Friday, September 25, 2015

Rumble in the Tanaan Jungle

It's getting a little dark out there in the killing fields of Tanaan Jungle.  It's an inevitability and a weakness of this style of game play but now we are reaching that stage once again.  It's something that we've seen before, but it's come earlier, and is likely to be more pronounced this expansion than ever before, including Mists.

I'm talking about the way the game plays out when a majority of players start reaching the ilevel cap and there's nothing more for any of those players to do.  We see the result in the mechanics of the apexis zones.  Rare mobs that used to require help to defeat are now regularly soloed by nearly any class, including my elemental shaman geared as a healer.  Bosses that used to take minutes to kill, are now down in less than 30 seconds by most adequately-geared characters, including my hunter.  If you aren't in at least an adjacent area when you hear a boss yell, there isn't much point in moving because you aren't going to make it in time to tag it.   Many classes, like my protection paladin, are now regularly rounding up 5-10 mobs in a zone and grinding them down, clearing whole areas at a time.  And believe me, I am a casual WoW player. 

The first casualties in all of this are the alts that are being newly leveled and don't have the same level gear.  It is very hard for them to compete.  The same is true for some classes, like my under-geared shadow priest.  And the frustration is becoming evident in areas where we used to find a modicum of cooperation that is now replaced by kill-stealing, ninja-ing completion items, and popping blood relics while someone else tries to destroy the bleeding hollow cultist that spawned it. I regularly enter an apexis area like the Fel Forge and find it devoid of mobs, as I fly in circles looking for something to kill. 

It isn't that anyone is doing anything wrong.  This is the logical result of how the zone is designed.  The players themselves are experiencing a kind of hysterical blood thirst as we all try to complete this now-tedious and trivial task in Tanaan Jungle as quickly as possible.

This is a symptom of a larger problem.  Many, many players have already reached saturation with this content, as I talked about in my last post.  For characters relying on LFR drops and Baleful gear bought with apexis, there isn't anywhere else for them to go, and many of them have already acquired the best gear they are likely to get, topping out at around ilevel 695-700.  With all 695 baleful gear, 3 crafted pieces at 715, and a few 705 trinkets et al from Kazzak there is literally nothing else to obtain.  Archimonde drops 685 gear in LFR so that's no help.  Two of my characters can literally gain no better gear from gathering apexis or anything else, short of raiding.

We are still looking at 9-10 months of this expansion.

Back in June, when Blizzard re-introduced the potential for flying, they also listed the requirements that would eventually unlock it.  Like many people, I began to chip away at the basic achievements.  While some people balked at the scale of what was required, most people recognized that it encapsulated the core content of what the game offered.  This wasn't some obscure "Insane in the membrane"-style achievement but simply asked players to work through the main features they had built. 

I'm not an extreme WoW player, but like many people with the basic goal in mind,  I had completed the requisite Draenor Pathfinder achievement when flying dropped at the beginning of September.  That means that I had already completed the heart of the game's content.  For anyone with flying, there's very little more of substance for them to do.

Now, apparently, I am just filling in the corners.  This is an expected phase at the end of every expansions, but something is different now.  Put simply, Mists of Pandaria was a full featured expansion with many different experiences spread across many substantial content patches.  There were several storylines to complete, factions to gain reputation with, whole islands of additional content to explore.  Draenor simply isn't that feature rich.

The thing for me is, I'm having fun in Draenor.  I'm NOT sick of the expansion, or ready to move on.  I understand the complaints about Orc Fatigue, but the truth is I wish there was more for us to experience.  I understand the motivation to unsubscribe and come back when Legion launches; I just don't feel like I'm ready to do that.  And it was to reach that realization that I had to write my way through this whole post. At least it will get the struggle out of my head.  In the meantime, I'll see you at the iron front.  I'll be the one tanking the wargronn, 'cause it's the fastest way to finish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Echoes of Orgrimmar: content gaps in Warcraft

With the announcement of the new expansion, Blizzard has basically slammed the door on Warlords of Draenor.  I don't know if that's a fair assessment or not, but that is certainly the way it feels to me right now.  I've been waiting for some further communication from the snowstorm that would give me any indication that they've got something further planned, but at this point they have taken every opportunity to shut that option down.

At first, there were some statements that seemed to leave the door open for more development on Draenor.  For example, our hero Ion Hazzicostas declaimed that while there were definitely no further raids planned on Draenor, he did sort of mumble that they weren't entirely done.  But when Cory came afterward, he again seemed to quash the whole idea.  The WoW team was definitely moving on and any further work on Draenor would only delay the ready date for Legion.  Nope, Draenor was out the door and we are looking on to the next show.

On the other hand,  Ion and his fellow lead designer types have also repeatedly assured us that the Siege gap of 14 months was too long.  They have learned their lesson, they earnestly profess, and it's never going to get that bad again.  But let's examine that claim.

If the beta for Legion will be out before the end of the year, that suggests to me around December.  Blizzcon attendees will fly home with shiny beta keys in their goody bags, and a few weeks to prepare for a December 15 beta server.  If we follow customary pathways, the Legion beta will be 6 months long, putting us at June 15, 2016.  I'm going to add a month for the promised pre-expansion activities and expect to see Legion in July.

This means two things:  First, that will very nearly be an entire year between patch 6.2 and the next expansion.  This is the thing they sincerely claimed they didn't want to do. Content droughts are bad for players, but not necessarily bad for game companies if they get all their players back at the release of the new expansion.

 Second, while the "year between content" goal won't be achieved, they will have made good on their intention to release expansions faster than every 2 years.  That tentative July date is at the 17-18 month mark, and they will have shaved 6 months off their delivery cycle.  A faster expansion cycle is good for game companies, because the pulse of expansion purchases flows into their accounts more quickly.  It isn't necessarily good for players, because it requires more cash and doesn't guarantee any more content.  Blizzard is showing that they are perfectly capable of creating 12 month content gaps, even in a 18-month expansion cycle.

I have a gut feeling in another direction, however.  My hope is that Blizzard still has an ace up it's sleeve and has already finished a final activity zone that they are going to release in January.                                                                                      

Friday, September 4, 2015

The View from Lion's Watch

It was just 9 months ago that we first shot into the Jungles of Tanaan, led by Khadgar and Thrall to start this expansion.  It wasn't all that long before then that we had the glowing numbers 11/13 burned onto our retinas as the date when the long content drought of Siege of Orgrimmar would be coming to a welcome conclusion.

I just want to take a minute and look back over the last several months to find out how we've gotten to where we are now.

Warlords of Draenor, a Timeline

September 10, 2013  - Patch 5.4:  Siege of Orgrimmar was released, including the final raid tier of Mists as well as Timeless Isle.  This commenced the longest time period between content patches the game had ever seen.

November 8, 2013. Warlords of Draenor was announced as the next expansion at Blizzcon.  Not only were we excitedly looking forward to the new content, but we were solemnly advised that the game was closer than ever to launch and we should expect it much sooner than the pattern established by previous expansions of 22-24 months.  Predictions were seriously entertained for as early as May for the new expansion to drop.

During a lore panel Q&A session we had the following exchange:
Fan #16: And since Zaela is possibly going to be going through with Garrosh, is Aggra going to be going with Thrall and Thrall’s little one?
Afrasiabi: No, I don’t know.
Metzen: Their honeymoon is over. This is more of a boy’s trip.
This set off a fire across the internet as fans question the role of female characters in the game.

November 20, 2013.  In an interview, lead systems designer Greg Street commented on a faster schedule.
"We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly," he says. "Once a year I think would be a good rate."
November 27, 2013.  Greg Street announces that he is leaving Blizzard Entertainment after 6 years. 

May 7, 2014.  Rob Pardo gives a talk to MIT Media Lab where he discusses candidly the struggle with gender representation in Blizzard Games.  "Because most of our game developers are guys that grew up reading comic books... they draw comic book-looking women ... which is offensive to some women." He places it in the context of an awareness of "a need to catch ourselves." A resulting article in Polygon magazine gives the statement wider availability.

July 3, 2014.  Rob Pardo, Chief Creative officer with Blizzard for 14 years, announces that he is leaving the company.

August 14, 2014.   With even the faithful starting to get restless, Blizzard called a special assembly and put on a cinematic culminating in the announcement of the release date for WoD: November 13, 2014.  This would put it at almost exactly a year after the announcement at Blizzcon, and 14 months since the last content infusion into the game with patch 5.4

Subscription numbers had dropped to 7.4 million

In the following 3 months, Blizzard began releasing an animated series titled Lords of War in which the major Iron Horde characters were introduced, along with short stories on their website.

November 6-7, 2014.   Blizzcon 2014 was light on WoW information, with the launch of Warlords just a few days away.  The event was instead dominated by news from other products, including Starcraft II, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. 

November 13, 2014.  Warlords of Draenor is released on schedule and to tremendous acclaim, though not without a few stumbles.  The game gains over 3 million returning players and subscriptions jump to over 10 million.  The initial questing zones are greeted as some of the best questing experiences that Blizzard has ever done.  Garrisons are more cautiously received, but are widely used.

Anticipating controversy, Blizzard begins to give warnings that flying in Draenor would not be available immediately upon reaching level cap.   Suggestions range from "in a future patch" to the possibility that flying would never be available.

November 21, 2014.  Molten Core is re-tuned to ilevel 615+ gear and released for a limited time as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the World of Warcraft.

December 2, 2014.  The first raid, Highmaul, begins its staggered release.  The final LFR wing with the last of the 7 bosses, Imperator Mor'gok, becoming available on January 6, 2015

February 3, 2015.  Blackrock Foundry, the second raid of the expansion with 9 bosses, begins its release cycle.  All wings of the raid won't be fully available on Raid Finder until March 24.  Blizzard maintains that this is still part of the first tier of raiding, and that the release of Blackrock Foundry is not tied in any way to patch 6.1. 

Players are beginning to report that they are burned out on the time-consuming tasks of the Garrison and the static nature of Apexis daily zones.

February 24, 2015.  Patch 6.1 goes live, bringing with it the much-anticipated new Blood Elf models and a host of bug fixes and class tweaks.  It also brought minor controversy in the form of Twitter integration and the selfie camera, both of which were decried by many as inappropriate to the atmosphere of the game.

These two features set off sparks of frustration mostly because there is a growing feeling that the overall content of the game was lighter than expected and the first patch added no new story.  Expectations that this patch would bring some relief from the grinding nature of garrison tasks went unrealized. Ion Hazzikostas would later remark that Patch 6.1 was extremely light on content and might have been better named Patch 6.0.5.

March 31, 2015.  In its Q1 quarterly report, Blizzard announces that subscriptions had fallen to 7.1 million.

May 22, 2015  Lead designer Ion Hazzikostas gives an interview to Polygon magazine where he states " We're not going to be reintroducing the ability to fly in Draenor, and that's kind of where we're at going forward."  Public outcry in response is noticeable.

June 10, 2015.  Writing in a Dev Watercooler, Hazzikostas announces that they are implementing plans to return flying.  "...players who have earned Draenor Pathfinder on at least one character will unlock the ability to fly in Draenor..."

June 23.  Patch 6.2, Fury of Hellfire, is released.  This is a major content patch, opening an entirely new zone - the Jungles of Tanaan, expanding the Garrison with a shipyard, continuing the legendary quest line and beginning the release cycle of the final raid of the expansion, Hellfire Citadel.  With 13 bosses in 5 wings, this raid will be fully available with the release of the last wing on August 25.  As was intended, however, this patch does not include flying.

6.2 does include Timwalking dungeons, included among a rotation of event weekends.  Initially limited to Friday to Monday, the events are eventually expanded to begin on maintenance Tuesday.  Timewalking scales down the character to the level at which the dungeon was originally released in order to maintain some level of challenge, while scaling up the rewards to the character's current level. 

June 28.  In an interview with Wowhead, Ion Hazzikostas infamously re-coins a phrase by claiming that flying will be available in "weeks, not months."  Flying will not, in fact, be available until early September.

August 4.  The Q2 report lists WoW subscriptions at 5.4 million, which is the lowest sub numbers have been since passing that mark back in 2005.

August 6.  Blizzard announces the new expansion for WoW at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.  Titled Legion, the next expansion will return to Azeroth in the traditional timeline and feature favorites such as Sylvannas, Illidan, and the Emerald Dream as well as the eponymous Burning Legion. Also included are the Demon Hunter class and Artifact Weapons, and a new zone called "The Broken Isles."

In a follow-up interview, executive producer J. Allen Brack gives a very tepid commitment to a faster release of the next expansion.
"We’ve had situations in the past where we’ve had this last big patch and then it’s a year before anything else comes out. I don’t think anyone thinks that’s a great situation for the players or the game. So it’ll be interesting to see where we end up on this expansion, how much time has passed, and then we’ll learn from that.
It’s definitely a topic of big discussion because one of the things we know we can’t compromise on is how people feel about the game when they actually get it. It has to be a great triple-A experience."
Nevertheless, a beta of the expansion is intended to be offered by the end of the calendar year.

August 13.  Blizzard reveals a new achievement, Draenor Pathfinder that will award flying in Draenor.  The achievement is an accumulation of several other achievements representing the majority of content in the Draenor expansion.  Blizzard also signals that this same kind of capstone achievement will unlock flying in future expansions as well.

September 1.  Patch 6.2.2 arrives, bringing flying to Draenor for those players who have completed the required achievement.  Several new rares are accessible with the new ability to fly, but no other major content is added to the game.

That brings us up to date as of this post.  The rest is speculation, looking into the future, except for one known date:

November 6-7, 2015.  Blizzcon is scheduled and is expected to bring more information regarding future expansion dates.

And there is another, even more speculative date hanging out there as well.

June 2016.  The World of Warcraft movie is released in US and European theaters, barring further delays.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Warcraft Positions for the Future

The latest buzz that has animated the Blizz-O-sphere is the announcement about WoW Game Tokens and a new market set up to buy and sell them for in-game gold.  Of course there is a certain amount of justifiable concern about how this move will affect the economy and disrupt the social contract, but what's really at the heart of this is a fundamental change in how the game is monetized.

A basic model of all free-to-play games everywhere is that a smaller pool of wealthy players, the "Whales," subsidize a larger pool of "free-riders" through lavish cash purchases from the game store.  The Whales can purchase premium gear, cosmetics like mounts and pets, emotes and banners in the cash shop, everything from useful gear, to consumables that minimize the grind, to ostentatious displays of finery.  This is important because it allows the game company to extract extra cash from some players who are willing to pay more.

Up until recently, WoW had a very limited ability to tap into this source of income.  One of the great strengths of the subscription model is that you get $15 from every player, month after month.  As long as the players are entertained, that income just keeps rolling in.  On the flip side though, one of the weaknesses of the subscription model is that the company is limited to collecting fifteen bucks a month, even though there are players who might pay much more.   

Contact has been made

This is that social contract thing I referred to earlier.  For the price of entry, all players get access to the entire game and are limited only by their willingness to play.  Each player is on a equal footing within the game and your success is based on your level of commitment - the amount of time you have to play.  This is very attractive to a player base composed of high school and college students with more time than money.  Regardless of their personal life circumstances, they can be a success if they are willing to do the work.

You always knew Thorn didn't need the eyepatch.

It's not so great, though, when your maturing player base has good jobs but less time to spend in the evening when they come home from them.  They don't want to spend 3 months grinding Tillers reputation on 4 characters; better to give them a commendation that will cut that time in half.  Rather than working for weeks to gather materials and farm savage blood to craft a 680 helm, they'll let others do that and just buy it off the Auction House.

Until now, Blizzard didn't have a way to profit from this play style.  Yes, there was the occasional mount on the fledgling game store but this was a far cry from the huge inventories of other f2p games that often changed on a monthly cycle.  Now, through the sale of Game Tokens, Bliz can extract as much real cash as they like from the Whales while providing a method for poor-but-active free-riders to continue padding the sub numbers.  Do the whales want to buy that very expensive raid-drop from the auction house, or the premium tundra yak motorcycle mount?  Buy a couple of game tokens and feed them into the machine.

The Black Box

The claim is that because a player must pay gold for the token, that no new gold is being introduced into the game, and therefore inflation won't be a problem.  This would have been true if the tokens had been listed for sale on the open market auction house.  That is not the case, however.  Instead, both transactions will take place in a black box where only Blizzard knows what is happening inside.  You put in your token, and Bliz gives you whatever gold it feels is appropriate.  Bliz tells you how much gold to donate and then gives you game time.  There is absolutely no transparency in this transaction.

A view from within the black box.

And if more tokens are purchased for cash then there are players willing to buy them, is Blizzard going to stop selling them?  Probably not.  Are they going to let the gold price fall below some threshold and discourage whales from buying and exchanging tokens for gold?  Probably not.  I'm not looking for them to throttle the new revenue stream.

The devs say that the price will fluctuate with demand, but since it's all inside a black box it's pretty clear that price support will keep the gold reward fairly stable.  What won't be stable is the price for desirable items on the Auction House.  These are now going to be measured in terms of game tokens, maybe 20,000 or 30,000g apiece.  And that warforged armor piece that seems high at 35k gold will regularly be listed for multiples of that; items over 100,000g don't seem unreasonable or unlikely.

Tinfoil Hat

So let's take a wider look at the potential for this alternate revenue stream.  For example, one of the favorite methods of extracting cash from free players is the sale of gambling boxes: SWTOR's cartel packs, Black Lion chests, Neverwinter lockboxes - they all do the same thing, take your money and give you a small chance for a very nice reward.  And we've just introduced a prototype for that mechanic into the game for WoW as well; Blizzard calls it the salvage crate.  It could be a 665 armor piece or it could be a level 12 green, take it to the Salvage yard and find out. The message is pretty clear, however.  Good things come in random boxes.

Right now, that sounds like paranoid ravings. Let's not even consider lvl 25 battle pets and items for the Toy Box beginning to show up in the crates as well.  I'll start to be worried when I find "Iron-Bound Salvage Crates" for sale from a garrison vendor for 500g apiece.

Hobbit presents for everybody. First one's free, kid.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Old Friends

So there was a moment, in these past few days, when the MMO collective held its breath.  Out of nowhere, two staunch front-line fighters were taken out with a massive blow.  We saw them fall, slowly, gracefully, and realized that there was nothing that we could do about it except thank them for all they had given to the community.

Think of that moment when your group has painstakingly reduced the boss to 20% health and suddenly both tanks go down at once.  Today we found a battle rez. 

 I was thinking about the ways that I was going to miss Wow Insider and Massively, these past few days.  One of the strengths of WI was something that is becoming a rare commodity in the internet space: long-form commentary and analysis.  It still exists elsewhere, but blogging has become more about quick observations and high posting frequency.  I enjoyed posts that you could settle into and get more than a cursory gloss on the events that might be happening in the WoW universe.

I was particularly grateful to the Know Your Lore column, not only for providing background and references, but fundamentally for asserting that understanding the lore of the game and exploring its potential implications was a valuable part of the Warcraft experience. 
I may have had strong reactions to many of the Tinfoil Hat editions, and there have been times when their speculation has been beautifully, terribly wrong in my opinion, but I loved the fact that they challenged me to take the lore seriously, and provoked me to consider it on my own. To make an effort to play the "Great Game" and not simply dismiss the story with a curt "Blizzard can't keep the lore straight, why should I?" 

Instead, they constantly strove to reconcile the individual elements into a coherent narrative that illuminated the saga that we, as characters, had been caught up in.

At the other end of the spectrum, WI gave a voice to the many players for whom the official forums weren't the friendly environment they were looking for.  With reply counts regularly in the hundreds, many voices were allowed a platform; not one free from criticism, but with a joviality that allowed anyone to make a fool of themselves and be corrected with good humor.

I loved Massively for continually re-asserting that the Warcraft franchise wasn't everything.  I credit them for standing against the storm and treating all games with respect and quiet curiosity.  They were successful precisely because they could ignore the elephant in the room with perfect equanimity.  Once you closed the door on the racket Blizzard was making, what other good things were out there to be explored, what risks were others taking, what amazing stories were being told in places like The Secret World, LOTRO, and The Elder Scrolls Online?

Massively wasn't a fansite of any particular game.  Instead, they were enthusiastic about the industry as a whole, and that gave them a perspective and freed them from a bias that single-game sites often struggle with.  They didn't pull any punches when it came to pointing out shortcomings and poor decisions, but at the same time they were willing to give devs enough rope to do whatever they wished with it, including hang themselves.

And I have to mention the amazing work that both of these sites did with podcasting, week after week and often on a professional level that was enjoyable to listen to.

I just realized that I've been speaking in the past tense, and of course the news today is that both these sites have announced plans to continue their work at different locations.  WowInsider has now become Blizzard Watch and Massively is mustering its forces under the banner of MassivelyOP (not yet up as of Wednesday).  I'll have to get busy changing the links in my blog and podcast rolls.  It isn't assured that these new sites will be the huge success that the old ones were. Start ups can be fragile things. They could probably use the MMO community's support right now, particularly in the month of February when they are getting their feet under them. 

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, "'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.