Battle for Azeroth insights

With Pax East concluding a few days ago, we who did not attend are just now getting some of the pertinent WoW-related interviews, and those of us in disfavor with Blizz who do not have a ticket to play the BfA alpha are getting a better look at the next expansion. The interview videos are spread out on the internet, but for one place to start check out MMO-C’s summaries. As I listened to these interviews, I think I began to get an idea of the “feel” of BfA — the things that will shape the expansion experience for me. Honestly, they do not make me any more excited about it.

First, the introduction of Warfronts and Island Expeditions. Warfronts, from what I understand, are large (multi-day?) competitions between Horde and Alliance, resulting in control of an area and presumably the chance then to plunder the Azerite and other resources in the area. One dev compared the concept to Wintergrasp. The same dev made the point that each side will have to have strong team cooperation to be successful. I don’t know that this has ever worked well in WoW on a mass basis. Players who do a lot of PvP are good at these events, but opening them up to — end encouraging participation from — the Great Unwashed Masses is usually an exercise in futility. People run around with no idea of what to do or where to go, or they join and then hide somewhere and go afk until the event is over, all while the people who really want to win and know what they are doing yell things like “EVERYONE GET TO THE KEEP!” Eventually the side with the most people paying attention wins. Yay.

Warfronts will in theory require “contributions” from players. One of the devs opined that possibly this might include not just fighting participation but also materials and profession products. This part sounds a bit like the buildings on Broken Shore to me. Honestly, if the contributions to those had involved actual gathered profession mats instead of the Legionfall War Supplies — which could not be spent in any other way, and which I accumulated as part of world quests in the area rather than going out of my way to gather — I would never have bothered to contribute.

My suspicion is that Warfronts will get some heavy participation in the very beginning of BfA but will soon become nothing more for most people than checking to see “who controls ((Wintergrasp-equivalent area))” to see if you can get in and grab up the azerite or whatever perk is there.

Island Expeditions seem patterned on the old Mists scenarios, an activity I rather enjoyed. However, the main reason I enjoyed them was that they awarded currency for decent gear, plus they were very quick to run and the queues were almost instantaneous. I do not know what the inducement is for running Island Expeditions in BfA, but it will need to be something solid and dependable (NOT an RNG-based shot at mediocre gear) for me to be interested. I do not know if there is a timed element to Islands, but if so that will greatly diminish their attraction for me, too.

The second thing that got my notice was some of the talk about BfA gear. In a couple of the interviews there was discussion of trinkets. Apparently the dev team likes the idea of trinkets having one-off abilities as well as interacting with class/spec talents and abilities. This tells me two things. One is that we can look forward to another entire expansion of carrying around or storing dozens of trinkets because who knows when one will be “THE” one to have for a specific encounter. The other thing this tells me is that there will be certain “must have” trinkets for some specs, because it is guaranteed that Blizz will use a trinket to fill in some gaping holes in spec design, the same way they did with legendaries in Legion. So you will have to have a certain trinket to play your spec the way it should be played, but of course it is a crap shoot as to whether you get the trinket or not. Wunderbar.

In BfA, Blizz also seems to be getting rid of some possibilities for casual players. For one thing, they are rather drastically reducing the rate at which items will Titanforge. I suppose this is because a few elite-snobs whined loudly about that “LFR scrub” who actually had one piece of gear equal to the level the Great Player had. Also, in BfA Blizz will limit the level of the key Azerite gear to the level at which it was earned, there will be NO Titanforging for this gear. Thus, the Mythic pros will never have to suffer the unimaginable indignity of a lesser being actually *gasp* having an equal level gear item — a severe trauma, I am sure we can all agree.

It seems, though, that the Azerite gear will entail the same kind of endless grind that artifact weapons required in Legion. Instead of chasing AP, substitute Azerite. Otherwise, same-same. Also, it would seem that the Azerite gear is in fact spec-specific, so once again switching specs will be a Big Fucking Deal, and if you are unlucky enough to pick a losing spec at the beginning of the expansion, sucks to be you, you could be playing catch-up for a long time.

Last, there was dev discussion of group composition as it interrelates to raid and instance design and class/spec design. Although Blizz clearly understands many of the implications of this complex design problem, I remain skeptical that they have either the ability or the desire to really give every class a decent opportunity for full participation. In terms of spec design, BfA seems to be going further down the road of actual specialization, so that any given spec has niche abilities such as AoE, burst, single target, mobility, and so forth. At the same time, they seem to be curtailing the ability to select talents to compensate for niche abilities, so that for example if you are a single target spec you have almost no significant talent choice to substitute anything other than a very puny AoE.

Similarly, while Blizz has renewed their emphasis on raid buffs, they have created real winner and loser specs in terms of the value and/or widespread usefulness of these buffs. And the buff pruning in the name of “uniqueness” is a joke. Hunters, for example, had their pet combat rez removed (supposedly because other classes have that ability), yet what remains is a form of Hero, which many other classes also have. How is that unique? This puts the lie to all the blather about “making each class feel special and unique”. Trust me, having a buff that several other classes have does not make me “special and unique”. Now, if I had, say Aspect of the Fox or something similar, that would be a real “special and unique” contribution. But of course Blizz panicked for the entire month or however long they permitted us to have Aspect of the Fox, because OMG hunters had an actual decent raid buff????? Somebody screwed up! Must. Fix. Immediately.

All this is intertwined with raid design, of course. And nothing in any of these interviews gave me confidence that most bosses will be designed to allow every class a chance to excel. One of the devs even went so far as to put a stamp of approval on raid-loading by saying that it was a good thing if, having gotten close to a boss kill, a team realized that only one class could give them that extra 2% and they reconfigured to include it. This, of course, goes further down the road Blizz has recently taken, where “Bring the class, not the player” is desirable.

BfA will once again bring us winner classes and loser classes, and it looks like Blizz does not care that that will be the case. In fact, they seem to like the idea. Get your class lottery tickets here, folks.

Okay, enough pessimism about BfA. Time for a weekend. We are finally getting some warm weather here in Virginia, and I need to paint a few old wood pallets for planter walls and such. And maybe drink a cold beer, it being almost hot today.

Alcohol and spray paint, what could possibly go wrong?

See you on the other side.

Endless variation

As all of us are, I am still trying to piece together a coherent picture of Battle for Azeroth. It will come together more over the next few weeks, and of course will become clearer as soon as the beta or super alpha or whatever they decide to call it goes live. But my brain has been trying to digest one particular new approach to the game that emerged from Blizzcon: new technology that permits endless variation with minimal developmental resources. I think this may end up being the most significant development in the new expansion.

Let’s start with artificial intelligence. One of the big changes we will see in Battle for Azeroth is the introduction of advanced AI for NPCs. As I understand, these “super NPCs” will initially be confined to some of the special BfA “Island Expedition” scenarios. (I’m unclear about their role, if any, in the larger Warfront activities.) Basically, these NPCs will not be scripted, rather they will react to player actions. This summary from Wowhead:

The common creatures AI is generally well known. Melee mobs will generally walk to you and punch. If you walk too far, it’ll go back to it’s spawn. That’s why for these new islands, they are trying a different type of AI, that tries to beat the players at their own game. For instance, the AI will try to have tactical ability usage. It may try to Polymorph or Sap your healer.

The biggest advance is that the AI will have a good sense of map objectives; where are the big bosses? Where are the Azerite nodes? And also a greater sense of strategy; it may polymorph you and then just walk away as it has better things to do.

Also the AI will likely have personalities such as a rogue named “Sneaky Pete” that notices that you pulled too much, Sap your healer and then burst you down.

I can see the fun potential in this new technology, but part of me wants to think this is Blizz forcing us into PvP. I mean, variable and unpredictable actions are one of the big draws of PvP, right? (You PvPers out there feel free to speak up, all my PvP experience is limited to BGs as a bit player.) To me, one of the real benefits of PvE is that once you have figured out a boss or mob action you can rely on that happening, and the fun variable is how you deal with it. Consistency is something many players, me included, think of as a good thing in the game.

The science of AI is advancing by leaps and bounds — far beyond the primitive learning algorithms I played with in my graduate Comp Sci courses. (Check out this layman’s summary of the sophisticated set of machine learning tools recently released by the creators of the game engine Unity for a quick idea of what I am talking about.)

To paraphrase Alan Turing, at what point does the AI opponent become indistinguishable from the PvP one? And does it matter?

In addition to this non-scripted AI for some NPCs, the scenario-type activities in BfA will feature a large number of map variations, selected at random for any given instantiation of the scenario. Also, the items appearing on the random map will dictate various approaches to beating the scenario, so that any given victory strategy may fail miserably if you run the scenario again.

Of course, we haven’t seen this at work yet, so it is possible the mechanic will devolve into a “Oh, it’s setup X this time, implement the standard X strategy.” However, Blizz’s comments during some of the Blizzcon panels indicated that, although the possibilities are finite, there will be so many of them as to preclude this approach.

Fun? Yes, but for me only to a point. I actually kind of like it in an expansion when I can more or less put my brain into neutral and race through an instance (or scenario, as in Mists) I have done countless times before. It gives me a sense of progression and achievement — this was hard when we first started doing it, and look at us now! If it is hard every single time, it gets frustrating for me. (Add in the timed nature of victory, and it is doubly so — timed runs is one of the main reasons I do not enjoy Mythic+ instances now.)

I know there are a lot of players who will absolutely love this new kind of scenario, so I am sure it will be a big hit and remain a feature of the game for a long time. And of course it has great esport possibilities, so naturally Blizz will continue to develop it.

The result of these technical innovations is that Blizz will be able to give us virtually infinite content experiences using minimal development resources once the initial programming is done. This is good for the future of WoW, because it may mean that the game will continue to be viable for many more years. It is good for the player crowd that demands continuous new challenges. I am not so sure it is a plus for players like me, the ones who have grown used to a certain challenge cycle in every expansion: level —> progress —> achieve —> relax.

One wonders how long it will be before Blizz includes this new endless variation tech, along with AI bosses, in normal instances and raids and even world quests. If and when they do, how will that affect raid teams that rely on team learning and strategy development for their expansion fun? What if, every time you go into a raid, you have to figure out new strategy for each boss? What if you have to do it for pug dungeons? What does it do to the game if PvE eventually becomes indistinguishable from PvP?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, I merely pose them. Food for thought as we move into this Veteran’s Day weekend. Have a beer and hug a vet!