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.

The way home

This post contains a few spoilers. Skip it if you are sensitive to that kind of thing.

I am frequently very hard on Blizz, especially when it comes to what I believe is their inability to carry out a clear and cohesive expansion, one where each individual piece contributes to a well-stated strategic message for the expansion. What often starts out as a nicely-encapsulated picture nearly always disintegrates into an everything-bagel mashup in which it seems like every dev with a half-baked idea gets to throw something into the mix, regardless of how — or even if — the idea is synchronized with the stated theme. And in the coming months, as we learn more about Battle for Azeroth, I am sure I will continue to berate Blizz for this constant shortcoming.

But today I am going to hand out a compliment: At least so far, I think Blizz is doing a bang-up job of preparing the path back to Azeroth for us.

In past expansions, we do not really get any prep for the next one until the very tail end. Usually the prep is in the form of a major patch that among other changes introduces a quest line or two, or some mechanism, to transition to the next expansion. In WoD, we had the worldwide invasion scenarios, for example. These were designed pragmatically to allow us to catch up alts and prepare them minimally for Legion (and also to give us something to do in the waning days of WoD), but story-wise they laid the groundwork for the Legion experience and ultimately taking the battle to the Legion’s own planet.

In the current expansion, I am seeing a subtle difference in that approach. I have no information on the release date for BfA, but most prognosticators think we are about a year out from it. Yet even this far out we are getting some major transitional mechanics for it, and the data mining for 7.3.5 tells us there are a lot more such transitional mechanics in the works.

Already, for example, the defeat of Argus in the new raid tier removes the ugly scar of the broken planet from Azerothian skies. (I assume this will be visible to all players as soon as the final LFR wing opens.) No longer does this epic fight for our survival consume every waking moment, no longer are we reminded of the looming danger every time we glance at the sky.

Patch 7.3.5 goes further. We will see our artifact weapons start to phase out. We will see the groundwork laid to establish homes for the Allied Races, thus placing Legion’s Broken Shores zones into historical context as the place where we met and formed relationships with these new races.

So, probably a full year out from BfA, we are getting the sense that the war is almost over. We won. And now, fulfilling the dream of soldiers everywhere, we are going home. As in real wars, though, going home is not an immediate thing. There is equipment to clean and repair and turn in, there are a million administrative tasks to complete before we can actually get on that plane, there are security promises to allies that must be fulfilled. But there is an undeniable change: We are no longer engaged in a struggle for our very existence, we have emerged victorious from those dark days, and we are ever so slowly bound for home.

I do not know if this kind of attitude shift was Blizz’s intent, or if more practically they just need to start surreptitiously testing some of the major planned BfA changes and 7.3.5 seems like the ideal cover for it since the beta seems nowhere close yet. Whatever the reason, from an immersion™ standpoint, it works for me. I really feel like we have won a long campaign, and now we can go home with our heads held high. If Blizz can maintain this trend, the transition to BfA will be in my opinion the smoothest ever in the game. (Of course, I think we should go home to our own player housing, but that is a complaint for another day.)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Requiem, by Robert Louis Stevenson)

“Going home” evokes some of the warmest emotions anyone can express in any language.  It feels good. Nicely done, Blizz.

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.