Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cross Realm Raiding is a Go!

Saz, of World of Saz, has been kind enough to set up an enjin site for all the twitteratti and Bloggers who want to take advantage of the new cross realm raiding feature introduced in the recent patch.

You can find it here. I'm going to try and squeeze in a few raids if at all possible, and I'd love to see it flourish.

Fail of Deathwing

Yeah, my guild hates Madness of Deathwing. I've never seen so much vitriol reserved for an encounter we downed in five attempts the first time we tried it. For an encounter on normal mode, this amount of hate is truly unprecedented. Personally, I'm kind of ambivalent towards it, but the fact that I've had to drag raiders kicking and screaming to finish the encounter has prompted me to take a hard look at what exactly creates such antipathy towards this particular encounter.

1: "It's a trash fight!"
Personally, I don't subscribe to this idea, that just because you're not crossing swords with your foe directly makes the encounter dull. I firmly believe that the finest end of tier boss this game has produced was Yogg-Saron, a fight which consisted of me doing nothing but tanking minions and tentacles. At the same time, having a static boss that can't change position does severely limit the perception of freedom in an encounter, and I can understand that idea.

2: "It's so looooooooong..."
Yeah, fifteen minute fights can be a pain in the ass. They can also be amazingly epic. Kil'jaeden, Yogg-Saron, Lich King, Nefarian in both incarnations, were all amazing encounters that took a long time to kill, even when they were on farm. It sucks when you wipe late in an attempt and you have to start all over, and it's a bit of a kick in the crotch when you look at the clock and realize that despite whipping your raid for quick turnover between wipes, you've spent an hour and only gotten four attempts in. I don't think that this is something that makes a fight bad in and of itself, but it really exacerbates other factors, such as...

3: "Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, wipe"
I understand what Blizzard was trying to accomplish here. They wanted to make a dynamic encounter that evoked shades of Yogg-Saron with the four godlike beings assisting you at varying levels. This is what they wound up with: a fight where nothing matters until ten minutes into the fight. The encounter is completely trivial until the final platform. A lot of the mechanics are solid, CD coordination checks, positioning checks, AoE strength checks, and single target coordination checks. They're all good, but for most of the fight, they're completely trivial. It amounts to the Kael'thas or Tirion RP before the fights in BC and Wrath, it's cool the first time, but God it gets old fast, and I can't even go get a drink during this stuff.

4: "Thrall Hates Me."
This is the one that really irks me. Blizzard dropped the ball on the coding for the wind tunnels on this encounter, and often enough to be a noticeable problem, Thrall will just drop players while making the transition to Kalecgos' platform, which also tends to be the one that groups go to last. While it's bad when this happens to a DPS, when it happens to a healer or tank, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a wipe. You can't battle rez them, you can't prevent it, you can only lament the ten minutes of your life you'll never get back. It's happened to me with two different guilds, and at least seven different players. I'm not the only one who's seen this problem. Honestly, Blizz, what were you thinking here? Besides, Green Jesus is supposed to be the Aspect of Earth. Just have him make a goddamn bridge. A nice solid bridge of stone that if a player falls off, its their own damn fault. On an entertaining side note, if you open a ticket citing this glitch as an example of Horde Favoritism, a GM will answer it in three minutes flat.

While Spine of Deathwing doesn't have near as much hate as Madness on normal mode, it still suffers from the same flaw of repetition.

So, how would I have fixed this problem, making Deathwing into a fight worthy of the end of an expansion?

1: Combine both encounters into a single fight.
No break to loot in between Spine and Madness. You pry the armor plate loose, Thrall takes his shot, everyone lands at the Maelstrom, DW erupts out, and you go right back to carving him up. Recovery time is for wimps, tempo is everything. This also sows the seeds for a badass RP moment. The finest RP moments in raids are always the mid fight ones, not the ones that get handed to you just for pulling. I think part of it is because when they occur midfight, they have a built in tempo that prevents them from taking too long, and I think that having them occur mid fight keeps you from focusing too hard on them. It's like a Monet painting. It looks beautiful from a distance, but the closer you examine it, the more it looks like just a few colored blobs. For me, the coolest moment in the game is the phase two transition on Yogg-Saron, where Sara goes into a brief monologue, her voice warps into Yogg's, and Yogg emerges from the ooze laughing maniacally. Kil'Jaeden's eruption from the Sunwell is up there too. I think Deathwing clawing his way out of the Maelstrom could rival that if they didn't give us the nonchalant period of bitching over which trinket dropped before hand.

2: Scale back the repetition, scale up the individual mechanics.
Instead of three plates on Spine and four islands on Madness, I'd go one plate on the spine, leading into one island on Madness, which automatically breaks into phase two when you've cleared the Limb Tentacle. Increase the health on the Burning Tendon, so you force the group to pop two amalgams to proceed to the next phase, and once the tendons goes, Thrall blasts Deathwing, and you leap off right before he hits the Maelstrom. Token "Nothing could survive that..." from Green Jesus right before Deathwing rears up out of the Maelstrom and strikes down all four aspects, forcing the team to break his grip upon the island, and the Aspects. Increase the health on the Tentacle to force most groups to go through 3-4 impales, rather than 1-2, and it would make the tank swaps more interesting, as the tentacle will probable still be up when the Bloods come out. Extend the duration on Cataclysm by 50% to compensate for the decreased uptime and the lack of the spellweave buff when dropping blistering tendrils. Phase two remains pretty much unchanged, aside from the fact that it's now actually phase three.

I think that these changes would aleviate a lot of the major complaints about Deathwing. It would shorten the duration of the fight, although not dramatically. It would decrease the repetition, and it would completely remove the RNG Aspect of Derp deaths that infuriate people.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lets Talk Numbers: Raid Kills, Difficulty, and Proper Interpretation.

Ok, this has been something that I've been noticing in the recent storm of blog posts and comments about the Dragon Soul nerfs. It's been mostly happening in comments, but some of the more prominent bloggers have fallen into this trap as well. They don't know how to look at the raw data we've been given by sites like Wowprogress and MMO-champion, and turn that data into a usable analysis. From Matt Rossi:
Even if you just consider the 800,000 players who finished Firelands, only a quarter of them are done with normal Dragon Soul. This means when players make comments like "Dragon Soul is easier than Firelands," they're not at all supported by the statistics. As many people had completed Firelands pre-nerf as have now completed Dragon Soul. Pre-nerf Firelands was, statistically speaking, on par with and not harder than Dragon Soul is right now.
That's not only incorrect from an analytic perspective, it's also factually incorrect. Wowprogress shows us that there were 19,500 Deathwing normal kills by January 19th, the date that the article was published. That was 52 days after the instance was opened up on November 29th. On August 18th, 52 days after Firelands was released, there had still only been 9,500 Ragnaros kills. 10,000 more guilds have killed Deathwing than killed Ragnaros in the same time span, a 105% increase. This is an indication of Dragon Soul being significantly easier than Firelands was, not "on par", as Mr. Rossi claims.

I've spoken before about how raid groups will settle onto their appropriate place on the curve of raid kills. There's essentially three factors that decide if you're going to down a boss. There's skill, gear, and commitment. Skill is the combined ability of the members of your raid to know how to play their class and role, and their ability to learn and adapt to the mechanics of the encounter. Gear is just that, the quality of the gear that your raid has. This provides a buffer, stronger tanks are less likely to die, bigger healing throughput keeps the raid up, and more damage output shortens encounters. More gear means an easier encounter, which means less skill is required. Then there is commitment. All other things being equal, a guild that raids five days a week will progress further than a guild that raids five hours a week like Legacy. Skill x Gear x Commitment = the timeline upon which a group can expect to down bosses, assuming the difficulty is equivalent.

Many people measure the objective difficulty of encounters via commitment required to down the boss, either in number of pulls, or number of weeks spent learning a particular encounter. The reason for this is that within a raid group, skill and gear tend to be equivalent at equivalent points of progression in different tiers. A guild in 346 gear working on Halfus will take about the same amount of time as a guild in 359 gear working on Shannox. It's a rare occasion where Mr. McEatstheFloor suddenly becomes an amazing player. These things rarely change.

A guild that requires three months of farming gear in order to raise their SkillxGearxCommitment quotient high enough to down the final boss in the instance does not magically become skilled enough to clear the next instance on the first day, or in the first week, or in the first month. If you were not in the first 10K Ragnaros kills in T12, then you shouldn't expect to be done with normal mode Dragon Soul yet. However, 10k players beyond reasonable expectation have already cleared the instance. We can use this to establish just how much easier Dragon Soul is than Firelands, and through that assessment, we can build reasonable expectations for when a raid group that cleared Firelands should expect to be able to down Deathwing.

The 19,500th Ragnaros kill didn't occur until September 26th, 91 days after release. There's a 39 day disparity between hitting that benchmark in Dragon Soul, and hitting it in Firelands. You can either make the assumption that the lack of difficulty simply frontloaded guilds, that the guilds that downed Rag in the first month downed him the first week, and then things settled. You can also look at it as a compressed schedule, where every day spent in Firelands is equal to 60% of a day in Dragon Soul. It's more likely a combination of the two. However, this shows that it's reasonable to expect your group to reach a milestone in DS about three to five weeks earlier than it took them to hit that level in Firelands. It is not reasonable to expect kills to be rolling in three to five months sooner.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nerfs Again: Blizzard Recognizes the Dangers of the Skill Gap.

I've talked before about how dangerous having a profound skill gap in between bosses is harmful to the game. Blizzard has taken note of this, and has decied to implement a stacking debuff that reduces the health and damage of everything in Dragon Soul by 5% per stack, akin to the Strength of Wrynn buff in Icecrown Citadel. This debuff, called "Power of the Aspects", will apparently scale beyond the 30% that the ICC buff capped out at. When asked about the reasoning as to why they're nerfing normal and heroic modes, Bashiok spoke up:

Believe it or not there are actually guilds and raiding groups that are attempting to progress through Normal and Heroic raids, but are hitting a wall, and have been hitting a wall. We have actually statistical date we base our changes on, we know exactly how many people are clearing these raids each week, we know exactly how many people are able to down just a few bosses, and how many were only able to down a few bosses every week for weeks on end and then stopped raiding altogether.

The issue we're constantly trying to combat is the one where people feel like they're just out of options. One way this is an issue is the content is too easy, they blasted through it, have everything they could possibly want, and have nothing else to do. Ideally that's a small subset of very hardcore players. For everyone else it's a feeling of just being stuck with no possible way to progress. Very few players are willing to suit up, buff up, do all the necessary requirements to raid, jump in, and then do no better than they did last week for hours and hours, only to return next week and do the same.

This is the skill gap that I warned of. This is dangerous, especially in the year long wait that we're going to have to endure in this short tier. Running out of options this early is fatal. It's good to see Blizzard recognize this. However, in his later comments, and in the actions that Blizzard has decided to take in combating this problem, show that they don't really understand the problem and how it relates to the player base.

The first issue is the timing. From Bashiok:
We feel the content has been out for quite a while now, that most people who have progressed and downed Deathwing on Heroic have done so, they've had sufficient time to celebrate in their accomplishments, and these very small progressive alterations will only help guilds that are already doing well in the raid get over some hurdles they may be facing.
Bashiok, let's make this clear: The content will have barely been out for two months when you roll this nerf out. That's 1/3 of the normal six month life span of a raiding tier. Not only that, but one of those months was December. For those guilds that aren't commited enough to raid through Christmas and New Years, the content has only effectively been out for six weeks. Six weeks is not "quite a while".

Furthermore: "Most people who have progressed and downed Deathwing on Heroic have done so", huh? Most people with blonde hair have blonde hair. Obvious statement is obvious. This isn't about the Paragons and Vodkas of the world. This is about the other guilds. The guilds that would progress if given more than six weeks to down all current content that Blizzard also inexplicably expects to last us another eight months. Six weeks is not enough time for any guild with a reasonable amount of skill and who raid on a reasonable schedule to be hitting their limits. The insinuation here is that if you aren't in the 67 guilds that have cleared all content in the first two months of raiding, then you're toiling hopelessly and Blizzard needs to save you from your own incompetence. Not only is this insulting to the guilds who choose not to raid five+ days a week, it's also irreparably damaging. All kills from February onward will be tainted.

The second issue is the implementation. This is not the proper way to go about correcting the skill gap in content. Skill gaps exist because the content was not properly tuned. Each raiding tier should have equivilent difficulty when attempted at the appropriate level and gear. In properly tuned tiers, guilds will see similar progression on a similar timeline. A guild that cleared all heroic content in the first month should be able to clear all heroic content in the first month. A guild that takes six months to clear half the heroics should expect to clear half the heroics in about six months. A guild that struggles to clear normal mode in that six months should expect to take close to six months to clear all the normal content.

There should be a smooth distribution of difficulty across all the encounters. A guild that can clear one encounter should not find the next encounter hopelessly out of reach. Likewise, a guild that finds the previous encounter trivial should be able to clear the next encounter. The skill gap is created when there's significant jumps in difficulty. This is more likely to occur in stunted tiers like the seven boss Firelands and the eight boss Dragon Soul because fewer divisions means greater stratification between encounters if the end state remains the same as better developed tiers such as the 13 boss T11, 12 boss T10, and the 14 boss T8.

By implementing blanket nerfs, the gaps remain. All you've done is artificially lowered the end state. You've done nothing to remove the gap itself, which is the problem. You address the symptoms, but you allow the underlying cause to continue to fester, and that introduces new problems down the road. This is the equivalent of giving a person with an infected wound a shot of morphine and sending him home. He might feel better, but it's going to wear off, and he'll be in even more pain, and possibly have long term damage because of the short sighted approach to repair.

Blizzard, if you want to avoid running into these situations every tier, you have to bite the bullet, and actually balance the instance. Don't just throw some derpy blanket cut on the instance and call it good. Heroic Spine of Deathwing is an extremely poorly designed encounter. Forcing players to rely on short term burst on the only target that is beneficial to damage renders multiple classes completely useless. The solution to fixing Heroic Spine of Deathwing is not to nerf normal Ultraxion, it's to fix Heroic Spine of Deathwing. All that's happening with these blanket nerfs is that Blizzard is trading the long term health of the game in exchange for a little pain relief right now.