110 character boost stinks

This will be a short post today, due to “surprise” in-law visit. 😡

When Blizz announced a 110 character boost as part of the pre-purchase of Battle for Azeroth, I was pleased. I have made use of boosts for several characters, have even separately purchased at least one. I always thought the benefits of the boost were worth the money, particularly since I usually got my characters to level 60 first so that I would also get the profession max perk.

But Blizz seems to have pushed the 110 boost out the door with the absolute minimum work they could possibly do and still rake in the $$. There is no longer any profession perk. That is, even if you boost after level 60, you get your professions to 700 but still have to go through the maddening series of Legion professions hoops to get your recipes and to get to level 800. When people discovered this, they rightly assumed it was just a bug and reported it as such. No, came the response, it is “working as intended”.

Another thing that is “working as intended” is that boosted characters no longer get the Level 3 garrison from WoD. I do not know if this means there is no access to Tanaan, as I have not used my 110 boost yet, but I would not be surprised.

The auto level 3 garrison with the level 100 boost was, I thought, reasonable. Basically, Blizz was giving us full access to WoD content by doing that. But now, if you want full WoD access, you need to get out there and grind your little butt off.

Basic access to expansion end-game content was, I always thought, the purpose of marketing the character boosts in the first place. But this bare bones 110 boost seems pretty cheesy. I say that because in the past a full-level boost actually gave you some ability to participate in end game activities at a reasonable — not OP, but reasonable — level. One would naturally assume that the Legion boost would give the boosted character some progress on the long drawn-out class hall quests, champion quests, AP chase, zone unlocks, and profession lines. One would be wrong. The 110 boost does not give anything close to the ability to engage in end game activities — you are stuck with playing Legion catch-up to be able to get to that point.

Blizz apparently cannot step away from their all-powerful MAU master, even when players pay hard cash for what used to be decent perks. The new character boost is nowhere close to the decent shortcut it used to be, it is a scam no longer worth the money Blizz continues to charge for it.

I want the company to make money, I am glad that they do. But it seems to me that with Legion they have crossed a line from making profits to maliciously squeezing every dime they can out of players, frequently stooping to deliberately misleading them in the process. The 110 boost is far less value than previous boosts for the same money.

Enjoy your weekend. Mine unfortunately will be spent catering to in-laws.

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.

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.

Time and the bottom line

Activision Blizzard conducted its public Q1 2017 Earnings Call yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with this quarterly ritual, it is a conference call conducted to inform ATVI stockholders of the company’s financial status. The company being traded publicly, the transcript of the call is published for anyone when cares to read it, and in fact if you really are into masochism, you can register with ATVI in advance and sign up to be on the call (in theory, that is — I have never tried this, can’t imagine why I would actually). This conference call accompanies the public release of the financial report for the quarter. I am not even going to give links to these things — you can easily find them if you search, and honestly they are very dry and dull. There is, however, a quick and dirty summary on MMO-C if you care to read it.

There was not much in the latest report/call that had to do with WoW. In fact, there hasn’t been much for a few quarters now, usually only a brief mention of a new expansion or some comment about Monthly Active Users or Daily Active Users. That in itself is sometimes eye-opening to WoW players, because it underscores the undeniable fact that WoW is no longer the flagship it once was, it really is a minor part of the growing ATVI empire. In the big corporate picture, you definitely get the impression that WoW is a bit of a dinosaur — it is still a revenue producer, but it is does not seem to be part of ATVI’s vision for the future of gaming.

There were one or two points that I picked up on in the report, though. The first was the opening statement by Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI. You can sum it up in one word: esports. A partial quote:

One of our big priorities is to unlock the full potential of professional esports by opening the sale of teams and media rights of our leagues. Over the years, we’ve become a leader in creating world class competitive experiences, sustainable franchises that engage hundreds of millions of people around the world, through gameplay competition and connecting players and communities. This success is driven by our ability to tap into the timeless power of communities, anchored through organized competition.

The esports audience includes some of the hardest to reach and most sought-after demographics for marketers and advertisers, with the share of millennials two to three times higher than any of the big four U.S. sports.

We’re also going to combine delivery of our spectator content with unique advertising opportunities that includes the ability for advertisers to have better targeting and analytics, much more so than what you would see in traditional forms of broadcast advertising today. And with over 400 million MAUs and extremely high levels of engagement, our potential to generate meaningful advertising revenue is substantial.

Of course, it is not news that ATVI is betting heavily on esports. And no one should be surprised that the WoW franchise plays only a tiny part in that expansion — it is really focused on ATVI’s other, newer, games. What did strike me, though, is the very strong implication that ATVI is more than willing to use its entire stable of games — along with the very considerable and detailed data it collects on player activities and preferences — to “generate meaningful advertising revenue.” I confess I do not really know what that means, but it does tend to give me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades now if I decide to click on the in-game Blizzard shop, or if I routinely check the Mac technical forum on the Blizz web site. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral about this, and it certainly is a widespread practice any time you use the Internet, it’s just that I had previously not considered it as part of WoW. Yeah, I know that is naive, but still Kotick’s comment got my attention. Are we on the path to becoming less valuable as customers and more valuable as ATVI mass data products?

The other major point I took from the report were a couple of related comments.

This, from ATVI COO Thomas Tippi:

Blizzard continues to see strong engagement from its players with time spent increasing by a double digit percentage year-over-year to a new Q1 record.

Blizzard’s strategy to release content and feature updates more regularly in World of Warcraft has been paying off with time spent up year-over-year, and with overall performance ahead of the prior expansion.

And this, from Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime:

So, yeah, this year for Blizzard represents a new type of pipeline, one that’s not necessarily based on full game launches, but instead on delivering new content updates for our games. This quarter, we have meaningful new content for every franchise in our portfolio. In fact, a few weeks ago we set a new DAU record on the back of these new content updates. This reflects the evolution of our business from focusing primarily on full game releases to also providing a consistent stream of content for our players. Even without any full game launches this year, we’re continuing to add to the depths of our games to serve a very highly engaged community with more content across our portfolio than we ever have before.

Anyone who thinks the grindy aspects of Legion is just an expansion peculiarity needs to think again. It is, in fact the plan for the foreseeable future. We can expect the next expansion to stretch out professions, leveling, gearing up, achievements — every activity in the game — even more than Legion does. Why? Because time spent in the game is the metric for game success in ATVI.

Is this tactic really “content”? Who knows? The fact is that whatever it is, it has succeeded — at least so far — in evening out WoW player engagement. Whether you like or hate Legion or are somewhere in between, it seems to have kept more players  logging in further into the expansion than previously. Legion’s strategy seems to be a financial success, as measured by MAU/DAU. It is hard to argue with that. And while it can seem grindy — hell, it is grindy —  it is also fun, certainly to those of us actively playing.

Still, there is this stubborn, contrary part of me that feels manipulated and used. It’s the same feeling you get when you suddenly realize someone is taking advantage of you. I feel like Blizz is pushing my loyalty to the game so as to get better quarterly numbers. Yeah, I know that is why they are in business, but this feels different somehow.

It’s like this: What if movie theaters suddenly changed their business plan to measure success by how long movie patron cars remained in the parking lot? So once you got to the theater, there were deliberate setups that ensured long lines for tickets, for popcorn, for the bathrooms, to get to your seat. They added a gift shop you had to pass through in order to get to the seating area. They tripled or quadrupled all the pre-movie ads and trailers and trivia games. They added several intermissions to every movie. They gave you a coupon of some sort if you stayed after the movie was over to complete a customer feedback survey. And so forth. How would you feel about your movie experience? Chances are, if you really wanted to see the movie in a theater, you would still go, but you would not consider most of the experience to be happy. Some would undoubtedly love all the new “content”, but many others would remember when they used to be able to do the movie experience in 3 hours, but now it took 5 or 6, and they would not be pleased about it.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about all this. It was, after all, just a financial report. Still, it did give us a couple of insights into what the future may hold.

Speaking of which, my future includes a weekend. Weather weenies tell us it will be cool and rainy in my part of Virginia — perfect for staying warm and dry inside and playing WoW or watching a movie.

What Blizz got wrong in Legion

My last post laid out what I think Blizz got right about Legion. It was a long post, because I think on balance Legion is a decent expansion — certainly leagues better than WoD. As I said in the post, I give Legion a “solid B”. The reasons it does not make the cut for an “A” is the subject of this post.

All expansions have good and bad points. And of course what is one person’s “good” is another’s “bad”. Something I hate about the game may be the one thing that keeps you coming back to it. In weighing what I was going to include in this post, I tried to evaluate the big picture of things in Legion that make me grimly grit my teeth and slog through, knowing for me they detract significantly from the fun of the game, but they must be endured if I wish to get to the fun parts.

As I began to outline what I was going to include in this post, I noticed there were there design approaches that seemed to play a major role — singly or together —  in every area I find troubling about this expansion: RNG, the drive to increase the Monthly Active User (MAU) metric, and what I think of as “class chaos”. These seem to me to be meta-mistakes in Legion, fundamentally flawed design philosophies that give rise to a host of unpopular and/or fun-killing aspects of the game.

RNG (random number generator, or more properly, pseudo-random number generator) is at the heart of nearly every computer game — I don’t know of a way to code complex combat simulations without it. The extent to which randomness is used, however, is where people begin to get uncomfortable with it. For example, if every time you cast a spell in WoW, it was like spinning a huge wheel of fortune, and you got truly random outcomes anywhere in a range of one to ten million hit points, most people — Blizz devs included — would consider that bad design. Similarly, if absolutely every aspect of the game — even things like where you end up when you interact with a flight master, or how many health points you get when you down a health potion — were RNG-controlled, again almost everyone would consider that to be unacceptable game design.

But there is a vast area between minimal combat-outcome RNG and the extremes I just cited. And it is in this area where reasonable people differ in their opinions of “how much is too much”. I would argue that Blizz has a years-long history of RNG creep, in the sense of expanding its use to more and more areas of the game. Some form of RNG seems to be their preferred design approach for as many aspects of the game as they can apply it to, and we have seen it noticeably expanded in Legion, to the extent that for me it has crossed the line into “too much” territory.

This trend to making everything RNG is closely tied with the MAU motive: if you want certain gear — including legendaries — or certain profession recipes, there is absolutely no way to get them other than to keep playing until they magically appear for you. If you are exceptionally lucky, this will not take long. But if you have normal or bad luck, this means that the only thing you can do to “increase” your chances to get this stuff is to play more hours. If you are someone who is limited in your daily play time, this means it could take months — or never — before you get whatever it is you are seeking. We have all read the stories of how the world-first mythic guild members ran literally hundreds of instances in the first couple of weeks of Legion just to get their legendaries, or to advance their artifacts.

This is a demoralizing effect — no matter how skilled you are, no matter how diligently you work at a goal, you have zero control over obtaining items you are seeking. It is a lottery, and the only way to succeed is to keep buying more and more tickets, but even then there is no guarantee of a prize.

The concept of “class chaos” is this: Blizz had reasonably well-balanced classes and specs at the end of WoD. There were exceptions, of course (priests — both shadow disc, for different reasons — come immediately to mind, as do of course survival hunters), but overall most of the classes had reached a decent equilibrium. This was no small feat, as it had taken most of WoD to achieve this somewhat wobbly balance in what is undeniably a vastly complex system.

So what did Blizz decide to do? Rework nearly every class and spec (except for some unfathomable reason mages and druids), almost from the ground up, add in the huge complicating factor of artifact weapons, and create a new class. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we have seen. Patch 7.1.5 promises some improvement to the horrible unbalanced mess Blizz has made, but I believe the problems with many classes are so fundamental that they cannot be resolved in Legion. They can possibly be resolved in the next expansion, but only if Blizz exercises some discipline and refrains from yet another total rebuilding of every class.

These three basic design mistakes — expansion of RNG, drive to increase MAU, and class chaos — are the primary factors that result in what for me are fun-killing aspects of Legion:

Gear

Artifact weapon. I was leery of this idea to begin with, and four months have only served to confirm for me that it is a design I endure rather than embrace. It seems to me to have been created solely for increasing the MAU metric for the game. Some of my pet peeves about it:

  • It permeates most aspects of the game — nearly all activities are centered around this single piece of uber-gear. Want to switch specs within your class? Got to consider how to handle a new artifact weapon. Want to level an alt? Got to pretty much pick a spec and stick with it for many levels, as there is that artifact to consider. Want to run just a couple world quests? Better weigh the relative trade-offs between the ones that award AP or relics and any others you may actually prefer to do. Not a big fan of dungeons? Too bad, you better run them so you can get the gobs of AP they award.
  • There is no feeling of achievement or accomplishment with it, as the trait table is for all practical purposes endless. Once you get the last gold trait at level 34, you get to chase tiny power increments for 20 more levels at ever-increasing AP costs well into the millions for each. And new patches bring even more traits and levels. There is no goal to work towards, just an endless slog grubbing for artifact stuff.
  • While some classes and specs got artifacts with real lore and game history behind them, many others got made-up lore with absolutely zero history. I can’t escape the feeling that Blizz first made the decision that there would be 36 separate artifacts, then looked around and said “Holy shit, that’s a lot of design work, well just get something out there, bring in the interns to help!”
  • Which leads me to one of the worst artifact decisions Blizz made — having spec weapons instead of class weapons. I understand there are some technical problems with having the same weapon for hybrid classes, but I cannot imagine those would be worse than the current state of affairs. I suppose the corporate suits are happy that players must grub out more game hours to make off spec weapons viable, but it is a real joy-killer for me.
  • Last, the decision to make artifact weapons mandatory for all players. Again, forcing players down a specific game style path. Why could there not have been a choice — artifact weapon for any character that wishes to raid, normal weapon for others?

Legendaries. I think even Blizz is starting to realize this was a terrible design decision, but of course now they cannot back out of it, they are stuck trying to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t. (Another RNG-based MAU-driven decision.)

  • The fact that getting them is based completely on luck just does not seem very “legendary” to me. It’s kind of like getting a Pulitzer Prize in a box of cereal. Yeah, it was a nice surprise, but you did not work for it, you did nothing to deserve it, it was just pure luck.
  • Worse, if you do not get such a prize, you feel deficient because all your friends got one and you have munched your way through about 100 boxes of Lucky Charms and still have nothing but a sugar high to show for it.
  • Still worse, some of the Pulitzers come with actual monetary awards, and some are just gimmicky little jokes. You of course, want the “really good” Pulitzer, but even when you finally get one in your 101st box of Lucky Charms, it turns out to be just a piece of fancy paper folded up into an origami bird. Whoopty doo.

Other gear. I’ll cover this in my next post, where I’ll talk about things I think Blizz can still reasonably fix in Legion. But some of the gear decisions that do not work for me are:

  • Crafted gear. It is prohibitively expensive to upgrade, and even when you do, you have what is at best mediocre gear. Worse, you can only upgrade soulbound gear, meaning you cannot sell upgraded gear or even craft it for an alt.
  • World quest gear does not mesh well with the gear levels most people have by the time they are regularly running WQs. Except for the odd piece here and there, the WQ gear rewards are seldom worth pursuing, unless you are the lucky type that can reasonably hope for a random upgrade.
  • Order hall gear. Again, by the time a character has done everything necessary to qualify for most of this gear, it is not an upgrade, even with the upgrade tokens.

Professions

In general, I think Blizz has pretty much destroyed any satisfaction I ever enjoyed from professions. This is another design that seems completely RNG/MAU driven.

I think one of the reasons they have done this is because they have undergone one of their signature pendulum swings from a previous expansion. In WoD, pretty much anyone could enjoy the benefits of most professions; in Legion, almost no one can enjoy the benefits of any profession other than the ones they have on their main.

I think the other reason they have done this is as part of a conscious effort to implement Ion Hazzikostas’s pet theory that no one should be able to have a stable of alts that in any way benefits their main.

I am not against doing quest lines in order to level professions, but I think it is going overboard to require a certain play style to do so. In Legion, you cannot level a profession — especially a crafting profession — unless you not only complete a long quest line, but also run dailies and instances and in some cases raids, and get lucky enough for the RNG gods to award you with recipes. And of course, in order to do this, you must be properly geared which means if you do not have something close to main-character time commitment, you will not max out your profession.

  • One especially galling change in profession quests is that when you gather/craft something to fulfill a quest requirement, you have to give it up. This is unlike most pre-Legion profession quests, where when you gathered or made something, the quest was completed by the act of doing that activity, and you got to use/sell the proceeds of your quest.
  • The whole recipe level concept does not work for me. For one thing, it is hard to keep track of. For another, it is just a way to extend the amount of time required to reach a goal. Some recipe levels are only available from faction vendors, requiring long weeks of rep to qualify for. Some recipes and levels require relatively large amounts of expensive/rare non-related mats. Again, by the time one is able to amass these items, it is seldom worth it to craft them any more, with the possible exception of flasks and food.
  • There was — and still is — a design bias that vastly favors herbalism and alchemy in Legion, and to a lesser degree jewel crafting and enchanting. Nearly all other professions are close to worthless, both for gold making and for assisting other characters in your account.
  • Nomi. ‘Nuff said.

Alts

The points I have made above converge to have an extremely negative effect on alt play. And yes, I know there are people out there who will claim “I only play two hours a day, and I have leveled up 11 alts and maxed out their professions and still raid at the Heroic level with my main” — to which I will cry horse hockey! Anyone who wants to merely level up alts can do so easily. But to gear them even minimally for heroic instances, or to a level for LFR — much less for normal raiding or Mythic dungeons — takes main-level time commitments.

My preferred play style for years — and I suspect it is a fairly common play style — has been to gear up, progress on, and raid with a main, meanwhile leveling and minimally gearing up 6-7 alts for instances, guild alt raids, and professions. That play style is just not tenable in Legion unless I am willing/able to vastly increase my play time.

Ion Hazzikostas has finally put the mechanisms in place to force everyone to play every character in the approved play style, and any attempt at deviating from this approved style comes at tremendous cost to the player in terms of time.

Summary

I have titled this post “What Blizz got wrong in Legion”, but from Blizz’s point of view I suspect it is considered to be brilliant design. One of their main metrics — MAU — is almost certainly way up. The never-ending story of artefacts and world quests, along with drawn-out quest lines and random awards for professions and legendaries, means quashing the “I’m BOOOOORRRRED!” whines of a certain segment of the player population, even if it is at the expense of players like myself.

As I have said before, Legion is a fantastic expansion for high-end hardcore players and for super-casuals, but it is seriously flawed for those of us in the middle of those two extremes. Like I pointed out in my last post, this does not mean it is a bad expansion, but it does have significant failures that detract from my enjoyment of it. And I bet I am not alone.

My two cents.

Legion professions — sometimes it really is about the destination

Background (you can skip this part and still get the gist of the post):

For many years — probably most of my life now that I think about it — I have subscribed to the philosophy of “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” (For reference, I think this is a variation of the original Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”) I have previously described in this blog a personal tendency to make lists, create spreadsheets, and set goals for myself, and you may think that is at odds with the philosophy, but actually it is not. What I love is the process of planning and organizing, followed by flawless execution of the plan. Achieving the goal is rewarding, but it pales in comparison to the thrill of the process of getting there.

As an aside, you might think from this that I chase WoW achievements, but honestly they hold little interest for me, nor do things like mount or pet collections. These are prescribed goals in the game, and a big part of the fun I get is coming up with my own personal goals and carrying them out. I dislike being told what my goals should be.

Anyway, back to developing my point — and hang in there with me, because I promise you I do have one. Not to go all pop-psychology, but I think the thing that fascinates me about the process I described is that it gives me a feeling of control. For a variety of  reasons not worth going into here, I had a topsy-turvy childhood, trundled from one relative to another, from one school to another, sometimes 2-3 times a year. Control was not in my vocabulary, so when at the age of about 16 I realized I could actually be in charge of my own destiny, it was an epiphany.

It was the real start of my goal-setting, list-making, planning and organizing life style. Several years ago when I found a leisure time activity in the form of a computer game that let me indulge in doing this, it was a match made in heaven.

Blizz took what were broken professions in WoD and completely destroyed them in Legion. Stomped on them, ground them into dust, made a mockery of them.

Professions are now all journey with destinations so distant as to be virtually unreachable save for one or two per account. And there is only a single directed path one can follow, though that path is not specified but only discovered by stumbling about.

This is a part of the game many of us used to consider a nice side diversion that could provide some gear and gold along with being a pleasant distraction and a reason to spend some time on alts. But Legion has turned it into a confusing, protracted, RNG-dependent activity that is almost unattainable for any character other than a main. They have done this in the name of “content” as well as in the name of “play style choice”, but in fact it achieves neither of those stated objectives.

In fact, I would argue that Blizz was completely — and possibly purposely —  disingenuous when they tried to feed us those reasons, and that their true goals were to increase the metric of “Monthly Active Users” and to put an end to any sort of casual alt play style. MAU is the current standard of success for Activision Blizzard games (and presumably one of the metrics for calculating executive bonuses). It is a function of the number of hours played per month by users who actually log in, so it dovetails nicely with the “content” fantasy, especially the lazy content approach of artificially increasing the time sink requirement for heretofore auxiliary activities.

As to the concept of alt play, Ion Hazzikostas has several times stated his opinion that the only acceptable reason to roll an alt is to play it in the same way one plays a main, that to have an alt solely for the purpose of professions to supply a main is wrong and should not be permitted. And lo and behold, Legion professions now require a character to not only be at max level, but to be geared and proficient enough to participate in World Quests, instances up through Mythic level, raids, and in some cases high level PvP content. It is the ultimate insult for Blizz to cloak professions now as expanding options for players, while at the same time cramming this linear play style down our throats.

I had a short conversation last night with one of my guildies, and he went on a mini-rant — justified in my opinion — about how Legion more than any other WoW expansion is hostile to casual players. One of the points he brought up was the sheer amount of time necessary just to do normal activities — gear up, level a profession, gather mats, maintain progress in an artifact weapon, pursue the ever-elusive and possibly ghostly path to eventual flying, etc.

Blizz has said that Legion would give players many ways to achieve end game goals, but in fact what they have given us is an expansion that requires every activity be engaged in just to get to one goal. Those are not at all equivalent concepts. For true casual players — those who play 20 hours or less a week by my own personal definition — the time sink required just to get to end game is vastly higher than it has been for previous expansions. (I define “end game” as being geared about as high as you are going to be for the expansion, have your professions completed and well developed, routinely engaging in group activities you like such as raiding or rated battlegrounds, etc.) Some call this content, some call it MAU expansion.

Beyond these top-level deficiencies in Legion professions, there are other ridiculous and obvious shortfalls. For example, the tendency to include significant amounts of a wide variety of expensive mats from other professions to craft items. For example, to cook food, one does not just need fish, meat, and vendored sundries — the kind of mats you can get through diligent secondary profession gathering. Oh no, they require things like gem chips (mining and prospecting) and herbs (herbalism). And since the game is no longer conducive to getting these items from a lowly geared alt, either you were lucky enough to have years ago selected the lottery-winning professions on your main, or you can spend literally tens of thousands of gold buying these mats in the AH or in trade.

With the barriers to developing your own extended alt professions, I do not expect the prices of these items to come down very soon in the game. This, too, is a way to discourage play for casuals or for new players, because if you did not amass a fortune from the WoD gold giveaway, you simply cannot afford to buy these items. Even belonging to a guild is not much help, because most guilds cannot afford to buy them for their members, and anyone in the guild who can gather or make the items can make so much gold by selling them that there is no incentive to donate them to the guild bank or to another guildie, or even to sell at bargain prices to a guildie. Tin-foil hat theory would be that here is a golden opportunity for Blizz to sell a buttload of game tokens to those who need gold, but I won’t go there….

As I have said before, I do not object to having to do a bit of work to max professions out — I leveled my JC, my LW, and my Engineer when it was quite costly and difficult to do so. But I do object to a system that is not clearly laid out (even the third party sites are still murky about profession progression paths), that requires main-level game play and time commitment to achieve, and that so distinctly rewards the lucky and punishes the unlucky — part of the RNG run amuck trend.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any simple solutions to the mess Blizz has made of professions in Legion. I just know they have totally destroyed them, so there are no easy tweaks that will help. The only thing I can think of at this point would be to allow any character to have as many professions as they want. That way, since professions now require main-type play commitments, you could just spend the time on your main and get every profession of importance to you. I sincerely doubt that Blizz will do this, but still I feel like they should consider it, or at the very least start giving us what they promised: multiple ways to develop professions, instead of requiring participation in everything to develop professions. (Yeah, I get that Ion Hazzikostas doesn’t want us to use alts for professions, but somehow I feel that he could get over the trauma of it if he really tried, maybe buy himself some consolation gifts with all that MAU bonus money he will get.)

So, yeah, it is about the journey and not the destination, but the journey to professions is too effing long, too effing dark, and too effing linear.