[WoW] Everything old is new again. 5.04 and preparing for Pandaria.

MoP_login

Yup, this is the Mists of Pandaria loading screen. The image of ‘two statues flanking an entrance’ bears (sic) a resemblance to both the Vanilla WoW and TBC login screens. Again, as with the intro trailer, the message is that the game is getting back to its roots thematically.

Has it only been a week or so since I last mentioned how I was getting on with WoW? It feels much longer than that. I was getting set to screenshot my achievements, note that I had tried a LFR pickup raid into Dragon Soul and comment that I’d cleared up two of my Cataclysm bucketlist goals by getting Pebble on my Warrior and leveling my goblin priest chick to 85, and running a few instances with her. So ultimately, although I had been feeling very antsy about running heroics again, I felt that I got back into the swing of things with a couple of characters.

I also ran through the Firelands raid with my guild, which was good fun. (I never really disliked it as a raid, and it’s nice to have been able to go down Ragnaros. Again.)

So yay for that, then patch 5.04 hit and everything changed. And of course, that meant all the addons too. And if anyone is interested,  Noxxic, Icy Veins and MMO Melting Pot have guides for every spec in 5.04, which will get you started if you’re feeling confused.

Residual Notes on LFR

The raid I saw was the second half of the Dragon Soul, which involves a few set piece fights,  of which the most memorable is where the raid attempts to pry metal plates off Deathwing’s back while he’s spawing antibodies and trying to throw everyone off with barrel rolls. It probably isn’t as interesting as that sounds, or at least not on LFR.

I didn’t find it fun enough to bother queueing for the other half. It was nice to see the raid, I guess, but the Hour of Twilight instances were a lot more fun and had a better storyline (for what that’s worth). It is entirely possible that the raid encounters are more engaging in regular 10/25 man mode.

Really the odd thing about this raid is that it really does play like a collection of set pieces. In some cases the raid literally teleports from one location to the next and I half expected to see scrolling text on the screen during the transition reading “X hours later …” I guess that gives things a cinematic feel but it was a step too far for me, I prefer my raids (and instances) to feel like actual locations in the world rather than film sets.

I am in favour of LFR as a concept, I just don’t think that raid was particularly engaging.

Shared Achievements and Pets

After the patch hit, the majority of achievements and pets have become account wide. Yes, that means Horde alts now have access to Alliance only quest pets such as Withers and the Faerie Dragon. It also means that any rare or no-longer-attainable pets (eg. the ones you used to get for logging in during WoW anniversaries) are now part of the account-wide collection. It also means that, having logged on all the various alts on which I have dithered since the start of the game, I now know on exactly how many alts I completed the mechanical chicken quest. (Two.)

Account wide achievements also mean that I could create a new character tomorrow and display a variety of titles and achievements which aren’t in the game any more – sadly the Vanilla PvP titles do not go account wide, not that I ever got very far with those but I did have a couple on a no-longer-played alliance priest. Effectively, looking at my list of pets and achievements now makes it look as though I’m far more of an achiever than I really am. I suppose that’s good, but I wonder if characters feel more like adjuncts to the account than individuals now.

Some of the achievements can now be completed in bit parts across different characters. So for example, you could explore the Night Elf areas on an Alliance alt and the Blood Elf areas on a Horde alt and get completions on both of them account wide. Or in other words, simply logging in all your characters post-patch is likely to have resulted in extra achievements being noted. I am quite proud that despite all this I still ‘only’ have around 7700 achievement points on Spinks, Achievements are not really my thing.

The pet list also includes all the pets that exist which you do not (yet) own, including the Pandaria ones. My first reactions are that:

1. There are a LOT of reskinned pets. I don’t expect Blizzard to work miracles, but even Pokemon managed to give each of the pokies their own unique look.

2. I am going to be SO addicted to pet battles. I love Pokemon so this was never going to be a hard sell, but you have pets associated with different types, each of which has a variety of attacks of different types, and the various types are strong/weak against each other. I suspect pet battles will be far more strategically interesting than most WoW fights. Plus I suddenly got more interested in filling out my pet list.

I like the idea of starting Pandaria and favouring the pets I actually like best (usually due to having fond memories associated with them, like the mechanical squirrel that was given to me by a friend, or the crimson whelp that Arb gave me.)

Stoppableforce has a great post on Pet Battles in MoP, and I suspect that like me, he is a chicken fan. Ignore the haters, fun pokemon is fun.

Learning to play your class all over again

As has become the norm for WoW, the new class mechanics enter the game the patch before the expansion and they are currently live. I am still experimenting with my warrior but my first impressions are:

  • I like the tanking changes, I think it will be interesting and hopefully fun. But I wish I could do this with fewer buttons; warriors have a ton of utility and with the addition of an extra shield ability and the war banners, finding buttons and binds for them all is going to be a pain. I also think I need to find an addon to help monitor rage more closely.
  • Do not like the new Arms. It used to be such a fun, fluid rotation (I mean up until last week) and now it feels awkward, with lots of waiting around for crits and procs. I also think that one single target rage sink should be enough for anyone, so having two abilities that pretty much do the same thing (Slam and Heroic Strike) is just adding unnecessary complexity.
  • Fury looks OK though, my first impressions were mostly good. Also I’ve always wanted to try Bladestorm while dual wielding 2-handers.

The actual mechanics of being forced to relearn your class every expansion can get a bit wearing. As Beruthiel eloquently notes:

This is now the fourth time I’ve “relearned” to heal. The second time with massive mana changes. And you know what? It fucking sucks. I’m tired of trying to work small miracles with my toolkit, figuring it out, only to have it yanked out from under me and made to go through all the learning pains of learning your limits again.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for that position, especially for anyone who really quite liked how their character played in Cataclysm.

A proportion of the WoW player base expects both themselves and everyone else to learn the ins and outs of a new spec pretty much instantly, which does up the pressure. I personally expect to get some practice in from levelling through MoP and running instances, and will probably come back to how warriors play later once I have a better feel for the spec. (I don’t know about anyone else but I do usually fret for ages about which character to play as a main in a new expansion and then end up playing my Warrior again anyway.)

I’m also tanking ICC for a guild run later this week so we’ll see how that goes.

Preparing for MoP

The last few things I intend to do in preparation for the expansion are to finish up the Fishing skill on Spinks and level my warlock from 83 to 85. I have toyed with laying in some materials so that I could grab 10 points in Blacksmithing as soon as the crafting cap is raised (ie. by making PvP gear which is currently orange to me), I just don’t know whether I can be bothered.   My priestlet now has engineering and tailoring up to 500, which will let her pick up the Pandaria upgrades and my enchanting alt also has enchanting at 500 for the same reason.

As WoW players will know, it is extremely common for players to have a few crafting alts. I kind of wish Blizzard would just allow crafting skills to be account wide at this point, because no one should have to level enchanting more than once, ever.

I have also been selling off various bits and pieces, but without the sort of laser intensity or the scale that gold making glyph sellers apply to their work. Having said that, belt buckles and weapon chains both turn a good profit, as do bags (as usual) and crafted engineering pets. I will probably go into the expansion with about 50k gold on my main and 20k gold on a couple of alts, which is plenty for anything I might need to do. I also suspect that the main money making window for Blacksmiths will be in crafting entry level PvP gear at the start of the expansion and every arena season, at least if things follow the same pattern as Cataclysm.

Everything old is new again

In a few weeks time, the busy Cataclysm endgame zones will be quiet again. Only the starting zones will see an influx of levelling characters who will probably reach the expansion max and move on before ever spending time in the Firelands daily quest area or Twilight Highlands.

I flew round the now-deserted old TBC endgame zones, to remember again how this impacted previous expansions. Some drink to remember, some drink to forget.

netherstorm

How are you spending the last few weeks of Cataclysm, if you are playing WoW?

Heroic dungeons, and what is the optimal length for an instance anyway?

I’ve been reading an increasing number of blogposts from dedicated WoW players recently who are finding that the current Blizzard model of instances just isn’t working for them.

Understand also that it’s hard for someone who’s been so tied to a game to start criticising it, and trying to understand why it’s not so fun for them any more.

Kaozz writes:

Last time I queued I waited 40 minutes (as dps) for a normal instance and logged before one popped up. While they want to take the pressure off healers for ‘covering’ for other people by flinging out tons of heals- it still falls on the healers as they sit OOM holding the group up. Even if the dps was too low they will still get blamed in many cases. It’s not a fix. It’s not fun. It’s not harder, its wasting time.

Here’s the dirty secret of heroics this time around. A lot of people don’t enjoy them. It’s not just the difficulty, it’s the time and focus that they require and the fact that you can add quite a lot to that time if you have someone along who doesn’t know the place.

If you always run heroics with your guild and you’re all well geared, you’re probably thinking this sounds inane. Because they are quite smooth if everyone is well geared and knows what they are doing. This however is not the PUG experience.

And once you add really long queues for dps into the mix, it’s not surprising that people start to fret. Telling them all to play tanks or healers is AN answer but for all you know they might have tank/ healer alts and just want a break. I’m not sure how easy it is to organise runs on trade chat at the moment either, I hear people doing it so presumably it must work ok. So there’s one option.

Joining a larger guild is another option, but some people enjoy smaller guilds for reasons other than gameplay. It worked well in Wrath to be able to be guilded with RL friends and still run instances whenever you wanted via LFG. People, understandably, don’t want to be forced out of that mould.

lonomonkey adds his voice to the mix:

We’re all very casual, playing when we feel like it and when time allows. We’re not out for epics, achievements or guild levels. Yet, we do like the occasional raid and we do want to progress our characters with heroics for example.  We can’t do that anymore in Cataclsym since we’re a small guild that doesn’t always have five member ready to run heroics.

I suspect that Blizzard had something fairly special going in Wrath with the combination of quick instances and LFD. Maybe in a few months time the Cataclysm instances will be like that as well, but right now they aren’t. And once you have burned people out on a game, they may not be in a terrible hurry to come straight back.

Or in other words, the model of “start hard, and then nerf” is just going to lose casual players who happen to be in at the start.

The perfect instance length

In college, we’ve always been told that 45 mins is about the right length for a lecture. Longer than that, you can’t concentrate. Shorter than that, you won’t learn as much. If ours go on longer, we always have a 5 min break at the 45 min mark. So I think 45 mins should be the upper bound on instance length, even allowing for a few wipes. Possibly with some exceptions, marked clearly, for people who want a longer run and longer instances could have save points along the way.

But how can you measure the length of an instance? A well geared, well drilled team will demolish just about anything in a smooth run. A first learning run will always take longer than a farm run. Even Wrath heroics  took awhile when we were first learning them.

It is an interesting problem. But one thing is clear, there’s a demand for shorter easier LFG-friendly instances right from the start of an expansion, rather than halfway through …

The MMO difficulty curve

We had a couple of inches of snow here on Saturday. It’s a bit earlier than we’d usually get this much snow but hardly anything to get overexcited about. You’d think. Yet when I grabbed my weekly shop on Sunday, the supermarket looked as though it had been hit by a plague of locusts. I commented to the guy on the till that it looked as though the Christmas rush had hit. “You should have seen it yesterday,” he said. “After the snow.” And yet, by the time I went (a day later), the council had put grit down, the roads were a bit safer, and there was still plenty of stuff to buy in the supermarkets (in fact, they hadn’t had any issues with their deliveries anyway.)

Now that Cataclysm has been out for a couple of weeks, players have had a chance to try out the instances. They had been pronounced ‘challenging’ by most people on a first glimpse. Some have even ventured into heroics, and raid bosses have been downed too.

A couple of bloggers last week were writing about how difficulty changes over time. Tobold notes how difficulty in WoW eases off over time, and Gevlon discusses how his two healer tactic for heroics might be seen as a ‘sign of weakness’ by some players. (I suspect all new tactics will go through this stage, after which people start using it more widely and anyone who doesn’t is seen as a loser. Some people just hate new ideas because they are new.)

It’s an interesting time to watch the community, because after a gear reset, everyone should be starting out roughly equal. In practice, this means that after a crazy rush, the really hardcore guys are already farming the heroics that medium hardcore players are tentatively learning and clearing with their guilds. This is also the part of the expansion where players are exploring their identity a bit – who is ultra hardcore, who is merely a bit hardcore, etc. So there’s a rush into heroics because that’s where the progression bar is currently set. If you want to feel the hardcore buzz, the party is (temporarily) in Heroic Grim Batol.

And if anyone is curious, mmo-champion have a poll where people can vote on their easiest and hardest heroics.

And LFD is quite buzzing for normal Cataclysm instances, people are starting to experiment with speed pulls, no one bothers to explain the fight mechanics any more and most of the random groups I’ve had have been fine. (I don’t have the mental fortitude to try a LFD heroic yet.) More casual players are likely still levelling (or levelling new characters from scratch), although the levelling curve is relatively flat this time around.

It feels as if the player base in general has rushed through the introductory learning part of the expansion. LFD is definitely a factor in this. However, there are still a lot of new bosses in those instances, some of which do need some execution knowledge (do you kill the adds first? Is there a position requirement? Does a spell need to be interrupted?) so if random PUGs are tending not to explain then the quality of LFD will probably get worse (as the hardcore stop bothering with normal instance runs) before it gets better.

In fact, I think that in every successive WoW expansion, the adaptation period has gotten lower.

Is it time that heals all difficulty, or just gear?

Warcraft has always had issues with gear scaling. An instance that is designed to be challenging at gear level X will be much easier at gear level X+10. Other MMOs just don’t seem to scale gear quite as aggressively; the LOTRO instances in Moria for example are still quite interesting after you outgear them – and they’ve recently been tweaked to scale with level anyway. Blizzard could, if they wanted, make the difficulty less gear dependent. But … players enjoy being able to outgear content that was once challenging, and that’s the design choice they have made and it doesn’t yet seem to have affected the longevity of the game. The improved accessibility for non-hardcore players seems to outweight the hardcore guys getting bored.

So I imagine the current heroics will ease off a lot once everyone is in full blue heroic gear (iLvL 346 if anyone is counting). And then the complaints about the game being too easy will likely start up again. Then again, for people who preferred more chilled out runs, this is the point at which the game gets playable and more fun for them.

Point is, it’s part of the whole MMO notion that all players are thrown into the same game world together. So if the MMO gets very gameplay oriented, this brings up a slew of issues about how devs should design difficulty for such a huge range of player and playing styles. A game that was entirely designed around the hardcore, and also assumed that they’d always be in well organised optimised groups, would be inaccessible to the majority of other players. Totally inaccessible. And those same players will walk over any other type of content.

Grindfests, whatever people thought of them, didn’t really have this type of issue. Neither does PvP (it has different issues.)

Time and the difficulty curve

So what this means is that if you enjoy the increased difficulty, you do probably want to press into heroics quickly because they will become much easier. If you don’t, then don’t stress over it. In a few weeks things will have eased off, and meantime you can work on your archaeology or raise you reps in normal instances. The heroics will still be interesting, and there are some cool bosses in there.

Plus as more of the playerbase is ready to try heroics, it’ll be easier to get guild groups in less hardcore guilds, which will probably be more fun in itself.

But the fact that the playerbase adapts so incredibly quickly to the new content these days is an issue – whether it is to do with access to information, or gear, or easy LFD access.  And I suspect it’s the core reason why MMOs, as they become more gamelike, are becoming less compelling.

Anub’Arak, a fight where blocking actually *gasp* helps

You know how it is, you wait all expansion for that shield block set that you had like a big clunking lump in your bags to actually be useful and then, for a shining moment, it actually happens. Well, maybe in my dreams.

Apparently warriors with top of the line block value sets are trivialising the heroic version of Anub’Arak, who is currently the end boss of the hardest version of the new raid instance.The trick is that they actually don’t hit very hard, it’s their debuff that magnifies the damage, so if you can reliably block all of the direct hit … you can take no damage at all.

If you want to try this at home, you will need enough block rating on your gear so that the total of your miss+parry+dodge+block as a percentage is at least 100%.  Because there isn’t a lot of gear in Wrath with block rating, that means an epic gear hunt.

Putting together a blocking set

If you would like to put a blocking set together, here’s a few key points to remember:

  1. Block value is not the same as block rating. But generally both are desirable in a blocking set, it may depend on your specific goals.
  2. You still need to hit the defence cap, the expertise cap, and the hit cap. You may need to switch gems, enchants, and trinkets around. This will inevitably mean that you will have much less stamina in a blocking set — you don’t get something for nothing.
  3. You can actually apply a filter to wowhead to search for gear with a specific stat. Here’s a list of level 78-80 gear with block value on it.
  4. IT’S NOT VERY USEFUL. A blocking set is a gimmick set — so do it for fun, do it to see what happens, do it because you’re bored, but don’t do it because you feel you must. Unless of course you’d like to play hardcore and copy Premonition‘s amazing shield tank who inspired the thread linked to above.

How will we know if a MMO is too hard?

Let’s assume that a hypothetical game releases a hypothetical patch with new hypothetical raid content. How would we know, from outside, whether or not the new stuff is tuned well or not?

Bear in mind that any time anyone comments that it is too hard, a wave of more hardcore players will drown them out, claim that they are noobs, and that  the content is fine the way it is. Some  people who comment that it is too hard may just not have figured out the fight yet, or may not be the players at whom the content was aimed.

From inside (ie. game dev perspective) you can look at the statistics, see how many times mobs died this week compared to projections, and work it out that way. If the bosses didn’t die enough, then figure out the sticking point and tweak accordingly.

This is harsh on commenters who are able to give good, balanced, feedback, because what they say is largely ignored. By contrast, people claiming that a game is too easy get lots and lots of buy-in. Probably because it lets everyone else feel ultra hardcore when they agree.

You could say the same about whole games. How would we know if Darkfall was actually too unforgiving? The hardcore guys it was aimed at will spot weakness in anyone who claims the game is too unplayer-friendly.

But really, how would players know if Ulduar was too hard?

We don’t know or care about who else is killing the bosses. We just want it to be tuned perfectly for our raid. And we won’t know if it’s too hard until we’ve had a few weeks to bash it. Right now, I’d say it’s looking very very good from my perspective. Progress is much slower for us than Naxxramas, but progress is definitely being made. (I’ll talk more about my experiences so far in Ulduar tomorrow or Monday.)

But it does highlight the big problem with raid design:

How can you create PvE content that is fun for both a casual guild with a mixture of players, and a raid guild which handpicks its members?

Hard modes have been a popular feature of video games for years. And again it’s City of Heroes that has been the more innovative MMO in this area, because they’ve let you pick hard modes on instances for awhile now.

I know that WoW and LOTRO both offer heroic/hard modes for 5 man end game instances. In WoW, there have been persistent problems with tuning on heroics. In TBC they were tuned too hard (anyone who doubts this needs to think back to how heroic Arcatraz was when TBC went live). In Wrath, they have been tuned too easy. Also they have had persistent issues with the hardmode incentives — by making them too good, it means everyone wants to do hard modes and the players who’d prefer to play on an easier setting simply can’t get the groups for it.

But maybe hard modes for raid encounters won’t face the same problems. In any case, how will we know if they are too hard?

Blizzard can pore over their stats in a few weeks time and decide, and meanwhile the rest of us will just have to wait for the whines.

The Tale of One Bronze Drake

Me and my drake, out on the town

Me and my drake, out on the town

I’m sure everyone has their personal blind spot in MMOs. That one puzzle you can’t solve. That one jump you can never make first time.  That one instance run that you need but can never get anyone else to do. That one drop that doesn’t. (Don’t even start with me about tanking trinkets, they do not exist in my personal universe!)

For me, it’s been the heroic mode of Old Stratholme. If you can make it through on a particularly tight timer, you have access to an extra boss (he despawns when the timer runs out). And aside from the achievement, you are rewarded with the shiniest shiny of all — he drops a gold dragon for someone to win as a flying mount.

The Culling of Stratholme

Old Stratholme is a fantastic, story-based event style instance.

It’s located in the Caverns of Time which means that you’re being sent back in time by the Bronze Dragonflight, Quantum Leap Style, to prevent the timeline being messed up. In this, run, you and your mates get to play through one of the character defining sequences from Warcraft III. This is the point where Arthas turns away from his paladin mentor and decides grimly that the only way to save the City of Stratholme from the Scourge Plague which assails it is …. to kill everyone in it. And the voicetrack from the Warcraft III cut scene is used here too, which is a nice easter egg for people who played it.

And we get to help him. Because apparently worse things will happen if the timeline is not preserved, however much Mrs Spinks thinks aloud on every run that a swift dagger in the back would solve a lot of problems further down the line. (Note #1: She’s not one of those warriors who believes in fair fights. Note #2: You can do this on a RP server and no one minds.)

First he makes his way through the plagued parts of the city and we’re there to smack down the waves of undead scourge patrols and associated mini-bosses that can spawn at several different locations near the main entrance. So lots of running back and forth.

Then Arthas leads us through the Town Hall, where he is attacked by members of the naughty infinite dragon flight who like messing up timelines. Or at least, he would be if we weren’t there to protect him. After following him through a secret passage, we end up back on the streets and facing a gauntlet of scourge before we can get to the final confrontation with Mal’Ganis, the demon deathlord.

Arthas: I won’t allow it, Mal’Ganis! Better that these people die by my hand than serve as your slaves in death!

Morally, Blizz wimped out here. In the actual storyline, Arthas kills both plagued and unplagued residents alike. It’s his one step beyond the pale which signposts his future moral decline and plummet. Not only do we not get a chance to talk him out of it, but all the mobs we kill in Stratholme are either dragons or scourge. No burning down houses full of innocent but possibly plagued residents here the way he does in Warcraft III. So the scenario lacks the moral disquiet that it is supposed to resonate.

We also lack the Warcraft III background, where the script would have shown us that Arthas was met by a prophet on the way to Stratholme and offered an alternate choice (“If you wish to save your people, lead them across the sea …. to the West.”) which he ignores.

So although we’re told that Arthas crosses a line here, we don’t really see it. But it’s a fun instance for all that, with lots of running around and lots of dragons and zombies to fight. Plus you get to see a familiar old instance (Stratholme) as it was in the past as a thriving city.

My history with Old Stratholme

I’ve run this instance several times on heroic mode. Somehow, we’d never managed to beat the timer. There’s no special trick to it, you just have to do the same things as usual but faster. I’d seen the extra boss on a few occasions, just as he disappeared. On one memorable occasion I was even able to engage him only to die a bit later because our healer was running way behind everyone else for some reason.

Most of my friends have done the speed run. Many of them have drakes of their own. When I commented that perhaps I was the problem (not fast enough? Not crazy enough with the pulls?) they all said that wasn’t the issue.

Various reasons put forward for not beating the timer on Stratholme:

  1. You were unlucky with spawns. (You can have a lot of extra running to do if the scourge at the start insist on all spawning at opposite ends of the map).
  2. You didn’t have enough dps. Killing things faster would make more time. But I’ve known people who got their drakes with new level 80s in the group.
  3. The stars are not aligned, it just wasn’t meant to be.
  4. Maybe the NPCs just move more slowly when you’re there?
  5. Bad luck. Sod’s law.
  6. Lag. If all else fails, blame lag.

But however much people said it wasn’t my fault, it seemed to me that all the failed runs had one common factor. Me.

I wasn’t really even thinking about the timed run when we ran Stratholme last Sunday.  One of my friends recently hit 80 on his mage so we grabbed a few bored people to run him through some heroics. This was the last one we had time for before lunch, and we aced it.

Sad to say, the main thing that was different on this occasion was that we had an Unholy specced Death Knight in the group, and they have a group speed buff. The other advantage on this occasion was running with a healer who actually kept up with me.

Other than that, I pulled the gauntlet at the end very quickly when we realised we might be on track for a speed run. Warbringer (being able to charge while still in combat, one of the current prot warrior hallmarks) and a decent set of shield block gear make crazy pulls possible. The gauntlet itself consists of some static elite ghouls, lots of static non-elite skeletons, and some elite patrols of various scourge creatures. So the trick to it, if there is one, is to charge from ghoul to ghoul while still keeping an eye out for the patrols so as to be able to grab those quickly too.

In any case, I was very excited when I won the bronze drake! I’m really not a mount-obsessed player and would have been happy enough with just the achievement, but you have to admit it looks great.

I feel a bit disloyal to my old nether ray though …