note: Emissary bags earned prior to the release of 7.3.5 will still give pre-7.3.5 numbers of Essences. There is no benefit to saving Emissary bags until afer the patch.
  • We also plan to add Wakening Essences to your first Battleground win of the day in 7.3.5.
  • The tokens are bind-on-pickup, because we don’t want to overly encourage players to farm Essences on alt characters in order to feed Legendary items to their mains. However, if you purchase and use a token on a character that already has all of the available legendaries for their class, you will be given a random BoA token for another class.

Really, Blizz? Really? After all the legendary angst you’ve inflicted on us for more than a year because of your slipshod design and half-assed implementation, you have the balls to begrudge us the tiniest semblance of control? And pardon me, Mr. alt-phobic Hazzikostas, but could you kindly keep the voices in your head from leaking out? What the hell do you care if I or anyone else wants to have alts that send gear or mats or gold or enchants or gems or whatever to my main, or indeed vice-versa? It has no appreciable effect on the game as a whole, and frankly it is none of your goddamn business how I choose to use my alts. (And not for nothin’, but I suspect most players who care at all about legendaries would likely use their main to supply this gear to their alts, not the other way around.)

The vast majority of players are not in a position to “take advantage” of the first-announced 7.3.5 change in any meaningful way — they do not have the time, or they do not have sufficiently equipped alts, or they simply do not care about their gear level or their legendaries any more because it is the end of the expansion. So the latest move to stop what Blizz believes would be a heinous gaming of the system is in fact aimed at what we now must admit is Blizz’s only important customer base: the less than 1% of top tier players who aspire to competitive fame.

Blizz, do you really think the game would disintegrate if, this late in the expansion, you gave us BoA legendary tokens (both from the essence trade-in and as a result of getting one after you have all the ones in your class), ones any character could turn in and get a relevant legendary? In fact, what would it hurt if indeed these tokens allowed us to actually — better sit down for this one — choose our desired legendary?

WoW used to be a game for the masses, but now it is designed for the elite. It used to allow millions of players to shape their own play style and enjoy the game in their own way, but now the Blizz Central Committee dictates a smaller and smaller range of permitted play styles and personal objectives. What a shame it has come to this.

Well, that answers that question

A couple of days ago, I posed the question, “Who is this game for?” I am pretty sure I now have my answer.

Official Blizz announcement:

This Tuesday, February 9, at 3:00 p.m. PST, tune in live at to watch several top World of Warcraft streamers, YouTubers, and personalities from Europe and North America race against the clock—and each other—in some of the new max-level dungeons coming in World of Warcraft: Legion.

Our two teams will be racing through two dungeons: The Maw of Souls, a brand-new dungeon not yet available in the Legion Alpha, and the Heroic difficulty version of Halls of Valor, home of the greatest warriors of the vrykul. While these teams have had some practice with Halls of Valor on lower difficulty, this will be the first time any adventurer has set foot in The Maw of Souls—all these two teams know is to expect the unexpected!

For this challenge, we’ve assembled a colossal collection of some of the biggest names in the World of Warcraft community. Representing Europe: Treckie, Bellular, Qelric, and Alex and Loz of FatbossTV. To face off against them, representing North America: Towelliee, Killars, Monkioh, and Tattva and Tovo of Line of Sight Gaming. Both of these teams have a ton of experience, knowledge, and history with World of Warcraft—but will it be enough to triumph?

Assistant Game Director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas will join Community Manager Josh “Lore” Allen to provide commentary and insight as each team fights through the dungeons in a race to earn the fastest time possible. The winning team will claim victory not only for themselves, but for the region they represent!

Who is this game for? It is clear from this announcement that Legion, at least, is for the elite players, for the “stars” and the wannabes. It is for the new Activision Blizzard eSports Division. It is for dev-execs like Watcher to indulge their Howard Cosell fantasies. It is for the advertisers currently losing revenue because no one is watching the WoW streamers whose channels they place their ads on.

Why else would Blizz make An Event out of an expansion draft that is not even in beta yet, with classes and specs far out of balance and buggy?

And not for nothin’, but apparently Blizz has reverted to what I can only assume is its core attitude of flippant and snarky answers to legitimate questions. As quoted on MMO-C’s Blue Posts today, in response to a serious question about when we might expect Legion beta with — presumably — a wider group of testers, there was this:
Community Manager
2016/02/04 11:44:00 AM


Nice. Such a great, respectful, satisfying response to a perfectly reasonable question. Now, I grant you that this CM may not know when the beta will be available, or indeed if it ever will be. But what a missed opportunity to show the community that a serious concern, if well presented, will elicit a serious response. The CM could have responded, for example, that she does not know, but here are some of the factors we consider in order to decide when to launch a beta.

But no, much better to give a snide one-word non-answer that has the dual benefit of demonstrating how very witty she is while at the same dismissing this player’s concerns as trivial.

Anyway, back to my main point: Legion is being developed for the less than 1%, not for the majority of current players, who have transitioned in Blizz’s view from customer-players to “audience”.

Going slightly tinfoil-hat here, but of note, this transition might even explain some of the extreme ability pruning we see. I am guessing that most people watch eSports for games with which they already have some familiarity. So it is to Blizz’s benefit to increase their audience by promoting it as accessible to new players. Accessible for the basics, mind you, not for the full end game experience. If you can draw in new players with the movie and possibly with a port to game consoles, if these new players only have to learn a few button fundamentals, that may be enough to profitably increase the eSports audience size for the game. (Better, it may lure them into other Blizz franchises.)

So maybe Legion is being written for two groups — brand new players who are never really expected to get to the end game, and the afore-mentioned “personalities” and “elite” players.

Another quick detour. This announced “event” makes it clear why Blizz went with the highly-restricted alpha test instead of a larger beta as they usually do. By inviting the “personalities” and streamers, they ensured these players would have a huge advantage in mastering the new stuff, thereby helping them to maintain their profit margins while at the same time allowing the eSports Division to create continuing events even between expansions.

(And forgive me for a bit of schadenfreude here, but wouldn’t it be awesome if the new Maw of Souls turned out to be a complete tech, mechanics, and class balance disaster during the live stream?  It won’t, of course, because even Blizz is not that incompetent, except when they are launching a live expansion (Mists, WoD). But still…)

So far, of course, these streaming events are “free” — i.e., revenue-generating through placed ads. But mark my words, soon you will have to pay actual money to view them, either as single events or through some sort of “premium” subscription. You heard it here first.

So we know who this game is for. Who is it not for? It is not for players like me, who love the game but who do not care to make it a profession.

It is not for the “serious casuals”, who play it for relaxation and sometimes escape, but who also like to challenge themselves to become more skilled — because when the class and profession mechanics totally change every expansion, you can’t really progress in your skills, you can only start new, become semi-proficient, start again, etc.

It is not for the social player, who loves being in a social guild or a leveling guild or a casual raiding guild.

It is not for the player who loves to level and quest, because that process has become chaotic and disjointed, a mere means to an end rather than the end in and of itself.

So I asked the question, “Who is this game for?” Now I know, and I regret asking. As my grandmother used to warn me, “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer.”






Who is this game for?

If you have ever taken a class in writing, public speaking, any form of communication skill at all (including manufacturing and the creative arts), you know that one of the first things you learn is to define your intended audience. You simply cannot communicate effectively if you do not know who is on the other end. You would not launch into a scholarly discussion of the Laws of Thermodynamics if your intended audience is your toddler about to touch a hot stove. Nor would you frantically exclaim, “No! Hot! Ouchie!” in a presentation on heat transference to a group of industrial engineers.

Novelists, movie makers, musicians, politicians, housing tract developers, beer companies — all know that to be successful they must explicitly define their target audience for whatever product they are selling (even if, as in the case of politicians, that product is themselves) and then market the product in terms relevant to that demographic. If they fail to do this, their product success will be at best mediocre and at worst an utter failure. Their audience may be either broadly defined (“adults in their peak earning years”) or narrowly (“American fly fishermen who prefer waders to hip boots”), but it must be defined. Even if the intended audience is several groups, those groups must be described, and every feature of the product marketed in ways each group can relate to.

Which of course brings me to my topic for today: Who is WoW’s intended audience? More specifically, how does Blizz define the game’s intended audience? Who are they developing for?

I have no idea. Worse, I am not sure Blizz has, either.

Given Blizz’s phobia about actually communicating directly with their customers, I would not of course expect a public statement about this from them. All we can go by, therefore, are “statements” in the form of game design. The things they do with the game, and to some extent with marketing strategies, can give us an indirect assessment of how they define their target audience.

Bad news in that case, because lately what we see are conflicting and contradictory designs. The message from them is: “We have no coherent game goal. We are writing for, y’know, everyone. Whatever.”

Here is a perfect example. (Shout-out to The Grumpy Elf for his piece last week on what leveling may look like in Legion. It really started me on this line of thought.)

  • Over the last few expansions, and continuing into Legion, the game is less and less welcoming to new players. For someone who has never played this game before, and who may have no one to help them through it, the leveling process is daunting and confusing. Profession leveling is completely out of sync with character leveling. Blizz does nothing to guide new players, lazily relying on third party sites to do this for them. Game lore has been so twisted to accommodate design mechanics that a new player wishing to learn it would need a graduate course of study to do so. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for masses of new players.
  • Cata, Mists, WoD, and Legion all introduced game design and game play changes on a massive scale. Most classes have had to be completely relearned from the ground up each expansion. Similarly, professions — especially in WoD and Legion — have undergone changes so extensive  as to make them unrecognizable from only a couple of years ago. Raid structures have changed completely, in a way that has arguably made raiding less accessible to many players. Social aspects of the game — a reason many players started playing WoW in the first place — have been made less and less significant, through cross-realm LFR and questing, weakening of guild perks, and failure to police the most vile and threatening players. People who have invested a lot in this game over the years, in the form of in-game friendships and guild structures, developing class skills, improving raid skills, etc., do not like it when their efforts are completely negated every time there is a new expansion. The message is that Blizz is not designing this game for long-time current players.

So, if they are not designing the game for new players, and they are not designing it for current players, who exactly is their intended audience?

Your guess is as good as mine. There is no discernibly coherent strategic design goal in WoW. If Blizz does indeed have a defined target audience in mind, it must be an extremely narrow group — eSports celebrity wannabes? Elite raiding teams who bring endorsement money? Their own devs? None of these make sense for a game whose business model is mass paid subscriptions.

If I knew that the game were being developed for a certain audience, even if I were not part of that audience, I think I could accept many of the most frustrating aspects of the game I see now. Because I would know that they made sense in that context, and I could either accept the limitations such a context imposed on me and keep playing, or I could not accept them and move on. (Chaos, on the other hand, when it is the result of either laziness or incompetence, makes me angry. Especially if I am paying for it.)

But the more depressing and likely explanation is that Blizz has no idea who their target audience is, they simply react to every perceived gaming fad and to every dev department’s brilliant ideas for their particular corner of the game. No one is shaping the product for a lucrative demographic, no one even thinks this is a desirable goal. Heck, I am beginning to suspect no one even thinks it is a question worth asking. They are on auto-pilot, mindlessly developing whatever seems nifty to someone, because that is what they do. To return to my example of discussing the Laws of Thermodynamics with a toddler, eventually Blizz’s lack of direction will bow to the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.

“Maximum entropy” is not good news for WoW.

No! Hot! Ouchie!