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

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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.

Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

WoW: the new levelling experience

When the random dungeon finder was first introduced to the game, I described it as feeling like a sugar rush. OMG! Dungeon! Zoom zoom. Quick, don’t stop. Moar dungeon! No waiting around!

The new levelling experience feels like a concentrated version of the same thing. It’s fast paced, a lot of the old pacing elements (like travel time) have been cut back or removed, and you’re moving quickly between one awesome story and the next. Blizzard had said that they were keen to bring the Northrend experience back to Azeroth and that is what they have done. There are vehicles, cut scenes, cool storylines covering entire zones, interaction with NPCs, and lots of it.

The lower level game has also been tuned for newbies. It’s intended that a new player, without much experience of MMOs and possibly who prefers to solo should be able to work through the questlines and easily level enough for the next zone in the series.

So if you are whining about how easy it is, then maybe you aren’t the target audience. Maybe you have even forgotten what it was like to panic every time a mob attacked you, freak out any time you thought you might be lost, and not really understand how the genre works yet. Sit back and enjoy the ride, the stories and quests are still fun and we get our harder content in a week or two.

This means that anyone who does know the game, who does do instances and/ or battlegrounds will level very quickly. Even without heirlooms, my test hunter has been almost outlevelling content in her zones, and I preferred not to skip any because why miss the new stuff? Having said that, the warchief’s command boards in the capital city do a great job of directing you to a suitable zone for your level if you do get ahead and aren’t sure where to go next.

I think this does leave the question that if WoW (at lower levels) is too easy for experienced MMOers who like this style of game, where else should they be heading? Rumour has it that Blizzard’s next MMO is to be a MMOFPS so that will have zilch for people who don’t like shooters. I’d imagine you guys should keep an eye on Guild Wars 2, since I’m not sure Bioware is going for a difficulty based approach on The Old Republic.

Blizzard have obviously noted this as an issue, because they responded today by nerfing instance xp (1-60). So clearly they are committed to balancing world quest xp for newbies, and instances are an optional extra. There was a time when the instances were the absolute pinnacle of WoW, the one thing where Blizzard blew everyone else out of the water. They’re still fine (I loved the new Shadowfang Keep) but the emphasis now is on the questlines.

Anyhow, I rolled a new forsaken hunter to check out the undead areas. It still feels odd that I have to roll a new alt just to find out what’s going on with my own faction but hey.

Welcome to the new girl

My screenshots of Phedra are a bit patchy. My excuse is … I was having too much fun. I’ve tried levelling a hunter before and got rather bored of it, so thumbs up to Blizzard for the redesign. I’m loving my hunter at the moment,  messing around with all my traps in Survival spec. It’s also great fun in PvP.

I didn’t use any heirloom armour for this experiment, just an heirloom gun.

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Yup, it isn’t just LOTRO which features farm animals. These are some sheep in Gilneas. What was I doing in Gilneas?, you ask. Just an important mission behind enemy lines, don’t worry about it.

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(Hope the captions on this are readable). I commented earlier this week that the forsaken theme has changed a bit, less gothic, more ick. Silverpine (level 10-20 zone) is more of a war story in which you aid your faction leaders to put down a worgen incursion, but it isn’t easy. There has been some brilliant work put into this zone, and along the way the character gets to learn more about the history of the forsaken and possibly a few hints about their future too.

The picture on the right here is from what will quickly become one of the most loved/ hated quests in the game: Welcome to the Machine. Don’t read the comments unless you want the spoilers but this quest plays on the metagame and will amuse experienced MMO players. It’s like those double entendre jokes that are put into pantomines to keep the parents amused. I have no idea what a newbie would make of it. (More on this one in a future post.)

And you will later encounter the featured NPCs again in Hillsbrad as you keep questing. Warning: Hillsbrad also features one of the grossest quests I’ve done, which involved killing infected bears and harvesting spider eggs from their backs – rather than looting the mob as usual, you actually click on the eggs. (It triggered my grossout response, anyhow.)

pvz

Hillsbrad is also the location of the Peacebloom vs Ghouls quests. If you’d been lulled by the ease of the quests up until this point, this is going to come as a shock because it’s quite tricky even for PvZ veterans. The singing sunflower is however totally adorable, if perhaps a tad inappropriate for an undead character.

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Oh, and I also got to ride on the back of one of those cool undead drakes that they gave to people for the ICC achievements.

Howling Fjord: Sins of the Fathers

If you don’t play Wrath yourself, you may wonder why  so many players went back to WoW when it launched. Were they just sheep? Could they not see how tired the old warcraft format had become?  Was there something in the water? Was it just that the stars aligned? And why on earth did they stay?

I cannot answer for anyone else but for me, the answer lies right there in Howling Fjord. It is quite simply one of the most brilliant,  inspired zones ever created in any MMO ever. Blizzard have toyed with thematic zones before and Richard Bartle touched on the ‘big game hunter’ theme of Stranglethorn a couple of weeks back. But for Wrath, they pulled out something very special indeed.

The whole expansion was intended to have a darker, gothic tone. From the moment you arrive in Vengeance Landing — showing off the new and very gothic forsaken architecture — you are plunged into a very different world from the bright colours and glowy spaceships of The Burning Crusade. And it is a world ruled by gothic genre rules:

  • the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons
  • science is not your friend
  • ghosts walk
  • there are no happy endings
  • revenge is best served cold
  • forbidden knowledge is dangerous and some secrets should be left alone
  • death is not the end
  • omens and curses
  • threatening landscape (high mountains, stark forests, crashing ocean)
  • the suggestion of horrifying events in the background

The very first quest you receive as Horde describes the aftermath of a skirmish with the Alliance. It sends players out with a torch to burn the corpses of the dead, so that The Lich King and his minions cannnot raise them  and send them back against you. That’s the very first thing you do in Northrend. And it sets the tone: you are fighting against an implacable enemy who can raise the very dead, and also you are fighting with grim, competent, pragmatic allies who have experience in the field.

The rest of the Vengeance Landing provide more background, and more insight into the forsaken and their approach. You will see your allies using uglier and uglier tactics. One apothecary poisons the Alliance food and medical supplies. The leader of the settlement shoots down scourge minions who have come to parlay. The stage is set. The player has no excuse that they did not know what the forsaken were like.

And the next phase of quests takes you off to New Agamand, where the player themselves becomes more drawn in. You will test the new plague on unsuspecting local vrykul. Yes, they’re enemies. But you’re testing weapons of mass destruction on them, and then neatly cleaning up the experiment site with exploding zombies.

What happens in Northrend stays in Northrend

There were complaints when Wrath launched about the torture quest that the Kirin Tor give out casually in Borean Tundra. I didn’t see any complaints about the rather more heinous plague testing in Fjord. There are three reasons for this:

  1. You had a choice. If you don’t like the forsaken and what they are doing, go to the other starting zone.
  2. By the time you get to level 70, you really should know what the forsaken are like. Expectations were clearer.
  3. Howling Fjord quests are just better written. Players are eased more slowly into the mindset that they are fighting a foe who has no moral limits and they need to do whatever is necessary to stop him. By the time you’re told to go mix up a batch of plague, you no longer care if they deserve it or not.

In any case, as a player you are being drawn into a world in which there may not be any good options. You will be forced to choose between the lesser evil and the greater evil … and you had better hope that the greater evil is very bad indeed because it is the only way to justify the things you have had to do.

This is terrifically powerful stuff! And it really does cement a feeling in the player’s mind that Northrend is different. This is not last year’s Warcraft. This is more urgent, more focussed, more gothic, more … involving.

The Law of Consequences

Howling Fjord is ruled, more than anything, by the law of consequences. The story being told is that what the players do here will have consequences and many of them will not be good.

The (obligatory) comedy pirates send you off to kill a bull sealion for his blubber? You will find later that you have screwed up the entire local ecology.

Pirates disturb the ghosts of the vrykul ancestors? They are cursed and haunted until the relics are returned and even then, the ghosts eerily tell the player that, “It is too late, doom comes from the sea.”

You help the forsaken test their plague? Don’t be surprised if they use it.

Are you surprised when you first visit the Taunka and find that they consider the forsaken and their allies to be no better than the other undead plaguing the land? That some of the quests you’d done earlier are instrumental in their need to up sticks and move camps to Dragonblight?

And the forsaken, more than any other faction, are children of the Lich King. He created them in their new form, and they rebelled. When you march with them, there is a hunger for revenge and it’s very personal indeed.

The Royal Apothecaries

The apothecaries are a brilliant faction. They are the mad scientists of the horde world, armed with some knowledge of chemistry, a hatred for the living, and absolutely no moral compass. And here in Northrend, at the other end of the continent from all the druids and shamans who might have kept them in check, they have free rein.

As well as quests sending players in to do some hands-on plague development, you can also get involved in scientific disputes between squabbling apothecaries. It’s just like being back at university!

They have a certain black humour that no other faction can replace, and they fit very very well into the gothic backdrop. You could imagine lightning striking one of the new creepy horde towers to fuel a new frankenstein’s monster. I felt the game was a sadder place without them later on. But in Howling Fjord they really do hit the ground running.

And… the Lich King

Howling Fjord is also where players get a chance to meet the Lich King in person, or at least as a projection. It’s towards the end of the zone, in Gjallerhorn, and he also introduced the end boss in Utgarde Pinnacle who you’ll see later (possibly many times, if you are a tank :) ).

So by this time, you’ve seen the results of some of his works, you’ve understood the tactics you may need to use to fight him, you’ve had a chance to both appalled and impressed by your own allies, and finally the dog gets to see the rabbit.

It’s the perfect end to an awesome zone. And the player can move on, grimly scarred by their experiences and what they have learned, but determined to take the fight further into Northrend, to find out what happens to this new improved plague, and knowing that they’ll see more of the vrykul and their leader later on.