Aaaand we’re off!

I am pronouncing Legion officially ended.

Oh yes, I know technically we have months to go in this expansion, and lots of people are still totally engrossed in it, but for all practical purposes it has shifted from a windshield view to one we see in the rear view mirror. Battle for Azeroth is now the windshield view.

In my days as a soldier, I was transferred from one duty station to another about every two years (sometimes more often). Every time I did a PCS (permanent change of station), there was a defined point at which I stopped thinking of my last duty station as home and started anticipating my new one. When I returned from Iraq, for example, somewhere about halfway on the flight home, my brain did a sort of “click” and I pushed the previous months to the back of my consciousness and began to really think about arriving at the airport, reuniting with family, planning for my next set of duties, and so forth. I had a turned a page to a new chapter, and I knew it.

Last night I had that kind of “click” in my brain about Legion/BfA. It was an accumulation of news and events, I think. For one thing, our raid team downed heroic Argus, so Legion progression raiding has been officially completed. For another, in the last couple of days we have seen an avalanche of data about BfA — a rare Developer Water Cooler post, announcement of a Hazzikostas “Q&A” next week, the start of the BfA alpha test, and of course the first crush of mined data. Blizz has definitely kicked off its official next-expansion blitz.

Right now we are in an overload-induced lull in the face of all this information, but over the next few days, weeks, and months we’ll start to see a realistic picture of BfA emerge. So, a few (very) preliminary observations on the process we are beginning:

As always, I applaud the publication of the Dev Water Cooler post, but back in the old days before the Hazzikostas Dynasty these were much more frequent and thus gave us a lot more insight into game design and goals. Now we are lucky if we see one or two a year, and sadly they now seem mainly to be part of publicity blitzes in advance of a new expansion. Nevertheless, better one than none I suppose.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this one is that Blizz has almost completed their morph from “Bring the player not the class” to “Bring the class not the player” in their design philosophy. BfA will see — if the post is to be believed — class and spec utilities pruned and added with the goal of having only one or two classes with any given raid utility, and (in theory) raid bosses designed to take specific advantage of specific utilities. I think this is a big mistake, but of course Blizz designs for the professional-level raider, not for the majority of their players. (Most raid teams do not have the luxury of switching out specs to fit each boss — and in fact probably would not do so even if they could.)

I agree with Blizz that it is not very interesting if every class has every utility. But the hints are that BfA will see a typical pendulum swing that will severely limit and further specialize class utilities. This will be fine for classes that win the lottery and have generically useful utilities, like hero/timewarp or battle rez or group-wide speed bursts. It will be far less fine for classes that get highly specialized utilities and in the process lose their more generic ones in the name of promoting class “uniqueness”. One example I can think of right now is the fact that hunters will lose the AoE stun effect of Binding Shot — it will be simply an AoE root. But hunters will gain (get back, actually, after its removal in Legion) Tranquilizing Shot. I am not complaining about getting tranq back again, but its utility is far more selective than the current Binding Shot. Back when we still had tranq, I estimate it was useful for maybe one in ten boss fights. Contrast that with the current Binding Shot, which I use much more frequently in Legion, and very often indeed in M+ dungeons.

The net effect of this kind of selective specialization is that, for example, a druid with battle rez is always useful in a raid, whereas a hunter with tranq is useful in maybe a few boss fights. Multiply that effect across 36 specs, and there will be very clear winners and losers in Blizz’s attempt to bring back “uniqueness” in raid utility. Some specs will get the “always useful” abilities, and some will get the “once-in-a-while useful” ones. Blizz will undoubtedly try to even things out, but their track record in doing so is pretty dismal.

The other takeaway I got from the Water Cooler post is that Blizz is once again going to take a stab at redefining class and spec “identity”. This terrifies me, because the last time they did something like this, they demolished my chosen spec. In the run up to Legion, Blizz made a big deal about establishing class and spec “fantasies”. They actually did come up with narratives for each, but that was the end of it, because in many cases the spec implementation was not even close to the official “fantasy”. There was almost zero follow-through on what some class writer thought the spec should look like and what the developer implemented for it. BM hunters, for example — “master of beasts” — ended up with almost zero control over their array of pets.

(Bendak has a great discussion of this whole idea of class identity as applied to BM hunters in his recent post on what he would like to see for the spec in BfA. Hunters, check it out if you have not already, it is worth reading.)

Part of the whole fantasy/identity thing is that Blizz really has no good idea of how to really define some classes. Yes, they are pretty good with mages and the various druid specs, but they have struggled with classes like paladins and hunters among others. I do not know why, but they just do not seem to “get” certain classes. The result is that a staffer writes up some good boilerplate class/spec description, and that is the end of it — the abilities, play style, and rotation end up being nowhere near the description.

One last comment, this one on the alpha test (still waiting on my invite, sure it is on the way 🙄) and the data mining effort. Every post you see on these activities will be prefaced with something like “it is very early yet, and everything might change”. A necessary statement to make, but what I have observed over the last two expansions is that the live version very rarely deviates in any significant way from the very earliest tests we see. In the case of Legion, the only time Blizz even seemed to consider making changes was during the invitation-only alpha test, and even then they did not make many. By the time it got to beta and of course later to the PTR, the entire expansion was set in stone.

I believe that once again we are going to see the game’s elite players (the ones who got the alpha invitations) determine the course of the entire expansion, certainly in the areas of gear and class abilities. Additionally, in areas that pro players (basically Mythic world-first caliber) have little interest — professions, for example — developers will have full power to do whatever they wish, with little or no player input until we get to the “too late” stage.

I said at the time the Legion alpha test was going on, that it was a mistake to shape an entire expansion on the feedback of the elite, and it looks to me like Blizz is about to repeat that pattern.

One thing they could do to make me feel better about this whole test period would be to give the players frequent and robust feedback in the forums or by other means. I am talking about Ghostcrawler-type feedback, honest and even at times brutal, but reliable and transparent. In the runup to Legion we basically saw a few media blitzes, but crickets in responding to even the most solid and detailed player feedback. For months on end. It gave the impression of epic disdain for their customers. I know it is not developers’ favorite thing to actually *gasp* write or address questions/concerns, but I think Blizz could do themselves a huge favor by putting a priority push on player feedback for the next few months, even if that means they have to increase their resources devoted to it.

They will not do it, of course, but I have to make the suggestion. We are creatures of hope. We are (at least I am) also creatures who live for the weekend. Enjoy yours.

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.

Help build a hunter community response

Late edit: The first hunter forum thread hit max less than 24 hours after it appeared, so the current active thread is here. Also be aware there appears to be a posting bug that results in your first attempt at a reply just sending it into the ether, although a second attempt will succeed. I recommend you copy your entire forum reply before trying to post it, so if it disappears you can just paste and try again.

A couple of days ago I published a piece about Blizzard’s months-long practice of completely ignoring valid hunter concerns about class changes in Legion. Lo and behold, last night Ornyx, a Blizzard Community Manager, started a thread asking for input on hunter concerns. (No, I am sure my post had nothing to do with it, but if it did I solemnly vow to use this power only for good …. 😉)

First things first. Any of you who play a hunter, whether main or alt, please take a moment and go to the new thread and make your feelings known, in a calm and professional tone. (Emotion about the subject is fine, spittle-flecked invective and hateful language is not.) If you do not have the time to post, at least peruse some of the comments and give some feedback in the form of a Like or even a Dislike. It seems that sudden and massive response is the best way to get Blizz’s attention these days.

I have to admit, I was excited by the fact that there was finally a Blue post acknowledging the existence of hunters, and even soliciting feedback on the massive changes to the class. This of course is a sad commentary, because there have been literally thousands of pleas over the last 8-9 months begging Blizz to respond to serious and legitimate concerns about the current state of the hunter class, all stubbornly ignored. So it feels a little bit shameful that when we finally get one small acknowledgement that there might be some problems, my response is to wiggle like a happy puppy.

I commend Ornyx for starting the forum thread — nothing bad on him over this — but we simply cannot ignore the big turd in the punch bowl here:

Why now? And why a brand new thread, when there is a massive amount of forum input from hunter class forums as well as from Legion test forums?

With 5 days to go until Legion launch, the timing certainly seems strange. I have more questions than answers at this point.

  • Is Ornyx’s thread something he is doing on his own initiative, or is it part of a larger Blizz plan to lay the foundation for significant class changes in 7.1?
  • Why is it necessary to restate points already stated multiple times in other forums — in fact, in the very forums Blizz told us to provide feedback in? Do they not read those forums? Are they trying to see if hunters still really really feel the same way?
  • What is the point of this exercise? Are there actual plans to address the deep flaws in every hunter spec, or is this just a mechanism to allow hunters to release a little steam? Worse, is the move designed to give false hope, just to shut hunters up for a while? (The disconnected office thermostat ploy.)
  • Will we ever get the results of Ornyx’s initiative — that is, will we get an official response to the concerns, beyond “We hear you and we are thinking about it. There, there.” He stated in his original post that he intends to take the compiled responses “to the devs”, but what that means is a little unclear.
  • If in fact the initiative is the basis for 7.1 changes, is there any hope that they will be anything but superficial? The small responses to date indicate Blizz fails to understand — or is unwilling to deal with — fundamental flaws in spec design.
  • Slightly off topic, but not really: Ornyx admitted he does not play a hunter, which makes me wonder if any of the devs making drastic changes play a hunter seriously, beyond as a fun leveling and soloing alt (which btw is not really so fun any more). No one who has played a hunter for a long time, who has loved the hunter class, could possibly have made the class-altering changes we have seen. Come on, Blizz, come clean — Do any of you actually main a hunter?

Short post today, but I wanted to get this out there to help build the response. I choose to take Ornyx’s initiative as a positive sign of Blizz’s commitment to not abandon the hunter class. I hope I am not proven wrong.

Well that was fast

On the heels of my long rant last Thursday, about the idiocy of the pay-per-spec-change policy, we get a series of long and thoughtful blue posts from “Watcher” Hazzikostas on the subject. You can read them in full in the forum or the compiled responses here in MMO-C. But the bottom line is that the proposed policy has been reversed as of yesterday, spec changes will be free in Legion, no change to the current policy, except of course you will not be limited to two specs per class. Also, there will instead be a tougher policy on talent switching — more on that in a minute.

I have some wide-ranging thoughts on this development, but overall I am encouraged and optimistic about the way it was handled.

First, this is another in a series of rather remarkable design reverses in response to player comments. I don’t have a list of them all, but the ones that come to mind are the Water Strider and pets for MM hunters. I think this shows that Blizz did in fact learn some lessons from the debacle that was WoD. No, they don’t cave to every criticism of certain design mechanics, but they seem to be getting better at determining when something is potentially a major problem. Not insignificantly, they also are willing to reverse themselves if they decide that the player criticisms are justified. This is something they were incapable of during the WoD beta and throughout the first part of the expansion. They seem to have rediscovered how to be flexible. (Sorry, I don’t buy the tinfoil hat theory that the initial spec changing cost was done solely to be able to look like good guys when they changed it, which they always intended to do — Blizz can be sneaky, but this would be a new low even for them.)

Second, I can see a certain maturing process at work with Watcher. (No, I am not trying to be condescending in noting this.) Although he is the current Big Dog in terms of player communications, he has seemed unwilling to put himself out there and engage with players in any meaningful way. In WoD his preferred mode of communication was the snarky comment, delivered so as to maximally demean whatever player concerns were at issue. He still seems reticent to engage with players on any kind of regular basis, but some of his most recent responses in forums have been detailed, thoughtful, and on an adult level of reasoning and explanation.

I found his collected responses to the spec-changing issue reasonable and fair. You can agree or disagree with the compromise solution Blizz arrived at, but there is no doubt that Watcher fully explained their reasoning and the basis for making the decision they did. After the nastiness of player communications in WoD, I am still pleasantly surprised when Blizz actually explains their deliberative process on some issues. I wish they would do it more, but that they do it at all is a huge improvement.

I for one appreciate being treated as a sentient, knowledgeable adult. It makes me much more receptive to grownup approaches like compromise.

Third, delving into the actual compromise worked out over the spec-changing issue, I find it to be reasonable. Do I love it? No, but I understand where Blizz is coming from, and after all the mark of a good compromise is that all sides are somewhat happy as well as somewhat unhappy.

For those who have not read the solution, it is that spec changing will be free, but talent changing will become more restrictive than it currently is. Though the final details are not yet worked out, basically you will only be able to change your talents if you are in a safe zone, defined as a place that gives you rest. (I am not sure if that means only sanctuary areas like class halls and sanctuary cities, or if any inn will do.) There will be a provision for some magic effect — crafted and presumably sold by Inscriptionists — to create a temporary sanctuary in raids/instances/field where those in the vicinity can switch talents. Of note, Watcher clearly indicated the intent is NOT for individuals to carry stacks of these magical widgets with them, rather that they be available to groups — though he did not elaborate much on that, so that is one of the details to be worked out I guess.

Blizz’s intent is to make choices actually count for something. After all, as they point out, you are not really making a choice if you can always have it all with a minuscule  effort. They believe they have put a lot of work into Legion’s talent tables for each class, and they want players to put some thought into their talent selections, realizing the trade-offs involved.

As I said, I can see their point. Currently, I do a fair amount of talent switching in raids, mainly involving Level 15 Posthaste versus Crouching Tiger Hidden Chimaera and Level 90 Glaive Toss versus Barrage. I change the Level 90 talents more frequently than I do the Level 15, mainly because it annoys me to not use Barrage on a single target or very small group — I feel like it is a waste of a talent to just have it sit there, even though I understand it means I can use more powerful shots more often. It’s a perception thing with me. So if I know there will not be big trash mobs in a fight, I change to GT.

Will I change talents so often in a raid if it means forcing a group effort similar to a warlock Summoning Portal in order to do it? No, I probably won’t, and I am sure there will be times when that frustrates me and makes me think I am not able to do my best. But in the big picture, it is preferable — at least to me — to chunking out gold every time I change specs.

But I think this most recent design reversal means that it is incumbent on Blizz to ensure Legion encounters are more balanced than they are now, so that there is less clear advantage to wholesale talent switching in raids and instances. Minor, yes, major, no. For example, there really should not be a series of encounters like the first two bosses in HFC, compounded by the hordes of trash mobs in between every boss, where the differences between AoE talents and single target talents are huge. Blizz will not do this, of course, we will just have to suck it up, but it would be the responsible design decision in light of this recent talent switching redesign.

I also think this compromise makes it important for Blizz to give us reasonable choices for each talent level. This means that each tier should have three equally viable choices for the “theme” for that tier, and this requires attention to detail in Blizz’s balancing process. More attention to detail than we have seen them capable of for the past couple of years. If our talent choices require us to make trade-offs, it seems only right that the same thing apply to Blizz’s design choices.

Still, I commend Blizz in general and Watcher in particular on their response to the spec-changing issue. Now, if we can talk a little about spec balancing and play styles…

Blizz, you can still turn this around

An open letter to Blizz and the WoW devs:

Dear Blizz,

I watched your Legion launch event last Thursday, and I made a special effort to watch your Sunday non-event touted as a Q&A. I have read your tweets, and I have scoured the official forums.

You are in the process of making the same mistakes you did prior to WoD, plus a few more.

I am not talking about game or class mechanics for Legion, although there are plenty of huge — possibly catastrophic — mistakes you are making there, too. I am talking about your total disregard for meaningful, regular communication with your players.

When, as Lore said in a tweet, the lesson you learned from launching WoD was that you gave us too much information too early, that is a problem. That is absolutely the wrong lesson to take from the experience. The lesson you should have taken is that you need to get your act together and have an actual project management plan with clear objectives that all devs are aware of and are working towards in their areas. Then when you get an avalanche of questions, devs can address them in terms of those objectives, and describe the goals even if they do not yet have the mechanics worked out.

Clamping down on all communication is the worst possible course of action.

You hyped the original Gamescom event, you generated huge anticipation and excitement, you gave us a few tidbits, then you shut down.

Anyone who has even heard of the term “public relations” knows that this is the surest way to enrage your customers. Anyone who lives in the current century knows that a launch of any major new product is always accompanied by a robust public relations and communications plan. When a company goes to all the trouble of hyping their new product, even holding a special event to announce it, the company should want to capitalize on all that interest, not waste it by proceeding to ignore the very customer interest they worked so hard to generate.

This is a serious question: Do you have no communications professionals on your staff? If you don’t, you are wrong. And if you do, then either they should be fired and replaced, or your execs are ignoring their advice, and your execs should be fired.

I am begging you, start immediately to establish meaningful, regular communication about all aspects of Legion with your customers. It is not too late, but soon it will be.

Here are some ideas.

  • Hold weekly scheduled dev talks about Legion. Structure them however you want, but make them responsive to player concerns and ideas. Hazzikostas can do them all, or you can rotate the duty, but do them, do them at a regular time, and give them top priority. That means do not “reschedule” or “postpone” or cancel because something more important came up. Your message should be that nothing is more important than these talks, nothing is more important than interacting with your players about the next expansion.
  • Provide regular forum feedback in the form of Blue Posts. You have said you read the forums, well no one knows that if you do not provide feedback. Maybe the feedback is “We understand there are strong feelings about our plan to [do umptyfratz], and it will be the featured topic at this week’s Legion Dev Corner.” Maybe the feedback is something else, but you must provide it — communication is a two-way activity.
  • Stop with the fantasy that @WarcraftDevs is the “official” communications path. It is not. As of earlier this morning, in spite of all the player comments about Sunday and about many aspects of Legion, the last public tweet from @WarcraftDevs was something innocuous about pet battles, on August 7th. If you think using Twitter allows for faster responses, this seems to indicate you are not using it that way.  Twitter is not/not conducive to meaningful communications of the sort you need to be engaging in. So just stop it, please.
  • On the home page, publish a list of official Legion feedback locations — forums, scheduled dev livestreams, whatever — for various topics. Then follow through by having employees responsible for providing regular feedback in each of these media. Your standard claim of “We listen to all feedback in a variety of venues” doesn’t cut it. The normal reaction to “We listen to everything” is to assume in fact you listen to nothing.
  • Give us the name of a dev responsible for each class, and the preferred way of communicating with them. And if you can’t do that because “It is a group effort” then you are structured wrong. Committee decisions result in the class chaos we see now. Someone has the final say on class changes, so give us that name. I for one would like to know that, for example, there is a hunter class team lead who has mained a hunter for some number of years, and what that person’s preferred spec is, what their vision is for hunters, how they define the feel of the class, where they would like to see it a year from now, etc.

Please, Blizz, I want to be excited and engaged about Legion, I want it to be a wild success, but you have set yourselves on a path to another colossal failure by not setting up valid communications mechanisms with your players.

Just talk with us, not at us, I don’t think that is too much to ask.