Keepin’ it rare

Anyone who was aiming to get a cool flying mount from completing all the raid achievements from current Wrath raids will need to get a wriggle on. Because the mounts won’t be given out any more after patch 3.1 goes live. It’s apparently because they need to stay ‘rare’ so that people who fancy themselves hardcore can get an egoboost.

I could care less about the mount. Achievements have served their purpose for me in that they kept my 10 man raids entertained with dps checks, movement checks, and new strategies. But what I don’t like is the feeling that I’m being chivvied along at Blizzard’s pace, not mine. So we waited for people to hit 80 in a casual guild before we started raiding and then chose to just spend one night a week on 10 mans. I just picked out the achievements that I thought would be fun or encourage the raid to focus on some aspect of play.

I didn’t think we were on a timer. And I resent that, despite not caring about the mount myself.

I also never planned to schedule the undermanned runs (to get the full set of achievements, you need to run the 10 man instances with only 8, or the 25 man runs with only 20) – I’d always assumed that people would eventually get bored and we’d have less people signing anyway. I will not leave people sitting outside when there is room in the raid just for an achievement,

But this extra pressure of omg mount disappearing is going to stress some of my friends out. I’m away this week and the friend who is running the raid in my absence scheduled an 8 man run and … yes, left two people on reserve to do it. I hope they get the achievements they want and have a smooth run –- and it will never happen on my watch. I have goals for 10 mans and that isn’t one of them. But now I wonder, is that really fair to the guys who do want (and deserve) their fancy mount.

It may never matter. I don’t know if we’ll kill sarth+3 in a 10 man, which is what we’d also need to do. (and by the way, that was a sucky thing to do to a 10 man raid, give them an achievement that truly was not scaled properly to the lower number)

So there is more to 3.1! New mounted combat

Blues speak out about the new Argent Tournament.

OK, so patch 3.1 is finally shaping up to make some sense. This new announcement sounds as though we will have a slew of new daily quests somewhere in Icecrown (commenters on that thread think Scourgeholm and that sounds likely to me also) to help the Argent Crusade with some rebuilding.

It will lead to the construction of a Coliseum (possibly a new arena?), and there will be associated achievements, titles and the other usual suspects (pets, mounts, tabards, and so on).

Mounted combat sounds great but in practice I’m curious to know how it will work. If the mount is a vehicle then we’ll only be able to use its abilities. Could work, tank fights sound fun. If the mount is more like a regular mount then we might be able to use our own abilities but that would mean having to stand still to cast — which is not really the point of mounted combat. Or it might be that the mounts will be more like chariots, small moving platforms that you stand on so you can cast on the move.

In either case, it’ll negate a lot of the stealth and movement abilities that characters rely on in PvP so will make for a very different type of fight. Can’t stealth, intervene, or use travel form on a horse. And why exactly is the Argent Dawn wasting time building a Coliseum when there are scourge to fight? Priorities, people!

But I will forgive them a lot if I can charge people with a couched lance. On my undead horse.

Patch Notes

Patch notes are also out (in first draft at least). They will probably change a lot before the patch goes live.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was deeply disappointed at the current list of warrior changes:

  • Blood Frenzy improved to 2/4% increased damage.
  • Heroic Throw missile speed increased.

The blood frenzy change is just to bring the debuff in line with rogue changes. I’m assuming there is more to come. But it’s kind of rough to see other classes get sweeping changes and not see any of the tweaks devs were talking about for mine.

Here’s hoping that swapping specs in raids will be quick, cheap and easy.  As long as Blizzard keep designing raids to need different numbers of tanks on consecutive bosses and we continue to be poor off tanks or dps in prot spec, we’ll need the in-raid respeccing.

An Ulduar boss of our own to test!

Blizzard have released the PR hounds with some Ulduar information over the last few days. I mentioned the website, but we’ve also had some information about plans for testing the patch/raid on the public test realms.

This hasn’t been so widely geeked over but it’s actually very exciting.

Ulduar marks a departure from the standard test methodology, which was to dump the raid on the test servers (possibly with some bosses disabled) and let people have at it. This time, Blizzard are planning to test in a much more focussed manner. Testing Ulduar will be organised at pre-arranged prime time sessions, and a schedule for specific boss testing will be posted up in advance.

I say it’s exciting, but this is really very similar to the way I remember EQ2 doing its beta testing. Leaving the test servers running all the time, but have focussed sessions for instance testing with devs on hand to take feedback and reset things.

And we finally have an answer as to why companies bother with an EU test realm (other than to test networking issues and for PR), there will be different schedules and different bosses tested in the EU than the US. A smart company might also try to get some competition going between the two zones, because you can be sure we’ll be blaming each other and not the developers if the respective bosses go live with bugs.

What it does mean is that the PTR is going to offer quite an interesting gaming experience. The test schedule means that it may be much easier than usual to sort out raid groups, just be online at the right time.

My guild is starting to talk about testing on the PTR, which they never normally do. So the buzz is definitely working. The testing phase is now intriguing to people. Part of this may be boredom with current content, but I think the appeal of scheduled raid times and ‘a boss of our own’ to test is already luring people in who would not usually be interested.

Are talent trees a failed design?

Blizzard’s plans to implement dual specs (ie. the ability to switch quickly from one talent spec to a  different one, complete with a change of gear and glyphs) is an admission that talent trees have failed them as a design.

It’s a band aid for a broken system that makes MMOs less friendly, more frustrating, and more inaccessible to casual players than they really should be.

Where did talent trees come from?

Talent trees on paper should never have grown into this strange monstrosity that they have become. They were intended to let players customise their characters and their abilities, to tailor the character to their play preferences. So as you went up levels, you had more points to spend on growing your character the way you wanted it to be. It was intended to mirror the way xp get spent in pen and paper games. When a character levels up in a tabletop game, they usually get some points to spend on stats, some to spend on abilites, and they may be able to buy new abilities also. In a tabletop game (D&D for example) you can easily build a cleric which focusses on buffs and damage. You can build a caster who chooses to specialise in support rather than damage.

Implementation of talent trees in games is associated with Diablo, so it isn’t surprising that Blizzard decided to go with the same successful model.

I hated talent trees in Diablo. You had to make some fairly fundamental choices about how your character played with no option for respeccing apart from starting again. You had almost no information to go on about how the different specs might play or what you might find more fun other than trying it (and starting again if you didn’t like it). The talent trees on offer gave you access to such different playing styles that each class was really a bundle of 3 (or more) completely different classes.

So on the one hand, there were lots of different things to try out, and lots of different aspects to each class. On the other, the only way to really try things out was to reroll a lot. It was also very easy to come up with a build that would be fine at the start but very weak later on in the game, and never realise until you had many hours of play under your belt.

Being able to tweak talents and try out different builds did give the game a lot of replayability. But ultimately people gravitated towards cookie cutter specs because sometimes you just want to beat the game, y’know? Without having to spend a lot of time starting again from the beginning.

The more hardcore players worked out the more effective talent specs. After all, they had the most time to spend on experimenting and starting again. They posted about them on forums. Less hardcore players read the forum posts and followed their advice.

Sound familiar?

Things I dislike about Diablo talent trees:

  • Being forced to make game changing choices without enough information to know how that choice will affect your game.
  • Being unable to change your mind easily when you find out that you wanted to try something different or have made a mistake.
  • Having the experimentation phase tuned such that only hardcore players really have access to it.

Note that these factors are frustrating for players like me, but may be good for replayability and building up a hardcore fanbase.

Three Characters in One, Bargain?

The peculiar thing about talent trees in WoW is that you sometimes feel that it’s like playing totally different character classes. The hybrids in particular suffer from using completely unrelated mechanics and gear from one spec to the next.

Paladins may be the worst example of class design ever seen in an MMO. They have three unrelated talent trees, each of which requires a totally different gear set, and playing style. There is no overlap at all. Balancing them in a sensible way has been a struggle for Blizzard right off the bat. It isn’t just the difference between switching from healing to dps to tanking, although that is also quite a fundamental change just from respeccing. It’s the fact that when prot/ret are balanced for mana regeneration, holy becomes way overpowered. It’s the fact that when prot/holy are balanced for survivability, ret becomes a nightmare.

Three classes in one sounds fine as a design goal, it gives players lots of options and lots of customisability. But in practice it’s proved almost impossible to balance. I think Blizzard generally does a good job these days, but they’re fighting against a talent tree system that is fundamentally broken.

Choose your talents to fit your playing style

If it was just a case of picking talents to fit your style, that would be fine. But it isn’t. The different talent trees support different areas of the game. There are PvP specs, group friendly specs, solo friendly specs.

This is glaringly stupid. People may prefer one or other part of the game but why on earth would you want to put barriers in the way of having players participate in all of it.

Why force healers to have to spec differently if they value soloing? Why force anyone to spec differently for PvP? Don’t they want people to have fun and be able to take part in every aspect of the game?

The cost of having talent trees that are specialised for different aspects of the game is that it directly flies in the face of one of the major strengths of an MMO. The fact that there are lots and lots of different things to do.

So it’s really not surprising that lots of people in WoW respec a lot. I used to respec my warrior about twice a week, and that was even without PvP. I welcome dual speccing with open arms as a band aid for a broken system.

Developments in Talent Trees

Other games have improved on the talent tree implementation. LOTROs traits, legendary weapons, and stances (I think most classes now have the ability to switch focus between group and solo style play) may not offer the wide range of customisation but let players tweak their characters but still recognisably remain the same core classes. WAR’s tactics let you easily switch from PvE to PvP focus and back again.

Guild Wars (which is on free trial at the moment by the way) has probably the best system ever devised for handling talent trees. You can respec for free any time you are in a town, and you can only pick 8 abilities to slot in your quickbars for any mission. A big part of the game is figuring out how to tailor your character for whatever it is that you wanted to do.

But what about actually just building and identifying with your character?

This is the flaw of easy respecs. Another aspect of pen and paper games is that you build up your character over time, and you can identify with it. Reworking all of its abilities every week would make it more difficult to do this.

This is one of the reasons I never really glommed onto Guild Wars, although I do think it’s a cool game. Sometimes you just want to grow into your character, not just switch it around every time you are in town.

It’s the reason that respeccing a lot on my warrior sometimes does my head in. I wrote before about identifying with a talent tree, but I know I’m not alone in this. People in WoW often do describe themselves by their talents, eg. I’m a moonkin, I’m an affliction ‘lock, etc. Easy respecs confuses that.

So from a gameplay point of view, I think that talent trees have failed. I think dual specs (and presumably triple specs sometime later) are a band aid for that, for making it easier for players to take part in all aspects of the game. I do wonder how future attempts at balancing talent trees will change to take this into account (eg. who cares how much damage holy paladins do, when they all have the option of just respeccing to ret?).

I think in future, talent trees will be tweaked more with PvP in mind than PvE, for this reason.

What every warrior wants

“We need to get bigger guns. BIG FUCKING GUNS!”

- Dick Durkin, Split Second

It’s true. It doesn’t matter what spec, or whether we prefer to solo, raid, or PvP, all warriors want bigger guns. Bigger axes. Bigger spikes on their shoulders. It’s a warrior thing.

And of course we always wish we could do more damage, even protection warriors hiding behind a shield the size of France. In fact, especially protection warriors.

To understand why this is, you have to understand how tanking has changed in Wrath. It used to be all about threat and survivability. You kept the mobs away from your squishies and didn’t die. If you could do that, you were a tank. If you could do that while walking backwards, you were a raid tank. If you could do all that while walking backwards and remembering to interrupt and spell reflect as appropriate, you were golden.

But with the addition of the Death Knight, two new paradigms hit WoW tanks.

  • The paradigm of threat based on damage.
  • The paradigm of all tanks are equal.

Now we have four different types of tank. Notionally they all are equal and it doesn’t matter which classes a raid decides to take, they can all tank almost all of the content apart from the odd specialist enounter. But some tanks are more equal than others. Of Teeth and Claw sums the situation up. Death Knights and Druids do a lot more damage than the shield tanks while tanking. They also do a lot more damage while off tanking (ie. not tanking but using a tank spec). They can also tank all of the encounters.

It’s not a problem in itself. Current content doesn’t lock anyone out, we just have to be cool with the notion that another tank could do exactly what we do but with an extra 500-1000 or so dps, which is significant on progression raids or dps fights.

Then there are paladins who are still probably the strongest AE tanks in the game and are weakest at … actually not weak at anything at all. They also put out a fair bit more threat and damage than warriors although not in the same class as the Death Knight/ Druid.

This was not intended as a whine post. It was just brought home to me last night when we spent a few hours wiping on 25 man Malygos. One of our raid leaders is a protection paladin (why oh why do I always end up playing the same class or role as a raid leader? It means you’re always second choice for whatever it is you want to do) so he decided that he would tank the boss and I could off tank.

This is a three phase fight. Off tanking involves grabbing a few mobs at the start of phase 2. The rest of the time, you’re on dps duty or flying a drake around. The adds are hard hitting, which meant that I needed to spend the whole fight in tank gear. I didn’t even hit 1k dps (for comparison, this was way below the tank). This fight is also a dps race, and I have never felt so much like dead wood in my raiding life.

If I could have put out as much damage as our druids, I would have doubled my dps. That’s a big difference on a progression fight which is a dps check. Far far too big a difference.

Patch 3.1

So excuse me if I lack excitement over the patch notes. What we need is more damage to bring us up to par with the other tanks. That means more damage while tanking and also more damage while not tanking in protection spec. Buffing devastate would be an obvious choice here, it could only benefit deep protection warriors.

Will we get it? I don’t know. There’s nothing in the current patch notes to hint that they might be looking at this. I’d be surprised if they do, I suspect that the main goal of the patch is to sort out PvP in time for the tournament.

Asking for more damage for tanks feels somehow wrong. We never wanted to have to compete on the damage meters. We just wanted to grab adds and hug them close and hide behind our big arse shields and keep everything nicely controlled. But the new paradigm is not one that warriors were designed for.

We could use another pass.

Class tweaking patches are like Christmas

I’m  still underwhelmed at the prospect of a class tweaking patch when we’re bored of heroics and rapidly getting boreder (is that a word?) of the raid content. And colour me massively underwhelmed at the prospect of no more casual/ 5 man content due for the Ulduar patch (post is about halfway down, sorry I suck at links) too. That raid had better be dynamite.

This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed Naxxramas, I think it’s been a super introductory instance in many ways. It’s a shame that Blizzard fell into the same trap as they did with Molten Core — put better gear on the last boss, but force you to kill 13 other bosses to get to him. Not especially fun to keep going through the motions for hours just for a chance at your weapon of choice. Hint: a shortcut or teleport for the last two bosses would be nice at some point.

Class Tweaking Patches are like Christmas

Have you been naughty or nice? What does <game developer> have in store for you, all wrapped up intriguingly in stripey rumours? Will it be that super dps bike that you’ve been angling for? The killer buff you’ve been leaving heavy hints that you wanted? Whatever it is, you won’t find out for sure until patch day!

We’re all used now to the MMO model in which our characters are guaranteed to keep changing over time. Tweaks will be introduced, new things will be added, there will probably be some nerfs along the line also. It is not guaranteed that you will always be able to play your character in exactly the same way, nor that you will always enjoy the changes that are made.

It’s a rollercoaster. It’s a risk. We can’t see what the future holds, except by reading between the lines of what developers say and what they do via class tweaks.

And historically, MMO developers have not been good at balancing classes in a timely fashion. Sometimes a class or spec will be out of favour for months. Often players, with their desire to minmax the fun out of everything, will decide that a class/spec is out of favour just because it makes things less easymode rather than because it’s actually weak or incapable.

Larisa makes a very good point that people shouldn’t stress over class changes, and yet, it’s such a human thing to do. In games, we’re never really sure if we get invited to fun group content because people like us, because we’re good players, or because our class is useful (most likely a mixture of all three). So if the class is perceived to have less relative utility, we worry not just for raid spots but for the whole social environment around them. These are silly concerns with the current content. But people are still nervous, looking to the next harder raid instance, hoping they’ll still be worth a spot on progression nights.

That part is the stick.

And then the carrot: Are we going to get something new and shiny? Is some long standing class issue going to be changed? Will we suddenly be topping the damage meters? Have the developers heard our pleas and decided to answer them?

I’m quite sure that most players do not sit around thinking about their classes strengths and weaknesses and what they’d like to see come out of the next class tweak patch for them. But for those who do, there’s always a frisson of excitement about the class tweaks.

An insight into the minds above?

I think part of the reason for the excitement is the uncertainty about where the developers see the roles of different classes, and how they should be balanced. We merely get insights from reading patch notes, following developer comments on bulletin boards, and trying to interpret them the best we can.

I do think MMOs in general are getting better about keeping the balance cycles shorter. WoW in particular is no longer in a state where you might as well just reroll if you aren’t happy with how your class racks up against others.

Do you have faith?

Take the player, not the class

“Bring the player, not the class,” has been one of Blizzard’s mantras for Wrath. Heralding an end to the days when a raid could not set out unless it had exactly the right mixture of classes and specs to tackle an encounter, it is intended to make life easier for raid leaders and players alike.

In truth, I don’t recall that raid composition was ever totally set in stone, but trying to differentiate so many classes and specs with unique abilities inevitably meant that some were far more in demand than others. This isn’t just a WoW issue, it’s more to do with how classes interact — they each need their own niche.

In any case, the new regime requires all buffs to be spread out and duplicated. So although they may still be required, there will be several different classes and specs that can provide them.

Latest in the list of ‘required buffs’ is replenishment. This is a mana regen type of buff (yes it also includes rage regen, runic power regen, and whatever else characters run on …biscuits? coffee?) that is available to only three specs. This is in contrast to the other raid buffs which tend to be either baseline abilities or more widely available.

So I was all set to write a post pondering how to ensure that my 10 man group would always have a survival hunter (very unlikely), retribution paladin (quite likely, we have one who is very good and very keen) or shadow priest (likely if I pressure one of the priests to go shadow, which I don’t really like to do).

I was going to bewail the fact that we have loads of warlocks, and why couldn’t Blizzard just give replenishment to them as well. And now apparently, that’s exactly what they plan to do.

I’ll just have to think of something else to write about ;)

Exciting content for WoW/3.1?

Eyonix posts in WoW forums about exciting upcoming changes for patch 3.1.

These are not the exciting changes we’ve been looking for, they are class tweaks. (OK, there may be priests who are ecstatic at the ability to cast an extra buff on people but I don’t think that really improves the gameplay much.)  What we want to hear about is:

  • Dual Specs
  • New Raid Instances
  • Any Other New Content
  • New fluff
  • Something else that’s fun but unexpected
  • Savage nerfs to classes that we don’t play but that will cause mucho entertaining bitching and flamewars on forums. (Or is that just me?)

I can’t be the only person who is thinking that it’s been awhile since Blizzard mentioned anything about the dual spec notion, except to say that they were still working on it.

In any case, it’s hard not to compare with the smorgasbord of exciting new content that Mark Jacobs laid out for Warhammer recently with new classes, zones, and PvP content. And a timescale. Admittedly he is the hypemaster but I have a short attention span and I like hype!