Blog Archives

Ouch. WoW down another 1.3 million

As reported by MMO-Champion, the subscriber total was 8.3 million at the end of the quarter, a loss of 1.3 million subs since Q4 (which had its own 400k loss). For those keeping track at home, Blizzard had 9.1 million subs back on August 3rd, 2012, during an eight-month lull of zero content at the end of Cataclysm, i.e. pre-Mists of Pandaria. That is a net loss of 800k this expansion – with a 1.5 million sub rollercoaster in the middle – and the lowest subscriber count WoW has had since 2007.

By the way, RIP to MMOData.net, which has not made an update in nearly nine months now. How can we pontificate without graphs? Sigh.

I went and signed up to listen to the investor report as there was not a transcript available, wondering where MMO-Champ got the rest of those bullet points. Plus, you know, Press™:

Nothing could go wrong with this.

Nothing could go wrong with this.

To save yourself 38 minutes, just trust me when I confirm MMO-Champ got all the relevant information.

What did interest me though was hearing how ultra-conservative Activision Blizzard is. I mean, that sort of thing isn’t a particular trade secret, but when Bobby Kotick explained that the company wasn’t interested in the mobile sphere because the Top 10 titles change every year, I cocked an eyebrow. Call of Duty and WoW still have a lot of viable milking years ahead of them, but this is the same company that gushed about their $1 billion Skylanders franchise that didn’t even exist two years ago. If CoD: Ghost ends up pulling a Warfighter along with the further expected losses (their words) in WoW subs, you can almost imagine a scenario in which they conserve themselves right off a cliff by the end of this year.

But, alas, the money machines continue unabated.

Finally, I sort of chuckled at this part of the WoW presentation:

  • There has been less engagement by casual players.

Well… yeah. What did they imagine would happen when you release one of the most alt-unfriendly expansion in the history of the game? And then proceed to put everything behind a triple-gate of dailies and rep, all but remove leveling dungeons (only to put them back), and then essentially stop all production of 5m dungeons for the rest of the expansion? Oh, and don’t get me started on the continued embarrassment of no-pop servers languishing.

At this point, all I’m really interested in is Hearthstone (as hopefully a cheaper Magic: Online) and maybe Bungie’s new game; Titan has been too much of a cocktease for too long to even get a rise out of me anymore. Otherwise Activision-Blizzard might join the ranks of EA as a big-budget publisher who only produces one title that I am remotely interested in, with all the “risky” indie ventures soaking up the money I leave on the table.

And as Doone points out, that’s probably the best thing for everyone involved.

Entrenchment

I have been collecting some of the Ghostcrawler tweets in regards to MoP alt-unfriendliness and the overall Blizzard pivot away from alts and back to mains, e.g. entrenchment of old subs vs new ones.

Q: Is the plan in Mists to have raiders go through each raid and let the new ones pile up or use LFR to leapfrog tiers?
A: Want to err on the side of the former. If you want to do 5.2 raid, you can gear up in 5.0 LFR. (source)

Q: Upgradeable gear is okay for honor gear, but it shouldn’t be for Conquest, as it’ll take months to catch up. Thoughts?
A: Problem with catch up (PvE or PvP) is it encourages everyone to play less. We like playing more to feel like it’s worth it. (source)

Q. is there any point in forcing people to be revered with golden lotus to do shado pan dailies?
A. Didn’t want fresh 90s to have to do GL and K and AC and SP and go crazy, then finish in a month and have nothing to do. (source)

Q. Do you want people to be entertained or do you want people to grind? For many the two are mutually exclusive.
A. Big challenge to MMO dev: players say they want quality but may also unsubscribe if they don’t have enough quantity. (source)

Q: How do you feel about the players getting to 90 just now and not being able to play arena competitively due to being behind
A: We want to reward players who keep playing. Too often in the past catch up was so easy that it trivialized accomplishments. (source)

Q. But you brought this trivialization of content yourselves starting with patch 3.2 >.> … what have you learned since then?
A. We learned not to let players catch up so trivially that it negates everyone else’s accomplishments. (source)

Q. Greg, you need to stop blaming the wrong things for cataclysm failures. Catch up mechanics dont hurt the game
A. We just disagree on that. I understand you have very strong feelings about how things should work. (source)

Q. efficiency is more fun than non-efficiency. non-efficiency = time wasting = frustration.
A. I don’t buy it. Some of the most fun things in life are stupidly inefficient. I think being inefficient in an MMO is a social thing. (source)
A. We call it the Mechanar syndrome. Players didn’t farm Mechanar because it was our crowning achievement in dungeon design. (source)

Q: linear progression was the worst idea you ever could return to.. you leave behind lots of alt-players and returners.
A. We understand that. But the alternative is that other players feel their accomplishments have no meaning if rapid catch up exists. (source)

I am having a difficult time trying to comprehend at which station Ghostcrawler’s logic train got derailed. “Catch-up” mechanics do not invalidate accomplishments; new raiding tiers do. Nobody cares about your Tier N achievements when Tier N+1 comes out, because why would they? Progression and envy are ever-moving targets, so “catch-up” is irrelevant to those desiring one or the other (or both). So we are left with… who? The people disappointed that their hard, planned obsolescent work was rendered meaningless by the next patch but “oh wait, at least I can try the next tier right away so it was worth something“?

No, it just doesn’t fit. What fits is that in the very nervous design meeting that took place two years ago when Cata was hemorrhaging players, it was decided that every goddamn trick in the book to extend playing time was tossed up on the Mists whiteboard. Burning Crusade slideshows were dusted off and replayed. “Things for Player to Do at Cap” was underlined, twice. Removing catch-up mechanisms does, in fact, “generate” several additional raid playthroughs that would not have existed otherwise. But in that TBC playbook, Blizzard glossed over the postmortem section that warned “You can never go home again.”

Raids (etc) have shelf-lives independent of their necessity for linear progression; old raids become mentally reduced to roadblocks, just something you have to endure on your way to where you actually want to be, i.e. with everyone else. It’s tough being proud of accomplishments nearly everyone else achieved months ago, nevermind how the first boss of the next tier has drops that blows your endgame gear out of the water. And this is besides the fact that the longer the raid has aged, the smaller the pool of people willing/available to run it. Queues go up. Mistakes are less tolerated. It becomes a vicious, decaying spiral… which is precisely why the “Current Tier” model of Wrath and Cata was the better design.

I get that people are sad that raids like Ulduar become irrelevant in mere months. But that happens even in linear progression models! Ulduar ceases to be Ulduar when the people zoning in are just there to get a high enough ilevel to unlock ToC. The magic of these places is not wholly contained in the encounters themselves, but in the Time as well. Being there when the whole server was struggling to defeat the same bosses, congratulating each other on loot, and knowing that each gear drop was the best in the game (at that time). That was when Ulduar was Ulduar.

You can’t go home again.

So, yeah. I don’t buy it, Ghostcrawler. Even if the devs truly believe they are going back to linear progression out of deference to the high school quarterbacks of the moot accomplishment world, they are going about it in the wrong way. iLevel gating was a huge improvement over attunements precisely because it was more flexible. Removing or reducing the catch-up mechanisms is simply bringing back the Keys, complete with all its (alt-unfriendly) baggage. If Mists does not lose players over this – relegating the new player or recently returned to the back of the bus under mountains of required, outdated content – it will be because other areas of the game improved enough to compensate.

That Panda Trailer

Yikes.

Why must you make it so difficult?

From a technical perspective, the Mists of Pandaria trailer was good. I even laughed when the human handed the orc the spear. But like Rohan, I was left confused as to its purpose. The Pandaren are not a third faction, and all the Pandaren that would be joining the Alliance or Horde are obviously not fighting for “harmony.” I am already sold on the idea of the expansion and the lack of a unifying, spotlight villain. But this trailer… does not excite me in any way.

Just take a few minutes and watch the original WoW trailer again:

I have not watched that in 3+ years and I still got chills from it. Same with the TBC trailer, especially with the WotLK cinematic, and… well, it is still kinda cool how the Cataclysm trailer presented the whole “welding plates on a dragon” thing, even though I cared not for Deathwing himself.

I dunno. As mentioned before, I have nothing against pandas, Pet Combat systems, or anything that comes across as overtly “childish.” I mean, c’mon: gnomes.

But I am also acutely aware that MoP is going to be fighting an image battle for its entire duration, regardless of the merits of the actual game itself. And more to the point, people playing MoP are going to be the ones fighting that image battle alone, if this cinematic trailer is any indication. This expansion is going to be filled with bloody, Horde vs Alliance massacres and betrayals, and Blizzard reinforces the stereotypes at the tips of everyone’s tongues the moment they hear the words “panda” and “monk.”

This is either going to be a long two years, or a short one.

WoW Loses Another Million+ Subs

That is right, kiddos, WoW is down to 9.1 million. It hasn’t been this low since January 2008.

In what must only be completely unrelated news, WoW has shattered all previous records for “longest time without a new content patch.” No, seriously. Dragon Soul was released November 29th, 2011. It is now eight months later. When I relayed this to my friend, he didn’t believe me. The gap between ICC and Cataclysm felt like more than a year. Well, I said, let’s look at the timeline:

  • December 8th, 2009 – ICC released.
  • February 2nd, 2010 – final wing of ICC opened.
  • June 30th, 2010 – Ruby Sanctum released.
  • September 7th, 2010 – the gnome/troll world events start.
  • October 7th, 2010 – WoW hits 12 million players (!).
  • October 12th, 2010 – Patch 4.0.1, with all the new talents/class changes.
  • November 23rd, 2010 – The Shattering, all new 1-60 experience.
  • December 7th, 2010 – Cataclysm launch.

So, yes, in a strictly literal sense it was a whole year between ICC release and Cataclysm launch. Looking at that list though, shit happened. There was a filler raid, there were world events, and I always have a blast when we get to toy around with the next expansion’s talent changes early. In between TBC and the Wrath launch, I remember soloing most of heroic Underbog on my Ret paladin to cap out my Sporeggar reputation, for example.

Now look at Cataclysm:

  • November 29th, 2011 – Dragon Soul released.
  • August 3rd, 2012 – I wrote a blog post.

I mean, come on. A $300 million MMO was released, floundered, and went F2P in that same timeframe!

Only Blizzard gets away with this shit. Good lord.

Black Market AH

Heeeeeelllllloooo, nurse.

Yes, please.

So the lede here is that Blizzard may be introducing a “Black Market” AH into Mists that is capable of selling, say, the Ashes of Al’ar. We can have the discussion as to whether that devalues the 0.13% mount or not in a moment. What I am more interested right now is in the very notion that:

  1. These mounts (etc) potentially becoming BoE or otherwise Bind on Use.
  2. This being a brilliant money-sink into a rapidly inflationary economy.
  3. Blizzard getting into the business of selling in-game items with in-game currency.

That last point may seem odd (vendors have been around since Day 1), but what I mean is not necessarily the selling of the Ashes of Al’ar, but of any of the mounts/items that otherwise are only obtainable by grueling hours /played.

The initial reaction may be to say that this is counter-intuitive; by definition, what Blizzard is doing is making these items easier to obtain, which not only reduces their scarcity, but allows players to actually eat the carrot. In the long view, players actually accomplishing their goals is bad for business. As the classical argument goes, the Black Market AH should be the equivalent of cheat codes, which hollows out the enjoyment that comes from restrictions and limitations – an infinite life Super Mario Bros is a less fun Super Mario Bros.

However, I must ask this: is a Konami Code-less Contra a less fun Contra?

Contra Title Screen

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get off my lawn.

Nethaera on the Blizzard forums mentions:

It’s worth noting that since we’re in beta, we’re still looking into what our philosophies are for what should and what shouldn’t be on the Black Market. We’re also trying to discern the frequency/rarity of what shows up there as well.

So perhaps we will not ultimately see the Ashes of Al’ar on the Black Market after all.

But… why shouldn’t we? I brought up Contra because, as anyone who attempted to actually play the game without the Konami Code can attest, the game was stupidly difficult to beat within the default number of lives. So much so, that I imagine few would even try without the Konami Code. Thus, the Konami “cheat code” probably generated more enjoyment in the aggregate than was lost from “bypassing” the difficulty.

In other words, while the “legitimate” owners of Al’ar or the TCG items or whatever Blizzard ends up selling on the Black Market do “lose” something of value (scarcity), I believe the incremental gain by everyone else results in a net positive. Obviously, the average player doesn’t have the 200,000g+ that it will require to actually obtain these items, but they couldn’t get a group together to farm Kael’thas either. What the average player can do is farm herbs or run dailies and otherwise set X amount of gold as a goal to reach in the pursuit of Al’ar; something that was largely unobtainable before, but now has a “reasonable” path towards.

Will these undoubtedly obscene prices encourage gold-sellers? Maybe, maybe not. Just keep in mind that unlike the sale of BoE raiding epics – whose prices already can encourage gold selling – the final gold price of Black Market items are removed from the economy permanently, regardless of whether they can be resold or are BoP from the mailbox. Any reduction in inflation is a net positive for everyone.

So, I say: bring it on. And not just because I have oodles of gold with nothing else to buy.

P.S. The Daily Blink has the right idea:

WTB that Actual Subscriber Data.

WoW Should Lose Millions of Subscriptions More Often

Ever have that moment in your academic career, usually right after midterms, when you sort of wake up and realize “Oh, yeah, this might actually be important enough to take seriously”? I am getting the distinct impression Blizzard is going through that right now, as evidenced by their refreshingly direct Dev Blogs lately. The most recent was about the new direction they are taking the Mists of Pandaria loot system. One section reads:

Here is a model I’ve seen some people say they want:

  •     The boss dies.
  •     I get the exact item or items I want.
  •     I never have to come back and kill this boss again.
  •     I politely ask Blizzard when there will be new content for me to run.

I added that, somewhat tongue in cheek, to point out that the intent of the new system is not to make killing bosses or getting loot more efficient, or to let you choose buffet-style which items you get. We like random loot being random, as long as it isn’t so frustratingly random that you stop enjoying the experience. The intent of the new loot system is really to relieve social pressure on a group of random and anonymous strangers. We think it is reasonable for groups of friends, such as the typical raiding guild, to have a discussion about how to divvy up loot. That discussion is a tried and true RPG tradition going back to D&D or earlier. We don’t think that is a reasonable expectation for Raid Finder, though.

This is such a frank representation of the very essence of MMO gameplay (e.g. random loot creates content), that it honestly shocked me to see it written so casually. The explicit admission of the (warped) social dynamics of LFR is similarly amazing. It is one thing to see these issues examined in blogs and on forums; it is entirely another for a developer, in an age of David Reid-esque bullshit, to treat the audience like adults.

It feels like when the carnie game operator lets you in on the trick.

Another sample section:

Bonus Roll

We have one other new system that will use part of the personal loot model. This is what we’re calling the bonus roll.

Once upon a time, raiders had to invest a lot of time and effort every week preparing for a raid. This felt kind of cool in the abstract because it built anticipation, rewarded players who prepared for raid night, and otherwise just added a little more ceremony to the act of entering the dragon’s lair to seek glory and treasure. The reality is that you spent your time killing mobs to farm flask materials or gathering Whipper Root Tubers. The reality didn’t match the fantasy and we eventually greatly minimized the need to farm consumables altogether. Of course, that led to another problem, as raiders would log on for raid nights, finish, and then have nothing to do the rest of the week. The bonus roll is intended to give those players something to do that is hopefully more enjoyable than grinding elementals or Blasted Lands boars. We want to see players out in the world doing stuff, and we want that stuff to be a little more interesting (if not downright fun) than farming mats.

This is one of those things that, intellectually, shouldn’t be true. But it is.

I am (still) playing Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer and loving it. Is it fun in of itself? I… guess so? Would it still be fun if I had 100% of the guns unlocked, max ranks, infinite consumables, etc? I can tell you right now with a completely straight face: no, it would cease being fun. I derive pleasure from both the act of playing, and the feeling of increase that comes from progression (the accumulation of credits to unlock random weapons, in this case). The only sort of rationalization I can give you to explain this phenomenon is that I can both have fun and experience progression in any number of other games, which puts “just fun” games at a disadvantage.

Game designers undoubtedly realized this years ago, which is why you see “RPG elements” in damn near everything these days.

Back to the Dev Blog (emphasis added):

Area of Effect Looting

Yes, we are doing area looting. After killing a group of enemies, you may have a bunch of corpses lying around (perhaps because you went all Bladestorm on a bunch of hozen).  If you loot one of the corpses, the loot window will include items from all of the nearby corpses for which you have loot rights. Some recent games have incorporated a similar feature, and it’s one of those things that players just want in their MMO these days. It’s already in and it works fine.

Does this sound like the Blizzard of WotLK, or TBC or Cataclysm for that matter?

I am not entirely sold on the concept of Valor Points being turned into gear upgrade fuel, for exactly the reason Ghostcrawler mentions: “There will be a bit of a game in trying to decide when to upgrade your gear versus hoping for a new piece to drop from a raid boss […].”

Other than that? I am very impressed by what I have seen thus far. Female Pandaren are in a much better place than female Worgen ever were, the MMO-Champ emote videos really highlights how far animations have came since I started playing in TBC, no major feature has been Dance Studio’d yet, and Blizzard overall seems to be operating at a level of humility and industry not hitherto seen. I mean, hell, Blizzard has already started work on the sixth expansion, i.e. the expansion after the expansion after Mists.

Seems to me that WoW should lose a few million subscriptions more often.

Interview Overload

Ever read about an hour’s worth of interview transcripts about a game you’re not even technically playing anymore? I have! [emphasis added throughout]

  • “However, mounts are sacred–one of the only things left that’s visual prestige. So we do want to make sure we give them out for the right things, like the Challenge Mode achievements Tom spoke about.”
  • Re: Guild Leveling. Blizzard isn’t sure they will be increasing the level cap; they may just be swapping out abilities (i.e. Have Group, Will Travel is getting axed). Other big news here is that no daily/weekly XP or Reputation caps anymore.
  • “LFR has been huge for us–one of the most successful features in the game, similar to when we implemented the Dungeon Finder. We can watch the numbers exponentially grow–the number of people that are raiding now, compared to before 4.3, is incredibly dramatic–it’s so much more. We can’t tell you the exact percentage, but it’s massively larger. And not only that, they’ve continued to raid, and these are players that have never raided before.”
  • Re: Firelands dailies: “What didn’t work is that it’s staged out to take too long for the number of quests you need to do. I think that to get all the marks you needed to get was excessive amount of time.”
  • Blizzard doesn’t actually seem to know how the Beta will actually pan out, given that over 1 million people will be getting in.
  • You can (i.e. will) farm tokens to buy a consumable item that gives you, personally, an extra shot at getting gear from a boss. It works in LFR, Normal, and Heroic versions of raids. Yes, an extra shot at heroic raid loot. Yes, every heroic raiding guild will require it.
  • Blizzard nixed the whole “monks don’t auto-attack” thing. Called that one.

File under Missing the Point:

Q: In addition to the linear nature of Cataclysm questing zones, many players felt that it was hard to feel completely engaged in a zone due to heirloom/guild xp bonuses. They’d outlevel a zone before completing a lot of the major plot arcs. The revamped 1-60 content is complete, but was there anything to learn from this in designing future zones? Especially now that Pandaria has more zones than we first heard about at BlizzCon.

A: Well, actually, we are very deliberately trying to set it up so you can skip some amount of content on the way to 90. We feel those decisions make the World of Warcraft seem like a world. If you look back to original WoW, we had Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, for players to quest in at any given time. There was an amount of choice in what you did–sometimes that choice diminished somewhat, but generally speaking, there were different options.

We’d like to capture that as much as possible, so not only is the quest flow itself a bit less linear, but also your zone choices is a bit less linear. That inherently means you won’t get to do all the quests on the way to 90, but it does mean that if you play the game on an alt, you have an option to do something new.

I think the problems you’ve described with heirlooms or guild xp bonuses and everything stacking becomes worse when it’s linear, because when you end that linear experience before you’re supposed to, it’s a lot more noticeable.

Actually… is Tom Chilton missing the point at all? Reading the response over again, it seems to me he wants WoW questing to get away from zones even having “major plot arcs” for heirlooms and leveling bonuses to trivialize. After all, isn’t the complaint that a person out-levels, say, Duskwood before finishing all the quests in the area? That is only a “problem” if one views the zone as something to be completed. If the zone is instead looked upon as a playground with different equipment – Raven Hill as a Merry-Go-Round, Darkshire as the swing-set, the southern portion as a series of muddy sandboxes – then “out-leveling” it does not make a whole lot of sense.

On the other hand, Chilton cannot have it both ways, right? Players are funneled into Duskwood from Westfall, and thus they encounter Raven Hill first; Darkshire’s issues are as much a part of Raven Hill as the other parts of the zone. Less linear is fine in theory, but there is a meta-narrative that has to glue these quests together in some way. And what about the people who come to enjoy a given zone’s zeitgeist? I love the idea of being able to skip entire zones (Wetlands and Arathi Basin are terrible for Alliance), but the issue at hand is not being able to stick with the zones you actually like. Non-linearity does not fix the issue of quests going gray.

Re: ZA/ZG

With Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub, they got a worse reputation than they deserved. A big mistake was going from a tier of content that had 9 instances to run, down to a tier of content where you only have 2 instances to run and no raids. If you run people through the grinder of the same two instances over and over, it ends up feeling much worse. If you take any instance and say ‘these are the only two instances you get to run for many months,’ then that ends up feeling pretty bad.

Re: Community

Q: Last question–about community in WoW. There’s been a lot of changes with people coming back and playing together, and using tools like Real ID and Looking for Raid across servers. How do you balance player-created communities across servers with pre-existing raiding guilds, that are facing challenges now like downsizing from 25s to 10s or dealing with real life and scheduling conflicts among older members?

A: I think that is an important balance to try to achieve. Over time, we’ve gone in the direction of making the game accessible to a lot of different people, such as queueing up for dungeons and raids with friends–which have impacted these guild ties and such. So I think that for us, one thing we’re hoping to do is get guild community back with challenge modes, without excluding your average player from content. Certainly with challenge modes, we don’t plan for you to queue up. We feel that if you queued for a challenge mode in Dungeon Finder, that would cause a lot of problems. That guy being yelled at by his wife for 15 seconds will make everyone else pull their hair out and panic that they’re going to miss a medal. It’s an interesting opportunity for us to really emphasize both playing with your guild and friends without it feeling like the average player is missing out on seeing an instance.

Re: Raiding

Q: So you are in discussions about possibly changing how the raid lockouts work?

A: Sure. I think we’re gonna look at how the 10/25 person lockout worked as a shared cooldown. Was that the right decision, or do we want to do something different? I don’t really know what the right answer is yet. We haven’t decided.

And then we get to the Ghostcrawler interview…

Q: So I was playing the Monk a little bit, and I noticed a couple things that were different from Blizzcon. There’s no more dark Chi.

A: <some debate about how to actually pronounce “Chi”>

Q: So there’s no more dark Chi…

A: Dark balls.

Q: There’s no more dark balls, yeah. What prompted that sort of change?

A: [snip]

I am not sure if I mentioned it before, but I genuinely enjoy having Ghostcrawler around. He may be the face of the B Team, he may be a straight-up design troll in some respects, but hey… at least he has a face, yeah? In a world of Bobby Koticks and David Reids and faceless community managers, I am all for more Greg Streets and Curt Schillings, even if they get things wrong.

Q: […] Glyphs was one system I was looking at and trying to wrap my head around the changes. I think you guys had said something about this somewhere, but prime glyphs are basically gone now.

A: Yeah. We apologize for prime glyphs. They were a bad idea. At the time, we were worried that, say, a Paladin who didn’t have a glyph for Crusader Strike would be like, “What the hell? This is my most important ability! I need to glyph Crusader Strike! I don’t want to glyph… I don’t know, Turn Evil or something like that, because I want a glyph for Crusader Strike.” So we did that, and it ended up just complicating everything because now we have to imagine that, “Oh yeah, everyone has stupid prime glyphs that give them 5% damage or crit or something like that.”

See? After talking about a new glyph for Prot paladins that lets you aim Consecration (ala Death & Decay, but shut up), the followup is:

Q: <grinning> See the grin on my face?

A: <laughs> The Glyph of Divine Plea, which Divine Plea is Holy only now, changes it from a “for the next X seconds you’re a bad healer” to a cast time, and then at the end of that cast time you get all the mana right away. So you have to pay the cast time, and while you’re casting you’re not doing anything, but at the end of the cast time you get all the mana and there’s no self Mortal Strike that a lot of Paladins hate.

Want some more? Here was a show-stopper of an admission, from the answer to the problems with Legendaries:

I think part of that is because almost every raiding Rogue had an expectation of getting a legendary. That’s something I’ve talked about a little bit recently. So, one dark secret that players have probably all figured out by now is that Blizzard designers tend to careen from one extreme to the other, and so, when we decide something doesn’t work out, we go to the complete opposite, illogical extreme, and then we reel it back in a little bit. So, we were kind of reacting against the Warglaives model where, “You have a tiny percent chance of getting a legendary! Congrats!” to trying to make it a little more predictable, and the way we did that was with the style where you need so many parts, and the parts have a fairly predictable droprate, and eventually you’ll have your legendary, which then led to the opposite problem of they’re super predictable, people could point to a calendar day and say, “April 20th! That’s when I get my legendary!”

What sort of designer admits that? Bad ones? Good ones? Final quote:

Q: Interesting. So you did a blog post a while ago about the “Great Item Squish (Or Not) of Mists of Pandaria.” I noticed that the combat text was popping up and saying things like “14K” instead of 14,000 or whatever. Is that the route you decided to go with, like the “mega damage” approach?

A: Yeah, we went with the “not.” Mega Damage, here to stay. So we had this all in and working. We squished everything, and it was working. We had the whole thing implemented, and we sat down and tried it out, and, you know, Mortal Strike hit for 200, and Fireball hit for 150, and we were like, “This feels wrong.” We knew exactly how it would feel like, and we knew that our damage as a percentage didn’t go down, but it felt terrible. And we were like, “Okay, this is now super risky”, because we’re going to change talent trees on players, and even though we think it’s a great design, and we think players will love it, it’s a hard sell. And to do that, and have them hit really wimpy, I think even if players understood why we did it, deep down they wouldn’t like it.

So we decided to back off of that. We’re trying the solution with commas, and K’s, and M’s, and to be honest, it helps a lot, and our hope is, by 6.0 or 7.0, players are demanding the item squish, and by then it’s not controversial at all. It’s like a celebration when we finally do it.

Okay, so that is a lot to digest.

Instead, I think I’m going to play some more Mass Effect 3 multiplayer.

Closer Look: Blizzard’s Q4 2011

When we last left our intrepid heroes in Q3 2011, WoW had lost 800,000 subscriptions and the following four salient points were made in the earnings call:

  • Majority of the sub loss is occurring in the East.
  • Implicitly, the difficulty of Cataclysm content was the cause of sub losses.
  • Expect some (more) “aggressive” World of Warcraft marketing.
  • Patches are more about recapturing the recently churned.

I suppose the holiday box sale and Annual Pass count as aggressive marketing, but let me not get ahead of myself. If you want to read along from home, Seeking Alpha will hook you up.

1. Is Bungie not working on Titan?

Eric Hirshberg from Activision Publishing buried this gem 25 paragraphs into vapid gushing of COD and Skylanders:

Looking further out, we continue to lay the foundation for our new universe from Bungie, one of the world’s best developers. Bungie continues to make incredible progress on what we expect to be a genre-defining new IP that will provide us with tremendous new opportunities and which remains one of our key strategic growth pillars for the future.

This may or may not seem a non sequitur, but I have always entertained the notion that the Bungie acquisition might have had something to do with Blizzard’s Titan development. Why?

Let’s look at the entrails. First, both Joe Staten and Rob Pardo have been playing it coy as recently as 2 years ago about Bungie working with Blizzard. But we also know that Bungie’s secret project “Destiny,” is slated as a sci-fi MMOFPS that is, quote, “WoW in space.” If you have a tinfoil hat handy, things can get even more bizarre when you consider that Ensemble Studios was working on a Halo MMO to directly compete with Blizzard… that was code-named Titan. And when Ensemble Studios was disbanded, several ex-members joined Blizzard. And now Bungie is here with a 10-year contract, making a brand new MMOFPS IP to be a “strategic growth pillar” for Activision Blizzard at the same time Blizzard is making a “casual” new-IP MMO that isn’t supposed to compete with WoW… that is code-named Titan.

Technically a lot of this is old news, and the earnings call did not reveal anything new either way. But in reading that paragraph under the Activision Publisher heading, it occurs to me that it is entirely possible that we could see two new, separate MMO properties out of Activision Blizzard even with WoW still sucking most of the oxygen out of the MMO room. In some respects, that outcome is crazier than Titan turning out to be a Blizzard-Bungie joint MMO.

2. Around 1 million Annual Passes sold… in the West.

Another initiative that has been very successful is the World of Warcraft Annual Pass. This program was announced at BlizzCon this past year. Under its terms, players who commit to being a World of Warcraft subscriber for 1 year will get a free copy of Diablo III, unique digital items in World of Warcraft, and other benefits. To date, we have signed up more than 1 million players in the West for the World of Warcraft Annual Pass.

The more I think about that number, the crazier it ends up being. While the Annual Pass appears to be non-binding (your access to D3 will simply go away), can you otherwise imagine another MMO who can count on 1,000,000 Western subscription accounts being locked in for 12 months? That would make SWTOR automatically profitable for an entire year.

3. Mists of Pandaria information out on March 19.

Some of you may have seen recent news about the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Last week, we began inviting global press to visit our office to get a hands-on look at the game. The press visit will take place next month, and our players will be able to read the latest news on the game on March 19. We’re looking forward to showcasing the game to our community and collecting more feedback as we prepare for the upcoming beta for Mists of Pandaria.

By the way, that means there is an automatic 1 million beta-testers for Mists, yeah?

4. Chuck Norris was super effective!

Neil A. Doshi – Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Mike, I was wondering if you could provide us a little more detail around the subs for World of Warcraft. What was the impact from some of your marketing efforts? And then how many subs did you add from Brazil? And if you have any comments on trend that you could share with us, that would be great.

Michael Morhaime

Okay. So we were very pleased with the results of the marketing initiatives in Q4. The Chuck Norris spot was very effective. We’ve got over 29 million views of the spot on YouTube. And I think, just looking at how well the subscribership held up during our most competitive quarter ever, we’re very happy with that. Engagement of the player base is very strong. We do not break down regional. We do not provide regional breakdown of subs, but we’re off to a good start in Brazil. And I don’t have any detail on churn.

Nothing to add to that.

As reported everywhere, WoW did implicitly lose another 100,000 subs in the quarter. There have been a lot of “See? Not dying!” posts over in the MMO-Champ and WoW Insider comments, but it’s worth pointing out that A) if someone unsubbed for SWTOR, then they won’t count as “missing” until January, e.g. Q1, and B) WoW launched in Brazil this quarter, as noted above. There are several more high-profile MMO launches coming this year, and let’s not forget that everyone is stuck with Dragon Soul until Mists actually launches… which could be six months from now, or more.

In any event, sub numbers really only matter to me in the context of having objective data by which we can interpret future design philosophy, and MMO player desires by extension. If Blizzard’s reaction to losing 1.8 million subs is to make the game easier, then we can assume that they believe a hard game is why people left.

It’s crude, it’s imperfect, but it is all we really have as armchair game designers.

Warlocks as the MoP Baseline

If you look at nothing else regarding the Mists of Pandaria Talent Calculator, browse the warlock section. Having looked at all the classes, it is pretty clear which among them have received the most designer attention. Which is not to suggest this pre-alpha build indicates which classes will be screwed or whatever. I’m simply saying that if the warlock design can be considered a baseline, Blizzard has a very real chance at blowing everyone’s fucking minds.

Demonic Portal alone… here, just let me show you again:

*cue the sound of one jaw dropping*

The sheer number of potential shenanigans boggles the mind. Set this up in a WSG flag room. Set this up in an AV tower. Set this up for your raid team as a handicap accessible ramp for those that struggle moving out of the fire fast enough. Set this up between the goddamn mailbox and AH. Five charges is not a lot, but I bet there will be a Glyph for more.

I don’t want to call a spell like this a “game-changer,” but I am finding it difficult to express what it does in any other terms. So many “new” spells and abilities in WoW are iterations of what came before. Malefic Grasp is the Affliction filler and acts as equal parts Drain Life and Shadow Bolt, with a speeding up of DoT damage innovation. Refreshing, and feels like something Affliction should do. Demonic Portal though is so out of the box that it feels like I have to approach the game in a fundamentally different way, even though it technically is an iteration too (“What if everyone could use a warlock’s Demonic Circle?”).

The rest of the warlock spells/talents show a similar level of left-field thinking. Look at the T3 talent line-up:

  • Spell Drain: Next single-target spell/ability focused at you deals no damage and heals you for half of what it would have dealt. Lasts 4 seconds, 15 second cooldown.
  • Soul Link: Probably same ~X% damage reduction.
  • Sacrificial Pact: Demon sacrifices 50% of its HP to make you immune to damage for 10 seconds. 3 minute cooldown.

I think Spell Drain is going to be redesigned completely by the time Blizzard is through – no way it lasts with a 15 second cooldown – but all three of those are really, really hard choices. Yeah, raiders will probably stick with Soul Link unless the boss has an uber-move you can cheese with Sacrificial Pact, but I’m looking at this from more of a PvP standpoint. Or, hell, what about leveling/soloing old instances/running heroics/etc? Tough choices.

Now, look at T4:

  • Blood Fear: Your Fear is instant, but costs 10% of your maximum health.
  • Burning Rush: Your Life Tap causes you to move 25% faster for 8 seconds.
  • Dark Bargain: Absorbs damage equal to 20% of your maximum health, lasts 30 seconds. Any shield remaining when the spell expires is dealt to you in damage. 30 second cooldown.

When I read this tier, I forgot these talents were from WoW; it felt like I was reading off some Dragon Age: Origin interpretation of a warlock. In a good way. These choices are more… warlock-y than warlocks have been in WoW since their inception. Before this, there was what? DoTs and Life Tap? Outside of the class quest to unlock the Succubus, I felt there was always a bit of weird, thin line between mages and warlocks. DoTs + pets vs nukes, sure, but once DoTs are up the warlock simply nukes too. And there never seemed to be much conceptual distance between Destruction warlocks and Fire mages. Now, with this kind of flavor and direction? Much, much better.

Everything can change between now and the Beta, let alone between the Beta and release (and the hotfixes, and mid-expansion overhauls, etc). But if the remaining classes can siphon off even a fraction of the creative juices oozing from these pre-alpha warlocks, MoP could end up making WoW feel like an entirely new, high fidelity experience to even the most bitter of veterans. I am indeed that impressed.

Thoughts on MoP Paladins

General:

  • Judgement has a 6 second cooldown, 30 yard range baseline. At level 5. Cool.
  • No Auras anymore. Crusader Aura is passive, self-only.
  • Well, Holy paladins get a ridiculous cooldown version of the missing Auras.
  • Blinding Shield has returned as Blinding Light.
  • It will surf through beta, then hotfix-nerfed Day 1.
  • Seriously, Hungering Cold gets a cast time, and another instant mass-AoE spell is designed?
  • Plus, paladins. What’s not to nerf?

Talents:

  • T1 – Speed of Light is a real oddball cooldown here. Consider that it is another 20% DR on a 1 minute cooldown for Holy, on top of Divine Protection, on top of Divine Shield, on top of Hand of Protection, on top of Devotion Aura (20% less Fire/Frost/Shadow damage, immune to interrupts/Silence for 6 seconds), on top of potentially Ardent Defender*. And you move faster with it up. The Prot version of Speed of Light increases damage done by 10% and is thus the more “raid tank” choice, but what does extra damage and moving faster have in common really? And Ret will skip it to grab the somewhat clunkier Long Arm of the Law. Or potentially Pursuit of Justice depending on how quickly Holy Power expires.
  • T2 – We already tried the 6 second stun on a 30 second cooldown, Blizz. You said it didn’t work. As excited I am about Burden of Guilt, Repentance is really the only logical choice.
  • T3 – /yawn. I want Sacred Shield as a tank, assuming the boosted healing doesn’t evaporate when the bubble pops, but I’m pretty sure Blessed Life will be required all the time, by every spec, everywhere. Constant raid damage, anyone?
  • T4 – Selfless Healer is P-I-M-P. Thank you for bringing back my Ret from Wrath. Besides, it was getting a little dumb that warriors and rogues could heal themselves better/faster than my paladin while leveling.
  • T5 – This whole row needs redesigned.
  • T6 – Ditto this row. Boring.
  • Misc – Blessed Life + Pursuit of Justice is actually a pretty funny talent “combo.” The more you damage a paladin, the faster they run around. Wish they would turn that more into a paladin kit.

Specs:

  • [Ret] Nothing too terribly different than what we have now, aside from extra polish. For example, Inquisition now lasts 10 seconds per Holy Power, up from 4, making it more Slice n’ Dicey. Exorcism is Ret-only, instant-cast baseline, has no cooldown (!), generates Holy Power, and automatically fires ala DK’s old-school Sudden Doom talent (before it got moved to Unholy). Hrm… they might be intending for Ret to not be able to push the button until it lights up ala Arcane Missiles. Actually, yeah, both say “activate.” Lame.
  • [Prot] /yawn. Could we have a few more passive abilities, Blizzard? Getting activated abilities at 10, 20, and 40 is too much. I might actually have to use a second row of my action bar.
  • [Holy] I don’t roll Holy, but I find those rolling damage reduction cooldowns to be a tad of the ridiculous side.

Overall, I may have gotten a little too excited yesterday over the legitimate 50% snare thing. Especially considering the absolutely batshit crazy insane shenanigans going on in the Warlock department.

Consider yourself foreshadowed.

P.S. Did anyone else notice that mages no longer have Teleport/Portal: Theramore, but Stonard is still on the roster? Blatant Horde favoritism! Unless… unless… Alliance mages can send careless raid/random BG members to Stonard too. In which case: well played, Blizzard. Well played.

*Obviously not all at once, or in that sequence. However… 10 second DivPro, 12 second SoL, 10 second ArdentD, 6 second DevoAura, 8 second DivShield… which leaves you with 14 seconds until DivPro comes back off cooldown. Which you can fill with a 20 second Avenging Wrath, Guardian of Ancient Kings, or you know, actually healing through normal damage.