Pass the crow, please

Today I am going to eat a little bit of crow. Blizz just announced they are rolling back the new loot rules they implemented a few weeks ago. Recall that, with the new leveling zones and processes introduced in Patch 7.3.5, there was a change that put personal loot automatically into effect for all leveling dungeons. What this meant was that anyone running old dungeons for transmog or mounts or recipes or whatever would only be able to get loot appropriate to their spec, for one player, as if they were running in an actual group.

You can see the problem — and probably many of you experienced it. It effectively drastically curtailed your chances of getting the transmog or legacy items you were looking for, and of course you could no longer run them on, say, your very powerful warlock and hope to get that cool transmog you wanted for your alt paladin. (Not to mention it put an even further dent into the amount of gold you could clear — whether by selling BoE transmoggables in the auction house or even by vendoring everything.)

Predictably, and justifiably in my opinion, there was a huge outcry over this. For years Blizz had allowed — nay, encouraged — players to use their most powerful characters to go back solo into old dungeons and rapidly romp through them for the express purpose of gathering all the mats and loot their bags could hold, and try for elusive mounts or pets. Some players have run the same dungeon for years looking for that one item their heart desires.

For Blizz to suddenly say, “Sorry, changed our minds” about this practice seemed especially capricious. Players vented in the forums, on Twitter, every venue they could think of.

And with today’s Blue post, it appears Blizz listened to these players and took action to remedy the problem.

Yay Blizz.

I have frequently stated in this blog that I believe Blizz has stopped listening to the majority of its player base in favor of catering to the elite. This is where I eat the crow, because this latest move pretty clearly was in response to the 99%, not to the 1%. Fixing the problem they had created, in response to the protests of large numbers of casual and semi-casual players, was a move worthy of the old Blizz. Recognizing the importance of this activity to a large number of non-elite players heartened back to the roots of a game originally designed for millions of ordinary players.

Still, there is a cynical side of me that thinks maybe the Patch 7.3.5 move caused a downward blip in MAU. Almost certainly some players who used to spend hours roflstomping through old instances stopped doing so, because what was the point any more? I don’t know how many players this might have been, but Blizz has shown us that any decrease in the monthly active user metric, in any activity, causes them to take immediate remedial steps. (And yes, they almost certainly track MAU by activity, not just overall.)

But the end result was action taken for ordinary players. So yes, I am eating crow, but just one serving of it, not the whole damn bird. In this instance, Blizz did the right thing, and they did it relatively quickly and completely, without adverse impact to other parts of the game. Good job, Blizz, now maybe you could keep the trend going, think about giving alpha access to BfA to some regular non-special players?

*munch munch* Needs a little salt, don’t you think?

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Epiphany

Over the weekend, as I was cooking for, cleaning for, picking up after, and entertaining relatives, out of the blue I had one of those forehead-slapping moments. For months now — maybe even a couple of years — I have been baffled by Blizz’s apparent business model shift from a game accessible to nearly everyone to one that:

  • Is increasingly complex, to the point that it is almost impossible for new players to navigate without accessing third-party explanatory sites
  • Is moving to funnel all game play into a structured end game model
  • Is designed to require ever more game play hours each week in order to reach and maintain end game level
  • Often implements “fixes” that serve to penalize casual players but are in response to elite player exploits or perceived exploits (example: the rules for loot trading in raids)
  • Gives early testing access only to elite players or “image shapers”, and structures entire expansions based on their feedback

WoW made its reputation and early MMO dominance by being a game tens of millions could play and find their own leisure niche in. Anyone with a computer could subscribe and go about finding their happy place picking herbs or exploring or being fierce in the face of marauding gnolls or hanging out with friends in chat or venturing into raids and instances with their guild or a pickup group. And for the most part, players could pursue their pleasure on whatever schedule they wanted — there were weekend warriors, some who played an hour or two every couple of nights, some who played more intensely, some who played only a couple of days every few weeks.

The point is, these players were not penalized for whatever play schedule they adhered to. They could structure their game time to meet their personal goals. Starting as early as Mists, Blizz began to gate significant content behind time requirements. For example, to get certain profession recipes or gear, there were  fairly stringent rep gates, and you could only gain faction rep according to a rationed weekly and daily schedule. It is that last part that in my mind started the slide into “enforced game time”. Suddenly the weekend player — even if they were only interested in profession crafting and not end game raiding, for example — was at a significant disadvantage. No matter how many hours they might have to play on a weekend, they could not “catch up” with the gated dailies that gave them access to their game goals.

In WoD, we saw the garrison mechanism used as a similar hammer. Players had to fully develop their garrisons if they wanted to see the final patch zone (in spite of Blizz’s early fabrication that garrisons would be “completely voluntary”) and garrison development was limited by a resource that could only be earned in measured amounts, doled out according to weekly and daily activity rations. Garrison development was even further impacted by completion of time-bounded quests in the mini game of champions and ships.

Legion, of course, has seen the exponential growth of game mechanisms designed to penalize the non-regular player. I won’t detail them here, as I have written extensively about them for the past year, but they include the chase for AP, the legendary RNG system that rewards frequent play and penalizes infrequent, the RNG aspect of profession learning, and so forth.

Yeah I know, Get to the point, Fi! So here was my forehead-slapping revelation:

Blizz considers the future of the game to be wholly contingent on esports, not on mass appeal. 

Maybe some of you have taken this as a given and are not blown away by it as I was, but that realization finally put into context for me nearly all of the company’s heretofore-inexplicable expansion policies.

Blizz considers the future of the game — if it has a future — to be masses of people watching the elite play it, not so much playing it themselves. Oh sure, they can dabble in it if they’ve a mind to, but doing so will be akin to a weekend touch football game if you love the game of football — the real players get big bucks and you pay big bucks to watch them playing in the NFL.

This explains a lot.

For one thing, the increasing complexity. Professional athletes spend hours understanding and maximizing the nuances of their sport. They are fascinated by the small details of it, and they pride themselves on being able to shape those details to enhance their performance. Is it possible to not pay attention to the myriad of details and still play? Sure, but of course not at the pro level.

In pro sports, it is fairly important to have a dedicated fan base that understands the game from a player level, that knows they themselves do not have the wherewithal to compete at the top, nevertheless they are rabidly interested in how the pros can perform so perfectly. It will be the same with esports.

In WoW, if the goal is merely to keep the current loyal player base, it is not especially important to make the game accessible to masses of brand new players. Sure, some will be brought in by veterans, but in general it is not a high priority to simplify the game or to make its user interfaces more friendly or to gently lead players through quest lines, because most of the current player base already understands these processes.

The shift from subscription numbers as a metric of game success to Monthly Active Users is simply a way to measure how dedicated the fan player base is. Moreover, Blizz wants this loyal player base to stay engaged. This explains the catering to “vanilla” players, the emphasis on “how it used to be in the old days of leveling”.

The strategic goal of esports as game direction also explains the introduction of fast mini-competitions within the game, things like Mythic+ dungeons and Islands in BfA. Players can try these for themselves (have a quick touch football game at the park on Saturday), but the real Blizz emphasis will be on spectator versions of them carried out by the pros.

If you are trying to build an esports fan base to cheer for pro teams engaging in end game activities, then another thing you have to do is ensure every player who reaches level is funneled into those pro-friendly end game activities. Can’t have a whole group of leveled players who care nothing about the core end game activities, who have interest and experience only in crafting or gathering or whatever. So the answer is to force even these players into at least a passing familiarity with dungeons and raids and gearing up and soon Island scenarios.

Last, if you believe the future of the game involves people watching the pros play it, then of course you structure it to favor that aspect. This explains Blizz’s catering to the less than 1% of elite players and world-first guilds. It explains why they do not for the most part allow casual players to be early shapers of a new expansion. It even somewhat explains why they seem to abandon some classes and specs every expansion — if the pro players consider the spec not worthy of serious play, then there is no need to focus any more resources on it. The game is no longer being designed for casual players, except insofar as to give them a taste of what real pro play involves. 

So, yeah, I know — I have veered rather deeply into tinfoil hat territory here. And yes, it may be time for my meds. But think about it and apply Occam’s Razor or lex parsimoniae or any of the standard problem-solving paradigms.

If it is a far-fetched explanation, it is at least a simple one requiring few assumptions.

What do corporate goals mean for WoW?

We recently got the public Q4 2017 report from Activision Blizzard (ATVI), along with the investors’ conference call transcript. The actual report, unless you are a real accounting geek or investor, is pretty dry reading (okay, it is dead boring), but the conference call is often interesting because you can get some excellent ideas of priorities for ATVI and then use some deductive reasoning to gather pretty decent insights into what is going on in WoW and more importantly what the future may hold for the game.

Usually the main content of the conference call is the various CEO’s and financial execs touting how great they did and what they are “excited about” for the immediate future, followed by a couple of questions from the investors. The Q4 2017 transcript went a bit lighter on the canned presentations and included a few more investor questions. Here are some notable quotes from the transcript (lightly edited for clarity), along with my observations:

Bobby Kotick (ATVI CEO): Blizzard delivered their highest operating income ever for year with no major game releases.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): Blizzard also delivered a $2.1 billion of revenue and $712 million of operating income. Blizzard generated record results for the year with no major game release, fueled by a steady stream of content and events across their franchises, in particular Overwatch, Hearthstone and World of Warcraft. Revenue, operating income and segment operating income margin were down year-over-year as expected given the difficult comps to last year’s World of Warcraft expansion and Overwatch release. We did see some incremental margin compression in Q4, primarily due to additional marketing initiatives. Nonetheless, with 33% full-year OI margins, the team did a nice job delivering the core business while investing in key growth initiatives across the Overwatch League, mobile incubation and MLG network.

What we see here is the CFO doing a bit of reality-speak to amplify the CEO’s comment. Kotick said that Blizz is doing fine, considering that there were no major new releases in 2017. Neumann basically went on to say Blizz actually did worse in 2017 than they had in 2016, but there are reasons for it. Plus, Blizz is still making a profit.

What can we take from this? My opinion, only, of course, but Blizz is still hampered by the cyclical nature of its games. Without major new releases in its franchises, it struggles to compete financially with other elements of ATVI. Pushing constant new “content” (like we have seen in Legion) helps in the off years, but it cannot begin to match the revenue generated by new releases.

This in no way means Blizz is going away, nor does it portend the imminent demise of WoW, but one thing it means is we can expect to see a continuation of what many of us perceive as “enforced grinding” in expansions from now on.

There’s also this —

Amrita Ahuja (ATVI Senior Vice President of Investor Relations): Starting this quarter, we are introducing a new operating metric, net bookings. Net bookings is defined as the net amount of products and services sold digitally or sold-in physically in the period and is equal to revenues plus the impacts from deferrals.

Cut out the accounting babble, and we see that Blizz will now have a separate quarterly reporting category called “net bookings”, where they will be accountable for “goods and services” they sell. They have always been accountable for this, of course, but the numbers were all kind of rolled up into other reporting vehicles. Now, though, it will be a big glaring number that can be held up in direct comparison to other corporate entities like King.

Remember the turn WoW took when ATVI imposed the “Monthly Active User” reporting metric? The game started a long slide into “enforced grinding” — everything became RNG to encourage the “just one more nickel” Las Vegas gambler approach to gear, Legion brought us artifact weapons and the never-ending chase for AP, professions became months-long slogs to max out, leveling new characters became longer by about 33%, and so forth. Again just my opinion, but the introduction of MAU as a reportable metric was a significant factor in bringing the game emphasis redirection we saw in Legion.

So how might the introduction of “net bookings” change the game? Certainly there are some obvious possibilities, like pushing Blizz store sales (can you say, “Purchased character boost”?) and Blizzcon virtual tickets. There are also some less direct avenues, such as really hyping spectator participation for M+ dungeon competitions — so far, this is “free”, but of course everyone is subjected to advertising, which in turn inevitably results in revenue in one way or another. Not to mention, how long these events will remain free probably depends on how popular they become.

But there was another somewhat ominous thread during the conference call.

Spencer Neumann (ATVI CFO): We expect in-game revenues to be a primary driver of our growth for both the top and bottom line. Coming off a record year in 2017, we expect in-game net bookings to grow by a double-digit percentage in 2018 as we continue to innovate and deliver more engaging content to our players.

We expect Blizzard to grow year-over-year with the release of World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth this summer. I am glad to say the presales for Azeroth kicked off last week and are off to an encouraging start. In addition, Blizzard has exciting plans for live ops and additional in-game content across franchises, including Hearthstone’s three expansions in 2018 and Overwatch’s in-game events.

At this point, I am likely veering into some tinfoil hat theories, but here’s a trend I am seeing:

  • Just before Legion went live, ATVI imposed the MAU metric on all its companies, including even the subscription services like WoW. This never made sense to me, since if players are sending the company a set number of $$ every month, who cares how many hours they play, or indeed if they don’t play at all?
  • Now that there are established MAU baselines for all ATVI games (including WoW), there is a corporate push to maximize “in-game” sales and services. Presumably, this push came about because of some math projecting new revenue from expected average active player response in that area. And the first part of the above quote tells me that ATVI is really going to lean on their companies to meet their expected “in-game net bookings” goal for 2018.
  • Blizz has thus far done a good job of keeping extraneous commercialization out of WoW. They have prided themselves on their principle that the game is a not “pay to play” genre, and they deserve credit for that. But I am wondering if they will be able to hold the line in the face of what is clearly a corporate push to sell sell sell? Will we see things like in-game advertising? Rare in-game mounts that players have been grinding for years for sale in the store? Special-skinned hunter pets for sale?

There might be zero WoW fallout from the push for in-game revenues, but I am going to remain watchful on this one.

Last, a couple of  miscellaneous interesting quotes (emphasis mine):

Blizzard finished the year with 40 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 40 million monthly active users or more.

I am not sure I have had a baseline number like this for Blizz before — it would be nice to know what that number is specifically for WoW. (Also, if the MAU had dropped to 1 million, would we have had a comment like “Blizzard finished the year with 1 million monthly active users, continuing a sixth quarter streak of 1 million monthly active users or more”?)

Hearthstone’s monthly active users increased year-over-year this quarter as players enjoyed the latest expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs and the introduction of new free content. While net bookings did not match the prior expansion’s record performance, players did log more play time, which brings me to our second strategic pillar, deepening the engagement. For Activision Blizzard and King overall, daily time spent per user was over 50 minutes for the second quarter in a row, placing us on par with Facebook’s time per day across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Now, that 50 minutes per day is just the time spent in our games; it does not include the growing popularity of watching our games on other online platforms.

Some day we will look back at Legion as the good old days, when “enforced grinding” was just getting started…

Blizzard will also start to see the benefit of its investment initiatives, as we expect the Overwatch League to be profitable in 2018, its first full year of operations.

I don’t play Overwatch, but I guess all of Blizz’s hype on it as such a major franchise led me to believe it must be a money-maker for them. Apparently not yet.

And, though I am not going to go into this in detail, the conference call really hyped ATVI’s “all in” stance on esports. There is no doubt they see esports as one day rather soon being as big and as all-encompassing as the NFL or any of the top soccer leagues, with screaming fans and godlike heroes and everything else that goes along with it.

And with all that, my head hurts. I believe a weekend is in order. See you on the other side.

New leveling, continued

In Friday’s post, I described my experiences so far with leveling a void elf under the new leveling structure. As nearly all of my weekend play time was spent leveling my new alt, this will be an update on additional observations.

Having now played a total of 17 hours in the new system on my void elf, I have to say I still have mixed feelings about the leveling and zone changes.

In my 17 hours I managed to get my VE to level 50. Allowing for the fact that they start at level 20, and allowing some non-leveling time for afk’s, incorporating new talents into action bars, setting up a bank and getting new bags, running back and forth to the Darkmoon Faire to get the leveling buff, etc., that is probably — very roughly — 2 levels per hour. (Not sure how much the DMF buff speeded things up, but it did help a little, even though it seemed like every time I freshly applied it, my next series of quests involved long intervals of road travel, with not much actual leveling going on. 😡)

That really is not a bad rate, but it is quite a bit slower than before the patch, so of course it feels really tedious. (Plus, I expect that rate to slow as I get higher.) These days I consider myself to be an efficient leveler — not a speed leveler, but also not wasting time on things like professions and extraneous exploration. I handicapped myself a bit this time by choosing a mage to level, and an arcane one at that. One of my guildies started out yesterday at almost the same level I was, and by the end of the day she had reached 60 while I only got to 50, playing about the same number of hours. But she is leveling a monk, and that xp buff they get is pretty significant. Also, my leveling an arcane mage means I have to spend time after every 2-3 pulls to replenish mana (arcane really eats mana fast) and health (squishy clothie). It adds up.

Pluses so far:

I do like the idea that I can select any zone I want to level in. For example, I am really burned out on Redridge, so I am avoiding it this time around. I did Western Plaguelands but when it came time to go to what traditionally would have been the next zone — Eastern Plaguelands, which I hate with a passion — I opted for Theramore instead. You can jump from zone to zone or continent to continent easily and not suffer any bad effects on the leveling process. (With the possible exception of some additional travel time.)

I also like the addition of zone quest sets. I was never big on going after the Loremaster achievement, but I do like the mini-achievements you get now when you finish a set of related quests in a zone.

I still like the heirloom gear, even after Blizz nerfed it. (A lot.) It saves me having to re-equip most gear after quests, and of course the added transmog expenses every time you re-equip. (Because of course fashion while questing is everything, Dahling!) Yeah, I know void elves get a slight break on transmog costs, but I am still a cheapskate in that area. (More about heirloom gear below.)

Minuses so far:

Something that did not occur to me before I started this process, but which I now find is pretty important, is that I never get the “oh, I must be making progress” feeling, because every mob is always pretty hard. They level up as I do, so I never get that “cool, this used to be hard but now they are dying much faster” internal feedback. Everything is just as difficult at level 50 as it was at level 20, even the exact same mobs.

In some ways, this absence of a sense of progression reminds me of the Legion AP chase — you never really feel like you have finished anything, it just grinds on and on with no noticeable change. Leveling an alt is now like leveling your artifact weapon, and it feels bad. I am astounded that Blizz just does not seem to understand this. It apparently is not important to the devs, but I can assure them it is very important to the majority of players.

I have not done any dungeons, so I can’t speak firsthand as to how or if that would affect the leveling process. However, the guildie I mentioned above ran a few on a different alt — a tank she is leveling — and described her experiences as a “disaster”, mainly because healers just could not keep up with the extra damage to the tank and dps. She is an excellent tank, knows the fights and is very situationally aware when it comes to pulling, and she will stop to let healers get mana and such, so when she says dungeons are “disasters” I tend to put some stock in it. If they give extra xp, is it really worth it if they take longer to do and require more repair costs?

I have also heard that the healer leveling process is significantly more difficult now than before the changes (if any of you have direct experience with this, chime in). Of course, it is not new that some classes and specs have an easier time leveling than others, this has always been the case. But I wonder if the new system, because of rushed testing or slipshod balancing, disproportionately punishes the “loser” classes and roles. It’s just a thought, I really have no data to go further with it.

Doing a major overhaul of the entire leveling system is certainly a daunting task, and I suppose we should be somewhat understanding if Blizz has not covered all its bases in the process. But honestly, my patience shelves for Blizz are pretty bare these days. They seem to rush things out the door, rarely if ever listening or reacting to the serious feedback they claim to want from players.

Not everyone wants the new prescribed and approved leveling “experience” every time they level an alt. The forums are full of people loudly braying this truism. It seems to me that Blizz might, for a change, listen to the drumbeat behind the comments and realize they could actually — and easily — appease both camps in this case. They could keep the new system in place, but structure heirlooms this way:

  • Keep the new nerfed versions, but add a level of enhancement, based on the player having attained certain achievements (max level, certain level of gear, certain reps, a high level quest chain, whatever) on at least one character.
  • The new enhancement would be purchased tokens, applied to each piece of heirloom gear after each has reached level Level 3 for that piece.
  • This new “Level 4” token would go into effect immediately and would basically grant greater gear power (yes, rendering mobs and many bosses trivial), as well as significantly increase the xp bonus for each piece. (Essentially restoring the old leveling experience.)
  • The token would be applied once the heirloom gear was equipped and soulbound, thus applying only to the character being leveled. (Like enchants do now.) If a player wished to level another alt, they would have to re-purchase these speed tokens for that alt.
  • The cost of the tokens should be reasonable, neither too cheap nor prohibitively expensive, maybe something like a few hundred gold each.
  • Players not wishing to rush through the leveling experience would not have to add this token and would get the full benefit of whatever “immersive experience” they want. (Of course there would be the inevitable argument of “I love playing this way, and so everyone else should have to play that way, too”, but that is an argument that should be ignored.)

I honestly do not see who would lose with such a system (except, probably the Blizz execs who now equate “tedious grinding” with “my quarterly MAU bonus”). But I think what Blizz has done with the new leveling system actually will discourage some players from leveling new alts (especially once the newness of Allied races has worn off), and by giving an option for speed leveling it might entice more players to participate, which in the long run will increase MAU.

None of this will happen, of course. First, Blizz has shown they do not give a rat’s ass if players feel they are being shoved into one endless grind after another. (All while Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas sanctimoniously tut-tuts about the evils of “grinding”, a prime example of alternative-reality thinking.) Second, Blizz is in the midst of a major game redirection — ongoing now for a couple of years — away from any form of player option or choice and towards a highly centralized and prescribed play style.

Meanwhile, I need more mage food.

Going postal and closing alt loopholes

I suppose we all knew it was inevitable, but Blizz has finally reached the bottom of their “content” barrel. Their Priority Mail achievement starts with — hold onto your hats —

Standing around Dalaran watching a tiny spot on the ground for 2-5 hours, then being lucky enough to click it first when 10-15 other players are trying for the same thing! 

Yes, folks, in Blizz’s never-ending mission to get us to spend more and more hours a day logged in to the game, they have come up with a way to get us to do nothing more than stare at the screen for hours on end. In the old days, only hunters were crazy enough to do this, but Blizz, bless their hearts, thought this insane fun™ just had to be shared with other players.

Wait, though, the whee! factor gets even better. Later on in the questline you get to actually sort mail! Holy cow, where do they come up with this kind of non-stop, wild wacky activity? If your grandma or grandpa plays this game, do not let them attempt this achievement unless they get cardio clearance from their doctor.

Yeah, okay, I know there a lot of players for whom the achievement rewards more than compensate for the over-the-top time investment it requires. More power to them. But let’s look at what is at work here.

This is Blizz’s single-minded approach to the game now: it doesn’t matter what people do in the game, as long as they are logged on more and more hours each month. If now people are not chasing AP each day, and if they have slacked off on grinding for legendaries, Blizz has to find another way to make them log in. Let’s face it, participation in World Quests And Emissaries was fueled mainly by the AP and legendary grinds, and when those became irrelevant, so did the activities based on them. Sure, a few people are doing them on alts, but I am betting Blizz’s stats show an alarming dropoff in participation rates.

That dropoff is certainly reflected in WoW’s Monthly Active User stats, the metric by which Activision-Blizzard measures a game’s corporate worth. Add to this the inevitable end-of-expansion lull, and this quarter’s bottom line starts to look less than rosy for Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas. Possibly the MAU will be rescued by introduction of Allied Races, but right now it seems like that is tied to pre-order of the next expansion, and given that we have not even seen a beta yet, it seems unlikely that pre-ordering will occur before March or April at the earliest.

I am not deluded enough to think Priority Mail will make up for all the lost MAU, but it certainly cannot hurt. Add to that longer timewalking raids (Black Temple and the upcoming Ulduar), significantly extended leveling times for new characters, and longer solo times for old raids people keep running for mounts and transmog. Multiplied by even a couple of million players, it adds up and might serve to keep Ion’s MAU numbers afloat for a couple of months.

(If you are interested, there is a very good guide to the whole Priority Mail achievement here in the Icy Veins forums. And if you do not want to spend hours staring at a Dalaran mailbox to start the quest line, the starter item is available in auction houses for the low low price of somewhere between 150,000 and 1 million gold.)

Anyway, back to my rant. Above I wrote that Blizz doesn’t care what you are doing in the game so long as you are logged in for many hours, but there is an exception to that: if you are playing an alt, Blizz requires that you play it strictly in accordance with how Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas thinks alts should be played. Blizz has been rather relentless in ferreting out infractions of this and clamping down as soon as possible.

Think I’m exaggerating? Recall Ion’s pronouncement back in WoD about how heinous he considered it to use alts to supply items to a main — he huffed and puffed about it so much that he seemed perilously close to hyperventilating. To stop such abuses, in Legion we saw a whole host of mechanisms designed to force every character, alt or main, into a strict end game chute, thereby ensuring Ion’s view of alts strictly as mini-mains would be forced on every player.

Professions, for example, required participation in not only instances, but also in Mythic level instances. In some cases only raids would supply the needed profession progression items. And of course in order to participate in these group activities, a certain item level was required, so the alt would have to not only level but also reach a certain ilevel. For many professions, a certain rep level with advanced factions was required, again requiring a certain gear level in order to be able to do the things necessary to get that rep. Blizz introduced a soulbound material necessary for most high-level crafting and gear level enhancements, and the only way you could get the material was to participate in end game activities with a time investment close to what had previously been reserved for main play. It is worth noting that, unlike in Mists, Blizz apparently has no intention, even now at the end of the expansion, of making these soulbound materials account bound. (They did very magnanimously allow a shuffle of sorts, but at an 80% loss rate for the materials.)

I suspect by now some of you are rolling your eyes a bit and muttering, “Yeah, okay, Fi, this is all old news, so what?” Well, one would have thought the introduction of an entire alt-control system such as we have in Legion would be enough. But one would be wrong. It turns out that there was a huge loophole that allowed players to *gasp* actually level alts more quickly than Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas wishes to permit!

To plug this loophole, the Blizz devs convened an emergency session and quickly nerfed the entire and long-standing Recruit A Friend program. Check out the Blue post quote explaining how they narrowly averted alt-play disaster with their quick action:

Now, we certainly recognize that the majority of people using the Refer-A-Friend system before these changes were doing so in order to level alts quickly. If anything, we take that as a strong indication that the system needed to change: the best method to level a character in WoW shouldn’t be “buy a new copy of the game, put it on a separate account, send it a Refer-A-Friend invite, level a new character, and then transfer that character to your primary account when you’re finished.” That’s messy, at best.

If people are buying new copies of the game, what the hell should Blizz care how they are using them, so long as they are not violating the ToS? If people want to buy them to use as doorstops, what business is it of Blizz’s? If people take a “messy” route to playing alts, who cares? Attention Blizz: People were buying your game! Isn’t that actually one of the primary reasons you are in business? And not for nothin’, but just maybe this shows that your recent “leveling experience enhancement” went too far and many of your customers will go to extremes to avoid it. Just sayin’… Not that you need to take any lessons from it or anything, heaven forbid.

No, this nerf was about two things: preventing players from deviating from the prescribed and approved alt-usage policy, and squeezing every possible MAU number out of this expansion.

Next up in Blizz’s “expansion of content”: the Dried Paint achievement. Awards the coveted “Painter” title, along with the Endless Bucket of Paint toy, which can be used (with a 3-week cooldown) to splash paint on the streets of Dalaran (this expansion only). To start the 28-quest achievement, watch the steps of the Violet Citadel closely. Cracks will begin to appear in the steps approximately every 4 hours, and when exactly 74 paint cracks appear in any 3 of the steps, make your way to the Hero’s Welcome and find the Tiny Magic Paintbrush, which will appear somewhere in the inn for 180-240 seconds. When you pick up the paintbrush, you may begin this quest line. Prepare yourself for fun!

🙄

Disconnected thoughts

Today feels like kind of a disconnected day — we have a few flakes of snow, so of course most things in Northern Virginia come to a screeching halt. It is both amusing and annoying, since it inevitably entails rescheduling, postponing, cancelling, etc. So while my brain is multi-tasking those things in the background, here are a few scattered thoughts on WoW.

Addendum to my manners post. One other “rude clod” type that annoys me in the game is the raid slacker. I am not talking about actual raid performance, but rather the person who is chronically unprepared. You all know such a person. They always want to “borrow” flasks or talent books. They forget to update DBM. They never remember to get their seals before raid so have to go back for them and then demand to be summoned back to the raid. Even in progression, they are chronically short of Defiled Augment Runes, and they have never troubled themselves to get the permanent one from the Army of the Light.

If the raid usually provides feasts, they never ever contribute anything towards making them, and in fact frequently complain bitterly if a feast is not immediately set down, saying rude things like “Feed me” or “Where’s the feast?”. Same with repair mechanisms such as hammers.

On our progression team, we usually provide everyone with a weekly vantus rune to be used for the toughest boss of the week. But once we have the heroic raid on farm we stop doing that. Last tier, after we had downed KJ a few times, the GM announced that we would start doing the boss without handing out vantus runes. Our usual slackers were incensed when a few people used their own, claiming the GM had said we were not to use them. When someone explained that no, only the free ones would not be handed out, there was slacker indignation and piteous cries of “But I don’t have any gold, I’m poooooor!”

So yeah. Ill-mannered clods abound.

Patch 7.3.5. I have not actually done much yet with the new patch. By the time the servers came back up yesterday, it was already past our raid start time, so we all hurriedly logged in and started raiding. I did not do the new quest line or try out any of the old world zone changes.

New zone levels. I am still on the fence about the zone changes. I see why many players would be happy that they can now quest in a favorite zone for much longer and not be penalized in leveling. But beyond that, I think Blizz has pulled a fast one on us. Basically, by increasing the amount of xp needed to level in these zones, and by increasing the health and hit points for mobs as well as for instance and raid bosses in these zones, Blizz has stretched out the amount of time necessary to level a new character or to farm old content for mounts and transmog.

It’s all about the MAU, baby.

I do not know about you, but I actually liked being able to roflstomp through a zone with a new character. I have done nearly every quest so many times that they no longer offer any real entertainment value to me, they are just a means to get passingly familiar with a new class, and to get that new class or alt to a decently high level where the actual fun starts. The faster I can get through them, the better.

As far as I know, Blizz has not improved the mess of low-character spells and abilities, either. A couple of expansions ago, they changed the way/rate at which characters get certain key abilities, and the result for many classes is that you are stuck with one or two useful buttons for a pretty long time. This was annoying but not terrible when all the mobs died quickly and when you could rapidly level up and get a few more abilities. We will see how it plays out now that you cannot level as rapidly and the mobs are more deadly.

Also, if I am farming old raids or instances for a mount or some special transmog or old recipe, I couldn’t care less about “the experience” — I am interested in getting through the thing as fast as possible so that I can be disappointed again and quickly move on.

Basically, I feel like Blizz is testing out techniques for vanilla servers, and they are pretty much shoving “the classic experience” down our throats. And they are ensuring no one can rush through leveling allied characters when they become available, thus stretching out the inevitable end-of-expansion thin content.

Not to mention, if these changes annoy enough people, Blizz’s sales of character boosts will skyrocket. What’s not to love?

”More” bag space. What a scam this is. Ion Hazzikostas had the chutzpah to really hype this at Blizzcon — better sit down, here’s a big announcement: We are giving you more bag space, whoopee, just like you have been asking for!!

It’s four lousy bag spaces, for crying out loud. It doesn’t even begin to make up for the ton of gear and “things” Blizz now makes us carry around.

And if no one noticed, it comes at a price. Not only do you have to add an authenticator to your account (not a bad idea even if you do not get extra space), but you must also subscribe to Blizzard SMS Protect. Thus Blizzard gets a ton of very valuable phone numbers for the paltry expense of a small amount of server storage.

Blizz may have lost a step in game creativity, but they are making up for it in marketing genius.

Ulduar timewalking. Meh. I suppose I will run it once when my guild does it, but I was never very excited about this raid even when it was current. It was too long then and I am certain it will be tedious in its reincarnation. The only fight I thought was interesting was the first one just because of the vehicles (although I rarely got one of the motorcycles, the coolest vehicle….).

Once again, the people clamoring for this, I suspect, will not really love it — their nostalgia for Ulduar almost certainly stems from circumstances other than the raid itself.

Coven revisited. We took a few more shots at Coven last night in raid. Interestingly, we got Army of Norgannon as the first set of adds every time, even though the other add sequences remained random. It could have been a fluke, but it is possible this is an unannounced nerf. It is undeniably easier to get Norgannon out of the way very early, before the really uncontrollable mechanics kick in.

We had gotten a late start on the raid due to the server outage, and we cleared all the bosses up to Coven, so we only got a few pulls (maybe half a dozen) before we called it for the night. People were having a lot of lag issues, and even some weird bugs such as falling through the floor to the boss below Coven. Even so, our last pull — frustratingly — we got the boss down to less than 1% before wiping. Pretty sure we will get past this one Thursday.

Nostalgia

I am not a let’s-join-an-illegal-vanilla-WoW-server kind of person. I think the game is what it currently is, and if I really dislike it I am at liberty to not play it. It would never occur to me to try and find a retro version of it, partly because I tend to look forward not back, but also because everything — the game, me, the tech world — has gone beyond those early days. Whatever great times I remember about my first months in the game cannot be fully recaptured because those times were a result of a whole array of circumstances. Going back to a vanilla — or even Wrath era — game in and of itself cannot replicate my level of knowledge or game proficiency then, nor can it make me unlearn my current expectations of graphics, server reliability, and other technical advancements.

Part of the reason misty memories are so alluring is because they are just that: misty.  If we really remembered everything about the times we yearn for, we probably would not hold them in such high regard.

Nevertheless, I do fall prey to nostalgia in the game from time to time. One such time happened yesterday as I was leveling my baby priest through Northern Stranglethorn. I was doing some power leveling and thus was pretty focused on the immediate quests at hand, but at one point for some reason I stopped and took in the scenery. And there above me, taking up most of the sky, was the ugly scar of Argus. It completely destroyed the moment for me.

I have been using my priest as a stress relief valve, a way to forget about Blizz’s insults to hunters and the grind the game has become — basically as a cheap way to recapture as much of the game’s simplicity as I can without going completely retro. And I have been successful at it until I looked up and was reminded of all the things awaiting my baby priest if I should actually get so far as leveling her up. Not to get too dramatic about it, but it was kind of soul-crushing.

This same burdensome feeling happened to me as I considered getting a couple more of my leveled alts able to do the Argus world quests. The whole series of quests necessary to do that just seemed not worth the effort. I read where Blizz is considering making this process easier for alts, but honestly I am not holding my breath over it. It would, after all, cut into their MAU stats.

Except maybe it would increase them. In my case, for example, if my alts were able to do Argus world quests without the heavy overhead necessary to unlock them, I would be far more likely to crank out some extra time every week doing a few more WQs on alts.

Short post today — lots going on in real life, both personally and nationally. In all areas I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the present and nostalgic for the past, but almost certainly I remember that past very imperfectly. We have the game that we have, and the ugly scar of Argus is now part of it.