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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Final Countdown (Day 13) :: Happy Talk

Your desire here. WARNING: Not all desires are feasible.

Right. We've established Rewards are useful, but the current environment isn't perhaps the most conducive one in which people would want to participate in order to earn them. In fact, even if rewards are lying around in chests just waiting for people to pick them, you're still going to find detractors. It seems that many people agree that the method of earning rewards is a bit complicated and could be simplified, but how that happens is still open for discussion. That leaves us with one area as yet undiscussed: what should these rewards actually be?

What should you earn, what needs to be hard to get, and what gets given to you for free? More importantly, what form should these rewards take?



Today's hastily-constructed Infographic. No, that's NOT BUZZARD ^^


There are two items deliberately omitted from that list, but otherwise that's pretty much all the avenues I could think of that we have currently, and with the exception of all but (counts) three, no real money is involved (though you could argue the AH does if you buy your gold, but lets not go there.) Nothing that comes from Expansion incentives, promotional items or the Buzzard Store as yet gives you an obvious in-game advantage either, so it could be fair to say all of these rewards are equal in significance. This might explain why we haven't as yet seen an In-Game store selling items that would buck that trend, because the moment you open the floodgates, one could argue the entire fabric of the gaming experience changes forever. Right now, the biggest focus is with the items on the right:


  • Quest Completion (when your husband is almost late to umpire a Hockey game coz he's thinking about his Legendary Cloak, they're doing it right somewhere ^^)
  • World Item Drops (Lootistics Island)
  • Currency Collection and Exchange (Lootistics Island)
  • Instance Drops (Siege)

I did say however that there's one item I deliberately left off, because I was curious as to what I'd actually label it as. Persistance, maybe. Effort? Some might consider Loyalty would be a better description but in the end the word we're all being governed by is TIME. This is the ultimate stimulation for the hard to get mount, or all the pieces for the tier set to mog with. If you have Time, you can do all of these, but you are restricted by the same gating mechanic that restricts any in-game reward: the RNG.



Frustrating, isn't it?


You could argue Time governs every reward's action, but that's not strictly true. The RNG's very nature means you could end up with everything you need in a week while someone else could be waiting months for the same items. Even crafting currently offers no cast-iron guarantees items will be yours by a set timeframe, unless you choose to craft in a regular form (i.e., once a day.) Many people have argued that some rewards should come from using Time in a different way to that which is currently expected in game. For instance, there's where we came in on Thursday: making your own 5 man and walking to an instance. Summoning three other people using a Meeting Stone, and then completing the Instance to which said stone is attached. All those variables should be simple enough to tie together, after all: however, what then becomes a suitable reward?

The problem comes, yet again, with the notion that isn't just one game we are playing, but many, all of which have very specific aims and objectives and in turn lead to very different notions of what constitutes a 'reward.' What one person considers suitable isn't necessarily the next person's idea of acceptable, and this is why rewards are often generic and very clearly defined: PvE Gear, PvP Gear, vanity, pet, mount. As yet, persistence and consistency don't have a reward category... well, actually they do, but Blizzard hasn't touched this since Cataclysm. I reckon all that may well be about to change in a fortnight.


The perfect Guild demographic. Watch and learn.

There is a second item missing off that list, but it isn't necessarily relevant because this time around in Pandaria Guild rewards have become a part of what we do. There were no new ones rewarded this Expansion, but expect this to change very soon, because we've seen what Flex can do for small guilds who don't have the option to regularly put out raiding groups. Giving those smaller player bases incentives to use their Guild as a platform, perhaps to even start a new Guild themselves to get to 25 before the new Expansion hits to take advantage of the new rewards we'll get... but what would we be offered? When 'Have Group, Will Travel' was taken away for Pandaria I don't think there was anyone who though it was a good idea, regardless of the reasoning. That was the PERFECT example of a perk for people that worked across the board, regardless of what game you happened to be playing, and that's what is needed to reward those who work and take the time to make things better for everyone.

I think the best indicator of what we MIGHT be seeing in future to reward the long-term player will come with the Token system being built for Recruit-A-Friend. This will give you a choice of rewards (emphasis on CHOICE there) which is up to you to deal with and not Blizzard to simply present. We've discussed the Blizzard Loyalty Card System here before, and this is pretty much along those lines: do nice things for the Devs, and you get back summat special. Of course, you shouldn't expect this to be an advantage to gear, but there are plenty of other things this could affect: XP, raw material gathering, pets and mounts... with the emphasis finally being moved to items with low drop rates or that are currently governed by the RNG. Let's face it, if Blizzard stuck Anzu's Mount on the Blizzard Store people would buy it, but for the sake of all those who farmed it in game it makes more sense to offer it as a reward for a large number of tokens to reflect the relative difficulty of obtaining it via those terms. Your tokens become a currency for rarity value. It makes perfect sense in context.

Rewards are tricky, and you can guarantee when someone gets one someone else is going to whine. This isn't going to change, but what CAN alter is our perception of value, and how loyalty and time can be arbiters of eventual success. Blizzard know they have a lot of very loyal players, after all. I'd expect to see that fact rewarded in a fortnight, in spades.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Alternative Chat :: Episode 5

It's BACK! Yes, in a change to the scheduling you'll get another Special next week (more on that in the show) but for now immerse yourself in ALMOST 20 MINUTES OF AWESOME. It's Alternative Chat, Episode 5!






This week, I will be mostly chatting about:

  • Knowing when it'll be time to stop playing.
  • Getting my Rogue to 90.
  • Why Rewards matter.
  • NPC Welfare (whilst answering a LISTENER QUESTION :D)
  • Being outside, recording stuff.
  • Getting my Bone White Primal Raptor.
  • Reorganising the Levelling order.




Any thoughts or comments, or submissions for Question Time which we will not speak of again should no-one take any notice:


alternativegodmother (all one word) AT gmail DOT com

==

NOTES.

The webpage for Barcraft-on-Thames with amended location details can be found here.


==

The Special is due November 30th. See you there!

The Final Countdown (Day 14) :: My Very Best

From www.customerexperiencemagazine.co.uk
your experience may vary.

Rewards are a tricky beast. You want to encourage people to play your game, but there has to be a level of engagement and effort in order not to make that effort seem trivial, or boredom will quickly set in. Warcraft has several issues to address, the main one being there isn't just one 'game' being played: we have the PvE and PvP Experiences, the gold-making 'game' as well as Battle Pets and Achievements. That's lots of boxes to tick simultaneously, and what has been the norm up to this point is a separation of rewards on a section-by-section basis with only minimal linkage. Of all the elements in-game, Rewards are probably the ones that would benefit the most from being linked to the entire game and not simply sections.

It really is time to wipe the currency slate clean and standardise the system for the entire game, from L1 to cap, and across all facets of the experience.


Suck it up, guys, and start again.


My currency options shouldn't need a scroll bar. Everything I can use should sit happily on one pane, and be clearly defined. I'll grant the system for PvP and PvE are sound here, no need to remove Justice/Valor and Honor/Conquest, but it's time to start racking those up as soon as you begin the game at L1, and NOT JUST FROM GROUP PLAY. If we are to keep these as the defacto standards for Gear Rewards, they need to come from everything, including specific quests to encourage people to experience the World as well as the Instance. Scaling works on every level, after all, so start people off small. Make end of questing zone bosses drop Justice as well as gear, so there is no penalty to not taking the LFG route whilst levelling. Give people a JP reward for making their own group too, and maybe provide a set of scaleable rewards that will work from 1-60, then 60-70, 70-80, 80-85 and 85-90. There then has to be a replacement and depreciation, but it makes sense in the larger framework of the game's Expansions.

Refining Miscellaneous is a little harder, because it links into areas that are a) Expansion specific and b) show the first experiments with the variable Currency idea.... and then we get to Pandaria and we see just how that has defined what we've done in the last year. Thematically the convention is sound but the number of changes have been confusing and difficult to keep up with. Frankly, this all needs to go, because once we hit the next expansion no-one may hang around long enough to care what Charm or Rune they need, they're too busy focussing on the End Game. The question is, how do you simplify this when you're linking everything into the previous Expansions with the JP/HP 'model'?

Well, that's pretty simple. There are a number of things we'll need:


  • A basic 'item' that drops from every mob we kill from Level One, that has no actual use until you get to the most current Expansion (what Lesser Charms are now)
  • A Token to use in Raid Instances for bonus rolls
  • A specific Currency peculiar to the particular Patch we find ourselves in (Timeless coins, in this case)



Too many coins. Inflation is not the answer.


We can go back and apply this model to older Expansions too: that would mean the Argent Tournament would be our Patch-specific currency, as would the Marks of the World Tree. The problem comes is when people stockpile these items and those items end up having a residual value at a later date. Is it fair to wipe the slate clean and start again? Would it be simpler to just use the same patch-specific currency for EVERY Patch and change prices based on current levels of 'inflation'? You know, I think it would be, and I'd like to see all our old zone currencies converted to the same basic 'thing' which can be used on a patch by patch basis. Earning it in older expansions is far slower than in new ones, but you could still do it if you wished. It would just simplify the equation, and keeping the names the same would mean new players didn't get confused. Therefore, I propose the following as our new Universal Rewards System:


  • Justice/Valor for PvE gear
    Earnt from levelling, end of Quest Zone 'encounters' which reward blue items currently, plus Instanced Encounters.

  • Honor/Conquest for PvP gear
    Earnt from levelling, and Battlegrounds/Arenas, plus Rated Battlegrounds.

  • Universal Currency A (equivalent of Lesser Charms currently)
    Let's call them Heroes Rewards.
    Drop from any World Mobs From L1, rewards from Pet Battles.

  • Token B (like Runes/Seals)
    Additional 'bonus roll' loot chance from Instances, also available to purchase from L1, purchased with Universal Currency A.

  • Professions Tokens
    Replaces Cookery Tokens, used to but stuff that isn't just Cookery recipes and therefore has a use outside just the one profession.


Note here there is NO Patch-specific currency. Heroes Rewards fills the void. If you want to use a gate mechanic to buy things, don't keep introducing a new one every time we have a new Patch, it just confuses the issue. Make it like Dinosaur Bones that don't count as money but fill up bags and encourage people to shift the items themselves. Convert all Patch-Specific things to Heroes Rewards before we start again and amend all the prices accordingly. Make that useful from the first time you level a character too, so people become familiar with its use. Yeah, and you need to bite the bullet, accept that people have massive stockpiles of older Cookery tokens, and just remove them and hang the consequences. We get a Valor wipe at the end of each Expansion for a good reason. Make it the same with Professions Tokens but give people a chance before hand to buy some cool stuff they couldn't before. You know, like you're doing with the Recruit a Friend stuff :P



One token to USE FOR THIS ALL. GO ON YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO.


As it stands, rewarding players is considerably easier than it used to be, but there's still a great deal of confusion, especially in this Expansion. The building blocks are here to finally streamline the system and introduce a measure of consistency from the first time you roll a character. I hope if Blizzard are thinking of a universal make-over, this issue is front and centre in proceedings.

Any thing that makes life simpler after all can only be a Good Thing (TM.)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Final Countdown (Day 15) :: Designed for Life

Time to redefine the concept of in-game 'rewards'?

Yesterday was a fruitful one for discussion, and what is becoming increasingly apparent in the particular sphere I rotate around is that effort and reward are important issues to be considered. We're not talking about entitlement here, let's be clear, but instead the notion as mentioned above: the handmade group, not the mass-produced LFG rotation. I see both sides of this as a GM: there are obviously those who have no qualms in just throwing themselves into the mix because levelling in this manner has become the norm. On the flip side, I'm one of those people who's come to hate the rotating door of random people and variable group quality, and now won't LFG regardless. So, where is the mid-point? How does one make the process of grouping attractive to everyone?

Could we already have an indicator of how the Expansion could itself be a portent of a sea change in how people level their characters?




This video's been bouncing around for a while and yesterday WoW Insider picked up the story: the potential to scale back your health at 90 for lower-level content has been something many people have been advocating for quite some time. Linking this into Recruit a Friend would be an utterly genius move, so you really could level 'again' with your friends, but there's a flipside to this. Some people just want to get to 90 as quickly as possible and so a 'boost' (effectively being dragged through an instance) is a far better option. It would also make the business of farming old mounts and pets a far more 'interesting' prospect, but I digress. If Blizzard placed an Achievement in game for completing old content in a  'scaled' fashion I suspect a lot more people would sit up and take notice, even more if (at the end) you got awarded a special token which (if you collected enough of them) you could exchange for a tenable reward. Make it a related consumable, maybe: a flask or food buff that you could use for further dungeon adventures. Maybe enough would get you the Tabard of the Helpful Soul which use would be to automatically teleport you to a random Dungeon Meeting Stone. Do enough gathering and you can pick between a Pet or a Mount... JOB DUN.



Reduces me to tears EVERY SINGLE TIME.


The question then becomes what can you offer as an incentive for people to actually group together. Mr Alt has stopped queuing as a Tank for LFR, for instance, because he does not consider the 'reward' of an extra 'satchel of goods' enough of an incentive. The reward you're given for doing a Random LFG at low levels are sadly repetitive, and frankly no use to anyone levelling with Heirlooms in a lot of cases... so what becomes attractive? Ironically the option to group with people you know may not be an option even when Guilded, and this is why the 'back-scaling' possibilities are making me unreasonably excited, because this would mean I could ask 4 L90's IN GUILD to come do Stockades at L20 with me and we'd ALL get a challenge from it. It would also save the trouble of Blizzard having to 'redesign' dungeons in two forms as it did with SM and Scholo. One form would fit all, just scaled at different levels of difficulty depending on which option you took: Normal, Heroic or Challenge. Doing a Heroic Wailing Caverns at L100? HO YUS. Plus, with gear being redesigned in the Item Squish, you could quite easily have the same item you won at 25 replaced at 100. Gonna make the 5 man options open up at max level too...

This however does not deal with the issue of incentivisation (is that even a word?) but one could argue that actually, you'd not need any if all current content, REGARDLESS OF LEVEL, was offered to everyone and there were no restrictions on it's completion. If the token system we discussed above was implemented the first time you walked into a Dungeon you'd have been collecting things from Day 1, which would be a sizable pile at cap. However, that would still assume you had access to friends to play with, or a Guild to help you with people 'scaling down' to your level as assistance. What about the utterly new player with no idea of how things worked? How would it be possible to train and educate these people to understand how to effectively play their class, and to promote a culture of rewarding them for improving not simply what they wore, but how they behaved?


Original article can be found here.

Add-ons have often been a useful indicator of where the game is moving in terms of requirements: if Blizzard don't offer the options you're looking for, you create your own, and oQueue has shown that there is a demand for the ability to 'raid' Flex without a pool of Real ID 'friends' or a Guild as a starting point. The major difference between this and LFR is the notion you are in control rather than Blizzard simply throwing 'random' people together but the reality is that it's just as hit and miss an affair. LFR has one major overriding advantage: it treats everyone the same, regardless of anything other than the level of their gear.... and this can be easily manipulated. However, Blizzard hold a VAST array of information about our characters, assuming that the system can keep up with what is often a stupidly fast turnover of gear changes at any given period. This is the key I believe to moving forward, and giving players a more intelligent version of the LFG/LFR interface that allows THEM a notion of control over who they play with.

We need a way to not simply use an arbitrary number on gear to be the guide to potential performance. There needs to be an audit on ALL gear (gems, enchants, reforge options) before entry to any group is granted, similar to that which already exists on the Armoury. We should know if players have completed certain tasks (yes, Proving Grounds I'm looking at you) and, perhaps more importantly we need to have people being prepared to list their shortcomings. 'Can Tank, gear needs work' would be useful to know, for instance, but there's absolutely no way currently that can be accommodated with the Armoury setup... but players will have backup sets of gear saved, sitting in bags. Perhaps it is time for the Armoury to list not only a player's Main Spec but Offspec Gear too. The biggest single restriction to this of course would be server load, and I'd venture to suggest we'd probably need a fairly serious re-write of the code and separate servers simply for Instance Play as a result, so maybe this is something for the next Blizzard MMO release. Still, the current system is, according to many, unfit for purpose unless people step up themselves and make a difference. Then the argument becomes less about requirements and more concerning self-regulation... and that's something for another day.

BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER.

Rewarding people for effort is not new. Making them work is also not new. Making them *think* they're not working when really they are is becoming increasingly difficult when you've already rewarded them previously. This is a psychological thing that I reckon I could write several blog posts on without breaking stride, and is typified by the 'why can't we fly at 85 in Pandaria' argument. Blizzard wanted you to be rewarded for not taking the easy route. It's the same on Lootistics Island. You are rewarded for patience and flying on Honking Huge Seagulls. This is going to be a 'thing' again in the Expansion, of that I am absolutely certain, because the groundwork is being laid as I type. LFR is making people actually have to work, I saw it in action last night. If you want it to happen and you have the means in your possession you WILL MAKE IT HAPPEN. I watched a brilliant Druid Tank, from my server, explain every fight in LFR Part 1 to the party, and they listened. People stood up and helped out, and when we failed people took the time to work out why and made it better. I'm not saying this is typical but this is a change from previous patches in my experience, and therefore it is worth repeating. If people want to make a change it is possible, but not always probable.

Designing a game with the right rewards to want you to play is a thankless task. The best options, by some way, are to remove as many restrictions on how you can play as possible. Scaling content does that. A fair and equal entry process to group activities does that. Most importantly, a consistent and continuous reward system will allow people to plan a path and prioritise rewards based on their own requirements. Tomorrow we're going to see if we can't work out how that should function, for now I'd be interested to hear what you think you should be on the table in terms of active rewards for those people who don't just turn up, but make the effort to take part as well.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Final Countdown (Day 16) :: Games People Play

OBLIGATORY WIN PICTURE :D

Yesterday, I finished my Raptor Grind. As I did, I found myself thinking about the 'mini-game' this effectively became: okay, so I didn't have 350 levels of sweet sensation to navigate, but there was a start, and and end. It became a challenge to negotiate with additional rewards along the way. It's also very much an 'optional' part of the game, and I suspect this will be something Blizzard is looking at rather carefully for inclusion into the next Expansion, because this is a gaming element that the player controls, and the Devs don't need to fiddle with at all.

It is, in essence, the perfect way to keep people occupied.

Of course, there were those who'd ground this mount within a week of 5.2 dropping, as indeed was the case with the mount on Lootistics Island... but this just proves the 'model' works. It's terribly simple:

  • Set a point to reach with a specific goal (mix and match from X items, Y currency, Z rep level.)
  • Place a very desirable item at the end (sexy mount.)
  • Wait.

Heck, this was what people did for the Winterspring Mount, back in the day, and that grind (albeit excruciatingly toe curling) did not stop the people who REALLY wanted the item from completing the task. This is content that doesn't need constant tweaking and tuning either, especially if the drop required is 100% (and a variable within that) so all Blizzard need to do is set up the terms of engagement and OFF YOU GO. There's also a secondary bonus: owning the mount has kudos, REGARDLESS OF WHEN YOU GOT IT. It shows people that you committed to a portion of time management that is considerable, and thus worthy of congratulation. Not sleeping for a week to win it or grinding consistently for months meld into one once you're six months past the item going live in game. The fact remains, you made the effort to get it. In a game where everything is only as current as the most recent patch number, that continues to mean something, and its why people still chase those hard to find drops in obscure places.

In the end, it doesn't matter if yours dropped first time or after six years, it becomes a thing you want to complete because it eludes you, and that is immersion time you cannot create from anything except people's individual expectations. For Blizzard, that's priceless, and I'd expect it to be used far more frequently come the Expansion.


Self-referencing the last hard mount you ground? Priceless!

'Seeding' drops in this way has a great number of advantages. It would allow Blizzard to utilise the entire World map without much effort, for instance. Simply insert into the zone selected a number of appropriately-levelled yellow mobs so that they don't aggro unless provoked, give them a drop/drops you need to collect, tie them in with a quest-giver and AWAY YOU GO. A part of me thinks this could work for mounts really rather well: as the Winterspring Frostsaber is a nod to the region's indigenous cat population, why not get us to grind for a Hyppogryph in Ferelas, or a Mechanical Golem in Searing Gorge? The possibilities are indeed endless.

There is also the approach that handing in X of a dropped item would allow you to exchange said pile for a token, which would allow you access to a vendor. Over time, as you ground out rep, you could choose to save your token to buy item A at Honored, or maybe wait until you could afford B at Revered, or simply plough all your time and effort into C at Exalted which also gave you a reward that showed the World you'd made a specific game choice. What you offered with this... well, that could be anything, but what about tying this kind of reward to Professions? As you gathered, depending on the zone, you'd pick up an item that went to a Quartermaster (as is the case now with Timeless Coins?) Digging up an Archaeology find also contributed to the total? HELL YEAH. Oh, and don't forget fishing... and even making a bandage could give you a chance to create the same currency. All these mechanics exist currently in-game. They just need some clever soul in Blizzard to tie them together.


ONE DAY YOU WILL BE MINE. OH YES.

Ask most people why they think Warcraft's still going strong after nearly a decade, and they'll put it down to the ability to play the game you want. This kind of 'optional' gameplay is such a reason: whether you agree with the methodology or not, it does the job, because people like me are still aspiring to the rewards. As a result, I'd expect this is not the end of the 'ridiculous' grind, because when you stop and think you realise that it is anything but.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Final Countdown (Day 17) :: The Skin I'm In

When looking good matters *almost* as much as what you win :D

Okay, time to start delving into some of the particular details of what the upcoming Expansion might include, and the top one of these on my list, by quite some way, is Mogging. Hopefully Blizzard have learnt the lesson that making people buy stuff to Mog with isn't popular, however profitable it might end up being, because it isn't about seeing you spent cash to look good when it comes to outfits. So what changes could we expect to happen to Transmogrification in-game come Blizzcon?

Well, I'd hope it's going to look better, for starters.

Lots of people have gotten quite excited about the character remodels, but what hasn't been discussed at any length is how clothing will change to fit on these new frames. If you're making races look more sophisticated and animate more articulately, you're gonna make the clothes they wear fit better and appear more awesome, right? Well, that's a ridiculous number of items that will need a tweak as a result, if you realise we're talking about eight years of gear. Some quite obviously look better than others, so it's not perhaps as uphill a task as it might first appear. Needless to say, I'll be interested to see what gets tweaked. After that... well, we have a reforger on a Yak... I suppose it is now not beyond the realms of possibility we could see a Transmog Mount in the pipeline... with a second vendor that is rep-based, perhaps and opens up special mog-specific items as you improve in standing? Perhaps there could be some more mogging recipes for 'vanity' items?

Oh, and then we'd better talk about that Legendary cloak's proc ^^


Needs more floaty shoulders ^^

Actually, that's probably going to be a 'thing', as I think about it. Hiding glows from enchants has been on the annoyance list for mogging for a while...and I suspect we might get some animation added to certain items for that extra special look. I noticed last night whilst mogging the Rogue Rouge look above that there are an increasing number of items with far subtler than normal glows or animations, as if the designers are aware of the desires of us costume designers and are beginning to plan appropriately. I'm also noticing increasing numbers of low-level toons mogging: as one of my Guildies points out, it is a great way to hide the fact you're wearing them, and to remove the 'generic' look those items afford. In fact, that's probably the main reason I'll mog the Rogue as soon as possible (90 yesterday YAY UNRELATED) because I don't want people knowing she's clothed in 496 Lootistic Epics. Yes, that's a thing. We'll talk about it later, okay?


Still one of my finest moments :D

There is also a part of me that can see Quality of Life Mogging improvements getting largely overlooked in the Expansion. I hope that won't be 100% true, that we might see *gasp* the ability to change armour colours on certain sets, but I'm not holding out much hope. Vanity is not nearly as important as actual content, after all.

It's close, mind.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Final Countdown (Day 18) :: Making Your Mind Up

You all have a good day off yesterday? Excellent! Now, where were we? Ah yes, What we might see as potential sweeteners to pull old players back into the game....


But I just bought the OLD Battle Chest :(

We mentioned the Battle Chest and Recruit-a-Friend changes last week as significant pointers towards a concerted effort by Blizzard to bring players to the game: what about those who were already here but left? We all know someone who's got a subscription that's lapsed (for whatever reason) and these players are a significant resource. Not simply do they know the game, they have characters that have already gone through a lot of the awkward [*] levelling process. However, it is the reason why they left that is the bigger issue. Anyone who's cancelled a subscription will know Blizzard are fairly intrusive when you do so in terms of asking you why you're leaving, and I'm betting those questions make a fair few people feel they did the right thing by walking away to begin with. I was only cancelling a long-inactive account and the level of questioning made me feel uncomfortable. You shouldn't be asking people what's wrong when they're walking out the door, it should happen well before that.

How then does Blizzard attract back people after an absence? Is 'free time' enough of an incentive? In my experience it doesn't work, because enticing people back to an experience that remains pretty much the same as the point at which they left isn't doing the job. By far the best way to get people interested is to present something that everyone's talking about, that creates a word of mouth experience that piques the interest, and (staggeringly for me) that's what Lootistics Island is becoming. It may seem worryingly cynical for those of us who've been here since Day 1, but for someone with a 90 who left the game pre 5.4 the lure of gearing to a standard that will allow them SoO access is pretty strong, especially if that means being ready for the Expansion when it hits... more significantly still if that can be achieved, say, in a  weekend (and yes, it is entirely possible.) Those are the kind of incentives that people are looking for, and I think this means that, at least in the pre-Expansion event, we can expect to see an awful lot of incentives to pull in the lapsed subscriber.
NO, this is NOT Horde/Alliance bias (don't start!)

That means, that when the Recruit a Friend programme launches with the token system for your choice of rewards, I can see something similar being offered to those who have cancelled their subs. Pay up front for X months and have the choice of these FABULOUS PRIZES on your return to Azeroth, perhaps? After the minefield of the Annual Pass that might not be an option, but I can see something being tied to re-subscribing that's not linked to RAF. The question is, what would it be?

What if it was linked to XP gain on your account?

It wouldn't happen with any character on any server once the Expansion hit: you'd have to level them normally with the same 'rules' as everyone else (so that Achievements like Server First could be preserved) but before that... what if returning players got a standard +50% experience buff on all their characters, regardless of level up to 90? Would that be enough of an incentive to make people want to return? But hang on, what about everyone else who is already here? Wouldn't this negate Heirlooms? Frankly that's not the issue, the main thrust of this exercise is getting people who aren't 90 there as quickly as possible so they can use the Expansion when it launches. There's a reason Blizzard tested the XP 'Flask in a Store' idea and it was for precisely this reason. This way you're still paying cash to make it happen, but instead of a microtransaction it's a sub, and in the long run that's worth a lot more to Blizzard if they intend to stand by this model.

I have to believe Blizzard will be doing their utmost not simply to entice the newer player in at Blizzcon, but to bring back the Old Guard, and that will mean some kind of concession, somewhere along the line. What that is however, we will have to wait and see, but I suspect this might be something we hear about BEFORE Blizzcon as a way to further pique interest and draw people in...

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[*] Yes, I know YOU love it, but for some people it remains a means to an end... ^^