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Act 2: First Blood

As one might rightly assume, I encountered the infamous Infernal Act 2 brick wall.

The best sort of welcoming committee for melee.

To say I was “pwned” by the very first elite pack (Frozen, Molten, Plagued, Desecrator) is to suggest that the Allies merely dropped by Dresden in 1945 for a night on the town. The melee attacks alone were brutal enough to take me out in 3 hits, nevermind all the shit on the ground. As the respawn timer crept ever higher, I thought that those “discretion better form of valor” guys might be on to something. Unfortunately, the FMPD welcoming committee had other plans. No matter how far away I dragged them from the Checkpoint I kept respawning at, at least one was hanging around for his turn to teabag my corpse.

The cherry on top of this injury cake was when the Enrage timer went off. Fun fact: the Enrage timer is actually a debuff that simply kills you in seconds no matter where the fuck the elites are at. As I sat there stunned IRL as to how I can be killed by elites not even on the goddamn screen, I had to further endure the 10-second logoff Wait of Shame before I could scurry back to the AH. After spending something in the neighborhood of 500k (on top of the 300k I talked about last time), my stats ended up looking like this:

A 3 oz bottle of Vaseline doesn’t go as far as one might hope.

I came to the sad conclusion that perhaps I was going to have to alter my Noob Wind spec. So I did… grudgingly. I swapped Mantra of Evasion for Mantra of Healing with the 20% resist runes; I dropped Seven-Sided Strike for Serenity; I switched the rune for Breath of Heaven for the 1.5 second Fear. And… that’s basically it. Bought a 1h weapon + shield combo for when things still get really hairy, but the loss of 7000 paper DPS is almost worse than dying in-game.

I still have issues with many some elites, but at least I have enough time to react to said fact before being ground into a thick paste.

The fact that I am still having occasional issues is somewhat perplexing though, considering the Inferno Act 2 Monk 200k video floating around. If you haven’t see it, the basic premise is a dude went naked to the AH with 200,000g and walked out with enough gear to progress through the entirety of Act 2 Inferno as a Monk… skipping only 3 elite packs along the way. And made a profit with vendor gold alone. I went ahead and did an unbuffed comparison shot of his stats from the video and my own:


I quite literally have 400 more resist than this guy, and I still have issues? The biggest difference – aside from his rather ridiculous amount of Increased Attack Speed – is his spec: Deadly Reach. Ah, yes, the ranged monk. For what it is worth, I did actually try Deadly Reach for a while but couldn’t make it work; without all the extra IAS, you cannot actually kite all that effectively, nor trigger the 3rd punch for the +50% armor bonus.

Then, I noticed something else about his video… the elites he actually faced.

  1. Fast, Illusion, Electric, Plague
  2. Nightmare, Electric, Waller, Health Link
  3. Waller, Fast, Electric, Plague
  4. Frozen, Reflect Damage, Health Link, Waller
  5. Teleport, Jailer, Nightmare, Fire Chain
  6. Fire Chain, Arcane Enchanted, Mortar, Reflect Damage
  7. Molten, Electric, Plague, Fast
  8. Mortar, Waller, Shield, Plague
  9. Plague, Fast, Fire Chain, Vampiric
  10. Mortar, Illusion, Knockback, Waller
  11. [not shown]
  12. Extra Health, Nightmare, Jailer, Fire Chain
  13. Extra Health, Teleport, Vortex, Plague
  14. Electric, Plague, Avenger, Wall
  15. Health Link, Desecrator, Fire Chain, Fast
  16. Desecrator, Teleport, Shield, Molten
  17. Fast, Frozen, Extra Health, Electric
  18. Vampiric, Mortar, Nightmare, Minion
  19. Avenger, Molten, Teleport, Nightmare
  20. Teleport, Avenge, Molten, Electric
  21. Frozen, Vampiric, Jailer, Arcane Enchanted
  22. Molten, Shielding, Arcane Enchanted, Electric, Minion [skip]
  23. Extra Health, Arcane Enchanted, Reflect Damage, Waller [skip]
  24. Molten, Knockback, Illusion, Reflect Damage
  25. Nightmare, Teleport, Illusion, Fire Chain
  26. Knockback, Molten, Reflect Damage, Minion
  27. Fast, Waller, Reflect Damage, Teleport
  28. Arcane Enchanted, Fire Chain, Reflect Damage, Vortex
  29. Frozen, Knockback, Extra Health, Reflect Damage [skip]
  30. Knockback, Mortar, Frozen, Shield

You are goddamn right I wrote them all down. Aside from the four I marked in red above, the elites he faced in the video (barring the occasional enemy type) were a total joke. Could he have faced down my FMPD welcoming committee with his spec? Maybe, maybe not. I have grave doubts.

Sour grapes aside, his video has educated me in various ways. For example, his +631 Life on Hit is obviously doing more for him than my +1027 considering he is getting nearly a full extra attack per second – nevermind all the extra Spirit he generates. The single-minded focus on Dexterity was similarly interesting given how much effect it is having: 229% more damage from his 612 DPS weapons, making them nearly on par with my 1000+ 2H. I am not entirely willing to go Deadly Reach just yet, but I can definitely spend another ~5 hours “playing” Diablo 3’s AH to repair my errors.

And if it sounds like I am enjoying Diablo 3 better overall, you wouldn’t be wrong. The cheeky among you might suggest that it is because of the increased difficulty, and I am inclined to agree – Act 2 has been the only stretch of road I have not been zipping down at 80 mph in a 65 mph zone. Indeed I thought Act 1 Inferno was about as hard as Act 2 Normal in the scheme of things, given the latter’s lack of gold for upgrades and all the locked abilities.

After 38 hours /played, it is about goddamn time some fun was had.

The end is probably nigh however, for all the reasons I have seen in the comments to my own posts (and elsewhere). “Farming” Act 1 Inferno holds about as much appeal as sticking my balls in a toaster, and… well, actually, that is basically the way forward here. Or giving in to the Deadly Reacharound build. While the thought of maybe getting a $200 item drop soothes the chaffing a bit, I already spend more time in the AH than in-game. I don’t know how much longer…

…hold on, I have an email.

Pics or it didn’t… damn.

BRB, grabbing my toaster.

P.S. Congrats to Anderasill, the owner of the above screenshot + $173.40 ($200 minus fees) and a winner of the Diablo Annual Pass Challenge (Hardcore). She actually got Diablo 3 via the Annual Pass, so there’s that too. And she probably could have saved herself the 15% transaction fee since I know damn well she’ll just spend all that money and more buying the new WoW pets.

File Under: Eyebrow Raised

The following two bits of random news caught my eye yesterday.

Breaking News: Cataclysm heroic dungeons were too hard, long

There is a new Cataclysm “post mortem” interview with Scott “Daelo” Mercer that just went up. It is a PR puff-piece so whitewashed they had to run over to San Bernardino to pick up more lime, but it did contain at least one visible kernel of truth in the pile of bullshit:

Q. What didn’t work out as planned or expected?

Initially, we started off the Heroic dungeons at too high of a difficulty. The difficulty level rather abruptly changed when compared to the Heroics players experienced at the end of Wrath of the Lich King. This major change caught many players off guard, and frustrated some of them. The difficulty also increased the effective amount of time required to complete a dungeon to a longer experience than we wanted. With the release of patch 4.3 we’re now in a much better place.  We’ve always talked about being able to complete a dungeon over lunch, and the Hour of Twilight dungeons get us back to that goal. End Time, Well of Eternity, and Hour of Twilight  all provide epic play experiences to our players, but at the real sweet spot of difficulty, complexity, and time commitment.

This is a drum that I have been beating for a week shy of a full year. It is not especially relevant these days – does anyone really care or disagree at this point? – especially given the Mists announcement back in October that heroics were going back to WotLK-style. But it is always nice to have some measure of extra closure on things.

Dust 514 is F2P, for real this time

Last month, I pooh-poohed David Reid’s speculation that EVE could become the biggest game in the world by the end of 2012 via the “tens of millions” of Dust players. While Reid is (one of) the most filthy, vile marketeer(s) in the history of videogames, the latest news via Eurogamer is that Dust is in fact F2P:

Eurogamer can megaphone that Dust 514, the exclusive PS3 MMOFPS that will exist within Eve Online, will now be free to download and free to play.

There was going to be a $10 to $20 cover charge for the game on PSN, but that has now been scrapped.

“It was a relatively confusing proposition,” executive producer Brandon Laurino explained to Eurogamer, “and we wanted to make it unambiguous that this is a free-to-play game.”

Laurino goes on to stress Dust won’t be Pay 2 Win – “There is no micro-transaction that you can do that gives you an unfair advantage over someone who hasn’t paid anything” – but a few paragraphs later this happens:

Items available include vanity goods to customise appearances with; boosters that save time, such as double skill point (SP) boosters; variants of weapons that aren’t necessarily more powerful – “side-grades” that look or play differently; services like character respecs; and lucky dip treasure boxes. “It’s what has emerged as best practice,” Laurino said.

Oh, I see.

I suppose there is room to say things like double-XP potions and the like don’t actually count as P2W. And maybe they will actually get the weapon side-grades balanced right. But… “lucky dip treasure boxes?” TF2 has those crates you unlock with keys or whatever, but I would never accuse TF2 of taking itself particularly seriously. I am always skeptical when someone feels the need to hardcode lottery tickets into their game… do they have no faith in the product itself to engender poor financial decision-making?

All that aside, it is pretty big news for Dust to be launching F2P out of the gate. I do not have a PS3 and I believe launching Dust as a PS3-exclusive (i.e. no PC version) was the worst idea in the history of ever, but this is something I am definitely keeping my eye on. As I said in an earlier article on the subject, Dust would have been the perfect vehicle to transition someone interested in the EVE concept from the fence to being podded in-game. We will have to see how the game actually plays, but being F2P gets a lot of feet in peoples’ doors.

Specialization is Key

I was reading Syl’s Monday post on GW2 when a particular section leaped off the page:

Some people still doubt that GW2 will manage without any holy trinity, but I actually do – and if there’s ever going to be more “dedicated” healing or tanking going on in a specific encounter, it will probably be a situation in which everyone must take turns or decides on a random player.

If you have attempted group content in WoW at any point in the last two years, you probably recoiled in horror as I did at the thought of looking forward to shared group responsibility. We have a term for that now – The Dance – and every indication that it was the principle cause of the nearly 2 million subscriber exodus.

After all, by making every player vital to the group’s success (e.g. everyone must Dance correctly), the strength of the group is reduced to that of its weakest member. And if we follow the “down with the holy trinity!” argument to its inevitable conclusion, we end up in Dance Dance Central.

When I asked whether Syl really wanted shared responsibility, the response was:

You mean, would I rather have groups share the responsibility of control or be flexible about it, rather than putting the entire responsibility and blame on just one person? of course I would. I think this is one big reason why WoW pugs were so horrible.

The sentiment is interesting to me, because I approach it from the 100% opposite direction.

There are some responsibilities that I do not trust other people to accomplish. I was the guy in school/college that would do all of the heavy lifting in the group project – picking the topic, doing the research, writing the paper – while you sailed to an easy A by reading two (of 10) paragraphs in front of the class.

Actually, “trust” is not even the operating word I am looking for, as that implies an uncertainty of contribution. It wasn’t a question of whether you would perform, or even how. It was a matter of your capacity for performance, and whether the final outcome would be better or worse with said contribution.

Is that arrogant? No.¹ Ability brooks no morality. Being better at the “game of school” did not/does not make me a better person, or someone else worse for their lack. The unilateral determination of the value of the contribution might be construed as arrogant, but the final grade was always a true arbiter. Just as the death of the boss is an arbiter of a raid strategy.

Which segues me back to raiding and the following claim: specialization is better for group-based activities.

People are NOT experts at everything, nor should they have to be. If the content requires precise movement at specified times, who do you want in that position? Probably a person meeting the following criteria: A) best internet connection, B) the most experience, and C) someone who wants the responsibility. Maybe you’re thinking long-term and want to get another guy trained and battle-tested. Maybe someone wants to branch out and test the tanking waters. That’s fine! Do what works for your team.

What no one wants is for the person chosen to randomly be the easily excitable, newbie friend raiding on WiFi. It’s not fun for him, it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for anyone. It creates friction in group scenarios, even when you are raiding with good friends.

This brings me to Guild Wars 2, and two conditional claims/predictions.

1) Trinity specialization will be required to succeed at endgame content; or
2) Endgame content will be mostly trivial.

The “everyone can pitch in” group content philosophy is simply zerging. The “trinity should die” desire is the desire for Dance 2.0.

Syl goes on to mention:

combat that revolves around tanking and aggro, is different from combat that revolves about shared control and therefore needs less dedicated healing, too. tactically speaking it’s an interesting approach you can already find in many FPS online games where every player is carrying some type of rifle and team strategy, self-sufficiency, quick reactions and improvisation are where it’s at. okay, you can distrust the average MMO players currently out there to be any use at this type of cooperative game – a fair point, but not exactly a good argument against improving combat design. to ME the current combat is boring.

Putting aside the question of the actual value of teammates in CoD/BF/TF2 games (and the fact that a lot of FPSs are in fact class/role-based), I want to talk about improvisation. The ability to change strategies, to adapt to changing conditions, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… that was actually my favorite part of raiding in WoW. The Mimiron kill video was one of the most epic experiences in the game for me. Same with our first Yogg-Saron kill.

The rub is that improvisation requires room to screw up and not fail. In other words, improvisation requires a lower difficulty. It requires mistakes to not matter as much. I am not at all a fan of pass/fail mechanics, so I actually DO hope there is room for improvisation in GW2. But if a group of 5 Necromancers can clear all the content, chain rezzing each other, swapping weapons to “be the tank” when they are randomly the target of the boss, requiring no specialization at all (or worse, requiring everyone to “specialize” in everything)… well, have fun with that.

A certain continuum exists between the two extremes, but it is not as wide as many believe. The only way to reliably hit that mark, IMO, is to require specialization in tasks – specifically being able to choose the 1-2 people around which an encounter pivots – and extend the margins of victory for everyone else. Think the ooze-kiter in the Rotface encounter, or the two portal healers in Dreamwalker.

Allowing those 1-2 people to be anyone (tanks/healer/DPS) would be an amazing innovation, but I’m not entirely convinced that is what will be going on in GW2.

¹ Although it’s probably arrogant saying it.

Established Fact

In one of Syncaine’s latest posts, a commenter made the claim:

WoW is bleeding accounts because people are finally realizing that being handed everything with minimal effort and no risk is, in actuality, not that much fucking fun over the long run.

After I presented the counter-argument that it was established fact that increased difficulty was principally the cause of WoW subscriber drop-off, Rammstein “countered” with this:

Anything that Chilton says to the New York Times is “established fact”? LOL. You never considered any of the following?

1. He could be lying.

2. He could be wrong, which looks more likely when you consider he is part of the design team responsible for the drop.

3. He could be both lying and wrong, the most probable scenario.

4. He could be right. In this horribly unlikely case, what he said is STILL NOT ESTABLISHED FACT, as that would require something establishing it as a fact besides someone just saying it to someone else.

Syncaine agreed with Rammstein and made another post highlighting it. So… let us give these arguments the gravity their authors did not.

1. He could be lying.

Sure, Tom Chilton could be lying to the New York Times. But… to what end? His specific line is:

“What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

Is that supposed to be less embarrassing? An admission from the game’s director that they don’t know what their present audience wants, in an article about the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic? What could they be hiding that is worse? Assuming Syncaine and company are correct vis-a-vis lack of difficulty being the cause, it would be far, far easier to admit that WoW had deviated too far from what “made WoW great” and that Cataclysm was the first step in the right direction.

Except… Cataclysm clearly wasn’t a step in the right direction because it was released with a higher difficulty and 2 million people left anyway. So how convoluted does your difficulty argument have to be to still remain valid? That people hated the ease of Wrath, burned themselves out, got served a difficult expansion, and then quit 2-3 months later after getting exactly what they wanted/needed? The nerfs did not occur until after the loss in subscriptions, after the 50+ minute LFD queues. Or is the argument that the hardcore center hollowed out in Wrath? In which case… who were the 2 million who unsubbed in Cataclysm?

Even if we assume that Chilton was lying to the NYT for whatever reason, for that argument to hold you must further assume that it was not just Chilton, but the entire damn company. Here was Mike Morhaime in the November Earning call:

That said, we know there are improvements that we can make in gaming content. The level-up content in Cataclysm is some of our best works. But it was consumed quickly compared to our past expansions set, Wrath of the Lich King. Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging.

Our development team is constantly analyzing the game, and we’re continuing to explore ways that we can adjust the game to better satisfy both hard-core and casual players. To that end, our next free major content update for World of Warcraft is already in testing and will be available for players in the coming weeks.

I could post more. In fact, I did post more… back in March of 2011 as I put the backpedaling on a timeline starting from January 7th’s “We don’t think it was a mistake to start with the difficulty we did” to February 3rd’s “On the other hand, maybe things have come too far in the other direction.” The whole gang is there: Zarhym, Daxxarri, Bashiok, Ghostcrawler. Were they just repeating Chilton’s lie for the past 12 months?

Not only were they lying with words, they also had to be lying with deeds. Consider the LFD Luck of the Draw buff that rolled out not even two weeks after Ghostcrawler told everyone to L2P. Consider the absolute bevvy of heroic nerfs, the T11 nerfs, the ZA/ZG nerfs, the 4.2 nerfs before the end of the patch (!), and finally the implementation of LFR. And let us not forget part of the Mists of Pandaria announcement:

In Cataclysm, Heroic dungeons were intentionally designed as gear and difficulty checks on the progression to raiding. In Mists of Pandaria, the Raid Finder will be the appropriate transition from running dungeons to Normal raids. Heroic dungeons will largely be tuned to be about as difficult as they were in Wrath of the Lich King, allowing players to fairly quickly down bosses in PUGs and hit their Valor Point caps. Valor Points will follow a new philosophy with 4.3, as a parallel way to gear up alongside the Raid Finder, but not as a fill-in for boss drops.

Which leads us to:

2. He could be wrong.

I am actually much more sympathetic to this argument, simply because we do know not just by experience, but by admission that designers (or at least the people that manage them) frequently have no goddamn idea what they are doing. Even in Blizzard’s specific case, Chilton is admitting they are still trying to figure out the current audience wants, which becomes more and more bizarre the longer you think about it.

That said, while I am sympathetic to this argument, it is also extremely weak. Blizzard is privy to 100% of the statistics that we have to crudely extrapolate from either Armory information, or from websites that have not been updated since October. And even the statistics we have access to can be incredibly misleading. I have always said that arguments based on total subs is asinine, because who knows what the churn rate is, what the concurrent users numbers are doing, and so on. Only Blizzard does, and we only know what they have said:

Are you basing this conclusion [heroics too hard] off of forum posts or in game data?  I hope it’s the latter so you get a truly accurate picture.

That’s an analysis pulled from hard data. We always try to base improvements an accurate overall picture. (source)

The Luck of the Draw buff, however, is being made in response to the feedback we’re seeing on the forums, as well as the statistics we’ve been reviewing which reflect all types of dungeon party trends. We feel it’s a good way of closing the disparity between the success of pick up groups and the success of preformed groups, without trivializing the content for some players to appease others. (source)

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums. (source)

So the “He could be wrong” counter-argument essentially comes down to “Blizzard is wrong about why they experienced a loss in subscribers because I said so without any objective evidence other than total sub numbers.”

Could Blizzard actually be wrong? Sure. Maybe they actually lost 2 million subs because of the alignment of Praxis-12 Prime with the center of the Andromeda galaxy. But given the incredibly consistent (since February 2011), highly publicized direction shift when it comes to difficulty, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that Blizzard as a whole believes the Cataclysm drop in subscribers was due to Cataclysm being too hard. With the release of LFR and all information revealed about Mists of Pandaria thus far, it is similarly clear that Blizzard is literally betting the $1 billion farm on an easier, more accessible WoW experience.

Consider this fact established.

Truer Words

In the middle of an epicly-long Kotaku article expressing the virtue of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the following lines jumped out and strangled me (emphasis added):

Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting.

When it comes to discussing difficulty in MMOs, I firmly fall on the “make it easy” side of the fence. I enjoy difficulty, I enjoy taxing my abilities to their maximum, but I also believe difficulty has its place; specifically, not in waiting for someone else to finally stop failing so I (we) can succeed. Games like Dark Souls work precisely because they are single-player.

That being said… the bold sentence in the quote above is perhaps the most succinct, inspired description of the mechanics of fun I have ever read.

Chilton and Audiences

From a NYTimes article:

What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

As someone returning to World of Warcraft after a long absence, I find the current direction of the game eminently engaging. As Mr. Chilton said, “We hear from a lot people who used to play a lot that they’re just not at that point in their life anymore, and they want to play, and they want to see the content. But they can’t make the same time commitment they used to.”

What is interesting to me is how they felt that it was realistic in the first place. And the use of “current” audience, with the implication that a prior audience existed but no longer does today. The debate over whether the “more hardcore prior audience” hollowing out was due to lack of attention or was inevitable seems almost academic at this point.

The same MMO with a new community is a different MMO, period.

Raiding with “Friends”

Checking up on Tobold reveals an interesting post about the “failure” of the F2P model in Facebook games, or at least the way Zynga goes about it. However, there was a specific section of the post that piqued my interest (emphasis added):

By making paying to play so expensive and annoying, Facebook games thus make the “social cost” of pestering your friends more appealing. That very quickly leads to players realizing that the person least likely to be bothered by a constant stream of gift requests is somebody already playing the same game. MMORPGs like Everquest started out with a social model in which guilds were there to play with your friends, and over time that social model degraded to guilds where you play with people who have the same goals and play intensity as you have, even if you don’t actually like them. Facebook went through the same development much quicker. Every Facebook game forum has “add me” threads. My new Facebook account already has 67 friends, just by clicking on links in various “add me” threads like that.

I am not entirely sure whether the designers of Everquest actually expected people to join guilds with their IRL friends, but that almost seems like a moot point anyway – MMOs have a way of stratifying the playerbase into those willing and able to perform at X level and those at Y level. As may be implied by the tone of prior posts, and the existence of a blog to begin with, I tend to take things much more seriously than regular people… of which my friends qualify as, more or less.

The irony though, is that I am not even sure whether raiding should be a friend-based activity, or even could be one in the long-term. I certainly would never raid with my IRL friends specifically because raiding presents scenarios that only complicate things in (external) friendships. Loot distribution. Healing assignments. Interrupt duties. Punctual log-ins on raid days. Choosing who to sit out when 11 people are online. Deciding whether heroic modes are worth the time/hassle of attempting. It is the same strain I imagine must exist in a friendship between a supervisor and their employee. There is no good choice between the job and the friendship; it is always Lose-Lose.

The in-game friends I made via the guild and raiding in general understood when certain decisions were necessary as a Guild Master and/or Raid Leader in ways that my IRL friends could/would not. Then again… now that I think about it, there was quite a bit of drama when I continued bringing a few people along to the raids for the good of progression, but whom otherwise detracted from the enjoyment of everyone else. They probably should have understood why my actions were necessary, but I cannot help but imagine my having the same negative reaction if the shoe was on the other foot.

Raiding is often called the pinnacle of the MMO experience, but I am beginning to question that precept. Is there something wrong with the model? Or is (the possibility of) interpersonal conflict simply a given in any social endeavor? It almost seems like you could avoid conflict by making raiding so easy that any friction becomes irrelevant, but what of the people who enjoy a challenge? Or, hell, wouldn’t an easy endgame preclude the usefulness of a guild to begin with?

Review: The Binding of Isaac

Game: The Binding of Isaac
Recommended price: $5 (full price)
Metacritic Score: 84 (!)
Completion Time: Technically ~1 hour, or 20+ hours
Buy If You Like: Twisted, roguelike Flash games

The Binding of Isaac (hereafter Isaac) is a game that, strictly speaking, I should not enjoy. Indeed, I did not enjoy it at all the first few times I played it. But I did keep playing it, and once I sort of stumbled my way out of fifteen years of safe game design, Isaac rekindled a bit of that stubborn old-school gamer flame that propelled my younger self face-first into Battletoads hour after bloody hour.

This is what the first few hours will feel like.

Isaac plays like Smash TV from the olden days, with WASD controlling movement and the arrow keys controlling which direction you eject the streaming tears from your naked body at the merciless demons haunting your childhood nightmares. Map layouts and room contents are randomly determined each time you start the game, with the only consistency being the number of total levels, and there being Item and Boss rooms on every level (until the last few, which have no Item rooms).

As I mentioned, the game did not seem terribly fun the first few times. There is no quick-save, there are no checkpoints, and I got the feeling that I was lucky to even have a pause button. Death is permanent, none of the items you receive are really explained before you use them, many items can actively harm you in some way, some room setups are completely unfair, and it is both entirely possible and very likely that you will get screwed right from the very start with things only getting progressively worse.

Sometime around my fourth attempt, it suddenly all clicked: this is like Solitare. A game you play because you aren’t sure you want something heavier, a game that you don’t have an expectation to beat every time, and yet something you still find fun hours and hours later.

Isaac gives you plenty of opportunities to make bad decisions.

And I have indeed been having fun hours and hours later; 20+ hours to be exact. Although you never carry over items you accumilate, beating the game or getting specific achievements will unlock new items that are then added to the random roster, some of which will radically change the tenor of a particular run. I have a few more specific achievements to grab by beating the full game with different characters (basically different starting load-outs) before getting to the truly ridiculous “take no damage for X levels” kind, so it will be interesting to see if the game is still fun once those dry up.

But you know what? Getting more than 20 hours of game time in a roguelike, a genre that I was hitherto convinced I would despise on principal, is an absolute goddamn steal at $5.

Delving Into the Earnings Call

The last time I talked about an Activision Blizzard earnings call, I had just quit the game myself. Now in Q3, you have undoubted heard that a further 800k subs were lost, bringing WoW down to 10.3 million. For those keeping track at home, the last time WoW was at ~10 million was in 2008 right during the release of TBC in China.

While sites like MMO-Champion and WoW Insider are nice for giving us summaries, I’m interested in the nuance inside the earnings call itself. Feel free to read alongside me at home (curtsey of Seeking Alpha).

1. Majority of the sub loss is occurring in the East.

You have probably already read the above bullet-point summary, so I’m here to assure you that Morhaime does not get more specific than this.

2. Implicitly, the difficulty of Cataclysm content was the cause of sub losses.

Feel free to try and read something different from these paragraphs (emphasis added):

That said, we know there are improvements that we can make in gaming content. The level-up content in Cataclysm is some of our best works. But it was consumed quickly compared to our past expansions set, Wrath of the Lich King. Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging.

Our development team is constantly analyzing the game, and we’re continuing to explore ways that we can adjust the game to better satisfy both hard-core and casual players. To that end, our next free major content update for World of Warcraft is already in testing and will be available for players in the coming weeks.

Now, the funny thing about this is how Blizzard may have cost themselves millions of dollars in lost revenue by pushing Cataclysm on the Chinese instead of letting Wrath work its magic. After all, Cataclysm was released in China on July 12th whereas Wrath was out in mid-August of 2010, a difference of 11 months. I am not sure whether Cata heroics came pre-nerfed like they ended up in the West, but even if they did it would still be worlds different than how it was in Wrath.

Which, no matter your feelings on the expansion, gained ~1 million subs and largely kept them until Cataclysm.

3. Expect some (more) “aggressive” World of Warcraft marketing.

Specifically: “We have other aggressive marketing plans in the coming months for World of Warcraft, but we’re not ready to share details yet.” Morhaime was then grilled in the Q&A section for further information.

Can you give us some additional color on what’s happening to engagement and subscriber levels for World of Warcraft, particularly following that big expansion pack announcement? Where do you think the subscribers are actually going? And I’ve got a quick follow-up.

Okay. Well, as you know, we don’t provide a forecast on subscribership levels. But I’ll say is that the announcements at BlizzCon were incredibly well received. There’s a lot of excitement around the expansion and the upcoming content in the next patch, which will be introduced in the next couple of weeks. It is currently in test on our public test realm, and we’re very excited about that content. I guess, I can say this, the majority of the declines were in the East. China still represents more than half of our global player base and historically, December has been a very good month for subscriber trends. We have a number of initiatives planned. We plan to be very aggressive in terms of our marketing promotions, and we’re looking forward to the end of the year.

It is an open question what kind of aggressive marketing Blizzard can even do with WoW. If they lowered prices on some of the other services like server transfers or even weekend sales or whatever, that might go a long way in getting me back – I’m not coming back to a dead server and then immediately spending $35+ to move one toon and just 10% of my wealth somewhere else.

Beyond that, what can they do? I doubt something like the cost of the box is keeping people away.

4. Patches are more about recapturing the recently churned.

Nothing ground-breaking, I just find it interesting.

Just out of curiosity, when you’ve had big patches before with World of Warcraft, what type of subscriber uplift do you typically see?

Well, historically, with the content updates that we’ve done, it’s really not intended to go out and drive new user acquisition, that’s a whole other strategy. But it does drive engagement with the game, and so that will impact churn, if we do it successfully and eventually will drive win back, as players tell each other about the content they’re enjoying. We’ll hopefully see a lift in our ability to win back players that may have already churned.

And that wraps up the earnings call.

Hardcore Causality

The perennial semantic debate of the Hardcore vs Casual descriptors has reared its zombie horse head again, and it amuses me somewhat seeing the Rorschach results. My own take?

Casual and hardcore relate to the seriousness in which an activity is undertaken.

Length of time has nothing to do with it: as is frequently mentioned, top-tier raiders can clear 7/7 heroic Firelands in 2 hours and then not play at all for the rest of the week. Compare that to someone who levels alts or otherwise plays for 50 hours a week.

Of course, “seriousness” is somewhat subjective. Then again, there are a few objective metrics in which I believe can determine (arbitrary) positions on the seriousness scale. For example:

  1. Read forums or Wiki pages. +1 seriousness
  2. Posts on forums. +1 seriousness.
  3. Download mods or external programs. +3 seriousness
  4. Ignored phone calls in middle of the game. +3 seriousness
  5. Schedule your real-life around in-game events. +5 seriousness

It is important to note that while raiding (agreeing to log in at 7pm on Thursday) does not automatically make you hardcore, it is certainly more hardcore than someone who does not seriously consider convincing their other friends to move Poker Night to Wednesdays so they can make Thursday raid night.

The design of the games themselves absolutely has an impact on seriousness too. To be sure, human beings are 100% capable of making otherwise casual activities the most hardcore thing imaginable – stamp collecting, Lego models, Chess, and so on. However, the nature of the game can also lend itself to being taken more seriously. The difficulty of raiding, for example, is such that a random group of ten people thrown together is not likely to achieve success.¹ That encourages people to schedule play sessions; the social ties generated thereby encourages structuring your IRL commitments around game time instead of vice versa. I absolutely know people that asked for Tuesdays off from their retail work because, well, raids reset on Tuesdays and you would let the team down if you don’t show up.

Difficulty and social ties aren’t the only game designs that skew people towards hardcore-ness. Sometimes the game makes it hard to reasonably progress without a minimum amount of sunk time. I have been playing The Binding of Isaac recently, for example, and much as other roguelike games you cannot Save and quit, death is permanent, and so on; there is literally no point in playing The Binding of Isaac for 10 minutes, because you cannot beat the game, you cannot unlock anything, you cannot really do anything of value. Games based on Checkpoints such as Far Cry 1 also fall into this mode.

I know I mentioned time spent playing is irrelevant, but here is the nuance: if you know you need at least an hour free to get anywhere in the game, and you chose to continue playing, you are more apt to start rearranging your real life around the game life. I am not saying life rearrangement is bad or ridiculous – I do it all the time – but it does indicate you are more of a hardcore player of said game. Compare that with Angry Birds or Plants Vs Zombies or Red Remover which I play only when I am sitting around in a doctor office or at the DMV or wherever and I immediately turn it off when I am no longer waiting.

In any case, that is my contribution to the field of loaded verbiage.

In regards to the topic at large, i.e. for whom was the leveling game changed, I would suggest that leveling was indeed made faster for the hardcore. However, I would NOT agree that this somehow makes the game less casual-friendly. The boredom of disaffected veterans is not analogous to a brand new player of the game – I cannot imagine someone with zero WoW experience complaining about or even recognizing leveling “too fast” or the game being “too easy.” Indeed, a new player more than likely died several times before level 10 and then spends the remaining 75 levels being overly cautious. Or being skilled enough to recognize the lack of danger, which indicates they would have been bored no matter which way leveling was designed.

And besides: the more quests and zones that are skipped on the way to the level cap, simply means the more replayable content exists, right?

¹ We’ll see how Looking For Raid works out, eh?