Timing and content

I read an item in MMO-C a couple of days ago, basically a short summary of a conversation someone had with Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas at Gamescom. The original had been a Twitch live stream, and I couldn’t find anywhere that it had been preserved in its original form, so all I have to go on is the MMO-C summary reporting of Hazzikostas’s comments:

Game Development

  • There was a period where the team focused on faster expansions, sacrificing things that they shouldn’t have. This made the experience worse.
  • The focus going forward is a steady stream of content.
  • Priority #1 is making sure that you don’t run out of things to do.
  • The team is never going to rush an expansion, they will be released when they are done.
  • Ensuring there is always content in the live game while working on the expansions is important.
  • Raid tiers should last around 4 to 5 months.
  • This time around there won’t be a content drought – “Don’t worry, we got you!”

As Blizzard has stopped — whether for good or temporarily is unknown — its “weekly” developer Q&A sessions, and as we rarely get any meaningful communication from them in any other format, we are back to having to carefully dissect and parse the words of a lawyer, always a chancy endeavor. Still, there were a couple of things to be gleaned from Watcher’s comments.

Timing. We now have a Blizzard policy on raid tiers — they should “last around 4 to 5 months”. Personally, I do not worry overmuch about timing of new raid tier releases. I raid with a semi-casual raid team, we do not speed through new raids, and usually by the time we get through a Heroic level tier, we are ready for a break anyway before tackling the next one. If anything, 4 to 5 months seems a little short for most raid teams to get through both normal and heroic for a tier. Still, I take Hazzikostas at his word — he is, after all, Assistant Game Director and presumably not only knows but has a role in setting game development goals and policies. So 5-month tiers it is.

But there is a timing inconsistency here: assuming a 5-month raid tier release cycle, that means over the course of a 2-year expansion (Blizz’s other stated goal) there should be at least 4 tiers. Thus far, Blizz has announced only 3 for Legion (although I think the first tier includes two raids).

“The team is never going to rush an expansion, they will be released when they are done.” As I have said before, despite Blizz’s 2-year expansion goal, I am fully expecting to see Legion stretch out for 3 years, and this statement seems designed to lay the foundation for a longer-than 2 year expansion. Should this be the case, it will be interesting to see if in fact Blizz sticks with the “4 to 5 months” policy for raid tiers, because a three-year expansion would mean at least 7 (!!) raid tiers in Legion. Even if the follow on to Legion is delayed by a mere six months, that would imply — if Watcher is to be believed — 6 raid tiers. Mmmmmmm-hmmmm.

Content. Every time I read about content in WoW, I feel like everyone defines the term differently. I think what most people mean by new “content” is a new raid tier, new PvP season, new zone, or new group mechanic (like scenarios in Mists), or some combination of these. Judging by forum comments, though, it does seem like some players have a very strict personal definition of content in WoW, and if that specific definition is not met, then they will immediately charge Blizz with failing to provide any new content.

My own definition of content is much looser, more along the lines of “stuff to do”. If I can develop professions, or go back and run old dungeons for  a few achievements/mounts/pets/transmog gear, or level and gear up an alt, or just farm for mats and sell stuff on the AH, I consider that to be content as much as new raids or world quests or zones. Basically, anything I can do that will provide me with some kind of tangible, meaningful reward — or even something that is just pure unadulterated fun — is fine with me. Still, I know that my personal definition is not what the majority of players have in mind when they talk about content.

I would actually be interested to know what Blizz means by “content”. (Even though I know if they attempted to define the term, they would be accused of taking control away from players…) It would be instructive to know what categories to expect when devs like Hazzikostas say things like, “The focus going forward is a steady stream of content.”

No doubt there will be a lot of discussion, as we go forward, about Legion’s content. Thus, for my own purposes of clarity, and to reflect what I think most people mean when they talk about content, I will consider the following to be included in the term:

  • Any game feature that offers new opportunities for exploration and questing. Example: A new zone or pseudo-zone such as Timeless Isle.
  • Any game feature that is repeatable for realistic and worthwhile rewards for players at all gear levels. Example: World bosses that dynamically award gear above what the player currently has, or that have a reasonable chance to drop mounts, significant gold, large number of rare mats, valuable currency such as valor, etc.
  • Any new group activity. Examples: New raid tier, new instance, new variations on old tiers or instances, new world bosses, new world group activity such as the Northern Barrens scenario prior to Patch 5.4, etc.
  • Minor content only: Whimsical items or activities, or new quest lines in current zones. Examples: Pepe (ok, I hated Pepe, but it was a tiny bit of new content), jukeboxes and music, a new faction offering new quests in an existing zone, and so forth.

I would expect any major patch to include at least three of these four types of new content, and I would expect minor patches to include at least one of them (two if one of them falls into my definition of “minor content”). Moreover, I expect the new content to retain its challenge or fun for the duration of the patch. If it is something players can knock out in a day or a week, it does not in my opinion count as content, if that is all there is.

We will see if Blizz can deliver on Hazzikostas’s promise of an expansion packed with content. They have shown that they can talk the talk, let us see if they can also walk the walk.

And now it is time for me to explore the content of my weekend.

Yeah, because THIS is what’s wrong with the game

RED ALERT! AHH-OOOGA! AHH-OOGA! BATTLE STATIONS! RANT INCOMING! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!

Ok, you’ve been warned. Today we start with a short practical exercise. In 30 seconds or less, name the top three things you think are wrong with WoW in its current state. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

(Jeopardy music.)

Finished? Good. I’m betting most of you came up with things like:

  • WoD thin content.
  • Blizz broken promises to the player base. (“Garrisons are optional play.” “Flying will be reinstated for Draenor in Patch 6.1.” etc.)
  • Garrisons — maybe a good idea but as usual Blizz went way overboard with them.
  • WoD professions are completely broken.
  • Idea that everybody in a raid but me gets to use my legendary ring kinda stinks.
  • Blizz has gone hog-wild with RNG for everything, even including whether or not you get the one vendor every week that sells the profession patterns you need.
  • Mythic requirement for exactly 20 means players not in a hard-core raiding guild are probably shut out of that level.
  • Certain classes and specs are virtually unplayable, or will be in 6.2 (SV hunter, Shadow priest, Destro warlock …)
  • Blizz snide, dismissive attitude toward its customers.
  • Progressive limitation of viable play styles — raid or die.

Well, I could go on, and I’m sure most of you could, too. But you get the idea — there are a huge number of major problems that Blizz could be working on, could be devoting its apparently stretched staff to improving.

I am going to go out on a limb here and bet that no one listed “It’s not dark enough in Kalimdor” as something requiring  Blizz’s urgent attention. But yes, Blizz — that wacky priority-impaired WoW team — has seen fit to devote resources to “fixing” this Very Important Issue. Check it out here.

Dispensing with the whole priorities issue — because, DAMN, Blizz! — let’s examine this a bit. I regret to say that I had to sink to reading a few forum comments on it, and let me tell you if you think the fly/no-fly thing brings out the rabid mouth-foamers, they can’t hold a candle to the dark-nighters. From what I could tell, their main argument is “It’s more realistic.”

Yes, that’s correct, they insist on more realism in a game that features orcs, giant hideous monsters, dragons and all manner of impossible beasts, flying (well, for the moment) winged horses, teleportation, magic spells that can kill said hideous monsters, infinite number of resurrections from the dead, lands with perpetually orange vegetation and multiple moons and huge floating rocks, swords and other weapons that radiate light/flames/spooky-shadows, abilities like instant invisibility and levitation and shape-changing. A game in which the people are unaffected by nearly all weather, where no one ever has to sleep or go to the bathroom or do their laundry or take out the trash or visit their Great Aunt Bessie. A game in which people can run or swim forever without resting, where they can carry huge packs and never be affected by their bulkiness or weight, where vendors always buy anything you have to sell no matter how crappy it is, where broken gear is fixed instantly.

Yeah, because making nights darker would make this game MUCH more “realistic”.

(There have actually been some scholarly papers written on the whole concept of “realism” in fantasy games, and the fact that players have very definite ideas about what kinds of fantasy are permissible and what kinds are not, but that is a topic for another day.)

I personally hate the idea of more and darker zones during a given server’s night cycle. This is mainly because I am on a server that is matched to my local time, and I tend to play only at night. This means that I only ever get to play in darkened zones. I am someone who loves the light and the sun, and to always play in the dark gets very depressing very quickly for me. Additionally, darkened zones make questing and gathering and seeing mobs more difficult.

I find it annoying in the extreme that, given the whole no-flying evermore dictum from Watcher, I will likely be spending more time in legacy places like Kalimdor in the future, and now Blizz seems to be doing whatever they can to make that annoying, too.

(Tinfoil hat theory: Blizz is deliberately starting to make flying even in legacy areas more difficult and less aesthetically pleasing, because they have told us repeatedly that flying is not fun and bygod they are going to make sure it is not.)

And not for nothin’, but how come Blizz seems to jump through its collective ass to accommodate a few dark-nighters, but completely ignores thousands of people who want flying back?

Just another in a series of incomprehensible game decisions by Blizz. I stick by my explanation of the brilliant Screw With the Players Department.

(Addendum: Just saw this, it’s a nice satire of the whole no-fly flap, plus it is relevant in a kooky way to this post!)

End of rant. Thank you for your attention. Secure from battle stations.

Collecting, solving, socializing — the WoW tripod?

Recently, some of the blogs I follow have focused on the role of individual perceptions of progression in WoW, relating that notion to engagement/lack thereof in the current expansion as well as to the question of “cheating” by buying carries with real cash (once removed). Check out the last couple of posts by The Grumpy Elf, alt:ernative chat, and Grimoires of Supremacy to see what I am talking about.

The essence of the comments on individual progress is that players need to believe they are moving forward — “progressing” — in the game in order to feel like it is worth their time and money. There are of course lots of ways for players to define “progress,” and how I define it may not be even close to how you do.

Some people like to collect things, and if they have more at the end of this week than they did at the end of last week, that is progress. They might be collecting pets, mounts, transmog gear, gold, titles, followers, or achievements, but whatever they collect, it is a numbers driven goal — more X this week than last week is progress, and collecting even more next week and the week after is what keeps collectors coming back to the game. The only limiting factor is the number of collectibles available, because when you have gotten all of them, your engagement factor is gone. WoW is a huge game, and luckily the number of collectibles is similarly huge, and usually even if you get close to the final number more are added through a new patch or expansion. Collecting, although it can be done in groups, is basically a solo activity.

Nearly every player in WoW is a collector to some extent, collecting is a large part of the game after all. But pure item collection is not the overriding interest factor for every player. For some, the game fascination derives from the personal satisfaction of “beating” increasingly complex puzzles, which in WoW usually take the form of combat mechanics, that is to say raiding, specifically progression raiding. For these players, downing a new boss or two every few days, at progressively higher raid levels, is progress. As with item collection, there is a limiting factor — the number of bosses available —  but unlike item collection the number of bosses is quite limited. It is not unusual for many of these extreme complexity-driven players to run out of bosses before new ones are introduced. Sometimes a long time before. For these players, that means their main game engagement factor is gone, and for them the game “lacks content.”

So far I have described two types of players: collectors and puzzle-solvers. Of course, almost no one falls purely into one camp or the other, most players lean towards one but have some interest in the other. It’s a line, and people may be further to one side or the other or squarely in the middle. But it is a useful way to talk about some other aspects of the game. (And as with all generalities, there are outlier exceptions to everything I am going to say.)

The practice of buying carries, for example, might be explained as when a collector decides to collect boss kills and/or the loot derived therefrom. The collector has little or no interest in solving and beating a complex raid mechanic, they are just adding to their chosen collection. Groups that sell carries may have gone as far as they can as puzzle-solvers and so turn to collecting gold or whatever as their secondary game interest.

Now add a third factor: social engagement as a game motivator. People interested mainly in the social potential of WoW can engage positively or negatively. Some positive manifestations include forming or being active in guilds that help their members progress, performing random acts of kindness in the game, carrying friends or even strangers for free in raids, etc. Negative manifestations include collecting or puzzle-solving purely so as to brag to and put down others, ruining the fun for regular players, and — well, trade chat. For the socializers, the limiting factor is the audience. Negative socializers require a large and responsive audience. (“Oooh, what a large and beautiful mount you have!” “Excuse me for daring to express an opinion contrary to yours, O great Mythic Raider.” “Dude you are twisted and perverted, knock it off or I will report you.” Etc.) Their enjoyment is externally derived. Positive socializers only require an appropriate audience — a lone quester who needs help, a population of mediocre but pleasant raiders, etc. Their enjoyment is internally derived.

So back to the buying carries example. I personally have never bought a carry with gold, and I cannot imagine ever doing so. That is probably because I tend to fall pretty far along the puzzle-solving axis, not so much along the collecting one. But I see nothing wrong with others using gold to buy a carry. It is a business transaction, just as much as buying an item in the auction house. Both parties get what they want. And, as long as neither party has violated the Terms of Service, it shouldn’t matter how they got the commodity they are using for the transaction. I think people who consider it cheating to use token-derived gold to buy carries are externally-motivated (i.e., negative) socializers in-game — their audience in their opinion is a little less impressed with them when lots of others can do the same. This diminishes their perceived preeminence in the game.

Extended side trip: Now that I think of it, I have “bought” carries. Towards the end of Mists, when my raiding guild had SoO on farm, we ran weekly Heroic SoO so the primary raid team could cycle all their alts through. (They had a lot of them!) At that time I was still part of the JV, but I faithfully ran my main every week to provide a little extra DPS to help them through. It was a fun group to run with, and I figured I could use all the raid practice I could get. After a few weeks, the Raid Leader invited me to start bringing some of my alts, even if they were not especially well geared and not in the guild. I had not expected this, and told him it was not necessary, but he explained that I had earned it. So I guess in a way I did buy some carries.

I am not a math person, but I can imagine a three-dimensional graph with these 3 factors — collecting, puzzle-solving, socializing — each being one of the axes. Every WoW player falls somewhere on this graph. Much of the complexity in developing and maintaining interest in this game comes from trying to satisfy the biggest clump of players on the graph. When Blizz makes its most spectacular development mistakes, it is because they have — either deliberately or stupidly — misidentified the clump they should be developing for.

 

 

Blizz “attitude” and my “fun”

To the small number of you who follow this blog, apologies for taking a few days off. There were a couple of reasons.

One — and this is almost embarrassing — I broke one of my fingers and have been dealing with that.

*Side comment* It’s not important how I did it — something stupid — but I’ve been amazed at all the  everyday things that become difficult or impossible with a bunged up finger. The one I broke is my “rude” finger on my left hand. It’s in a pretty hefty splint that I am not supposed to get wet. So I am busy figuring out workarounds for hand washing, cooking, normal typing, carrying grocery bags, etc. I am a little worried about tonight, which will be my first raid night since I broke the finger. I usually use my mouse for movement and left hand for keybinds, so you can see the problem. I do have one of those mice with a bajillion buttons on the side, but I normally only use a few of them, mostly for quick react keybinds such as interrupts. So I may be forced to bind most of my shot keys to them now, using the mouse for shooting as well as moving, and the left hand keybinds for the more rare cooldowns and such. I would be less worried if we were just doing the same old bosses in Highmaul, but tonight is our first attempt on Imperator normal.

The second reason I haven’t posted for awhile is that I realized this expansion really is not much fun. By the time I get garrison chores (and they seem exactly like that) done for only my four characters who have garrisons, there is no time left to do fun things. That’s if I could figure out where the fun is. Because I am just not seeing it. Garrison invasions and apexis dailies long ago lost their allure for me. I might be more interested in the apexis dailies if you could actually use the crystals for something worthwhile AND the things you could buy with them didn’t cost approximately a million crystals apiece.

I detest pugs (well, “detest” is perhaps too weak a word for what I feel), so while I do enjoy raiding I am not going to engage in it via the stupidly inefficient group finder  — a procedural annoyance in advance of what is usually a horrible pug experience. No thank you. On Tuesdays I run whatever LFRs I have to — at least they are usually mercifully quick — in order to get the abrogator stones for alts that need them, but once they have the quest done that’s it for LFR.

Weekly world boss kill? Please. Not fun, and gear is now worthless.

I am not someone who ordinarily enjoys leveling, but right now that is the most enjoyable part of this expansion. I have three more alts to level, and after that — if I am still playing — I am not sure what I will do. Level a couple new classes maybe? Abandon Draenor completely and solo old content?

I used to get a lot of enjoyment out of working my professions — making things for guildies or selling them. Towards the end of Mists, even if the prices were fairly low, the items were still in demand and could be sold for a small profit. Blizz has pretty much ended all that in this expansion. Crafted items take far too much time to give them away, and while AH prices are very high, it means the items rarely sell because people are understandably not going to spend thousands and thousands of gold on what is at best mediocre gear.

In Mists, towards the end of the expansion, I still had fun by tinkering around with mat farming and finishing up old quest lines and achievements I had not done while leveling. The graphics and landscape, I thought, were beautiful, and I got a huge amount of enjoyment out of flying around, swooping and soaring and admiring the scenery, while I farmed mats and went from place to place for whatever achieve I was working on. But if I had had to run everywhere, avoiding or fighting ridiculously annoying mobs at almost every step, and not had the aesthetic reward of the beautiful huge vistas, I would not have done it. And I am not going to do it in Draenor for that very reason.

Speaking of which, there was an interesting series of blue posts and comments today by and about Bashiok. You should take a look at them, they make for a very interesting — if unsettling — glimpse into Blizz’s steadfast refusal to take on the professional responsibilities of a large international business.

Basically, several readers were calling Bashiok to task for what they — and I suspect most people — consider his flippant, snide attitude towards some very real player concerns over the whole no-fly thing. One thing that struck me was the serious and non-emotional tone of the readers. These were not “Dood u $uck! Imma unsub if u dont get ur shit together n let me fly” type of comments. They were well thought out, well expressed, valid concerns about Blizz’s complete lack of serious communication addressing what is apparently a decision to ignore player unhappiness with the no-fly policy.

An even more interesting subtext is in Bashiok’s response, which was basically that well he was just expressing his own personal opinion as an individual player, he was not actually speaking for Blizzard. He goes on to say that in fact he often speaks in this manner, as do other blue posters, he does not always represent official Blizzard policy in his comments.

Excuse me? He is a Blizzard employee, fairly high up the management chain, posting blue posts in an official Blizzard forum. And he doesn’t speak for Blizzard?? There are two possible explanations for this, both of which are unsettling. Either this is not true but he believes Blizz customers are stupid enough to believe it, or he is actually telling the truth which means Blizzard has no interest in providing a valid official communication link with its customers.

So I’ve said it before, and now I will say it again: Blizz’s management acts like they are a couple guys in a garage, not like the large international business they are. For crying out loud, Blizz, hire a professional communications director, do some actual training for all your customer service reps, set up a real feedback mechanism, and stop letting public relations disasters like Bashiok be your public face.