Mar 11 2013

Not You


Dear Blizzard. It’s not you, it’s me. Truly. I am very fond of you, and we’ve had some fun times, but I just can’t seem to find the excitement any more. You are still really pretty, and vivacious, and have great hair, but I think I need to see some other people now.

Yes, this is the fairly common ’hiatus’ post. I’ve invested a lot of time, and I guess by now a lot of money, in the game, all the way from vanilla:

Giladris (parked in Darnassus), level 70 rogue, bank alt, and my first character. 40 days, 19:38:04

Belmann (parked beside Giladris), level 90 priest. Second character, rolled when opening the gates of AQ crashed Kalimdor on Amun’Thul. 85 days, 20:53:44

Morkhaeus (parked beside Belmann). Level 85 fire Mage, rolled for Burning Crusade. 25 days, 16:33:20

MacMorris (sitting in a damp tavern in Menethil Harbour). Level 85 DK, rolled for Lich King. 10 days, 18:53:31

Glymly (resting with his bear, Cuddles, in Paw’don village). Level 85 BM hunter rolled at the end of Lich King. 7 days, 6:07:57

Maarisuu (lonely in Dalaran), Level 71 protection/arms warrior, rolled at the same time as Glymly. 4 days, 22:40:42

Kareline (also hanging out in Paw’don). Level 85 warlock and worgen, my Cataclysm baby, levelled to 85 about a week before Pandaria. 4 days, 17:57:15

Haanaargh (Light’s Hope Chapel). Level 46 gnome rogue, rolled toward the end of Cataclysm for the heck of it. 1 day, 16:55:21.

Fenggan (Stormwind, beer in hand). Level 40 brewmaster panda monk. 1 day, 0:54:39

And I have a low level Tauren paladin tucked away somewhere, and have had some other short lived toons probably amounting to about 36 hours played. Adding all that up, rounding it around, gives something like 183 – 185 days. Call it 26 weeks and change. Half a year. That’s a serious time investment. A very rough cost over the years would be something like $AU1,500.

But my enthusiasm has definitely waned. The reality of course is that WOW, like any other RPG, is often a grind. Usually a grind. But the thing that used to ameliorate that was the culture and the social interactions. I met a lot of cool and fun people, and we had great times together. Then I moved country, and time zone, and found I seldom ran into those guys anymore. I saw little end-game in Cataclysm, and as my time became more and more constrained, descended into chasing achievements. Pandaria made this more obvious: the first run through the story content with Belmann was fun, and some of the visuals are jaw-dropping (and on the whole this expansion has the best writing to date). When I looked at levelling other characters, it felt like a chore, and finding out that the amount of grinding needed to be able to even glimpse end-game content had increased? Well, straw, camel, one applied to the other.

Blizzard has gone to great effort to provide a very wide range of daily quest activity for the grind, and mostly it’s fun rather than just damned annoying (although kill-ten-rats on a healer is always hell). The truth remains though that most of the grind needs to be done through endless instance running. And with my shift of time zones that means endless PUGs. Therein the true hell.

Trite but accurate, Sartre’s comment that hell is other people. For instance running in WOW pickup groups, hell is other players. I am sure that the majority of players a not pimply faced youths with personality disorders. But dear God, it doesn’t show. The best instance experience is carried out in dead silence, with no social interaction, and each player mechanically competent. And that’s rare.

More usually as the healer I see a tank racing to get it over as quickly as possible, making it everyone else’s problem to deal with the pace he sets. I see DPS not even trying to avoid standing in the fire. And I watch the DPS  bitching at the tank to go faster and faster. And inevitably the tank does a stupidly large pull, and the DPS are standing in the fire, and dealing with the mobs that got away from the tank, and the healer goes OOM – and the abuse starts. Poisonous, vicious, nasty.

It’s been worse with the two baby tanks I tried to grow. The only place to learn to tank is in the instances, but it’s impossible to learn when the hunter decides you are not going fast enough, and starts tanking. Or the Mage decides you are not pulling big enough, so unleashes AOE to aggro more mobs. Or the rogue in quest greens and blues and heirloom items stands in front of the boss, pouring stupid amounts of DPS on, distracting the healer… And you know how it goes. And then the abuse starts again.

Look, it’s inevitable in a way. The end-game is marketed as the ultimate goal. The only important way of demonstrating your stature. So for the pasty faced youths, the justice point grind through instances is not just a game. It’s vital, the only way they have of growing their e-peen bigger than the next guy. It’s not a Skinner box, it’s the dominance wars of a band of chimps.

The easy accessibility of the game is both it’s strength and weakness. On one hand it provides a fantastically well designed and graded difficulty curve for new players, and a hugely rich world to play in. On the other hand it allows players to entirely disregard the mechanics and story of the game, and focus on the single goal of biggest iLevel on the block. To have the biggest e-peen to wave around.

If I had to point at a single feature that promotes the rampant unpleasantness, I would say that it is because WOW has no serious negative consequences. You cannot lose gear or experience or characters, and gear designed to be at the correct level for content is easily and quickly accessible (this is even more so with Pandaria, where you can buy complete sets of kits for Alts for a few hundred gold that will see them through entire expansion, other than end-game).

I am sure that in Blizzard’s head the mechanisms to control player behaviour, and provide meaningful consequences, were intended to arise organically out of the player community. But that never happened. Maybe if there were mechanisms to black list players, or penalise them in game for being douchebags. Maybe if being a member of a guild provided serious enhancements, but forming guilds was expensive and difficult. Some way, anyway, for the silent majority of inoffensive players to apply a real, meaningful consequence.

Oh, yes, ok, Blizzard has mechanisms for banning players, but really that’s damned rare, and seldom applied for simply being an antisocial little twerp.

So really, the choice is obvious. Sink money and time into a grind that longer provides much fun or try something different. Which is what I am going to do, and see how Eve works out for me. So far it’s been interesting, although I am aware I am nowhere near the content or play that can be considered to be “end game”.

Tentatively I would identify three core differences. First, the bulk of the story in Eve is whatever the players want to tell them selves. Second, the learning and difficulty curve is extreme. Third, the game play is structured so that your in-game behaviour will have in-game consequences. Time will tell whether I find less discomfit in a game structured to deal with the reality that people can be distinctly unpleasant, rather than one that assumes people will play nice and cooperate without incentive.

Apr 19 2011

Bugs! Get ‘em off me!


For a variety of reasons, for several months, I’ve not been able to play more than a few hours each week, moving back into the realm of being a much maligned ‘casual’ player. It’s a distinction and tag that really irritates me, primarily because it’s waved around as a derogative term: “you’re coming into this instance with level-appropriate gear and aren’t yet raiding? you’re just a casual, so we’ll kick you”.

It’s been particularly hard for Belmann as both healer and DPS. His shadow spec gear is not particularly great, and he’s not intended to be primarily a DPS other than for fun and solo play. So when I got sick of the abuse in PUGs, I’d play as DPS rather than heals, and found I was getting abused for not putting out enough DPS either (ironically, usually because the group as a whole was not putting out enough, and he was not top of the charts). It was a bit easier for Morkhaeus, because as a fire mage he’s able to pump out respectable DPS without stellar gear, and I think because the average player has different expectations about a pure DPS character: “oh, he’s just DPS, he can stand up the back and pew-pew”.

One of my most experienced guild mates and fellow dwarf priest, Papaheal, hit the nail on the head a few weeks ago in guild chat after I was expressing my despair about the state of PUGs – “this expansion has been really hard on casual players”. What I think has happened for players like me who’ve spent the last few months with limited play time is this: the time-rich but talent-less have managed to brute force and face roll their way through heroic instances enough times to accumulate some gear and get over the hump of difficulty. Blizzard made no secret of intending the instances (heroic and normal) to be difficult and challenging, but there’s a large cadre of players raised on Wrath Of The Lich King who have no patience – they expect and demand that every instance boss be one-shotted, that there be no wipes, and even at extremes, no deaths. I would hate to be a tank in these times, but I’ve got to say that healing these instances with PUGs is painful. It’s a part of the game that has become Not Fun. And if I’m paying to play, why should I waste my limited time and money on doing something that’s Not Fun. So Belmann is caught in a cleft stick – in order to live up to the expectations of being able to heal through tough instances when others in the group are under-geared, uncooperative and just plain stupid, with no wipes and no deaths, he needs to become over-geared for the instances, which he cannot do without running the instances.

Sigh. I didn’t intend for this to turn into a rant about the pain of healing PUGs, I really didn’t. It’s pretty obvious that Blizzard’s plan to reward “needed” classes for queueing in the random LFD (read: healers and tanks) is in direct recognition that tanks and healers don’t want to run Cataclysm instances in PUGs. Blizzard can’t be unaware of the root reason though – it’s not that the game is challenging, it’s that there are a substantial number of complete ass-hats playing. Sigh. Why are people so unkind?

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, bugs. Of the six and eight legged variety, not the borken code type. Although I’ve seen two of the latter in recent weeks.

For a first, at the time I write there’s something wrong with VuhDo, which has evolved to be central to Belmann’s healing play: on some instances, particularly in raid content, it was causing my framerate to drop from 60+ FPS to 1 or 2 FPS. This was… Not Fun. I thought it was my computer blowing up, and it took quite a while to think to start turning off addons. And the other bug was something I’ve not seen for a long time – Maarisuu took a few steps North East of XXX Keep in the Blasted Lands, and fell through the world. Run, run, run, woop! Try as I could, I couldn’t find the spot again, and forgot to get a screen shot.

Because I’ve been playing in small chunks, I’ve been tending to pick up the reins on the alts, and particularly on Glymly the hunter and Maarisuu the baby prot warrior. Neither of which are babies anymore, in the last week they’ve both reached 60 and headed to the Outlands. I deliberately took them off through different zones to level, with Glymly hanging around the Easter Kingdoms, and Maarisuu roaming Kalimdoor. And with one exception, the reworked old content is a blast.

So far for levelling I’ve found that there is some truth in labelling hunters as “easy mode”, but I’m not sure that I’d recommend one for new players. Glymly is Beast Master spec, because for me that seems to be what a hunter should be about, and in general terms he goes through solo content like a hot knife through butter. The advantage of travelling with a personal tank in the form of a large irate black bear cannot be understated: usually he can just send the pet rushing off into the middle of a group of mobs, let the bear get aggro, then DPS from the edge without being hit at all. The hunter can pretty well snooze through any quests that involve killing ten rats or collecting ten rat tails. On the other hand I think that playing a hunter effectively is a subtle and complex task. I spend a lot more time watching both DPS and threat meters, and making concious decisions about what attack to throw out so as not to peel mobs off the bear. I’d call it easy mode for people who don’t need an easy mode.

On the other hand it took me a while to figure out how to effectively use the warrior, maybe because she’s a Prot warrior and really not designed to be able to pump out much damage. In the end I realised that if possible I should try to pick up three or four mobs at once and smack them down using a mixture of AOE attacks and direct walloping. Part of the slow realisation was that I’m not used to having a heavily armoured character that can absorb a lot of damage, or in the case of the sword-and-plank character, deflect the damage. For my first character, Giladris the badly specced rogue, pulling several mobs was suicide, and the same went for Belmann, particularly when he was in holy spec. Morkhaeus had a better time as a mage, but only if he could burn down mobs before they got into melee range.

One fun thing I’ve had with Maarisuu for quite a few levels was a pair of trinkets that fitted neatly against each other. The first got picked up in Thousand Needles, and summons a ghost Tauren to fight along side. I don’t think it’s damange scales with level, but on the other hand it definitely provided enough DPS to make it a valuable assistance from around level 35 up to 61 where she is now. The companion trinket is a hoot – it summons a sour-tempered Goblin nurse that stands around critiscising your lifestyle and putting down a good amount of healing. With these two, I found that I could easily wade into a pack of five or six mobs of higher level, use the trinkets, switch to defensive stance and just slug away without sweating.

Blizzard have been true to their aim to make levelling faster. Each of these two toons is wearing two or three heirloom pieces, which piles on experience at a blinding rate, but throughout the old world they have ensured that the collect-ten-rat-tail quests do not require killing one hundred rats. Most of the time quest items are pretty well 100% drop rate, and spawn rates and mob density ensure there’s little mindless grinding. Couple that with the quest helper facilities pointing you to the right area, and helping you see nearby questing areas, and it means that you can pick up a handful of quests and do a circuit out to satisfy all of them at once. There’s not many instances of the old style of questing where you are sent to the other side of the map to kill ten rats, return to the quest giver, and then get sent all the way across again to kill the boss rat. Quest hubs are intelligently placed, you can usually pick up several quests at once, and the quests are designed to minimise travel time.

Another really subtle change that makes levelling fast? Quest mobs have their names highlighted in red. It’s a little thing, but makes a big difference: the quest helper and map modifications get you to roughly the right area quickly, and once there it’s obvious who you need to clobber. Of course there’s a downside – in areas where the mobs have a high spawn rate, once you kill the ten rats, the red name plate goes away… and you can forget that the rats are still there eating your face. Oops.

Most of the new quests are fun. With one exception so far none of the revised old world zones have pointless quests. It’s a mixture of carefully written quest lines that really do advance a story, and culling of pointless quests. Even the kill-ten-rat quests are written so that there’s a reason to kill the rats, and killing the ten rats advances a coherent and cogent story. When you get near the end of the quests in a quest hub, there’ll be a breadcrumb quest to get you to the next hub, and the same for the zones.

A great example of this reworking is Un’Goro Crater. In the vanilla game, Un’Goro was one of those zones that people cordially loathed, or at best tolerated. It was full of dinosaurs that would eat your brain, gorillas that would tear off your arms, and bugs that would poison you. There was one quest hub at the north edge of the map, and you spent a ridiculous amount of time crossing all the way across the zone, a quest at a time. All gone. They moved the main quest hub to pretty well the dead center, and added an additional smaller hub. All the quests are linked into one overarching story, with a great reveal of the Titan’s purpose behind Un’Goro Crater – essentially it’s a big petri dish – and many quests slyly acknwoledge the old content. And you get to go questing with Don Quixote. Ok, he’s a deluded paladin that rewards a very nice shield, but he’s fun. You spend some time helping him defeat the ‘dragons’, then ‘rescue’ some very confused maidens, one of whom is a male blood elf, lay to rest some angry spirits with kind words, and generally tilt at windmills. The chain culminates in a hilarious attempt to down the devilsaur boss, which results in the paladin racing pell-mell around the zone with you on the back of his horse as he hands you pieces of his armour to throw at the boss. Result? A naked paladin, a dead dinosaur, and a really nice blue quest reward.

It’s a bit sad that most players probably won’t see the revised content unless they progress alts, because the revised zones are superb. This is really highlighted by the zone after Un’Goro, which is Silithus. For some reason the zone has been barely touched by the revisions, and it remains a bug ridden hell, with a lot of quests requiring you to travel to the edges of the zone out from the central quest hub, killing 30 of this and 40 of that and gathering 20 of these low drop rate items. A few of the more annoying quests have been trimmed, and the Sceptre of the Sands quest line seems to be gone (or else Maarisuu was too low a level to see the starting points of the quest), but in general the zone felt like vanilla content. The writing of the quests was comparably clunky as well: often it was difficult to tell where to go and what to do when you got there, and the whole zone just feels like a dull grind. I finished up the quests and got out of there as quickly as I could.

So both of those dwarfs have hit Hellfire Peninsula at the same time, and I’ll try to keep them in lockstep progression again. It’s startling how much work Blizzard have put into the levelling process, particularly if you are levelling alts. Each of these characters has two or three heirloom pieces, and when the experience buff of that is combined with the experience buff from the guild, they rapidly out-level both the content in zones and the resources in the zone – several times I had to take them back to previous zones to grind up mining and skinning simply so they could strip mine the zones they were currently chainsawing their way through.

To my mind, though, the levelling process has been enhanced through three fairly subtle changes:

1) by adding more quest hubs and flight points within each zone, considerably less time is taken up by just getting around the zones, and there are far fewer instances of being sent a long way just to hand in or pick up one quest;
2) in the lower levels, up to about level 50, the drop rates on quest items is pretty well 100%, and even from 50 to 60 it’s generally high;
3) the XP gain from gathering professions is a very nice bonus, making it very worth while (and quite lucrative) to stop and smell the roses before tearing them up by their roots.

So over the weekend I thought I’d try heroics again. And wish I hadn’t, it was a throughly miserable experience. I pulled Morkhaeus out of the closet, ran some dailys to limber up, and looked for a random normal dungeon. That went well, he was obviously geared enough (as was the rest of the group) to pretty well face-roll through the instance, whichever it was. Too many names to remember now – it was the dwarf city where you get to ride on drakes half way through and carpet bomb mobs. Virtually all the loot that dropped was disenchanted, other than a cloak that was a minor improvement for Mork’s intelligence. So it was pretty clear that this random set of five people, presumably a representative sample, had gotten all the gear worth getting from normals already.

I rolled up my sleeves when a Guild heroic run was organised, and we went into the instance in Uldum. We had a moderately new tank, but a very experienced healer and rogue, and a reasonably experienced mage, with all of us notionally geared for the heroic content, and Papa and Sammy tricked out in early raid gear. And it was a miserable, horrible disaster. We wiped endlessly on the first boss, gave up and headed to the crocodile boss, and wiped endlessly on him as well. I think we wiped about 14 times, with Papa and Sammy (rightly) encouraging us to keep trying so we could improve. But we didn’t. With gear that Blizzard deemed to be instance appropriate, we could not generate enough DPS to burn down the bosses before Papa blew through his mana pool and the heals dried up. The numbers just did not work. It really felt like we needed to be over-geared to get through it.

I gave up in despair, changed to Belmann, and Papa switched into shadow spec so we could try again. And the same problem existed – insufficient DPS to get through the boss before Belmann’s mana dried up.

Really at this point I’m ready to give up attempting to progress into end-game content. The levelling process for the alts through revised content is amusing, and I can certainly level professions to their max. Perhaps I should turn the game into a game of auction houses instead and aim to max out gold. Pretty well anything to allow me to login for an hour or so every few days and not spend the time being told that I suck.

Enough of this. Next time lots of pictures, rather than a wall of text banged out on the train.

Dec 4 2010

Who’s Your Daddy?


I took Hannarrgh the combat rogue through the chains of quests in Westfall today, and they are awesome – they are fantastically designed to lead you up to and into the Deadmines, introduce a context and background for the instance, teach you the route through the mines to the instance, and tell a great story. The story is, for those of you living under rocks, that Van Cleef had a daughter who witnessed his callous slaughter at the hands of 5 adventurers some 5 years ago… and now she is all grown up, not particularly stable, and really pissed.

The instance layout is unchanged, but the content is radically different. It turns out that players at level can get through it without the endless wipes of the original version, and it’s significantly faster to run. A fun aspect of the instance is that there’s a variety of new mechanics to take advantage of, and to deal with. I won’t go through the boss fights, since they’ll be documented and described all over the place, but two things to look out for:

1) the cannon early in the instance (and late as well) can be used to deal with trash, throwing down a very powerful AOE attack;
2) don’t kill the monkeys – click on their ball-and-chain to release them, and they will help you take down the trash.

Now, the less pleasant part of the first run through, and a taste of things to come. The instance was not hugely difficult, but not a push over either. And it’s definitely not somewhere for baby tanks to barge through the way we’ve gotten used to seeing in Wrath. The first tank we had died four times, then rage quit after telling everyone else that we sucked. Actually, that’s not quite what he said, but this is a PG blog. The next tank did much better, and tried to slow down, but there was still way too much rushing going on, and on every pull mobs were running everywhere. We got through because of a combination of blind luck and a good healer.

I’m going to run it again though, and try to get people to slow down and enjoy it – the easter eggs in the instance are delicious, and quite funny.

Nov 17 2010

Want some libertarian comment with that?


I am loving the pre-Cataclysm events and story line that are playing out. The overall story arc and NPC character writing is very good, and there is much more sense of a deep and persistent back-story then there was with the Wrath pre-release (and really, the BC pre-release was pretty well non-existent). They’ve also listened to the player base and made the events much less intrusive – players can opt to ignore the pre-release activity, engage in it lightly, or throw themselves fully into it.

The pace of the events has been excellent as well, particularly if you step back and look at a key facet of the in-game world: the characters we are playing, the puppet avatars we all (one way or another) role play through, and the NPCs, are not aware of what is happening. Step into the game world with me for a moment: everyone is aware that something weird is going on. Nobody has the full picture, nobody has a prescient view of the impending cataclysm. It’s a world where the political leadership is exhausted from fighting the Lich King, and where political and religious institutions have been badly fractured by conflict arising from the war in Northrend. Everything is a bit of a mess, it’s looking like a new war with the Horde is on the horizon, elemental forces are upset and confused, and the earthquakes are coming faster all the time.

Now look at what the events have involved (alliance blinkers on here, I have no idea what the horde events are). We started with the usual sort of vague “there’s something odd happening, go see what it is” quests that we’re used to from the druids. It escalated into a rather more pointed series of investigations on behalf of the military/police of Stormwind, dealing with what they suspect to be a present threat from the latest freaky cult. Which quickly escalated into you going out on the streets of Stormwind and telling the population that the king and security forces are suspending their expected and traditional liberties. This is a pretty grim situation – the general overall ethos in the Warcraft world is a vague adherence to secular humanism, with a heavy overlay of belief in personal freedom married closely to personal responsibility. In other words, fairly standard post-Tolkien fantasy role play.

Going further with that thought. King Varian Wrynn is generally and basically the Lawful Good archetype (yet another Paladin with a rod up his royal backside), and when you take that to extremes you get some pretty questionable behaviour. And he’s done some pretty questionable things. Invading the Undercity is high on the list. Even though it’s the “right” thing to do, there surely would have been less bloody minded and dogmatic ways of dealing with the issue. And this whole “tell the citizens I’m putting a fence around them to protect them, at the cost of their liberties” is pretty questionable as well: at this stage, he’s not really got evidence that the cult is that much of a threat. The reactions is dispraportionate.

Stepping back out into the Real World – it’s a lovely piece of detailed and quite deep world building, presented in a way that players can engage with it at whatever level they choose. It makes me excited for Cataclysm – all those extra writers and designers they have are going to have made some really neat toys for us.