A Flight Too Far

I wasn’t going to write two posts about the lack of flying in Draenor, but the flurry of interviews and blue posts regarding it has taken me by surprise. After some thought though, I have decided to enumerate my feelings on the matter as dispassionately as possible, to hopefully serve as a more useful vehicle for feedback. I am mainly doing this for Russ Peterson:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” or similar is often attributed to Henry Ford.
And the point of that statement is that there are often solutions to a problem that are not always a direct continuation of what you expect
So when you think about flying/not flying today, try to think about what you like or miss in specifics rather than the blanket feature
Like: I miss flying because I enjoy looking at the world from a high vantage point, or I don’t miss flying because the world feels dangerous
It helps us when you can give feedback about the feelings and emotion you have or don’t have, and how that affects your behavior.
Yelling at us and telling us we’re dumb for making a decision doesn’t help.
For example, it could be argued that the command table is a stronger tether to keeping you in the garrison than lack of flight.
Try to dig past the initial feeling and reaction and tell us why you feel the way you do. That’s the feedback that makes the game better.
I’m heading out early for the holiday weekend. Keep sending feedback. I will always read it.

WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING …ahem. Let’s begin.

1) Flying gives players agency.

When I am on a flying mount, I am in control of my character. I am interacting with the world on my own time, in my own manner, and at my own discretion. While I might not always be paying attention while flying around, the fact is something could attract my eye at any moment and change my plans. Maybe I see a rare spawn, maybe I see some resource nodes, maybe I see some players in need of assistance. Flying gives me power, and yes, convenience.

2) Flying exposes poor quest design, not create it.

In the interview with Ion Hazzikostas, he states the following:

Hazzikostas gives an example: Before flying was introduced to World of Warcraft, if you got a quest to rescue a prisoner from an enemy encampment, it would play out a certain way. Players would need to fight their way through the camp. After flying, players could just fly into the center of camp, land on top of the hut where the prisoner is, free him and fly out.

“It made the world feel in many ways much smaller,” he says.

In a world without flying, the quest Ion is using as an example is still bad. If all I have to do is click on the cage, that means there is no reason to interact with the rest of the enemy encampment. Which means I will go out of my way to not interact with it. Stealth past the mobs, run through on a ground mount and use one of the handful of combat-stopping items (Treessassin’s Guise, etc), and otherwise try not to have my time sunk fighting useless mobs that only drop vendor trash.

We can instead imagine an alternate quest in which you can only release the prisoner after killing X mobs. Perhaps one of the many guards is holding the key to the cage. Maybe the prisoner won’t be able to escape the encampment until you thin the enemy ranks. Or whatever. Adding just a single extra step completely obviates the concern about flying directly to the prisoner and flying away.

3) A world’s size is dictated by volume of content, not speed in which it’s traversed.

One of the points often raised in regards to flying is that it makes the world feel smaller. I could not possibly disagree more. There has not been a single location on Azeroth or beyond that I could fly across that felt small because I could traverse it quickly. In fact, the very argument implies that one can make a world bigger simply by reducing player speed by 50%. If it takes you twice as long to run across Goldshire, does that mean Goldshire is now twice as large? Of course not.

The size of any game world is a function of what you can do in it. Which is bigger: Dragonblight or Jade Forest? Take a moment and just feel your answer.

Now, look at this:

*Jeopardy music*

*Jeopardy music*

It could very well be that Jade Forest has more quests and square footage; I don’t know how big each is off-hand, although I’m tempted to say Dragonblight. But as I leveled my druid alt through Pandaria recently, I could not help but be struck by the feeling of enormity in Jade Forest despite having purchased the BoA flight book. After spending two hours questing and gathering, I realized that I was still in the bottom third of the map. That’s how you get a big world.

Empty space doesn’t make anything bigger. If you smash Silithus, Un’Goro Crater, and Tanaris together into one zone, you’ll have a big map, but still fall short of Jade Forest’s real size by 10 quests. Three entire zones.

4) Flight Paths, no matter how quick, break immersion.

I’m going to quote Ion again here:

“The world feels larger, feels more dangerous,” he says. “There’s more room for exploration, for secrets, for discovery and overall immersion in the world.

Two paragraphs later:

He also promises that Blizzard will continue working to improve its network of taxi flight paths in the game to prevent any major frustration from this change: “The goal is to maximize convenience in getting from point a to point [b] but retaining as much of the gameplay and depth as possible once you do get to that point.”

Faster, more numerous, and more direct Flight Paths seems to be the “compensation” for removing player flight, but it is a poor one. Do you know what I do the moment I click on a Flight Path? I Alt-Tab out of the game and go browse websites. Blizzard has to know how common a phenomenon this is, as they introduced a loading screen into WoW for players who Alt-Tab back into the game after their character finishes a taxi ride.

Immersion is about a consistent experience. For me, there isn’t anything that breaks me out of “the zone” more than a long, non-interactive loading screen from which I cannot escape. I mean, thank you for the Exit Taxi button, I guess, but there’s such a huge delay between seeing something interesting while on the FP and actually getting back there, that there’s no reason to bother. I will Alt-Tab out of even a 60-second flight because that is 60 seconds of me not actually getting to play the game.

I have no doubt there are players who get on their flying mounts and just auto-fly forward while AFK in the same way I do on Flight Paths. But again, immersion is about a consistent gaming experience. There is 100% immersion from me questing one moment, to flying back home the next. There is zero immersion while I browse CNN.com while the game arbitrarily dictates how quickly I get to my destination.

5) Exploration is discouraged with lack of mobility.

Ion and others mention how flying diminishes exploration, but it is the exact opposite in my experience.

“While there was certainly convenience in being able to completely explore the world in three dimensions, that also came at the expense of gameplay like targeted exploration, like trying to figure out what’s in that cave on top of a hill and how do I get up there.”

There is a threshold to how inconvenient an activity can be and still feel rewarding to pursue. An example of this is Archaeology: I have all but abandoned trying to obtain Zin’rokh (troll sword) and the Ultramarine Qiraji Battle Tank (Tol’vir mount). When I look at my Archaeology map and I see dig sites scattered across continents and focused on races I am not even pursuing, I feel like giving up on the entire profession. If it were even slightly less insane an undertaking however, I would continue happily farming away.

In the example of “what’s in that cave at the top of the hill,” I have to ask a few questions. How do I even know there is a cave at the top of the hill? Does a quest send me up there? Is there a rare spawn? Does it contain anything of any relevance to a level-capped player (as leveling characters never traditionally have flight anyway)? I ask these questions because the world is riddled with empty set pieces and half-finished content. If I navigate my way to the top of the hill and the bottom of the cave and there is nothing there, I will be hugely disappointed and far less likely to risk my time in the future.

In fact, the majority of the time you are punished for exploring. When we talk about navigating up that hill, or any hill, there is typically only one path that’s intended. I can’t count the number of times I saw what appeared to be a shortcut or “hidden path” in Shadowmoon Valley that ended up being a decorative piece of impassible terrain. So now I get to take falling damage and walk clear around the base of the hill to find where the designers wanted to “target” my “exploration.”

These days, if a quest asks me to go to the top of any hill or down inside any cave, I skip that quest and move on.

6) The world has never been less dangerous, even without flying.

I honestly do not get what people are talking about when they suggest lack of flying “makes the world more dangerous.” The danger of the world is completely independent of your method of travel (unless you are a druid). What is going to kill you? Pulling too many mobs? Having a patrol run into you while fighting something else? Guess what, you are already on the ground. Unless your health was so low that the 1-2 hits you might receive after you escape on your ground mount would kill you, the danger is identical.

I suppose there is an increased risk from falling damage, but many classes have means of negating it with simply class abilities. Or the Goblin Gliders. Nevermind just hearthing out.

There has been some talk about how removing flying mounts encourages more world PvP. If it does, I haven’t seen it. Sure, you are stuck on the ground, surrounded by impassible 5-foot slopes and such. But so is the other faction. If someone wants to go around hunting for trouble, they literally have to hunt – being stuck on the ground limits your sight horizons. So in many scenarios, I feel like there is less world PvP simply because those who want to be engaging in it can’t find targets who might just be over the next ridge or behind that tree.

7) Flight is a tremendous reward for reaching endgame.

Has there ever been a bigger carrot than unlocking flying again at the endgame? I haven’t seen one.

The only thing I got at the end of Draenor was a Level 3 Garrison which, considering how useless many of my professions became, did not actually help me much in terms of increased buildings. I suppose there are raids and heroics dungeons and such, but I get instantly teleported to those so… yeah. Compared to fundamentally changing how I interact with the expansion’s world (i.e. flying), there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to for that last ding.

8) Flying mounts look terrible on the ground.

Some of the most rare, most prestigious mounts in the game look absolutely terrible on the ground. While I do not normally advocate for past achievements dictating future design, I think it’s worth acknowledging that people spent hundreds of hours farming, say, the Pandarian dragons, and are now stuck watching them writhe on the ground like a wounded snake. I have the Ashes of A’lar, and I pretty much will never get to use that mount again, as it looks dumb hovering over the ground.

9) The Water Strider Problem.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes, I only have one mount this expansion: the Azure Water Strider. The ability to traverse rivers, lakes, and oceans makes all other mounts (aside from the Crimson Water Strider) functionally useless. Why would I use the Raven Lord – a mount I finally got after five years of farming – when it would limit my mobility and ability to navigate terrain? Even flying mounts apparently sink like stones.

If we really are going to be glued to the surface from now on, you are going to have to address the Water Strider problem for the nine classes that can’t just ignore it. I unlocked that mount back in Mists on a lark, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made for this, and potentially all future expansions.

10) Suspicious of the future.

This last point is kinda out there, but just stick with me for a second.

I think it is pretty clear that Draenor wasn’t intended to be a permanent no-fly zone. I say this not only because of the various statements from Ion and other Blizzard designers – who made it clear that no flying was an experiment that “could go either way” – but out of the basic design of the world itself. For example, the vast tracks of empty, quest-less terrain throughout Shadowmoon Valley recall the design of similar future-flight zones like Dragonblight. The biggest clue however, comes from the fact that we can fly a little bit here and there with items like Aviana’s Feather and the Goblin Gliders. We would not have had that ability if Blizzard didn’t fully generate 3D terrain throughout Draenor.

So here’s my theory: Blizzard is removing flying to cut future production costs.

In a world without flying, or restricting flying to specific areas, Blizzard is free to replace large swaths of the map with 2D sprites and skyboxes. This is the exact reason why you still cannot fly in Silvermoon City: the city outside the narrow roads simply doesn’t exist. Stormwind had the same issue prior to Cataclysm, if you’ll recall, but they did spend the manpower to construct a fully 3D space. They had to, because otherwise every character with a flying mount would immediately see the seams of the gameworld.

On one hand, there’s nothing necessarily “bad” about this sort decision in of itself. If you can’t physically get to somewhere, there is no reason why you should be upset that it was a clever skybox instead of fully functional rendered terrain.

On the other hand, if true, it would make Blizzard disingenuous to the extreme. And, you know, this particular explanation (e.g. cut costs) makes more sense than the ones we have been presented thus far. Flying has been spun as this big “problem” that there needs to be a “solution” for, but where is the actual problem? When did it start occurring? Did anyone honestly think Northrend was “too small” because of flying? Was there anything more impressive than Icecrown Citadel in terms of set pieces seen from a flying mount? If Northrend was a no-fly zone, I guarantee that 95% of ICC would have been sprites.

World of Warcraft is the most successful MMO ever made and has maintained that title for over ten years now. Despite that fact, and the sheer volume of cash flow, Blizzard has never been able to release expansions faster. How long was the last raid tier in Pandaria active again? So Blizzard has every incentive to cut as many corners as they can to push content out the door faster. We have seen that time and time again in Draenor, and I suspect we’ll see more of it in future no-flight expansions.

If this is the real reason, I wish Blizzard would just come out and say it. Because if it is the case, we already lost the debate, and nothing we say matters; we are no longer debating design philosophy, we are debating dollars. And that is one argument players are never going to win.

No-Fly Zone

[Update: No flying ever, apparently. Remember when WoW had sane lead designers?]

Has the lack of flying in Warlords made the world feel larger?

Like a surprising number of people, I occasionally forget that there isn’t flying in Draenor. I have only really noticed the lack here recently due to two factors: leveling my druid (now level 89) and trying to do Archaeology on my main. And it was really the latter situation that reminded me of why I always say that to make a world feel larger, you simply put more things in it. This is opposed to the current design, where you simply make everyone move slower.

Does anyone actually feel like Draenor is bigger than, say, Pandaria? Or Northrend? I only recently activated my second WoW Token for this expansion, but I have long since ran out of reasons to care about the world. Questing is still in tightly-packed hubs, so the ground-mount limitation only means the time between quest pick-up and quest turn-in is longer, not any of my actual gameplay. Hitting up resource nodes is a massive pain, but Garrisons really cover that anyway. If for some reason I feel compelled to do the Apexis daily, they might as well have teleported me there, because I immediately Alt-Tab out of the game while on Flight Paths.

If anything, I would argue that the lack of flying has actually resulted in less gameplay, not more. As I mentioned before, I was trying to do some Archaeology on my main the other day and barely managed to get through two digsites before logging out in disgust. Archaeology is already a time-sink of incredible magnitude, but I’m not about to waste even more time traversing asinine landscapes specifically designed to thwart shortcuts/exploration. I can attack 30-foot tall Old Gods, but that intentionally annoying 5-foot slope is impassible.

Don’t even get me started on how being limited to ground mounts has driven me to exclusively use the Water Strider mount. When all other mounts are functionally identical except for two which allow you to bypass all water hazards, it becomes dumb to use anything else. I spent five years farming the Raven Lord mount, actually acquired it two weeks ago, and only ever use it inside my Garrison.

I can empathize with Blizzard’s desires here. They want a guided experience, and to know that a player will experience this particular vista at this time at this place. But it’s bullshit. You still get that by limiting flying to the level cap. If you want us with boots on the ground, how about giving us a reason to have boots on the ground? Like, I dunno, daily quests?

I feel like this entire expansion has been a long string of comical blunders achieving the exact opposite of stated goals. Remove flying to make the world feel bigger? The world isn’t bigger, there’s just more empty space inbetween points of interest. Nevermind how Blizzard “made the world bigger” but somehow ended up putting fewer things to do in it.

As I mentioned before, I just turned in my second WoW Token. Unless I really get sucked into PvP though, I can’t imagine myself turning in a third one. My prior plan was to stick around into 6.2 long enough to cash in on the whole Felblight deal and set myself up nicely gold-wise for the next expansion. Given how rapidly I am depleting my WoW Bucket List however, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.

Review: The Banner Saga

Game: The Banner Saga
Recommended price: < $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10-12 hours
Buy If You Like: PC ports of mobile tactical games, Kickstarter games

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

The Banner Saga is one of those darling Kickstarter stories in which a scrappy development team (or professional game designers) achieves high accolades for a beautifully drawn, epic soundtrack-having mobile-to-PC tactical RPG port. When judged against its Kickstarted peers, it stands rather tall amongst them, especially for having actually made it to release. When judged on its own merits however, The Banner Saga falls somewhat short despite it’s high Metacritic rating.

The basic thrust of The Banner Saga is one of Norse-style apocalypse. The gods are dead, the historical baddies (Dredge) are flooding the North, and everything is going to hell. The plot follows two separate caravans as they rapidly become refugee trains fleeing the destruction. Along the way you are presented with a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure blind choices and are rewarded or punished (mainly punished) with abrupt character deaths, loss of supplies, and similarly depressing news. Oh, and occasionally battles.

The tactical combat system in The Banner Saga is not one I have seen before, and I’m tempted to say that was for a reason. Every unit has both an Armor meter and a Strength meter, the latter of which is also your HP. Damage is calculated as “Your Strength – Their Armor = They Lose X Strength.” I already consider such systems a Red Flag simply for how many times it leads to snowball situations: wounded characters immediately lose most of their combat value. “Luckily” enough, damaging Armor isn’t tied to Strength at all (Armor Break is a separate stat you can increase), so even a character with 1 HP (i.e. 1 Strength) can do something useful. Also, some character classes have special abilities that do a set amount of damage no matter that’s character’s Strength.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

My issue with things comes from the Turn Order system. Simply put: it alternates. Before you get into combat, you can decide which of your party members goes in which order. Once combat begins, it starts with your 1st member and then goes to one unit on the enemy’s side. If you manage to kill an enemy before their turn, the next enemy in the turn order will take their spot and everyone else moves down. This continues until there is only one enemy left, which starts “Pillage Mode” and your whole team gets one turn for every one that the last enemy receives.

The entire system leads to bizarre scenarios wherein an enemy unit can suddenly get 3-4 free turns of attacks off on a character before you can react, as you uselessly move around other out-of-range characters. In other words, the enemy gets more dangerous the more enemy units you kill; conversely, this never seems to improve your own odds of success when put in similar situations.

The other major problem I had with the game design was… well, the rest of it. You receive Renown points after battles, and Renown pulls double duty as both currency to purchase items/Supplies for your caravan and as an upgrade currency. If you want to level a character up from 2 to 3, that costs 10 Renown, for example. The problem here is that there is never enough. Which, okay, it’s Ragnarok, what are you going to do? But The Banner Saga is not at all gun-shy about killing your playable characters without warning in one of the frequent dialog choices, taking the 30+ Renown you’ve invested along with them. I couldn’t help but feel like the developers were trying to make the game be a roguelike but only going halfway. Am I supposed to reload my last auto-save when I find out that X died? Or will there be enough Renown later to off-set the loss?

Spoiler alert: no.

Know what's fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

Know what’s fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

In the end, I find it somewhat hard to recommend The Banner Saga, at least with even a fraction of the fervor it was recommended to me. If you are looking for a solid tactical RPG ala Final Fantasy Tactics, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an engaging roguelike, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a regular RPG with a great story, you will be disappointed – the game ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, as it was designed as a trilogy from the start. If you are looking for an iPad game to play for more than 10 hours, you will be disappointed.

There is some good things going on in The Banner Saga – the music, artwork, and animations are fantastic – but it’s not a complete project. The less you treat it as a serious game and more as an interactive picturebook, the better off you will be.

Blizzard Facepalm: Dungeon Edition

While MMO-Champion has the summarized version of a recent Venture Beat interview with Ion Hazzikostas, I think it’s worth reading the whole thing for yourself. Because it’s only after reading the actual words, do you realize the utterly fascinating world the Blizzard devs must inhabit.

For example, this section was up near the beginning of the interview:

GamesBeat: Has anything about the content in the Warlords expansion disappointed you?

Hazzikostas: There are areas where we’ve seen slight declines, but we attribute that largely to a failure on our part to properly keep them incentivized and interesting.

I think [five-player] dungeons is a great example of a shortcoming there. We created a bunch of new dungeons for Warlords of Draenor, but we didn’t really give much reason to keep running them after the initial weeks or couple of months of the expansion.

In the past, you kept running Mists [of Pandaria] dungeons, which probably overstayed their welcome a little bit, but you kept running them for valor points [which you could exchange for gear] a year-plus into the expansion.

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points. But I think we went too far.

Far be it for me to point out that “running the same content over and over” is, in fact, the cornerstone upon which all MMO content is built. In fact, it’s really the foundation of the majority of RPGs, or any game with experience points. Even in pure PvP sandboxes, someone is out there mining space/fantasy ore, someone is farming mobs for loot, and the gears of the game economy turn only from their Sisyphean labor.

And, of course, there’s nothing stopping Blizzard from, you know, releasing new dungeons throughout the expansion if they don’t want us running the same half-dozen. If they’re still gun-shy from the ZA/ZG fiasco, they shouldn’t be, as the solution is easy: scale all dungeon gear upwards. We know they have the technology.

I might be able to take Hazzikostas’ word here as a radical shift of Blizzard philosophy regarding repeatable content in general, especially given Warlords has cut back on daily quest hubs and reputation grinds. But then this happens:

GamesBeat: What features of patch 6.2 do you hope will improve the player experience?

Hazzikostas: We’re adding mythic [difficulty] dungeons that allow even players in a group with four of their friends to go through a harder version of some of our dungeons with a weekly lockout, almost like a mini-little five-man raid. It should be a fun experience. […]

It’s just getting that type of gameplay feeling relevant again. [Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Let me emphasize this a bit stronger for you:

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points.

Followed by:

[Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Wut

I… I can’t even.

…guys. Out of all the developers in all of the world making all of the games, these people have the one with 7+ million subscribers. They think “hey, running dungeons for Valor points, something we introduced back in TBC and has been working ever since, is silly. How about we axe it for no mechanical reason and not replace the incentive with anything, and just see what happens?” I mean, not even with gold, which would have been an interesting dynamic. Would you run a daily random heroic for a bag with 150g inside? Maybe that would even be too much, but at least it would have been something.

But, nope, they took “one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre” and removed all incentive for doing any of them, followed by a continued failure to introduce any new ones. The issue is not even a lack of incentive for 5-mans, the issue is they thought it was silly for you to do them over and over again, incentive or not. Who are these people, and why have they never played an MMO in their life before? Seriously, what did they imagine their audience would be doing every day? Not playing the game? Unsubscribing after they consume all the non-repeatable content in two weeks?

In which case, mission fucking accomplished.

Hope You Don’t Like Wildstar

If you are a fan of Wildstar, well, you might want to soak it in while it lasts:

Someone stood in the fire.

Not that that’s statistically likely.

The above graph is from NCSoft’s Q12015 report, which you can read here. Supposedly, “sales” does refer to all revenue brought in by a game through every channel, not just box sales. Reddit user “yeahreally2″ summarizes as follows:

Company-wide sales are down 20% from the last quarter of 2014 from 235 billion won ($215 million USD) to 188 billion won ($172 million USD). Net income is down 43% from last quarter from 62 billion won to 35 billion won. NCsoft notes that income was high in the 4th quarter of last year “due to year-end promotions”. While NCsoft’s sales beat the forecast from Daewoo Securities (179 billion won), its operating profit and net income did not.

Guild Wars 2 performed slightly better in this quarter than last, probably boosted by the expansion hype exceeding Daewoo’s forecast by 3 billion won. Wildstar’s sales declined from 5.5 billion won ($5 million USD) in the previous quarter to 2.5 billion won ($2.3 million USD) in Q1. This is a 50% decrease in sales from the previous quarter, and is only slightly better than Daewoo’s projection of 2 billion won ($1.8 million USD).

I suppose it should not be particularly surprising given all the layoffs last October, but still… damn.

By the way, this was what the quarterly report looked like for City of Heroes at the end:

Uh oh.

Uh oh.

In other words, City of Heroes was making 2,855… units to Wildstar’s current 2,593 units. And NCSoft axed CoH the following quarter. So if Wildstar makes it to its own one-year anniversary, it will be quite the birthday present from NCSoft.

I enjoyed the graphics of Wildstar, the housing, the general tone, and the hoverboards. I was even playing with friends there for a little bit. Trouble was that the gameplay wasn’t all that fun. More involved than WoW? Sure. Also more exhausting, especially when every mob in the world has a telegraph you need to circle-strafe out of. Plus, I got stuck playing a class I didn’t actually find all that fun.

Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Paladins Are Boring

Is there a more boring class in WoW than paladins?

This question has been fermenting in my mind for quite some time now, and it’s a rather depressing one as someone who has had a paladin “main” for damn near a decade. It isn’t a “grass is always greener” issue either, or even a “Retribution brings nothing that a Holy paladin couldn’t” issue. The issue is just straight-up soggy cardboard class design.

I am primarily speaking towards Retribution, as that is what I level and play as most of the time. And it’s mind-numbingly boring. Judgment, Crusader Strike, Exorcism… wait for procs. Sometimes a long string of connected procs appears, and I pretend like I’m having fun for 20 seconds. It never works though, because none of my attacks feels like it has any weight behind it. Part of that could be because every special attack sounds like I’m squeezing water out of a sponge.

Then you get to paladin abilities. Avenging Wrath was the peak of Retribution design, or any paladin design, really – everything else has been downhill. Every button on my bar is defensive. And not like “cool defensive cooldown,” just straight boring damage reduction most of the time.

  • Hammer of Justice. “Trinket this and win” button.
  • Word of Glory. An “I LOSE” button.
  • Lay on Hands. Full heal. Neat.
  • Divine Shield. Aka Bubble-Hearth.
  • Cleanse. Okay?
  • Divine Protection. Damage reduction, wheee.
  • Hand of Protection. Ghetto Divine Shield.
  • Hand of Freedom. “Dispel me” disco ball.
  • Emancipate. For when Hand of Freedom is dispelled.
  • Avenging Wrath. The one legit ability.
  • Hand of Sacrifice. Soooo useful, Blizzard, thanks.

The talent tree is also incredibly sad:

  • Tier 1: Remember when paladins were actually mobile? Now they aren’t!
  • Tier 2: Remember when Retribution had PvP utility? Now they don’t!
  • Tier 3: Remember when there was a cool interaction between Sacred Shield & Flash of Light?
  • Tier 4: Straight-up useless.
  • Tier 5: Want a cooldown for your cooldowns, or proc for your procs?
  • Tier 6: Have another button that you press once and forget to press again.
  • Tier 7: YOUR ULTIMATE ABILITY IS… hey, let’s make Divine Storm not suck.

Glyphs? Just look at them. They’re total garbage. Damage reduction or more healing. Wait, wait… one of them increases the damage on ONE ability, but only for the second mob you hit. Which is just fucking fantastic, exactly what I was looking for. Where’s the glyph that completely changes your leveling rotation, like the priest’s Glyph of Mind Harvest?

Find me a more boring class for leveling, for farming, for PvP. When I get on my Death Knight alt, it’s like 10 years of the hopes and dreams of paladins everywhere, condensed in playable form. “Here’s damage reduction… and a stun break/stun immunity!” “Here’s spell damage reduction… and CC immunity!” Look at Tier 7 talents for DKs. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

…they are all goddamn abilities from the Lich King! That feels amazing and gets you pumpped to hit max level. Where is that cool Uther or Tirion feeling in paladin talents? Nowhere. Total garbage.

When I play my warrior, I feel excited because I’ll basically be able to Charge every mob. When I play my DK, I feel excited because I can Death Grip every mob. When I play my rogue, I feel excited because I can fucking teleport behind every mob (seriously, Cloak & Dagger is amazing for leveling). When I play my druid, I feel excited because I’m playing a nuanced class that some designer actually gave two shits about because whoa, look at all the things I can do.

The more I think about it, the more it feels like the paladin class was transplanted from another game entirely. It doesn’t fit WoW anymore, assuming it ever did. The niche it fulfills is “all these buttons are for other people” when the game has been about all the cool individual things you can do for the last three expansions. In fact, every other class has so many individual things they can do that they don’t need paladin assistance anymore.

I haven’t felt excited about paladins since Wrath, really. Not because there were moments when Retribution was overtuned – although it was glorious for a while there – but because it felt like there was actually nuance to the gameplay. Hand of Freedom broke stuns. If you cast Flash of Light on yourself when the 6-second shield from Sacred Shield was up, it was almost always a crit. There was some interplay between abilities back then.

Paladins need an(other) overhaul. Or, at least Retribution does. There’s nothing retributive about them. Too many of the Ret abilities serve no function to the paladin him/herself nor hinder enemies in any way. Again, if that’s supposed to be the paladin schtick, it’s a dumb one for the way the game is currently designed.

Want some suggestions? Invert the Hand spells for Retribution for starters. Hand of Freedom becomes Hand of Confinement for enemies. Hand of Protection becomes Hand of Sequestoring, e.g. same exact effect except castable on enemies. Hand of Sacrifice becomes Hand of Punishment, where 30% of the damage you take is dealt to that enemy. Hell, how about inverting Divine Shield to Divine Retribution, so that instead of being immune to everything you simply reflect incoming attacks/spells?

The devs wouldn’t need to give Retribution all these abilities either. Make us choose, if you like. Have it be talent, or gylph, or (sigh) cooldown. Make it so that if you take Hand of Confinement, you can’t cast Hand of Freedom anymore. Something, anything.

I originally chose to play a paladin in WoW because I always found them conceptually interesting as a class in D&D, but disliked the Lawful Good limitations. Being a frontline fighter killing things with a sword of light was cool. And that concept can still be cool. Remember Seal of Blood? Conceptually cool.

Tirion. Uther. The Ashbringer. Did you feel anything from those names, and if so, were those feelings at all comparible to the feeling evoked from WoW paladins? From where I’m sitting, whatever class Tirion and Uther actually belong to, it sure as hell ain’t paladin.

Not Garrisons

One of the recurring themes across various forums concerning WoW’s shocking 2.9 million sub loss is “Garrisons did it.”

Garrisons offer too much convenience. So much that Draenor went from populated to empty in a few short months. Nerf garrisons. (+239)

On the surface level, it’s easy to agree. Everything in this expansion pivots around the Garrison, from the 2nd Hearthstone to its more centralized location, to the mission system, and beyond. And as many people have pointed out, Blizzard went from being worried about player housing siphoning people from the capital cities and sequestering them into instances to… encouraging players to stay in their instanced Garrisons. Why leave? There are no daily quest hubs or relevant reputation factions to farm, and grounded travel limits your vision to the immediate horizon.

But then Grumpy Elf made me realize what was actually missing:

5) Valor / Justice:

This is the biggest, single most missed thing in the game right now.  So much is connected to it that I imagine that you do not even realize it.  Valor was a carrot, one we kept chasing each and every week.  It was a motivator, something this game is lacking at the moment.

For any game of this type the key to success is to keep up running the wheel and points did that.  Be it valor to get the weekly cap or justice when you wanted to convert it to honor or buy heirlooms.  Collecting points was a good motivator.  It gave content repeatability.  At the moment you can hit 100 and really have absolutely no reason to do dungeons except to start the ring quest line but with valor, and associated valor gear, for a fresh dinged character it would once again be worth doing them, ring or not.

What’s the first thing you think about, in terms of casual content in MMOs? Raids? World PvP?

Or, you know, dungeons?

Grumpy Elf is absolutely correct here in pointing out that dungeons in this expansion are a joke. Why would you ever run them? You can bypass the gear check for LFR with crafted gear and questing, the former of which you can craft with… wait for it… Garrisons. And that’s what is going on: Garrisons replaced Dungeons. Where do you get raid-level gear this expansion, without having to raid? From your Garrison. Where did you get raid-level gear without raiding in every other expansion thus far? Dungeons. QED.

I can even see where Blizzard might have thought they were doing casuals a favor. Casual players are most likely DPS who were stuck with 40+ minute queues to do the one activity that allowed them character progression at the level cap. LFR certainly gave them a bigger target to aim for, but that’s only once a week. Dungeons were every day. The current system is also really good for alts, as who has time for multiple 40+ minute queues, right?

Well… it was a bridge too far.

The other possibility, which is really more alarming, is simply the lack of content, period:

  • No new races
  • No new classes
  • No new battlegrounds
  • No new capital cities
  • No new profession
  • Remaining professions gutted
  • Farahlon cut
  • Tannan pushed back to 6.2
  • BRF pushed back from launch
  • Ashran is a complete failure
  • No daily hubs
  • No reputation factions to work for rewards
  • Only five new leveling zones (Shadowmoon and Frostfire are basically faction specific)

The original post is too large to quote in its entirety here, but “TiredOfYourShit21″ makes an unassailable argument that WoD quite literally has less content than any other expansion ever released. And this time Blizzard doesn’t even have the moral excuse of Cataclysm, where people kinda forgot about the all the new 1-60 content when doing their calculations. For Warlords, expansion price went up, content went down. Maybe, maybe you can argue that the new character models represented a lot of “effort capital” that would have otherwise gone into the game elsewhere. But the truth is more likely that all that effort went into the Garrison instead of dungeons or anything else.

I dunno. I’m still playing for now, but it’s definitely more in the sense of completing a Bucket List than anything else.

WoW Down 2.9 Million Subs

In news both kinda expected and yet still rather shocking, WoW is down 2.9 million subscriptions from last quarter.

Whiplash.

Whiplash.

At a certain point, the sheer magnitude of the change makes commentary moot. You don’t lose nearly three million people because of Garrisons. Or screwing up professions. Or having easy-mode raids. Or hard raids. Or whatever. And as I mentioned when we first heard about the 10 million sub surprise, the numbers are too big to ascribe to the expected MMO Tourism/Locust Effect either. I mean, yeah, the numbers jumped to 10 million and then back down, so people went somewhere. But unless we’re willing to state three times as many wished to tour Draenor than Pandaria, it had to be a confluence of all sorts of things.

Whatever those things are, it’s clear that it isn’t enough to last a full quarter.

There is no transcript of the call as I write this, but I went ahead and listened to the whole 42 minutes of PR bullshit anyway. No real juicy tidbits were found… unless you consider Guitar Hero on your phone to be juicy. The whole WoW Token thing was mentioned only in passing, which makes sense considering any of its effects won’t appear until Q2. Oh, and I suppose there was this bit about Hearthstone (PDF):

Two franchises that go together like peas and carrots.

Two franchises that go together like peas and carrots.

Still doesn’t clear anything up in terms of the money part of Hearthstone’s success, but I suppose another data point is another data point.

Reckless Iteration

I was reading the 6.2 PTR patch notes for WoW the other day, and I was thinking to myself “hey, these are really good changes.” Like, really good. But after thinking about them for a little bit, I realized that they were so good because the mechanics they were changing were so bad. Like, really bad. Here are two of the items I’m talking about:

  • Players can no longer queue for Ashran while in a raid and are now automatically placed into a raid after entering.
  • Crafting the new upgrade items requires Felblight, a new reagent that can be obtained from Fishing, Herbalism, Mining, or Skinning in Tanaan Jungle.

I zoned into Ashran one day last week, and the experience was almost awful enough for me to stop playing altogether. Honestly, Ashran is just another failed iteration in pseudo-world PvP in a long list of them, but somehow the Blizzard devs made it worse.

Look at that first patch note. What happens right now when you zone into Ashran is: nothing. You grab some of the quests and then you storm out. But because you aren’t in a raid with everyone else, that means you get no buffs, no shared kill credit, no passive gains at all. While the LFG function can be used to find groups within Ashran, the only ones available when I zoned in were either farming specific races (for achievements, etc), or had some gear requirement, or were full. Which is fine on its own, go form your specialized groups, but we’ve had auto-raids for Wintergrasp and Tol Barad and it boggles my mind that this is just now being implemented.

On the other hand, I am not entirely sure how much this would actually help entice me back to Ashran. The “combat” is a one frame-per-second shitshow of lag and AoE spam where everyone charges up the middle lane. I guess there are events off the main lane sometimes? All I know is that if you aren’t a ranged class or a DK with Deathgrip, you are a waste of space and will die instantly the moment more than one person can tab-target you out of the crowd. Retribution paladin? GTFO. Compare that to Wintergrasp or Tol Barad, where even the worst-geared, worst-class player could make a difference in the battle’s outcome.

The second patch item listed above is what really drove things home though. For those that might not know, the hitherto endgame upgrade material was Savage Blood. For the crafted items in Warlords, there are four levels of upgrades, which can bring a level 91 2H Axe from already-beyond-heroic-dungeons power to current-raid power. The only realistic way to get Savage Blood? A level 3 Barn in your Garrison. It didn’t really matter what your professions were or where you farmed or anything at all to do with anything: you needed a Barn.

Which is precisely why the change highlights the absurdity of the current system. Blizzard all but killed every gathering profession this entire expansion. Every character has access to a Mine and Herb garden no matter what their professions were, and generally these resources were enough to fuel your required daily cooldowns. Which were largely the only reason you actually needed things like ore and such, since every profession was gated behind daily cooldown items. If I were to be optimal about things, I would have dropped at least one profession from every Warlords-level toon and made them Enchanters, strictly to sell their daily material (one of the few non-BoP versions).

Iteration is one of the cornerstones of game design, I know. But I can’t help but feel like Blizzard sometimes gets away with outrageous bullshit that would bankrupt any other MMO. Completely removing profession bonuses, followed up by rendering most professions functionally useless, on top of limiting how many pieces of crafted gear can be equipped? Then, a year later, saying “lol jk, I hope you didn’t drop Mining/Herbalism on every toon”? Just imagine something like that happening in Guild Wars 2 or WildStar or whatever.

I’m glad they are fixing terrible, broken game design. But who approved this shit in the first place? You already knew what worked three expansions ago!

Having read all these changes in the pipeline, I’m in a weird place now. Not just with the above, but there are also notes in there about how the mat cost of the crafted gear is being lowered, and the mat generation being increased. I have a bunch of alts that would be more than happy getting ilevel 640 gear the moment they ding 91. So… what? Do I go ahead and craft these items for them with the mats I have now, or wait until 6.2? Obviously if I’m going to keep playing WoW between now and then, it makes sense to craft them. On the other hand, I don’t have to keep playing. It’s not like I don’t got other shit to do. I feel like I’m in that Enthusiasm Tax trap of being better off if I enjoyed playing a game less.

Then again, that’s pretty much always been the case with WoW. And yet, here we are. Again.

How the fuck do they do it?

On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.