Only as good as the last patch

I cannot remember a time when I have been as glutted on awesome computer games as I am right now at this moment. My gaming hours are still very occupied with Dragon Age, which is offering some of the most compelling, immersive gaming I’ve ever had on PC right now.  It is not only a great game, but it also plays right into my storytelling/ RP AND gameplay preferences so it’s absolutely the whole package.

If I want a break from that and some mindless hack/ slay action, Torchlight is still brilliantly entertaining. I find I enjoy it more when I don’t sit down for long sessions — that can get repetitive. But in short bursts it’s very fun and refreshing, and I still have more character classes, more builds, more endless dungeon to try. As if that wasn’t enough, we finally decided to pick up a PS3 so have a couple more great games there (Little Big Planet and Uncharted 2) when we want to sit down on the sofa together and play. I will have more to say about both of those games sometime but they’re both fantastic.

The nice thing about the single player games is that even if I build up a backlog now, it just means I won’t buy any more for awhile until I’m done with them. There’s no special hurry.

But where is WoW in all this? It’s on the back burner for me. I’m keeping up my relaxed raid schedule of one 25 man raid a week, and that’s about it. But why is that? This current patch is simply not compelling and I’ve run out of goals. Until the next patch drops, I’m finding other things to do with my spare time.

Larisa comments that she worries that people think she’s burning out because she’s been critical of WoW recently. I don’t think that. I think they put out an unexciting patch, and I remember noting that it sounded like filler when I first read about the Coliseum. I also don’t see any reason why even a fan has to ooze positivity over a lacklustre patch. By all means find something positive to talk about, but what if the positive thing is, ‘Well, at least we’ll all be geared for the next patch which should be better’?

Compared to the single player games, patch 3.2 offers very very little gameplay. There was one new raid instance that didn’t put up much of a challenge – I enjoyed the new mechanics but they didn’t keep us occupied for very long. Being offered the chance to keep rerunning old instances to be rewarded by a slightly different set of badges which could be turned in for better loot got old before the patch even went live.

One thing this has crystallised in my mind is that WoW at the moment is only as good as its last patch. Oh, there’s plenty of other content in there but I’m done with the rest of the expansion myself, as are a lot of other endgame players. We’ve run the instances, gotten the rep, experienced the quests/ storyline, and capped the tradeskills, so we are very focussed on the new patch content to keep us engaged. Or in other words, many people who played since the beginning of Wrath are now out of in-game goals and bored of the year old gameplay. As soon as a new patch hits, everyone who is endgame-ready will be motivated to switch to the new content — partly because it is new and partly because they will be enticed there with ever increasing rewards. But what happens when they’re done?

Any subscription game needs to keep offering players a mixture of short, medium, and longterm goals to keep their interest in maintaining a relationship with that game. Those are the things which make it worthwhile to pick up a longterm sub, knowing that there are things you want to accomplish that will take months. Goals aren’t enough on their own, but if they’re not there, then you’d better hope that your community is very sticky indeed.

The reason this has become more of an issue now in Warcraft  is that Wrath heralded a new era of accessibility for the game. And that meant fewer long term goals, and a shift in perspective for raid goals. For example, if your goal is to kill the last boss of a raid instance, you can now decide whether killing it on normal mode (possibly in a PUG) will satisfy the sightseeing instinct. Is it worth the extra hassle of finding a raid group just to get the boss on hard mode? A lot of people don’t find that as compelling a prospect as when it was the only way to see that boss die at all. Not only that, but because of the way players are now corralled through the game, many more of them will run out of patch content before the next patch hits.

So these things are in many ways a result of deliberate design decisions. I don’t think the decisions were bad, and I rather enjoy that I’m able to see all the bosses and finish a patch and move on without having to dedicate vast amounts of time and effort. But it does mean that if one patch is less exciting, it’s far easier to either skip it or take a break and do something else until Blizzard provide something more interesting for players to do.

I’ve seen a lot more raid groups recruiting at the moment, so I’m guessing a lot of people are bored with the Coliseum. Will they come back to see Arthas fall in patch 3.3, or will other games — maybe even single player games — have stolen their gaming souls?

Losing Gear Progression in WoW

Players  expect that content will get harder over time in an expansion.  Our characters do braver and more heroic things (modelled by content getting more challenging) and pick up better loot. Raid instances get harder. Rewards get better. And you may need the loot from older raids to tackle the newer ones.

The Coliseum may be a momentary blip in that progression. It is easier than Ulduar but gives better rewards. Perhaps this is a special case, just to make sure that everyone is geared up for Icecrown and the apogee of the Wrath storylines. A special catch-up instance to make sure no one falls behind.

But right now, we effectively have no gear progression. There is no special reason to go to Ulduar, which is the most recent raid instance prior to the Coliseum. There’s no benefit to going there either, you’d be better served for rewards in the newer easier instance. It’s a cool instance, and I sympathise a lot with Copra, who laments that he can’t find groups there. But I understand why people are reluctant to go. And the crazy thing is: If they’d upgraded the Ulduar badges to be badges of triumph when the Coliseum came out, I think it would have been fine. Coliseum would still have been more rewarding but Ulduar would have at least dropped current tier badges.

My Naxx geared alt hopped into a Coliseum raid and came out with upgrades and the all-important achievement that is my passport into PUGs (unless I lie which is what I normally do). If she hadn’t been to Naxxramas, I could have geared her up in crafted pieces, heroic badge loot,  and drops from the Coliseum 5 man instance. In the next patch, when heroics shift to giving out Triumph badges, everyone will eventually get full sets of Tier 9 gear by running heroics.

It doesn’t bother me that my alt (and other people’s alts, or non-raiders who want to get into the game) can raid alongside everyone else. But it bothers me that my alt is almost as well geared as my main, and that all the extra work I did on Spinks now seems to mean nothing. I don’t say it’s logical.

Surely the whole point of persistent games was that we could keep working on our characters to progress them over time? What does it really mean if all that time spent means nothing any more. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think that finding out is going to affect whether I want to raid in Cataclysm or not. Or even how much I want to play WoW at all after finishing Icecrown. Because if there’s no real point putting extra time and work into a character, if there’s no payoff … then perhaps it would be better to focus less on one character in one game.

What I am seeing is simply the way that the genre is evolving now. The movement in many of the big MMOs is very much towards minimising the effect of previous grinds or raids because those things make the game more inaccessible to newbies. It isn’t just WoW.

What we lose when we lose progression

Despite the fact that progression makes games more inaccessible, it encourages drama, it can frustrate people, and all the other inevitable reasons that it will die, it has served a very very important purpose in achievement driven MMOs.

Gear progression meant that different players were motivated to tackle different content. There was a constant stream of raid guilds focussed on different levels of PvE. It would have been much more likely that Copra could have found his Ulduar raid.

If everyone and everything is focussed only on the newest and most recent raid, then the game narrows down. There is no longer the broad base of accessible content for players. Sure, they can all be in the same instance, but it’s the only instance they can possibly tackle due to lack of social support for the raids needed for the rest.

If we want broad-based MMOs with a wide variety of possible things to do, then maybe losing the gear progression isn’t such a great step. It is certainly one way to funnel everyone into raiding together. But players will get bored more quickly and if there isn’t any different content for them to work on when they aren’t raiding, they’ll wonder where the actual game went.

I think that Blizzard have proved that their vision for the raid game does work. More people are raiding now in WoW than ever before. But they have also proved that raiding alone isn’t enough if they break the gear progression. One little raid instance can’t keep the entire player population happy until the next one.

As for progression itself, I wonder if ultimately the only progression that will count is social progress. Are you in a good guild? Do you have friends in the game? Those are things that genuinely take time and effort to build up, and unlike a raid instance, those things will not be reset in the next patch or the next expansion.

5 Things I do not hate about the Coliseum

This is the first week in which I’ve run the Coliseum three times, which feels like a lot given that I’m not especially fond of the place. Amusingly, none of those raids involved hard modes, as we simply don’t have enough interested people to form two 10 man hard mode raids and I was apparently non-optimal (which I don’t agree with but I don’t actually like the Coliseum so who cares?)

I am not one to fret about other people beating the same content as me, but you can tell there’s something off with the tuning when my Naxx-10 geared alt can run it and come top of the healing meters. Just saying. It is both too easy and undertuned on 10 man, so there.

In the spirit of positive thinking, I’m listing some things that I like about the current raid instance. There will be another matching post about things I do hate, it will be rather longer.

All Takes Place in One Room

The Coliseum raid is set up like an arena. Players stand in the arena, and a succession of raid bosses get shoved in through the front gate for our killing pleasure. Unfortunately the Coliseum does not feature any of the really good parts of an arena such as being able to place side bets on the bosses, or gouts of blood and people sustaining really horrific injuries.

I don’t find the single room, bosses-come-to-you model to be an issue. It’s a change of pace, and makes the place rather dull from an exploration point of view, but one slightly different raid setup in an expansion isn’t worth fussing about. It also means that there is an explanation for why the raid bosses are turning up, rather than having them all standing around in rooms on their own waiting for us. Granted, it is a fucking stupid explanation (so, the Argent Tournament chaps collected all these really tough raid bosses and decided to make a three ring circus out of things…) but I’ll take my ongoing narrative as I can get it.

I realise that epic storytelling is not what one needs expect of raid instances but we can do better than “You enter a 10’x10’ room. A raid boss is standing in the middle of it.” Blizzard is trying to do this better I think – Ulduar does have explanations for the placement of many of the bosses at least  — but it’s a constant struggle. As I say, at least the Coliseum framework provides a kind of explanation.

I also like that we can see some of the bosses outside, either tethered around the tournament area or in cut scenes as they are captured. It is in fact quite a neat way to let non-raiders (if there are any left) get a sight of the raid bosses, dull as they may be.

And then the floor fell in

I am an absolute sucker for having the environment change around us as a result of things we have done (even if ‘things we have done’ just means setting off the next boss encounter). Call me shallow but I like it when the floor caves in and everyone goes tumbling down into the depths. Collapsing floors were the saving grace of the Malygos encounter and they entertain me here as well.

Anub’Arak

The last fight in the raid instance is rather more interesting than the rest. It features a few interesting twists on old mechanics – you have to run /into/ the patches of ice instead of away from them. We saw that mechanic used on Vezax but everything is always better when there are spikes involved, especially giant spikes that come out of the ground and try to stab people.

I also rather like the phase 3 mechanic in which healers have to try to keep the raid on about half health rather than healing everyone up to full. I think that’s a more interesting healing challenge than normal raid fights, on paper at least.

Also Anub has a really sexy voice. After having to listen to Tirion Fordring and the Lich King, both of whom have me reaching for my earplugs, I’ll settle for my velvet voiced beetle buddy. And when I say buddy, I mean undead giant beetle who is trying to kill me and my 24 closest friends due to being brainwashed by a fat necromancer.

Spikes on Tier 9

Did you know that there are three different ways to get hold of tier 9 gear at the moment? There’s the pure badge version, the 25 man normal token version, and the heroic token version. We’re all going to be in T9 whether we like it or not.

But at least it has spikes.

Easy Alt Gearing

One nice thing about the (lack of) difficulty is that it actually is easy again to put a raid together, bringing a couple of non-raiders and undergeared alts and still have everyone get something that is currently useful for them (ie. badges). I’m all for MMOs making it easy for people to play together.

This weekend I ran a raid along those lines. In some ways it was challenging to have such low dps but I also get a sense of achievement as a raid leader from being able to chivvy everyone through it in such a way that the overgeared guys don’t get too bored, the undergeared guys don’t feel overwhelmed, we don’t wipe more than once (faction champs, my fault for not having one of the healers switch to dps on the first attempt), and everyone gets something that they want – either loot or badges.

Ulduar was a bit too long and difficult to make that feasible. As a player, I did love Ulduar. As someone who wants to include non-raiding friends, Coliseum is relatively quick, easy, and accessible.

Your turn now. Say something nice about the Coliseum :)

Raid Updates, Cash Counting, Goblin Naming

I’ve never been more glad to not be a raid leader in WoW than I am right now. We’re suffering an embarrassment of riches at the moment, and there are plenty of hard modes that we could attempt, but scheduling and keeping raiders’ eyes on the ball has never been trickier.

I’m sure other raids are in this situation also.

  • You’ve cleared the Coliseum on normal mode and can sweep through it in about an hour, all being well. The loot is still good upgrades for a lot of people.
  • You cleared Onyxia last week. That’s not an issue, she wasn’t supposed to be a progression raid – they just gave her progression type loot so you don’t really want to skip her.
  • You’ve either cleared Ulduar on normal mode or still have one of the last two bosses left. In either case, in order to get to those guys you need to schedule an evening for clearing Ulduar and that probably means clearing on normal mode because if you waste too much time on wiping then you won’t get to Yogg Saron. Also most of the normal mode loot isn’t as desired as the other raids.

So on the one side you have the hard mode encounters which will involve lots of wipes. On the other hand, you have raids which still give loot that people need. And some of your progression fights are at the end of an instance that people aren’t so keen to go to any more. Plus you have limited time and some of your raiders are already bored of the Coliseum and complain about having to clear it on normal mode.

Normally (and I use that word in the widest sense), if it was me, I would let the bored guys bring alts to the normal modes, assuming they’re properly geared for it. Then they could switch to their mains for hard modes. But then you have to sort out your loot priorities (I consider it unfair to let someone take part in a raid and not allow them a share of the loot, regardless of whether it’s an alt or main), deal with everyone else who wants to bring their undergeared alt too, and still try to put together a raid that is competent to clear the instance.

For myself, I’m still enjoying the actual raids themselves. I like Ulduar and would love to go back there – but Coliseum has been good with the tank loot and I have most of the things I wanted from normal mode already. So I feel as though when it is a choice, I pick the instance which is prettier and more fun. When it isn’t a choice (ie. need gear) then I prefer to go where the gear is.

If you assume most raiders take a similar point of view, then we’re going to be in the Coliseum for awhile. And hopefully people will still remember the Ulduar fights when we get back to it. I don’t actually hate the Coliseum fights though – our raid group has been particularly good at learning the Faction Champions so even that fight is feeling more fun and less of a hassle these days.

Our initial try at the hard mode beasts was quite promising too. I may be the only person in the raid who thinks this, but I’m sure we could take them now on hard mode. It just needs everyone to be very on top of their game, and some insane healing in phase 1. (Like most raid groups, we have some insane healers so that’s probably fine.)

My Money Making Tips

Alchemy and Blacksmithing are not usually among the top money makers in trade professions. But now is THAT time. (Did I mention that my main is a blacksmith and my alt is an alchemist? Fight the expansion-tradeskill tyranny of jewelcrafting and inscription!!)

Runed orbs are coming way down in price and I’ve been able to sell a couple of Indestructible Plate Girdles, the pattern I picked up in Ulduar many moons ago. Belt buckles are also selling well – I suspect the new arena season, new belts on the triumph badge vendor, and drops in the Coliseum feed into this.

With the alchemist, note that transmuting metagems is not on a cooldown and that Onyxia drops are mostly … hats with metagem sockets. Everyone and their dog is currently killing Onyxia, and I’ve been selling metagems as fast as I can make them.

More news about Cataclysm

The hype train for Cataclysm is still going full steam ahead and this month’s PC Gamer has an interview with Blizzard about the new Cataclysm racial starting zones. wow.com sums the information up – and much as I hate overpriced PC magazines that obsess about shooters I don’t want to play, I’ll pick up a copy later to see what they missed.

As for the goblins, you start on Kezan as a pretty high level (society-wise, not game mechanics) executive, successful and rich, with a hot secretary. When Kezan begins to fall apart, you give your life savings to a Trade Prince who promises you safe passage to the mainland. Instead, he captures you and tries to sell into slavery.

If I wanted to play a goblin before, I want to play it doubly much now! So I do need to think of a name and all that jazz.

Maybe I’ll think about that while zoning through normal mode Coliseum this week!

Call of the Crusade might be a very smart patch indeed

We’re getting some more information out about the next content patch in WoW. Call of the Crusade is the name assigned to  3.2 (it probably has it’s own logo and theme tune coming soon too), and it’s currently including:

  • More dailies, rewards etc at the Argent Tournament
  • 5/10 and 25 man encounters inside the Coliseum itself.
  • New 40 vs 40 battleground

I was not initially thrilled with the Coliseum concept. It sounds as though you get to fight various raid bosses in an arena — so skip the interesting lore and location and just get straight to the meat of the fight. Since I really enjoy the fights where you have to use the environment to your advantage, I’m struggling to get excited about this.

But, what I’d forgotten is the Summer effect. All MMOs suffer a drop in activity over the Summer. We’ve already had a few people posting in our raid forums about planning lower activity and it isn’t just because they’re bored. We’re not unique, lots of other raids and guilds will be facing this also.

So … what if the Coliseum is (say it in whispers) PUGable? The hardcore guys still have their Ulduar hard modes to work on, and it looks to me as though many of those are simply inaccessible to more casual raids. They do require stacking in some cases, and a level of consistent performance that some raids will never be able to provide. I love the guys I raid with but we’re a mixed bunch.

But having a new set of raid encounters that people can hop into with a PUG — that just might keep people’s interest even if their regular raid group is struggling for numbers. Same with the new arena season and new dailies. The new battleground could potentially be lots of fun, and battlegrounds are fantastic for more casual play styles. These could all provide some content for people who for whatever reason can’t get regular 25 man raids.

We can assume that Blizzard is very familiar by now with the ebb and flow of players over the annual cycle. Maybe 3.2 is going to be the perfect Summer patch, with some light low-commitment content to keep people amused over the long summer nights…