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.

Patch 7.3.5 do-over

Well, we have had a few days of Patch 7.3.5 now, and it appears today Blizz is going for a do-over of the patch install, as the servers will be down for what appears to be a major-patch amount of time.

What’s going on?

Anyone who has logged in this week has noticed something wrong  — from minor annoyances to really major bugs, sometimes enough to make the game unplayable. The forums are lit up over this dismal patch. After an initial attempt to blame the problems on “addons”, Blizz has seemed to accept that the patch is buggy as hell and today’s extended maintenance is their Hail Mary to straighten much of it out.

Just a few of the game areas that have developed significant bugs since implementation of the patch:

  • Old dungeons and raids (for example, boss health — many heroic bosses ended up with significantly less health than normal bosses).
  • Current dungeons (I was in a heroic Court of Stars last night, and the spy kept stopping in his tracks and refusing to move further. A guildie experienced some bosses in keystone dungeons arbitrarily assuming affixes that are not part of the ones in this week’s rotation.) Several dungeons became impossible to run for M+ because of the serious bugs.
  • Archaeology
  • Pet names (many just disappeared) and some pet skins (reverted to box)
  • Transmog
  • Lag and frame rates — as low as 1 fps for some people. Basically the game becomes a slide show at that rate.
  • Sound — choppy, interrupted, or just missing, like bad cell phone coverage.
  • Profession quest lines — NPCs you have to talk to become unresponsive.
  • Mat exchange. If you were given a stack of “Light Illusion Dust” in exchange for the now-defunct vanilla enchanting mats, and you tried to change it to “Rich Illusion Dust” at the rate of 3 light —> 1 rich, you found that whatever size stack of light you clicked on turned into exactly 1 rich, using up the entire stack of light.
  • Current raids — floor effects in Antorus, for example, very squirrelly.
  • Major unintended consequences of the zone leveling paradigm. (Unintended, perhaps, but not unforeseeable for any competent project manager. This point may be a future post for me, it is so heinous and irresponsible.)

Other than (finally) admitting the bugs and promising to fix them, Blizz has been mum on what is going on with the patch. Their silence, as usual, only serves to fuel speculation. One reddit thread advanced the intriguing theory that adding the extra backpack slots caused a cascading effect on the entire game, and actually it’s not such a bad argument. For a couple of years now, the standard Blizz response to request for more backpack space has been to explain that the backpack code is original game code and that changing it at this point could have a large number of unintended consequences. There is, in fact, some indication that many of the items and gear for characters (our “inventory”) are managed by means of a single array (!!) in the game code. I don’t pretend to have any knowledge beyond Basic Computer Code 101 level, but I know that arrays can be very touchy, and changing the parameters of one — if not done very carefully — can require you to chase down every single line of code that points back to it and make sure it still points to what you want it to. For a game with millions of lines of code, this might actually be an impossible task.

My own theory is that Patch 7.3.5 suffers from what I call the Blatchford Effect.

Blatchford Effect. (My own term) Some years ago, there was an Olympic-caliber speed skater named Neil Blatchford. Excellent athlete and very decent guy. My uncle went to school with him at Macalester College in Minnesota, and I heard this story from him. During the skating off-season (this was back in the day when there actually were such things as off-seasons), Neil ran track to keep in shape, specifically the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. Anyone who has ever run track knows that this is one of the most grueling races in the sport. It calls for sprinter-type speed, endurance, and hams/quads of steel, exactly the same requirements as for speed skaters.

One other feature of the race is that, in order to maximize performance, you need to take the exact same number of steps between hurdles, and the steps need to be the exact same distance each, so as to arrive at the next hurdle in perfect position to get over it most efficiently. The optimum number of steps for Neil was something like 15. Naturally, as the race progresses and the athlete gets more fatigued, it gets more and more challenging to maintain both pace and form.

The story my uncle told was of Neil running in an NCAAAA meet, where for some reason he lost part of a step early in the race. Nevertheless, he 15-stepped it for the entire distance, even though that meant that by about halfway through, he was actually stomping on the hurdles and driving them to the ground rather than hurdling over them. My uncle was in awe of the strength and determination it took to do that and combine it with sprinting for 400 meters, though of course “determination” can also be plain old ordinary “stubbornness”. Whatever you call it, Neil’s rigid adherence to 15-stepping contributed to losing the race.

Whatever the technical reason(s) for the disaster that so far has been Patch 7.3.5, to my mind the single biggest mistake Blizz made was rushing it to production before it was even close to ready. I am absolutely thunderstruck at the nonexistent quality control they exercised over this patch. Once again, Blizz has reverted to their two-guys-in-a-garage approach to this game.

I did not participate in the PTR (kind of sick of doing Blizz’s QC for them only to have them ignore valid concerns and actual demonstrated bugs), so I do not know if the patch was this bad when it was still being tested. Maybe it was fine, then Blizz decided to throw in some new stuff without testing just before it went live. (Was the extra bag space part of the PTR? I do not know.)

More likely, though, is that Blizz’s reputation for ignoring player PTR evaluations has brought them to a point where the PTR is of extremely limited value as a broad test vehicle. People dabble their toes in the PTR to check out one or two areas they are interested in, or merely out of brief curiosity, but the players who used to really dig in and give a test realm a thorough evaluation have stopped doing so. Why should they waste their time when Blizz refuses to listen to them?

At the start of Legion, Blizz — still stinging from the disaster that was WoD — promised frequent and regular content patches. They have kept that promise, though at this juncture it seems like they are committed only to the schedule, quality be damned. They are 15-stepping this expansion, come hell or high water, no matter how many hurdles they have to stomp on in order to get to the end. As Neil Blatchford could have attested, there may be a grim sort of satisfaction in such a course of action, but that is not how you win the race.

We’ll see if today’s round of maintenance can give us a workable patch. I hope so. But I think there is at least a 50-50 chance that what we will get is one that is still buggy as hell but has a few of the game-stopping problems fixed. The patch problems seem far too extensive to be fixed with even an 8-hour extra maintenance cycle. This patch was not even close to ready for prime time, yet Blizz foisted it on us anyway. That may bode well for executive bonuses and shareholder approval in the Activision-Blizzard world, but it stinks for the players. Unfortunately, player satisfaction is pretty far down on the list of important business considerations these days.

Time for the weekend. See you on the other — hopefully brighter — other side.

Disconnected thoughts

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

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

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

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

So yeah. Ill-mannered clods abound.

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

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

It’s all about the MAU, baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legendary follies continue

There are times when you almost have to admire Blizzard’s steadfast commitment to major blunders. Even when they publicly admit certain designs were mistakes, their response is usually to not only keep the bad design but also double down on it. (Think of WoD’s garrisons as a perfect example.)

It’s like there is a corporate attitude, when faced with the consequences of an obvious design mistake, of going big or going home. They seem incapable of any semblance of organized retreat, all they can do is cram the mistake down our throats.

Which brings me, of course, to the subject of Legion legendary gear. As I have written before (here and here for example), I consider the Legion legendary design to be one of the worst Blizz has ever done. Even Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas has, on more than one occasion, begrudgingly mumbled something about maybe they could have done a better job implementing the idea.

My main complaint about Legion legendaries is that Blizz tried to do too much with them in terms of their gear effects, and in the process they created a number of “must-have” pieces for a lot of specs. Sometimes these “good” legendaries were just bandaids to cover over bad spec design, sometimes they had effects that eventually turned out to be super powers for the spec. Bad enough, but then add in the whole RNG aspect of them, and Blizz created a world of player winners and losers based almost solely on luck. Eventually, even the RNGeniuses at Blizz realized this and made some tweaks designed to even out the relative values of legendaries. They were not entirely successful — there are still some “must-haves” for a couple of specs — but the endeavor met the new Blizz corporate standard of Good Enough.

Another fallout of Legion legendaries is that they made it difficult to easily swap to off specs, or to develop alts to the point where they were geared sufficiently to be fun to play. (And yes, I know I will get responses from some of you out there claiming you had no problem getting 6 legendaries each on all your druid off specs as well as on all 10 of your alts, and you did it in a weekend. Shut up. You’re lying.) Worse for unlucky players waiting weeks to get off spec or alt legendaries, Blizz’s claimed “bad luck insurance” algorithm apparently only goes so far as to increase the odds of a legendary dropping, it does nothing to help an unlucky player actually get a useful one once it finally does drop. (Yeah, Ion, nothing more fun™ than an RNG drop of a useless legendary and knowing it will be weeks before you get another chance at the lotto.)

For those few players who managed to get every legendary for every spec in their class, Blizz dipped once more into their Suggestion Box For Ways to Screw With the Players and came up with this: if a character has all possible legendaries for all specs in their class, the next time you win the RNG lottery, you will get — hold onto your hats —

A totally random legendary for a totally random class and spec you may not even have as an alt!!! What fun™!!

I am not even going to go into the doubling down actions Blizz took when they added a special raid-only set of non-legendary legendaries to the current raid tier. Or the fact that Blizz cheesed out and refused to upgrade our old ones (as they did in WoD) when the new ones rose in ilevel, instead opting to make us grind for weeks to get the stuff to upgrade each one individually. As if the mess they had made thus far was not enough.

And now comes Patch 7.3.5, and Blizz’s next installation of making the whole legendary mess worse and then shoving it in our faces.

On January 6, CM Lore grandly announced that Patch 7.3.5 would give us an additional way to obtain legendaries: we could use the same stuff (Wakening Essences) we now collect in order to upgrade our old legendaries. For the price of 175 of these things, we could get a token that would award a legendary appropriate to the class/spec of the character earning the essences.

OK, might be kind of cool, we all could see some possibilities there.

However, in typical fashion, this idea arrived half-baked. Some players immediately began to try to get 175 essences on as many characters as they could. They discovered that, if they had been diligent and already upgraded all of their legendaries, they could not obtain the quest to collect essences, thus they could not work on their 175. On the other hand, characters that had not rushed to upgrade legendaries still had the quest and could keep renewing it as long as they kept at least one legendary at 970 level.

This seemed like a bug, so a few players complained to Blizz.

Blizz did a double-take, because apparently it had not occurred to them that we sneaky players would actually try to collect essences before 7.3.5 went live. I mean, the very idea gave them the vapors! So they went into emergency session, and on January 8, CM Lore announced this:

A few additional details on the new Legendary token:

  • We’ve just pushed a hotfix live that makes Wakening Essences drop for everyone, regardless of whether you’re on the quest or not.
  • We’ll also be dramatically increasing both the number of Essences required to purchase tokens and the rate at which you gain them in Patch 7.3.5. The overall time investment needed to purchase a token will stay roughly the same, but this will minimize the benefits of stockpiling Essences ahead of time.
    • Note: Emissary bags earned prior to the release of 7.3.5 will still give pre-7.3.5 numbers of Essences. There is no benefit to saving Emissary bags until afer the patch.
  • We also plan to add Wakening Essences to your first Battleground win of the day in 7.3.5.
  • The tokens are bind-on-pickup, because we don’t want to overly encourage players to farm Essences on alt characters in order to feed Legendary items to their mains. However, if you purchase and use a token on a character that already has all of the available legendaries for their class, you will be given a random BoA token for another class.

Really, Blizz? Really? After all the legendary angst you’ve inflicted on us for more than a year because of your slipshod design and half-assed implementation, you have the balls to begrudge us the tiniest semblance of control? And pardon me, Mr. alt-phobic Hazzikostas, but could you kindly keep the voices in your head from leaking out? What the hell do you care if I or anyone else wants to have alts that send gear or mats or gold or enchants or gems or whatever to my main, or indeed vice-versa? It has no appreciable effect on the game as a whole, and frankly it is none of your goddamn business how I choose to use my alts. (And not for nothin’, but I suspect most players who care at all about legendaries would likely use their main to supply this gear to their alts, not the other way around.)

The vast majority of players are not in a position to “take advantage” of the first-announced 7.3.5 change in any meaningful way — they do not have the time, or they do not have sufficiently equipped alts, or they simply do not care about their gear level or their legendaries any more because it is the end of the expansion. So the latest move to stop what Blizz believes would be a heinous gaming of the system is in fact aimed at what we now must admit is Blizz’s only important customer base: the less than 1% of top tier players who aspire to competitive fame.

Blizz, do you really think the game would disintegrate if, this late in the expansion, you gave us BoA legendary tokens (both from the essence trade-in and as a result of getting one after you have all the ones in your class), ones any character could turn in and get a relevant legendary? In fact, what would it hurt if indeed these tokens allowed us to actually — better sit down for this one — choose our desired legendary?

WoW used to be a game for the masses, but now it is designed for the elite. It used to allow millions of players to shape their own play style and enjoy the game in their own way, but now the Blizz Central Committee dictates a smaller and smaller range of permitted play styles and personal objectives. What a shame it has come to this.

2018 – My year of alts?

I hope everyone had a great holiday. I certainly did, but I won’t deny it is good to be back to a routine. The house is back to its normal non-decorated self, all the bad-for-you Christmas cookies and fudge and such have been gobbled or otherwise disposed of, the relatives have gone home, the parties are over, and there is no need for constant cheer.

O, comfortable rut, how I missed you!

Anyway, I did get in a lot of WoW play time while on break. Mostly I took the opportunity to develop a few of my alts that have been so badly neglected this entire expansion. It occurs to me that our raid team will soon — probably within a month — be done with Heroic Antorus TBT, and then things will essentially be set on “coast” for the remainder of Legion. Sure, we will still raid a couple of times a week, but after progression it is mainly just fun runs and getting Ahead of the Curve for non-raiders, along with some gear. I doubt if we will be doing any Mythic attempts, as once we finish Heroic (currently 8/11) it gets hard to corral enough core raiders to get to 20. So I am not holding my breath on that, and honestly I am kind of looking forward to a respite.

I think we are in for a pretty long “content drought” this year — typical end-of-expansion doldrums. It seems unlikely that we will see Battle for Azeroth before Blizzcon. We do not even have a hint of an Alpha much less a Beta yet, and we are probably still a month or two away from Patch 7.3.5. Also, I cannot imagine Blizz going into a Blizzcon without something big to hype. So my main bet is that we will have Legion for most of the rest of 2018.

Still, I have to admit that Blizz has surprised me with their delivery of Legion content. I may quibble with their definition of the term, but I cannot deny that they have carried out the exact schedule they promised. If anything, Legion has given us too much to do. It is because of this recent history that I think there is a (slim) possibility that Blizz has a surprise or two left for us in Legion. Also, I do not think Ion Hazzikostas wants to risk players leaving Legion with a bad taste in their mouths because it dwindled to nothing for months on end.

I hope they are not banking on everyone being content to level their new allied race character for 8-10 months. (Although the cynic in me says that slowing down the leveling process while at the same time offering new races to level is absolutely not a coincidence…)

If there are Legion surprises (and remember I think it is a long shot), what they may be are anyone’s guess. After 7.3.5 there could be one or two small “fun” patches before we get 8.0 in preparation for BfA. These could offer some quality of life fixes, some new scenario-type activities, maybe some new timewalking stuff, maybe even a mini-raid.

Additionally, I think there is a tiny chance that all the WoW prognosticators and pundits are wrong, and we will get BfA much sooner than anyone expects. I have no real basis for this, but it still tickles at the back of my brain that there seems to be a very fuzzy line between BfA and 7.3.5 development. Patch 7.3.5 may be a Trojan horse of sorts, a way to sneak in a lot of BfA design and testing without actually admitting that is what is going on. If Blizz can limit the new things that a Beta has to test (and remember they have said that BfA will have very few major class changes), they might be able to bring the new expansion to live servers faster than most of us anticipate.

But as I said, both the “Legion surprise” and “early BfA” theories are extreme long shots. What is more likely is that we will have Legion for nearly all of 2018, with only allied characters to keep us busy. Which means I will have a nice long time to immerse myself in my favorite part of every expansion: the “content drought” period most people hate. With that thought in mind, I spent a good deal of my break time playing my alts.

Anyway, back to my alts. I am not even close to being an altoholic. I have basically a main and 7 alts, plus a bank alt and usually one or two low level alts that I play for a few days and then delete. Of my 7 alts, all but one are level 110, with varying gear levels. All are Alliance and all are on the same server. I have tried Horde alts from time to time but just do not enjoy that whole fantasy. Also, I have no dwarf or Draenei characters. If I had to pick a favorite race, it would be a tossup between Pandaren and Night Elves. All but one of my alts are female. My alt specs are either damage dealers (slightly more ranged than melee) or healers, no tanks.

My holiday surprise came when I spent some time on my mage. Regular readers will recall that I have struggled with mage play style forever, and that I tend to have a sort of love-hate relationship with the class. I stereotype it as a stand-still-and-cast class, and cloth-squishy to boot. So imagine my delight when I discovered that my fire mage is very mobile, and that she has some considerable defensive abilities. I am having a blast with her, trying now to get her gear level to a point where I can jump into a few of our guild alt runs in Antorus. I have always said I think fire mages have the best visuals in the game, and I think that even more now that I am actually playing one.

I get enormous satisfaction from a streak of Heating Up and Hot Streak procs, and these happen very frequently. Thinking about it, the absence of that is one of the things that makes BM hunter play so dull — you just do not get any fun procs to really get your adrenaline going. Back in the day, the thing I absolutely loved about SV hunter was getting that Lock and Load proc — it was pure joy when it went off and BAM! you knew you had a chance to do some very significant extra damage. It just never got old. The puny, yawn-inducing almost-unnoticeable procs you get on BM these days do not even come close. Thanks again, Blizz, for sucking the fun out of huntering.

I actually hope Blizz takes its time with Battle for Azeroth. I will be perfectly happy to play a lot of my alts for several months. As my game time is usually limited to around 20 hours a week or so, I have not so far had the luxury of both maintaining a raiding main and doing end game play on my alts. I am hoping 2018 allows me to give my main a rest and spend most of my game time on some of my favorite (and possibly even new) alts.

Mixed alt messages

Over the weekend I spent a few hours on my outlaw rogue alt. I like this alt, but he is not one of my “main” alts, if there is such a thing. He was already at 110 and had worked through the basic parts of Broken Shore and the class hall quest lines (but not the class mount one), but he had done nothing more than the intro quest to just get him aboard the Vindicaar.

The reason I hauled him out of mothballs is because he is my inscriptionist, and I usually provide most of the vantus runes we hand out in raid while we are doing progression. I craft them and send them to the RL, who passes them out to the raid just before whichever boss we think will be the toughest one for the week. They may be a crutch, but we have found they often make that small bit of difference — especially early on in a tier — that lets us walk away with a kill instead of a series of wipes.

So I dusted him off and ran a quick LFR to get the level 1 vantus rune recipe for Antorus the Burning Throne. My experience, if anyone is interested, is that it takes approximately 100 herbs at level 1 to mill enough mats to make one vantus rune, maybe a bit less with Dreamleaf which gives a bonus, or Astral Glory which seems to have a higher drop rate. So about 2000 herbs — 10 full stacks — for 20 vantus runes. Last tier I never did get beyond the level 1 recipe, mainly because of course the higher levels are random drops in the raid itself. (*sigh* RNG is such fun™)

Of course, if I regularly ran LFR on my rogue, I would theoretically increase my chances to get the level 2 technique, paving the way for level 3 and greatly decreased mat requirements. To make that LFR experience a little more pleasant, I figured doing Argus dailies and invasions would help gear him up (he is currently sitting at something like 905 ilvl) and increase his artifact level/effectiveness.

Unfortunately, for some reason Blizz has seen fit to require that every character has to unlock the various Argus dailies. It is not an account-wide achievement. At this point someone will inevitably assert something like, “Oh, you can knock those quests out in 20 minutes,” but trust me that is just not true. It takes me hours, and I suspect that is the case for most people. My rogue is the 4th character I have taken through the process, and it is starting to get old.

Blizz will proudly list for us all the “alt-friendly” changes they have made to Legion, and I do not deny they have made quite a few. But the fact remains that Legion started out as probably the most alt-hostile expansion in recent history, so to throw us a few bones that serve to make it only slightly less alt-hostile is not much to brag about in my opinion. Ion Hazzikostas believes that the only legitimate way to play alts is to force them into the same end game cattle chute as a main, and he has finally shaped the game to implement his personal opinion on the matter.

Now, finally, my point. Legion — by design — discourages alt play. I suspect (of course I do not have any publicly disclosed numbers to back this up) Blizz has seen the number of alts at max level take a nosedive in this expansion. By introducing Allied Races, suddenly Blizz is encouraging us to start brand new alts. Why the new ones? Why not just make some more changes that will nudge us to finally spend time with the ones we have?

As an aside, I am totally confused about what Patch 7.3.5. will bring. Suddenly it seems like it will include a whole bunch of things I could swear we were told at Blizzcon would be part of Battle for Azeroth. What gives? Has Blizz discovered they cannot possibly meet a reasonable BfA deadline and thus need to give us a bunch of new shinies to keep us busy? Are some of the promised changes so complex that they need to use 7.3.5 as a testing ground for them? Have they given up on making significant class balance changes — as they told us every “dot 5” patch would be — and need something else to make it seem like a major patch? Maybe it is all part of a grand plan for 7.3.5 to ooze into BfA, but it sure is confusing.

It is true that players have been whining for new races for a while now, so certainly this will be a popular move. But consider:

  • You cannot start one until you have met some rather lengthy max-level rep requirements on your main (and possibly other requirements, too, we don’t really know yet for sure).
  • The new alt leveling will coincide with what from all reports is a significantly lengthened leveling process due to Blizz’s zone leveling and increase of XP required for most levels.
  • Just encouraging players to play with alts they already have would absolutely not require as much play time as leveling a new one under these circumstances.
  • It will come at the end of an expansion, historically the time when players lose interest and go do other leisure activities until the next expansion.

Yeah. It is almost certain that the Monthly Active User (MAU) metric is at work here, notably the need to maintain high MAU numbers as a corporate measure of a game’s success. Although Blizz has often said the nature of WoW is that it is cyclical, and it is something they plan for and accept, clearly they are working furiously to change that business plan.

Will I level a new Allied Race alt? Sure, and I expect it will be a nice distraction during the waning days of Legion. My choice, even though I know I am being manipulated: Blizz discourages me from playing alts, except the ones they approve of, at the time they approve of, at the leveling pace they approve of, with the preconditions they have set.

I love Big Brother, and there are five lights. Life is so much easier when you accept these things.

Testing the game for Blizz

Today Blizz has posted a rather long and ardent plea for WoW players to create characters on the 7.3.5 Public Test Realm. Blizz has made similar basic requests for other patches in testing, so this in itself is not really new. What does seem a little out of the ordinary, though, is the slightly desperate tone in this one. The announcement is quite a bit longer than usual, with detailed instructions on exactly how to download the PTR and create a new character, along with the usual how-to-give-feedback directions and the promise that players’ comments are extremely valuable. As the PTR has been up for a while, my tea-leaves reading is that not enough players are participating, and in particular that the “usual crowd” is not likely to be the kind of players interested in leveling a new character.

Lots to sort out here.

First, let’s think about the kind of player that usually is active on a PTR. Of course, I have no hard data on demographics here, but my anecdotal experience is that most PTR participants are not part of the vast majority of casual players. There are hard core types that form PTR guilds and want to get a good look at dungeons and raids, there are theory crafters and min-maxers who want to check out class changes, some people wanting to figure out profession changes, some who are curious about new quality of life changes. And there are a ton of tourists, players who like to get a quick look at the whole smorgasboard of changes, but once they have seen them they are pretty well done — they are not players with the time or the interest or the patience to spend hours on the PTR, deal with the inevitable crashes and major bugs, document the details of their observations, and so forth.

Blizz must certainly know this, but this time they really need players willing to take a new character through a big chunk of early leveling, because one of the major parts of 7.3.5 is the new low level zone leveling throughout Azeroth. Absent some pretty heavy testing of this system, Blizz knows they could have a mess on their hands when it goes live, just due to low traffic not discovering major shortfalls.

Second, there is a perception that when Blizz requests feedback, they really only care about obvious bugs, not what players experience in a squishier sense. I can certainly understand Blizz’s emphasis on “hard data” versus comments like “it feels boring”. In one sense, there is nothing they can do with a comment like the latter, but from another perspective if they get a lot of similar such comments they certainly ought to take them seriously and do some work to figure out the basis for them.

And then, of course, there is the example of the alpha/beta and the PTR for Legion, where hunters as well as other classes documented many, many playstyle problems — these were serious players who offered a ton of details and theorycrafting numbers to back up the claims — and Blizz blatantly ignored them for months even after Legion went live.

If there is a widespread perception that Blizz ignores player feedback on the actual play experience — which in the end is what really matters to most players — it is going to be difficult to convince large numbers of players to keep beating their heads against that brick wall. I think there is an implicit contract when a company uses its customers to do quality control of their product: the customers find the obvious product errors for the company, and the company in turn makes the product more pleasing to the customers even if “pleasing” does not involve immediately quantifiable product errors. You want us to find the bugs in your code, Blizz, fine, but in return we want to feel like we can actually shape the game.

Sure, it is impossible to incorporate every player’s WoW wish list, but when a huge number of players express the same set of dissatisfactions, Blizz needs them to know they are being taken seriously. And a boilerplate statement such as “We take every comment seriously” — absent any evidence of that — rings hollow.

Blizz has steadfastly refused to address widespread player concerns, has arrogantly declined to give feedback in any kind of organized fashion. When large numbers of players point out virtually the same thing, even if Blizz has no intention of changing it, they owe it to players to explain why. They have underinvested in structured player feedback mechanisms, preferring to rely on what seem to be random events once in a while to make a short cryptic comment on a few carefully selected items. It’s almost as if they are applying their beloved RNG even to this aspect of the game.

Third, a dearth of PTR involvement may be one of the real downsides to Blizz’s Legion interpretation of “content”. I usually like to participate in major patch PTRs, often spend quite a lot of time working my way through various parts of them and giving what I think is reasonable feedback. But I feel like I simply do not have the time to do this now — my play time for months has been consumed with chasing rep or doing long drawn out quest lines or grinding out profession requirements or bringing a few alts to minimal play level or grubbing for AP or gizmos to upgrade legendaries.

Blizz’s emphasis on MAU means my game time is spoken for just doing the live server, no chance I am going to spend hours leveling a new character on the PTR.

So, yeah, I understand why they are begging players to spend a lot of time on the PTR. But strategic decisions sometime have unforeseen consequences, and here we are seeing a possible negative consequence of Blizz’s decisions to cater mainly to hard core players, to undervalue regular customer feedback mechanisms, and to force feed “content” to players.