Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Garrison campaign missions... Wait, What?

Is it possible to have a quest series that is so low key and disconnected that many players don't even know it exists?  To the point where a CM feels the need to explain it?  As late in the game as a few days ago?

Well, sure... but that's probably just an isolated, out-of-touch player, right?

So apparently CMs are still explaining how the Garrison Campaign, supposedly a major end game activity, should work.  Players don't even know it exists, or start the campaign series without even realizing it.  They get lost in the quest chain's progress, fail to finish missions and so never see another one.  And I can see some of the seeds of its downfall built into the explanation.

You first pick up the series "..once you hit level 100 and have advanced your Garrison's development to a certain point..."  but we're not telling what that point is.  So we're deliberately being vague about when to start looking for it.

Then, "...you'll notice a regular exclamation mark somewhere in your Garrison that wasn't there the day before." So we're deliberately being vague about where to look for it. And it's a regular quest mark, kind of like the one that's been hanging over your menagerie that you've learned to ignore.

Oh, and expect further installments of this weekly quest "somewhat randomly..."  so in case you're able to catch it the first time, you'll still have chances to miss it later.

January 15 hotfix.  A step in the right direction.  It looks like they recognize the problem

Most likely, Crithto helpfully suggests, you've confused it with part of the Apexis daily quest, "when your Garrison campaign quest takes you to the same area as your apexis daily."  So when I went to Darktide Roost for the apexis daily and found a quest to help Rexxar, those two things were totally unrelated.  I thought I was gathering apexis crystals for Khadgar and had stumbled upon a quest I had missed while leveling.  But actually I was participating in the super-secret garrison campaign. 

So vagueness on Blizzard's part leads to confusion on the part of the players.  No mystery there.  The garrison campaign is a perfect example of the ambiguity that characterizes the garrisons as a whole.  Perhaps it is an attempt to lend some verisimilitude to the garrison.  I think they coordinated their appearance with the apexis daily as a benefit to the player, so that both could be completed at the same time.  I think their intentions were entirely good.

For me, though, it absolutely matters whether this is some random quest I skipped or is part of an overarching campaign intended for the endgame.  It helps me to put the pieces of the story together.  It helps me to make sense of the chaos that is happening in my garrison, and this allows me to get greater enjoyment out of the game.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hiding Garrison Information

We've got a couple of months under our belts in this brave new world of Draenor and in that time I have truly enjoyed my garrison and the new capabilities and activities it provides.  I've recently written about the good things the garrison has done for crafting but now I think it's time to look at some of my frustrations with the current implementation.

If I had to sum the situation up in one word, that word would be "obscure."  Too much of the garrison concept is poorly explained, counter intuitive, or simply hidden from the player. Now, I am completely sympathetic with the idea that exploring the capabilities and function of garrisons is part of the game.  I think that's a valid defense to my criticism. Yet I still think that the inherent ambiguity of the garrison makes it less satisfying as a major experience.

98% success chance still not high enough.

In fact, I have attempted to play that game, and have held off on any unnecessary negativity because I wasn't sure that I had the whole picture.  Even now, there are probably insights into garrison management that I have yet to find.  But I have finally reached the point where, after two months of visiting my garrison practically every day, I'm beginning to realize that:

1.  The garrison does a poor job of communicating a sense of how it's growing and developing. 

I would say that the state of my garrison over the last few weeks has been fairly static.  I log in every day, do the crafting tasks, send my followers on missions and feel like I've spent a good amount of time in the game doing what I'm supposed to be doing.  What's missing is any sense that I am inching closer toward some milestone in garrison development.  In fact, many of those milestones seem artificial and arbitrary.

I have been relying on what seemed like an unspoken contract:  If I work diligently at what I'm supposed to be doing, than the details of garrison development would take care of themselves and the garrison would progress naturally.  After all, "if the garrison isn't your thing, you can ignore it and it will take care of itself."   But now, it's clear that this contract doesn't exist at all.  There are several places where the garrison will simple get stuck and stop progressing unless the player takes an active role and makes fairly important decisions.

From my perspective, we ought to be able to play it one of two ways, though.  Either the game will just take care of everything and I will be able to improve my garrison when its appropriate: Or I need to actively manage the various tasks and buildings and missions and have been given clear instructions on how to do that.  But right now, it seems that neither of these is true.  The game starts out by holding your hand closely when it comes to the initial construction, then it gives you a friendly wave and basically leaves you there.

As an example, in some situations, the player is striving to complete a quota of work orders before certain buildings can be upgraded.  What that quota is, and where you are in its progress aren't naturally presented to you.  You have to know what achievement you're waiting on, and know where to find it in the achievement interface.

My personal experience was that I worked for about a week on an upgradable mine before I realized that I was eligible for it.  I had completed the requirement on another character and didn't think about it with this one. I was interacting with the mine and its foreman on a daily basis, interacting with the architect table multiple times.  There was nothing in-game that was obvious to me that would tell me my mine was ready for an upgrade.

At any point, any of those interfaces could have mentioned it.  Most obviously, the mine foreman should have said something as I traded in my draenic stone: "You know, commander, this mine is ready for a major expansion.  Just talk to Baros and find out what to do."  Similarly, the architect table has a nice green arrow next to a building that's ready for an upgrade. Until you buy and learn the plans, though, you technically aren't ready to upgrade. Since you don't know the plans for the upgrade, and probably aren't going to fork over the 750-1000 gold necessary to buy the plans until you're ready for it, you're never going to see that helpful green arrow until you don't need it anymore. 

2.  The garrison's progress isn't a smooth curve

I run missions multiple times per day and it usually doesn't feel to me like my followers are changing or improving much at all.  They have hit a plateau and are running the same 800-1500xp missions over and over along with an occasional mission for 580 pants that I don't need.  And this is basically where they've been for the last several weeks.  I don't get a sense that these little minions are getting better and taking on greater challenges and that as their commander I am developing these adventurers to their potential and forging a strong team.

Followers hit plateaus, mission progression hits plateaus, building development hits plateaus.  And if you hit a couple of these flat spots at the same time, it can really feel like nothing is changing and your actions are meaningless.

The kicker is that these boring flat spots may only be illusions.  Your followers really are gradually increasing, but you can't readily tell that from two glimpses per day of a field of 15 or more individuals.  So the challenge is not to smoothen the curve but to increase the player's awareness. The solution is to make the garrison internals less obscure.

For example, my perception of my followers radically changed once I got 6 of them to max level and started increasing their gear level.  Instead of tracking twenty-odd minions, I can narrow my focus to a few and instead of looking at the huge range of xp numbers, I can focus on the specific trip from 600 to 655.  Now I can cheer on Bruma Swiftstone and Qiana Moonshadow as I see them making real progress each day.

A better garrison
That experience with followers is what I want for the rest of my garrison. I want to watch as it grows from level 1 structures to the mighty level 3 fortress that rivals the Iron Horde.  I want to know at a glance which buildings need work and which have achieved their full potential.  I want that information to be on the architect's table so that at any time I can get a manager's dashboard of the state of my production facility.

And while we're asking for things, I want people to stop aimlessly milling about my garrison like they belong there.  Don't these characters have jobs?  But that's a different rant.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Great Trap Controversy

There's no question that Draenor is the expansion that is breaking new ground when it come to crafting.  In many ways, Blizzard is throwing out some old rules when it comes to crafting, and what crafters should be able to do.  This is particularly true when it comes to crafting high-level gear.

The devs are experimenting with Savage Blood, a rare crafting element that, for the first time in the game, doesn't drop inside raids or heroic end-bosses or anything like that. Now, it's entirely possible to craft 655 gear from solo crafting alone, and it's left some people very nervous, but this seems like a very exciting development.  Here at last is a method for creating crafted raid-level gear, so the crafters are excited, and its all solo work, so the soloers are excited; it isn't particularly easy to do this, but that fine because no one was asking for it to be easy, merely accessible. Many non-raiding players have been asking for this exact thing for a long time and here's a plan that seems to meet everybody's needs. And, it's an interesting mini-game. Of course with such a powerful crafting element, Blizzard had to be careful about how it was obtained,  Unfortunately, the devs have decided to be a little too clever and that has caused some controversy.

Here's the background:  In order for you to get a crafted item of gear above level 640 you have to gather savage blood.  In order to ever see savage blood, you have to have a barn that is level 3 and you have to travel to Nagrand, which is the only place where the elite beasts spawn that can drop the blood.  Now you don't kill these elites, instead you have to drop them below half health and then you kite them into a special trap.

Successfully guiding one of these beasts into a trap is a challenge all its own because the trap radius is very narrow, so the beast must be positioned quite precisely, and to compound matters the trap is on a cooldown and requires a few seconds after being placed to activate. If you complete all the steps successfully you get a "caged beast" in your inventory that you must take back to the Barn in your garrison and then process with work orders into leather.  A very small number of these work orders (only 10-15% of them) will also yield a savage blood.  Put 15 of them together with a few mats and you've got yourself your first upgrade.

Here's where things begin to get complicated.  First of all, there are a limited number of these elite beasts to be trapped: a limited number of spawn points, and a limited spawn rate.  In many high population servers competition for these spawns is fierce, so Blizzard put in another mechanism: anyone can place a trap under a beast that has been brought below half health.  Ideally, this means that multiple players can benefit from a single elite spawn if they all work together.  If someone else got the beast down to 50% you could still throw your trap in there and hope for a caged beast of your own.

As I mentioned, trapping is an intentionally finicky process.  It doesn't always work under the best of circumstances, and this is by design.  And the beasts are not immune to abilities such as taunt, fear, and mind control, even after it has been tagged.  So it's quite possible for me to lay my trap over there and then at the appropriate moment, taunt it away from you and into my trap.  You do all the work and it's easier for me to position the trap if the beast is coming at me rather than trying to position myself around a beast that you are tanking.

This is definitely a win-lose situation because you've already laid your trap when I taunted, so your trap's on cooldown.  Now you have to scramble after your beast that I've taunted, and hope your trap comes off cool-down in time for you to place it, hopefully within the narrow radius of trapping success, and have it activate before the beast in my trap disappears. 

And, there's another, more insidious problem at play as well.  In a situation that is entirely untroubled by another player, it used to be quite possible for you to place down a second trap on the same beast that you've already trapped.  This gives you two drops for each beast.  But if you're scrambling after a taunted beast, you'll be lucky to get the first trap, much less the second.  Blizzard has said that this double trapping is unintended behavior, so you didn't even have a right to that second trap in the first place, but nevertheless it was something got stolen from you. 

On the other side, the argument is that if the game restricts trapping to beasts that you've tagged yourself, we will simply be inviting all the old player competition for scarce resources that leads to griefing and hoarding.  The interesting thing here is that Blizzard has always encouraged this kind of inter-player competition as a way of rationing the resource.  Just look at the apexis dailies to see examples of too few mobs being fought over by an abundance of players confined in a small space.

So why has Blizzard put all these restrictions on the elite beasts in the first place?   Because they are worried about this.  This Savage Blood concept is all a grand experiment about how to both empower and control crafting.  They are worried about diminishing the effort it takes to get higher level gear; which will, in turn, accelerate the rate at which players burn through content. They are taking a chance by bringing it out of the raid, and the jury is still out on whether this was a good idea or not.

The concern is, that if this is such a problem; if players complain and cause such an uproar over this whole broken system of Savage Blood farming, Blizzard will consider the experiment to have failed and they will go back to having SBs drop in raids.  Crafting will return to only being relevant at some weird focal point just after max level and continue for a few weeks until players qualify for LFR and the new boss drops overshadows it.  That's what's at stake.  That is why it is important for Blizzard to get this right.

The latest patch has brought the first attempt at a solution.  A beast can only be trapped if you have a tag on it, which should remove the incentive for last-minute taunting.  And, Blizzard has promised to increase the number of spawn points and spawn rates so competition should be mitigated somewhat.  We will see if it's enough.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Calm Before the Storm

Well, I delayed as long as possible.  I tried everything I could to put off the inevitable but I leveled my first character to 100 in about a month.  I didn't want to.  I wanted the leveling game to last as long as possible.  I used every trick in the book to try to put it off, but despite my best efforts, the trip to level 100 lasted barely a month.

The second character took about two weeks.

And the immediate question is:  what am I going to do for the next 20 months?

Yes, I know that there is plenty of stuff to do:  dungeons, raiding, garrisons, achievements...  I even have more story quests I can finish and sub-zones I can explore.  There are still parts of the game to explore.

 But there was a brief, shining moment when everything aligned and I had immersive story quest series against mobs that presented a legitimate challenge to my character, that rewarded beneficial loot, all while earning experience that continued to progress my character upward to the next level.  Every piece of the MORPG reward cycle was in place and working together.  This was the experience that drew me to WoW originally.  For me, this was the magic that Warcraft uniquely delivered in the original game.

And that beautiful balance has been broken.  I'm no longer gaining XP, so that reward and feeling of accomplishment has been taken away.  Open world and quest gear rewards are no longer significant upgrades to my dungeon gear, or the gear returning from my garrison.  Mob challenges were always on the easy side, but now they are becoming increasingly trivial.

Of course, the game moves on and there are other things to do.  But I had seriously hoped that this phase of the game would have lasted two or three months, rather than being over in less than one.

Which brings me back to my question:  what are we going to do now?  I fear that I will be slowly overwhelmed with increasingly banal and protracted tasks.  How many apexis shards does Khadgar want?   Now, when I log onto the game, I have garrison housekeeping to complete and then I'm back to queuing for dungeons, running LFR once a week, and grinding apexis crystals.  Isn't this exactly where I was back in September?

So now I'm looking forward to the next patch.  At the very least, it will bring with it more garrison content.  I'm also hopeful that it will bring something that will break me out of the current grind.  This is the moment where I learn if this expansion is truly different from what's happened in the past, something that honestly lives up to the Blizzard promise of a more dynamic endgame.  Again, I have to say that I'm hopeful and optimistic.  The excitement of that first few hours through the portal and in Shadowmoon valley will be the first taste of what is to come.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Warlords, The Opening Chapter

The launch of the Warlords of Draenor expansion was probably the greatest since the game began.  Greater than Burning Crusade and possibly greater even than Lich King I realized that's quite a sweeping statement, and that the state of morpgs has changed over time, but the reason is easy to see.  All the lessons the developers have learned through the years were brought to bear on this opening experience and they got nearly everything exactly right. 

So, to back up a bit.  I started on launch day and suffered through the gauntlet of servers being down and lengthy queues, but that was sorted out relatively quickly.  It was a minor annoyance for the first few days and by now it has faded into oblivion.  I think there were three major things that came out of the initial stumbles, however.

The first message from the launch of Warlords of Draenor is that when it comes to delivering a quest-based story that is replete with vivid characters, engaging narrative, and dynamic events, Blizzard still knows what its doing and does it better than nearly everybody.

This is almost immediately followed by the thought that there are millions of players who return to the party at each new expansion, many of whom have never left.  Yes, that's caused a few headaches for us during the past week with lag issues and extended queues, and yes it makes the game a target for mischief makers.  But there is a reason why the millions return:  the outstanding quality of the initial experience.

Warcraft once again has become way more popular than anyone was really expecting it would.  Back in the doldrums of August, when the content drought had sapped everyone's will to live, the reported subscriber numbers had sunk to the 6 million range and people were openly speculating about whether or not WoW was dying and we were observing its final decline.

Suddenly,  the sub numbers jumped up to over 10 million - so many that even Blizzard didn't properly anticipate the overwhelming numbers of players that wanted to get into their game.  We see a resurgence with every expansion but these kinds of sub numbers were returning us to the heady days  when WoW boasted over 12 million players.  The glory days were back.

Second, the design of the initial entrance to the Warlords expansion was electifying.  It was all about motion and purpose.  With Khadgar, I felt the echos of the Sons of Lothar and a hint of what it might have been like the first time the Sons plunged through the unknown portal.  This was a much stronger storytelling experience than we've had in the past, and one that put the players in the main heroic role.  Yes, we were following an outsized lore figure, but in many cases we were the one taking direct action, action where we could see how our contribution advanced the plot.

And what's more, we were taking action against the named enemies of the expansion.  Yes, we were fighting for our lives, for the most part, but we were successfully striking at the Iron Horde and completing our mission objectives to close down the portal.

Third, the larger story had focus. From practically the first moment that pre-expansion foreshadowing appeared in Azeroth, we have been focused on one thing: stopping the Iron Horde.  The pre-expansion invasion gave us a clear idea of who the enemy was.  And this was coupled with the cinematics and video short series that brought us face to face with the backgrounds and excesses of these warlords, and gave us an indication of why we were fighting.  The Draenei provided an object lesson of what might happen if we didn’t succeed.

This is in sharp contrast to previous expansions.

In Mists of Pandaria, we didn’t really know who the enemy was, didn’t really know why we were supposed to be fighting.  Remember the triumphant entry on our airships?  We were explicitly fighting the opposing faction, rather than anything in Pandaria. And after the initial excitement of the landing had subsided, the narrative channeled us into what was largely a side story involving the Jinyu and Hozen, minor players who would take no part in the greater story of Pandaria.

Our brief stay with the Jinyu would almost completely sap our momentum, and whatever energy we had left dissipated entirely with the climax at the Statue of the Jade Serpent.  It was with the entry into the Valley of the Four Winds that the story of Pandaria properly began.

In Cataclysm, we had a poster boy, Deathwing, who we then promptly ignored throughout the entire expansion and who we only saw again in the final raid.  Instead, we began with the evil menace of Cho-gall who, though a key lore figure, was largely unknown to players whose sole source of information was the MMORPG. It was a lesson Blizzard learned for Warlords, with their extensive cinematic retelling of the enemies’ origins.

So, even though his picture was on the box, Deathwing was forgotten and the players moved through a series of unrelated zones, not even tied together by a common enemy.  With little through-plot to weave them into a common story, the different elemental zones appeared to be a series of separate mini-expansions.  Lacking the golden thread of a central story, Cataclysm felt confusing and ultimately dissatisfying.

Compare that experience to the first hours of Warlords of Draenor

We start in the Blasted Lands, and face an advanced guard of Iron Horde, who we battle into submission.  Then, we cross through the portal and hold these same Iron Horde at bay while we dismantle the mechanisms of the portal.  In the process, we face many of the chief generals of the opposing army, general whom we recognize from the advanced stories Blizzard showed us.

Next we establish our own base, raising it out of the native soil, building by building.  Again, this is in contrast to previous expansions, when we think we are the vanguard of our forces only to find that the place has been occupied for months and a fully fortified stronghold already exists, complete with a resident commander who we are now to become the errand boy for.

When we are sufficiently established, we join forces with the local Draenei (from the Alliance perspective) and fight off a major offensive against Karabor from those same Iron Horde we faced at the beginning.

At the end of this, we know exactly who we are: the resident commander of the primary Alliance or Horde force on Draenor.  And we know exactly what we must do: oppose and defeat the many warlord chieftains that comprise the Iron Horde and render them powerless to threaten Azeroth.  There is no confusion about where we are heading either, to Tanaan to confront Grommash Hellscream, Kilrogg Deadeye, and Kargath Bladefist.

Of course we know that new patches may introduce elements that could change the picture somewhat and we may be heading places that we can’t, now, anticipate. But at this moment, everything is clear.

And it is this moment of clarity that makes this expansion so compelling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great Expectations: Lessons from Pandaria

We're poised on the eve of destruction, with the time until a new Warcraft expansion opens counted in hours, now, rather than days or weeks.  And from this perspective, I have to look back over the past two years and say that it has truly been a wild ride.  But more than that, it's been a revelation.  What from the outset seemed like a questionable choice on Blizzard's part has turned into a story experience that I found to be both unexpected and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.

So let's back up over two years ago and join in the BlizCon where it was announced that the new expansion would be called Mists of Pandaria, and the new race to be added to the game was a giant panda.  The look of shocked incredulity soon gave way to full fledged rants about Kung Fu Panda and how Blizzard was dumbing down the game, and trying to attract the pre-teen customer base with silly cartoon avatars.  Like Chris Metzen said at a Q & A session, "This is going to hurt, isn't it?"  This was nothing short of the developers ruining the franchise; a once-proud tradition thrown away for a quick buck.  I'm sure that there are still some people who feel that way.

But I don't.  After two years of playing on this continent, I am still impressed with the detailed paintings that we call the playing environment.  I can still follow the twists and turns of the ever-changing narrative and marvel at how far we've come, how deep we've become a part of the land, at how fully-formed and consistent the culture of the Pandarens was developed and slowly revealed to us through gameplay and interaction.

As a quick example, I like the way the story of the Mantid was handled.  First we see it from the perspective of the pandaren in the Valley of the Four Winds, to whom the mantid are monsters in the night, horrors who come seeking only to kill and who must be held back by the thin gray line of the Shado-Pan manning the Wall -- the only thing that keeps out the darkness.

Then we cross that wall and see things from the other side.  We see the wall in reverse, and come to know what motivates the swarm, and what trials they are subject to from within the Klaxxi council of Paragons.  And then, finally, after we have struggled along side these mantid champions to correct the wrongs in their own society, suddenly the perspective changes again.  We are brought down into the inner chamber and realize that the mantid are exactly what we knew them to be at the beginning: monsters in the darkness, with whom there is no reasoning, no negotiation.  There is only the madness that comes with worshiping Old Gods.

Everywhere we turn, from the Klaxxi to the yaungol to the hozen in upper Kun-lai Summit, the enemies we face weren't simply impersonal mobs to kill.  They were characters like we were, dealing with the reality of their own situation and the interaction of various pressures that drove them.  And these pressures were made the more urgent by the resurgence of the Sha.

The pandaren had imprisoned themselves within their own continent, sealed from the rest of the worlds by the mists, but also leaving the pandaren to their own fate.  Because of the ever-present spectre of the Sha, they could not fully live at peace.  At the same time, any hostile or violent act  threatened to unleash the sha that lurked beneath the Pandaren soil.  As a result, no progress could be made, and the pandaren culture remained virtually unchanged for the past 10,000 years.

All the violence represented by the Yaungol and the Mantid  could not be addressed, for fear of awakening the Sha, so year after year the pandaren endured the Mantid invasions from the stasis of their wall, fought a stalemate war with the Yaungol in Townlong Steppes, but never to the point where they could come to terms of peace with them;  never to the point where they could negotiate a peace from a position of strength.  Instead, they were locked in an ongoing struggle to hold the wall, against the mantid and yaungol alike.

As a result of this uneasy peace, this tenuous stalemate, Pandaria has remained largely unchanged.  This has been both a blessing and a curse.  When we look at what has happened to the rest of Azeroth in just the last 10 years, we can see events that would have effectively threatened the very existence of the planet, invasions that would have reached even the mist-shrouded pandaren and they have had no influence in the outcome, mere passengers on this burning train that is the Titan's favorite planet.

So then along came the Alliance and the Horde.  And the first thing they did was to begin to enflame old hatreds, both with each other and between the indigenous populations of the Jinyu and Hozen.  This culminated in the tragedy that happened the Jade Valley, destroying the jade statue 100 years in the making and manifesting a fully formed sha.  Even after this obvious display of the factions' inability to handle the situation, the White Tiger agreed to let us enter the Vale of Eternal Blossom.  And the question is, why?

The answer lies in the meaning of the tests that Xuen set for us in the great audience chamber of his temple.  The first was to see if we could master ourselves. It was the test of Violence.  "Let us see how this stranger deals with turmoil of the soul," Xuen advised Zhu.  The White Tiger declared, "We can agree that it is noble to fight for a righteous cause." The first trial showed that we were a war-like people and that not all violence is evil.

The second was the test of Anger.  As Zhi the Harmonious offered, "to live without anger is not to live at all."  This was exactly the life that the Pandaren had come to know over the past 10,000 years.  Not all anger is evil.

Finally, we were faced with the Sha of Hatred, and as Xuen commented, our hatred has a face - that of Garrosh Hellscream.  Our anger wasn't unreasoned and universal (like the hozen), but focused against a specific aggressor.

When we defeat them, Xuen says, "This one has indeed proven mastery over anger.  Between the young cub's words and the actions of this hero, I think I understand.  Those from beyond the mists are hardened by battle.  They are scarred, yes, but they have learned much."  Now the subtle implication here is that the Pandaren may have not learned as much.

As Taren Zhu predicted, that went all wrong in the end. but Zhu's initial reaction was one of fear.  Here was a group of adventurers who didn't understand the delicate balance that he had had to maintain all his life.  They were reckless and would "leave misery in their wake."

Ultimately, however, it was by throwing away the careful balance that Pandaria could actually move forward again.  And the pandarens themselves weren't able to make this choice.  As Lorewalker Cho explains on several occasions, it was only through the agency of the Outsiders that the beautiful Vale of Eternal Blossom could be ripped open and the corrupted Heart removed.  And it was only the Outsiders who had the strength to defeat the Heart, once it surfaced.  This was the real meaning of Xuen's test.  He was looking to see if we were strong enough to finish what we began.

I have to say that after taking part in this story, I truly feel like I was part of its development; not passively watching it unfold, but taking an active part to bring it about.  I felt like a hero in an epic saga, a participant in the great story of a people coming to fruition.

And I haven't even begun to talk about the more personal interactions with Jaina, Anduin, and Varian from the Shieldwall storyline, or the unmistakable feeling that somone is toying with your soul every time you talk to Wrathion.

Which brings me back to those initial misgivings about Pandaria and our experience there.  Whatever doubts we had were more than erased by the actual experience.  I fully expect the same thing to be true for Warlords of Draenor.  Experience has shown us that Blizzard is capable of putting on a great show, and telling tales woven with nuance and contradiction.  To me, Mists set a high standard for future expansions to live up to, and while I will be examining Warlords with a critical eye, I have to admit that I'll be mixing that with a note of optimism as well.  I think the new expansion will be great, and I'm going to give it every opportunity to live up to my expectations.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Attacks of Opportunity: the Pre-Expansion Patch

Nothing good has ever come from complaining about a pre-expansion patch.  The devs are more likely to nerf things that are too good rather than attend to deficiencies.  But all in all I think we can say that the new expansion has well and truly started.  All eyes are looking forward, either in anticipation for what's coming, or in preparation for it by working through the final fragments of the old game that's rapidly falling behind us. 

I'm not going to enumerate every change that the patch brought with it, but certainly if you have many alts there were some distinct benefits.  First, the new quest line in Blasted Lands is worth taking your characters through, if for no other reason then to get re-acquainted with Thrall and Maraad as living characters in the lore.  The side benefit is that the series rewards you with several 515 armor pieces and one 520.

Or it would have, provided that you didn't complete it the first day like I did on my favorite character.  Yes, Blizzard has acknowledged the mistake but it's an open question whether they're likely to do anything about it.  On the other hand, if you were one of the few running old raids, you found that they were significantly nerfed by the stat squish to the point that Blizzard felt the need to power them back up a bit in the next patch.  So while I was an early adopter of the new content, and not getting the reward, I was not soloing raids on easy mode and, similarly, not getting rewards.

The irony here is that this quest series was advertised as an opportunity to boost the gear level of new characters before heading into Draenor.  So players flooded to the Blasted Lands with the characters that needed the rewards the most, excited for new content and a brief glimpse of what is to come.  The good news, of course, is that all of this has been fixed and the quests are rewarding gear as they should.

Gearing opportunities

For alts that are arrayed in Timeless Isle 496 gear, there are several options for improvement.  The Iron Horde quests have three rewards at ilevel 515 (necklace, cloak, ring) and one at 520 (trinket), which have helped several of my characters that don't always get enough attention.

At the same time Hallow's End is in full swing.  The Headless Horseman drops a 540 ring on every kill, not tied to the once-daily loot pumpkin, that come in four stat varieties.  Since a ring drops from every kill, it's perfectly reasonable to chain queue for the Horseman until you win the roll for the ring you need. This gives you your second ring, along with the one from the Iron Horde.

Within the loot pumpkin itself is the possibility for a plate helm or an agility sword.  While the  sword might be good for your enhancement shaman or rogue, the helm is an option for most of the plate-wearers. 

The other avenue available to the alt-friendly is the Shado-Pan Assault.  With the last patch, all gear from the Assault is purchased with gold; there's no longer any need for valor.  At neutral you can just walk up to the vendor in Niazao Temple and purchase a 522 necklace.  At friendly, however, you can pick out a number of other 522 pieces (rings, trinkets, bracers) everything but shoulders (which need higher rep) and boots (which they don't offer).  It seem that the whole ladder structure of unlocking a few items at each rep level has been eliminated and its now one giant buffet when you reach Friendly.  The catch is that the main way to gain reputation with the Shado-Pan Assault is by running the Throne of Thunder raid.

Raid Finding

Which brings us to LFR.  I've run a lot of RaidFinder recently, using undergeared alts, and I have to honestly admit that much of the toxicity and acrimony is gone.  I'm speculating that this is because everyone is so well geared and the raids are no longer so difficult that people's frustration levels are much lower.  Every run has been generally successful and peaceful.  Even when we've faced a few wipes, no one's become bitter.  All the bad behavior of the past (demanding that we kick the little ones, blaming the healers, mocking the fallen) has largely been replaced with patience and thoughtful explanations.  I don't expect it to last into the next expansion, when even in LFR things will be unfamiliar and challenging, but for now LFR has been a fun thing to do.

The main  reason I mention LFR as an attack of opportunity is that I was able to move from Neutral to Friendly with a single complete pass through the first of the Throne of Thunder raids, The Last Stand of the Zandalari.  The LFR drops from the raid bosses are only level 502 but the reputation unlocks grants access to the 522 gear at the vendor, as mentioned above.

The other reason, though, is that this is the last chance to see these raids while they are current content.  This is the last chance to run them with motivated and experienced players while they are even somewhat of a challenge and while they offer potentially useful rewards for something other than transmogging..  Soon enough they will be relegated to nostalgia runs that you grind for pets.

Draenor Rewards

Each of these activities is interesting in its own right, but I think it's worthwhile to question the entire exercise as merely an opportunity for better armor.

The argument runs like this:  in three week's time, we'll be rolling into the new expansion on Draenor and be up to our necks in new quests and quest rewards.  Also new in Warlords is that some quest rewards will be randomly boosted from green to blue, and from blue to purple.  Aren't we going to be replacing a lot of this gear in the first zone anyway?

Quests in the first zones should give rewards in the 510-520 range.  The quest rewards we pick up from the Iron incursion are typical of the first zone.  This means that your Timeless Isle gear will be replaced in short order with early quests.

However, anything above 510 will be a help with those early quests when you first hit the portal.  I remember many players experiencing frustration in Cataclysm when they entered Mount Hyjal in questing greens and blues and found it very difficult to solo.  The same will be true for alts whose gear is 429 and 463 blues from Townlong Steppes. Mists had Adventuring supplies vendors to help people catch up; it's unclear if Warlords will do the same.

The report from the Beta is that rewards from the questing portion of the game, from level 90 to 100, range from item level 500 to 600. Raiding loot, and anything from subsequent patches will move higher on the ladder.  The ranges overlap what's currently available from vendors and dungeons, so it won't be the same as Burning Crusade where elite raiding gear was replaced by the first quest rewards that came along.

Anything that you can do now will put you in a better position to experience the full story of the new expansion, to have the time and freedom to look around you as you travel through the new landscape, and the freedom to take advantage of new opportunities when they appear.