Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Twilight of Blaugust 2014

We've finally arrived at the conclusion of Blaugust and I'm fairly pleased with the result.  Not only did I post every day, but I also polished off a personal goal of reading at least two other Blaugust contributors each day as well. And I was but one of a large field of nimble posters who punched boredom in the face every day.  In the words of Zyngor, I say to all of them "Congrats on Blaugust Victory!"

I want to thank Belghast for bringing the idea to fruition, and providing the structure for making it happen.  It was a great motivation for me to write more and a great excuse to read gaming blogs while I was supposed to be working.

Personal growth
Perfect is the enemy of the good, and the enemy of my blog posts has been the need to revise.  Typically, I will think of something that inspires me to write, and I'll get the basic idea onto a page somewhere, but then I'll be overcome with doubts.  Maybe it really should be better researched, shouldn't this bit here be more completely sourced, have I really captured the essence of the argument?  I'll just set this aside for a few days until I can give it the treatment it really deserves.

By the time I look at it again, the event is no longer current, the discussion has passed on to something else, and I don't feel the urgency of my convictions anymore.  It would sometimes take me a month to write on a single topic, and by the time I was finished I wouldn't have improved the post that much anyway.  Blaugust taught me how to put an end to that nonsense.

Attacking on both fronts
Ultimately, I think there's room in blogging for both thoughtful commentary and initial honest reaction.  I think both lead to a better understanding of an issue and how I think about it.  Writing the initial surface thoughts lets me examine them more objectively and build them into something more coherent.

Not writing about something, conversely, means that this unpolished thought will bounce around in my head, always bringing my thoughts back to that initial starting point.  Blaugust has been the perfect exercise for sorting out these two different types of writing, and its a realization I never would have come to if I had continued to struggle with my old habits of a single post a month.

I've decided not to lose anymore posts to the monster of doubts.  I've also decided not to continue posting every day, but at the same time to set up a regular posting schedule.  I've decided to be more active in curating my blog roll because I've realized how useful it is as a tool for my own research.  I've decided to read, comment and like others' blog posts because as Chelsea pointed out every blogger is encouraged by a little feedback.

  • I think the format of reblogging individual posts onto the central Anook site was key for my enjoyment of the challenge.  It showed me how many other writers were posting every day, and it provided a central location to find everybody's new stuff.
  • I'm looking forward to next year's challenge.
  • I think we need a Blaugust Challenge 2014 Survivor badge.

This is the Thirty-first entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Taking the M out of MMO

I haven't really played an MMO in years.

Yes, I've played WoW and SWTOR and LOTRO, but for many years now I've associated with the same group of players and we all tend to play the same games. We regularly start characters together and tend to keep them about the same level in functional teams.  Of course we also begin other characters that aren't bound by that sort of social pressure, but as likely as not if one is playing on a particular faction and level and server, others will join in our Ventrilo server and tend to naturally group up.

It may be that I'm lucky in this regard, because for the first few years I didn't have this social support, and MMOs can be very lonely when you are a solitary player.  However, I wonder if this isn't how the games are designed to operate.  This is the model that the guild concept has been trying to replicate in WoW for a long time: a group of friends coming together when necessary but maintaining the freedom to spin off and do their own things in between.

Aren't Guilds the Answer?
I've been in guilds of all sizes and I've usually been the most lonely in the largest guilds.  Felt more isolated than when I wasn't in a guild at all.  At least when you are unguilded, you don't have the expectation of any social support. When I'm in a massive guild, it's been an uncomfortable sensation of being surrounded by many players none of whom know you or interact with you. 

In my experience, when there are 75 people in guild chat most players are less likely to say anything or respond as compared to when there are 7.  When there are seven, players seem more likely to speak casually, to engage in conversation or toss in a comment or quip;  to simply be themselves with more freedom.  When I'm in a guild of 400, it's like rats in a warehouse, huddled around the edges.  What's really happening is the 400 are usually subdividing themselves into smaller groups.

Guilds are too quiet.  In an effort to avoid pressuring anyone, to be welcoming and encourage people to stay, guilds tend not to place expectations on new recruits.  I wonder if the opposite approach wouldn't work better, get that new recruit into a group and break the ice right away.  Could it be better to have 7 genuinely cooperating and interacting players than to have 75 players who are silent?

Bigger isn't Better
I guess I'm just feeling that for me, larger groups aren't always better.  Larger raids, bigger battles, just sheer numbers, don't equate to greater enjoyment.  There's a lot of rose-colored nostalgia recently for 40-player Molten Core raids, and massive pvp battles between Southshore and Tarren Mill, and they are monuments to a time when the game really was played in huge assemblies.   But for me the recollection of MC is much more fun than the actual exercise: standing around for an hour waiting for everyone to show up,  the uncertainty of wondering if you would be chosen to be included, the stress of constantly having your dps performance monitored to see if you were worthy of continued participation, the frustration of never seeming to make the loot process work for you, the terror of putting a foot wrong and wiping all 40 players in your raid by accidentally pulling something at an inopportune time, who then had to run back from the other continent, apparently.  Good times! but much more fun as a recollection.

It takes work to keep our little social group together.  It takes a subtle re-adjustment of expectations, as well.  People become more flexible and less goal driven, knowing that they will achieve much more with the group then individually.  We tend to be group focused as well, sharing crafting and resources among the group equally, and are much more likely to do that then to deal with people outside our group.

I guess what's happened is that I've mostly stopped interacting with the thousands on my server, and tended to deal with those immediately around me. I've come to realize that it doesn't matter to me if I have 6.8 million playing my game or 200,000; when the most I interact with are the several dozen at my particular location. In fact, until I started playing GW2, those dozen around me were more likely to be my direct competitors than something that was enhancing my gaming experience. I would rather play a game with less than 500,000 others who were genuinely interested in what it offered, than try to play something that wanted to be all things to all players and ended up being mediocre at everything.

What I have wanted, personally, would best be described as an NMO, Narrowly multiplayer online game because frankly that is how I play now.  I'd like a game that targeted the small group and designed content around that reality, rather than one that promised that all the best experiences would be reserved for groups of 25.  So in response, I've started using the label MORPG.  I find that I can leave the massively out of the name and retain the same meaning.  And at the same time re-emphasize to myself the RPG part of the name, which can sometimes be lost in all the fury.

This is the Thirtieth entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Center Cannot Hold

So here's a quick question.   We've said that after ten years of adding more and more abilities to our WoW characters, it's become too much. We can't continue doing that and expect the game to hold together.

Now, take that statement and replace that word "ability" with class or race or with capital city or  zone or ... pick a word and throw that in there.  Is there a point at which the game itself is simply so large that you can't continue to add to it?  Can you have too many races, like we have too many buttons?

At some point one of two things happens:  either there are so many elements to the game that
the game itself simply collapses from all the minutia, or you stop adding things to the game and it begins to stagnate. Currently, we have 13 races in World of Warcraft and we could easily add a couple more.  Could we add six more?  I can instantly recognize all of these races right now, but I don't think I could do it for nearly 20 of them.  The nature of the game will have changed at that point.
"It's important to remember that the point of these changes is to increase players' ability to understand the game, not to reduce depth of gameplay." Beta patch notes. 

On the one hand, you can have so many races that you can't keep them straight.  Any newly introduced race would incrementally erode the distinctness of all the others.  It may not be in our best interest to continue to expand the lore laterally, adding new continents and new civilizations.

On the other hand, the fate of any new race might become the same as that of the Worgen, where they have their beautifully designed starting area and then we never hear from them again.  Is it a race, if the race never takes any major part in the world?  And does the developer have an obligation to that race to include it in future world events?  And if you don't, have you really added that race to the world or have you just given the players another cosmetic skin on the order of importance of a new hair color.

It will be a different world, certainly.  And there are other possibilities.

Blizzard has been almost draconian in streamlining the leveling experience up to this point. I think it might be difficult to speed it up even faster and still maintain any coherence in the existing zones. We've certainly already minimized the importance of many areas in the game.  At least two or three zones in each expansion are already rendered inconsequential by the speed of leveling.  We are, in effect, removing those zones from the game.  The developers have purposely removed the necessity to visit Shattrath or Dalaran, and declined to put a major city in the more recent expansions, giving us shrines instead.  In addition to removing buttons, we're also removing cities.

Have we seen the last race introduced at level 1? Any character you roll up after Warlords drops will have to level from 1 to 100, just to get to end game.  We're likely to see the price of level boosting come down quite a bit, but what about other options.  Perhaps in the future you can simply choose to start your character at level 60, or 80 or 100; just check the box at character creation. Or pass a proving grounds trial to instantly gain 10 levels. Maybe it's time for a new level-100 heroic class in the manner of the Death Knights.

Clearly all of the preceding is merely wild speculation.   I think, however, there is a kernel of truth in the idea that the traditional experience we're all used to from WoW and other older games - basic handful of races and classes with level 1 starting areas and normal leveling curves - has already begun to change.

This is post twenty-nine in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Questing on Voss

Voss isn't one of the typical planets in The Old Republic.  It's a place where secrets are revealed.  Where seeds that have been planted 15 or 20 levels ago slowly come to the surface.  By its very nature, it's designed to turn the whole Lightside/ Darkside question on its ear.

I'm leveling my Republic trooper to 55, which is the final class story for me on the Republic side.  This will be my 6th or so visit to Voss, on as many different classes.  Each time, I learn something more about the TOR universe and the overarching story that SWTOR is trying to tell.

Alien Life
Voss isn't a popular planet.  The residents of the planet are a bit bizarre, a bit distant; with blank compound eyes that seem to be looking everywhere but right at you.  They aren't cuddly ewoks.  Nor are the Gormak menacing enough to be truly threatening. On the other hand, it's one of the few planets in the game that is entirely populated by an alien species, and it's only when you finally get here that you realize how unusual that is. For a franchise that is noted for inventing fantastical alien species and making them seem realistic, The Old Republic is a little thin on new creatures.

Voss is also one of the few planets where the designers have allowed us to look at the society of a native species.  On a few other planets we find scattered pockets of another species, like the Ortolons and the Talz on Hoth, but most of the planets are dominated by humans.  Not here.  When you reach the city of Voss-ka it legitimately feels different. 

At this level, players are so close to level 50 that they are impatient to get off this world, make it on to Corellia where they will finally reach max level.  I've done things in reverse, in that I'm already level 50, and don't need anything from this planet but the story it has to tell. To understand the changes that are shaping the Republic/Empire conflict, though, you need to experience Voss from every perspective.

Extending the Mythology
One of the reasons why Voss is unusual is that its people are force sensitive, without being consumed by the Light side or the Dark side.  The Voss are unaware of these distinctions.

 A couple of days ago, we talked about a yardstick for judging the art of the storyteller: do we accept implausible things as possible because the framework of that secondary world is strong enough to support them?

Here’s an example of a time where we do.  The Voss Mystics can touch the Force, and use it to consistently and accurately predict the future.  Even though the Star Wars core cannon has been very careful about how the Force is manifest, The Old Republic takes a mild risk and extends force wielding power to an entirely different methodology.  The Voss mystics are considered gray force users by the Jedi, neither of the light or dark side.  And the mystics appear to be very successful in using the force for prophecy, something that seems to present difficulties for later Jedi like Yoda.    

Clearly, Voss mystics are an extension of Force mythology, but a reasonable one.  And the Force myth, and the created world of The Old Republic, are strong enough to accept and support this extension.

This is post twenty-eight in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

And no one dared...

Are game developers listening to their players?

If so, where?

If I had something that I wanted the developers of a game to hear, where would I go to voice my concern?  Now it's very unlikely that a lone individual would be privileged to get the ear of developers.  I'm not asking for that. But even if I merely wanted to join my voice with many others to get some attention on an idea, is there some accepted avenue to follow that has any chance of being effective?

I was piqued by a thought by Roger Edwards at Contains Moderate Peril that summed up the situation nicely.
"But the forums are not in any way representative of the LOTRO community. No gaming forums are. They are merely a platform for a vocal minority. So Turbine could, if they wanted to, completely ignore them."
As players, we'd like to think that developers are listening to their own forums, but we know that's probably not the case.  For one thing, game forums are traditionally wretched hives of scum and villainy.  It's amazing that any discussion takes place there at all, when the pass time is more likely to be finding out how quickly an original post can be torn to shreds over spelling or word choice or personal attacks.  The truth is that the contention and rancor that typify game forums have driven most of the thoughtful commentators away.

In that fabled Sapience quote, the one where he discussed how few raiders and pvper played LOTRO, the more interesting part was where he ended by saying that these minority groups were vastly overrepresented in the forums. You can't blame those groups for being vocal about what's important to them, but the community manager did give the impression that he discounted the feedback he was getting from his own forums.

Imagine the loneliness the developers must feel when they realize that their forums are awash with strident single-issue voices and social assassins.

I distinctly remember a moment in the pre-release forums of SWTOR when the discussion turned to flying mounts.  The overwhelming consensus was that flying mounts were entirely undesirable and the posters were quite open about why: it would minimize the viability of open world pvp.  Flying mounts were never a serious possibility for The Old Republic, but it became clear that many of the most visible posters were there to ensure that pvp was well represented.

I have a similar recollection about the announcement in no uncertain terms about the removal of tree form from druid healers in World of Warcraft.  At that time there was considerable negative outcry from many quarters but the decision was presented as a fait accompli.  Apparently, there was a thread somewhere on the forums, or even on Reddit, where the possibility of removing tree of life was discussed with the devs.  Since the consensus there was that it wasn't a big deal, ToL got the axe, so to speak.

Blizzard has the reputation of being tone deaf when it comes to player desires, particularly when shouted on the forums, but suddenly this extremely unpopular decision was actually presented as an example of the devs giving druids what they wanted.  The message was that if druids were unhappy, they should have participated more.  Ironically, the community managers then proceeded to scold the druids, who had finally been motivated to bring their complaints to the forum, for being too negative.

It wasn't too long ago that several bloggers when leaving major MORPGs (WoW, ESO, WS) had trouble completing the exit interview where they had a final opportunity to say why they were unsatisfied.  For most, the available list of reasons to choose from didn't adequately represent what they were feeling, and other options weren't available.

I think that many developers would like to listen to their players.  At least, they would like to know what players think, even if they can't always be accommodated.  But I'm not sure that they have any reliable method for receiving valid responses.   I think that well reasoned commentary and opinion by bloggers and gaming journalists probably has a greater chance of being heard than any single post on game forums.  (I, myself, am not in danger of writing anything well-reasoned, but I regularly read people who do.)

Bloggers speaking on similar topics can refine and concentrate thinking that has the possibility to reach employees working on games at all levels within their respective companies.  And it can reach them when they are likely to be receptive to ideas rather than when they are hunkered down and wading through the free-fire zone of forums. For example, opinions affected the thinking of SWTOR developers at the time. (Torwars is now inactive because the webmaster was hired by Wildstar).  Warcraft Hunters Union was able to bring ideas to Ghostcrawler at a time when hunters were going through some major changes.

Developers will admit that they like interacting with their players when they can do so in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and support.  Devs like their games, and they like reading about their games, and reading people who like their games.  That's the opportunity we have to be heard.

Blaugust is still going strong.  This is post twenty-seven in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Our part of the game's narrative contract

I was listening to the back catalog of Extra Credits today, which is totally worth it by the way, and I came upon one of my favorite episodes, The Magic Circle.  Basically James is talking about ways that storytellers use ritual or structure to allow us, the audience, to enter into the 'magic' of the tale being told without having to abandon our knowledge and reason as thinking adults.  It is the contract that we make with the storyteller that we are willing to listen to whatever she has to say without rejecting her medium as foolish or childish or unimportant. 

EC gives the example of the mystery of the campfire as a circle that allows us to experience ghost stories in a way would never be as effective in another setting.    But circles can come in many forms. Think of the effect of the opening song from Firefly.  It is a wrapper around the story that signals the kind of magic the author is offering.  Once we've passed that boundary, we've given the author permission to show us space ships in the wild west, and the author has given us a promise to make that magic make sense.

In return, the storyteller has an obligation to treat our attention with care, to not stretch the permission we've extended to them too far and make us feel foolish.  By entering this circle we expose a little of our own credibility.  And again, we must be willing participants in this contract for it to have any effect.  Someone outside that circle may well look at some of our cherished tales and disparage them a bit.  It's easy to laugh at X-files, or Doctor Who, or Rocket and Groot and say, 'It doesn't make any sense. I just don't get it."  This ridicule is part of what the magic circle gives us protection from.  It's OK to believe.

Corey Olsen is a popular commentator on Tolkien's works and he talks about "secondary belief" a term he uses to refer to the investment in the world of the story by the audience.  We might call it a willing suspension of disbelief.  "If the art of the storyteller is good enough we will be led to accept things like magic or dragons as perfectly plausible within the bounds of the secondary (the storyteller's) world."

This is the complex social contract that we enter into every time we play a narrative game like an MORPG.  The players are willing to cross the boundary of this artificial world, and must be willing to overlook its weaknesses and the artificiality of game mechanics in order to gain the freedom to live in that other world.  This is were we as players have an obligation to be something more than passive observers.

On the other hand, if the game is willing to invite players across that boundary, they had better have something to offer them other than game mechanics and dexterity puzzles. Very often that magic circle has been lost when we log in and start to grind out dailies.  Where we queue for an instance and then start farming for cloth drops. This is what we begin to lose on the long stretches between expansions.

Post twenty-six in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Regarding GW2

I am a simple newcomer to Guild Wars 2, despite having purchased it slightly before it was released.  I played it for a good while, slowly drifted away for no particular reason, and came back with more determination.  Which is where I am now.  And I feel a disquieting sense of deja vu stealing over me.  The truth is dawning that I am beginning to feel the same sense of listlessness that fueled my apathy the first time around.

Worry not, gentle reader, for I have prepared for this possibility and am determined to push ahead. But now that I'm aware, I want to look around and discover why.

All the good things that I wrote about a while back are still true.  The community is different, the camaraderie and natural cooperation are still inherent draws into the game.  Yesterday I participated in a guild challenge, and I wasn't even part of the guild, and the guild stewards offered me as much help as one of their own.  I got my chest of goodies along with every one else and then joined in clearing the spiders for the other runners.  No one scorned me for a moocher or told me to cheese off, and we parted as friends.

No the issue is not the community, but it's really more the game itself.  Yesterday, I came upon a heart and helped a Charr engineer gather reservoir samples by clicking on some odd pump things and killing a bunch of skulkers.  And if that is boring to read you'll understand when I say that I had to shake myself awake about halfway through.  There was  nothing wrong with this quest location except that it felt unconnected to the overall world, or to the zone, or to the Charr, or to my character.  It simply was there, and I did it.

One of the true strengths of GW2 is that it is so easy to get into.  Log in to your character, check the map for nearby activities, and you can be playing within seconds.  No need to worry about being in the right zone or the right level, or having the right weapon.  Pick up a branch and join in the fray.

But that same ease of entry can also be a barrier to a deeper connection to the game.  Most of the areas I've been in have been interesting, but not distinctive - like the Ebonshore Plant, for example.  I don't feel like I really know what's going on there (other than they have annoying skales in the water) or why I should care what's going on there.

But as I was standing around contemplating the banality of my life, something happened, as it always does in GW2.  The Flame Legion started to attack - its shamans polluting the precious water that I had worked so hard only minutes before to clear of noisome creatures.  This may be the most boring place on earth, but it was MY boring place, I wasn't going to let the Flame Legion pollute it.

Recently, the Mystical Mesmer gave an extensive response to Belghast's post in which he mentioned how he couldn't get into GW2.  And I have to say that I am sympathetic to Belghast's complaints.  There is something surreal and ethereal about Tyria, particularly when leveling, that makes it hard for me to tightly connect to it.  I reach for the thread of a storyline, and it all disappears from my grasp.

I'm sure that I'm going to cover several more zones and levels before I intuitively grasp what's happening around me.  Then, perhaps, I'll understand what I'm missing right now.  But as I've said before, I'm playing the long game.

Post twenty-five in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Focus on Draenor

The new Warlords expansion for WoW is launching with neither a new class nor a new race for playable characters. BC had two new races, LK had Death knights, Cata had Worgen and Goblins, Mists had pandaren and monk, and now Warlords has nothing.  Before anyone silently cringes, I'm not saying this is a nail in the coffin, or that the expansion will be a failure, or that WoW is dying or any of that nonsense.

Instead, I'm asking if it's possible for a game to reach maturity such that the basic trappings of a growing game are no longer necessary.  And after 10 years, hasn't Blizzard earned the right to say this about Warcraft.

"We don't need to," Wow Insider Adam Holisky vehemently declared about a new race. "There's no reason to do it."  And a little later in the discussion, "I think it's going to be five or six years before they add another class." I don't really disagree.  I don't have a problem with the lack of class and race this time and that's actually what surprises me.  And I can think of a couple of reasons

First, this is the first expansion that is entirely forward-looking, with no new class or race tempting you to go back to level 1.  I am secretly pleased that I don't have to start again with the obligatory new character just to level it all the way to the top.  Everybody's going through that portal, this time; freshly boosted to 90 if necessary.

Second, WoW has advanced to the point where it really doesn't need a lot more mechanical support to feel like a full experience.  WoW has reached a state of maturity where it's achieved internal stability.  There aren't any obvious holes in its organization, unless we really need a cloth-wearing ranged tanking class.  And I would totally play the pistol-wielding swashbuckler if she appeared but I'm not distraught at her absence.  Adding new classes seems like something that a younger game (like Neverwinter) would be actively doing.  

I have the same feeling for this continual reworking of game and class mechanics every expansion.  Shouldn't we have this done by now?  When it comes down to it, I'm not all that thrilled by the reworked character models either. (Not that I begrudge anyone who has fallen in love with the new look.  I'm still going to be looking at the back of their helmet most of the time, anyway.) 

So, if Warlords doesn't have these superficial trappings of an expansion, what does it do instead?  If you wanted my vote, it would be: Lots of story content.  Not just leveling content, but post-100 narrative zones that Bashiok said would take the place of daily quest grinds. The garrisons, I'm sure, are designed to be a big part of it as well. New dungeons and better scenarios, absolutely.  With all the experimentation we saw in Mists, I'm sure they are well prepared for the demands of this new expansion.

This pull of the lever I want it to be all Draenor, all the time.

Post twenty-four in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Do Mages Dream of Digital Sheep?

So I'm in the enviable position of having at least two games (SWTOR and WOW) that I regularly play that have announced expansions to be released sometime this fall.  And I'm not going to have to wait until release day, because both of these games have developed pre-release content. Being a narrative gamer, I am promised an enormous amount of story content to look forward to.  It's almost going to be too much to stay current on both games, so I'm planning to take my time and set my own pace through the stories. 

This is marked change from where things were just three months ago, when both these same games were in the midst of content droughts and my characters were basically in drone mode.  Now, I'm definitely not a live action roleplayer.  If someone were to offer an interaction on an RP server, I wouldn't have clue what I was doing.

That being said, I like to imbue my characters with a life of their own.  As I'm playing them I take on the stance of an author and envision how the differing backgrounds and professions of my characters would affect their reactions to the events of the game.  My night elf character would have a different, much more personal response to the Siege of Orgrimmar given the incursions into Ashenvale, than my basically disinterested draenei.  My cool, aloof hunter would have a very different perspective from the frenzied shaman.

When I'm playing characters, I tend to remember my own history with them as well.  They bring with them their own personal accomplishments.  The hunter brings Molten Core raiding from a long time ago, while my resto druid carries the burden of many months of running ICC normal (in permanent tree form) while it was current. 

The character I spent many hours pushing to exalted with the Klaxxi, or searching for eggs with the Order of the Cloud Serpents, or dying repeatedly to tigers in Timeless Isle - I can still feel a memory of that frustration or triumph or teamwork even in something as transitory as a video game.

There's a part of me that smiles at this foolish indulgence, anthropomorphizing paper dolls.  I'm having fun playing a game; why not just accept that for what it is without trying to reach for something that isn't there? But another part has to grudgingly acknowledge that there is something there, whether I reach for it or not.  It's part of how I know whether a new title is for me: do I begin to feel anything for this new character I've created.

The interesting thing to me is that these characters only come alive as individuals when they are in motion.  Give them six months of inaction, or grinding dailies and the color slowly drains away from them and they become drones again. They return to their base state as game tokens. I'm moving the top hat, or the iron around the Monopoly board.

I think this is how I know when I'm getting burned out.  The characters begin to feel dead to me and I need to move on to something that feels more alive, to a world that feels more alive.  As I look forward to the fall, these slumbering characters begin to take on more color.  As I think about what I'm going to do first or which profession might be more important early, individual characters come to mind and come to life.

This is the power of storytelling for me.  This is the difference for me between a MORPG and another game of Battlefront.  I might enjoy both of them but they aren't the same.

Post twenty-three in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

The Raiding Paradigm: part II

Yesterday I mentioned the two core assumptions that make up the WoW model:  the endgame paradigm, and the myth of parity .  In that first part, I describe Blizzard's endgame perspective that says that only raiders are allowed to level their character past the numerical level cap and achieve the true maximum levels in the game.  Now, I'd like to talk briefly about the other basic assumption, the myth of parity.

In this case, 'parity' roughly means equality.  The myth suggests that there are three basic activities in an MORPG: PvP, Raiding, and Questing, and all of them are about equal in terms of their importance to the game and the number of people participating in each of them.  These are the three "things you do" in MORPGs and the number of players enjoying each of them is about same.  So in order to maintain a well-rounded game that serves everybody, each of these populations must be served equally.

The problem with the myth of parity is that it is a myth in the classic as well as the common sense of the word.

In the common sense, it is a myth in that it tends to be false. There is some evidence to suggest that more players are active in the questing and leveling portion of an MORPG than in the raiding or PvP sides of things. Certainly this is true in the Sapience quote we referenced yesterday. LOTRO is specifically rejecting any concept of parity in its game.  Raiders do not make up even one-tenth of Lord of the Rings players, and in fact the number is down around 3%.

For other games where the developer hasn't made such a public announcement, we simply do not know.  Attempts have been made over the years to look at WoWProgress, or other raid tracking sites, and try to derive raid participation but each methodology has flaws. It's interesting to note that the estimates are typically around 15%, from pro- and anti-raiding factions alike.  I see very few stat-based claims that a third or even a fourth of WoW players are actively raiding current-tier normal bosses.

Not just a myth but a Myth
Parity is also a Myth in the classic sense because it has become ingrained in the basic assumptions that players make about the game, and they begin to simply take it for granted as being accepted fact and a universal truth.

Sapience came out and told us plainly that the percentage of raid participation was in the low single digits.  But in a testament to the power of the myth, you immediately heard the response from gamers everywhere, "That can't be right..."  Sapience must be using some weird definition, or he's lying to us, or he wants the game to fail.  "While his stats might be true for LOTRO," others were quick to jump in, "Don't make the mistake of applying that to other games.  It's just wishful thinking."

As a Myth, it can be very useful to developers but also quite destructive.  It can be useful when the myth gives developers cover for producing the kind of content they themselves want to play.

On the other hand, we see the presence of the Myth in derogatory terms like "Welfare Epics" because epics rightfully only belong to raiders.  We see games making design decisions based on the Myth that later need to be re-visited when they subsequently find that player opinion and player behavior are sometimes quite different.  SWTOR PvPers became frustrated because they just assumed that all MORPGs would make PvP a priority, and Bioware simply didn't for a long time.  Even commentators who never PvP began to feel uncomfortable because they felt that pvpers "deserved content just as much as the rest of us."

It is the Myth that causes players to brand a game as 'failed' or 'incomplete' if it isn't released with all three prongs of this unholy trinity, even if the reviewers themselves don't PvP or raid.  And it is the Myth that keeps devs from developing other content to fill the endgame space.  'We can't develop scenarios, for example, beyond their current state without losing a tier of raiding.' 

We are reaching a point however, when game developers are questioning, and in some cases rejecting the myth of parity and the raid-first endgame design as underlying assumptions for their game.  We're As game developers step away from these two assumptions, they are freeing themselves from the things that bind them to the shadow of WoW.  It is only at this point that MORPG innovation can begin again.

Post twenty-two in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Raiding Paradigm: a response

I was reading Seanxxp at Gaming Conjecture and he was revisiting an item that happened a few weeks ago, where former LOTRO community manager Sapience (Rick Heaton) talked about the very small percentage of their players that are Raiders or participate in PvP.  He was offering that as a reason why LOTRO hasn't offered any new raiding content recently, and probably won't in the near future.  Sean reasonably asks, "Do raiders and PvPers bring something to a game's community that other groups don't?"

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the past decade about the position of Raiding in the pyramid of MORPG playstyles and I'm hesitant to plunge into that growing pool of contention.  Because while I disagree with some of the points that he has made, I think the answer especially with regard to raiders is mostly, "Yes."  Raiding definitely brings a kind of single-minded focus on preparation and execution that is not often found elsewhere.  Having a raiding component to your game will shape it in ways that would not happen otherwise.

As I've mentioned before, I think that MMOs are at a turning point in their development, a fundamental sea change that is different from where we were, say, two years ago.  And one of the axes on which we're rotating is raiding.  Until recently, WoW had been sucking all the oxygen out of the room, basically dictating to its players how the game was to be played.  This was true not just within its own game, but it set expectations that resonated throughout the industry.  And WoW set out two assumptions:  the Myth of Parity and the endgame raiding paradigm.

That second one is the most obvious, so let's start there. WoW declared that the major activity once characters reached max level was to run raid instances.  More importantly, this was the way you would advance your character after you reached level cap:
  • Raiding was how you increased your characters power level (through stats on gear)
  • it was how you acquired new abilities (through trinkets and procs and set bonuses)
  • it was how you "improved" the appearance of your character (through tier sets with a distinctive look for your class)
  • it was how you increased your professions (through recipe and rare mat drops)
  • it was how you visited new zones
  • it was how you saw new lore content, often the most climactic of the game.
In fact, all the markers that signaled a character's increase in level were present in the raiding ladder as well.  We were continuing to level our characters, just not numerically.

And the perennial complaint has been that anyone who chose not to participate in raiding was prevented from leveling their character any further.  Up until that point, all playstyles were supported as valid.  Beyond that point, it was only raiding that could carry your character to the true max level of the game.

As an increasing number of players began to recognize it, there arose a current of unrest.  Bree of Massively asks, what is the justification for preferencing one playstyle above all others? And in true Blizzard style, WoW chose to quell the unrest by doubling down on raiding.  Rather than change their paradigm, they instead made it more accessible to players through Looking For Raid.

Other games have taken a different path, though.  Elder Scrolls proudly announced that they were launching without raiding content, and now are looking at different styles of endgame group activities.  Some games like GW2 and Secret World offer raids along side other end game content, stepping away from the single path of raiding ladders.

Currently, MMOs are at a crossroads.  Some games (SWTOR, Wildstar) have chosen to continue to follow the WoW raid paradigm, while others (LOTRO, Elder Scrolls) have chosen a different path.  And this kind of diversity is good for MORPGS as a genre and an industry.  It will be interesting to continue to watch new releases and new expansions for how the raid paradigm continues to change in the future. 

The twenty-first post in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mythmaking in Warlords

So let's step back for a minute.  This whole exercise of telling stories isn't new.  The art of creating heroic narrative and framing the narrative on several levels and placing the audience in the story, this has been going on for centuries.  We have the tools to make this happen, but sometimes we choose not to, and the question is, Why?

The easy answer is, because that's not what we're interested in.  The game designers want to create something more akin to a facebook game, an engaging activity to pass the time, rather than an demanding vehicle for communicating complicated and often demanding narrative. We want a game that will reach the broadest possible audience.

And also because creating complicated and demanding narrative is hard work.  The longer you try to sustain the narrative, the harder it becomes to retain the story's cohesion.  From a historical perspective, epic narratives don't happen overnight, but are shaped through years of re-telling, refining, refashioning characters and events to the point where they create a message that is satisfying and meaningful to their audience.

So let's look at one of those epic narratives.  The stories of King Arthur are entirely legendary, with only a passing basis in historical fact.  And the legend itself has emerged over centuries of retelling, development, and embellishment, from Nennius in 830, to Geoffry and many other in the 1100s, to 1485 and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.  Tennyson visited it in 1859. Certainly, that tradition continues today in modern films and novels. 

And each time it is re-visited, some new piece is added to the canon.  A warrior becomes a king, the Round Table is added here, the Holy Grail is added there, the chivalric code emerges and flourishes, brutal warriors become knights errant, Merlin is important in one tale, Guenivere is prominent in another.

A similar process happened with the assembling of the Homeric epics (Iliad and Odyssey), and the Norse tradition.  On a compressed scale, this is how Tolkien developed Middle Earth.

What I'm suggesting is we are observing and participating in the same kind of myth making process that produced the Arthurian legends.  That is the process we are participating in right now with the Arthasian legends from Blizzard, the Jedi-Sith conflict of Star Wars, and the Neverwinter saga of Forgotton realms.  These are stories that have been shaped over many years of re-telling, with subsequent chapters adding new history and new details to old incidents.

Why did Arthas fall and become the Lich King?  Was he a tragic character or an evil one?  Each time Blizzard re-visits the story (in the original game, the expansions, and the book), the audience gets slightly more, and perhaps slightly different information.  In the end, it is the audience who gets to answer that question, from all the available material, in the way that they find most satisfying. And the answer may change depending on the race of your current character. Every time we run another character through the first 90 levels of WoW, we get another chance to experience and shape that same story.

All this calls our attention to Warlords of Draenor where Blizzard returns to the scene of a central piece of its lore.  We've heard this story before, the drinking of the blood of Mannoroth and the corruption of the orcs. We saw it in the RTS games, we read about it in the library of Scarlet Monastery, we saw its aftermath in Burning Crusade, we're reminded of it in the Caverns of Time. And now we get to look at it more closely in this new expansion. 

We see the same iterative storytelling process, the same mythbuilding tools.  The same story re-told with slight or significant variations.  Was Sir Lancelot a vile betrayer with Guenivere or the only knight pure enough to find the Holy Grail?  Was Guldan a vile betrayer, or a misguided patriot who truly wanted to empower the orcs?  These aren't contradictions ("Blizzard's messing up the lore again"), but valid techniques for developing and elevating major lore figures.

What I expect to find in Warlords of Draenor is much the same process unfolding.  Even though the events were first mentioned decades ago in real world time, the final and definitive history of what happened there hasn't been written yet.  What we'll see this fall may go farther to shape that mythology than anything that has taken place in the game so far. 

Post twenty in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Ten Lessons From Blaugust

As of today, the Blaugust challenge has been ongoing for 19 days, with nearly 30 participants that have posted every day, and another 20 bloggers who are also lending their support.  That represents over 600 blog posts, and we're only two-thirds of the way through the challenge. I think that's a pretty impressive assemblage of the written word, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

I know that there are many veteran bloggers for whom posting every day is a common practice.  For me, however, this has been a huge escalation in my blogging, and its been eye-opening on several fronts. Forcing myself (encouraging myself) to blog every day has both good and bad points and its changed how I write and what I write about.  Here are ten observations from the other side of the keyboard:

1.  Most obvious to me is that posting every day tends to make my posts short and to the point.  That can be good and bad, though.  If I have a topic that I'd really like to explore, it's hard to do it in a short post.  An alternative is to create a series of posts on the same topic, but that takes skill and practice which are in pretty short supply for me at the moment.

2.  Short posts are easier to read, and more difficult to write.  No one wants to slog through a thousand words of my turgid prose.  Blaugust has been a boot camp on trimming away the bloat.

3.  Blogging is about writing, true.  But it's also about non-writing stuff too, like maintaining your blog site, updating and curating links, making the blog visually clear and easy to visit, mastering other forms of social media (like Anook).  It's started me down the path of becoming a better web-resident.

4.  The constraint to write "right now" hones your thinking.  You don't have all semester to write an essay.  You need to get right to the heart of the matter and convey it clearly and with insight.  And do it again tomorrow.  Rapid blogging forces me to pick out that single gem from the chaos of my thoughts and present it simply.

5.  With many authors posting, now is a great time to sample a lot of different writing.  When you're writing mostly within your own bubble, things might become stale.  Reading other authors makes you a better writer.  Listening to other opinions makes you a more rounded thinker.

6.  Daily blogging for me lends itself to a personal schedule.  When I don't stick to one I'm likely to procrastinate, which increases the pressure I create for myself.  Under stress, I'm more prone to writer's block.

7.  I write better when my blogging schedule includes non-writing activities as well.  I now set aside time to read blogs, gather ideas and try to understand alternative viewpoints.

8. Some of the best blog post from gaming blogs can be about non-gaming subjects.  They can reveal a lot about the writer, which then informs that writer's perspective but also identifies areas you have in common with them.

9.  Posting cogent comments on other people's blogs encourages me to appreciate what they're trying to say and forges personal connections.  They aren't just anonymous people with mistaken ideas.  I have a better sense of the challenge bloggers are going through just to put words on the page.  I see them working through thorny problems, striving to be both incisive in their thinking and fair to their subject matter.

10.  Blogging about games changes the way I play games. It is classic application of the Observer effect.  The more I write about games, the more I want to know about them, so I'm more aware of what's going on within their virtual worlds.  I'm paying attention to everything a bit more and it's creating a sense of immediacy that is both intoxicating, but also alarming.

So those are my ten lessons from Blaugust, at least so far.  We've still got a long way to go, but we're on the downhill run.

Post nineteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Monday, August 18, 2014

SWTOR: Fall Calendar

A few days ago I rounded up all the dates, both announced and speculative, for the fall in World of Warcraft. I want to do the same for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sadly, Bioware can be notoriously closed mouthed about upcoming events when it suits them, but that is their decision to make as developers. So again, I’ve assembled a combination of announced dates, dates projected by the developer, and random wild guesses.

August 19th.  We talked about this at length yesterday but Game Update 2.9 brings with it Player and Guild Housing, Manaan flashpoint, and some significant buffs to leveling in Makeb.  That gives players about 3 weeks to become familiar with the first two chapters of Forged Alliances

September 9th.  Game Update 2.10. This next update brings the third chapter in the Forged Alliances story.  The devs have repeatedly mentioned a continuation of the storyline on “the historic planet of Rakata Prime.”  There will also be a flashpoint associated with this planet as well. 

October 21th.  Now that leaves an obvious gap between September and December and I would expect at least a mid-October Game update 2.11, possibly with some narrative to lay the groundwork for this next expansion.  I might also look for some new PvP work at around this time.

December 2nd.  Game update 3.0   This date is completely fictitious, of course, since Bioware hasn’t announced anything officially, but they have repeatedly stated that they are preparing a “Rise-like” expansion to be released before the end of 2014.  By ‘Rise-like’ they mean a planetary expansion like the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, that will increase the level cap and will offer a new planetary story driven by narrative quests that will offer experience for leveling.  When Bioware finally releases this expansion it will be a big deal and will likely include many other game enhancements in addition to the level cap increase, but Bioware hasn’t released any details.

I don’t expect this expansion to directly compete with Warlords of Draenor in mid-November, but maybe a few weeks later to roughly coincide with the original SWTOR launch.  Galactic Starfighter also was released around this time.

December 16th.  We've just recently finished a Gree event (7/22 - 7/29) and a Rakghoul Event (8/5 - 8/12).  In the past we've had the Gree return in the later half of December, overlapping with the Life Day celebration.  I would expect to see a similar event around this time as well.

So that's as much as we know of the fall schedule for The Old Republic.   To me, this schedule looks less full than for a similar time period for Warcraft, but here's the odd thing:  I don't think there are actually more things to do in WoW, the difference is that Blizzard is willing to be much more open about their scheduled events than Bioware.  I'm sure that SWTOR will be packed with great stuff that just hasn't been confirmed on the calendar yet.  And if the players don't know, they can't be building anticipation for the impending event.  Often that means that stuff like the recent Rakghoul Resurgence was half over before many of the players even picked up on its presence.

This stuff shouldn't be buried in the patch notes.  The new reality is that players aren't playing a single game to the exclusion of all others, particularly with the transience of FtP players. The expectation that all the players are going to log in everyday to find out what's new, is unrealistic. Announced events and updates, like the one tomorrow, build enthusiasm.   That's what will bring players back to check out what's happening, and will motivate them to schedule game time, and turn them into long term players. 

Post eighteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

SWTOR Strongholds overshadow more interesting story developments.

In a couple of days, on the 19th, Bioware will release a major digital expansion called Galactic Strongholds.  As implied by their title, player housing is probably the most anticipated feature of this expansion, but it is by no means to most interesting to me.  I want to look at whats available in this update, a possibly what it means for the future.

Lore Continued
There are actually three things happening on this date. The first is Game Update 2.9 which brings with it a story segment and a flashpoint (4-man instance) on the planet Manaan.  Bioware has released two short stories introducing characters and preliminary events leading up to the Manaan: Lana Beniko’s Journal and Surface Details.

The first chapter involved assaults and/or rescue missions to both starting worlds Korriban and Tython, and introduced us to new characters. This update (2.9) represents the second in three chapters in an overarching story called Forged Alliances.  This second chapter sends players to a new level 55 flashpoint called Depths of Manaan and the intro stories follow the trail of both a Sith Warrior and a Jedi Knight.

Player Housing
The second major release on the 19th is early access to the Galactic Strongholds digital expansion.  Early access is available only to subscribers, with preferred and free players gaining access a few weeks later.  Galactic Strongholds are player housing for The Old Republic.  Players can purchase strongholds on a number of worlds, which consists of rooms with decoration hooks or hardpoints on which players can attach trophies and decorations.

In addition to personal housing, the game will also introduce Guild Ships, starting at the price of a cool 50 million credits.  This will open the way to guild-centered activities called galactic conquest, where guilds compete against each other for domination of a chosen planet.   PvP, PvE and Crafting activities earn conquest points and the guild that accumulates the most over the course of the week gains influence on that planet.

Makeb buffs.
The third noteworthy change coming on the 19th is a player buff received while on Makeb.  This buff bolsters your gear to 156 level, gives you a continuous healing drip of 2% healing every 3 seconds during combat, and boosts your exploration exp gain by a whopping 250%.

In addition to the buffs, “The density of enemies on Makeb has been reduced.”  And, key story missions no longer scale with the size of the group, so bringing a larger group on these quests won’t make the quests harder.  It will be much easier for stronger players to assist others to complete the storyline quests in Makeb.

This interests me because Bioware must be making Makeb easier for a reason.  This change suggest that the devs know something is not flowing correctly through this planet.  It's likely that their data tell them that many characters are stuck on Makeb, either not having fully completed the storyline there or not having quite reached the level cap of 55.  Many other players simply skip Makeb entirely and run flashpoints and warzones to cover the level range to 55.

In my opinion it's more than simply making Makeb easier.  I'm sure many characters reach Makeb in Corellia greens and hit a brick wall rather rapidly.  Others spend all their basic commendations on level 140 mods (my preferred strat) but you'll notice that the bolster (to 156) is even higher than the comm vendor levels.  Reducing the mob density makes it more convenient to jump in and out of questing in the mesas.  And that exploration buff suggests to me that many characters leave Makeb with a lot of unexplored area still on the table. 

Not only can completing the quests in Make be inconvenient, but the fact that there is only a single-track story through the entire planet makes its re-playability fairly low. No doubt, some players want to be completely focused on the difficult and densely packed mobs their first time through the story, but on their second or third alt they may be looking for a more relaxed experience.  This change gives them that.

The other thing this change suggests is that the devs, in much the same way the WoW devs have done for years, are attempting to clear the decks for these Forged Alliances story flashpoints and possibly prepare characters for the next level cap expansion.  They may also be experimenting with the formula they used for Makeb so they can improve it for the upcoming "Rise-like" expansion.

It's clear that Bioware wants players to be playing through Makeb, and currently they are not.  Making it slightly easier to complete the planet quests might be the boost some players need to get to the endgame.

Post seventeen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hiding Story in SWTOR

It often occurs to me that the basic story information in the Old Republic is the best kept secret in the industry. No other game takes its most interesting story elements and narrative quest series and hides it in the most obscure places imaginable.  It takes a remarkable amount of persistence just to know what current activities are being offered, much less piece together random elements into some kind of coherent narrative.

This is certainly true for the Shroud.  The Shroud was introduced into The Old Republic last April, with the Makeb expansion.  It was done with little fanfare at about the third mesa you travel to; given to you by an innocuous droid waiting on the side of the platform.  There are two impertinent droids in the same area, in fact.  By that point, you are focused on saving the planet from complete destruction and saving everyone on it, when a little droid wants you to drop all that heroic nonsense and return to Coruscant for a little chat with SIS.  Of course it makes no sense to do it then, even with a personal plea from a very charismatic agent in charge, so at that point I just filed it away for future reference.

The second problem with the quest is that initial task is to fly to various marked locations and scan the area with a special device called a macrobinocular, a device that gives the quest series its name.  What's misleading is that this has all form and structure of a pretty basic daily quest.  'Go to three locations, click on the objects you find there, and I'll give you a reward."  In fact, that second quest you picked up from the droids is exactly that: go to a planet and fish up an evil relic.

What's different about these quests is that after you complete your three locations, there is a capstone quest at the end that takes the form of an unusual puzzle.  This is an environmental puzzle that asks you to navigate your way through rooms, manipulate objects, and discover relationships between things in your surroundings.  Suddenly, your boring daily quest transforms into an intriguing challenge of logic, creativity, and observation.

These are fair problems, in that all the clues are present at the location, and often the initial solution gives clues to how the further steps of the puzzle are to be solved.  At the end of each sequence, you receive a message from an individual, ostensibly an agent of the Shroud.  And piece by piece we match wits with these lieutenants, at each step drawing closer and closer to our main adversary.

So this is my problem with the way this all is set up:

The way they are presented to the player is designed to be obscure.  The developers don't really want you to know what's going on, initially.  They want you to be drawn in, bit by bit, until you realize that you are caught up in something much larger than a few transmission relays.  By being so secretive at the beginning, they don't properly set up the anticipation that the Player needs to push through the first boring steps.

What they should be doing is broadcasting loudly that these macrobinocular missions form a narrative quest series that delivers major lore points.  The Shroud is a first class villain and antagonist, something that SWTOR needs very badly. While there is a lot of posturing between the Empire and the Republic, the main story is not about the conflict between them.  Instead, it has been other villains that both can fight from different sides.  This is true of the Hutt Cartel as well as the Dread Masters.  Our mysterious agent fits this description perfectly, and needs an introduction and narrative support that befits a major villain.

Yes, I know there is a tradition in MORPG storytelling to hide lore in dark places, just waiting for someone to look there, and this series honors that tradition. But in my opinion, what The Old Republic is missing at this point is a major lore figure to step forward and capture the imagination of its players.  SWTOR needs an Arthas, a Grommash, even an Emperor like the one from Return of the Jedi.  Let's be honest, no one ever really feared the Hutts, even Toborro, who was genuinely insane. The Shroud has the potential to become such a figure.

This is the power of lore.  Not that it supersedes gameplay and social interaction, but that it fuels our enthusiasm for both.

 Post sixteen in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Michaelmas in Azeroth: the Fall schedule

Nothing earth shattering here, but I was just putting together a Fall calendar of what the World of Warcraft will be like in the coming months.  Now that we have the date of the Warlords release, other things begin to fall into place. Some dates are just wild guesses, and still other things like holiday events haven't moved at all.  It's obviously going to be a busy time.

  • September 20 - October 6th:  Brewfest.  This was stepped on two years ago by the Pandaria release.  This event was updated last year to include a Pandaren brewmaster presence at the brewfest.  It wouldn't take much, but a very minor update of this event would be a nice touch.  Not really expecting it with all the work they will need to finish for Warlords. This is probably the last hurrah of the Pandaren expansion, the last moment of revelry with our characters as we currently know them.
  • October 13:     Patch 6.0.1   Class and mechanics changes.  One month before release is a traditional time for all the changes to the classes and other things to be added, to give the players time to get used to them before the start of the expansion.
  • October 18:     Hallow's End.  Typically the most popular of the Warcraft holiday events.  Blizzard may take this opportunity to drop higher level loot to boost latecomers for the pre-expansion event.
  • October 28:     Iron Horde Invasion.   This is a total guess on my part but usually two weeks before release Blizzard begins the pre-expansion events.  For this expansion, we have world events in the Blasted Lands, and a limited time, level 90 re-tuning of Upper Blackrock Spire.
  • November 7-8:     Blizzcon.  Probably in a high frenzy, since the game is literally a week away.  I'm expecting that the devs have held some easter egg in reserve for a reveal at the con.
  • November 13:  Warlords of Draenor expansion released.  The mad rush to level 100 will begin.
  • November 17:  WoW 10th Anniversary festivities begin.   (Taken from the in-game calendar).  Tarren Mill PvP, Molten Core 40-player raid.  Available just 4 days after the expansion itself is released, there may be a lot of pressure to level as high as possible to get into Molten Core or to have the greatest advantage at Tarren Mill.
  •  November 24:  Pilgrim's Bounty.  A holiday that may be largely forgotten this year.
  • December 1:      WoW Anniversary ends.  You need to get whatever pets, mounts, and titles you want before this date.
  • December 16:     Feast of Winter Veil Begins.  I wonder how our garrisons will be decorated for Christmas this year. I'm looking for some tie-in of the holiday to our new, not-quite player housing.  Maybe a quest to find the perfect tree to decorate.
  • January 15:  The Technical Patch.    This, again, is entirely speculative but they often need a class balance patch to fix whatever they broke with the class re-designs
  • March 30:  The First big content patch.  Blizzard expects everyone to be leveled to 100 by this point, and this patch brings the next infusion of content.
Azeroth comes at you fast. It seems like there is something new every two weeks or better throughout the end of the year, and if you choose to participate in every event it is very likely that you will not run out of things to do.

This is Blizzard's time to shine, and in many ways this is the Blizzard team at their best.  This is the Big Show.  The thing that some of them have been working on for two years, and for all of their many faults, they do this moment right here better than anybody.

The fifteenth entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August