Sunday, February 26, 2012

Blackwing Descent: Missed Opportunities

A few months ago, MMO Melting Pot held the Piggies, an awards post for MMOs for the past year. The first award given out was for the best raid instance of 2011, which Blackwing Descent rightfully crushed the opposition to bring home. I've spoken before about how much I enjoyed T11 raiding, and BWD was the core of T11 content. It is without a doubt the finest raid instance of the Tom Chilton era.

While it's not as visually stunning as Ulduar, Karazahn, or Sunwell, it's well drawn together thematically. The various dragons hung from the ceiling set the tone of the hidden lair where atrocities have been committed. The instance lacks sweeping vistas, but that works for an instance where the setting is the interior of a volcano. It's not a large instance, but it works, as it has supplemental raids to bolster the quantity of content. The stonework architecture recalls the dwarven origins of the other instances in Blackrock Mountain, and the rubble and lava flows elucidate the notion that this was not a place that Nefarian built, it was a place he found. The trash pulls echo the old Blackwing Lair instance. The mini Chromagguses and Broodlords, and the reincarnations of the BWL drakes create the sensation that here Nefarian has perfected those experiments that he had been working on when we raiders had last confronted him. In my opinion, much better than the visuals of the instance is something that many raiders wind up missing out on entirely, the sounds of the instance. I highly recommend running a full clear of BWD on heroic with the sound turned on. Nefarian is a constant presence throughout the instance, interacting in all the fights, from throwing wrenches in the raider's plans to to turn the powers of the Omnotron Defense System against itself, to chastising Chimaeron when its heads fight each other rather than the raid, to pointing out to Atramedes where players are, his lines are well acted and well written. Raiding BWD feels like breaking into the magic division of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and it's truly a far cry from the mediocre voice acting that we had to suffer through during the back half of Wrath.

Mechanically, BWD shines. Each encounter is different, and every skill a raid needs to succeed will be tested during the run. A very underrated aspect of BWD is its trash. The trash is sparse, yet engaging. A raid can cut through it quickly, but unlike its successor, Firelands, you won't be slugging through fields of trash for hours with the raid's DPS in various states of AFK.

There is, however, one major flaw in the design of BWD. There is no why. No one really know what we're doing in BWD, aside from euthanizing pitiable experiments for fun and loot. Honestly, I almost felt like my entry into BWD went something like this...

Dämmerung: "So, anyways guys, this was where I fought Nefarian. He spawned soooooo many constructs from this hole in the wall, I wonder what's in there."
Lord Victor Nefarius: "YOU!"
Dämmerung: "Victor? What are you doing here? I thought you were still hanging around Stormwind."
Lord Victor Nefarius: "Well, this is awkward..."
Dämmerung: "Let the games begin?"
Lord Victor Nefarius: "Well, I suppose we have to, don't we?"

I mean, seriously, pretty much every other raid instance in the history of WoW had a fairly significant connection to the greater World of Warcraft. From Molten Core to ICC, every raid instance had a reason for players to be in there stemming from lower tier content, be it questlines, daily zones, or group dungeons, there was always some degree of breadcrumb trail giving players a reason to go raid. Hell, Throne of the Four Winds got half of Uldum, and two five man instances to set it up. Two entire dungeons to set up an instance that only had two bosses in it, and they weren't even really good bosses either. Meanwhile, BWD is just left there, with the final encounter showcasing the return from the dead of not one, but two of the preeminent bosses of Vanilla WoW, and no real explanation as to what's going on. Even in Blackrock Caverns, the new five man added to the already expansive Blackrock Mountain complex, almost all the clues trend towards Bastion of Twilight, rather than BWD. Ogres, Twilight's Hammer Cultists, and Elemental Acendents are the bailiwick of Cho'Gall, not Nefarian. The only thing linking BRC to BWD is the presence of Finkle Einhorn, and the BRC questline gives no notice that you'll be seeing that inquisitive little gnome again. Blizzard could have done better. Blizzard should have done better.

Blizzard tried to do better. Like many other things that got obliterated in the crunch to get Cataclysm out the door, there are ghosts. Echoes of the old design plan are visible within the structure of the narrative and the points of focus within the game itself. The answers to some of the questions begged by the instance can be teased out.

How are Nefarian and Onyxia back? This is really the crux of the issue. If you establish
that Nefarian is back, then there's pretty much a de facto reason to go kill him again. After all, not very many good guys are named Nefarian, or Nefarius, or whatever play on nefarious the favored son of Deathwing decides to go with this time. Kael'thas' return was justified by the fact that you didn't actually make sure he was dead in Tempest Keep, a fact that you rectify when you meet him in Magister's Terrace by decapitating him. But you definitely took the heads of both Onyxia and Nefarian. You hung them from the gates of Stormwind for all to see. So how'd they get them back?

One of the key focal points of the expansion was Deathwing's visit to Stormwind. People see it every time they log in, and it was the climax of the introductory cinematic. The towers are still molten, and the stature of poor Danath Trollbane is still being hauled back up from the lake. Those same towers that we hung the heads of Deathwing's favorite children from, and soon thereafter, said children return to prominence, if a little worse for wear. That explains the how they came back.
The next question is more of a meta question: How was Blizzard going to tie them back into the game to motivate the player to go to BWD?

This leads across a couple of items that I have touched upon before. The tie in book, Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects, and the aborted Alliance Twilight Highlands intro. A lot has been vested into the Twilight Dragonflight in the last couple years. We've fought Goriana, Ultraxion, Theralion, Valiona, Halion, Shadron, Tenebron, and Vesperon, twilight dragons all. We've also fought Sinestra and Sartharion, both of whom served as guardians to twilight hatcheries. However, the Twilight Dragonflight is not the Black Dragonflight's first effort at co-opting the power of the other Dragonflights. During Vanilla, Nefarian conducted experiments on his father's behalf, resulting in the spawning of Chromatic Dragons. While the chromatic experiments only produced two spawns that were successful by any measure, the Chromatic Drake Gyth, gifted to Rend Blackhand for use as a mount, and the dragonspawn Chromaggus, before adventurers decapitated Nefarian at his throne in BWL, during the novel, a return to Nefarian's old experiments creates the most successful monstrosity that Deathwing formed since the Demon Soul, a five headed, fully grown chromatic dragon named Chromatus. Chromatus wielded the power of the five dragonflights, and was capable of fighting off all four of the dragon aspects at once. He was coaxed into life, not by Nefarian, but by the Twilight Father, a shadowy figure revealed to be Archbishop Benedictus.

I've mentioned before how the Bendictus arc was aborted from the release content, and instead handed over to Thrall as the intro to the 4.3 raid, Dragon Soul. In the Hour of Twilight dungeon, just before the fight with the Archbishop, Bendictus reveals that the Deathwing's attack on Stormwind was the catalyst that turned him to despair.

With these points, it's easy to see the arc that begins to form. Deathwing needed his son's expertise to finish Chromatus, so he attacked Stormwind in order to retrieve his son's head. With Nefarian's head came Nefarian's knowledge, which was used to create the chromatic behemoth. Working alongside Nefarian to bring Deathwing's plan to fruition was Benedictus, in his guise as the Twilight Father. When Benedictus' treason is discovered, his collusion with the lord of Blackrock is unveiled as well. This is somewhat problematic for getting the Horde players in BWD, but they lost their traitor arc as well. Magister Rommath could have been aiding the chromatice program as well, giving our less hygienic cousins a purpose to go after their purples as well.

While this flaw doesn't diminish BWD as an instance, an isolated dungeon through which my friends and I spent hours working together, it does damage Blackwing Descent's place in Azeroth, and the greater narrative of the World of Warcraft. The dissonance of having such a great instance suffer the ignominious fate of being the only raid instance so neglected is painful. I mean, even Ruby Sanctum got a breadcrumb quest...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Quoth the Crab: The Choice Doesn't Matter

One of the important philosophies of game design is that interesting choices are fun. The word 'interesting' is key. Choosing between a talent that grants 10% damage and one that grants 5% damage, all else being equal, isn't interesting.
This is a quote from Ghostcrawler on the merits of the new talent tree in Mist of Pandaria. However, I'm not here to talk about talents, or Mists of Pandaria, or even anything Ghostcrawler works on. I'm here to talk about the Power of the Aspects buff in Dragon Soul, which will soon be ratcheted up to 10%.

With the impending increase, it's uncorked a mass of discussion on the matter, and once again, WoW Insider draws the lines, on both sides. Dan Desmond wrote an editorial on the effects that these sort of nerfs have on the raiders in the instance.
Well, it seems I was wrong, for in the very next tier of content Blizzard released, we saw progressive nerfs to these difficult fights. Personally, I prefer to keep these encounters the way they are, at least until a new tier is released. Something just feels wrong to see the hardest fights available made easier through a series of hotfixes. Even with respect to my own guild's progression, having sweeping nerfs hit Firelands just as my guild was putting in some really good attempts on Ragnaros felt like Blizzard moved the finish line, taking what would have been a very gratifying kill and turning it into an accidental one-shot that contained none of the catharsis we had felt during previous boss kills.
In response, Adam Holisky wrote an editorial on the merits of the nerf for all guilds, and in the end, he fell back on that same flawed defense that so many others have leaned upon.
Because there's an easy answer if everything I said in this editorial rings false to you.

Just turn the nerf off.
Now, there's a lot of flawed thinking in Adam's editorial, and I'll get around to those flaws in other posts. What I want to talk about now is the supposed "Choice" that raiders have to turn off the Power of the Aspects. Ghostcrawler said that a choice that had one option that was obviously more beneficial than the other isn't interesting, it isn't compelling, and ultimately, it isn't a choice at all. This is the situation that the non raiders who fall back on this line don't understand, there is no choice to turn off the debuff. Any guild that has already cleared all the content has no reason to do so, and any guild that hasn't cleared the content gains no benefit from doing do. Raiding guilds live on three things, interesting content, recruiting, and consensus within the group. While the nerfs may or may not undermine how interesting the content is for your raid group, it can only have a negative impact on the other two aspects.

Consensus: One of the primary arguments that people make against these kind of nerfs is that they wanted to see what the content's really like, not to be given their kill as charity by the developers who take pity on them. The dissenters claim that they can simply turn off the nerf, and everything will be the same as it was before. This is not true. Raiding is a team activity. You need nine or twenty-four other players to go along with you in order to raid with any serious degree of success. While you might get enough satisfaction to justify turning off the debuff, you need consensus within the group. The odds of everyone in the group agreeing with you is slim, and even one person in the group who would rather raid with the debuff will put the group in a very awkward position. You're asking them to sacrifice their personal progression, not for an achievement, not for loot, not for a mount, but for something even more trivial, for your pride. If they give in, then they feel resentful at your imposition, and if you give in, then you feel disappointed with the instance. Ultimately, the very fact that a choice had to be made alters the dynamic of the raiding experience, even if you choose to turn off the buff.

Recruiting: Just as dangerous as the volatility of forcing the issue into a group dynamic is the impact that the buff has on recruiting. If you're in a raiding guild, your guild is recruiting. There's an almost constant rate of attrition that takes its toll on a raid's roster. Kids, school, work, burnout, and new games are all among the factors that might drive a player to set aside raiding. If the group wants to continue raiding, they need to replace those people. One of the primary things that players look for in a guild that they choose to raid with is progression within the current instance. All else being equal, a prospective raider will tend to sign on with a guild that's further progressed. With no way to differentiate themselves from guilds that do use the debuff, a guild that decides to pursue raiding without the buff deliberately hamstrings themselves on the recruiting front. To make matters worse, any guild can claim to have gotten their kills without the debuff, because there's no way to prove it one way or another.

There is no choice here, it's akin to being given the choice between a raisin bagel or a kick in the crotch. These nerfs aren't about tuning, they're about longevity. Just like ICC with the Strength of Wrynn, we're going to be stuck in Dragon Soul for another six months. There is no tier of gear after this to help the flagging guilds. So they give us the Power of the Aspects, and jokingly tell us that we have a choice, while they cite the exact opposite logic to justify their decisions in other aspects of the game. If Blizzard had made it an actual choice, they would have given an incentive to raid without the Power of the Aspects. A title, or a mount, or even just a simple achievement for clearing Dragon Soul without using the Power of the Aspects would make it an actual choice, not this mockery that we're faced with at the moment.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cataclysm Final Grades: The State of the Protection Paladin

Tzufit at Tree Heals Go Woosh has asked for people to compile their opinions on the state of their favorite specs now that the dust is settling on Cataclysm. So let's take a look at how the changes in Cataclysm have impacted my play on Dämmerung.

Do you feel that your class is better (in that it is more fun to play, more effective, etc.) now than it was at the end of Wrath? Do you feel that your class is better now than it was at the beginning of Cataclysm?

I feel that playing a protection paladin has been made more complex, and in large part, more effective at single target tanking than they were at the end of Wrath. While they have taken a bit of a step back from their preeminence at the beginning of Cataclysm, due to the weak scaling on Paladin's mastery, and several nerfs to outlying abilities such as Divine Guardian. Does this translate to more fun? I don't believe so. The most engaging portion of playing any class is the buttons you push, and with the added complexity of the protection paladin priority system came a direct injection of clunk. While many found the old 969 rotation to be boring, I find empty GCDs and off kilter CDs to be irritating and boring.

One place where I feel Blizzard really dropped the ball was on Paladin AoE tanking. During BC, paladins were the defacto AoE tank, and throughout Wrath, despite lacking in snap AoE threat, no tank could match a Paladin's sustained AoE output, with Hammer of the Righteous proccing Seal of Truth across multiple mobs, perma consecrate, Holy Wrath with undead everywhere, and Holy Shield procs. In Cataclysm, I get the distinct feeling that Blizzard gave one aspect of our AoE rotation to a different intern, told them to break it, and then shoved it back together without regard for how destroying each of the individual components would cripple the whole. Holy Shield completely lost its damage component. Consecration was put on a 30 second CD, had the mana cost hiked through the ceiling, and did less damage per tick at 85 than it did at level 80. Holy Wrath had its scaling with AoE removed entirely, and now functions as a gimped version of shockwave. Hammer of the Righteous was rebuild entirely, it no longer procs seals on multiple mobs, and somehow, someone at Blizzard thought it would be a good idea to base the AoE off a single roll. What this means is that if HoR misses its primary target, it misses everything. If you've ever had a paladin tank completely miss the pickup on a trash pull, it's probably because of that move, which Zarhym defended as "Flavor". This left Paladins as the only tank without the ability to spread DoTs across multiple mobs, the only tank who's primary AoE has a facing requirement, and the only tank whose AoE can't chain off bosses with large hitboxes. Can't cleave on Rag, or Magmaw, or Conclave, or Al'akir, or Zon'ozz... Nice job breaking it Blizz.

How much have you enjoyed or found uses for your class’ level 81, 83, and 85 abilities? Given the chance, what would you have changed about them?

Inquisition added some interesting complexity to the single target rotation, although it becomes lackluster when you take into account its position as the only AoE HP finisher available.

Holy Radiance was helpful prior to its overhaul giving it a cast time. On some fights, every bit of healing mattered, and being able to shore up the raid a couple K in the feuds on Chimaeron felt helpful.

Guardian of Ancient Kings... While it was kinda cool for ret and holy, it was honestly kind of insulting to Prot paladins. 50% damage reduction, it's great. But we already had Divine Protection giving us 50% DR in Wrath, and during that odd phase where we were using Cata talents and spells at level 80, it left Paladins as the only tank without a 50% damage reduction when they nerfed DP.

Did you switch mains during Cataclysm? If so, why did you make that choice?

I did not, I did however raid significantly on my Warrior with another guild, because they asked me to help them.

What were your class’/spec’s strengths throughout Cataclysm? What were its weaknesses?

Paladins were a solid middle of the road tank in Cata. We weren't as strong against physical damage as Druids were with their increased armor or warrior with their mastery that scaled much better than our own. Nor were we better against magical damage when compared to DKs with the ridiculously OP AMS, or Druids with their 22% passive magic damage reduction. I guess "I Am Third" would best sum up paladin tanks in cataclysm. Whatever the task was, there were better tanks, but we weren't the worst, which actually gave paladins a strong position in persistent groups that couldn't afford to swap tanks around.

The biggest weakness was the aforementioned abomination that our AoE output became. But then again, when your biggest weakness is trash, I can live with that.

Did you enjoy the addition of the mastery stat? What did you like about it, or, what would you change?

Mastery didn't really change anything. The change to block, converting it from a flat value, generally something like 2.5k, to 30% of the physical hit made block something that became sought after. While other specs got cool tricks like extra lightning bolts and empowered demons, Blizzard followed in the tradition of Guardian of Ancient Kings and our T13 4pc bonus for paladins, and took block away from us, renamed it mastery, and gave it back.

How, if at all, did Cataclysm’s revamp of the talent trees affect your class? Did you feel that these were changes for the better or for worse?

The addition of specializations made Protection the number one tanking spec from level 10 onwards. They gave new tanks the majority of the tools they needed to at least be functional as a tank right off the bat, which was a stark contrast to leveling in Wrath, where all the lowbie tanks in the know were specced ret.

Did your class experience any significant changes or additions to its lore during this expansion? If so, how did you feel about those changes?

Tirion apparently can't be bothered to look from his giant tower to see Scourge 2.0 forming up a block from his house? All sarcasm aside, this was the Shaman/Druid expansion, just like Wrath was the Pally/DK/Mage expansion. I'm ok with that. Taurens got Sunwalkers, which was cool, although my god, there's nothing uglier than a Tauren wearing Paladin tier helmets. I felt like the Horde paladin orders, the Sunwalkers and the Blood Knights could have had their lore fleshed out more with the Azeroth revamp, and as always, the Draenei got heinously neglected. I will say that Eastern Plaguelands was in my opinion the best zone in the revamped world. It showed development, while still maintaining the feel of the previous zone, and the friendly rivalry between Gidwin and Tarenar balanced a fine line between levity and weight.

Is your class easier or harder for a fresh 85 to learn now than it was at the end of Wrath? Is this a good or a bad thing?

There are more buttons, and the rotation is more complex, but at the same time, there weren't any encounters in Cataclysm that taxed the tank in the same way that phase three Yogg and Firefighter pushed me. along with the massive threat boost and taunts and interrupts no longer missing, a lot of the things that all tanks face have been simplified. I would say that the spec has gotten harder, but the role has become easier, so it's kind of a push in that regards.

What aspects of your class’ gameplay do you think the designers really got right in this expansion? What aspects were clear misses?

Once again, the AoE component was a complete failure. The implementation of Holy Power was pretty muddled, and the more the tweaked, the more irritating it was, but I wouldn't write it off as a complete failure. Aside from that, not a whole lot changed.

Overall, do you enjoy the playstyle of your class more now, at the end of Cataclysm, than you did prior to patch 4.0 at the end of Wrath? Why or why not?

I definitely enjoyed Tanking on a paladin in the back half of Wrath more than I did during Cataclysm. However, with that said, prior to patch 3.2, paladin tanks were unambiguously weaker than the other classes, by a margin far wider than anything any of the tank classes have seen in Cataclysm. I have to give credit to the class balance team for bringing the tanks closer to complete parity than ever before. I never felt like my playing a paladin was holding the raid back the way I did when I was tanking OS3D and Ulduar HMs. Which is a huge achievement.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What Cataclysm Got Right.

With Cataclysm roughly six months away from its exit, it's a good time to take a look in retrospect at what was probably Blizzard's most ambitious attempt at an expansion. While I have, and will continue to be critical of a lot of the failures in the design and story of Cataclysm, I have found some aspects of the expansion to be a great move in the right direction. So lets look back at the things that Cataclysm did well. A little while ago, I read a post by Shintar, ennumerating the five things she enjoyed most about Cataclysm.

1: T11 raiding. I hadn't had as much fun raiding since Ulduar. Twelve bosses, a full array of heroic modes, and eight months of constant challenges. In eight months of raiding T11, we never hit a brick wall boss. We never ran out of content to work on. We got progression kills on Heroic Double Dragons the night before the release of Firelands. Once they fixed a few of the obviously broken encounters, Magmaw and Double Dragons heroic 10 were beyond ridiculous in terms of their demands. Maloriak 10H's broken adds were offset by the equally broken lack of an enrage timer. However, once those encounters were corrected, T11 was a great raiding experience. Encounters ranged the full gambit of skill levels, and were never subject to the asinine blanket nerfs to current content that gutted the later tiers. The afterglow of T11 is one of the last things that keep me still raiding in Cataclysm.

2: Reforging. Myriad were the times in prior expansions where I would look at a piece of equipment and think If only I could get rid of this damn hit rating. Thanks to this fantastic tool, I can get rid of that damn hit rating, well, most of it, anyways. Balancing hit caps and expertise caps on my DPS characters, and the rolling CTC caps on my tanks was made immeasurably easier thanks to this feature, which also acts as a gold sink to limit inflation in the WoW economy.

3: Specializations. Prior to specializations, you would find some really counter intuitive moments in the leveling process that encouraged idiotic behavior at the level cap. Until roughly level 30, Retribution was the best tanking spec for paladins, because prot paladins were heinously mana starved until they got BoSanc, and had little to do outside of auto attacks and judgement. Retribution wasn't just viable for tanking, it was optimal. It was better at tanking than the actual tanking tree. It was even worse for druids who were incapable of tanking until they got thick hide to make up for the fact that they were otherwise as squishy as a rogue. Specializations changed all that. Prot paladins were the better than ret paladins at tanking right out of the gate, as they should be.

4: Profession Dailies. I hate cooking in WoW. I also hate fishing in WoW. First Aid I find pointless, but I do enjoy the howls of the tailors when they find out exactly how much cloth I've come across in my time tanking across Azeroth, and just how much of it was converted into bandages that subsequently got vendored. While the cooking dailies and fishing dailies in Dalaran were a decent source of income, they sometimes required me to go gallivanting across the countryside to find Rhinos to murder, or to fish of some obscure rock, millimeters away from the hazards of fatigue water. You turn it in and get a token, or a bag of vendor trash, and a pittance of gold. Wooo... All that changed in Cataclysm. Well, not all of it, but the bad parts became less bad, and the instead of meaningless baubles, they gave me what I craved, skill points. From the comfort of the Alliance's glorious fortress of Stormwind, I can level a character's cooking or fishing from zero to max, without having to spend any time away from the friendly confines. I can, in effect, level cooking without cooking. That way, when I hit level 85, and someone asks who can drop a fish feast, I don't have to discreetly maneuver my character into the darkest corner possible to hide from their judgmental glares.

5: Rated Battlegrounds. Arena is a joke. A couple people lock themselves in a room and wail on each other for some points. That's not to say that they don't have their place in the game, just as comedy has its place in the pantheon of entertainment. But if comedy was the only acceptable art form, and the Oscars were distributed based on who got the most laughs out of people, well, it's not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. Likewise, I found it laughable that the only form of PvP that really mattered for the better part of two expansions was arena, a dystopic world of flavor of the month comps and win trading. As a veteran, I've always found BGs to be more compelling pvp, because there's objectives beyond simply "murder the Horde". It prompts new strategies, more complex strategies, and a plethora of new roles. While the rating system is pretty well flawed, giving players an avenue to progress in PvP beyond the trumped up dueling that is arena, was a great move on Blizzard's part.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Embrace the Treadmill

So, there's been a refreshed wave of complaints and praise about the concept of Mists of Pandaria. Some people don't like the theme, which I guess is a valid opinion to hold, albeit one that I find a little odd that in a game that sends you fully grown and domesticated dragons in the mail (What's the shipping cost on that? I can't imagine the hazard pay the Azerothian Postal Service Earns.), people are drawing the line at anthropomorphic pandas. Other people take umbrage with the new features, such as the minipet battles. I for one look forward to sending Stevie the Squire to bleed for my honor in the Ring of Death.

There's another wave of complaints. People whine about the game being a perceived pixilated hamster wheel. Level up another five levels, grind through the heroics again, and get back into raiding/PvP shape. Wooooooo...

This is an MMO. If you wanted a defined end state, well, Diablo III and Mass Effect 3 will both come out soon to sate your hunger for single player games with multiplayer tacked on. And threes, lots of threes this year. MMOs, particularly subscription based MMOs, are a treadmill. The entire plan is to make it so that you can't "beat" the game, and then shelve it until the sequel comes out.

Which brings us back to the people complaining about the expansion. I think they're right. Why should we pay $50 for a box that lets us keep running on the treadmill we're already on? What's the point of another five levels that endgame players are going to blitz through blindly in less than a week, and tacking on another five levels for a new player to wander through? The barrier to entry gets taller and taller, and as a result, the leveling content prior to the current expansion get stretched thinner and thinner, to the point where current players can go from Winterspring, to Hellfire, to the Borean Tundra, to Hyjal without spending more than a few hours in other zones. Level 58-80, and new players miss 90% of the content that exists in those regions.

The current leveling model is an annoyance to established players, and an increasingly insurmountable barrier to new players, whom Blizzard must court to feed Azeroth the bodies it needs to sustain its grim rate of attrition. Why? What's the point? What's the purpose of leveling in the modern World of Warcraft?

Is it to teach players how to play in endgame content? That was one of the old ideas behind it, and one that Blizzard attempted to return to in Cataclysm, introducing quests that simulate raid mechanics such as LoSing casters and dodging void zones, but the penalties were so light that the majority of player bulldozed their way through the quests without learning the intended lessons. This idea is further undermined by Blizzard's tendency to give players abilities right before they hit the endgame, that completely and fundamentally alters the manner in which the player plays their character, which pretty much obliterates most of what they learned prior to the acquisition of that keystone ability.

Is it to increase the power of the characters? They slapped differing scalars on ratings at different levels, leading to the rather humorous reality of a level 80 tank dinging level 81 and losing 60% of his avoidance, or fire mages just now crawling back the levels of crit that they had in Naxx. It's not like you're getting a talent point every level now, either. Come MoP, you'll only be getting six points total, and they're stretched out in a doldrum of 15 level gaps.

Is it a vehicle for new content? It is, but it's not the sole vehicle, and while leveling is failing at all its primary functions, those other vectors, raiding, dungeons, and daily hubs, not only do just as good a job of delivering new lore and content, but they also serve their primary purposes of providing gear, gold, and incentives to come back.

Now, I'm not advocating the death of leveling content. I believe that it should be returned to its roots. Leveling content should be difficult. It should introduce players to mechanics that are seen consistently throughout the endgame. Void zones, LoS, Interrupts, DPS and Heal checks, 3D maneuvering, and kiting should be introduced to players, and reiterated throughout the leveling experience. It should have real consequences, too. If you stand in that void zone when it blows, you should die, and the game should tell you why you died, and let you try again.

What I do want Blizzard to kill off are these little leveling breaks between raid tiers for each expansion. I'm here for the treadmill, not for cross training. You don't run for a half hour, stop and stretch, then run for another half hour, and stop to stretch again, repeating ad nauseum. You stretch to prepare yourself for your run, and then you run until you're finished.

Questing is not the sole province of leveling content. Questing can work as an excellent means for moving the story along. The 4.1 ZG/ZA questline was an excellent example of moving the storyline along through quests that were available only at the level cap.

So what I'm proposing is that Blizzard embrace the treadmill nature of the endgame of WoW. They need to acknowledge that they create two games, the leveling game, which is largely a solo game, and the endgame, which is both a single player and multiplayer game. They need to create a leveling game that serves their purposes, and then allow that to stand on its own. Once players complete the leveling game, the basic training of WoW, they should be at least competent at the class they leveled. That's when they hit the endgame. They've finished their stretches, and they step onto the treadmill. Content updates should come every six to eight months, and should introduce multiple levels of content. There should be a set of daily quests for solo play, along with quests introducing the new multiplayer content. There should be about ten to twelve new five man bosses, in two to three new dungeons, and a new tier of raids with ten to twelve bosses. What there shouldn't be is thirty hours of solo content acting as a barrier to entry to the new content. They can realign the talents when needed, and introduce new zones, new abilities, and new BGs as needed. You don't need a new expansion to do that. You just need a patch.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Numbers 2.0: Insight Into the Design Theory of Cataclysm, Casual Raiders Are Not the Majority, Churn and Attrition Are Two Different Things.

So, my last numbers post got me thinking about some more numbers. Go figure.

One of the metrics people were using for analyzing the difficulty of T13 content was that by Christmas, only 175k characters had downed Madness of Deathwing on normal difficulty, which is only 4% of the total level 85 population. What I found interesting about that particular metric, was it gave me something that I didn't feel like putting in the effort to find on my own. The total number of level capped characters in World of Warcraft. There's a hair under 4.4 million level capped characters.

This is interesting. We all know that there's 10 million active accounts in World of Warcraft right now. It's something that they slap onto every single advertisement for the game. That means, that if we make the patently false assumptions that no one has a level capped alt, and that no one with a level 85 character has let their subscription lapse, then we wind up with the figure that 56% of paying players have not hit level 85 yet, and that's the absolute lowest percentage it can be. Even by the most conservative estimates, if you've hit level 85 in World of Warcraft, you're in the minority. In reality, the percentages are more skewed.

Two and a half million net players have quit since the release of T9. Two million alone in the last year of Cataclysm content. Some of those were players who made it to level 85 and quit playing. Those players were listed in the 96% of players who hadn't downed DW, and as such, are listed in the 4.4 million. This means that the percentage of endgame accounts is actually smaller than the 44% posited in the most conservative estimate.

Further complicating the issue is the matter of alts. How many people do you know who have another character at level 85? Or two? I have five, there's another player in my guild who has ten, and I know a couple people on the server who have 15+. Of my five level 85 characters, I only raid seriously on two of them. Those other three get lumped in as casual players incapable of raiding without help from papa Blizz. If you assume that half of the players who make it to level 85 also have one alt at level 85, then suddenly the percentage of players in endgame content plummets to 29%. That's lower than the President's approval rating. Over 70% of the players who pay for this game never make it to level cap. Now, because my brain makes jumps like Bob Beamon at times, I was reminded of somewhere else I saw 70% in relation to WoW demographics.

In the 2009 4th Quarter shareholder's conference call Mike Morhaime, President of Blizzard, cited that their internal numbers showed that 70% of new players to WoW quit before they reach level ten. Any guild master will tell you that retention's a bitch. Hell, Bioware could tell you that after they lost 15% of SWTOR's playerbase after the first month. By taking all the numbers we've seen here, we can see the force of attrition at work here. For every player that quits the game, Blizzard's gotta sort through 2.3 new players to replace them. For every level capped player that quits, the number of new bodies that have to be hewn through is probably closer to 5.3.

Attracting new players to replace those lost to attrition becomes increasingly difficult as the game ages. Not only are there new competitors out there which have the advantage of having learned from the mistakes made during WoW, but the barrier to entry becomes higher and higher. At Cataclysm release, it was over a $100 investment in boxes alone to break into the game from the start and make it to level 85, not including subscription fees. That's a lot of money to sink into a game, and keep in mind that for every dungeon buddy, arena partner, or raider, that has quit your guild in the past year, Blizzard needs five people to replace them. That $100 becomes a pretty steep price.

This explains the idea behind investing the bulk of the expansion into revisiting the leveling content. In the back half of Wrath, the retention rate on players dropped low enough that the attrition rate caught up, and they went through 18 months of no real growth. Looking at this, they decided that rather than attacking the attrition rate of established clients, they would try to increase the recruitment rate of new players by making the early leveling content more attractive. The more cynical side of me thinks that they were hoping to keep people interested in the game long enough to build enough baggage in the game that they'd not quit when they hit the dearth of endgame content. The more optimistic side of me thinks the cynical side of me is a jerk.

This idea, to mortgage the endgame in favor of the leveling game, was a rather spectacular failure. WoW lost 1/6th of its player base in less than a year, after six years of nearly uninterrupted growth.

So the question is "why?" When you don't put resources into the endgame, the game ends. It sounds like a tautology, but it's not. By creating content for the endgame that is properly farmable, interesting, and challenging enough to hold a player for an extended period, then it's easier to retain a max level player, rather than telling them to just roll an alt and start over. By revamping older content, especially to the degree they did in Cataclysm, they're wasting resources, for several reasons.

1: There's already content there. They're replacing content that they already spent resources on creating, and gained nothing in terms of additions to the game. The players spend the same amount of time in Northshire as they did before. The fact that the Orcs are burning our vineyard down doesn't really make a big difference.

2: New players don't know any better. If anything, revamping the old world just makes the newer content less engaging when you reach it. I know it's a pain leveling alts through some of that stuff, and the new content was a godsend for those of us who couldn't stomach the idea of having to choose between Winterspring or Silithus again. But when I was leveling Dämmer, Eastern Plaguelands was the shit. I murdered Scourge with gusto. Then I got to Hellfire Peninsula, I flew through the Dark Portal, and witnessed Fel Reapers striding the wastes, shaking the ground with their steps, and casually crushing curious players who wandered too close. Then I got to Northrend, and I surfed a harpoon across a gaping canyon after gunning down a plethora of super vikings riding primordial dragons. The bar was constantly being raised, and kept me engaged the entire time. Granted, when I went back to Azeroth to level my warrior, I had a new perspective, and found it painful to level, but that's what heirlooms are for. The revamp screwed up the perspective of new players.

3: It's too much to put on one plate. I'm a firm proponent of getting it done right, rather than rushing it out the door. However, with Blizzard's glacial working pace, there comes the side effect of leaving players in the same raid instance for a year, or whole projects simply sublimating into vapor. So there's a caveat that needs to be attached to it: Don't promise what you can't realistically deliver. Cataclysm was a very ambitious idea for an expansion, one that Tom Chilton's crew did not do justice to, at all. On the EK/Kalimdor revamp, there's a ton a places where they simply repeated the exact same thing that happened in the zone before hand. Elywnn forest is just tragic. I'm still trying to hook Romeo and Juliet up? Didn't I fix that years ago? Other things that I harped on in previous posts, like the horrible treatment the Worgen get when they leave Gilneas, speak to unfinished content that was rushed out the door to meet a deadline. Even worse, the endgame content, the stuff that the expansion is built around, also felt the sting of over extension. When Wrath launched, Ulduar was already deep in development. When Cataclysm launched, they had nothing set on T12 content beyond the broadest ideas. Hence why Ulduar was a 14 boss masterpiece, and T12 was a 7 boss abortion that had an entire second instance, The Abyssal Maw, cut from development, leaving half an instance with an over-bloated loot table created due to trying to squeeze 14 bosses worth of loot into a 7 boss bag. Because of the crunch applied to T12, T13 suffered, becoming the Deja Vu Tier, where you're pretty sure you've killed every boss in the instance before, because they're all recolors of previous bosses, not even reskins, with the sole exception being the tendons on Spine, and Deathwing's head and limbs on Madness.

The lesson to take from Cataclysm is this: Don't waste resources "revamping" old content. As much as it pains the lore geek in me to say this, don't ever revamp any non level cap content again. No Outland revamp, no Northrend revamp, nothing. Sure, you can add zones for level capped content to the continents, sure. But don't try to make the new player experience amazing, because new players won't know the difference, and the players who will notice the difference, the current players, will notice that the revamp is coming at the expense of new content for them.

Chalk Cataclysm up as a learning mistake. You screwed up, lost two million subscribers that probably won't come back. As far as mistakes go, it's a big one, but not a lethal one. The time you spend trying to reduce the churn in the lower echelons of the player base is time wasted, and it allows attrition to take its toll.