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.

Let’s talk gear

In Legion Blizz will introduce what amounts to a seismic shift in the way gear is awarded. The condensed version is that there will no longer be a hard cap on the level of gear you can earn from various game activities. That is, in theory, players can be awarded Mythic level gear from LFR, world drops, dungeons, and so forth. Of course, it is more complicated than this, and if you want to delve into all the details check out this blue post from today’s MMO-C Blue Tracker.

Before I launch into some observations on this development, let me state clearly that this is a very good move on Blizz’s part. I wholeheartedly support it, and I am very pleased that Watcher was so forthcoming about how the system will work and about Blizz’s reasoning for making the change. This can only improve the game, in my opinion.

As with all major changes, however, the end results are not always as clear-cut as the changers might like to think they will be. And in this case, there is one overriding factor that will determine whether this change will succeed or not, namely:

When does “small chance” mean “don’t even bother”? A snowball’s chance in hell is still a chance, in Blizz’s opinion. But for real people, there comes a point where a mathematical probability approaches zero and thus for all practical purposes might as well be zero. Let’s take an example, and those of you who are less math challenged than I am please check me on this.

For the purpose of this example, assume that a realistic chance of dropping a +5 item is a robust 10%. (Watcher, in his Blue post, gave an example using a 50% rate but went to great pains to point out that it is not/not/not the actual rate. Reports from the beta so far show it is probably not even close.) Let us further assume that the activity you are doing awards 825 level gear normally, and that the chances of getting any gear at all are, oh let’s be generous, 20%. So your chances of getting a single upgrade are 10% of 20%, or 2% (1 in 50). The way the upgrade algorithm works is that it keeps iterating the 10% upgrade chance for another 5 levels until it hits a “No” for upgrade. So now take your 2% chance getting a level 830 item and try for a level 835 item. This is 10% of 2%, which is .2%, or a 1 in 500 chance of getting a piece of 835 gear from an activity that awards 825 level gear as a baseline.

You see where this is going. Max level Legion gear at the beginning is 895. Your chances of getting a max level piece of gear from an activity that normally awards 825 level gear is 10% of 1 in 50, taken 13 more times, or 1 chance in 500 trillion. And that is assuming a drop rate more generous than Blizz has historically provided. Even giving Blizz a magical benefit of doubt, even assuming the drop rate is twice or three times that, your chances of a meaningful upgrade from a low-level activity, rounded off to over 10 decimal places, are zero.

In fairness, Watcher admitted as much in his post. He basically said that your chances of getting meaningfully upgraded gear are much better when you run higher and higher level activities. This is as it should be, but that begs the question:

Is this really not much of a change at all, is it actually just a scam to make people think that running lower level activities is rewarding, when in fact the chance of meaningful rewards is hundreds of times less than the chance of winning the Powerball Lottery several weeks in a row?

I understand that Blizz is pulling out all the stops to make people fully explore every bit of content in Legion, and I support that endeavor. Clearly they are worried that players will stop playing long before the next expansion in 2 years (minimum), and they are doing everything they can to stretch out the time before that point is reached. They have already ensured that every main, alt and profession will need to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours chasing talents for artifact weapons, running down quest lines for recipes, and grubbing for Blood of Sargeras. They are holding out the carrot of flying until probably the second major patch, likely a year into the expansion. These measures alone extend the perception of “content”, not to mention that they increase the all-important MAU (Monthly Active User) metric which Activision Blizzard uses as one measure of game success.  So, is it really necessary to trick people into believing that by running heroic dungeons or LFR they can upgrade their Heroic raid level gear?

No, if this change is to “succeed” in the minds of the players, then they must be able to see that it is actually possible to get meaningful upgrades to their current level of gear from doing activities. This means that they must see such items dropping, even if they themselves do not get any for a while.

How do they see items dropping? Well of course one way is when they see guildies or friends getting such items. But another way is if they can see statistics for such drops. And here is where Blizz can restore some of the trust they have lost over the last couple of years. Blizz should take it upon themselves to post a weekly or monthly wrap-up of the numbers of dropped gear upgrades, per server, per activity, per upgrade level. Blizz has claimed it is possible to get such gear, okay then show us the gear. Prove to us that it is possible in practice not just in theory.

Otherwise, just bite the bullet and admit that as players progress there are certain activities no longer worth their time. It’s not a terrible thing. Normal and heroic dungeons, world bosses and weekly world quests, will remain relevant for alts for many, many months, there really is not a compelling reason to inveigle people into continuing to run them on their geared mains under false pretenses. All that accomplishes is to make people more cynical and further erode their trust in the company. (I do not like to think that someone at Blizz has calculated that by making a more or less empty promise of gear upgrades from low-level activities, that enough people will fall for it to significantly increase WoW’s MAU for the quarter ….)

Meanwhile, please excuse me, I think I am going to go buy a Powerball ticket.

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.