New leveling, continued

In Friday’s post, I described my experiences so far with leveling a void elf under the new leveling structure. As nearly all of my weekend play time was spent leveling my new alt, this will be an update on additional observations.

Having now played a total of 17 hours in the new system on my void elf, I have to say I still have mixed feelings about the leveling and zone changes.

In my 17 hours I managed to get my VE to level 50. Allowing for the fact that they start at level 20, and allowing some non-leveling time for afk’s, incorporating new talents into action bars, setting up a bank and getting new bags, running back and forth to the Darkmoon Faire to get the leveling buff, etc., that is probably — very roughly — 2 levels per hour. (Not sure how much the DMF buff speeded things up, but it did help a little, even though it seemed like every time I freshly applied it, my next series of quests involved long intervals of road travel, with not much actual leveling going on. 😡)

That really is not a bad rate, but it is quite a bit slower than before the patch, so of course it feels really tedious. (Plus, I expect that rate to slow as I get higher.) These days I consider myself to be an efficient leveler — not a speed leveler, but also not wasting time on things like professions and extraneous exploration. I handicapped myself a bit this time by choosing a mage to level, and an arcane one at that. One of my guildies started out yesterday at almost the same level I was, and by the end of the day she had reached 60 while I only got to 50, playing about the same number of hours. But she is leveling a monk, and that xp buff they get is pretty significant. Also, my leveling an arcane mage means I have to spend time after every 2-3 pulls to replenish mana (arcane really eats mana fast) and health (squishy clothie). It adds up.

Pluses so far:

I do like the idea that I can select any zone I want to level in. For example, I am really burned out on Redridge, so I am avoiding it this time around. I did Western Plaguelands but when it came time to go to what traditionally would have been the next zone — Eastern Plaguelands, which I hate with a passion — I opted for Theramore instead. You can jump from zone to zone or continent to continent easily and not suffer any bad effects on the leveling process. (With the possible exception of some additional travel time.)

I also like the addition of zone quest sets. I was never big on going after the Loremaster achievement, but I do like the mini-achievements you get now when you finish a set of related quests in a zone.

I still like the heirloom gear, even after Blizz nerfed it. (A lot.) It saves me having to re-equip most gear after quests, and of course the added transmog expenses every time you re-equip. (Because of course fashion while questing is everything, Dahling!) Yeah, I know void elves get a slight break on transmog costs, but I am still a cheapskate in that area. (More about heirloom gear below.)

Minuses so far:

Something that did not occur to me before I started this process, but which I now find is pretty important, is that I never get the “oh, I must be making progress” feeling, because every mob is always pretty hard. They level up as I do, so I never get that “cool, this used to be hard but now they are dying much faster” internal feedback. Everything is just as difficult at level 50 as it was at level 20, even the exact same mobs.

In some ways, this absence of a sense of progression reminds me of the Legion AP chase — you never really feel like you have finished anything, it just grinds on and on with no noticeable change. Leveling an alt is now like leveling your artifact weapon, and it feels bad. I am astounded that Blizz just does not seem to understand this. It apparently is not important to the devs, but I can assure them it is very important to the majority of players.

I have not done any dungeons, so I can’t speak firsthand as to how or if that would affect the leveling process. However, the guildie I mentioned above ran a few on a different alt — a tank she is leveling — and described her experiences as a “disaster”, mainly because healers just could not keep up with the extra damage to the tank and dps. She is an excellent tank, knows the fights and is very situationally aware when it comes to pulling, and she will stop to let healers get mana and such, so when she says dungeons are “disasters” I tend to put some stock in it. If they give extra xp, is it really worth it if they take longer to do and require more repair costs?

I have also heard that the healer leveling process is significantly more difficult now than before the changes (if any of you have direct experience with this, chime in). Of course, it is not new that some classes and specs have an easier time leveling than others, this has always been the case. But I wonder if the new system, because of rushed testing or slipshod balancing, disproportionately punishes the “loser” classes and roles. It’s just a thought, I really have no data to go further with it.

Doing a major overhaul of the entire leveling system is certainly a daunting task, and I suppose we should be somewhat understanding if Blizz has not covered all its bases in the process. But honestly, my patience shelves for Blizz are pretty bare these days. They seem to rush things out the door, rarely if ever listening or reacting to the serious feedback they claim to want from players.

Not everyone wants the new prescribed and approved leveling “experience” every time they level an alt. The forums are full of people loudly braying this truism. It seems to me that Blizz might, for a change, listen to the drumbeat behind the comments and realize they could actually — and easily — appease both camps in this case. They could keep the new system in place, but structure heirlooms this way:

  • Keep the new nerfed versions, but add a level of enhancement, based on the player having attained certain achievements (max level, certain level of gear, certain reps, a high level quest chain, whatever) on at least one character.
  • The new enhancement would be purchased tokens, applied to each piece of heirloom gear after each has reached level Level 3 for that piece.
  • This new “Level 4” token would go into effect immediately and would basically grant greater gear power (yes, rendering mobs and many bosses trivial), as well as significantly increase the xp bonus for each piece. (Essentially restoring the old leveling experience.)
  • The token would be applied once the heirloom gear was equipped and soulbound, thus applying only to the character being leveled. (Like enchants do now.) If a player wished to level another alt, they would have to re-purchase these speed tokens for that alt.
  • The cost of the tokens should be reasonable, neither too cheap nor prohibitively expensive, maybe something like a few hundred gold each.
  • Players not wishing to rush through the leveling experience would not have to add this token and would get the full benefit of whatever “immersive experience” they want. (Of course there would be the inevitable argument of “I love playing this way, and so everyone else should have to play that way, too”, but that is an argument that should be ignored.)

I honestly do not see who would lose with such a system (except, probably the Blizz execs who now equate “tedious grinding” with “my quarterly MAU bonus”). But I think what Blizz has done with the new leveling system actually will discourage some players from leveling new alts (especially once the newness of Allied races has worn off), and by giving an option for speed leveling it might entice more players to participate, which in the long run will increase MAU.

None of this will happen, of course. First, Blizz has shown they do not give a rat’s ass if players feel they are being shoved into one endless grind after another. (All while Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas sanctimoniously tut-tuts about the evils of “grinding”, a prime example of alternative-reality thinking.) Second, Blizz is in the midst of a major game redirection — ongoing now for a couple of years — away from any form of player option or choice and towards a highly centralized and prescribed play style.

Meanwhile, I need more mage food.

Scaling to gear

Very interesting post last week by Watcher on the issue of scaling in WoW. By now, most of you who are interested have already read it for yourselves, but the tl;dr is that Blizz implemented a sort of stealth mechanic of world scaling in 7.2, in which a player’s gear determines the amount of health a mob has. And initially your gear level also determined how much damage the mob would do to you. My impression on the first day was it was pretty brutal, akin to losing 40-50 ilevels. Within a couple of days, however, Blizz hotfixed it so that the mobs no long deal any increased damage relative to your gear level, and they also seriously nerfed the mob health ramp-up. Honestly, I don’t much notice the effect at all now, except possibly when my hunter gets greedy and attempts 10-15 mobs at once.

But I thought Blizz’s rollout of this mechanic was interesting for several reasons.

First, the underlying problem — if geared players reach a point in current content where they can not only one shot a trash mob in the world, but they can one shot 20 such mobs all at once, and they can do it in the space of a global cooldown or less, then that is not a good thing, for several reasons:

  • It renders world quests not only trivial but downright annoying, as the player spends far more time getting to the quest areas and looting corpses than in killing the mobs.
  • Play style thus degenerates into a consideration of how fast the player can spam instant casts, because mobs die long before they can get off anything close to a normal rotation.
  • Lesser geared as well as less mobile players undergo a lot of frustration, since the more highly geared/faster players can decimate an entire quest area without giving anyone else a chance to even get off an instant cast or get into range and thus participate in the kill.

I can appreciate this problem, I have been on both the overpowered end of it and on the lesser-geared part of it. On the overpowered end, it does start to seem silly to spend 5 minutes getting to a quest that you can finish in less than a minute. And if there are other players in the area, I do feel bad about killing masses of mobs in what seems to be a selfish way, but there is not much I can do about it with my current power level, except get in and out in as little time as possible. Still, even my geared main is often frustrated when the area is overrun with horde and I cannot get a single shot in before they tag it and it becomes useless for my quest. Not to mention that hunters are slow movers, only two very puny speed cooldowns, and sometimes even getting within “ranged range” is a challenge when the mobs or mini bosses die almost instantaneously.

On my alts, especially my more slow-moving melee ones, lately I cannot even get close enough to a mob to get in a lick of damage before it dies, so I spend a lot of time just running around the quest area. I am left to seek out mobs in fringe areas where the more highly geared players do not bother to go. And it does not just happen with trash mobs in WQ areas — the mini-boss types die almost as quickly, so nearly every time I am required to wait for a respawn. Not a huge problem, I grant you, but annoying nevertheless.

Second, Blizz’s previous pronouncements on scaling — namely, they said they would absolutely not be doing gear-based scaling, only the initial Legion zone scaling. And now they have done gear-based scaling. I am actually somewhat encouraged in this case by Blizz’s willingness to change their policy here. True, they probably should have never said never, but as Watcher confessed, they really had no idea about some of the challenges they would face when they opted for keeping outdoor world content relevant throughout an expansion, as they have done with WQs in Legion.

Watcher seemed to be claiming a “Who knew?” kind of excuse here, reaffirming once again that Blizz stinks at this kind of project planning. The answer, of course, is that anyone worth their salt as a project planner should have anticipated this result. Still, beyond staggering incompetency at project management, it is basically a good thing that Blizz can be agile enough to back down when they were clearly wrong in their initial pronouncement.

Third, the “stealth” nature of this rather significant change — it was intentionally not included in the official patch notes, according to Watcher. He blizzsplained that they wanted players to not focus on it because then the devs might have gotten a biased player response, and what they wanted was a response “not skewed by the experience of logging in and actively trying to spot the differences.”

So in other words it was for our own good and to get around our tendency to lie. We are of course too stupid to be able to understand the highly complex thinking of mightier beings like Watcher and his minions, and we are too dishonest to give realistic feedback. There, there, little players, don’t over stress your puny brains with it, run along now. Watcher knows best.

Silly me, I thought the purpose of a Public Test Realm was, well, “testing”. I do not generally think of a live patch as the place to do it, certainly not for something as major as this change. As it turned out, some players did notice and comment on some of this world scaling on the PTR, but Blizz pretty much played off any comments on it, purposely hiding their rather significant play style change intention. They did not actually lie about it, but they were deliberately deceptive.

Yeah, it’s not a huge thing, but it shows once again Blizz’s pattern of disdain bordering on contempt for their customers.

Fourth, can we trust Blizz not to go overboard on this new scaling? As I have written above, in general I think world scaling has a place in Legion, and I get that the problem took Blizz more or less by surprise. Watcher’s blue post clearly indicates that he knows there is a delicate balance to be achieved here: players need to feel more powerful as they gear up, but no one benefits if the current world content is like questing in Elwynn Forest as a level 110.

Unfortunately, Blizz’s history is not encouraging for achieving that balance — we have all witnessed and experienced what has become the pendulum swing meme with WoW. They often seem incapable of striking a happy medium, preferring instead to lurch from one extreme to the other.

Why add a lot of new content if the current content can be made to be perpetually challenging? Although I do not generally subscribe to the “slippery slope” theory, once this genie of scaling activities to gear level is out of the bottle, will it be too tempting for devs to use as a convenient play-extender? Undeniably, scaling world content to gear just makes quests take longer, and we all know Blizz’s recent obsession with measuring hours played per month. If you could tweak the geared scaling just a tiny bit more and get, oh, say, a million more hours played per month overall, why not do it?

And why stop at world scaling? Blizz has already applied the principle to Mythic and Mythic+ dungeons in 7.2 — players are outgearing the initial ones, so they have ramped up the overall difficulty in response. (I ran a Neltharion’s Lair +11 last night and it was orders of magnitude harder than the 7.1.5 version. Our team that had been 2- and 3-chesting +14’s was unable to come close to beating the timer at all.) True, the increased difficulty is not pegged to individual team gear levels but rather to overall player base averages, but what is to stop Blizz from calculating the team average ilevel and incrementing the instance difficulty in the same way they now calculate player ilevel and ramp up mob health in the world?

Why stop at gross gear level scaling? Should healers get easier mobs than damage dealers? What about tanks? Should clothies have less damage directed at them than plate wearers? Should long casts be made instant in certain quest areas, or should instant casts be disallowed? Should all mobs be made available to both factions, no matter who tagged them first? How far should the game go to tailor content to individual player circumstances? More insidiously, how far should game design go to manipulate the quarterly statistics for the stockholders?

I am not saying this initial world scaling mechanism is bad — in fact I am in favor of it — and I am not predicting Blizz will misuse it, but I do think it is something they need to be very careful about. It is a  short philosophical hop from “We think players need to feel more powerful as they gear up,” to “We think players need to feel challenged even as they gear up”. And now that the gear-based mechanism is available, the Good Idea Fairy is bound to visit devs in many parts of the game — someone needs to make sure they do not get carried away.

Simple things

I spent my game play time over the weekend leveling my rogue. He is a notable alt for me because first of all he is a he, and second of all he is a melee damage dealer. I like him, he is kind of a happy-go-lucky type who doesn’t really stress about anything. In WoD, he was a combat rogue, and I opted to go with that spec’s morph — outlaw — in Legion. I have zero idea whether or not outlaw is one of the “respected” specs, honestly don’t care. Also, I am not especially skilled at dealing with the Roll the Bones mechanic, but I copied a weak aura from one of my in game friends, and that more or less provides me with light-up idiot buttons telling me whether to roll again or not. Basically, though, I just faceroll keys, and it seems to work out. I think I only died twice during the 100-110 leveling process.

I know all you really good rogues out there are now shaking your heads over my description of my rogue play. Sorry, I really do understand there is a lot more to playing a rogue than I just described, it’s just that this is my fun alt. I play him when I need that unexpected-day-off-from-work feeling. You know the one — that sheer delight when you find out you have an entirely free day to spend as you please, you are permitted to forget all your normal grown-up chores. I think lots of players have such an alt. In fact often it is a hunter, because they certainly are fun to play, even now, for things like leveling or world quests.

Anyway, leveling my rogue the last couple of days clarified a couple of thoughts about Legion. In no particular order:

  • Especially in the leveling process, Legion is a fun expansion. Zone scaling is one of the best design innovations the game has ever had. It allows you to customize your leveling experience and eliminates much of the boredom from leveling your third or fourth or fifth alt.
    • My only gripe — and this is all because of me being lazy — is that I can level from 100 to 110 in about 3.5 zone completions. I always tell myself I will go back and finish off that last partial zone and do the full one I missed, but so far I have not done so, except of course on my main. This tends to limit my world quest options for the alt, at least until I pick up some of the many flight paths I need.
    • I still don’t like the Suramar experience much, and it annoys me that, even though I get the whistle automatically at 110, I still have to go through that whole tedious Suramar intro set of quests, at least up through getting the mask disguise.
  • The profession slog is terrible, and each time I level an alt I resent it more and more. I don’t dislike the idea of having a profession quest line, but I do hate being pushed into specific end game content, such as dungeons, that I have no intent on pursuing with an alt. The “levels within levels” design stinks, too, and it makes me feel manipulated — “Spend more hours playing this game or you will never finish leveling your profession, BWAAAAHAHA!” And I really detest the whole RNG mechanism for advancing your profession. You should not have to be a raider or a mythic instance runner to have a well-developed profession. Blizz broke professions in Legion.
  • No matter how Ion Hazzikostas tries to spin the whole AP mess, it amounts to one gigantic expansion-long grind. And no matter how much he lectures us on how we shouldn’t bother our silly little heads with chasing after it, it remains a psychological dead weight, a virtual treadmill ever present in the game, taunting you no matter how many clothes you hang on it to try to ignore it.
    • I realized this when I figured out one of the reasons I was having such a good time leveling my rogue was that I didn’t care how much — if any — AP I was collecting for a weapon I would never be raiding with.
    • The AP catch-up mechanism for alts is decent, and I am glad Blizz implemented it. But it is also pernicious, in that it subtly sucks you into joining the AP grind for your alts.
    • It is tempting to say I should just not care about how much AP I gather for advancing my main’s weapon, too, but the fact remains that if you wish to raid with a regular team in Legion, you have to care about it. Even in guilds that do not push for certain gear levels or certain minimum damage numbers, the average of the team will inevitably increase as the expansion goes on, and if you write off AP grinding you will sooner or later begin to hold the team back. If you wish to raid in Legion, you must grind AP ceaselessly. 

Side note: I am having a hard time understanding the whole Watchersplaining about plans for AP in 7.2. I believe it goes something like this: “We know AP has become a grind for some players, so in 7.2 we are going to fix that by vastly increasing the amount needed for each additional trait beyond 34, as well as by making the weapon power increases less important. Also, we are going to cut the amount of AP earned for the quick group instances, but increase it for the long ones.”

I am at a loss as to how that does anything positive, I would think if anything it makes it more of a grind with less of a chance for ever getting anything useful out of it. I guarantee that the people who feel the need to grind AP now will not feel less of a need when it takes tens millions or even billions for each trait increase. Similarly, the people who are not currently driven to chase AP will feel even less of a need to do so in 7.2.

This may be a theoretical “improvement” because it lessens some gap between the people who have a lot of time to play and those who don’t, but it in no way gets at the base problem with AP, which is that it is a never-ending grind that weighs down the game. This is true, no matter how often or how emphatically Ion Hazzikostas tells us it is not so. We have come face-to-face with a Blizz “alternative fact”.

  • Class hall quest lines are tedious, over-long, and yield very little of value for an alt. If it is convenient to do parts of it for my rogue, I am doing it, but I am not going out of my way to finish it. I really do not care if I ever get that third relic slot.
  • Highmountain is my favorite zone. Stormheim is second. I definitely prefer more “natural” looking zones, not big on pink trees and green goopy rivers and hostile plant life and such.
  • The legendary mess is still a mess. I have almost zero hope of ever getting even one on an alt, mainly due to the exorbitant amount of time needed on each before the mythical “bad luck insurance” kicks in. But honestly, I find I do not care.

All in all, I think the reason I had so much fun leveling my rogue this weekend is that it was simple, and I tried to make sure it stayed that way. There was no pressure to do anything but gather quests, do them, and turn them in. And if I found I did not enjoy the quest, I abandoned it without a second thought. I refused to permit myself to feel pressure to develop a garrison class hall, or large amounts of AP for a weapon, or to gear up beyond what I could get as quest loot, or to quest in certain zones because they would pay off the most for professions, or to run instances as soon as I could. I just bopped around, doing what looked interesting to me and enjoying the best parts of Legion.

It was exhilarating. It was eye-opening. I learned some things about myself, about the value of not pursuing goals if they seem to be a burden. And I am going to try and apply some of this approach to my main, in an attempt to get back to the sheer fun and genius of this game.

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.)

What Blizz got right in Legion

It is, thank the stars, finally 2017. With the new year, hopefully, comes new wisdom and new insight, understanding that slowly insinuates itself into your brain, and then either rests there comfortably until you need it, or explodes and spreads shrapnel ideas all over your psyche.

I had one such thought grenade a couple of days ago, which I am now going to reveal to you. Brace yourselves.

Ready?

Legion is only four months old.

I know, right? Because it seems to me that this expansion has been around forever. It is as familiar and old-hat to me as WoD was by the end. I have the leveling process down to a system, I have a routine for my main, I have set items I sell to make gold, I know the general profession-leveling path, I am comfortable with the mechanics in dungeons and raids. Even the fact that the content changes regularly seems routine — I just incorporate it into my normal schedule of world quests or whatever. In short, Legion has become the normal game for me.

It is an interesting lesson in perspective. Legion will officially last 18-24 months, and I am betting it could stretch into 30-36 months. Which means that we still have something like over 80% of the expansion to go. (Okay, 78% if you believe it will be an 18-month expansion, but if you do, I have some prime real estate in a Florida swamp to sell you.)

If Legion were a human, it would be a young adult. And that means it will certainly change — possibly mellow — as it ages, but its basic character is pretty well set. With that in mind, my next few posts will examine what I think works in the expansion, what things don’t work in it and likely never will, and the things that might work if Blizz decides they want to put forth the effort to fix them.

Today being close to New Year’s, and therefore an inherently optimistic time, I’ll start with the things I think Blizz got mostly right this time around. There is a lot of good news here, and honestly if I had to give an overall grade to Legion at this point, it would be a solid B. These are just some examples, you may have others.

Zone scaling. This was a brilliant innovation for the game, and I hope Blizz keeps it for future expansions. It gives players a lot of leveling options that help keep boredom at bay. My initial worry about scaling was that it would make all travel at level 110 annoying, because all mobs would be difficult to deal with, but that has not turned out to be the case — increasing gear levels eventually render most world mobs trivial. This is as it should be, I think, and I hope Blizz does not go berserk “fixing” this zone scaling approach. It works, leave it alone.

World quests. I really like these. I like the idea of a whole bunch of daily quests where you can pick what you want to do based on what your needs are. Need rep or want loot chests — do the emissary and/or faction quests. Want Artifact Power or Order Hall Resources — do the WQs that award those. Need some gear or profession mats — yup, there’s a quest for that. And if you need a day off, just blow them off, most of them will still be available the next day. Are there some tweaks that could be applied to WQs? Sure, but in general I consider them a great addition to the game.

DungeonsI have to admit I am not a big fan of Mythic+ dungeons, mainly because I do not like timed competitions. I run them from time to time, but I am not as rabid about them as some of my guildies, and I have not gone beyond a +9. Still, I think they are a positive part of Legion. Along with regular Mythics, they tend to encourage guild activity, which in my mind is always a good thing. I actually like the idea that you have to organize a group to run them, I think it encourages more responsible play than auto-organized group finding. The fact that they give pretty decent gear (if you are lucky) is also a plus.

“Content”. This means different things to different people, but so far I think anyone complaining about its lack in Legion would be hard put to justify their claim. In addition to WQs and dungeons, there are raid tiers and timely mini-tiers, new zone quest lines, order hall quest lines, a solid patch schedule, profession quests, artefact appearance quests, and more. Blizz certainly took to heart the “no content” criticism of WoD, and in what some may say is typical, went overboard in correcting it. Still, whether you like all of the content or not, and even if you feel overwhelmed by it, there is no denying Legion has plenty of it. We got “content” out the wazoo, people.

I am sure there are a lot of different opinions on the raid content so far, but I am relatively happy with it. I think Emerald Nightmare was maybe a tad undertuned, and Trial of Valor a tad overtuned at first, but those are minor points. My guild raid team falls somewhere in between casual and hardcore, maybe more like serious semi-casual. We are not a mythic raid team, but we do like to pound away and finish heroic content as soon as we can — we have had EN(H) on farm for several weeks now — and if we can assemble an appropriate 20-man group we can sometimes down a mythic boss or two. So, from that point of view, Legion raids have been good.

Story lines in each zone. I like most of them, and even the ones I don’t like as much seem well thought out and cohesive. Bear in mind I am not a lore person, so if you are, you may disagree with me on this. But I found the story lines enhanced the leveling process and gave me a sense of zone identity I might not otherwise have had. (The exception for me is Suramar, a story line I find cohesive but abhorrent — more on that in a subsequent post.)

Zone art. In a word, terrific. I still don’t think it is as mind-blowing as Pandaria was for me, but it is definitely a Legion winner. I am not a real fan of pink trees and gloomy gas pools and such, so I prefer the Highmountain and Stormheim areas, but I can’t deny that every zone has been beautifully rendered. And Blizz continues its standard of excellence with their attention to detail. Buildings are stunning for their outer structural features as well as for the items adorning the interiors. Locales include, for example, not just snow but grimy patches of it, not just bugs and critters but ones that move and interact with each other, not just grass or sand but renderings that move with wind and water and show not only your footprints but those of pets and mounts and NPC companions. Did they borrow liberally from previous zones? Sure, but for me it all works seamlessly, making each zone come to life.

Transmog system and other quality of life enhancements. Technically, these are mostly pre-patch stuff, but I think of them as a Legion innovations, and I approve of them. The main one that comes to mind now is the transmog system. It just works, so please, Blizz, don’t try to “fix” it in the next expansion. Same with the Legion practice of selecting one of your own mounts for commercial flights from some areas — it’s cute and fun as is.

That awesome whistle. The Flight Master’s Whistle is, quite possibly, the greatest invention in Wow, ever. It eliminates one of the most annoying aspects of the game, namely completing a quest that you have had to fight your way into, only to have to fight your way out of it again, only this time for zero reward, like having to keep paying on a car you totaled a month ago. The whistle even works underwater! In fact, if they would make it work in caves, it would actually be the most perfect piece of gear ever introduced to the game.

There are some other cool gizmos that really enhance the whole ground-bound travel experience. I have a couple of things that instantly transport me to certain cities/settlements in the Broken Isles. There are all the leyline portals in Suramar, and the comprehensive set of portals in Dalaran. There is the grapple hook, which I find fun and quirky — although I have not been able to use the Suramar grapple points yet. And there is the fact that we get a special Dal hearth, along with our regular hearth that we can set to anywhere, and our garrison hearth. Some classes even have a special instant portal to their order hall.

(On the minus side, the “special” eagle flight system for hunters is mainly just annoying. I can’t count the number of times I have used the whistle, only to be instantly transported to some godforsaken mountain top not near anything, and then forced to use a hearth or a series of grapples or a feather or kite to get anywhere reasonable. About the only time I find it useful is to get near the Dreamgrove for an easy ride to Emerald Nightmare for raids.)

All in all, travel is becoming easier and easier even without flying or without being a mage. Which of course makes me worry. (Remember, I am a school-trained worrier.) I still see Blizz’s ultimate goal for flying to be to eliminate it for all but classic zones. The fact that they retreated in the face of massive blowback when they tried to do this in WoD does not, in my opinion, mean they have given up on the idea. Rather, they have adopted a frog-in-the-pot-of-water approach. They will keep introducing ground travel conveniences while at the same time making flight available later and later in an expansion and requiring more and more onerous achievements to get it. Legion may in fact be the last expansion to permit flying. From that point of view, The Whistle may be an evil, evil contraption!

I am sure I have missed some great features of Legion, but these are the major ones. Next up: My picks for the not-so-great features, the ones I consider big design mistakes.

Housecleaning before vacation

I am going to take a short break from posting in this blog — maybe a week or so. Several reasons, actually. There are some real world work things I need to get to in my studio. I need to spend much of my game time between now and next Tuesday preparing my main for our guild raiding season. And — although things are settling down in the game for me — honestly, Legion still seems too chaotic for me to focus on something long enough to write about it.

Thus, before I take off, a bit of housecleaning so I can return to a nice tidy blog and drafts folder.

Ghostcrawler confirms what we have all suspected. In a recent series of tweets quoted and collected on MMO-C, Ghostcrawler finally came clean on one of the factors driving class changes in WoW, at least while he was at Blizz (emphasis in the quote is mine):

You’ve explained before that back in the days in WoW you wanted to nerf frost mages. How come frost mages were pretty much left untouched for such a long long time? What’s the process behind getting something nerfed/buffed like and who has the final word when something gets nerfed/buffed (at Blizzard and Riot Games)?

The less diplomatic answer is that there were a lot of WoW devs who played Frost mages, even though I wasn’t one of them, so there were always a lot of people to point out your potential mistakes when you try to make a change.

But above and beyond that, it was a tricky design space, because Frost mages were supposed to be good at both tankiness (emergency buttons that cover you in ice) and burst (ice lance combos). When you are good at defense and offense (especially burst), you are walking a razor’s edge all the time.

Who among the Blizz devs plays a hunter? Who speaks for hunters in the design process? Who is there to “point out your potential mistakes when you try to make a change” to hunters?

Answer, clearly, is: No one. And I have to wonder, why is that? If nothing else, why does Blizz not designate someone to be the advocate for each and every class and spec? Someone whose job it is to understand the heart and soul of a class and spec, someone who engages with that community regularly, someone who plays that spec regularly in every game venue, who understands at a gut level the synergy and play style of the spec.

No. No one at Blizz speaks for hunters. They don’t understand the class, they don’t play the class, and worse, they don’t care. This explains a lot. This is irresponsible for a game developer.

Secrets and surprises are overrated. This occurred to me as I — finally — finished my hunter class hall campaign last night and unlocked my third relic slot. Yes, I was happy about getting the achievement, and much of the quest line in retrospect seemed relevant and engaging. But not knowing where I was in the process for the last couple of weeks has been beyond annoying. My impression was that it was an endless series of more quests, and all I could do was slog along miserably ignorant of when it might be over.

Some people do not like to know the big picture, they consider any knowledge of where they are in a process to be “spoilers”. Not me. I am goal-driven, and I like to know exactly how many more hoops I need to jump through before I get to a goal. Contrary to spoiling the process for me, it enhances it, makes me more eager to finish, allows me to gauge when I might expect to be rewarded.

It is the same with Legion professions. Blizz deliberately keeps the profession leveling process murky, telling us repeatedly how much fun™ it is to not know when or where you might find a clue to leveling up! No, no, and just hell no! I want to know what the process is, even if it is a long and complicated one. I like knowing what I will have to do to achieve a goal. I do not like the juvenile game of I-know-something-you-don’t-know.

There are some third party sites that are starting to list things like all the quests in class hall campaigns, and how to level your professions in Legion. I use them, and I am grateful for them. But Blizz should do this for players in a centralized game guide location — no need to look at it if you don’t want to, but there for those of us who want to know how or if we are progressing.

RNG versus the Powerball Lottery. I am in a fairly large and active guild, we have had probably 30-40 people active almost every night since Legion launched. And so far, I do not know of a single person to get a legendary drop. It may have happened, I just have not seen it in any of the many hours I have been playing. Additionally, thus far to my knowledge no skinners have managed to get a drop of fel hide except for the world quest that awards it. The drop rates for these items is so low as to be virtually zero.

This practice, in my opinion, is not in any way related to the concept of “random drops”. It is much closer to the concept of a multi-million dollar lottery. Sure, it is mathematically possible, but realistically the chances are about as close to zero as you can get. These kinds of fairy-tale “drop rates” have no place in a game. Either make it so players have a reasonable expectation of getting them — infrequently, sure, but getting them once in a while nonetheless — or remove them from the game. This is bait-and-switch.

In fact, Blizz, why not publish once a week or once a month the actual number of drops — and the rate per active player — of some of these uber-rare items? If you think they are reasonable for drop rates, put your money where your mouth is and tell us how many are actually dropping.

In spite of everything Ion Hazzikostas says, it is not/not/not fun to be told “there is a chance” to get these items and then never get them. No, Ion, just no.

Plusses and minuses to zone scaling. I like the idea of being able to level anywhere and  still be challenged as well as get appropriate level XP and loot. That is the good side of scaling. However, the bad side of it is that every minor mob along your path becomes a significant threat. Of course, as you gear up they become less of a threat, but I am thinking now of my squishier alts, who likely will not get a lot of gearing up, and how much of a real pain in the patoot that is going to be.

Again, it is not fun™ or immersive™ to have to stop, dismount, and fight your way through that same bunch of mobs every time you are on your way to a world quest location. Every. Single. Time. Nope, nope, and nope.

At this point, most of my alt leveling will be done after flying, I am thinking. And it better be in 7.2 at the latest. Speaking of which, I think it is time for Blizz to actually stop being coy and announce when flying will be available. (Another example of me hating Blizz’s stupid ideas of “secret” and how much fun that is! Whee!)

OK, that’s it from me for a few days. I expect to be back here writing again next Wednesday — caught up, rested, and ready to go.

Leveling strategies for Legion?

The past couple of days I’ve been thinking about how best to go about spending my time for the first couple of months in Legion. Clearly, there is no “one size fits all”, but I think I’ve isolated a few factors to consider.

Gear level at the start of the expansion. My first premade character in the beta was a template hunter, which started out with 680 gear. It felt very underpowered and indeed died several times during the quest line to get the baseline artifact weapon. After the artifact it felt a tad more sturdy, but with combined gear level still hovering around 690, attracting more than 2 mobs at once can get dicey.

Once I was able to do a character copy from live, I tried an ilvl 720 hunter, and there was vast difference for the better. So I think I am going to try for a minimum of ilvl 700 for all my alts before bringing them into Broken Isles. That is really not difficult to do — 695 Baleful gear along with some crafted pieces at 715, maybe a Conquest ring or shoulders, and some valor upgrades should easily do it. In fact, spending the time to get the valor upgrades may be superfluous.

Profession leveling. Right now my sense is that it will be just as easy to level professions at the same time as I do each character. It might ever so slightly delay reaching 110, but I do not think it will be enough to notice. With zone scaling, there is really no advantage to waiting until level 110 to go back and pick up profession quests — mobs do not die more quickly, and we still will not have flying so getting around will take the same amount of time. And I think the sooner I can level my critical professions the more it will help in gearing up my characters.

Artifact weapons. Right now I am thinking that I will initially pursue only one artifact weapon per character, which implies I will pick one spec and stick to it for a few months. This is chancy, of course, because Blizz really cannot be trusted to not “balance” your spec into oblivion at the drop of a hat. I have two hunters that I usually level first in any expansion, so if one is BM and the other is MM, that gives me a little insurance. Not much, but a little. And having only one artifact weapon eliminates the problem of dividing your accumulated Artifact Power, of having to decide whether to have two mediocre artifact weapons or one high powered one.

Leveling order for alts. This one is tricky, but I think, once I have picked a main, then the order for alt leveling will depend on their professions. Whichever ones seem to be most valuable for my main will be the ones to get leveled first. My main hunter has LW/skinning and my alt hunter has JC/mining, so those seem to be no-brainers. After that, I’ll just have to see. It may turn out that just getting alts past the baseline artifact weapon quest will be sufficient to get them to useful production for professions with a few quest lines.

Zone plan. Here is where zone scaling is really nice. I get bored rather easily with grinding through the same series of quests more than once or twice, so my plan for zones in which to level is that I don’t have a plan. For some, I will do one or two levels in a zone then move on, for others I may try to exhaust quest lines in a single zone before moving on. Part of the quest line for eventual flying in Legion involves what boils down to completing a large portion of the quests in every zone anyway, so at least one character — probably my main — will start working on that as soon as possible.

Class hall stuff. Yeah, in spite of what Blizz says, these are basically watered down garrisons, with all the annoyances but fewer of the perks. The fact that they are the main quest hub, yet Dalaran is the place where you have to be for things like bank, profession quests, etc., is just bothersome. And not for nothin’, but I absolutely do not feel like I am the Big Dog Main Hero Hunter in the hall, when there are a dozen other hunters running around with the same artifact weapon and the same Hati. The fantasy fails spectacularly for class halls, in my opinion. For that reason, I am not going to spend a lot of time developing class hall quest lines for my alts until relatively deep into the expansion.

LB-Too many Hatis

We are all special…

 

Things to save for later. Eventually I will go back and do some of the things I intend to skip during the first few months. I will probably do an off spec and accompanying artifact weapon on at least my main and a couple of alts. I will max out every profession. I will probably get at least one of my healers raid-ready. I will explore the areas I initially skip. I will tame a few Broken Isles beasts for my BM hunter and maybe my MM as well. At some point I will roll a Demon Hunter just because.

Honestly, if Blizz sticks to their new schedule of an expansion every two years, I suspect there will not be enough time to do all things I want to do in Legion, so as usual I will not be bored or complaining about lack of content.

(And now I realize I may have just talked myself into pre-ordering Legion.)

What about you — any special plans for the first few weeks of Legion?