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.

What’s next?

It’s way too soon to start speculating about the next WoW expansion (NWE), so let me speculate about it. There is not much else to write about these days anyway, and it has been a while since I have put forth any crackpot ideas, so what the hell.

Disclaimer: Everything in this post is the product of my warped but robust imagination, I have absolutely no insight into any current or future Blizzard development plans.

In considering what we might see in the next WoW expansion, the process I used was to look at past trends and add in recent game features. I am not a lore buff, so I am not going to address much at all about the background story line — plus, honestly, WoW lore/history seems really only to exist in order to explain game design not the other way around, so I have never been able to get too excited about it. (I know some of you really love it, not disparaging you for this at all, just it is not my cup of tea.)

Location and scaling. There will be new zones. Whether they will be somewhere on Azeroth or — as has been coyly hinted — on another planet is, in my opinion, not important. On the other hand, zone scaling, a huge hit in Legion, will continue in NWE, and I look for it to be expanded in some way. Not sure exactly how, but one idea might be that some legacy zones become scaled, permitting leveled players to revisit and explore them in a somewhat challenging way, making it more fun to go back and finish unfinished or even new quest lines in those areas.

Content. Blizz believes they have finally hit on a winning plan to keep content flowing in Legion — whether this is true or not is a subject for a whole different post — and so NWE will see the same content paradigm. To wit:

  • World quests.
  • Mini-events/holidays.
  • Rapid patches and semi-patches.
  • Continued use — and likely expansion — of RNG as both the carrot and the stick to force more play hours for every facet of the game, from gear to professions.
  • Mythic+ dungeons, expanded in some way. For example, there might be some sort of “plus” mechanism for non-current raids, or add the “plus” concept into weekly timewalker bonus events.

Classes. I do not expect to se any new classes introduced in NWE, but I think we may see some or all race restrictions lifted for class selection. I also think we may see some further spec role changes (not mages, of course, don’t be ridiculous). For example, we might see another spec added to Demon Hunters to give them three. I would not expect it to be a healing spec, more likely would be a ranged spec, possibly using a combination of magic and thrown weapons. In the wishful thinking department, I would like to see SV hunters become a tanking spec, using pets in creative ways to really open up possibilities for some exciting tanking innovations.

I expect to see yet another huge rewrite of nearly every class, because Blizz has demonstrated that they simply cannot refrain from doing this every expansion, even when they are able to achieve a semblance of balance by the end of one. The rewrite will continue the recent trend of making some classes more or less indispensable to certain raid fights, finally driving a stake into the now disfavored notion of bringing the player not the class.

I think Blizz will also place more back-door restrictions on spec flexibility. They will continue to tout how a player can freely switch among all their specs, but they will increase the penalties for doing so, whether by charging gold or by creating restrictive gear or by limiting the times/places it can be done.

I also think we will see a continuation of the trend of “mini specs”. In Legion, we saw the notion of class begin to take a back seat to the notion of spec, as demonstrated most obviously with artifact weapons. In addition, we saw a very distinct differentiation in spec “specialization” emerge based on talent selection, and we saw a very slight but nevertheless active attempt to put some controls on changing that specialization. In effect, I think we saw the emergence of specs as the new class, the concept of class becoming more one of general category, and a growing importance placed on specialty builds for each spec. This trend will continue in NWE, and it will become more pronounced, to the point of identifying players by class, spec, and build specialty — “Single-target destro warlock”, “Bursty MM hunter”, etc.

Gear. First of all — RNG, RNG, and more RNG. Also, the secondary stat mess will continue and possibly get worse, compounded by the inevitable total rewrite of most classes and consequent unforeseen results of overpowered or underpowered secondary stat interactions.

As I alluded to in a reply to a reader comment a couple of days ago, I expect to see some continuation of the artifact weapon mechanism in NWE. Yes, I know Blizz has told us that artifact weapons are a one-expansion thing, but remember they also told us that same thing about garrisons, then gave us mini-garrisons in the form of class halls. We will have some piece of gear in NWE that will require upkeep mechanisms eerily similar to AP and relics and such, because:

  • Too many dev resources have gone into artifact weapons to trash the idea completely.
  • Spec abilities are rather intimately tied to weapon abilities now, and Blizz seems to like the possibility of tweaking abilities by tweaking gear traits.
  • The artifact weapon — or follow-on — plays a rather large role in encouraging players to spend more time in the game chasing infinite upgrades.

As to the whole Legion legendary debacle, who knows? I think Blizz is embarrassed enough by it that we may see legendaries as lottery winnings disappear in NWE, but we may see some return to quest lines for them. I would expect these to be less involved and time-consuming than the ones in Mists and WoD, but still requiring weeks to complete. Moreover, I think we may see options for obtaining more than one legendary per character, once again with the Blizz benefit of extending game play time.

Crafted gear? No clue. Wishful thinking is that it would become relevant again, for all professions, but I don’t know. My suspicion is that it will fall prey to the drive to devalue professions in general. Which leads me to —

Professions. I am not hopeful about this area. I think NWE will give us even more hurdles to professions, and I think Blizz’s inability to see the large picture will once again give us clear winners in losers in the profession lottery, as we saw with for example winner alchemists and loser skinners in Legion. The problem I see with professions is that they are totally tied, in Blizz’s collective mind, to the use of alts. To allow profession leveling and item production for characters not played the same number of hours as mains is to condone the evil practice of having alts support a main. Why this is bad is still a mystery to me, but we have heard that oracle of acceptable game play and approved fun, Ion Hazzikostas, lecture us many times on the fact that, take his word for it, it is evil evil evil. So it must be. So professions will continue to become more and more elusive for characters that do not spend main-level time in game.

Alts. They will continue to be forced into an “other mains” play style temulate. See above, end of discussion.

In short, I expect the next expansion will be a veritable clone of Legion, just different locations and a few changes either for cause or merely for the sake of change. I am not saying if this is good or bad, I am just saying that Blizz considers Legion to have been an unqualified success, they think they have found a winning formula after the failure of WoD, and they are going to stick to it. They certainly have cause for considering Legion to be successful — I agree with them for the most part — but I suspect the formula will wear a bit thin if it is repeated. Furthermore, the tendency for self-congratulations on the success of Legion means it is unlikely Blizz will take seriously some of the major flaws and missteps they committed. They may have gotten the message on legendary gear, but thus far it still seems like they are oblivious to the pain and chaos they caused by their horrible changes to many classes and specs, and I honestly expect them to repeat the same mistake in the next expansion.

What about you? Any predictions for the next expansion? (Tinfoil hat theories also accepted.)

It’s that time

WoW expansions, like many human constructs, seem to have predictable phases in their life cycles. This is in no way scientific, but in my own mind I list them as:

  1. Speculation
  2. Formal announcement/unveiling
  3. Testing
  4. Live implementation
  5. General player base fascination, often combined with righteous indignation over perceived Bad Design/Terrible Idea
  6. “Normalization” and acceptance of virtual life under the rules of the expansion
  7. Pundit analysis of the overall “flavor” of the expansion
  8. Interest in major patches
  9. Boredom and malaise
  10. Go back to step 1

I think we are at Step 7 in Legion, a conclusion I reached after reading some recent blogs — check out Marathal over at Deez Wurds and Ethan Macfie in MMO Games for a couple of examples. There are recent others with similar content, but these struck a chord with me.

For several weeks now, I have had a vague feeling of frustration with the game, but have not really been able to put my finger on the cause. The two blogs I cited have helped me at least start to define it a bit.

Let me say up front, I am not backing off my general assessment of Legion as a success, and as I have written before, there is a lot of fun to be had in this expansion. But remember the flap over “daily overload” in Mists? That same feeling magnified about tenfold is what I have been feeling in Legion.

The feeling is one of stress or burnout, insofar as these terms can be applied to a leisure activity like a computer game. No, of course it is not real stress — not like caring for an aging parent or worrying about the rent or raising a child or enduring an abusive boss — but it is a kind of “immersion stress.” When we play virtual games, we allow ourselves to be bound by certain sets of rules and expectations. We enter an imaginary world and operate in it on its terms. It is in that context that I refer to “stress”, and it can hinder our enjoyment of the virtual world in the same way real stress hinders our joy in real life.

Back to the dailies in Mists. There was a pretty significant backlash against them, and the main complaint was that players felt they had to do them and do them — lots of them — every day or risk “falling behind”. That is, the quests felt less like engaging content and more like a forced march that led first to faction rep and from there to gear and professions recipes and other items players wanted or thought they needed for their end game enjoyment. In fact, sometimes attaining faction rep only meant you could then start a different faction rep grind as a step in your progress.

The players complained about “too many” dailies, but I think their dissatisfaction was less about the number and more about the notion of “compulsory”. If you missed one or two days of dailies, that was one or two days longer until you were eligible to get the items you wanted. And yes, I understand there is a segment of the player population that will greet this idea with a shrug and a “So what?” But I think a sizable majority of what I would term “engaged players” — hardcore and pseudo-casual — felt pressure to log on every day in Mists just to avoid “falling behind”.

Fast forward to Legion. Mists gave many of us nervous tics if we could not log on for a couple of days, but Legion goes much further. For one thing, there are tons more “dailies” in the form of world quests, Mythic+ runs for the weekly chest, daily random heroics for the AP, and so forth. But another, more insidious difference exists: in Mists, there was an end to the grind, once you got your rep you could get your recipes and gear and move on to other parts of the game. But in Legion, there is never an end. We are all Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up the hill knowing that reaching the top only means we get to start all over again. Macfie, in the post I cited above, describes it as “the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing deluge of continuous progression”.

Blizz has confused the notion of “content” with “endless repetition”. I find this ironic, in that Game Director Hazzikostas has lectured us time and time again about the evils of “grinding” for gear, thereby justifying the use of RNG for everything because of the fun™ factor. Yet, Legion, with its endless chases after ever-increasing AP, random profession recipe drops, and lottery gear, is in fact one gigantic grind. The difference is, usually when you grind you eventually reach your goal — I guess what Hazzikostas believes is that grinding in and of itself is fun™, it is being rewarded at the end that is evil.

Once again, from Macfie:

Where it’s gone off the rails a bit is that this progression, after a certain point, becomes functionally endless, creating a situation where any player with even a semblance of a competitive edge feels an immense amount of pressure to grind to keep up. Those that don’t keep up with the grind run the risk of being excluded as AP levels gradually becomes the new gear score by which their character’s worth is judged (in addition to their actual gear score).

Many players feel like how well you play matters less and less compared to how long you play, and that’s not a healthy perception for your consumers to have. Whether you personally feel that way or not, artifact power is beginning to undermine the game’s other systems for a great many players.

And this, from Marathal:

There is so much to do, so why am I in a funk about wanting to do anything. Why is having too much to do, so depressing. Is it because there apparently is no end? I thought Artifact Power was done, until I saw it keeps going, I would like to finish leveling my professions, but they have made that “have meaning”. Maybe it has for some. The tailoring was engaging until the story stopped and kind of petered out. Did Enchanting have a story? I don’t know. The Class hall quests are so wrapped around Raids that I don’t know any more which I have to do and which I could skip. All of those missions every day. This begins a quest, so does this. No. No more raid or dungeon endless quest chains.

Attention, Blizz: Sisyphus is not an inspiring story, he is not someone schoolchildren are encouraged to emulate. He screwed up big time in life, and his punishment was an endless grind. Trust me, “Sisyphus the Game” is not a successful business model. 

And with that, let the weekend commence.

What Blizz got wrong in Legion

My last post laid out what I think Blizz got right about Legion. It was a long post, because I think on balance Legion is a decent expansion — certainly leagues better than WoD. As I said in the post, I give Legion a “solid B”. The reasons it does not make the cut for an “A” is the subject of this post.

All expansions have good and bad points. And of course what is one person’s “good” is another’s “bad”. Something I hate about the game may be the one thing that keeps you coming back to it. In weighing what I was going to include in this post, I tried to evaluate the big picture of things in Legion that make me grimly grit my teeth and slog through, knowing for me they detract significantly from the fun of the game, but they must be endured if I wish to get to the fun parts.

As I began to outline what I was going to include in this post, I noticed there were there design approaches that seemed to play a major role — singly or together —  in every area I find troubling about this expansion: RNG, the drive to increase the Monthly Active User (MAU) metric, and what I think of as “class chaos”. These seem to me to be meta-mistakes in Legion, fundamentally flawed design philosophies that give rise to a host of unpopular and/or fun-killing aspects of the game.

RNG (random number generator, or more properly, pseudo-random number generator) is at the heart of nearly every computer game — I don’t know of a way to code complex combat simulations without it. The extent to which randomness is used, however, is where people begin to get uncomfortable with it. For example, if every time you cast a spell in WoW, it was like spinning a huge wheel of fortune, and you got truly random outcomes anywhere in a range of one to ten million hit points, most people — Blizz devs included — would consider that bad design. Similarly, if absolutely every aspect of the game — even things like where you end up when you interact with a flight master, or how many health points you get when you down a health potion — were RNG-controlled, again almost everyone would consider that to be unacceptable game design.

But there is a vast area between minimal combat-outcome RNG and the extremes I just cited. And it is in this area where reasonable people differ in their opinions of “how much is too much”. I would argue that Blizz has a years-long history of RNG creep, in the sense of expanding its use to more and more areas of the game. Some form of RNG seems to be their preferred design approach for as many aspects of the game as they can apply it to, and we have seen it noticeably expanded in Legion, to the extent that for me it has crossed the line into “too much” territory.

This trend to making everything RNG is closely tied with the MAU motive: if you want certain gear — including legendaries — or certain profession recipes, there is absolutely no way to get them other than to keep playing until they magically appear for you. If you are exceptionally lucky, this will not take long. But if you have normal or bad luck, this means that the only thing you can do to “increase” your chances to get this stuff is to play more hours. If you are someone who is limited in your daily play time, this means it could take months — or never — before you get whatever it is you are seeking. We have all read the stories of how the world-first mythic guild members ran literally hundreds of instances in the first couple of weeks of Legion just to get their legendaries, or to advance their artifacts.

This is a demoralizing effect — no matter how skilled you are, no matter how diligently you work at a goal, you have zero control over obtaining items you are seeking. It is a lottery, and the only way to succeed is to keep buying more and more tickets, but even then there is no guarantee of a prize.

The concept of “class chaos” is this: Blizz had reasonably well-balanced classes and specs at the end of WoD. There were exceptions, of course (priests — both shadow disc, for different reasons — come immediately to mind, as do of course survival hunters), but overall most of the classes had reached a decent equilibrium. This was no small feat, as it had taken most of WoD to achieve this somewhat wobbly balance in what is undeniably a vastly complex system.

So what did Blizz decide to do? Rework nearly every class and spec (except for some unfathomable reason mages and druids), almost from the ground up, add in the huge complicating factor of artifact weapons, and create a new class. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we have seen. Patch 7.1.5 promises some improvement to the horrible unbalanced mess Blizz has made, but I believe the problems with many classes are so fundamental that they cannot be resolved in Legion. They can possibly be resolved in the next expansion, but only if Blizz exercises some discipline and refrains from yet another total rebuilding of every class.

These three basic design mistakes — expansion of RNG, drive to increase MAU, and class chaos — are the primary factors that result in what for me are fun-killing aspects of Legion:

Gear

Artifact weapon. I was leery of this idea to begin with, and four months have only served to confirm for me that it is a design I endure rather than embrace. It seems to me to have been created solely for increasing the MAU metric for the game. Some of my pet peeves about it:

  • It permeates most aspects of the game — nearly all activities are centered around this single piece of uber-gear. Want to switch specs within your class? Got to consider how to handle a new artifact weapon. Want to level an alt? Got to pretty much pick a spec and stick with it for many levels, as there is that artifact to consider. Want to run just a couple world quests? Better weigh the relative trade-offs between the ones that award AP or relics and any others you may actually prefer to do. Not a big fan of dungeons? Too bad, you better run them so you can get the gobs of AP they award.
  • There is no feeling of achievement or accomplishment with it, as the trait table is for all practical purposes endless. Once you get the last gold trait at level 34, you get to chase tiny power increments for 20 more levels at ever-increasing AP costs well into the millions for each. And new patches bring even more traits and levels. There is no goal to work towards, just an endless slog grubbing for artifact stuff.
  • While some classes and specs got artifacts with real lore and game history behind them, many others got made-up lore with absolutely zero history. I can’t escape the feeling that Blizz first made the decision that there would be 36 separate artifacts, then looked around and said “Holy shit, that’s a lot of design work, well just get something out there, bring in the interns to help!”
  • Which leads me to one of the worst artifact decisions Blizz made — having spec weapons instead of class weapons. I understand there are some technical problems with having the same weapon for hybrid classes, but I cannot imagine those would be worse than the current state of affairs. I suppose the corporate suits are happy that players must grub out more game hours to make off spec weapons viable, but it is a real joy-killer for me.
  • Last, the decision to make artifact weapons mandatory for all players. Again, forcing players down a specific game style path. Why could there not have been a choice — artifact weapon for any character that wishes to raid, normal weapon for others?

Legendaries. I think even Blizz is starting to realize this was a terrible design decision, but of course now they cannot back out of it, they are stuck trying to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t. (Another RNG-based MAU-driven decision.)

  • The fact that getting them is based completely on luck just does not seem very “legendary” to me. It’s kind of like getting a Pulitzer Prize in a box of cereal. Yeah, it was a nice surprise, but you did not work for it, you did nothing to deserve it, it was just pure luck.
  • Worse, if you do not get such a prize, you feel deficient because all your friends got one and you have munched your way through about 100 boxes of Lucky Charms and still have nothing but a sugar high to show for it.
  • Still worse, some of the Pulitzers come with actual monetary awards, and some are just gimmicky little jokes. You of course, want the “really good” Pulitzer, but even when you finally get one in your 101st box of Lucky Charms, it turns out to be just a piece of fancy paper folded up into an origami bird. Whoopty doo.

Other gear. I’ll cover this in my next post, where I’ll talk about things I think Blizz can still reasonably fix in Legion. But some of the gear decisions that do not work for me are:

  • Crafted gear. It is prohibitively expensive to upgrade, and even when you do, you have what is at best mediocre gear. Worse, you can only upgrade soulbound gear, meaning you cannot sell upgraded gear or even craft it for an alt.
  • World quest gear does not mesh well with the gear levels most people have by the time they are regularly running WQs. Except for the odd piece here and there, the WQ gear rewards are seldom worth pursuing, unless you are the lucky type that can reasonably hope for a random upgrade.
  • Order hall gear. Again, by the time a character has done everything necessary to qualify for most of this gear, it is not an upgrade, even with the upgrade tokens.

Professions

In general, I think Blizz has pretty much destroyed any satisfaction I ever enjoyed from professions. This is another design that seems completely RNG/MAU driven.

I think one of the reasons they have done this is because they have undergone one of their signature pendulum swings from a previous expansion. In WoD, pretty much anyone could enjoy the benefits of most professions; in Legion, almost no one can enjoy the benefits of any profession other than the ones they have on their main.

I think the other reason they have done this is as part of a conscious effort to implement Ion Hazzikostas’s pet theory that no one should be able to have a stable of alts that in any way benefits their main.

I am not against doing quest lines in order to level professions, but I think it is going overboard to require a certain play style to do so. In Legion, you cannot level a profession — especially a crafting profession — unless you not only complete a long quest line, but also run dailies and instances and in some cases raids, and get lucky enough for the RNG gods to award you with recipes. And of course, in order to do this, you must be properly geared which means if you do not have something close to main-character time commitment, you will not max out your profession.

  • One especially galling change in profession quests is that when you gather/craft something to fulfill a quest requirement, you have to give it up. This is unlike most pre-Legion profession quests, where when you gathered or made something, the quest was completed by the act of doing that activity, and you got to use/sell the proceeds of your quest.
  • The whole recipe level concept does not work for me. For one thing, it is hard to keep track of. For another, it is just a way to extend the amount of time required to reach a goal. Some recipe levels are only available from faction vendors, requiring long weeks of rep to qualify for. Some recipes and levels require relatively large amounts of expensive/rare non-related mats. Again, by the time one is able to amass these items, it is seldom worth it to craft them any more, with the possible exception of flasks and food.
  • There was — and still is — a design bias that vastly favors herbalism and alchemy in Legion, and to a lesser degree jewel crafting and enchanting. Nearly all other professions are close to worthless, both for gold making and for assisting other characters in your account.
  • Nomi. ‘Nuff said.

Alts

The points I have made above converge to have an extremely negative effect on alt play. And yes, I know there are people out there who will claim “I only play two hours a day, and I have leveled up 11 alts and maxed out their professions and still raid at the Heroic level with my main” — to which I will cry horse hockey! Anyone who wants to merely level up alts can do so easily. But to gear them even minimally for heroic instances, or to a level for LFR — much less for normal raiding or Mythic dungeons — takes main-level time commitments.

My preferred play style for years — and I suspect it is a fairly common play style — has been to gear up, progress on, and raid with a main, meanwhile leveling and minimally gearing up 6-7 alts for instances, guild alt raids, and professions. That play style is just not tenable in Legion unless I am willing/able to vastly increase my play time.

Ion Hazzikostas has finally put the mechanisms in place to force everyone to play every character in the approved play style, and any attempt at deviating from this approved style comes at tremendous cost to the player in terms of time.

Summary

I have titled this post “What Blizz got wrong in Legion”, but from Blizz’s point of view I suspect it is considered to be brilliant design. One of their main metrics — MAU — is almost certainly way up. The never-ending story of artefacts and world quests, along with drawn-out quest lines and random awards for professions and legendaries, means quashing the “I’m BOOOOORRRRED!” whines of a certain segment of the player population, even if it is at the expense of players like myself.

As I have said before, Legion is a fantastic expansion for high-end hardcore players and for super-casuals, but it is seriously flawed for those of us in the middle of those two extremes. Like I pointed out in my last post, this does not mean it is a bad expansion, but it does have significant failures that detract from my enjoyment of it. And I bet I am not alone.

My two cents.

Ahead of the curve and behind it

Last night I think I had the most fun I have had in the game in a very long time. It was raid night, and we downed both Cenarius and Xavius in heroic, giving us our EN 7/7(H). It was not easy, nor was it especially pretty, and we killed them by the hairs of our chinny chin chins, but we did it. There were cheers and hoots and hollers all around, and much posing for screen shots, and in general it was just very cool.

This to me is where the main fun is in WoW. It is a social game, after all, and even extreme introverts like myself can enjoy that. We started our Legion raiding season the first night Emerald Nightmare was active (September 20? I think). About 25 people showed up that first night, and the team has varied a bit over the last 5 weeks but has kept a fairly consistent core of 18-25 members. The guild has some people that have played together for many years, but it is a very active guild in terms of recruitment, the founders are extremely open and welcoming to new members, and it has been interesting to watch a collection of individuals come together and function as a team. Kudos to the GM, raid leaders and officers for providing the conditions for success.

There was some talk of where we might go from here, so I guess there will be some discussions about that in the coming days. We are not really a Mythic raiding guild, but of course inevitably that will be one of the options discussed. If we go that route I am not sure I should be part of it. I am not an exceptional raider by any measure, more of a reliable member of the chorus line. My damage numbers are usually respectable but not remarkable, and it often takes me a bit longer than others to catch on to certain mechanics. (Tornadoes come to mind, and I never did catch on to Durumu’s maze.)

Also, my gear is approaching the “stinks” level when compared to others on the team.  As I mentioned a few days ago, my RNG luck is approaching catastrophic. Last night I noticed that, of 21 raid team members, 20 had legendaries equipped. Guess who was the only person not to have one (much less two or three, as some do)? And honestly, well-intended advice to “just run Mythics and do emissary quests” is annoying, not helpful. I think I have missed doing only one emissary quest since WQs opened for me. I run 4-5 Mythics a week, some regular, some pluses. I have never missed doing a weekly world boss since they started, and I have never gotten even a single piece of gear from any of them — always only gold. I have gotten to the point where I save up my emissary chests and open several at a time so as to concentrate the disappointment rather than have it more frequently. When I do get gear from world or other quests, the only time I seem to win an upgrade is if it is so low level that I can’t equip it, and then the lucky upgrade I get is +5, making it a slightly higher piece for vendoring.

Supposedly there is some sort of “bad luck insurance” Blizz has instituted for people like me. I guess their definition of bad luck is a lot different than mine is, because I see zero evidence of any kind of insurance kicking in. I think it is at least a 50-50 bet that it does not exist, it is just a lie perpetrated by Blizz to keep people like me on the hook.

That great oracle of fun, Ion Hazzikostas, is fond of lecturing us on how much more fun RNG is than boring old tokens or other currency, that it is a real rush when you unexpectedly get a great piece of gear. What he asininely fails to admit is that, when you are consistently on the butt end of the probability curve, it is frustrating beyond belief to see literally everyone around you get the RNG rewards — some multiple times — and there is absolutely nothing zero zip nada you can do to get them yourself. There is no skill or persistence that can help you get that random drop. He has said it is not fun to grind for gear, but that is exactly what some of us are doing, except there is no guarantee whatsoever that the grind will ever be successful. At least with a currency system, you know that eventually you will get what you are grinding for.

And here’s a news flash for you, Ion: after weeks and months of bad luck, it is no longer fun even if you do finally get a drop. It is just a relief that you will temporarily not have to face daily disappointment, that you will now be on a par with other players — at least until their luck inevitably kicks in before yours does again.

Getting the AotC achievement last night was fantastic fun. I was part of team that worked for it — we were completely in charge of our success or failure, and it was a real rush when we eventually succeeded. It just felt good. Being behind the curve on RNG-based gear feels terrible, more so because players have zero control over their fate, and no amount of hard work will result in success.