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.

When jokes become reality

Some years ago, Blizz published a particularly funny April Fool’s joke about a proposed new raid called the Tomb of Immortal Darkness. It was clever, and at the time we all yukked it up over the comic creativity of such an absurd notion.

Well.

Last night our raid team completed 9/9 (N) Tomb of Sargeras. The final boss, Kil’jaeden, demonstrates what happens when absurdity becomes reality. If you have not yet done it, there is one phase where in fact the Tomb of Sargeras becomes the Tomb of Immortal Darkness. Your screen goes almost completely dark, resembling the April Fool’s “video”. You in fact stumble around blindly, hoping to find first Illidan, then a healer, then one of several adds to kill. You are in total darkness beyond about five yards until all the adds die and the phase thankfully ends. If you do not find Illidan, you will die. Even if you find him, you must keep coming back to him periodically to refresh his magic juju on you, or you will die. If you do not bump into a healer, you will die.

The devs have been talking about this in interviews. Bragging, really, high-fiving about how brilliantly cool they are for using new technology to turn an April Fool’s joke into an actual raid! Bwaaahaahaa, they are technical and comic geniuses!

From now on, I will be scrutinizing all Blizz jokes very closely, trying to guess which new idiocy will find its way into the game.

I am sure there will be players who like this particular phase of Kil’jaeden, who will think it is great fun. My recommendation to them would be to have even more fun by taping a newspaper over their screen during their next raid — same basic effect, low-tech enough for home use.

We got through the phase by having whichever raid member stumbled upon Illidan mark his location with a map ping, then the healers congregated there and we all ventured out a ways in different directions and made liberal use of tab targeting to find and kill adds, darting back to the ping location every 15-20 seconds lest we die. However, if no one was lucky enough to find Illidan in the first place, we wiped. (Hint: While hunter flares do not work in the phase, DH Spectral Sight does, sort of. Not going to get into a Blizz-loves-them-best snark here, but yeah.)

This technique was spookily foretold in the original joke page when Blizz wrote:

Now this dungeon is finally seeing the light of day, we’re happy that all the hours we spent on it were worthwhile — over 9,00 on the “tab targeting” system alone!

This, to me, is not only a joke taken too far, but it is RNG taken too far. We have all experienced boss runs where RNG plays a wipe-or-kill role before, but those have been relatively few and they are based on things like who gets which debuffs at what time or bad luck with the timing of adds — that sort of thing. This seems different. Basically, if you are not lucky enough to randomly bump into crucial NPCs or adds or friendly players, you will wipe. Maybe there will be some clever addons (that Blizz will angrily declare “unfair advantages”) to help teams, and someone may stumble on to a sure-fire strategy, but there is no getting around the notion that Blizz has finally made a boss overtly dependent on a single RNG mechanic.

While there are a ton of other mechanics in Kil’jaeden, all but the April Fool’s joke gone bad seem eminently manageable in normal mode. There were long patches of 30 seconds or so where nothing was happening and we could concentrate on heaping damage on the boss, and conversely there were long periods where the boss became essentially untouchable and we only had to concentrate on mechanics. I haven’t looked at the heroic version yet, but I am betting in that mode those stretches will be filled with adds or other madness.

Once we had killed hm, I did find the final cutscene absorbing, with some great cinematography. I won’t spoil it for you (there are video spoilers out there already), but suffice it to say it is a nice reward for downing Kil’jaeden. (Good thing, too, as all I got was gold and an AP token as loot and bonus roll. 😡)

Tiny spoilerette: It also lingers for presumably the rest of the expansion, as it changes the Dalaran scenery for the characters that have completed it.

After finishing normal mode ToS, we went on to down a couple of the early heroic bosses before we quit for the night, so all in all it has been a great raiding week for our team. For me personally, it was terrific fun to get back into the part of the game I find most rewarding. I still expect this raid tier to quickly become routine, but for the next few weeks it will be, I think, a rewarding challenge.

And now, let the weekend begin!

Grinding is bad, reaching goals is not

For the past couple of weeks, ever since I hit Concordance on my main hunter’s artifact and hit level 40 on my Artifact Research, I have taken a vacation from BS and World Quests. Just haven’t done them. Grinding out hundreds of millions of AP for a marginal increase in power simply is not worth the effort, in my opinion. I am close to the one billion mark for getting the next level, and that number just makes my head explode. I took the AP bar off my UI because I can’t stand to see myself getting, say, 9 million AP and having the bar progress less than the width of a human hair. It’s too demoralizing.

This effect, of course, is more or less what Blizz said their goal was. They actually want us to think it is not worth the effort. In fact, they have jiggered the AP accumulation rate and Concordance costs so that it is not just difficult but impossible to max out one’s artifact traits.

Think about that for a minute, and you will see what a remarkable move this is. For almost the entire history of this game, character progression has been primarily based on two mechanics: racking up achievements and getting gear. Sometimes the two are even combined — remember that sense of satisfaction each expansion when you get the achievement for all blue gear or all purple gear?

Getting “that” weapon used to be one of the highlights of an expansion. Remember when you got that cool heirloom weapon after downing Garrosh in Siege of Orgrimmar? Hunters, remember when you finally got that awesome bow from Deathwing? (I loved that bow, still use it a lot for transmog.)

The esteemed Game Director, Ion Hazzikostas, has lectured us many times on the evils of “grinding” — it is no fun™, he has said repeatedly, to “grind” for gear, to build up tokens if you know within a certain amount of time you will be able to get the gear you desire. No, people! That is not fun™ at all, it is much more fun™ to be surprised when you win the gear lottery, or even better to be unlucky enough to never win it at all! Whee!

And yet, Legion’s artifact weapons are the antithesis of even this supposedly baseline design philosophy. You are given them via a small quest line when you reach level 100 (removing at least one piece of gear from the normal “getting gear” game pillar), and then you spend the rest of the expansion upgrading them, by grinding for AP (violating the “grinding is evil” pillar). Mind, you are not grinding for cool new weapons, no indeed, you are grinding knowing you will never get another weapon in Legion, all you can do is get some incremental increases in the one you have. Furthermore, after a certain point, it is mathematically impossible to grind enough AP to get even a small upgrade. So what the “grinding is evil” group at Blizz has done is implement a mechanic that is not only a pure expansion-long grind, but one with no end goal.

The mind boggles.

Which brings up the question: what exactly constitutes a “grind” in the game? It’s a term each of us understands perfectly, yet which I suspect few of us would agree on. (It’s like “content” that way.)

To me, a grind is a process in which I spend a period of time doing certain activities not for their own enjoyment, but for the purpose of achieveing some other desired end. The activities themselves are usually boring and tedious, but they are worth it to me because the goal is something I really want. The grind is made tolerable by the fact that the goal is great, and by the knowledge that each time I crank out a few more of the boring activities I am closer to my desired goal. So, for example, I did the endless dailies in Mists because I wanted the rep that would give me the profession recipes and gear I wanted. I did those uninspired weeklies in BS because I wanted to open up the hunter mount quest line.

So the grind itself is almost always not fun, but reaching your goal is fun. This is a basic truth that is apparently beyond the grasp of Ion Hazzikostas. Yes, nearly everyone hates grinding, but nearly everyone likes knowing that if they just stick with it, they will get what they have set out to get. The root of much of the dissatisfaction with Legion’s eternal AP grind is pretty much that it is the grind without the reward. Yeah, I know, you get some small increases in your weapon power, but realistically the rewards are not enough to justify the grind in many people’s minds. We are all Sisyphus, doomed to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, knowing we will never be allowed to reach the top with it.

WoW has conditioned us to chase achievements and gear/mounts/pets/whatever. It is true that we play the game in the big picture for relaxation and fun, but in the micro picture once we are playing we keep doing so for the tangible rewards. Very few people would keep playing the game if all it consisted of was a series of quests that gave no “things” as rewards. We all yammer on about the fun of raiding, for example, because of the satisfaction we get from a team effort, but would any of us keep doing it if there were no gear or achievement rewards also? Seems doubtful.

So for Blizz to introduce a mechanic like the artifact weapon and all its peripheral mechanics just flies in the face of everything they have established as game motivation since the beginning, and it seems to violate the very philosophies they espouse as fundamental to their game design.

Time for another weekend.

Fog of war and other raid mechanics

Last week the folks at vanion.eu interviewed Blizzard encounter designer Morgan Day about some of the specifics and philosophies of raid mechanics for Tomb of Sargeras. If your German is as rusty as mine is, you can see the English crib notes and the interview at MMO-C. There was not a lot of earth-shattering news in the interview, although I did find a couple of things interesting, and Morgan Day was engaging, pleasant, and informative. Also, the interviewer, unlike a certain one I wrote about on Friday, stayed out of the conversation except when he needed to clarify some answers or elicit a bit more information.

The first thing I found interesting was the point about the interplay of technical development and raid mechanics. Day explained that, for example, when there was a new technical advancement that allowed for players to be moved around against their will, the devs incorporated it into raid mechanics such as the pushback in the Gul’dan fight. (And presumably also the use of this tech is what drove the inclusion of the strong winds mechanic in the Eye of Azshara instance.)

In Tomb, there is new tech that will allow for controlled decrease in transmitted screen clarity, something the devs are internally calling the Fog of War. This, Day explained, will be incorporated into at least one of the Tomb encounters to effectively limit a player’s vision and require assistance from team members to get through it.

I do not raid on the PTR, so I am as usual speculating from a position of pure ignorance. But I must admit I am a little worried about this. I have a slight sight disability (beyond what corrective lenses can help) and struggle with certain raid mechanics partially as a result of this. For example, I am terrible at dodging tornadoes and similar fuzzy-bordered constructs mainly because I do not have sufficient clarity of vision to see their edges. I never once made it through that maze in Durumu, even in LFR, despite running that raid dozens and dozens of times, adjusting my graphics settings, following someone who knew what they were doing, etc. Once in a while I still misjudge the edge boundaries of Skorpyron’s Focused Blast and get caught in it if I do not remember to overcompensate my distance. Vault of the Wardens is one of my least favorite Legion instances because of the dark foggy last part.

So when I am told there will be yet another vision-reducing mechanic in a raid, I am less than thrilled. I happen to think current raid mechanics are complex enough without adding in uncontrolled things like virtual simulation of cataracts. I may well be wrong, and it will turn out to be a fun mechanic, but honestly I feel like there is so much going on in any boss fight now that there is already plenty of confusion and “fog of war” without adding in more by screwing with our screen picture.

Peripherally connected to this “fog of war” mechanic were Day’s comments towards the end, that there are no plans to incorporate a “spectator mode” for raids. The reasoning, which I admit I had not thought of, is that some guilds might then designate a coach — someone who does not play but who instead directs the tactical fight. The reason this struck me as interesting is that it means Blizz is fully aware of how fantastically complex raid encounters have become, especially over the course of the last couple of expansions. (And there is the chicken/egg debate over whether encounters have become so complex because of addons that simplify them, or have addons proliferated because of the growing complexity.)

It also made me wonder — remember I am incredibly naive — if there is already not some form of this going on in esports. WoW has not thus far been a very active game for esports, but there are the occasional demos at special events. Certainly a guild or team could enlist the aid of a “spotter” in the audience, someone functioning like the ones NFL teams have — someone watching for patterns or problems from a place removed from the field, who could then use a communications line to inform/advise the coaches on the field. In fact, there seems to be no technical reason why world-first guilds now could not set up a video feed from one of their players’ screens to a “spotter” performing the same role Blizz is concerned about if they implement spectator mode.

I guess my point is, the “coach” excuse doesn’t really hold up as a reason to not go forward with a raid spectator mode. There might be technical or cost reasons, but coaching does not meet the test of logic as an excuse. If a guild wants to do it now, there is ample technology to set it up on their own — all that a spectator mode would do is make such a move more easily available to regular players.

The final thing that I found interesting about the interview was the rather short discussion of warforged and titanforged gear. The concern raised by the interviewer was that, with the chance of getting such gear from heroic raids, there might not be sufficient incentive to run mythic level. Day’s response was that, on average, more people will get higher level gear from mythic level than they will from the chance that heroic level loot will get a bump to mythic level.

The reason I found this interesting is that I remember that Oracle of All Things Fun, Ion Hazzikostas, prior to Legion, Blizzsplaining to us that the chance of getting warforged or titanforged gear from raids and dungeons would mean that your friends and guildies would be falling all over themselves to run that normal or heroic instance with you even though they were well beyond that in their progression, because they could get higher level gear.

HAHAHAHAHA! Good one, Ion. Not only has this not worked out as you said it would, but in fact now even one of your lead encounter designers has gone to some trouble to pooh-pooh the notion, hinting that the drop chance of getting mythic-level gear from a heroic encounter is hardly worth the trouble. In other words, Hazzikostas was stressing the mathematical possibility not the probability, whereas Morgan Day was actually being *gasp* realistic. But hey, according to the WoW Game Director, a one in a thousand chance or a one in a million chance is still a chance, and also very very fun™. So, Ion, tell me again why it is impossible to find a group for a normal instance, being as anyone could get really top-level gear from it?

Two weeks plus a day before we get to see for ourselves how this all plays out.

Legendaries — first aid for class balance?

Admin note: This post contains quite a few references to specific Beastmastery hunter talents. I have thrown in some Wowhead links, but if you want a more comprehensive picture of the talent table, check out the Icy Veins one here.

The latest development in Legion legendaries, reported by MMO-C as part of the most recent PTR build, is that now some of them will actually grant the wearer a talent from their spec’s talent table. For example, the new hunter legendary will grant Beastmasters the Dire Stable talent, a level 15 talent that increases focus generation while you have a Dire Beast active.

Well. Where to start?

I am not a theory crafter, so my take on this goes more to fundamentals than it does to actual numbers. But the first thing that occurs to me is this particular talent level has ever only had two choices for BM hunters — Way of the Cobra for single target fights and Dire Stable for multitarget fights. No one I know has ever selected the third talent in that row, Big Game Hunter, because it stinks and has stunk since it was introduced. It is a non-choice. So the new legendary effectively means BM hunters can have their cake and eat it too in this talent tier. It also means if you have the new legendary you have no other choices in this talent row, you will take Way of the Cobra. I am not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing out how it will play out.

The second effect this will have is to buff BM damage somewhat, at least for single target fights, because we will be generating extra focus. The effect on multitarget fights is less clear, I think, because Cobra Shot is not often used on those, so the extra damage may be moot. Number crunchers will undoubtedly play with various combos, including the desirability of using multiple Cobra Shots over Multishot for medium-size groups of targets.

Additionally, one of the basic complaints about BM hunter mechanics is that the player has zero control over focus generation — is completely dependent on auto-generation of this resource. With the exception of the really terrible talent Chimaera Shot, we have no power-generating shots, we are completely at the mercy of Blizz’s idea of how fast that critical factor should generate. One result of this early on was the clunky, start-and-stop nature of the rotation. It is still a problem, though most of us still playing the spec just grimly accept it after months of enduring it.

Dire Stable, while still not allowing control over focus generation, does increase the rate noticeably. So the fact that lucky winners of the new legendary will not have to choose between increased focus and increased single target damage will be nice, I suppose. I doubt if it will be a game changer, but it will be helpful.

But here’s the thing: Blizz is using legendaries to fix glaring problems with spec mechanics, problems that players identified months ago during alpha testing and have continued to point out ever since Legion went live. 

The most obvious and egregious flaw in this plan is — well, I hesitate to point out the obvious but here goes:

ONLY LUCKY PEOPLE GET TO HAVE THE FLAW FIXED.

What the hell, Blizz? If there is a mechanics problem with a spec glaring enough for even the most clueless dev to notice, shouldn’t the fix be available to all players? Why do you insist on making a lottery of everything? What is wrong in your brains? For the umpteenth time, Mr. Game Director Ion “I Am The Sole Arbiter of Fun” Hazzikostas, RNG is not fun except for the uber-lucky early winners. For all the rest of us who spend hours and days and months rolling the dice for that one piece of playstyle-changing gear, it is the furthest thing in the game from fun. Even when we finally get it — if we ever do — it is not a woohoo moment but rather a “oh thank god that is over” one.

Beyond the lunacy of basing spec mechanics fixes on pure luck, there is another aspect to this. It seems evident from WoD and Legion that Blizz is unable to adequately balance individual spec mechanics and numbers without ending up with obvious winners and losers — specs that are either overpowered or dismally puny performers. And when they have tried to fix glaring inequities the changes have frequently lurched from one extreme to the other. Everyone understands the class/spec balance and playstyle issues are complex. So why make them even more so by introducing additional factors?

Introducing a complicated artifact trait table made balancing specs more difficult by an order of magnitude. Introducing other gear — tier and legendaries — with significant spec-enhancing bonuses made it even more so.

If you are someone who is challenged when you are asked to bring microwave green beans to Thanksgiving dinner, it is almost certainly not a good idea to also volunteer to bring the turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Even though you hope it will help fix your green bean inadequacies, you are just setting yourself up for failure.

So, although I think the new legendary talents may help some specs in the near term,  using RNG gear to address known problems is a terrible way to do it. Not only is it a lazy approach, but in the long run it only serves to make the entire class/spec system more complex, more fragile, and consequently more prone to imbalance as a result of even tiny changes that can reverberate through the system in unexpected ways. Blizz should just stick to perfecting their green beans.

With that, I am out for the weekend.

A case for boring gear

I read a forum and Blue post today that started me to thinking about gear in WoW. The post is about a healer cloak that I have never heard of — you can read the original if you want more details — but the point being made was that this cloak, which is neither tier gear nor a legendary, is basically a requirement for healers trying to maximize crit. It is so powerful that no other cloak comes close to replacing it, and it effectively blocks out that slot from any other gear, thus limiting the healer’s choice of tier gear as well as legendaries.

Blizz’s response was, I thought, pretty good. It may not have been a particularly satisfying response to the poster, but at least it was honest. Basically they said yeah, it’s a problem, and our half-solution will not be a good one for everyone who has the cloak, but it is all we can do at this point.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that much of my angst with gear in Legion is less about the RNG factor in and of itself than it is about the dual notion that certain gear makes a significant difference in my damage-dealing abilities and my receipt of such gear is totally dependent on a roll of the dice. Thus my frustration with tier gear, the “good” legendaries, and so forth.

In my last post, I wrote about my frustration with Blizz’s recent habit of bandaging class and spec shortfalls with gear instead of addressing the base problem. This is one way gear makes a big difference in game play. That is, sometimes a spec really cannot function fully without the gear — the player cannot realize the full potential of the spec without the band-aid gear.

A second way gear matters to game play is that it may come with a special bonus — the player gets a big boost in tanking or healing or deepsing just by having certain gear. In Legion, the “good” legendaries fall into this category, along with some specialized trinkets and such, and to one extent or another tier gear. Blizz even tried to institutionalize this practice by some of the random enchants on neck pieces this expansion.

The third way gear matters is the mix of secondary stats on it. Although Blizz has tried recently to lessen the impact of secondary stats on game play, they have been unable to make much of a dent in their importance. At one point, I recall, our lead MM hunter on our raid team was bemoaning the fact that agility had assumed a secondary spot to mastery for him. Secondary stats, which, I assume from their name, should be — well, “secondary” considerations — have become so important that gear with much lower item level are often still superior to items 10-15 item levels higher. As I said, Blizz recognizes this problem, but they have been unable to untangle all the intricate dependencies enough to fix it.

Finally, there is the strut and preen factor. Some players just cannot get enough of humble-bragging about their gear. “Withered J’im always gives me that stupid Arcanocrystal, I’ve gotten it three times now!” “Man, I can’t believe my bad luck — my sixth legendary and only one of them is really good!” “I hate that I can’t equip all 6 pieces of my tier gear because I have that great legendary in the shoulder slot.” Et cetera. Let’s face it, in-your-face bragging is part of the game some people like best.

I know this will never happen, but imagine for a moment a game where most of the gear simply incrementally increased overall power as the levels rose. For a unique boost, there would still be maybe one legendary per expansion (like in Mists and WoD), and tier gear that you could actually earn rather than roll the dice for. Secondary stats, if they still existed, would match your loot spec automatically. If you got a piece of gear that was, say ilevel 900, you would know it was better than your current 890 one — no simulations, Mr. Robot, or complex calculations needed.

Much of Blizz’s current problem with class and spec balancing springs from their inability to foresee problems with huge gear bonuses (like the healer cloak I cited at the beginning of this post), and with their failure to properly integrate secondary stats into the already-complex equation of spells, talents, and artifact traits. A simpler approach like the one I suggest would allow them to actually make every spec fun to play again, as well as probably lessen the large gaps in performance among the specs.

Similarly, chronically unlucky players like myself rant and rail about the inequities of RNG gear, but much of that is due to the fact that most of the “desired” gear actually gives a significant advantage to players who have it. If it gave just an incremental power advantage, obtaining it would seem less urgent and much of the frustration of never getting a certain piece would disappear. Pursuing the special gear like a legendary or tier gear would be challenging and fun, because you would know if you stuck with it you would be rewarded.

Last, such a system of boring gear might restore the element of skill to its rightful place in the game. I freely admit I am not a highly skilled player — I am the equivalent of one of the chorus line in our raid team. But I was astounded to see what a difference it made in my damage when I did finally get my 4th piece of tier gear a few days ago. In some cases it boosted my damage by as much as 150k per second over the course of a long fight. Trust me, I did not suddenly become much more skilled in the last few days — this was solely a function of gear. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying skill no longer matters in the game, but I am saying I think we have veered too far in the direction of gear making more of a difference than it should.

About the only part of the game such a system would not help is the strut and preen group. They would have to find another way to rub their superior luck in the faces of the Great Unwashed. I have no solution to this, but I feel confident the strutters and preeners would find one.

Gear should matter, and it should reward skill and achievement. It just should not matter as much as it does now, and it should not depend on luck of the draw as much as it does now. I am hoping Blizz learns from some of the gear failures in Legion — such as the legendaries debacle — and returns to a more reasonable gear structure in the next expansion. We can always hope, right?

With that, the weekend commences.

Admin note: A family emergency involving two trips between Virginia and Minnesota this week accounts for my absence. All is well, but it has been a hectic week. Thanks to my readers for their patience.

The ascendancy of gear in Legion

Last night was our regular normal raid night, and it was a good session all the way around — we cleared normal Nighthold, did 3 early bosses in heroic so as to give us a head start Thursday for our heroic progression, and still quit 45 minutes early. Quite a few people got tier gear (not me, of course) and there was even one legendary drop, and in general we just had a pretty good time. But about halfway through, I had one of those sudden realizations, the kind you get when you know a certain situation exists but its full impact has not yet dawned on you:

Legion gear is a complete and total mess.

I have ranted a few times about various aspects of Legion gear, but last night it all came together like one giant poop snowball rolling down the hill at you faster and faster. What made it dawn on me is when I realized that I really can no longer tell if a piece of gear is an upgrade for me or not. This is not for lack of trying. Here are the steps I go through to try to determine whether or not a piece really is an upgrade:

  • Before raid, I run a series of sims (I use Beotorch, but there are other sites that will do this for you, or you can download something like SimulationCraft and run them yourself).
    • I take into account that I use a standard “AoE” talent build most of the time, but I also have a single-target talent build that I use for some bosses with no, or very few, adds. This means at least two sims need to be run, because the results are very different with different talent builds.
    • Then I need to pick a fight scenario. Because it is too complicated to pick more than one for each talent build, I usually pick a single boss stand-in-place one (Patchwerk, Ultraxion) for my single target build, and a single boss with quite a few adds and light movement for my AoE build.
  • Once the sims are done, I load them into Pawn (again, this is what I use, there are other similar addons out there). This in theory gives me a quick tooltip reading on any given piece of gear, whether it is an upgrade or not, and an estimate of how much of an upgrade it is.
  • When raid time comes around, the first thing I look for in a piece of gear that I have won or am being offered in trade from someone else who can’t use it, is the Pawn number in the tooltip.
  • In some cases, I will disregard Pawn and go with my gut — as for example if my current piece is level 870 and the new piece is 885, I will call it an upgrade even if Pawn does not. This, of course, assumes that the primary and secondary stats look decent, although for example in the case of necks there are no primary stats so you have to look at other things like bonus effects, gem slots, etc.

For several months, I used a BM Pawn build by Azortharion and linked in IcyVeins. It was a decent way to start, but the thing is, it is based on an assumed ilevel and an assumed baseline set of gear. If you don’t have this set, you will get skewed results — my experience was the higher ilevel I attained, the more skewed were my results.

The way that secondary stats interact in Legion, it is not always the case that the piece of gear with your preferred secondary stat is the best, since there are complex interactions among them, and the main factor really is the ratio of secondary stats, not just loading up on your “primary” secondary stat. (I am giving myself a headache here…) The bottom line is, your best upgrade gear varies according to the particular set of gear you have equipped, and it frequently has absolutely nothing to do with ilevel.  It doesn’t vary a lot If you get one new piece, but if that piece is enchantable and/or has a gem slot, it can change your stat ratio enough that you might want to rebalance things. And often we are talking about a few thousand additional damage points, not just a few hundred.

But here’s the thing: Even if Pawn or your gut tells you a piece of gear is an upgrade, it is still a crap shoot. All sims are based on a set of specific assumptions, and if those assumptions were flawed, then the outcome/recommendation will also be flawed. As to going on gut — on more than one occasion I have equipped what to my gut looks like a decent upgrade, only to unequip it and go back to my other piece when I realize it is not actually helping me.

Remember back in the WoD pre-patch (6.0.2), when they completely reworked secondary stats and got rid of reforging? Here is what the official patch notes (expanded) said about that:

The original intent behind Reforging was to offer a way for players to customize their gear, but in practice it offered little in the way of true choice. Players attempting to optimize every piece of gear were well advised to look up how they were supposed to reforge an item in an online guide or tool that had already determined the optimal choice. It added yet another step to the list of things that must be done to a new item before it was ready to be equipped, reducing the joy of getting an upgrade into a chore.

If an upgrade drops, we want you to be able to equip it with a minimum of fuss. It is for those reasons that we’re removing Reforging from the game.
The Reforging system and associated NPCs have been removed from the game.

HAHAHAHAHA! Oh, Blizz, you crack me up. At the time I did not appreciate what a great joke you were playing on us, but now that I see it, I have to say it was well done! You definitely got me on that one! Yeah, reforging was too complicated, so instead you gave us this Byzantine maze of obfuscated simulation math, probabilities, and contorted stats. Good one!

In fact, the whole Legion gear picture resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with your piece of upgrade gear somewhere in the middle of all that clutter and confusion. In addition to the guess-if-it-is-an-upgrade factor, we have:

  • The mess with crafted and order hall gear that I talked about yesterday.
  • Artifact weapons making a single piece of gear central to most end game play — not only as far as chasing AP, but as being inextricably intertwined with spec power, spells, and play style.
  • The big mess with legendaries — everything from drop rate, to “good ones” versus “trash ones’,  to the fact that their lack often hinders effective spec changing within a class. (Another good joke from Blizz — yeah, you can freely change to any spec in your class, nor more restrictions! Except, of course, artifact weapon grinding, different gear sets because of stats, and “required” legendaries…)
  • Secondary stats. Honestly, no actual non-professional player can understand their complex interactions sufficiently to make any kind of reasonable judgment about a piece of gear’s utility to them.
  • RNG. Once again, the people on the good end of the probability curve make out like bandits, while the chronically unlucky are left to muddle along. This affects not only tier gear and weapon upgrades (relics), but also legendaries and possibly even more importantly secondary stats. I have said it before and I will continue to say it: Ion Hazzikostas, RNG is NOT fun! Speaking as someone always on the butt end of the curve, I can tell you not only is it not fun, it is soul-crushingly depressing.

Gear in Legion seems more important than I can remember, and I think it has reached a point where player skill, while still a factor, is much less a factor than in the past. This growing centrality of gear in Legion, combined with the pruning of raid buffs and utilities for all but a couple of classes, points to a sea change in Blizz’s philosophy, one that puts us far along the road to “Bring the class, not the player.”

I think when I look back on Legion, I will see gear as one of the biggest failures of the expansion, right up there alongside the betrayal of the hunter class. Methods for Legion gear enhancements and accumulation — like the current hunter play style — have become part of the game that I play in spite of, not because of.