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.