Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Where Do We Go From Here?

From Next stop, uncertainty...

The future of Warcraft is suddenly a lot more interesting than it was a month ago.

Predicting anything is, as has been established in these pages, a mug's game. You're just as likely to get flamed and called a troll as be praised for accurate speculation. The only facts, the intractable truths, are the ones Blizzard actually release in completed patches and expansions. We know it now to be true that in-game transactions will occur in at least one localisation of the game client. We also know that transmog items will be available to purchase for cash at some point in the not-to distant future. A month ago, both of these facts would have been laughed at if you'd suggested them as speculation.

The next question I want to ask is deceptively simple, but horrendously complicated: what's next?

Now we have established that nothing (potentially) is beyond the realms of possibility, where do we go?  There's already hugely divided opinion on the possibility of L90 'premade' characters available for sale, but what does generally seem to be agreed upon is that Blizzard are not going to deliberately 'break' the game for the sake of more cash. As has been noted elsewhere by several people, Blizzard's monthly sub has remained constant for close to a decade, so even though they continue to make money from that side of the game, it is significantly less money when placed against the trends of inflation. Bringing in extra coinage from mounts and pets on the Virtual Pet Store has also not changed since it was introduced.  The only items that are being added are those that the designers KNOW are items that people want: to make them look cool, and to help them level faster.

What has not as yet been addressed are the endemic failures in the game that stop people remaining within it, most of which for the static playerbase are tied to end game content, player competance and gearing. However, if we look at 5.4 as an indication of what MIGHT yet be to come, we can perhaps speculate on how Blizzard intend to fix those issues too.

1. The Problem of Content and Location.

One of the most consistent complaints I've seen about content is the fact it remains static once played. Zones become 'stuck in time', effectively not moving forward or being permanently encased in the amber, from the moment you last left them. Pandaria has established phasing as Blizzard's de facto method of eliminating this, and as the expansion has played out we have seen phasing used in an increasingly more sophisticated fashion (often tied with solo scenarios). Come 5.4, the Weekly 'Zone' in the Barrens, which would in previous expansions would have remained intact for the rest of the time, will vanish, as is as it should be, because the content is no longer relevant.

This should be the way all zones behave going forward: criticisms that areas like Outland and Northrend are 'old' are valid and you would not expect Blizzard to want to 'upgrade' this content so that everything is consistent. The number of man hours this would take and the undertaking required to produce a seamless and consistent game world would be a serious commitment... so, explain to me again why all those people got pulled off Titan and they delayed the release of the game again? What could those people be doing? Is it possible that old worlds could finally be bought in line with the new ones, allowing Blizzard to start using Northrend AND Outland in the next expansion's grand plan?

The popularity of the Warlock green fire quest in the Black Temple should have sent a signal to the developers: yes, old content is good. People like nostalgia, revisiting old places with a new spin. You can make new content from old places. Maybe it's time to admit that it isn't just about coming up with new continents. Maybe we could have a try at making old ones better again.

2. Learning How To Play a Better Person.

Proving Grounds are receiving universal praise from around the Blogsphere, for a very good reason: every day is a school day. No-one is perfect at what they do, and we could all use practice. This feature allows you to do just that, using the tools Blizzard have established to immerse you in an experience that isn't just fun, it is also educational. Another one of the constant criticisms from the Community has been the lack of education of players who can level fast to make it to endgame with little or no understanding of their class. If people are chugging XP potions to speed their passage, there needs to be a way to give them a taste of what they should do once they make it to the end.

Of course, it isn't just about doing your job, it is about being part of a wider community, and learning that being a good person isn't just a case of topping the meters or ensuring nobody dies. Guilds need to be a bigger part of the experience for lots of players, and not simply those that reward extra XP for levelling or physical perks for reaching a certain 'level'. I feel it is high time Blizzard bought the Guild ethos front and centre again, and that rewards weren't simply based on how many dinners you cooked or what classes you killed in a Battleground. Rewards should be given for the number of times you complete an instance, and XP should be deducted from people who deliberately cause trouble. If there is an algorithm that tracks player behaviour in LFR, then that should be extended to Guild activity too.

Guilds should be places people are proud of and that are nurtured, not that end up being sold as going concerns in Trade to make a quick buck. It is time to put the emphasis back on Community Spirit, and Guilds are at the heart of that. Let's hope Blizzard is ready to make the Guild a place people want to nurture and not simply use for convenience.

3. Gear isn't Everything.

Both proving Grounds and Challenge Modes make use of the concept of gear normalisation: a reduction of your iLevel to a point where you only have your skill and ability to rely on for results. Too often in this game the hunt for the elusive BiS item overshadows people's ability to be useful  and contribute in ways that do not revolve around what they are wearing as the first point of concern. The initial Endgame in Pandaria was bogged down by very specific levels of reputation tied to gear, which although worked well as a way to restrict entry to more sophisticated content, ultimately caused frustration and burnout amongst the player base.

It is time, once and for all, to stop making gear matter and to shift the focus back to people actually playing the game. Although a standard level is obviously required, that would be far more satisfactory would be to introduce 'normalised' versions of some encounters and have success not simply based on a bosses' death. Placing other factors into the mix (yes, maybe a timer, there I said it) could allow even those with lower levels of gear a chance to compete. It might be nice for raiders not to feel they had to run four different levels of content just so they had the best chance at a boss fight when if you gave everyone the same gear, it wouldn't be about numbers any more, it would be about ability above everything else.

This one is possibly the most contentious idea of all, but if at new expansion's launch everyone was suddenly at the same level regardless of gear when they encountered the first boss of a new instance... how many people would cry foul at being normalised and how many would consider this an opportunity to step up and prove their actual ability was superior?


We have no idea of what is to come, but now we know Blizzard is not adverse to throwing the occasional surprise into the mix, anything is potentially possible. If only I had a crystal ball, or indeed a working TARDIS...


ZuBiE said...

One thing I'd like is no more 12+ minute boss fights. 6 to 8 minutes is about as long as they should be.

Also, please, no more 20 minute trash runs.

Nyxrinne said...

Stripping away gear and making the game all about skill will reduce opportunities for a lot of the playerbase, and that will not increase player retention.

I have several friends who are mediocre at playing their class effectively, but are great people who we want to bring along so they can see as much content as possible. We can safely have them on our fun raids in Mogu'shan and Terrace because they're decked out in 502s and what 522s they've scraped together from valour points and world bosses, while we're in our thunderforged godmode kit. If the ability to soup up a character was removed, we would really struggle to compensate for their low performance - not only because they would be weaker, but because we would too.

I believe adding that kind of struggle to social activities flies in the face of Blizzard's recent moves. The company clearly wants to maximise the amount of content most people see. They brought in LFR and they made old raids worthwhile for transmog, mounts, achievements and pets. flex raids loom in the future to remove other obstacles that bar some players from raids. All of these things lessen the importance of skill in favour of letting the maximum number of people have fun with their friends. Normalising gear would do the opposite.

Grimmtooth said...

The thought about deemphasizing gear is interesting, and by "interesting" I mean "I don't like it."

For the short time I played City of Heroes, I was forever confounded by the lack of inventory of any sort. It's kinda a core concept behind the RP game genre - beat stuff up, loot the bodies, sell the stuff, profit! The skill-centric nature of the game made it somewhat frustrating to an old school dungeon crawler like myself. The only thing that saved that game was that the talent tree was so varied that a lot of people didn't miss faffing about with gear at all.

Well, saved it for a while. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether the inventory issue contributed to its downfall.

Food for thought, anyhoo.

Fierydemise said...

The idea that removing gear would help players on balance rather than hurt it, represents one of the most pernicious myths within many of the casual raiding community. The view that “If only I could raid more/had more gear I could raid with Blood Legion” or some more relaxed form. I used to believe this too, the idea that what separated the top end from the rest of us was simply time and gear. As I’ve gotten better at WoW or at least moved into better progressed guilds I’ve realized that the gulf between me and Blood Legion is far greater than I knew.

This tier has provided us with an outstanding example of just how much of a skill differential there is even at the very pinnacle of WoW raiding. Look at Heroic Lei Shen, the first kill by
Method was on March 26, the next kill wasn’t until 5 days later by Blood Legion and the US 2nd/World 5th kill by Midwinter was another 10 days after that, 15 days (2 full lockouts) after the first kill. After that if you look at US kills it gets even crazier, The US 3rd kill was 16 days after Midwinter and a month after the first kill. In fact the World top 20 wasn’t full until 6 lockouts after Method’s first kill.

If you watch Method’s world first kill video you’ll see exactly why they were the first. Their kill is incredible, the ball lightning handling is incredibly precise, every ball lightning they get 8 spawns all in grip range and they never get an extra bounce. Despite this outstanding execution and some good RNG on static shocks in phase 3 they still only kill the boss by the skin of their teeth. I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that without gear inflation Heroic Lei Shen would probably end this tier with less than 50 kills world wide on 25 man.

One of the best design decisions Blizzard has made this expansion is the major emphasis on gear as an implicit nerfing mechanism. Gear has always served that role but this tier Blizzard has created major ilvl inflation combined with the legendary meta gem, cloak and ilvl upgrades grant substantial power increases that allow guilds to kill content they would otherwise be unable to kill. Blizzard can give the hardcore raiders their hardest boss ever and still make it killable by guilds that are nowhere near as good as Method, like my guild for example. On the more general level, guilds can progress knowing that given time they will be able to defeat bosses that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to and their progression generally won’t stall out.

If gear is removed from the picture that changes, now guilds basically have an upper bound on progression beyond which the only recourse is get better or replace people. Even more problematically the lack of gear will make the majority of the tier a group can clear pretty boring. Since Blizzard will have to support widely varying skill levels over the course of the tier you end up in a situation where most of the bosses you can kill are easy, you finally hit a challenging boss or two and then you hit the wall. With gear you can create a series of challenging bosses knowing that gear will help propel groups past what would otherwise be brick walls.

I understand the allure of making things entirely skill based but emphasizing skill would for most players probably be worse than now. While there are certainly players stuck in guilds below their skill level because of time constraints I doubt it is particularly common nor would removing gear change the calculus. While time is the fundamental currency of raiding guilds the majority of that time is going toward progression not farming. My guild spent 115 wipes on Heroic Lei Shen, a number which is toward the lower end compared to guilds of similar progression. At an average of 6 minutes per pull that is 11.5 hours of pulls without considering time for buffing, run back and strategy modifications. Raiding takes time because developing strategies, learning them and getting everyone on the same page takes time, removing gear wouldn’t suddenly make raiding more available to people with time constraints.

The Godmother said...

The use of the word pernicious in that opening paragraph is very interesting. One of the most damaging parts of the game has always been the hardcore v casual discussion. It is also very easy to simply discuss such 'changes' in the current context, without considering the consequences a root and branch change to the gear system could have on the game, at all levels.

Perhaps everyone needs to stop assuming that Blizzard's out to give them a hard time or to handicap one sector of the player-base, and that it might genuinely be looking at ways of creating genuine arenas for purely ability-based competition.

The Godmother said...

After all, that's what happens in PvP, and that's an esport goldmine waiting to be exploited.

TheGrumpyElf said...

Over gearing stuff is an important part of the game play for a vast majority of the player base.

Most people need a way to catch up and get things done if their skill does not make up for it.

Take the legendary quest line. I blew up the boss in less than a minute. Heck, I would guess it was more like 20-25 seconds, but someone else, same class, 6 item levels higher than I, was just complaining on the forums how hard it is and that he wants to see it nerfed.

So there are "some" cases where skill still matters. I am not a great player and I could do it so surely someone that is more geared than I can right?

This is why there still needs to be an option to over gear content. Some people just do not have the skill set.

I can not do the warlock quest on my warlock. Not because of its horrible 467 item level but because I am quite frankly not very good at playing one. I will wait until I can over gear it.

So, while I agree 100% with you, the option to over gear stuff needs to remain in the game. But I would like to see skill matter a fair deal more on a normal basis and gear have less of an impact than it currently does, which is too much.

Great post.

Grimmtooth said...

I find it surprising that so many people - apparently! - think that gear overcomes a deficit in skill, and that the removal of gear as a factor would somehow level the playing field. I guess I don't hang around on forums enough to corrupt my judgement :)

There are many factors into what constitutes a top raiding guild (or perhaps I should say group at this point). For that matter, skill is just one factor. There are many things - attention to detail, situational awareness, ability to FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS, and most importantly, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. I read an interview with a realm-first-quality guild (or maybe it was world-first) member that pointed out that prior to downing the big boss, they had OVER 500 WIPES. They formed a hypothesis, they tried it out, they wiped, they reset, they went in again. Especially for DPS, class-based skill was far less important than general raiding skills.

(One may wish to disagree, you have that right. Yet, the top guilds pretty much prove the point with real action, rather than theorycrafting. Yes, class-based skills come in at some point, but way down on the list from what I can see. Learn not to stand in bad. THEN learn to Warlock.)

In that light, gear is less a factor than it is a result of all that - i.e. poor raiders and those without the opportunity to raid will not have access to these rewards. Gear does enable one to overcome obstacles more readily, but let's not forget how hard the first boss of every tier is - and yet, top teams cut a swathe through them on opening day, often, without the benefit of tier gear. The skillset (the RIGHT skillset) is already the deciding factor, not the gear.

fierydemise said...

I used the word pernicious because I do think the overestimation of personal skill by elements of the playerbase is dangerous, especially when it engenders elitism in people who really have no cause to be elitist. Again going from personal experience here, during ToC I lead a guild that was in retrospect not particularly good. We weren’t bad, we got to 3/5H but we weren’t that good either. Despite this there were many of us in the guild, myself included, who took a really dismal view of other people on the server when really we weren’t good enough to justify that elitism. People who would troll trade chat calling other people bad because hey, we were 3/5H and if only we had no life like BL we could be US top 100. It wasn’t till I joined a guild where I was clearly outclassed that I realized how much skill I had yet to acquire and even now I realize I’m still probably not as good of several of the other rogues in that guild.

This is destructive at every level, there will always be people who seek to belittle others but WoW by providing such clean progression delineations makes it really easy. In real life I can’t walk up to someone and have cause to call them stupid, in WoW I can peruse their armory and mock their progression without knowing them. This discourages players from attempting to move up the progression ladder even if they want to, things like the almost ritualistic, often public, mockings on guild applications are a wonderful example.

This attempt to keep the casual players “in their place” has the net result of hurting the hardcore raiding community. We NEED casual players to move up to replenish our ranks, we as the hardcore community should be welcoming these players and helping them improve not belittling them. At the higher end I think that is well understood but the problem is in those midrange guilds that don’t have an accurate assessment of their skill. They need to keep casual players “in their place” because casual players can threaten their “dominance” and their egos.

I’m using casual and hardcore as convenient shorthand when obviously there is more to it than that. Hardcore comprises guilds like BL with their time in no object view of raiding during progression and guilds like mine who keep to a tight schedule. Casual guilds similarly range from weekend standing pug style groups where I started raiding to guilds with set rosters and raid times who value the social aspect of raiding at least as much as the progression aspect. Casual and hardcore are tricky words because they define both a time commitment and playstyle, I would love to dispense with them for something more precise but so far I haven’t found anything.

All that said I think my above point still stands, I believe most players whose goal is progression are in guilds that match their skill level. There are some outliers but there is a reason guilds like mine deny many more applicants than we accept for trial. More importantly moving to a system that is purely skill based, without offering an overtime nerfing mechanic will inevitably lead to guilds getting stuck and having to make the always unpleasant decision between replacing someone and stalling out. Blizzard’s current design allows groups of all skill levels to enjoy challenging boss fights without too much social unrest and that seems to be a good design point to be at.

Gear overcomes a skill deficit by making things more forgiving. In my previous comment I cited Method’s perfect ball handling on Heroic Lei Shen, if you watch my guild we’re pretty good at it but not perfect. The additional gear we have allows us to have one free ball from time to time and not kill anyone or put our healers in heavy mana debt.

Progression happens because of gear and skill, you can be infinitely skilled but if you are in LFR gear you will never meet the Heroic Lei Shen dps check. Even top end guild care a lot about gear, notice how guilds like Method, BL and others ran 4+ 25 mixed main and alt groups on the first week of normals to get more gear.

Dahakha said...

Woah, the idea of Guild xp or rewards being penalised by bad LFR/group behaviour just blew my mind. What a way to reinforce community policing! The guild would need to have access to information about who is contributing to the penalties, obviously.

Dahakha said...

Regarding the normalisation of gear, I am on the fence. I love the challenge of having to rely on execution to overcome a [boss/dungeon/scenario], but there are times when the effort required simply to assemble a skilled team drains the potential fun out of the actual challenge.

The best path for Blizzard to take is to have some normalised content, perhaps with premade gearsets, and keep the current gearing-as-nerf mechanism for other content. Hell, you could even just make another tier of raiding that is pure normalised gear. Making it optional (with associated rewards) is going to be the best bet in the long run.