Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Garrison campaign missions... Wait, What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hiding Garrison Information

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

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

98% success chance still not high enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Great Trap Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Calm Before the Storm

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

The second character took about two weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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