Patch 7.3 first week impressions

We have had close to a week to explore Patch 7.3, and I am still pretty neutral about it. On the one hand there are some interesting and fun things to experience, and on the other the never-ending grind on the same-old same-old is really wearing very thin. Let me get to some specifics.

Timed content release. In general, I am not a fan of this Blizz policy, because I think it is basically one of in loco parentis — they are saving us from ourselves because we are apparently too dim-witted to pace our game play. If they release an entire patch at once, so the Blizz reasoning goes, some of us might play it all through in the first week and then begin to whimper and whine about there being nothing to dooooooo! in the game. Can’t have that, so — like mom doling out Halloween candy a piece at a time — they feed us the patch content in small pieces.

That is my thought in the abstract. In the concrete reality, though, I find I do not mind it. I would probably play the same amount of time whether or not the entire patch was immediately available, but I find nothing in the stretched out release that hinders the way I play. In fact, it encourages me to get a couple of my alts into Argus this first week, since really all there is to do on my main is try and grab as much rep as possible with the new factions and gather some of the currency — all of which can be done just by cranking out the Argus dailies.

The quests. I have found them interesting so far, but I think that is just because they are not the exact same ones we have all been doing for almost a year now. And of course they occur in new territory, so some of the interest is in finding just how in hell to get to this or that world boss or quest area. That said, I haven’t yet found any really new or innovative quests, just the same old gather-20-of-this or kill-10-of-these patterns.

Some of them, in fact, are pretty blatantly just dressed-up versions of the same ones we have been doing in Broken Shore for months now. For example, you know the one in BS along the shore where you have to point your camera up to scan the skies for big menacing birds to shoot down using a special gizmo, all the while dodging mobs on the ground and picking up supply chests? Well, leave out the supply chests and substitute spacey looking fighter craft for the birds, a different icon for the shooting gizmo, and you got one of the world quests on Argus. Exactly. It’s not just the same idea, it actually seems like the same code with a few cosmetic changes.

Zone art. This, too, so far seems like a repurposing of the zone art used in Broken Shore. The two Argus areas we have access to thus far are, like BS, nothing but stretches of rock strata punctuated by green goopy fel rivers and pools, with a cave or cave-like building thrown in once in a while as a place to park an elite or a treasure chest.

Unlike BS, however, the venue of another planet allows Blizz to dispense with some of the more pleasing and/or “normal” geography we found in Azeroth — even on BS — like a few sparse bushes or blades of grass once in a while, or a shoreline with actual ocean and maybe a few islands. And this dispensation is made even more acute by the fact that we cannot even travel between zones ourselves, we can only transport to them, thus Blizz has eliminated the need for transition zones. Argus so far is just a collection of disconnected venues for killing stuff. Which brings me to my next point,

Flying. More specifically, NO flying. Blizz has told us Argus is essentially Timeless Isle, and there will be no flying on it ever. So those cool flying mounts you worked so hard to be able to use in Legion? Forget about them, they will be consigned to waddle about through rock canyons and abutments. Those nifty class mounts Blizz so generously allowed us to earn? Same thing, unless of course you are a druid, in which case you cannot even use your class mount on Argus, since Blizz has decided druids are too stupid to choose their travel form for themselves, and there will be no flying druid forms in no-fly zones.

In the past, Blizz has given us two condescending reasons for not allowing flying. One is that certain zones are too small for it. The other — and their preferred excuse — is that flying precludes “immersion” in the game. (The real reason, I am fairly certain, is that disallowing flying makes the zone design simpler/cheaper and also serves to stretch out a player’s time.)

See, the “immersion” excuse actually makes a little sense to me, especially in the beginning of a new patch when you want to get a sense of the detailed art in the game, or you just want to do some exploring to find hidden pathways or little gems of idyllic beauty off the beaten track. But Argus has no real beauty spots, and the art is the same version of designer hell we have seen for months in BS.

All “immersion” means in 7.3 is that you get to fight your way through mobs every time you travel, every step of the way to and from quests. And Blizz has saved even more on overhead by pretty much making roads the only way you can travel — the place is chock full of invisible walls everywhere you try to go. And while I am at it, whatever happened to the old “You are much less likely to meet monsters if you stick to roads”? The reason Blizz has roads now is to funnel everyone into mob after mob after mob. Not much fun, but it sure as hell racks up the Monthly Active User stats…

Class hall and champion missions. Blizz is still cramming these down our throats. Did you breathe a sigh of relief, feel a sense of accomplishment when you finally got all your champions to gear level 900? HAHAHAHA! Well guess what, now you get to grind them up to 950! For the classes lucky enough to be granted the class hall research permitting work orders for champion gear, this is annoying but doable. For the classes that have to rely on missions only to bring back RNG-determined gear, this new requirement is disheartening in the extreme.

Make no mistake about it, this is nothing more than a naked attempt to boost the use of the WoW mobile app.

Artifact Power and artifact relics. Sigh…. Prior to the release of 7.2, Ion Hazzikostas made a big fat deal out of lecturing us on the proper approach towards collecting AP: It was supposed to be just something that just gradually happened, not meant to be chased after, not meant to overly reward those who played many hours every day, and therefore Blizz was making the AP requirements for additional concordance levels go from ridiculous to impossible. Cool it, he said to us, just play the game and don’t worry about grinding AP. (“If you play it, it will come.”)

Well. What a difference one patch makes. Now, it turns out, in order to maximize your weapon relics, you have to achieve certain (quite high) concordance levels. And to encourage you to do this (in fact, just to make it possible for you to do this) we are going back to ever-increasing levels of weapon reasearch that permit ever-higher AP rewards! Grind your little asses off, maggots! Bwaaaahaha!

Bottom line. I am happy to get some new stuff to do with 7.3, and I kind of like the idea of taking the battle to another planet. And even if the new world quests are just reruns of the Broken Shore ones, at least they are a somewhat new variation. But I can’t escape the feeling that Blizz is funneling us down a narrower and narrower chute in terms of game play — no flying, no esthetic exploring, keep up your champion missions, grind your butt off for AP again. I feel like they are sacrificing their enormous capacity for creativity all in the name of cranking out “content” at a blistering pace. And that they have begun to view players as nothing more than Monthly Active User statistics to be manipulated for the bottom line, not as customers who play their game just because they take pure delight in it.

Personal note: Thanks to the well-wishers for my family in Houston last week. It was a week of little sleep for me, along with a lot of phone calls and micro-organizing, but it ultimately resulted in a satisfactory outcome. And not for nothin’, but I come from good stock — my 80-year old great-aunt and uncle weathered hardship that would defeat many, much younger, people. Uncle Bertie and Aunt Ellen — you guys rock!

Chromie? Really?

Am I the only one who does not get the whole Deaths of Chromie thing? Last night, as I was desperately trying to find something besides the new raid tier to get excited about in 7.2.5, I watched the MMO-C video on the Chromie scenario and read all of their detailed notes.

I still don’t get it. To me, it looks like a whole bunch of annoyance for a less-than-stellar cosmetic fluff reward, a title, and a mount. Maybe I am puzzled because I am not very big into transmogging or mounts, whereas players who really love these aspects of the game will be over the moon at the prospect of spending hours listening to Chromie’s headache-inducing squeak.

If I understand the scenario right, here are its “features”:

  • A series of five quests that bring you into the various sub-scenarios run out of Wyrmrest Temple. The last 2 quests seem to require a significant amount of dedicated play time in one chunk.
  • A garrison class hall set of class hall traits talents you “research” or something over time. (The visual representation of these is the same exact model of the class hall research traits.) Only when you accomplish all of these do you have a chance at completing the final part of the quest line/scenario. I think, by a quick calculation, that earning these talents takes a minimum of 10 days.
  • You must earn rep with Chromie. I am not clear on the reason for this, but it can apparently be done by moving through the various portals and killing mobs.
  • You are auto-bumped to level 112 with gear level 1000. (This should tell you something.)
  • You must clear each portal separately before you may move on to the final scenario. The first time you clear each, you must do a full clear of all trash plus boss(es). Subsequently, you may go directly to the boss in each.
  • The next-to-final quest puts you in a scenario where you must clear all portals in one go.
  • The final quest/scenario requires you to complete all portals in a total of 15 minutes. If not, presumably you must start over.

None of this sounds fun to me, nor do the rewards motivate me to suffer through it. I hate timed events anyway, they are too nerve-wracking for me to enjoy them, certainly I do not see them as part of what is supposed to be a leisure activity. Also, I absolutely do not see how this event relates in any way to the lore story of Legion.

The whole idea strikes me as one of those things an intern came up with and their supervisor said sure go ahead and develop it, just to give them something to do and stay out of everyone’s hair. Either that, or the dev team got marching orders to come up with something — anything — that would continue to boost Blizz’s Monthly Active User stats over the final days of the second quarter earnings period. Whatever, this Chromie thing strikes me as the WoD jukebox and Pepe events of Legion — a total time-filler, designed only to keep some number of players from becoming bored and disgruntled enough to stop playing until the next expansion.

Legion has reached the point where, other than raid tiers, there is little left to keep some players engaged. Hard core types and semi-casuals will do the raid tier, and along the way will do enough Mythic+ dungeons to slightly increase their chance to get the new legendaries. (However, even this activity is nerfed in 7.2.5, since there are no more multiple chests, so the payoff is significantly less in terms of legendary chances.) World Quest AP awards are largely insignificant and probably not worth the time once one has reached the billion+ AP requirement for a Concordance increase. Neither WQs, world bosses, nor BS dailies will give gear awards worth anything to anyone with even 875 or so ilevel. For these players, only the raid tier will yield the gear needed including t20. For non-raiders, Tomb of Sargeras will not be available in LFR until starting June 27, then will release new wings in 2-week intervals over the summer through August 8.

Add to this mixture the fact that it is summer when people typically stop playing computer games in favor of lots of outdoor activities, and I suppose if you are Blizz you are pretty desperate for anything to keep your second quarter metrics from falling off the chart. Clearly, adding in hours of quality time with Chromie indicates desperation.

Look, I know there are a lot of you who will love this little Chromie part of 7.2.5. More power to you, I hope you will have fun with it. But for me, if I ever do it, it will be in the waning days of Legion, when there is absolutely nothing else to occupy my time. Even then, I think farming mats would be more enjoyable for me.

Tomorrow is a 10-hour announced patch day to implement 7.2.5. That strikes me as a very long time. Let’s hope it is overkill on Blizz’s part, not that they are anticipating having a rough patch. See you on the other side.

Happy Pi Day and other numbers

Woohoo! It’s Pi Day, which of course is celebrated with pie. What could be better for a dreary Monday in March? And this year the day is somewhat special. Well, it was special last year, too, but we do like to drag out our specialness when possible, don’t we? As ABC News explains:

Last year’s Pi Day was one to celebrate since it was 3/14/15, perfectly matching the first numbers past the decimal point of pi. Last year, hardcore math fans even started celebrating the day at exactly 9:26 a.m. and 53 seconds. There’s a big reason to celebrate this year too — math enthusiasts are calling today “Rounded Pi Day.”

When rounding pi to the ten-thousandth (that’s four places beyond the decimal point), it comes out to 3.1416, matching today’s date — March 14, 2016.

In our house, Pi Day takes on slightly more significance since it is also the day before the Ides of March, which happens to be my spousal unit’s birthday. Poor fellow, he has never had an actual birthday cake from me, he always gets birthday pie. It is, of course, always a rounded pie, but this year the shape clearly assumes greater importance!

Anyway, Pi Day being about numbers, I decided to go back and look at the Q4 2016 report from Activision Blizzard, which was issued early last month. I had scanned it when it came out, decided it made my head hurt, and quickly moved on. But something made me look at it again. My usual disclaimer: I am not an economist or stock expert, and my comments are purely a lay person’s observations. Take them for what they are worth, which honestly is not much.

Of course, all the comments by the ATVI execs were rosy and optimistic. In general, they have a right to be — the gaming industry is flighty and fickle, and to maintain a multi-billion dollar gaming company for years is a pretty impressive accomplishment. So this is not a “WoW is doomed” post, just a couple of observations — an attempt to read between the lines — about the Blizzard and WoW corners of the massive ATVI entity.

The first thing that really stood out for me is something one of my regular readers alluded to in a comment on my last post — that Legion artifact weapons are a huge gating mechanism. I agreed with him and it made me think, oh silly me of course this is done on purpose, especially the part about having to level an artifact weapon for every spec, not just for every class. And the reason is that the success metric now applied by ATVI is “monthly active user engagement”, which just means amount of time played each month by players who log on. (I think — I really do not know exactly how ATVI defines “active users”.)

ATVI  COO Thomas Tippl (emphasis mine):

First, we broadened our audience reach with successful new content launches and expanded onto new platforms and geographies. In the fourth quarter, our monthly active users grew to our highest level ever at over 80 million users. For the full year, MAUs grew 25% over 2014.

Second, we drove deeper engagement by providing outstanding game play and frequent content updates. Players spent 3.5 billion hours playing our games in the fourth quarter alone. For the full year, engagement was up 16% to a record 14 billion hours, and this doesn’t include rapidly growing hours spent spectating which we estimate for Activision Blizzard alone is now 1.5 billion hours. Third, we progressed in something that is very hard to do, but is critical for our business. We shifted to a year-round player investment model, while growing engagement at the same time. And as a result, we grew our revenues from in-game content and services to over $1.6 billion. That’s up 57% year-over-year at constant FX.

When executed well, increased player investment and deeper engagement are not a tradeoff but instead can reinforce each other, and we are pleased that our results are proving out this important element of our business strategy.

That is the big ATVI picture. Here are related comments from Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime (again, emphasis mine):

Moving onto World of Warcraft, we saw quarter-over-quarter growth in Q4 as we kicked off presales at BlizzCon for our new expansion, Legion, which is coming out in the summer, and we released a new content patch. With Legion we’re taking care to build off the best aspects of Warlords of Draenor to create an experience that appeals to an even wider audience and which offers more opportunities for sustained engagement.

(I’m not sure I remember the release of a new content patch in 4th quarter of 2015, but never mind.)

It seems clear that one of the main goals for Legion, as part of the larger ATVI corporate goal, is to extend the time each player must spend in order to attain desired goals. Thus, we will have spec-specific artifact weapons, each of which entails a relatively long process to open up the entire range of what amounts to a new talent tree based on a unique weapon. Further, I think we can expect to see other goals — especially the most sought after — to be fairly long and involved (think flying as an example).

I am not necessarily passing judgement here — forcing “engagement” is not inherently good or evil. I am just saying that the prime motivator for many of WoW’s mechanisms probably has very little to do with player fun or some bogus “spec fantasy”, and a great deal to do with the bottom line in the next quarterly report. Remember that when you are collecting your 30th widget of 300 for quest number 6 in a string of 21 required for Legion flying.

My last point is that, despite rosy pronouncements from ATVI execs, all is not unicorns and puppies and rainbows as far as the company’s future goes. They certainly are not in imminent danger of going under, but they face some very significant challenges, some of which are described by this analyst. Essentially, acquisition of King remains a large gamble for the company, and the realization of huge eSports revenue, while still promising, is in its very early and formative stages. A lot could still stop it in its tracks.

What this means for WoW is anyone’s guess (although it appears less and less  likely that it will be revived as an eSport, it just is not a good genre for that), but — not to be a harbinger of doom — it seems pretty safe to say that this MMO is playing out its own end game. Sure, it may remain viable for a couple of more years, but I think we are seeing Legion as a possible last-ditch attempt to revive it, or maybe just to allow it to exit gracefully. The analyst I cited above had this comment to make:

World of Warcraft – increasingly becoming an afterthought, which shows just broad and deep ATVI’s portfolio is – appears to have declined sharply from the billion-dollar levels estimated as recently as last year. Durkin said that for the first time since Activision and Blizzard merged in 2008, WoW drove less than half of that company’s revenue. Given that Blizzard generated $1.565 billion in revenue for the year, that caps WoW’s contribution at ~$780 million.

And last, this thought from yet another analyst (my emphasis):

Whatever the reasons for the decline in Activision’s main products are, there is no question that there is a decline.

First, World of Warcraft. The game hit its peak of just shy of 12.5 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2010. Since then, it has steadily declined, with a short recovery in Q4 2014. By end of the third quarter 2015, the game had slightly over 5 million subscribers and is expected to have ended up slightly below 5 million by the end of 2015. Worse, it looks probable that this decline is very likely to continue and will not be reversed by the forthcoming release of World of Warcraft: Legion on September 21, 2016.

No, it may not be time yet to head for the WoW exits, but it wouldn’t hurt to know where they are. Enjoy the game as much as you can as long as you can, but know that it will not last forever. The world of gaming is changing, and some genres will not be part of the next game generation.

Meanwhile, I recommend pie.