Endless variation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blizzcon. Whee and danke shoen.

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that, for the first time in my WoW life, I bought a virtual ticket to Blizzcon. The only reason I did it is because I wanted the in-game mount they were using as an enticement. Clearly, the ploy worked for some people. I do like the mount, have had some fun flying around in it (not in Argus, of course, because that would be so wrong).

But now I find myself with this virtual ticket to something that I am having a hard time getting very excited about. Kind of like when your gramma gives you $20 and a ticket to the Wayne Newton Comeback Concert Tour for your birthday — you are glad for one part of it, not so sure about the other. Still, you have the ticket so you might as well use it, you think, maybe there will be a wine bar…

In an attempt to generate a little interest in the event, I checked out the official schedule, looking for events I might actually be interested in. The main 2-day schedule calls for something like 40 total hours of actual Blizzard game info sessions on their various franchises, and 70 hours of esports. (I did not actually count the open “community” time, nor did I include the some 15 hours of esports events that happen prior to the opening ceremony.) If you needed any more confirmation that Activision Blizzard is all in on esports, this is it.

Of the game info events, a bit under 8 hours are identified specifically as WoW events. This seems very balanced, given that Blizzard has 5 major IPs/franchises, so I guess at least WoW is holding its own, getting its full 1/5 share of the 40 hours. About half of the WoW-specific events seem like they are just fluffy time fillers, but still, they are WoW-centric, so that is something I suppose.

As far as I know, there hasn’t been much in the way of leaked rumors about any big WoW-related announcements coming in Blizzcon. I guess that could be because Blizz has really clamped down on leaks, or it could just be that there will be no big announcements. I am betting on the latter.

But with only one hour devoted to “What’s Next” in the game, my hunch is that we will get some amorphous description of the next expansion, but no concrete announcement, no expansion name or target date, no information on major new mechanics or changes, etc. Which means my original prediction that Legion will be a 3-year expansion is still viable. Absent very detailed progress on the next expansion, with a beta starting around the first of the year, it seems impossible that we will have a new expansion by Legion’s 2-year anniversary. If I am wrong, I will publicly and happily eat my words.

I really hope the speculation from earlier this summer on the next expansion (Old Gods/Kul Tiras) is not true. I am not sure what would be better, but my gut says almost anything.

And, since I am shamelessly trying to pad this post because I have almost nothing to write about, here are a few links to things I have recently written about the next expansion, in sequential order starting in February of this year. You don’t have to click on them, I am just filling up space. Also setting up a quick reference so after Blizzcon I can go back and verify that either I was brilliantly prescient or epically wrong. 😉

One thing that seems likely is that after Blizzcon we will at least have a general idea of where the next expansion will take place, even if we do not have many details. The real speculation and deep dive data mining can start in earnest then.

Usually my favorite part of Blizzcon is the WoW Q&A, but lately this genre has become little more than a way for Blizz to toot their own horn. I am getting tired of hand-picked questions like, “Can you tell us what part of Argus you like best, and how the team came up with such an awesome idea?” I will probably tune in to watch this year’s session, but I am not expecting it to be very exciting.

So, yeah, only about 10 days until Blizzcon. I am trying to feel the hype but failing at it. Maybe as the time gets closer I will build up a little more enthusiasm. But hey, even if I don’t, at least I have the mount.

Abandoning the moral high ground

Last night I ditched what was left of my principles and bought a virtual ticket for Blizzcon 2017.

Yeah, I know. I’m not proud of it. For years I have haughtily disdained the groupie-like behavior I stereotyped Blizzcon-goers as. It was a kind of badge of honor for me that I could wait, like an adult, and see what announcements were made and consider their implications patiently and soberly. I am not a Big-Bang Theory kind of Blizzcon nerd, I told myself. I am a grownup.

But then…….

The thing that tipped the scales for me was the mount. Not so much the horde version, since I do not have a horde character, but something about that Stormwind Skychaser caused great lust to arise in my heart. At raid last night, a couple of our guildies had them and as soon as I saw them my only thought was, “I have got to get me one of these!” IMG_0279

So after raid, head hanging, looking around furtively as if I were buying porn, I plunked down my money and bought the ticket.

I have mentioned several times in this blog that I am not a mount collector, that I look at mounts as transportation, nothing more. I think that is generally true. Still, once in a while one comes along that I just have to have. The headless horseman mount was one such — I luckily got it the very first time I ever ran the holiday event many years ago, and it is still my go-to mount for every character. The engineer-crafted chopper was another, and I actually changed a profession on one of my alts from alchemist to engineer specifically so that I could craft this mount. There are one or two others, but those stand out in my mind.

And now the Stormwind Chaser.

Beyond this, though, I suppose now that I have a virtual ticket I will probably (virtually) drop into some of the Blizzcon 2017 activities. There are many of them that I am just not interested in — anything not related to WoW, any of the esports stuff, or the cosplay, for example. But I confess I am curious about what if any “big announcements” we may get about WoW.

I honestly do not know what to expect in that area. There are a great many players expecting The Big Announcement About The Next Expansion, and of course that may happen. But it also may not. Especially with the addition of Argus, Blizz has structured Legion to be almost infinitely expandable on its own. Relieved of the need to make the WoW world contiguous, new Legion content is mostly a matter of adding limited-terrain scenario-type instances one gets to via portals. Though I would not be in favor of it, there is really nothing stopping Blizz from using this mechanic for the next year or even two to extend Legion.

I stumbled across an interesting post from about a year ago by Nathan Grayson on Kotaku. It contained some quotes from Ion Hazzikostas at last year’s Blizzcon. It’s a short piece and you can read it for yourself, but one part in particular struck me:

“We’re working on a new expansion,” Hazzikostas told me. “It’s gonna be great. But we’re setting ourselves up to be much more flexible in the amount of patch content we create. We’re making sure that we’re always gonna be working on the next step, the next link in the chain. To keep our players engaged, to make sure there’s always something new to do in Azeroth. The expansion will be done when it’s done.”

“I don’t think [this will impact how much content is in the next expansion],” he said. “Obviously, the expansion will come out later than if we decided to make less patch content and focus on the expansion. But there’s always a process of iteration that goes into making our expansions. That’s gonna happen regardless. I think it’s more about making sure we have a contingency plan in place so that when it’s done, there hasn’t been a gap.”

I may be way off base here, but to me this hints strongly at Legion being close to a 3-year expansion, giving us two more years of it, not one more like many people think.

And what that may mean for Blizzcon 2017 is that instead of a detailed announcement of a new expansion, we will get more of a schedule. Something like approximate release dates for 7.3.5 and at least 7.4, along with some details of what those will contain. Any mention of the next expansion will be very sketchy, possibly limited to typical coy hints. Because what the Legion “content” approach has given Blizz is the luxury to not rush a new expansion. This is good and bad — we all saw what a disaster a rushed expansion could be with WoD (even though it seemed to take forever to go live it seemed undeniably to have been hastily slapped together and ill-conceived). On the other hand, Blizz is acutely aware of player impatience once an expansion hits about the 15-month time — no matter how much “content” is introduced, players think of it as the “old” expansion and start to look for other things to do, often moving to other games. (Blizz may hope these other games are Blizzard franchises, but they cannot be sure they will be.)

So, yeah, I bought the virtual ticket. Mainly because of the awesome mount. But I will be interested in some of the live streams, too.

Meanwhile, let the weekend commence. I got some air cruisin’ to do.

Hopes for tomorrow’s Q&A

Tomorrow (August 3rd) there will be another in what has become a rather sporadic series of “Q&A” sessions, in which the ever-cheerful Lore selects players’ mostly-softball questions to pose to a game developer — in this case it will be none other than the Game Director himself, Ion Hazzikostas.

There is always a forum prior to the Q&A where players can submit their questions. Submitters are cautioned to pose short questions only, usually limited to 40 words or so. In what to me is always a stunning display of — stupidity? arrogance? failure to read instructions? — invariably most of the posted questions are long treatises on everything the poster thinks is wrong with the game or their particular class or whatever. (One has to wonder if these are the same folks who refuse to listen to raid instructions because, y’know, THEY are special and allowed to stand in fire due to how awesome they are…) There are other venues to submit questions, too (Twitter, for sample) — although the full list remains a bit murky, possibly by design so as to allow some conveniently-leading topics.

At any rate, the Q&A questions are pre-selected, I suppose in order to allow Blizz to focus on whatever their intended message is for the session. Often these events occur just prior to release of major patches, and the “questions” take the form of, “I love the new [badass mount/questline/gear/etc]! Can you tell us what other awesomeness is in the new patch?” In answer, of course, Hazzikostas launches into a 20-minute advertisement for the patch.

Another category of “questions” are ones that really have no impact on how the game is played at all, which tend to be ridiculously boring to me but which I suppose are of some interest to a certain segment of the player base. For example, “Is there any chance we will see Bigevilorc finally get his comeuppance in the next raid tier?” This is usually my cue to go get a cup of coffee, because it is absolutely certain that Hazzikostas will kill at least 10 minutes of the hour-long session being coy about the answer, and Lore will interject his own hopes on this vital issue.

From time to time, however, Hazzikostas will choose to address concerns that have bubbled up in the community and he wants to prevent them becoming a huge thing. (Example: Flying in WoD.) Or he wants to introduce a new design philosophy, possibly feeling out the community for a future expansion mechanism or major game change. The mechanic is that Lore will read a short question on the subject, and Hazzikostas will launch into a very detailed answer, almost as if he had prepared to address it! To me, these are the most informative parts of any Q&A session, because they reveal insights into the bigger picture and often give us a glimpse of how the game might evolve in the foreseeable future.

These are some of the meatier topics I would love to see addressed tomorrow:

  • Gear — whether the current stat of complexity is by design (and thus we will continue to endure it in coming expansions) or is just an unintended consequence of the whole artifact/legendary/class balance intertwining. I would also love to hear him explain why, for example, old tier gear and even 860-level trinkets are still “required” for some specs. And are we stuck with the horrible Legion legendary design from now on, or will Blizz abandon it in the next expansion?
  • RNG — whether the intent is to increase its reach even more, or whether maybe it will be dialed back a bit in the next expansion. In particular, I would like to see him address the role of RNG in gear, and ideally would love to see him back off a bit from his absolutely asinine insistence that RNG for gear is fun™.  (Not hopeful here, but we are basically optimistic creatures…)
  • Plans for more catch-up mechanisms for alts. For example, making Blood of Sargeras BoA, compressing order hall quest lines even more, instituting profession catch-ups.
  • Hints about class design changes, both in 7.3.5 and in the next expansion.
  • While he is at it, hints about the timing for the next expansion — will we actually see Blizz adhering to their stated 2-year expansion goal and thus se th next one about this time next year?
  • Zone design — is the preferred design now small, closed areas rather than the exploration-friendly open spaces of the past?

As far as I know, there have been no announcements of the focus of tomorrow’s Q&A. That makes me think it will be either an advertisement for 7.3 or an explanation of some issues Hazzikostas deems important. It would be fun if it were a vehicle for dropping some bombshell about the next expansion, but I think that is highly unlikely. I will be happy if we get a few words on even a couple of the subjects I listed above.

PS. Any guesses as to how many times uber-polite Lore will apologize for mangling someone’s name? I am betting on 6.