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There And Back Again?

I came across a thread on Reddit which was a pining for the “old days” of MMOs when you either grouped up or didn’t get to actually play the game. Which, now that I think about it, is a scenario not all that different from empty FPS servers. Anyway, the top-rated comment concluded with this:

The truth of the matter is, those of us that grew up on the hardcore MMOs, we’ve already done it. Most of us just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap. I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play. I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours. I’ve already done that; I don’t want to do it again. The novelty of the MMO is gone. There are better ways to enjoy my time.

There is a nuance to this argument that I don’t see all that often, and I’d be interested in what other veteran MMO players have to say about it. It’s one thing to say that once some auto-grouping functions are released, like LFD or LFR, that there is no removing them. But put those aside for a moment and ask yourself: how many times do I feel like I could start over in a “pure” MMO (whatever you define that as)?

Maybe the question is nonsensical, considering we technically “start over” each time we play a new game. On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced another MMO could bribe me enough to get back into raiding as a full-time job again. Even if your game of choice was EVE, how willing would you be to starting over in a completely new game with similar time-investment requirements? Still willing to spend 1-2 years of real-time building up a skill set? Or do these sort of investment mechanics have diminishing returns regardless of “dumbing down” or other streamlining that might go on?

Unannounced WoW Feature Announced

Coming in 5.4: Flexible Raid sizes.

While it’s impossible to fit every player into a neat, tidy archetype, we recognize that we could be providing a better experience to one broad category of raider: social groups comprised predominantly of friends and family, and smaller guilds that do their best to include as many members in their Raid outings possible. […]

To fill this void, we’re in the process of developing a new Flexible Raid system, which includes a new difficulty that sits between Raid Finder and Normal difficulty, while still allowing friends, family, or pick-up groups to play together. This difficulty will be available for premade groups of 10–25 players, including any number in between. That means whether you have 11, 14, or 23 friends available for a Raid, they’ll all be able to participate.

The Flexible Raid system is designed so that the challenge level will scale depending on how many players you have in the Raid. So if you switch between 14 players one week and 22 the next, the difficulty will adjust automatically.

Technically, this isn’t confirmed as the “unannounced new feature,” but I have a hard time believing that there could be something else to top this game-changer.

…or does this change much at all?

I mean, yes, I have little doubt that this will improve the quality of life for a lot of friends & family guilds out there. Back in Wrath, my guild constantly had the inevitably poisonous problem of having 11-12 people show up on raid nights, and having to pick who sits out. Something like this feature would have made the issue moot, as we could grab everyone who showed up and did something fun as a guild. Even better, the difficulty is supposed to be pegged between LFR and Normal, which would perhaps mean taking that charming guildie who improves the general social atmosphere – albeit at a DPS loss – is no longer such a vexing decision.

On the other hand, this would do nothing to guilds like mine that were unable to field even a full 10m by the end. Maybe this could have incentivised our (failed) raiding partnership with a sister guild, but I don’t find that particularly likely.

You know what though? My mind is actually racing about this feature. Part of the reason why our raiding partnership failed was because the people we were bringing weren’t quite matching up to the skill level the content required. With this feature, if your guild found 10m Normal raids too difficult, you could down-shift to Flexible and still bring 10 people.

On top of that, this could be a massive coup for the Trade chat pugs of the world. I am sure there will still be stubborn raid leaders out there spamming “LF6M 25m” for hours, but as long as they had the basic roles covered, they could have everyone zone in with just the 19 they had. And on top of that, there is the news that Flexible mode has its own, separate lockout. That is huge. Go raid with your hardcore guild on Thursday, and then kick back with your friends/family on Friday, all while still getting (off-spec, perhaps) gear.

In another life, I might have been more concerned with how popular the feature would be, given the ilevel rewards would be lower than Normal mode. But looking at how LFR turned out, it is pretty clear that that sort of nonsense rarely matters except in the minds of a few. In fact, I’d almost be more worried that Flexible mode will further erode the entire raiding model, doing to 10m what LFR did to 25m.

In any event, it looks like we’re seeing the fruits of those minds diverted from the Titan project already. Now if only they could focus their efforts on, say, actual server merges instead of this 50% off highway robbery bullshit, I might actually reach for the resubscribe button again.

Well, probably not this expansion, but they are damn closer than they were yesterday.

The Pro-Social Problem

There have been a number of posts lately about making MMOs more pro-social. As you might imagine, nearly every suggestion was a dusting-off of mechanics of the past. “Remember the good old days when you spent 30 minutes of your free time waiting for a boat?” The overall logic seems to be that if you stuff players into an elevator for long enough, eventually they will become friends.

Among the suggestions, what is left unstated is the only truly relevant factor: as a player, do you want to make friends?

To be charitable, let’s assume that that fundamental question has been left unvoiced simply because there isn’t much a designer can do about it. But that’s the thing. If a player of your game isn’t interested in developing life-long friendships, then a lot of your pro-social mechanics are likely to be annoying. For example, Rohan suggested a game in which you have to be in a guild in order to do anything. As someone with zero interest in (more) virtual obligation, that would prevent me from playing such a game at all.

I am not convinced that the “lack” (however that’s measured) of pro-social mechanics in modern MMOs is, in fact, a problem. It is true that I made some friends back in the TBC era of WoW, and that we still interact with one another 5+ years later. It is also true that I could not care less about making more friends; I’m full-up, thanks. How many of us are actively looking for new people to add to our lives?

Now, it is an open question as to whether I would have made the friends I did in TBC had the WoW environment instead been, say, Panderia. It might be easy to suggest I would not have, given we originally met as low-level Alliance players slogging our way through Horde zones to do a Scarlet Monastery dungeon. Between LFD and LFR, it’s quite possible I would not have met any of them even on my no-pop server. Of course, I almost didn’t meet any of them anyway, considering I could have decline doing a dungeon that day, they could have not needed a tank, not wanted another acquaintance, logged on an hour later, etc etc etc. I don’t find “what if?” scenarios especially convincing.

I keep coming back to the main question – do you want to make new friends? – because it doesn’t really matter how the game is structured if you do want to meet people. Communities exist for even single-player games, and so I doubt even a strictly anti-social MMO would stop friendships from forming. So who exactly are these pro-social/anti-solo mechanics even for? As long as the game is structured so that it’s fun to play with the friends that you have (i.e. grouping isn’t punished), I do not see what possible benefit there is to alienating the introverted portion of your audience with arbitrary and forced grouping.

I dunno, maybe I’m just not seeing it. I do not befriend someone because they are a good tank, or good healer, or are always doing the same dailies as I am at 8pm on Thursday evenings. That would make you, at most, a coworker, an acquaintance, a resource, a tool for my own edification. Friendship is something that endures past logging off, which means friendship exists outside of the game itself, which makes the entire pro-social movement seem silly. You can’t “trick” someone into making that leap of interest with some clever programming.

If game designers want to encourage more friendships – in an ironically cynical desire to drive long-term engagement – they need to make more tools for self-expression and other means of broaching out-of-game interaction. World-class rogue DPS? Sure, I’ll use you to ensure my own dungeon run is a success. Oh, your favorite game is Xenogears too? Now I’m interested.

Maybe the assumption is that if we do enough dungeons together, that this friend-making moment will naturally occur. If so, it all seems so hopelessly passive for as disruptive it ends up being for the solo player.

Got Ghostcrawler on Speed-dial

Right after yesterday’s complaints, the following notes go up:

  • Experience needed to increase from level 85 to level 90 has been reduced by 33%.
  • Reduced the number of Lesser Charms of Good Fortune needed for the Mogu Runes of Fate weekly quest to 50, down from 90.
  • Players no longer need to have defeated Grand Empress Shek’zeer to enter the Terrace of Endless Spring in Normal difficulty.
  • Shado-Pan and The August Celestials daily quests no longer have a faction prerequisite to be Revered with the Golden Lotus.

Technically, the last one has been in there a while, if you haven’t noticed before.

Anyway, nice try, Ghostcrawler, but it’s too little, too late for me. Maybe when the next expansion is 50% off, I’ll dip my toe in again like I did this last time. Then again, maybe not.

Unsubscribing, Take Two

I may have reached the end of my second run of WoW.

As was the case last time, there was no clear death knell, no final straw, no slap in the proverbial face. Forensic evidence would probably suggest that my decline in activity can be traced back to the 5.2 announcement. At that point, I stopped bothering with LFR, knowing that I could endure the same long queues for 20+ better ilevel gear in a few weeks. I was also pretty much geared in all 483s anyway, much to the chagrin of my less fortunate guild survivors.

5.2 reinvigorated several things for me, including reaching some of the reputation milestones on alts that I would have dismissed out of hand as ridiculous previously. There were some underlying truths about myself I started to realize however:

  • A healthy variety of dailies is 100% meaningless. Blizzard seems to think that 15 dailies out of a pool of 90 is somehow more palatable than the same 15 over and over. But… dailies are dailies. Unless a certain daily quest is particularly odious, such as having to kill a hard elite solo (the Pyrestar Demolisher), all daily quests blur together into a gray slurry of virtual obligation.
  • Between the lack of interesting Black Market Auction House wares (which has admittedly improved in 5.2) and the BoP-crafting material economy, it is difficult to maintain interest in even lucrative AH shenanigans. As I continued canceling and re-listing cut gems and other goods day in and day out, I asked myself what exactly I imagine myself doing with this almost 400k gold. Buy something… but buy what? The lack of 476+ BoE weapons particularly was annoying. Yes, I could run LFR a bunch of times or even Honor farm, but all this gold was supposed to save me time, at least theoretically. If time = money, then money = time, does it not?
  • I continued playing long after I no longer experienced any fun because of the possibility that things might change in the future. Which is quite a bizarre feat of circular reasoning, if you think about it. I have 76 pieces of Imperial Silk, for example, because if I suddenly developed a resurgence in interest, my future self would have more fun with all these accumulated mats (which you cannot really get any other way). It reminded me of how I behaved in my Middle School history course: the teacher handed out a week’s worth of worksheets on Monday, and I always completed them that very evening so I could slack off the rest of the week.
  • The Legendary quest backfired big time, at least for me. By the time 5.2 came out, I had 2 Sigils of Power and 14 Sigils of Wisdom. With an average ilevel of 491, I was faced with the prospect of slogging through half a dozen or more DPS queues for the starter LFR raids, getting 476 vendor trash… if I was lucky! And then what? 6000 Valor? The questline might not have been “required” for anything I was doing, but it certainly felt more in-your-face “you are falling behind” than I ever felt before about, say, a raid-only reputation or heroic valor gear, by the very virtue of its accessibility.
  • Once I got over the initial trepidation of skipping a day’s worth of cooldowns and AH re-listings, it actually became more difficult to convince myself to log back on at all. I had already “lost a day” that I would never get back. So… why bother? I skipped logging in one Saturday, and suddenly half the week is gone with nary a fuck given.

As with the last time I unsubscribed, I do not begrudge Blizzard and crew anything in particular. Well, maybe for the shit-hole of a no-pop server that they continue to allow to exist, to the detriment of all the lost souls trapped in Auchindoun-US’s hellish purgatory. But beyond that, most everything else I see as an improvement over prior design. Heroic scenarios sound like a great feature, and would have been custom-made for the 2-3 of my friends that actually managed to log on these past few weeks. Similarly, I am/was looking forward to being able to choose which spec to gear up in LFR, regardless of current role.

But… well. I could quite literally be playing any one of a hundred other videogames right now; games already purchased and with no subscription fee. More than the money though, I am looking forward to having the mental space back. It’s… liberating, in a way that cannot be described to someone whom has not had that same sort of mental real estate spoken for and suddenly vacated.

5.3: That Was Fast

Patch 5.3 is up on the PTR. You can look at the notes here. Nothing too crazy… just the removal of Resilience from PvP gear, gear scaling in BGs and Arenas (!!!), and LFR off-spec rolls (plus increasing chance of bonus loot based on bad luck). You know, the usual.

Loot Specialization

  • Players can now choose to receive loot for a specialization that’s different from their current class role. This feature could be accessed by right-clicking on the character portrait and selecting the option from the drop-down list. Loot specialization is available for bonus rolls, Raid Finder, and Pandarian quest rewards.

Bonus Roll

  • Protection for bad luck streaks have been added to bonus rolls. Each bonus roll that does not provide loot has a progressively better chance to award loot to the player.

PvP

  • Additional information and explanation for the reasoning behind PvP changes will be available very soon.
  • All characters now have a base Resilience of 65%.
  • Resilience has been removed from most PvP gear.
  • Season 13 Tyrannical gear had their item levels increased to ilevel 496, up from ilevel 493.
  • Season 13 Tyrannical Elite gear had their item levels decreased to ilevel 496, down from ilevel 512.
  • Battlegrounds, Rated Battlegrounds, and Arenas now have an ilevel cap. All gear will be scaled down to ilevel 496.

Feels like the 5.2 PTR was just three weeks ago, doesn’t it? I suppose Blizzard wasn’t kidding around (finally) about accelerated release schedules.

Unabated

My WoW playing continues unabated.

I have reached Exalted with Anglers and Klaxxi most recently, and the Tillers/Cloud Serpent weeks ago. I am a step away from Honored with Shado-pan, and stopped at Revered with Shieldwall and Golden Lotus (may whomever is responsible for Golden Lotus dailies burn forever). Since I am neutral with the August Celestials and they have nothing of interest for my paladin, I have not bothered doing any quests for them.

Of my 10 alts, the highest remains stagnant at level 88; dailies and/or LFR consumes all of the WoW time I permit among my other diversions. With me hitting so many reputation milestones though, this may change.

My (high) opinion of LFR has not changed, although I did have a few bad experiences. During the first fight of Vault of Mysteries, we had a AFK warlock leecher, who stood by the stairs during the encounter. While it was annoying knowing that he/she could possibly get rewarded for doing so, the greater issue was how the encounter was reset TWICE when he was targeted by one of the bosses’ abilities. The reason why it took two resets to kick the warlock was because it was not immediately obvious why the encounter reset.

The luck I experienced with my first run of LFR has not held up to repetition. Two weeks ago I received nothing, maybe 1-2 of those coins, and this past week I received naught but a tier helm. I will agree that the “failbags” do indeed start to feel worse than not winning rolls under the traditional model… although that is more a psychological artifact than reason to go back. I think it is easier to believe you pessimistically expect nothing to drop, when you are not immediately reminded that you had a discreet chance via the roll. The difference between Blackjack and slot machines goes much further than the mere odds.

For the second week in a row, I have also cleared out Black Temple solo. I am not entirely certain that every class can do it, but my Retribution paladin with 474 ilevel does not have much trouble with a full clear in 50 minutes. The 2nd phase of Reliquary of Souls is the only time things get truly dicey – Council also requires frequent Word of Glories while kiting – but beyond that it is fairly easy at this level and gear. I got the T6 pants and shoulders on my first run, and picked up some other Transmog-worthy pieces along the way.

Unfortunately, both the T6 chest and Bulwark drop off Illidan and he has yet to drop anything useful for the 3rd week running; clearing the place is easy, but 50 minutes is still 50 minutes. I could probably “cut my losses” and spend a ridiculous amount of honor for the Season 3 off-color chest (seriously, 1000 honor vs 175 honor for the S4 chest), as I grow increasingly weary about the odds that one of the legendary blades will drop. In many ways, getting one of those on the paladin, an item I could not even equip let alone Transmog (…yet), would almost be worse than never getting anything from Illidan.

Gaming psychology. Such a twisted thing.

LFR is a Better LFD

A few days after my friend ran me through some of the MoP heroics, he asked what I thought about them. To be honest, I did not think about them much at all. They are much easier than Cataclysm heroics, of course, which should be a reason to like them as much as I did the Wrath heroics; I am solidly in the “random pug content should be easy” category. At the same time… something felt off about them. It was not until I queued for LFR that I realized what it was.

LFR is everything that LFD strives to be. It is the final evolution of the LFD process, if you will.

Like many people, I was annoyed to find out that Blizzard backslid on reputation gains with MoP, removing the two-expansion precedent of running heroics with tabards. On one level, their argument makes sense: daily quest hubs are one guaranteed way to get people back out into the world. And while Blizzard has a long way to go with their stubborn “strangers are competition” design – Guild Wars 2 fixed it so thoroughly that anything less feels archaic – the daily quests became a quasi-guild event for my group for at least two weeks.

But there is a longer con going on here, and Blizzard is being a bit more clever than I thought. Put simply: Blizzard is intentionally marginalizing heroic dungeon content. The decreased difficulty is irrelevant compared to the fact that there isn’t really ever a reason to run heroics anymore. When tabards gave reputation, you always had a reason to run X number of dungeons far beyond the possibility of upgrades. When (BoP) Chaos Orbs only dropped from bosses, crafters had a reason to run dungeons. When Valor was only easily capped from heroics, you had a reason to run them every day (or at least 7x/week). None of those things are true or relevant anymore.

Raid Finder as a solution to the endgame problem is goddamn genius. The biggest problem with the raid scene in WoW was with how low participation has been; no matter how awesome raids like Ulduar are, it gets hard to justify the expense when less than 25% of your players see the first boss. Solution: LFR. No matter how much they bribe tanks to queue for heroics, I do not think I have seen a DPS queue less than 40 minutes long. Solution: LFR. Seriously, I had an 8 minute DPS queue for LFR the other day to possibly get gear 20 ilevels higher than heroics. Random jerks that you can’t kick harshing your vibes in heroics? Solution: LFR. People Need-whoring your drops? Solution: LFR. If there was ever a clearer indication that LFR is in and LFD is out, it would be how LFR has the new looting system and LFD is stuck with “mage won the healer trinket.” Once they start letting you win off-spec gear in LFR, there won’t be a reason to do anything else.

Oh, and how many new 5-mans are coming out in 5.2? Exactly.

So if you are wondering what I think about the Raid Finder system, I think it is fantastic. LFR is not perfect by any means, but it is probably the biggest improvement in WoW’s endgame structure since LFD. It provides practice for the “real” raids; it provides complexity in a somewhat more forgiving environment; it provides something more substantial than endless heroic runs; there are/will be enough of them to take up a good chunk of your playtime if you wish it; better loot with less grinding; and, finally, LFR offers an elegant solution to DPS over-representation.

I sometimes question the decisions they make over in Blizzard HQ, but whoever designed the integration of LFR into the game proper deserves a raise.

Raid Finder: Day One

I used the Raid Finder for the very first time on Monday night. It was an… instructive experience.

Dogpile.

Dogpile.

One thing that I learned about myself is the fact that I felt compelled to seek out raid videos/strategies even for LFR difficulty. It is not (just) about insulating myself from group embarrassment, it is about mitigating that awful feeling of not knowing what I am doing. I hate that feeling. At first I believed the feeling to be unique to multiplayer games, as I certainly do not hit up GameFAQs or Wikis the moment I get to a boss fight in a single-player game. Indeed, wouldn’t that be cheating? Or, at least, cheating myself from the actual game.

But you know what? I hate that feeling even in single-player games. If I am dying to a boss repeatedly and have no idea why, or there does not seem to be any clues as to different strategies I could try, I most certainly hit up Wikis. I enjoy logic puzzles as much as (or more than) the next guy, but I must feel certain that logic is applicable to the situation. With videogames, that is not always a given: quests that you cannot turn in because you didn’t trip a programming “flag” by walking down a certain alleyway or whatever. There was a Borderlands 2 quest that I simply looked up on Youtube because I’ll be damned if I walk across every inch of a cell-shaded junkyard for an “X” mark after already spending 10 minutes looking it over. Playing “Where’s Waldo” can be entertaining, but not when you have to hold the book sideways and upside down before Waldo spawns… assuming you are even looking at the right page.

I digress.

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Hey, it could happen to anyone!

Things got off to a nice start in LFR when the dog fight consisted of just tanking all three dogs in a cleave pile the entire time. The second boss seemed to have an inordinate amount of health, but he too dropped without doing much of note. I died twice to some insidious trash on the way to the troll boss; those bombs are simply stupid in a 25m setting, as I found it difficult to even see them among all the clashing colors and spell effects. Final boss dropped pretty quickly as well, although I almost died a few times towards the end once people stopped coming into the spirit world with me.

By the way, the queue for the 1st raid finder was 15 minutes for DPS. Might have been a “Monday before the reset” thing.

I joined a guild healer for the 2nd raid finder immediately afterwards, although the average wait time of 43 seconds was a bit off. Was killed by a combination of friendly fire and damage reflection during the first boss, but he otherwise went down quickly. I managed to avoid falling to my death during Elegon (thanks Icy-Veins!), but was killed by an add the 2nd tank never picked up; that will teach me to do something other than tunnel the boss. The third boss… made little sense. I spent a lot of time killing adds, as I could not quite understand what was up with the Devastating Combo thing other than I must have been doing it wrong. Eons later, the bosses died.

It is becoming somewhat of a running joke for my guildies since coming back on how much random loot I pull in. The prior week I got ~8 drops from my first 5 random dungeons, for example. This time around I got three epics from my first two LFR forays, all three of which came from the bonus rolls. I was not around for the Cata LFR days, but suffice it to say, I would not have likely came away with that much loot in a more traditional PuG.

Overall, LFR was a pleasant experience. While I can certainly empathize with the criticism of LFR – it was pretty ridiculously easy – I can definitely see the logic behind Blizzard’s moves here. Some raid is better than no raid, low-pop realms like Auchindoun-US wouldn’t support a robust raid PuG community, and to an extent even the “nothing ever drops!” LFR sentiment encourages organized guild raiding in a roundabout manner. Whether this remains satisfying in any sort of long-term manner remains to be seen, but honestly, it is better than the alternative of… what else, exactly? Running dungeons ad infinitum?

Things Are Looking Grim

Yeah… I’m not sure about this whole WoW thing anymore. Again.

I have not really bothered logging in since the last time I wrote about it, which means I am less than 10 quests into the expansion on any character. On Tuesday, I had an extra long length of time available to play, so I buckled down for the long-haul. Before heading out of Stormwind again though, I decided to continue feeding Auctionator some additional data and perhaps looking into pimping my 85s a bit with some blue gear. Or, hey! I have alts with professions that need leveled, so why not kill half a dozen birds with some AH stones in the form of buying some crafting mats?

Let’s see here… wait a minute…

Wait, that's TOTAL?

Wait, that’s TOTAL?

I thought Auctionator was bugging out on me when it completed the AH scan in literally two seconds, while also stating there are 52 epic items scanned. “That can’t possibly be correct… can it?” Yes, in fact, it can. A generic search for epic items in all categories reveals a total of 137 auctions (presumably 52 unique items). Now, it is certainly possible that I have missed a major announcement when it comes to scaling back BoE epic items, and Wowhead is telling me there are are only 134 epic non-BoP, non-heroic raid items in this expansion.

But what is being presented to me here is truly ridiculous. Aunchindoun-US was always a low-pop server, but as my early posts under PVsAH demonstrated, there was at least a functioning marketplace where you could be a big fish in a little pond. What I am seeing is not a little pond, it is moist patch of earth. Checking even the expansion staples like Ghost Iron and Green Tea Leaves only confirmed my suspicions. My faction’s AH officially qualifies as a failed state.

This discovery completely killed the mood, and I logged off. It is obviously possible to level up and even raid without a functioning economy, but why would you? I have mentioned before that I want to play games I can invest in, or at least feel the simulation of investment. Knowing the economy is dead, knowing the server is dead, and knowing that Blizzard isn’t ever going to bite the goddamn bullet and put realms like Auchindoun out of its misery means my incentive to push forward is dead. Server transfer, I hear you ask? Literally $250. Otherwise, if I have to abandon all my alts with all their professions (and pay $25 on top of it all) just for opportunity to have fun playing your game on one character… well, I politely decline.

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has been solving all the problem elements of low-pop servers except the one that matters: the server itself. Play BGs with everyone else, run dungeons with everyone else, raid with everyone else, and now even quest with everyone else. Isn’t it about time you let us be with everyone else?