Legion – let’s just get it over with

We are now 34 days, give or take a few hours, away from the Legion launch. I am doing my best to work up some enthusiasm over it, but that is turning out to be a harder task than it should be.

I should explain that I am somewhat of a launch junkie. I am predisposed to love the anticipation before each new expansion. A couple of months out, I make preparatory spreadsheets and to-do lists (hey, that’s how I do “excited”, don’t judge), I enjoy all the usual bank and bag cleaning, I like evaluating my alts to see which ones I will level first. I even usually take a farewell tour of the outgoing expansion on my main, flying through the zones, snapping a few screen shots, stopping at out of the way places to take in the scenery.  On launch day I get up in the middle of the night an hour or so before scheduled launch, brew coffee, and log in — in my jammies, coffee and cereal in hand. Usually there are guildies doing the same, and we chat and giggle together in Vent. It’s great fun, even if later the expansion turns out to be not so great.

But this time is different. I suppose it is possible that I am just too cynical, that the novelty has finally worn off. After all, Legion will be the 5th expansion I have experienced. (Although probably Wrath shouldn’t count as I had only been playing the game for about a month before it arrived.) But I really don’t think that’s the reason. I think the long dry spell of WoD, combined with a year-long “beta” and with Blizz’s failure to roll out sweeping game changes in any sort of cohesive manner, have dampened my enthusiasm for Legion. And this is not even considering the almost-certain gigantic technical snafu that will make Legion unplayable for the first few days.

WoD, by most accounts, will go down as one of the worst expansions in the game. OK, fine. But Blizz made the whole experience even worse by basically abandoning it immediately after launch, at the same time embarking on a policy of contempt for their players and engagement in a kind of dismissive snarkiness seldom if ever seen in customer relations in large companies. (Even Comcast at least pretends to be more respectful of its customers than Blizz was during the first year of WoD.)  In the end, it was, for all practical purposes, a one-patch expansion (I don’t count 6.1 as a real patch).

Even though in the last year Blizz has  undergone a major change in attitude — for the better — they still did not back off of the policy of washing their hands of WoD. They could have at least given us a series of minor patches over the last 13 months, some little sop to generate some whimsy or fun into WoD while we waited for Legion, but it is as if the whole episode has been too painful to even think about. If nothing else, they could have given us some new jukebox tunes or Son of Pepe or a few more garrison decorations. But they left WoD out on the curb sometime around March of 2015, and we have been on our own. You would think, in the face of this, I would be ecstatic at the prospect of Legion. But really I feel just kind of weary at the possibility, even if remote, that we could be in for another WoD. What if they decide to write off Legion, too, as a bad job? I hope it is a stunning success, but if it isn’t? We will be stuck in WoD-style abandonment for likely at least 3 years. “Once burned…”

Then there are the Legion changes. I am still overwhelmed by them, they are really too complex to deal with all at once, and they are certainly too complex to even attempt to plan for in the way I like to. Consequently, I am doing virtually no planning for Legion, and this effectively robs me of my style of anticipation. My fault, I know, but there it is.

The pre-patch has brought us some of the biggest changes, but it is the worst of both worlds now and will be for another month. We have characters that are for the most part wimpier than at any time in WoD, and they are incomplete, since they were designed for an artifact weapon we do not yet have access to. So we are trying to operate in an end-game status using early-leveling powers. It is frustrating and seems to continue the string of WoD bad decisions. At a time when we should be experiencing the full power of our leveled characters just before being plunged into a whole new continent, we are instead struggling to deal with content we thought we had mastered months ago.

This could have been done better, with less pain. Blizz could have taken some steps to truly compensate for the changes in secondary stat mechanics and for the lack of an artifact weapon, but they chose not to. They could have done a better job of tweaking Timewarped instances to match the new reality of class changes. But it was apparently too much work, and their new mantra of “If the minimum were not good enough it wouldn’t be the minimum” has taken over. If we players feel weak and ineffectual when we should feel we are at the top of our game, too effing bad. We will get over it, at most there will be a small blip in subscriptions, but that will be eclipsed by the usual surge for a new expansion. Besides, Blizz doesn’t publish subscription rates any more, so who is to know? Certainly not the stockholders.

Then there is the new way Blizz chose to do Legion testing. They decided that the best early, development-shaping input they could get would be from professional players and from those who would derive an actual monetary benefit from being in on the new systems. They did not solicit opinions from the normal casual player, from the kind of player that makes up most of their base, and by the time they gave such people access it was far too late to make any significant changes. Thus Legion will be an expansion of, by, and for professional players, the elite guilds, the streamers, the eSport wannabes. The rest of us will have to just live with it.

People get excited about things they are invested in, things they feel they have a say in  and have helped to create — even if that is only a facade. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have zero investment in Legion, it is something being foisted upon me, not a shared endeavor. Any input I, and others like me, expressed to Blizz has been ignored, not even the courtesy of a “here’s why we are not going to change it” response. We are not big wheels in the game, we bring no revenue beyond our subscriptions, we are nothing in the big picture, so there is no reason to give us even the perception of investment in the game.

So that’s it. Legion will go live in 34 days, and the only way I am looking forward to it is to get it over with. After two years with a horrible expansion even Blizz apparently hated, after a year of elite players shaping the new expansion and Blizz ignoring all comments that were not strictly numbers, after giving up on being able to really grasp the new interactions of spec mechanics and artifact weapons, after a pre-patch that has only made me feel as if playing my hunter for all these years counts for nothing — after all this, no I am not excited about Legion.

Yes, I will probably do my coffe-and-jammies thing on launch day, but it will be with more of a feeling of “Thank god, at last” than “Wheeeee!” Right now my sense of anticipation can be summed up as, “Let’s just get it over with.” 

Farewell WoD

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So it begins

Yesterday I wrote that I felt somewhat adrift in the game, basically marking time until Things Happened. No sooner had I posted that when Things Actually Began To Happen. Three events tell us that we are now into the final lead-in to Legion launch, and, for me, mark the official end of WoD.

First, Blizz announced what seems to be a public beta. It is a pseudo-contest on Twitter, and they are not calling it a public beta, but essentially anyone wishing to do the small tasks for it, I believe, can get beta access. It comes a tad later in the development cycle than usual, but it is an unmistakable sign that we are close to the pre-patch and launch.

This move was clearly intended to swell the ranks of beta testers, a necessary step for the second event, the announcement of a stress test on the beta to identify possible launch day glitches. As far as I know, this is the first time Blizz has conducted such a formal test in anything but a development environment, and I am gratified to see them doing so. It seems doubtful that it will completely forestall major glitches on actual launch day, but maybe it will show them some obvious bugs, so that possibly launch day catastrophes will be short-lived and not make the first week of Legion virtually unplayable as happened for WoD.

I am assuming that Blizz has a professional, robust test team, and that they have some complicated algorithms to predict scaled disasters from small ones. Unfortunately, in the world of massive networks such as Blizz’s, “inconsistencies” in the workings of 4-5 servers can become total shutdown failures when scaled to, say 100 or more servers. The butterfly effect and all. I also am assuming, given what have now become standard DDoS attacks on expansion launch days, that Blizz has a Red Team that will simulate a couple such attacks during the launch test today, to see how well their detection and defensive intrusion systems work.

Do I think today’s stress test — and possibly one or two follow-up tests — will ensure a smooth Legion launch? No, but with any luck it might help make launch day problems quickly fixable. If you have the time and are on the beta or can get on before the test today, I urge you to participate and report your experiences to Blizz.

Last, the pre-expansion patch (7.0.3 currently) is on the background downloader for most people. There was a little confusion over it yesterday afternoon, first it was on the downloader, then it was taken off, then finally it was back on. But it seems to be there now, a third sign that we are indeed in the final stages of Legion preps. We still have not had an announcement of the end of the PvP season, so in all likelihood we will not see the pre-patch go live on the 19th as some have speculated, but we will certainly see it, I would think, before the end of July. My guess now is the 26th. If it is delayed past that, then I think people should begin to have some legitimate concerns about the readiness of the whole project. It is almost inconceivable that the August 30 launch date would be slipped, so if the pre-expansion patch doesn’t kick in until the first week of August, that to me would signal some pretty serious development problems with Legion. Still, the Legion development cycle has been different in many ways from previous ones, so who is to say that maybe there will only be a one-week hiatus this time between the end of the PvP season and the pre-patch?

So yes, WoD for me is now well and truly in the rear view mirror, and honestly good riddance to it. There were some interesting and fun aspects to it, but I think the flaws — and Blizz’s seeming inability or unwillingness to admit them, much less try to make them better, until the player base pitched a tantrum over them — were so significant as to completely overshadow any good parts. I will not shed a tear over its passing. Buh-bye, WoD, take care that the door doesn’t hit you in the ass on the way out.

Completely off topic: Last night I took my rogue through the Legion initial artifact and class hall quests. It was a blast. I have leveled and played him in WoD as Combat, so in Legion I opted to retain the equivalent Outlaw spec. Serious fun, in my opinion. The class hall in the sewers of Dalaran works well, and I think Blizz has done a good job with it, “secret codes” to gain entrance and all. I did not expect to like the pirate fantasy of the spec, but I really found myself having fun with it, and it definitely was enhanced with the Booty Bay focus for the artifact quest. If I did not dislike melee so much, and if there were not already two new melee specs vying for space in Legion, I would definitely think about maining a rogue. It was that much fun.

Legion! Yay, or something

As everyone probably knows by now, Blizz has officially announced that Legion will go live on August 30. Honestly, I’m not sure what I think about that. I’ve had a lot of thoughts darting through my head since the announcement. Here are a few of them.

First, there is the big fat obvious fact that patch 6.2 celebrates its first birthday on June 23 of this year. Which means it will be just a smidge over 14 months old when Legion goes live. Last June, I wrote this:

How did your first day go with 6.2? I can best sum mine up with a hearty “meh…” Some things were fun, some were almost unbelievably frustrating, but one thing I know for sure is that this patch will get very old very fast.

Which it did. We had two patches in the first year of WoD — although 6.1 hardly even qualified as a patch — and then zero, zip, nada for 14 months.

WTF, Blizz?

Things have come a long ways — and not in a good way — from this November 2013 quote from Ghostcrawler:

We find that expansions are what bring players back to World of Warcraft…. Really good patches will keep them, but they aren’t as good at bringing players back to the game.

We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly. Once a year I think would be a good rate. I think the best thing we can do for new players is to keep coming out with regular content updates.

Not only no new expansions every year, but no new patches either, much less “really good” ones.

Certainly a new expansion every year, if it is of the immense scope that WoD and Legion are, is extremely optimistic. To achieve that frequency, a company has to devote very significant resources and must be almost flawless in their project planning and execution. Also, they must be willing to ignore the Good Idea Fairy who seems to make a nuisance of herself throughout the expansion development cycle, causing original concepts to become as bloated and overgrown as a Pentagon defense contract.

Blizz has demonstrated that they are just awful at all of this. Thus we get attempts to completely rework nearly every facet of the game for every expansion, the projects grow far beyond their initial scope without increasing the development resources to compensate, deadlines loom, and the projects get rushed out the door with a vague thought that all the known bugs will get fixed in the first patch. (When did Blizz adopt the Microsoft model of project management?) In short, we get WoD. I can only hope this is not the case with Legion, but I will wait to see.

I am neither surprised nor disappointed that Blizz has had to back off of Greg Street’s 2013 comment, but I would appreciate the courtesy of a new statement reflecting their current goals for frequency of expansions and patches.

Second, you have to wonder what kind of marketing duel may be going on between Blizz and Square Enix, which recently announced that Final Fantasy 15 — one of the strong WoW competitors — would be released Sep 30. This is suspiciously close to the previously-assumed release date of Legion, clearly chosen for the competitive value. Now suddenly Blizz one-ups Square Enix and announces an Aug 30 release. One can only hope that this is an actual, reasonable release date, and not one pulled out of the air in the spirit of “Oh yeah? We’ll see your Sep 30 release date and cut it by a month! Hah!”

Third, what does this mean for a beta test? By my calculations, if you allow time for a beta test followed by a PTR, the beta should have started, like — before now? It will be interesting to see how the “alpha” experiment will be spun by Blizz. My hunch is that we will soon see something that will be labeled “beta” but will actually just be a sort of  pre-PTR, with no substantive changes made, no matter what the comments are from the testers. Let’s face it, the alpha was the beta, from now on things other than minor tweaks are set in stone. The PTR — well, it will mainly be there as a pacifier to players not invited to either the alpha or the beta. If Blizz is smart, they will use it as a system stress test, because …

Fourth, what if any technical changes have been put in place to ensure we do not have a disastrous release day and/or week? The experiences for release of Mists and WoD were monuments to incompetence. There is no excuse for Blizz to fail to anticipate these factors for release week:

  • There will be a HUGE surge of players at the release hour. This surge will continue for at least the first week of the expansion. This means that servers must be prepared to take capacity loads, and additional tech servers may be needed.
  • People will be playing during times they ordinarily do not, so standard patterns of peak play times will be meaningless.
  • Some group will almost certainly try to attack Blizz servers and network infrastructure on release day. Get ready for it, and don’t complain that it is an “unforeseen event”. I am foreseeing it right now, so you should, too.
  • Lots of things will go wrong, so start preparing now to bring in extra support personnel, including GMs to quickly address tickets. People will have taken vacation time and made similar arrangements to experience intensive play time at release, so realize that they will be more emotional than usual when they hit a bug that prevents them from playing. You will win a lot of fans if you can address their problems rapidly and successfully.
  • Realize that you will likely have a lot of brand new WoW players for whom this will be their first expansion day, and whatever their experience is will color their entire view of the game.

Last, what does this mean for a pre-expansion event and for the pre-patch? Typically, these are big guessing games, Blizz gives coy little hints and bats its eyes like a middle schooler trying to flirt for the first time, but they never really announce a pre-patch release date. But this time, given the extreme changes every class and spec will undergo, I think Blizz owes it to their player base to cut out the cuteness and tell us at least an approximate time frame for the pre-patch. Those of us still around have proven our loyalty, we have stuck with this game in spite of a terrible and seemingly-endless expansion, and dammit we deserve to know when our classes will change forever.

What provisions are in place for playing a Legion spec in a WoD world? There are a ton of concerns here, not the least of which involve changes for secondary stats, for new global cool down intervals (1.5 seconds, up from 1.0 seconds — subject to haste), for new healing paradigms in an old-paradigm expansion, etc. I suppose we need time to get used to our new rotations and spec play styles before we get dumped into Legion, but honestly I am not looking forward to it, and I would like to have as much advance planning notice as possible.

Everyone fasten your seat belts, securely stow your belongings, and make sure your seats and tray tables are in an upright position. Here we go!

Crazy release theories

Well, it’s Monday morning, and we are getting down to the real dregs of any semblance of news from Blizz. This at a time when we are at least 5 months away from Legion, and I now believe that to be an optimistic guess. We have sporadic Legion information from the Golden Gamers who have alpha keys, but unless you want to spend hours watching someone make money streaming their experience, this too is very sparse. A couple of bloggers with the key have done a credible job writing about their particular areas of interest (thinking about Delirium, Bendak, Jade over at Jade’s Forest, and Megan O’Neill), but beyond that, about all there is for us in the Great Unwashed is plowing through the Legion class forums, piecing together tiny bits of info about this or that stat being bugged or conflicting with this or that other effect.

No one that I can tell is writing about the overall feel or tone of the Legion experience. Maybe that is because it is still so early in its development that it doesn’t have any kind of feel to it. Which brings me to my first of two crazy theories on release.

(And remember, Blizz, if you were being even the tiniest bit transparent on your Legion development, I would not have to resort to crazy theories.)

Blizz is further behind on Legion than they were on WoD at the same pre-release time point. (And we all know how that turned out for WoD.) How else can you explain that we are, in theory, 5 months from Legion live, and we still do not even have anything Blizz is willing to call beta? I am betting that Blizz has once again bitten off way more than they can chew.

I believe that their original idea of class halls has become much larger and consuming then they first envisioned, that the “fewer followers” they alluded to at Gamescom have become a veritable army with tailored missions and gear, crucial to progressing in the expansion.

I think their inexplicable decision to make artifact weapons unique to every spec has morphed into a nightmare of never-ending separate quest lines, weapon talent trees, skins to assuage every conceivable ego niche (PvP, every level of raid, etc.), and a host of spin-off problems they failed to anticipate. I think their decision to yet again revamp nearly every class and spec, when combined with the crucial talent role of unique artifact weapons, has caused them to be overwhelmed by balance issues.

We also see that professions are getting a complete overhaul, as are some very traditional features such as the glyph system. All these revamps are in addition to creating all the usual new expansion stuff like artwork and zones and raids and dungeons. The result, I am postulating, is a project so vast and complex that there is no way it can be ready by the end of the summer. At least not to Blizz’s pre-WoD release standards. Their options will be to delay release, to release it as a pile of poop like they did WoD, or possibly to do a bit of both and release it slightly later as a slightly smaller pile of poop. (You should prepare for yet another release day server debacle, possibly lasting a week or more, as in WoD and to a somewhat lesser extent Mists. This might mean you should ideally schedule your New Expansion “sick days” from work a week after release, not the day of. Just a suggestion. 😉)

I also think, if they are scrambling as desperately as my theory postulates, that there is other fallout. We are seeing some of this. For example, I think nearly all their WoW resources are working on Legion. They appear to have completely abandoned WoD, except as a stealth test bed for Legion enhancements (like the recent chat changes). We aren’t even getting any quick little fun changes, like the conga line fruit hat from a few months ago or, even, more ridiculous Pepe-like items.

This leads me to a crazy sub-theory that actually Blizz likes it when we are bored with WoW prior to a new expansion. They have said numerous times that the WoW genre is by nature cyclical, that it is to be expected and planned for. What if one of the ways they are “planning for” such cycles now is to embrace the pre-release lull by making sure there is nothing new to engage players, that such boredom will drive a significant number of us to try other Blizz and ATVI games? That WoW ennui is a perfect vehicle for ramping up Heathstone or Overwach participation? Just sayin’.

Another example of the consequences of Blizz being behind the curve on Legion is that they do not have the resources to deal with any kind of player revolt. Which means that they have conveniently not addressed some sensitive issues, such as flying or the promised “accommodations” to artifact weapons for off specs and alts. As far as I can tell, the flying quest line is not in the alpha at all. I take this to mean that Blizz is once again being coquettish on the subject. They said they intended to follow the “WoD model” for flying in Legion, which of course many people took to mean there would be a quest and achievement line for it. But to me, the other part of the WoD model is that it was delayed until the second major patch, and I am 99% certain that is the part of the model most important to Blizz. So I fully expect the flying quest and achievement line will be gated to ensure no one can get it prior to at least the second major patch. I would not even be surprised to see one of the achievements be full completion of the artifact weapon tree. You read it here first.

Disclosure of the flying gate would undoubtedly cause a great deal of public rage (both for and against), and as I said, I do not believe Blizz has the resources to deal with such a reaction now. Much easier to just not say anything and let people believe what they want to based on some early vague pronouncements.

My second crazy release theory is that my worst nightmare will come true, and Blizz will go live with the Legion pre-event as well as with the 7.0 class changes shortly after or even just prior to the movie release. Think about this for a minute. If you are Blizz, and you believe that the movie will bring many new and returning players to the game, heck you are even offering movie tie-in incentives to do so, then the last thing you want is for most of the new players to quit the game after a couple of weeks out of frustration.

The game is obscure enough to a new player — or even to one who has been gone a couple of years — in terms of leveling, questing, professions, raid and dungeon complexities, travel, you name it. To bring them in, have them finally become somewhat comfortable with their new characters after a few weeks, then to completely revamp everything they know about playing their class, is to invite mass quitting. We diehard veteran players put up with such massive changes every couple of years, but I think new players will not. There are just too many other gaming options for them now.

So I think Blizz will want to start new players out on the class and spec play style that will exist in Legion. This means — given what I said about how they are scrambling to need a late September release date — that we will be stuck with Legion class changes in a WoD world for at least three months, maybe more.

Think about that. Remember that Legion specs require the talents from the artifact weapon to realize their full play potential, remember that secondary stats are changing significantly, remember that in theory the Legion raids and dungeons are tuned for this but the WoD ones are not, and you start to realize how very painful this might be. And no matter how much Blizz might vow that they will make “accommodations” in WoD for the class and spec changes, go back to crazy theory number one and ask yourself how many resources they will be willing or even able to devote to something that will likely resolve itself as soon as Legion goes live. If you were Blizz, would you spend the resources on a dead horse (WoD), or would you delude yourself into thinking that by devoting all resources to Legion you can deploy it even earlier than late September?

That’s it for Monday crazy theories. Oh, and please make your comments very quietly, as I am pretty sure that the Worldwide Consortium of Evil is listening through my microwave.

 

 

Tired and cranky

Warning: Disorganized, general rant follows, no doubt partially due to sore muscles and lack of sleep from shoveling snow (31 inches, plus several 5-ft drifts) for three days straight. Not to mention not playing WoW at all during that time.

Everything I read about Legion lately just annoys me. Most likely the main reason for this is because everything I read is third hand rumor — “official” dev comments remain obscure little 140-character tweets of no value to anyone, and the flow of information from the privileged few alpha testers seems to have dried up.

Perfect example is a recent little flap over an alpha mechanic that charges players 100 gold each time they switch specs. The only official pseudo-comment we have had on this is that 100 gold is a “placeholder” and that “We are still working out what the cost will be!”

The concept of paying to switch specs is already a done deal, we are down to haggling over the price!

Really? A cost to switch specs? What’s next, a cost to stay overnight in an inn, or to enter the city gates of Stormwind, or to use your hearthstone, or to enter a dungeon? Maybe WoW should take a cue from the old versions of the Sims and require our characters to pee every so often, and then Blizz could charge us to use the toilets!

Think about it, the virtual monetization possibilities are endless. In-game communications could be monitored and charged like phone minutes. (Wait, maybe that’s not such a bad idea, it might actually cut down on the trade chat idiots.) Blizz could charge a licensing fee for herbing or mining or skinning, or a sales tax for selling anything in trade instead of the auction house. There could be a stabling fee for every one of your pets and mounts. A leveling fee, you get charged a certain sliding scale of gold every time you ding a new level. Mandatory malpractice insurance for healers and liability insurance for tanks and damage dealers. A driver’s license fee for your chopper or goblin glider, not to mention a taxi charge every time your new alt avails itself of the chauffeured service. A banking fee every time your level of certain reagents falls below an established minimum level. A graduated income tax on the gold you make. A Value Added Tax on everything you buy.

With just a little imagination, Blizz could ensure that no one could ever accrue gold, that we would be trapped in an endless cycle of having to play in order to get gold, while at the same time having to pay gold for every game activity. The perfect self-perpetuating gold sink!

Can this really be anything other than another brilliant idea from those creative folks in Blizz’s Screw With the Players Department?

So, okay, I will get serious for a moment. I think I understand a possible Blizz reason for charging gold to switch specs — currently we are allowed to switch between two specs for free, but if we wish to change one of them to a third spec it costs us a small amount of gold. In Legion, everyone will be able to maintain all their specs without having to retrain in any of them. So a small amount of gold sink would disappear. What I don’t understand is why that is a problem, and more to the point why the solution to such a non-existent problem is to start nickel and diming us to death for something that has always been free.

As usual, it seems like none of the geniuses at Blizz have thought this through. Now raiders who change specs to help out the raid will be penalized for their cooperation. Will there be a mechanism to charge the spec-switching fee to the guild bank as there currently is for repairs? Will there be increased opportunities for guilds to earn gold for their increasing expenditures? What about classes who routinely level as one spec but raid or run instances as another? What about people not important enough to have been given a chance to try out the huge changes to their specs beforehand — now just trying out each new spec will cost them.

This is exactly the kind of development that has caused me to dread rather than anticipate Legion. How many other little gotchas are lurking out there?

In the big picture of a new expansion, this little flap over paying gold to switch specs is probably very small potatoes. But it is exactly the kind of “news” that helps to sink an xpac. Consider:

  • The existence of a privileged-people only alpha test, combined with a looming closed/exclusive beta (if there ever is one) means that the vast majority of players feel completely powerless to influence any aspect of Legion. When people feel small and powerless, they develop a strong we-they mentality, and every perceived change becomes evidence that “they” are out to get us.
  • As Blizz has seen fit to eschew all official transparency about the alpha testing of Legion, small snippets about annoying changes are the only things people have to discuss.
  • Complete turn-arounds to long-established game mechanics — no matter how small — tend to be the hardest for people to accept. (*cough*flying*cough*) When game companies intend to change them, they can ease player angst by explaining why they are doing it and possibly what the compensatory gain will be. (Honestly, though, not a bunch of horse hockey full of meaningless phrases like “class fantasy” or ” immersion”.) Of course, that would require actual communication, not just a couple of worthless tweets…
  • In this case — and rightfully so, I believe — many people are already worried that the implementation for artifact weapons will practically preclude effective spec switching anyway. To add a fee to what is already perceived as a burden seems like piling on. Rather than some patronizing tweet that amounts to “Don’t worry your empty little heads, it’s just a place holder,” maybe Blizz should consider an in depth discussion of the whole spec picture. What actually will it take to get the appropriate weapons for each spec on a single character? How exactly will the problem of healer leveling be addressed? What benefit is conferred by charging to switch specs, and what safeguards will be in place to ensure certain classes are not penalized by this more than others?
  • Last, and certainly not least, the last year saw Blizz squander a huge amount of trust. Whereas small things like this announcement would probably not even have caused raised eyebrows before WoD, now many players are are suspicious and wary of every move by Blizz. It’s like someone tapping you on your arm — normally no big deal, but if you are battered and bruised you are much more likely to howl in pain at even the slightest touch.

Well, I did warn you I am cranky today…

 

 

Bits and pieces

I’ll be glad when Legion alpha cranks up again, because frankly it’s becoming quite a challenge to write about WoW these days. Very little is happening in the current expansion, and the news about Legion is both parsed and parsimonious. While I am personally not bored with the game, I am involved in activities decidedly not interesting to write about. No one wants to hear about my exciting new herb farming route, or my glacial progress on a ring for my warlock, or my new Worgen transmog, or my misadventures healing in LFR. (However, if I get desperate enough you may expect to be subjected to such posts.)

There have been a few recent snippets about the game, though, so here’s my take on them.

New patch?? Nope. For a few hours last night, there was a blue post entitled “World of Warcraft Patch 6.3.0” which had about two uninspiring lines about a couple of extremely minor bug fixes. It drew my interest obviously because of the title, but clearly it was a boo-boo, because today the new headline is “World of Warcraft Patch 6.2.3 – Build 20886”.

I didn’t think the two minor fixes were a new patch, but for a fleeting moment I wanted to believe that there was an actual WoD patch that had secretly been in the works for a while, and that the blue poster had gotten his project notes mixed up. But alas, no, just another piece of inattentive work from devs who, like the rest of us, have written off WoD, and in this case could not be bothered to do even minimal proofreading.

Still, what could have caused such a typo? I could understand if the title had been “Patch 6.3” because that might mean the poster  had a too-light key touch in the middle of trying to type “6.2.3”. But the title  patch number was “6.3.0”. Weird. Are things at Blizz in such disarray that the devs have lost track of which patch they are working on, or even which patches are live?

Activision acquires Major League Gaming. (Check out the post over at alt:ernative chat for one WoW blogger’s excellent take on this.) I’m sure if you are Activision or one of their shareholders, this is a good move, but I really think it is another nail in WoW’s coffin. Clearly, ATVI is going all in on eSports, and that does not bode well for WoW, certainly not for the aspects of the game that drew most of us to it in the first place.

I don’t see Wow PvE as suited to being a spectator sport, beyond the occasional elite guild raid face-offs. No, if there is eSport money in WoW — and I am not really sure there is — it will be made in PvP. Make no mistake, if there is money to be made, it will be huge money. If you are Blizzard with finite development resources, and PvP is making you rich, how much time are you going to spend on the PvE side?  Even if PvE can be profitable, how must it change in order to please the spectators? How much pressure will Corporate put on every franchise to evolve into a major league style “sport”?

But in the end, I don’t see WoW — or any traditional MMO — as a profitable eSports venue. The genre is dying. If Legion is not the last expansion of the game, it could well be the penultimate one.

Who is playing WoW? I have been reading some social science papers lately on the subject of who plays video games these days, and it made me wonder what the true demographics of WoW are. Surprisingly — or maybe not — there are no data available on this, beyond a few undoubtedly inaccurate guesses based on severely limited sampling.

I doubt even Blizz knows the demographics of their customer base. How would they? I don’t recall what if any personal information I had to give when I first subscribed, but even if it was enough to be statistically useful, I doubt if Blizz “ages” it as the years go by, not to mention anyone can fake it (though most do not). Besides, no tech company ever went broke by just assuming their target audience is 20-30 year old males and tailoring their products for that demographic.

Still, it makes me wonder if maybe some of the discontent with WoW these days is the result of Blizz failing to understand who their main player base is and what game design keeps that real player base engaged.

That’s it. Everyone have a good weekend!

Where do you see WoW a year from now?

Administrative edit: I am taking a holiday break and will see you all after New Year’s. To all my readers, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you warmth and happiness and love in this season of hope and throughout the coming year.

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

Most of us have probably had to deal with this by-now trite job interview question. Over the weekend I was writing some job and college recommendations for colleagues, and I admit my mind was wandering a bit. I found myself fantasizing about interviewing Blizzard for the job of keeping my money and occupying my time in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

I imagined myself as an interviewer, and Blizz as a job applicant. Honestly, the interview did not go very well, mainly because my imaginary Blizz applicant pretty much assumed he had the job all sewn up, and frankly had not prepared for the interview at all.

Me. Mr. Blizzard, very nice to meet you, please come in and sit down.

Blizz (dressed in wrinkled khakis, untucked shirt, no tie, sneakers, could use a haircut). Hey, how’s it going?

Me. I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding the place. Can I get you some coffee or anything?

Blizz. Nah, I’m good.

Me. Well, fine, let’s get started then. My first question is one I ask every applicant: why do you want this job?

Blizz. Well, um, you know. Guaranteed monthly income, plus big chunk of change every time I put out a new expansion. Not to mention it lets me develop games way cooler than the one you play.

Me. I see. And what do I get in return?

Blizz. Well, you get a pretty nifty game, and you get to play it the way I think is best. Y’know, immersion and stuff. Oh, and something I’m really excited about, you have an opportunity to watch people way better than you play it. For a spectator fee of course. Awesome, huh?

Me. Uh huh. Well, let’s move on.

(Interview wraps up.)

Me. Last question. Where do you see yourself a year from now?

Blizz. (Long pause) Errr, Legion and stuff?

Me. I mean bigger picture, where do you see your subscriptions, the composition of your player base, your goals for the game, that kind of thing? And in particular, where do I fit into this bigger picture?

Blizz. (With perplexed look of a pig gazing at a wrist watch.) So do I get the job or not?

Where, indeed, will the game be a year from now? And will I or you still be in the picture?

In contemplating Legion, especially in light of Blizz’s ventures into eSports and Hollywood, I find myself wondering who exactly they see as their player base any more? More to the point, do they see me as a part of that player base beyond being a means to finance their “real” players?

When I first heard about the WoW movie, I thought of it as a giant advertisement for the game, the purpose of which advertising was to pull new players into an aging game. Certainly such a strategy makes sense after a year like 2015, which has seen the loss of something like 5 million subscribers. Even if Blizz no longer counts subscriptions as a measure of business success in the game, that big a loss has got to hurt. Another year like that and it will be the end of the franchise.

So there are huge stakes involved in both the movie and Legion. But what does Blizz see as the nature of those stakes? How will they measure “success” a year from now? And how are they structuring the game to maximize what ever their definition of success is?

On the one hand, we see the company going pretty much all in on eSports, although WoW being suitable for that genre is a bit dicey in my opinion. Still, it’s possible if Blizz has the right showbiz approach. An interesting question is, what kind of player base is needed to support WoW as an eSport? I don’t claim to know the answer to that, but I know what kind does not support it: the super-casual-futz-around-when-you-have-some-time-to-kill player that I am betting has historically been WoW’s bread and butter even if Blizz does not want to admit it.

These are the players who always felt like they could play once every few days and still get enjoyment from the game, so they kept their subscriptions current. These are also the players who decided that WoD took away that possibility of casual enjoyment and thus made their subscriptions not worth the money.

So how is Blizz shaping the game to win back large numbers of mom-and-pop and other  casual players, while at the same time trying to re-brand it as a fierce professional “sport”? Again, I have no answers, but I do have a couple of observations.

First, I am not entirely certain that Blizz itself knows the answer, or indeed if they realize it is even a question. I say this because of the conflicting messages we have gotten in the game for the last year, and which I see continuing as we move into Legion. (I am talking about big conflicts here, such as making raiding almost the exclusive end game activity while at the same time implementing designs that make raiding more and more elusive for large numbers of players.)

Second, if Blizz is indeed looking to swell its subscription numbers with new players as a result of the movie combined with Legion, I doubt if they will be able to walk the thin line between new player accessibility and enraged cries of “dumbing down”? Character boosts and professional catch-up mechanisms notwithstanding, the learning curve for a brand new player who has no friend to help is almost impossibly high. Without dedicated study of third-party web pages, I maintain that your average casual player will abandon the game within a matter of a few weeks.

In short, I doubt if Blizz is on a path that will result in significant numbers of new players. Like it or not, and whether Blizz wants to admit it or not, the game is moving inexorably to a hardcore player model. They simply cannot make the game suitable for eSport pros  and fans while at the same time attracting the millions of casual players they need to sustain the business model. They might be in the same position with this dilemma that they were in regarding competing demands of PvP and PvE — until they admit that it is really two different games both approaches will suffer, but game design will inevitably favor one over the other.

So: Where do you see WoW in a year? Where do you think Blizz sees it? And most importantly, if you are interviewing them will you give them the job?