Saturday, August 24, 2013

Seven Days Away: Things to Make and Do


When Blizzard release a Blog post which suggests you might like to do some stuff before 5.4 hits, it's time to sit up and take notice. Of course, some of us will be otherwise engaged for the next week or so, but that doesn't mean the rest of you slackers everyone else should rest on the Laurels of Complacency (TM) Time to use the last days of 5.3 for some really useful stuff. Of course, everyone and their goldmaking auntie's already on the useful stuff. I see no-one covering the pointless.

Let it not be said I can't recognise a market opening when I see one. Therefore, we present 10 Things You Won't Need to Do When 5.4 Drops:

  1. Pretend that Class Changes aren't your problem.  In shock news, every single class (yes even Rogues) can smell the unmistakable Essence Du Change that's going to become de rigeur in the months leading up to a new Expansion. I hate to break it to you, but even  you really ought to go read the patch notes because your character will be affected. GO DO IT.

  2. Worry about Losing your Valor Points. No, there is NO reset. There's also no new Valor Point armour either, but don't let that worry you. You can still upgrade stuff before you start converting it to raw materials. Plus loads of stuff costs less Valor, which is great unless you don't need anything. BoE Boots? SO LAST EXPANSION DAHLINK.

  3. Stockpile quite so many Old World mats. Enchants now scale with gear, so that Spellpower Enchant you've been trying to flog for months? Not so valuable. However, I'm sure the gold farmers reading this already have their own ideas of what's gonna sell well regardless of this change, so maybe you ought to go check out their wisdom as well.

  4. Get frustrated in Siege of Orgrimmar LFR. This is the point where you're going to wish you knew someone planning a Flex Raid, because they're gonna start playing the new content the night the patch drops, whereas LFR HAS A WHOLE WEEK TO WAIT. Might be time to actually accept a few of those friends requests...

  5. Fret about being behind on the Legendary Questline. Blizzard have made it stupidly easy to pick up all the old rubbish you should have been collecting for the last three patches, because they knew some people were going to turn up fashionably late. No need to worry, they've got you covered!

  6. Wipe repeatedly in ToT LFR when trying to gear Alts. 'All enemies in Throne of Thunder now have a debuff called Shado-Pan Onslaught, which reduces their health and damage by 20%' say the Patch Notes. That should make Durumu a lot simpler for those people who have a phobia of mazes.

  7. Be geared to a certain standard to wipe repeatedly in Heroic Scenarios: 'Heroic Scenarios no longer have a minimum item level requirement to enter.' We're assuming you still need to premake a group in order to enter, however, so I'd make sure you know what you're letting yourself in for.

  8. Need an Arena Team to die repeatedly in Arenas:  I'm beginning to see a pattern here... ^^

  9. Leave your Professions Alts languishing around gathering dust. If you want the new stuff in 5.4 you're gonna need to be out there, you know, doing stuff. Again, this is one of those moments where reading the Patch Notes is pretty much... well, required reading. Don't say I didn't warn you

  10. Update your Computer to accommodate the Patch: apparently 'the vestigial Use Hardware sound option has been removed' so that's good, right? Hang on, what do you mean I might have to one day replace my PC REGARDLESS...?

See, when you look at it in those terms there's really very little you have to worry about! Sit back, have a cuppa and a nice bit of cake and be safe in the knowledge that come 5.4, you have absolutely nothing to worry about... [*]


[*] Actual worry may be involved, major change may be traumatic and cause mass QQ-ing, wailing and gnashing of teeth in Trade. The value of your currency may go down as well as up. Wear a tabard. Queue responsibly.

Seven Days Away: It's Probably Me

Three guesses where I'm going...

Just so you know, I'm not here.

As you're reading this I'll be on a train, thundering my way towards Continental Europe, for a much needed summer vacation with the family. However, even when I'm not at the computer you can guarantee there is always a part of my brain that forever remains in Azeroth. After over eight years, I suppose it's unsurprising that so much of what I do has been coloured in this way. The influence of the game and the people who play it has become as much as what I am as the films I love or the books I return to for comfort.

This time, I decided when I went away I wouldn't leave you with a week of silence (yeah I'm sorry about that) but instead I'd take the time to say the stuff that never really gets covered when I'm reacting to the latest PTR patch or madly panicking about how unprepared I'll be for the next patch (and trust me that's going to be the case for 5.4, despite the fact we won't be seeing it until the second week of September.)

That means, in the next week or so, you're gonna get a little bit of everything. I'm not going to give anything away (however you'll want to be around on Monday, just saying) but I hope that I'll still be able to keep you entertained and distracted, though I'll freely admit I'm no Hearthstone Beta in that regard. For those of you waiting for fiction, you won't be disappointed either. Needless to say, if you miss me that much I can guarantee that my Twitter feed's gonna get some photographic abuse (with a deliberate Azerothian slant) which should prove if it were needed that yes, the game's become something more for me than simply a bunch of pixels.

For now, do what I'm doing: sit back and enjoy the ride :D

Friday, August 23, 2013

Last Night a Boomkin Saved My Life

This man is a hero. TRUFACT.

I do my best not to bore you with the mundane details of my life, but occasionally something happens that I feel needs sharing. This story, which has taken place over the last 24 hours, is a perfect example of a number of things:

  • It's a classic #FirstWorldProblem
  • It's what happens when you have to deal through third parties
  • It's about people being brilliant regardless of the circumstances
  • but most importantly it is the understanding that, wherever you go, people play Warcraft.

Rewind to yesterday, which was the date Sky had booked to update us to Fibre Optic Broadband. In the rain, a guy turns up on cue, with a BT Openreach box and replacement socket, fits one and turns on the other and then informs us he's off to connect the exchange to us. Ten minutes later he's back, but there's a problem. We're not where he was told we were in the exchange, so he can't connect the fibre to our house. And off he goes, muttering stuff under his breath, leaving us without Internet.

Frantic phone calls then ensue to Sky, who tell us that the engineer's 'problem' has been passed to Openreach and that they'll do their best to sort a speedy resolution, but we will be without Internet until this happens. We can't just plug the old hub back into the wall either because we're now upgraded 'in part' and that means none of our existing equipment will function. Dead on 4pm, right on cue, BT turn our phone line off too, but Sky are good enough to turn that straight back on. However they then return to inform us that the earliest BT have scheduled to deal with the problem is August 28th, which is when we are away on holiday. That means that we'll have no net on our return, and the earliest we could expect to have the problem dealt with was the 2nd of September.

Needless to say, I was not best pleased.

The guys at Sky, to their credit, were fantastic: patient, understanding and helpful, and though a £30 credit on our account wasn't going to make things happen, it was appreciated. I settled down last night and began to work out what I could do without net access and how I could link everything together just using a mobile phone. Thanks to wonderful people on Twitter I know what a 3G dongle is, and that there are many ways to work without net access. After all, this is what we did before Tim Berners-Lee came along.

I woke up this morning, used my phone to set up a blog post, and then heard the phone ring. By the time I got to the reciever, the line was dead.

Our phone logs calls without the need to be connected to the line, so I was able to see we'd been called by an odd number, one that made me think that maybe something was happening. Sure enough, when Mr Alt phoned it back on his mobile we ended up talking to a BT engineer who was ROUND THE CORNER AT OUR EXCHANGE. Handed over, he happily informed me that he'd located our position in the exchange box, that we were connected, and that fibre was active.

My next port of call, not surprisingly, was Sky.

My Customer Service rep patiently listened as I told him what had just transpired, but according to him, nothing had changed, because BT update records at midnight and here we were, at 9.30am, with only my word from the engineer I'd just spoken to. For a moment, life imitated art.

Computer says no ^^

Then we started talking. We had the updated boxes at our end of the line, and an assurance from a man AT THE EXCHANGE it was working. Could we not just plug everything in and see what happened? My CS rep told me that technically he couldn't tell me to do this because, according to his system, there was no fibre to connect to... but we could do a lot worse than give it a try. As I connected things together over the phone, I told him we didn't use much wireless as the family enjoyed online gaming... and then he asked me what I played.

That's when my CS rep became a Boomkin on Bronze Dragonflight :D

He'd left the game after Cataclysm, like a lot of other players, but he'd come back recently to take a look. He's still not bought Mists yet but is seriously considering it in light of what he's seen on his return. Needless to say, as we happily chatted about how awesome the game is, I established a connection from the BT box to the Sky box. Despite being told there was no connection, there it was. And twenty minutes later, I was back online.

I suppose the biggest hero in all of this is the unnamed BT engineer, who sounded an utterly decent and top bloke, who just did his job. If I'd simply believed what I'd been told via Sky initially I'd still be sitting here bemoaning our lack of connection, which in the current climate would be ridiculous but not a total surprise. Sometimes, you just have to question everything you are told as fact because inevitably it's not: this way, I save having to make countless phone calls, to reschedule engineers, and to chase people over a problem that came about purely because one bloke at the start of the chain couldn't work out how to join two wires together. Okay it probably wasn't THAT simple, but I'm betting it was close.

However, I owe a debt of gratitude to my Boomkin friend for thinking out of the box, for realising that actually what I knew was more information than he had, and that I might be right. In today's' world, that's worth quite a lot to me, especially as it means an improvement to my service. Yes, it is the most mundane of First World Problems, and I've hardly saved the planet, but it matters. What makes it more personal is the guy who helped me was a decent person and he did his job, and then some, and in today's environment that means a great deal.

I'd therefore like to thank my Boomkin friend for his time, his utter awesomeness (which will be represented when he sends me a Customer feedback form) and remind everyone that sometimes being told no should not mean the conversation is over.

The Moon is Blue

Dateline: Stormwind. 12.25pm. A Mysterious Object is spotted in the sky...

Apologies to those of you who don't like the Lore, but there's going to be a fair amount of Proposition Safaris in the weeks that follow. You can blame Blizzard for actually wanting to release 5.4 complete in early September :D

My interest today concerns the celestial body shown above, which is referred to as The Blue Child. It is Azeroth's second moon: the larger one (known as the White Lady) is the body worshipped by the Night Elves as Elune. If you'd like to know more, WoW Insider very helpfully provided the back story about the same time it permanently re-appeared in the night sky, back before Mists began. I've spent an awful lot of time in Stormwind since that point, and this is honestly the first time I remember seeing the moon in what constitutes daylight. Of course, in the real world such occurrences are normal too.

The moon is highly reflective and close to the Earth so it is very visible both day and night. Its orbit increases its visibility because the Moon gets close to the sun towards the beginning of the lunar cycle as travels around the sky. So it increases visibility during the day.

Except this isn't the Real World, this is Azeroth. I don't recall seeing the moon during the daytime at any point in the past. Am I just being paranoid, simply not paying attention, or is there something else at play here? Even if there isn't anything suspicious in all of this I found myself thinking, going off on a 'What If' tangent. What if Blizzard had found away to hide new content so it couldn't be easily datamined? What if it's been subtly changing the world around us via hotfixes for months to try and circumnavigate the zealous types who pick patch information to pieces?

What if the next Expansion's data's being quietly seeded to the game even now?

I suspect many people would argue that Blizzard don't have that kind of vision, because if they had we wouldn't be in the situation we are now in terms of abortive experiments littering the landscape. However, what has become very much a part of how things work is the way things can be altered 'on the fly', often without the need for a server restart or even a content patch. Could it be possible that with the increasing sophistication of weather effects in game, we're being prepped for something major? It's not as odd as you might think either: for instance, are you aware that there are waves crashing on the shore of the Isle of Thunder?

The fact that changes like this sneak into the game pretty much ignored shows that there are things that the dataminers can miss, especially if they're linked to the basic fabric of the game. I wonder, just how much stuff could Blizzard hide in plain sight without giving the game away on future events, and how much might already be placed to spring on us? I'm not a dataminer, and I am sure there are people out there with the technical know-how to tell me just how practical it would be to achieve this, but I for one am getting pretty hacked off with there being no real surprises left any more when we get patched. Anything that might alter that situation would be a very welcome addition to my enjoyment.

Am I asking to much to think this could be possible?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Such Great Heights

A good storyteller is worth his weight in spring rolls. TRUFACT.

Those of you who follow my attempts at fiction will be pleased to know that the last part of the prequel I've been writing is close to completion (you should expect to see it published next week.) This final part features a guest appearance by none other than Loremaster Cho, and as I was writing his dialogue I could hear actor Jim Cummings in my head. I feel it a testament to this guy's ability to breathe life into the Pandaren that whenever he speaks, even if it is only in my imagination, it is with his intonation and gravitas. It is easy to see why Blizzard gave him the reins for the Burdens of Shaohao based on his vocal performance, but what I find sad in-game is that Blizzard haven't utilised his potential nearly as much as they could. If you levelled Archaeology in this Expansion, you'll know just how good he is at telling tales, after all. Since that moment when he realised the truth about the Emperor's vision in the Jade Forest, he's been very much a bit part in a larger storyline which could have greatly benefited from his wisdom and insight.

In fact, Cho would have been a fabulous way to pull the Alliance storyline back into focus with the problems of the Horde.

Of course, if you ask Blizzard, there is no bias. However, there's enough of us on the Blue Team who feel as if there's a charge to be answered on this front, that making your Big Bad a Hordie perhaps wasn't the soundest of moves if you didn't sufficiently balance the counterpoints. It isn't actually too late to address that either: we still have at least one patch left after 5.4. I feel perhaps therefore it is time to let Cho what he does best and give him the opportunity to speak for those who have as yet been given no voice, to tell their story in a wider context. There have been many heroes of the Alliance we have met in our time in this land, but we do not as yet have their adventures resolved. This could well be the absolute ideal opportunity for that to happen, and to bring some closure for both factions to boot.

When Three Tribes go to war... interesting choice of shoulders there Moira :p

We have encountered a vast number of NPC's in our trip across these new lands, both Alliance-factioned and otherwise. The team at the landing site (SOCKS!), the people in the Vale, the Shado Pan, even the great Chen Stormstout himself... all of these 'players' are potential untied threads that could be pulled together using Cho as the lone voice, the touchstone. You don't need any other actors either, just him and some already created NPC's, plus your Storytime buff. If I were a smart woman, I'd link this somehow into the next expansion, that we're collecting fragments from the last encounter with Garrosh as a way for Pandarens to document the past and prepare for the future.


Setting up stuff in-game already has some fairly significant precedent this time around, after all. Take Gamon, legendary Horde NPC who is already looking like he's in a spot of bother with the Kor'kron Elite in Orgrimmar. Without spoiling you for the Seige, you can expect to run into him once you make it to the Horde capital. He's one story that will get a conclusion but... yet again, he's playing for the Red Guys. Without sounding like I'm whiny, WHERE ARE THE BLUE TEAM IN ALL THIS? How are our stories resolved? How can we find closure after Garrosh's demise? I'd have no problem spending hours listening to Cho telling me the great stories of that final push that I never saw, how the unsung Alliance heroes like Sully and Amber were working behind the scenes, helping us win the day. You know, just the same way as Hilda Hornswaggle kept me up to speed when I was working from Lion's Landing.

Me and Varian Down by the Schoolyard.

In all of this, let me be clear, I'm still happy to take many for my team. We've already lost good people for the cause, after all. If you want shock impact, a big name casualty would be a ball from left field I can GUARANTEE no-one would see coming at this late stage. It would amplify the loss and horror of what had happened, especially in the greater war for the removal of a corrupt leader. After all, look what happened to Bolvar Fordragon. Yes, I know I've mentioned it before, but it's worth saying again. Personal stories make a huge impression, especially in the context of massive battles. The human reaction is everything.

That side of the story still lacks in Pandaria. It isn't too late to change that, even now.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lost and Found

Mr Alt and I have a great game at present: it's called 'Find the iPod.'

The game works like this: inevitably Mr Alt will use his iPod to listen to a podcast whilst at the gym or riding his bike. He will then 'lose' this iPod and ask me if I've seen it, to which I will reply 'but you were the last person to have it, where did you put it?' He'll then mutter something about having it in a pair of shorts I've probably washed, after which I will direct him to the car where he dropped the iPod in the driver's side pocket after taking it out of said item of clothing. It's a classic tale, and one that demonstrates that habit and forgetfulness often go hand in hand when the mind is focussed on other things. It also proves that the smartest person I know can be as much of a doofus as the rest of us.

Penalising people for habit is a dangerous precident to set.

The problem with stuffing things up, inevitably, is working out why it happened to begin with. As Mr Alt never grows tired of telling me, I KNOW you didn't do X deliberately, because if you had that would make you an even worse person to begin with (yes I get the point.) The problem is, not everyone is as uncertain/flustered as I am in certain situations, and many of them do walk into dungeons/raids with the sole intention of seeing how much negative DKP they can rack up in an evening. The question then becomes, how does a computer game work out this is going to happen and then make sure the person concerned is suitably punished as a result? If I use my brain as an example, I can predict when certain things are going to happen, based on a number of other factors. Inevitably that means you could programme variables into an algorithm based on where problems could arise, The ones that immediately spring to mind are the following:

  • How long it takes to make a keystroke or to press a mouse (which is already an afk indicator)
  • Persistent damage from a particular ability, or standing in an area where that ability has been placed without movement away. This is already covered by programmes like Failbot.
  • Penalties for use of autoshot, or spamming the same ability consistently.

Then the problem becomes whether said issues are deliberate (you're a nonce) or unintentional (DC, Windows Update, cat on keyboard) and that is a little more difficult to ascertain, without the use of another algorithm which we are aware already exists. That's the bad behaviour benchmark that Blizzard have confidently assured those of us who report idiots on a regular basis and that does the job of ensuring the idiots get punished. Would it conceivably be possible to combine two such programmes to create a system that could finally put pay to the actual process of idiocy that often takes place inside LFR?

There's one more factor to consider in the equation, of course, and that is the introduction of Flex into the mix as an environment where people can choose who they take and how things are run. Part of me suspects Blizzard are hoping that a lot of people, when given the option to choose their own path will take this and eliminate many of the problems that LFR creates by accident or circumstance. However, there are those for whom LFR will remain the only way to experience new content (especially as we will have no new dungeons or scenarios for 5.4) and for them, the future continues to look bleak, especially as they can expect no BoA rewards at the end of their journeys. For them, perhaps it is time to start looking at more aggressive ways of penalising error. Except, of course, as I point out above, I really can't ever see Blizzard implementing such a system, because you cannot with 100% certainty ensure that the person responsible is acting with deliberate intent to frustrate or provoke.

Maybe it's time we just assumed everyone was and made an example of bad play regardless.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Erase and Rewind

Either you do, or you don't.

Lots of people have started talking as if Pandaria's time is almost at an end, which is strange in the days before the last scheduled content patch. However, there is an unmistakable vibe in the air, no doubt on the back of the fact that we are less than three months away from Blizzcon, and many people expect that to be where we find out where the game is going next. If we assume that we already know the title of said Expansion (thanks to last weeks trademark shenanigans) we have very little else to go on in terms of expectation, and only historical precedent to fall back on. There's already tons of speculation on what we might expect from the next episode in terms of races, classes and locations, but my single biggest concern is to do not with the content, but the architecture.

Are we about to find, as has been the case for two previous expansions, that major parts of the tools that dictate our play-style are to undergo a mandatory reset?

PC Gamer predict the future. Or do they?

It has become a standing joke in this house that the 'transition'' content that inevitably appears before one Expansion finishes and the next one arrives has become Blizzard's 'Training Wheels' Patch: where people like yours truly desperately try and relearn their class and adjust to what the developers have altered to move the game forward. It is often where pre-baked long term alterations are introduced to allow a players an opportunity to adjust to what can be expected of us once the new expansion begins. The problem comes, especially with those of us toting multiple alts when you don't simply have one thing to learn, but several. Last time around the changes were so brutal I'm only just coming back to my alts to relearn. This time around I suspect more is the least of my problems. I can see 'less' as being the watchword for development.

I think it is fair that the game needs some kind of reward for leveling -- that you miss that now, that talents used to provide. At the same time, this is just one of those areas where WoW has been a victim of its own success, and now that we're looking at 90 levels of character advancement -- there's just no reasonable way to provide a cool reward every single level for 90 levels. I mean, nobody wants 90 buttons on their bar. That's just crazy. We need to think of other ways to make leveling feel cool or to reward it that aren't tied into a new button that has to be managed.

There is a very clear and decisive tone in a lot of recent developer interviews, and the use of buzz phrases like 'button bloat' and a focus on the perception of utility make it easy to grasp that the last thing Blizzard want to do is make things any more complicated than they actually are. Inevitably, there are very good reasons why giving us more things to do is bad (if you've not read this article by Cynwise as to why you really should do right now) but what that leaves the developers with is a basic problem, wrapped up in the terror of expectation. It's the understanding that people pretty much demand new content, not a recycling of what has come before. It is the desire to be presented with something for our efforts. It is the ever-present spectre of Entitlement.

What can you give us to make us want to play this Expansion?

In this case I suspect the carrot won't be to entice the sitting population, the static player base. I can see that being thrown at the feet of those who Blizzard hopes will return to the game, and that's going to mean explosions, fights, and the quickest way possible to get yourself from 1-100 (if we assume this is the goal we'll be aiming for via the 5.4 BoA's.) Inevitably, things are going to be sacrificed, and I suspect skills and talents will be at the top of this list. Part of me is already resigning myself to the fact that I'm not going to be spending my Training Wheels Patch working out what the new stuff does. I think I'm going to be lamenting what stuff's been left behind.

Recently Ghostcrawler has mentioned that most classes have too many skills, but removing some would risk upsetting players who really like certain skills. Do you have any abilities that are already on the chopping block for when you are ready to address this issue?

We have a variety of different abilities that we have talked about, but I am not going to name any. We still have to wait and see if we can actually pull it off. There are certainly a lot of abilities that any given player has that they probably feel obligated to have on their action bar but almost never use. Those are the buttons that we want to try and do away with, especially if a player feels obligated to have a keybind for it. That is where it really starts to get nasty. We will be looking into that, but I can't really commit to if and how much

The problem if I look at Hunters as an example is the distinctions that need to be made with pure DPS classes. Because there are no obvious hybrid utilities as separators (as is the case with Druids, for instance) the same basic shot/spell 'palette' is used to paint all three specs: we all get some traps, we all have (roughly) the same pets to choose from. The only definition comes from speciality abilities baked into the Talent Trees. If we look at Warlocks as an example of how to more clearly delineate abilities from each other, each 'tree' has a signature style with accompanying abilities that give every spec a distinct colour 'tone'. The key is how those are introduced from the first time you pick up a weapon, at L1, and I feel that if Blizzard want to make sure problematic classes have adequate distinction they'll need to do a lot more than simply lose the occasional ability that we keybind for convenience. I sense this will need the introduction of new spells at the sacrifice of others, that we could end up with major changes for some talent trees and not others.

There are those who would argue that persistently tinkering with the game is now as much a part of the way things are as the changes themselves, that Blizzard live in a 'three year prototype' situation, at the end of which they simply cherry-pick what they think has worked best and ignore the bad, instead preferring to move on to something new. Although some of that thinking is undoubtedly accurate, the constant retraining of your player-base is inevitably going to become a detriment over time. I can recall many players whose reason for leaving was a change too far, the last time their class or spec was 'nerfed' or changed to a state that the individual found unplayable. That may be a subjective response, but the fact remains that balancing has become as much of a contention in game as the game-play itself (as is attested by yesterday's post.) When so many variables are involved, it is no surprise. A wise designer is not going to make a class harder to play if he wants a wider range of players to sample the experience. That's just counter-intuitive, and won't do anyone any favours.

Inevitably, that's not going to mean things getting more complicated.

Durumu's maze had perhaps been made a little *too* simplistic...

Whatever your position, I think it is fair to say there will be New Things (TM) in the next expansion appertaining to talents and abilities, because there is change coming. It is inevitable. Understanding WHY something happens is perhaps more important than accepting it has happened to begin with, so I confidently predict that the wave of explanations we've seen from the Devs on 5.4 Class Alterations is going to become very much the norm as opposed to the exception. You're going to get plenty of warning, so strap yourselves in and prepare yourselves for whatever is coming... because for some people, it will not be pleasant.

For those of you who asked, who complained there was too much to do, there were those of us who knew how good we are when you realise that our DPS is only part of a far more complicated equation. I hope the vocally persistent entitlement brigade are ready for what they are given in 6.0 and beyond, because I'm really not sure they grasp the consequences of what they've been pushing for all this time.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blues in the Night

Another tuning patch was applied to the PTR at the weekend. There's a Blue Post in my Twitter feed this morning:

reminding me, should it be needed, that we're almost there. 5.4 is looking 'increasingly inevitable.' However, the muttering from the Hunter community continues.

This post might be from August 10th, but this argument's been rumbling on since the change to Readiness was first mooted on the PTR. It highlights a problem that has been exacerbated in this expansion, that has always motivated a certain type of player, and remains a cornerstone of how this game is played, especially in the sphere of raid content.

It is the notion that damage is everything, often to the detriment of everything else.

The way balance works for classes has become easier to fathom as time has gone on, illuminated in part by the increasing transparency between developers and players. The 5.4 hunter changes for instance have been widely discussed, both in Blue Posts and extensively on class-specific websites. The fact remains however that the hunters I have spoken to are grumpy, disenfranchised and some are just downright angry because they consider their class has been nerfed from a position of strength, because the removal of Readiness takes away a vital DPS boost. They have a point, because being able to reset all your valuable cooldowns at a point in a fight you can determine is pretty much as awesome as it gets, because it grants you a vital strategic advantage. It removes utility too, something Blizzard are very keen to state is what keeps classes attractive and indispensable for raiding.

Utility. So good they made an infographic.

However, the game isn't just PvE, and because we are not yet at a stage where a separate skill set exists for both forms, PvP with Readiness in it's arsenal made Hunters pretty much unstoppable. When added to the five shot pet blast that was Stampede (before that was nerfed via what could be considered in certain lights as a stealth hotfix), removing/amending key abilities made a lot of sense, to redress the massive advantage that combination of factors gave. Were all those hunters justified in crying fowl that their end game experience had been diminished because a bunch of people in BG's were being OP?

Should one class be held to ransom by the demands of two distinct playstyles?

It's an interesting question, and one I think we need to look to Blizzard's other titles for an answer.

Longevity is the key.

Blizzard's history revolves around the concepts of the strategy game: Starcraft is a perfect example. The original Warcraft games were exactly that too: it has has evolved into something entirely separate and sophisticated, and one of the reasons it remains popular (whether the end-gamers like it or not) is the PvP aspect. It is easier to pick up and take part as a solo player and requires only time as investment. It's also the only part of the game thus far that can reward you a real-money payout should you be good enough, and that is probably a considerable incentive for many who participate. Both forms retain their own notions of strategy: beating boss mechanics has its roots in the same style of gameplay as outwitting your opponent in an Arena. The biggest single difference is the numbers, and when you can play PvP with two people, those decisions become less and less reliant on luck and more and more on individual ability. Suddenly a skill that two hunters in a raid team can access to add the vital extra X% that will help kill a boss when everyone else is working together is amplified and magnified into something quite different.

When you look at Readiness in those terms, it is quite understandable why the functionality is about to be removed. What will make less sense to the disenfranchised hunter is all the other 'cool' and 'useful' abilities that other classes have that remain intact, especially as Readiness has been around for quite a while. The key here is to remember that this game is a constantly evolving process, and the changes that occur will inevitably throw up situations where an ability that was previously benign or acceptable alone is suddenly teamed with another to create unexpected or overpowered results. Such is the permanently revolving door of class balance, because people demand progress, and for most that means visible change over time. If we went back to simple AI strategy, of course, none of this would be a problem, but no-one would be playing to begin with. The key to Warcraft is the unique way in which it has evolved, a history so many other games have tried and failed to emulate in terms of numbers.

Some might argue that if Blizzard stuck to a cohesive plan and stopped making every expansion a three year prototype exercise that many of these issues simply wouldn't exist, but we will never really know. With an Expansion looming, any notion of class balance may already be short lived, because we'll be expecting new abilities to roll out with the increased level cap. Those will bring their own problems, and inevitable conflicts with the existing skill-sets. The challenge them becomes how Blizzard deal with those, and where classes feel they are positioned in light of what has been, in previous years, pretty fundamental alteration. Will we see a re-invention AGAIN of Talents? Is there likely to be a complete ability purge, which is already being hinted at in certain quarters?

Needless to say, the months leading up to Blizzcon will be very interesting indeed.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Deeper Underground

...and what a wild cave to be in! Weeeee! Wooooo!

I remember the first time I entered this cave in game.

I was playing a Druid: this place is just outside the starting area on Teldrassil. The dark and scary place was full of Imps that liked to do nothing more than beat me to a pulp and repeatedly kill me. In those early days it got so frustrating that I almost gave up both the character and the game altogether. Caves became places I'd avoid, that frustrated and annoyed in equal measure. After a while, I began to realise something disturbing. Underground was where ALL the bad stuff lived, things that made me nervous in cramped situations with few places to manoeuvre. Too much danger was hidden in the dark below my feet and I actively began avoiding caves if at all possible.

So tell me: why am I now so excited about the potential of AN ENTIRE EXPANSION that could stick us back in the one place I hate most on Azeroth?

From beneath you it devours.

The answer is because underground is EXACTLY where all the bad things have lived, throughout the long history of the game. Pretty much every expansion we've played has seen us as players pitted against something unspeakable that's appeared from beneath our feet: whether in the sands of Silithus, imprisoned in the Citadel at Hellfire, plotting from Old Kingdom in Northrend or in the vast expanses of Deepholm. The ground shrouds the past, and ancient secrets, and the potential to tie every strand of the last eight years back together in a knot of terror the like of which we have already experienced, but will never have seen in this form. Everything that was ever bad can rise out of the dirt to get us, and probably will...

It is because the past is so important that this is the perfect future to pursue: everything that has happened has been leading back to this moment. It gives the developers a chance to turn the wheel full circle, to return the game back to where it began: The Sundering. 10,000 years ago, there was no Kalimdor or Pandaria: Azeroth was one huge continent. Everything joined, both above and below, until Queen Azshara called forth the might of the Burning Legion to the world through the Well of Eternity. If you remember, you've been deliberately manoeuvred to ensure that the Sundering actually happened back in Cataclysm: this is all our fault, in essence. We were prime engineers of the single most catastrophic event in Azeroth's history, which broke the massive continent apart, and destroyed the Pandora's Box of horrors the past had sealed inside.

Planet P? I don't think so...

Azeroth's past is littered with encounters that culminated in epic underground battles. The Silithid owned the sands to the south of Kalimdor, their burrows stretching across the lands, the Old God C'thun still whispering in the tunnels and burrows that housed one of the most mighty and devastating armies in the entire continent's history. Further south lie the tombs and pyramids of Uldum, home of ancient Titan Machines which hold the ability to destroy or create life itself. Overlooking them all, in the Caverns of Time, the Bronze Dragonflight were perhaps the only race who truly understood the significance of the darkness beneath, what secrets it held and what fears it could create. Except now the dragons have left us, the mortal races forced to find their own path after the Aspects departed following Deathwing's demise... except one Aspect still remains very much alive and well.

Proceed to Phase Two...

It's been pointed out that Wrathion, the sole heir to the Black Dragon Aspect Empire, is well aware of a significant danger approaching Azeroth, a future far more troubling than the current war between the Horde and Alliance. He mentions this to every player who takes his Legendary questline, and this is demonstrated visually in game by very suspicious green fire hurtling towards Azeroth itself. Many people have therefore postulated the Legion may have a part to play in events forthcoming, but they're not rising from the ground, that's the sky... and this is where we take the cue from the Warcraft RPG, which so many others have done in the last few days:

The Dark Below is a place inhabited by demons, devils and infernal creatures, from where some sorcerers take their power directly and sometimes have a patron beast to foster their magic.[1]

What if those green flares are simply reinforcements for what's already being amassed in the caves of the Blasted Lands and the ground beneath the Twilight Highlands over the years? What if the friends of the Legion KNEW there'd come a moment when this planet would finally lay unprotected leaving it ripe for total destruction?

What if Pandaria's current malaise has something to do with all of this?

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go...

If we go back to Ulduar we will recall that we prevented the Titan Defence System (represented by Alganon) from sending re-origination codes back to Titan HQ, thus preventing the planet from being reduced to ash. What we don't as yet know for certain is who else might have picked up that 'amended' signal as it was transmitted, and whether Elegon's corruption might yet mean the signal that was transmitted wasn't as complete as it could have been. We are aware from history once the Titans upped sticks and left Azeroth that the Old Gods appeared and corrupted just about everything they touched with the 'curse of flesh.' This bought the Titans back and caused a massive slapfest that ended with the Old Gods that remained being shut away from the planet's eyes, but clearly this didn't render that many of them incapable, amply demonstrated by the number of times they've risen up to try and beat the stuffing out of us in recent years. Needless to say, with the massive outpouring of negative energy currently focussed not simply in Pandaria but also around Orgrimmar, with huge pillars of blackness rising into the sky, possibly visible from space, anyone watching 'up there' might take this as a new sign. Maybe even as a separate signal that all is not well on ground level and it might now be the time to make a move.

The Maw of Madness

I doubt we'll see a Starcraft/Warcraft crossover bringing a massive army into play from the heavens, but there are plenty of places in Azeroth that could be utilised as portals. Ancient places hidden away in secret groves, once protected by dragons but now deserted and ready for control. We know full well that death is very often merely a setback for the most dark of villains. We also know that possibly one of the most sacred of areas on the entire planet has itself been reduced to a charred heap of blackness. What if simply destroying Garrosh is not enough to ensure the influence of the Sha remains buried? After all Shaohao planted those emotional seeds into the most fertile soil on the planet, and then allowed the ground to remain undiscovered for nearly 10,000 years. Can we really expect a quick fight in Orgrimmar will solve the problem we've inadvertently found ourselves a part of? Perhaps more significantly: what if this massive burst of emotional energy can be felt beyond the reaches of Azeroth itself? What if the Vale of Eternal Blossoms wasn't simply protecting Pandaria, but the entire planet from attack both above and below?

My ancestry, underground.

What we must never forget, and we appear to do with frighting regularity, is just how little time we spend ensuring the problems we leave behind are adequately dealt with. It's not just a symptom of the game world either: we are sloppy and slipshod with the way we interact with so much of the world around us. Elementals have always been a source of tension, for instance. Our efforts to fix the problems created in Deepholm were not exactly met with enthusiasm... in fact once the Earthen Ring had helped repair the World Pillar, they were pretty much told to leave and not come back. There is a great deal of anger and resentment buried in the earth, most caused by our own treatment of the environment around us. If what remains of the four elemental energies, the Old Gods and the Sha all decided they wanted to get their revenge simultaneously, we'd be so far up the creek that paddles would become completely pointless, except to fitfully defend ourselves with once we grasped the depth of trouble we were in.

If the Legion knew all this was going down and we were up said creek, and that the last remains of the defence grid the Titans had set up around the planet had been nullified by an Old God's actions, acting through the Curse Of Flesh known as Garrosh, I reckon they'd decide this was absolutely the best time to launch an attack.

Dragon's Den. I'm not financing repairs on this...

If I wanted an expansion idea that would allow my gamers to come full circle, I could do a lot worse than dig beneath the surface of Azeroth. There's an awful lot of dirty laundry to air, a ton of bad guys to resurrect, and a hatful of potential to seize. The best bit of all? There'd be no need for additional cartography. All the new stuff happens in the same places we already live in, at the same parts of the map we're used to. We just need to get three dimensional and start looking down as well as up...