[WoW] The mastery curve, holidays, and it came from the PUG

wow_hallowsend

Hallow’s End is my favourite of the WoW holiday events. This isn’t just because the Headless Horseman talks in rhyme like a pantomine villain, but because it’s the only event which feels more meaningful in the game world than in real life.

In real life, Halloween in the UK is a  hodge podge which is currently drawing hugely on American customs. It is kind of taking off, but I think we have a much softer spot for the home grown Guy Fawkes Day with its fireworks, anti government themes and politically incorrect  history. It may not be the world’s greatest festival but it’s all ours, dammit.  In game, Hallow’s End is the holiday on which the Forsaken celebrate their freedom from the Scourge. (A fairly brilliant concept from Blizzard which keeps the spooky feel but fits nicely with the lore.) So as my main is Forsaken, it is quite meaningful to me. This screenshot shows the daily ceremony in the Undercity where Sylvanas walks out and gives a speech/ pep talk in front of the Wicker Man. You can see that there are a few other players standing around, even though I don’t think you get any buffs from watching the event. They just wanted to come and see.

As players, we are probably all used to seeing thinly veiled lore-based excuses for having Xmas events. Players like them. But I much prefer the approach that imagines what type of holidays the in game races might have, what events might they celebrate? LOTRO does a good job with these, tying their holidays to the seasons and harvests. Anyone else have favourite events with game-specific lore that just really works for you?

Yesterday you were the noob, today you are the master

In any MMO, you can imagine a kind of learning curve where you begin as an inexperienced player and end up achieving the sort  of mastery where random strangers ask you for tips about your gear/ playing style in PUGs. OK, in my dreams maybe, but every player takes a journey from feeling new and awkward and unconfident to feeling comfortable with the content, confident, and capable in their role. This includes collecting gear, exploring the zones and instances, learning the fights and learning the class.

In particular if you want to take part in group content at max level, there is a trial by fire where you start queuing for PUGs as a nervous, barely geared level 90. Then as you get more experience and better gear, you don’t feel so nervous any more. Your tanking/healing/dps is fine and you know it.

That learning curve seems to get shorter with each expansion, but I suspect that is partly my being generally familiar with the game. It is, however, one of my absolute most favourite parts of WoW. That sense that every dungeon run is exciting because you can still make daft mistakes, help your group narrowly avoid a wipe, or just barely heal a fight and keep everyone alive. And more than that, the sense that you are still learning something with every run, still hoping for that cool drop, still engaged with the content.

I know not everyone likes excitement or that skin of the teeth feeling, but I do enjoy the learning curve. I feel that with Spinks I’m pretty much at the end of it now, she’s geared for the next LFR when it turns up, is generally top dps in instances, and I have most of the gear I really wanted.  When I run heroics now, I feel far more laid back about it. DPS warriors hinge on the very basic fun of hitting stuff with big weapons and putting up big numbers and that never really pales.

The main alt this expansion is a priest and I’ve ended up taking her down the Holy (healing) path. This was initially because queue times were so short, but I also really enjoy it as a spec. It feels like a spec with a lot of depth, and though I can heal competently, I still feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface which is pretty cool.

Undergeared healers can be challenging to play because they tend to run out of mana very fast. I think the priest has particular issues with this, but since I don’t plan on raiding with her, I am reflecting that this actually makes the instance learning curve rather more fun for me. Or rather, it’s more fun because sometimes I have really struggled with healing an encounter, which makes it so much more rewarding when I can go back later to the same instance with better gear/more experience/better group and see that I’ve improved. I will almost be sad to be over geared on her.

But there are still Challenge modes ahead. I look forwards to more exciting razor edge victories/failures.

It came from the PUG

A couple of positive examples this week, both from instances where I was healing.

I had struggled to heal Shado-Pan Heroic, there are encounters where the group can end up taking a lot of damage without much warning. But I am getting better with practice, and also noticing how much of a difference it makes when players can keep out of the avoidable damage. This is something Blizzard are really pushing with the MoP heroics, and I think healers are in a good place to notice it. I realised I was getting more confident as a healer when after one of the boss fights in Shado-Pan, one of the dps who had died during the fight said “pay attention healer.”  And my kneejerk response was to say “no, you pay attention and keep out of the bad stuff.” And no one in the group complained, I like to think this was because I was right.

Another, similar, healing moment was in Jade Temple Heroic. One of the (dead) dps said to me “where were the heals” and I said “you need to keep yourself out of the bad stuff”. There was a pause, and he said “yeah sorry.” THIS NEVER HAPPENS (i.e. people apologising), BUT IT HAPPENED IN MY GROUP!! Cognitive dissonance follows.

I imagine that once I am overgeared I’ll be better able to heal people who stand in the fire, but I quite like the playing style where it’s just not possible to do that and  healing decisions have to be made based on keeping enough people alive to beat the boss, which means triage on people who just take too much damage.

[WoW] Things the dungeon journal doesn’t tell you

wow_dungeonjournal

There are different ways for players to learn boss fights.

  1. Trial and error. Go in blind, figure out what you can, and if you fail then figure out why you failed and try something different next time.
  2. As above, but with addons that give additional hints (eg. Change targets now! Move out of the fire now!)
  3. Talking to other players. Get someone to tell you what you have to do.
  4. Read about it offline or watch a video tutorial.

Blizzard have tried to incorporate #4 into the game with the in game dungeon journal. This lists out the abilities (and phases) of the dungeon and raid bosses.

Shame it doesn’t mention that the middle of the floor disappears in the last phase of the Elegon fight, so if you don’t run to the outside, you will die. You might think this was key information. I assume this is intentional to make sure that players need to figure out the strategy – but if it is meant to replace looking things up offline, it doesn’t work.

Do you find the dungeon journal useful?

[WoW] It came from the PUG, and how the love of bling unites communities

wow_mahjong

This is just a picture of Spinks standing around in a pub, but the detail on the interior furnishings in MoP is lovely. I think this is a Mah Jong set?

And so, with another WoW expansion, there is another rush of players into heroic PUGs so as to gear up their new level 90 characters. The instances on the whole are shortish and emphasise the boss fights, with minimal trash mobs between bosses. (Honorable exception: Shado-Pan Monastery, which does seem to have a fair amount of ‘trash’.) It does make for a different and more ‘theme park’ style of instance. But I am finding them quite fun and enjoying where Blizzard experiment with different types of mechanics, such as in the Siege of Niuzao, or the one where dps get fired out of a cannon. I am however now rather tired of Stormstout Brewery which I have been dutifully running once per day and still never seen the dps trinket drop from the last boss.

I haven’t tried any challenge modes yet, I hear they’re pretty tough and look forwards to getting round to it at some point.

I was also hoping by now to have some good anecdotes to share on “It came from the PUG.” Actually people have mostly been pleasant (or at least quiet) and reasonably well behaved, and willing to briefly explain boss fights if other players don’t know them. But there are a couple I’d pick out.

One was an instance of Stormstout where the first thing the Death Knight tank said to me when I zoned in at the start was “Are you going to roll on the dps trinket off last boss?” I said, “Yes,” and he left. This was in the morning, about 30 mins before the daily instance lock reset.

Since I’ve never actually seen it drop, I have no idea if tanks are able to roll need on the trinket. I’d guess that they can, because I could roll need on tanking gear if I wanted, and did get into an argument on one run where I rolled need on a one handed sword without tank stats because I thought it would be handy if I wanted to switch to dual wielding 1 handers.

So this is a player who would rather sit out altogether than take a 50% chance of winning an item if it dropped (which of course it didn’t Winking smile ), with the knowledge he could try again in 30 mins anyway. A lot of people apparently cannot handle the idea of a shared roll. I refuse to feel guilty about turning up to an instance with the intent of rolling for an item which is best in slot for me. I don’t personally feel strongly about people rolling need for off spec items, although the longer I go trying to get this trinket, the more pissy I am likely to be it does drop and I don’t win. I do wish there was a roll priority for ‘off-spec need’ which would take priority if and only if no one with main spec priority rolled need. i.e..  from top to bottom priority –> main spec need, off spec need, greed/disenchant, pass. Because I’d rather see an item go to someone who will use for offspec than sold to a vendor.

A more heartening PUG story was in a Shado-Pan PUG, where the group had wiped a couple of times on the last boss. One of the dps was going ballistic on a hapless warlock who hadn’t been focussing on the adds, and by going ballistic I mean serious anger management issues. The tank was a very placid player who told him/her to settle down and shut up, explained the fight patiently to the warlock and made sure they understood, and then we aced the fight. It’s not a very exciting anecdote, I admit, except to say that there are plenty of decent, mature players out there and it’s probably a good sign if your tank picks “the Patient” as his/her title of choice.

Bling bling, emergent behaviour

wow_bling

The Blingtron 4000 is an item that an engineer can make, which doles out free gifts to everyone who clicks on it. It is quite expensive to make, requiring 4 Spirits of Harmony, Living Steel, Trillium, Blue quality gems, etc. So why would any crafter spend all those materials on something whose only purpose is to give free stuff to other random players? The only answer must be because it’s fun. But when you’ve spent that much effort making an item, you want people to notice, and to get some use out of it.

I noticed when one of my guildies set off a Blingtron, she announced in general chat where it was and most of the players in the zone turned up for their free gifts. (OK, a couple of them also got on their largest mounts and sat on top of the Blingtron to annoy everyone else, but they got reported.) The screenshot above was actually taken from an alt on a different server and faction. You can see again that he’s  put it in an accessible location and is announcing to everyone in range (this was in Stormwind) that they can come and get some freebies.

I find that kind of cool as emergent behaviour. It does bring players together, the engineer hopefully gets some social status and people might remember their name with good associations, and it’s quite fun to turn up and get a free random present from someone you might not even know.

[WoW] Blacksmithing for fun and profit

So you want to be a blacksmith? Congratulations, it might not be the best trade for making lots of gold, and it could be easier to kit out through drops than from gear you make yourself, but it’s a solid tradeskill. The perks (extra sockets for gloves and bracers) are as good as anything in the game, and it’s much less work than Inscription or Jewelcrafting.

And if you are trade minded, you can keep yourself in pocket money handily by selling Blacksmithed goods. I am going to run through the various items that sell best for me, but first a word about the neat design of Pandaria tradeskills.

The economy of Ghost Iron

If you are a miner, you will know by now that it is barely possible to go two steps in Pandaria without tripping over a Ghost Iron node. Ghost Iron, the base material for Pandarian blacksmithing, is plentiful. The economy around tradeskills at the moment is based on high demand AND high supply. So even though the iron is abundant, demand always just about outstrips it. As the base material for multiple different tradeskills and transmutes, players have a wide variety of options of what to do with their Ghost Iron. I’ll run through some of the options. Bear in mind that which of these is optimal is going to depend on your goals and the market on your server.

  1. Sell it. Because Ghost Iron is in high demand, you can sell it in either ore or bar form on the auction house.
  2. Get a Jewelcrafter to turn it into gems. JCs nuke ghost iron and receive pandarian gems. These can then be cut or used to make jewelry.
  3. Get a Blacksmith to turn it into gear to sell. People will buy level 85 gear for characters going to Pandaria, or PvP gear for their level 90s. There are also recipes on various vendors for blue level 90 tanking gear, and for blue weapons.
  4. Get an Engineer to turn it into gear to sell. Engineers can make trinkets and various other devices that might fetch a decent price on the market.
  5. Get a JC/BS/Engineer to make a blue item, and then get an enchanter to disenchant it for shards. Occasionally there is a recipe for a blue item that is cheap in terms of materials.
  6. Get an Alchemist to transmute it into Trillium and/or Living Steel. Living Steel is used to make some epic recipes at the moment, and is also used for Pandarian belt buckles.  An Alchemist can turn 6 stacks of Ghost Iron ore into one bar of Living Steel. Depending on your server’s market, it may  be cheaper to sell the iron and buy Living Steel from the AH.

I find this a fun piece of design because all of those options may be viable, and which is the best can change quite frequently. It is also quite fascinating because at least two of these options (Alchemy and Jewelcrafting) remove Ghost Iron from the game in large amounts compared to the amount of materials they produce. So if you are buying up Ghost Iron to turn into Living Steel, relax in the knowledge that the Jewelcrafters probably all hate you.

Me and Blacksmithing

The key recipes to pick up are the blue PvP ones, and the belt buckle. All of those things will sell steadily all through an expansion. Invest the Spirits of Harmony to pick all of them up. In Cataclysm, Blizzard automatically updated the stats on the PvP recipes with each new season and we have no reason to think they won’t do the same here, so it’s very worthwhile.

At the moment, I’m finding I make more gold out of turning my Ghost Iron into PvP gear and selling it than I could from transmuting into Trillium/ Living Steel.  But it is the beginning of the PvP season, and lots of people are also reaching the level cap and using PvP gear to help them reach the iLvL for heroics, so demand is particularly high. The blue PvE (tanking and healing) gear is more expensive to make, as it requires Trillium, but doesn’t seem to have as much demand so may not be worth the effort.

Another key recipe for the future will be the PvP plate bracers, which requires 5 bars of Ghost Iron to produce a blue pair of bracers that will disenchant into a shard if you are lucky. This is likely to be one of the cheapest ways to produce enchanting materials at the moment.

The epic recipes currently need 8 Spirit of Harmony each, which limits how often they can be made. I also suspect that by the time I can make any for anyone except myself, they will effectively have been outpaced by raid finder gear. They may well still fetch decent amounts, but whether it’s really the best thing to do with Living Steel I don’t know.

Belt buckles will sell for decent prices, from my initial experiments, so are likely a better bet. (Decent meaning you could buy the raw materials from the AH, turn it into Living Steel, turn that into a belt buckle, and pretty much double your investment.) I have had some success in selling Weapon Chains also, although if you have any Pyrium left in the bank, those Weapon Chains can still be attached to level 90 weapons so this is a good time to offload it.

Pandaria sells 2.7m copies

So the press release is up and the numbers are out. Blizzard say that they sold 2.7m copies in the first week, prior to the Chinese release, and that WoW’s global player base is now over 10 million subscribers. I suspect that number may edge up as word of mouth has been pretty positive, so people who were on the fence about MoP may decide to give it a go or get the old gang back together.

In a month or two, we’ll know how many people either burned through the content or decided that the game is no longer for them. I think 2.7m, crazy as it sounds, is a bit on the low side for what we might have expected from a WoW expansion and really shows the effect that a) Cataclysm b) passage of time and c) other games have had on the industry giant, in that order.

The sales likely include a fairly high proportion of direct digital sales, driven partly by a sales campaign and partly by sensible pricing. Or in other words, when the price of a digital copy is roughly similar to a retail box, people will tend to go for the easier option. Anyhow, yes it did sell more than GW2, if we go by the first week, which is reflective of both games being well received. Initially at least.

[WoW] Assorted thoughts, the curse of accessibility, crafting in Pandaria

mop_ally

 

Accessibility is the curse of Warcraft at the moment. Whatever the designers do, they can never seem to please all of the people; even offering a  range of content from chilled out casual daily quests and farming, to high speed challenge dungeons with a leaderboard and ranked battlegrounds will not stop players complaining when they try content that was aimed at a different group and find it wasn’t tuned for them. It must be frustrating for devs who are trying to entertain the masses, and World of Warcraft has never tried harder to provide entertainment than it is right now, with Mists of Pandaria. The new expansion is terrifically endearing, like a puppy that just wants to be loved.

If you have enjoyed WoW PvE in the past but burned out on lack of content or high end raiding or the frustration of being bottlenecked by group content, there has never been a better time to come back to the game. The new continent is beautiful, the zones are stunning, the storytelling is classic Blizzard (spotty in parts, but lively and likeable, and the good parts are really exciting), and the company has also made real efforts to tweak the gameplay with modern updates.

For example, the picture above shows Spinks (who is in the foreground, bottom right) fighting a big elite mob. You can see the shiny spell effect wings of the paladin who is helping her, behind the mob. That character is Alliance. That elite quest mob was not tagged to either one of us, we both got the kill. Now anyone who has been playing GW2 will be au fait with this, because it’s a game where no mob is ever tagged. In Pandaria, only the named quest mobs get this treatment, but they have done it fairly consistently. So while you will still be competing with other players (unless you group) for mobs in farmed out daily zones, when you go for the bosses, everyone can pile in.

I quite like the interplay of both different types of fight. Sometimes you have to compete and others you cooperate.

The world feels very vibrant compared to some previous expansions. I couldn’t say exactly why this is, but there is something very lively and lived in about Pandaria.  They’ve really taken the Chinese inspiration, put a fantasy twist on things, and run with it. As far as the storytelling goes, I will have more to say in future, but the goal has clearly been to make the player feel like a hero. And not just the murdering zillions of kobolds kind of hero. The kind of hero who helps people who need heroes. There are thrilling set pieces where your character helps to defend a village from bandits, in classic wuxia style, or takes part in larger battle scenes, and these offer much better actual gameplay than previous set pieces such as Wrathgate (however cool it was).

And maybe it’s because I play a warrior, but the wuxia storytelling style really plays to the warrior as a class. It felt very appropriate that Spinks might just take a feisty young panda girl under her wings and teach her a bit of warrioring along the way (I hope that panda grows up to be panda Mulan, just saying). So it felt more personal to me than Cataclysm, and more meaningful also.

Accessibility to a fault

Now the expansion seems to be trying to train people to play the game, even though anyone who has managed to get to level 85 probably already has a clue or two about that. So the introductory quests are quite streamlined and don’t encourage you to explore much. You could, but its not encouraged. Later on, the world does open up more, but throughout the first three zones I never had any fights that left me below about 80% health. I was thinking, “This is fun and all but surely they didn’t mean it to be THIS undertuned?”

However, by the time you get to the level 90 content, mobs will put up more of a fight and there is a definite trend for requiring movement in fights. There are mobs which put damage down on the floor, or have an attack which will do loads of damage if you are standing in front of the thing, or need you to run out of melee range, etc.  All of this is very well telegraphed (well I thought so, but I’m an experienced raider), and I’m sure the idea is to train players for instance and raid bosses. Which is great, and all very well, but not very satisfying to players who already knew that.

The panda starting zone, to my mind, is even worse. It’s very fun, very in genre (with nods to Ranma, for example), very railroaded and easy up until the last few encounters. The intent is very clearly to be an introduction to both the pandas and to the gameplay for new players. And as above, this is great and all, but the majority of people rolling pandas are probably not new players.

For my money, the best starting zones currently in the game are the Blood Elf and Draenei areas, and it’s because they open up very quickly and encourage you to wander around, explore the areas, and smell the roses. I would have enjoyed a Pandaran area more in that style, with more quest hubs, more hints about the culture (maybe for the various classes, like Pandaran magi et al) and less about ‘you will follow this questline until it ends.’

Crafting

Crafting actually feels coherent in this expansion. The goal is clearly to make it easy for people to train Pandaria crafting skills, but characters who are actively played will have access to more recipes, and more specialist materials. This is made easy by the baseline materials being incredibly plentiful. ‘Actively played’ doesn’t mean that they need to do hard group content (there may be raid recipes and materials in future I guess), they just need to be levelled through the content and after that can amble around doing the odd daily quest or anything else that involves a bit of random killing. So a casual solo player will have better access to crafting and recipes in this expansion than ever before.

In some crafts, such as Blacksmithing, if you want to raise the skill above 575, you will need recipes that are accessed from a vendor that you will have to open up by completing a questline. But it is a questline that can comfortably be done solo. I think this is a nice balance between gating content and still making it accessible in a non-frustrating way for more casual players.

Accessible Progression

I think Blizzard are aiming for an accessible form of progression in MoP. This is good news for all those players who do enjoy the progression aspects of WoW but have felt frustrated or gated in the past when hitting a progression brick wall that only raiders could pass. There are still ‘gates’ (or things you have to do before you can access other content you want to see), but people who enjoy working on progression goals but prefer a more casual or solo style will also have cool things to work towards.

See, it was never attunements themselves that were the issue, and people who argued in favour of them were always pretty much on the money. A lot of people enjoy planning out how they will attune a new character. Just now you can largely do it with less frustration. Not ‘no frustration’ because sometimes someone else beats you to that rich trillium node, or you wish you could just skip the dailies, but mild frustration is also a part of the genre. For a lot of players, it adds to the sense of achievement when you stick at it and finally get the thing/key/content/progression that you want. And I think Blizzard realise that, and have embraced it.

[WoW] Thought for the Day: On playing a new expansion

mop_dragon

It is tempting to go with a first impression, or start making broad predictions quite early on in an expansion, before you’ve played through all of the PvE. Be careful if you try that with Mists of Pandaria, because each zone I have seen so far is better than the last. The cool stuff is paced and spread out much better than any of the previous expansions. I have more thoughts noted down, and the game is still very much WoW at its core. But the questline/event for Savior of Stoneplow is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in any game ever. It is better than Wrathgate.

I have also seen questlines that made me laugh (honestly, that monkey guy in the Horde Jade Forest special assault group! I heard my partner giggling from across the room earlier and knew that was what he was playing through too) and that made me cry (if you are playing Horde, you will know this one when you see it). The music is also wonderful.

I miss the freedom to just head out and explore that I had gotten used to in GW2. Pandaria is less on rails than Cataclysm, and you could just head off and find new quest hubs if you want, but the longer storylines just work better if you don’t push it too far because you will meet NPCs from one zone in another further down the line. You can end up feeling like Doctor Who if you go back and forth (as in: Hi, I know this is the first time we’ve met  for you but I’ve spoken to your future self and I’m really sorry about your wife/dog/favourite sword.)

But when WoW hits the mark, it really does hit the mark and I’m enjoying meeting so many memorable NPCs and places that make me care about them. My advice to bloggers: be cautious about making conclusions about this until you have played it to the end, you may not have hit some of the big payoffs yet.