Anachrony

2010-04-06

On Reformation

Filed under: Reflections — Tags: , , , — halbyrd @ 11:53

A while back, I made a rather lengthy post about why I was fed up with World of Warcraft. Since then, Blizzard has announced the next expansion, Cataclysm. Rather than being more of the same, however, Blizzard is using this expansion to address many of the problems I had with WoW in a way they’ve never tried: by giving the game a complete overhaul.

The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, while they added significant chunks of content–new zones, new races, new dungeons, and even a new class–were basically patches on the same old game. Changes both major and minor happened to class mechanics on a regular basis, but the core nature of the game has not changed much. The new content zones are where much of the realm’s population resides, and everywhere else is a howling wasteland, devoid of any human presence. Home faction capitals have a small presence, but the population there is fleeting, only there long enough to finish whatever business they have in the Auction House.

Cataclysm is set to change that paradigm, however. Certain things that are expected of an expansion will still be there: the level cap will be raised, new zones will be introduced, new raid dungeons opened up, and everybody will have a new set of loot to chase after. As with The Burning Crusade, two new races will be introduced, one each for Horde and Alliance players, with their respective starting zones. Every class will get a few new abilities, and the number of available talent points will go up. The graphics engine will receive another update, adding a new layer of spit & polish to the proceedings. So far, no major surprises.

Here’s where things start getting screwy, though: the new content isn’t going to be limited to the new zones. This time around, the two major continents of the original game, Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, are getting remade top to bottom. The events of the eponymous cataclysm will serve to literally reshape the land, with old zones taking on a new complexion. New quest lines are being written for every zone, and the type of questing is shifting increasingly toward story-focused tasks. Largely gone are the old standbys of FedEx (take x to y) and bounty (kill x number of y monsters for lazy sod z), except in early levels where their simplicity allows new players to get used to their class mechanics. With two new continents’ worth of stuff to explore and do, getting around is going to be a lengthy proposition. Towards that end, Blizzard is finally implementing a long-asked-for feature: support for flying mounts in “old world” Azeroth.

Perhaps more significant even than the mass of new content are the changes to core gameplay mechanics. Aside from the usual slew of balance tweaks, the way abilities are learned and used is being changed. Previously, each ability was improved by purchasing successively more powerful ranks from the class trainer. Now, the abilities will scale with level and associated core stats, with new abilities being added where needed to further flesh out each class’ repertoire. On the subject of stats, many secondary stats on gear are being merged or eliminated, with their function being rolled into core stats where appropriate. Spell-slinging damage dealers will care about Intellect for more than their raw mana pool, healers will care about spirit for mana regeneration–yes, even Healadins. Hunters won’t care about Intellect anymore, as they’re being moved to an energy-based system that better fits their class mechanics–and incidentally allows Blizzard to put some sanity checks on their damage scaling, so they won’t be ping-ponging between impotence and infinite godlike power.

Another significant pair of changes involve talent specialization, and the very process of leveling up. The idea of glyphs to “customize” your spec was well received in Wrath, and is being expanded into the Path of the Titans. The idea here is that you will progress through the final five levels through a gated series of quests, rather than through simple XP grind, and get a chance to pick out glyphs that compliment your intended build along the way. Many of the “boring-but-essential” talents, such as those that boost damage or critical strike chance, are getting moved either here, or getting rolled into specialization mastery bonuses. In effect, such bonuses become perks handed to you for investing a certain number of points in a given talent tree. The Mastery stat, which is replacing a lot of secondary stats on gear, is designed to complement this, further boosting the potency of your spec bonuses.

They’re being rather more tight-lipped about how things are going to work over on the PvP end of things, but one presumes that area of the game is getting similar attention. My not-so-secret hope is that they will finally implement the dual-system ability mechanics the game has needed for so long. As my previous post complained, it’s nearly impossible to get the one set of ability mechanics balanced so that changes to the PvE end won’t unbalance PvP, and vice-versa. Better by far to formally acknowledge the split, and set things up so that abilities have different behavior when in world PvP zones, Battlegrounds or Arenas. This leaves random in-world PvP a bit hard up, but that stopped being interesting to anybody but gankers and griefers years ago.

Time will tell if all this pans out, naturally, but the effort is laudable. They’ve managed to rekindle genuine interest in a game I’ve been following only diffidently, and one that’s quite aged as well. Here’s hoping that Blizzard’s grand experiment pans out.

2009-07-17

From WoW to meh.

Filed under: Rants — Tags: , , , , — halbyrd @ 03:51

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I’ve been playing World of Warcraft since around patch 2.2, or August 2007 for those keeping score at home.  That makes it just a month shy of two years.  I’m not going to be sticking around for the anniversary, though.

It’s nothing to do with the usual complaints–that it’s a time sink, that much of the combat is repetitive, et cetera.  Grind is a central part of what makes a MMORPG what it is, and I have no particular problem with that.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but most of life is about doing the same things again and again.  WoW at least has the decency to reward me for my perserverance.

No, my problem with WoW centers around player skill.  People have held that in this game, life really begins when you hit the level cap.  From this perspective, the process of going from lv. 1 chicken chaser to lv. 60 70 80 badass is, in essence, an extended and extremely forgiving tutorial.  You have time to mess about, learn the mechanics, and see some interesting scenery along the way.  This is fine and good–in fact, I think more games outside of the MMO scene could stand to take a lesson or two from this model.

Once you’ve climbed that mountain, though, what’s there to greet you?  If life begins at 80, what does this life entail?  The answer, in WoW’s case is: not much.  You can go the hardcore PvP route, ganking noobs for fun, sharpening your skills in battlegrounds, and competing “for realz” in the arenas.  This tends to fall flat, for the simple reason that WoW was not designed around this kind of competitive play.  PvP has been shoehorned in after the fact to appease the griefer contingent, but it’s ultimately a distraction from WoW’s true focus: Raiding.

Before Arenas, before Tournament realms, before moneyhat-driven dreams of eSports fame, and even before Battlegrounds, WoW was all about Raiding.  Getting a bunch of people together, finding some godsforsaken castle or cavern, and running from one end of it to the other, with nothing but the entire population of Murder City between you and glory.  With potent magic, huge phallic swords, and ridiculously proportioned shoulderpads, it’s all designed to feed our inner Viking.

Scratch the surface a bit, though, and you begin to see why the Viking lifestyle doesn’t hold up long-term.  Coordination SNAFUs turn your engine of destruction into a tangled scrap-heap faster than you can yell “LEEEEEROY JENKINNNNNS!”.  Underperforming damage-dealers turn even routine pulls into a molasses-filed quagmire.  Inattentive healers let the raid crumble around them while they admire the scenery.  Clueless tanks soldier on, bashing away ineffectually at the boss while his minions tear through the squishies behind like a chainsaw through butter.

To a certain extent, this is expected.  Dungeon running is about teamwork, right?  Yes, but there comes a point at which it all becomes too much.  Sometimes, the game just throws too much at you at once, too hard and too fast for any but the most Borg-like raids to cope with.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Sunwell Plateau. This was WoW at its most brutal.  Wiping on the first trash pull was commonplace, even after everybody knew what they were doing. The vast majority of raiders never made it to Kalecgos, never mind all the way to Kil’jaeden. Guilds that made it through everything the game had thrown at them to date shattered on this dungeon.

Was it because of poor teamwork?  Insufficient preparation?  Simple inattentiveness?

No. It was because the game mechanics themselves made it all but impossible to proceed.  The tension between PvE and PvP game mechanics has been a problem in WoW ever since battlegrounds got added in 1.4.  It wasn’t until the addition of Arena combat in 2.0 that this became a real problem, however.  From that point onwards, the game designers have been pulled in two conflicting directions: the desire to avoid overpowered talents/abilities/gear for PvP balance, and the desire to boost threat/damage/healing for PvE viability.

This resulted in player classes that simply couldn’t participate in Sunwell raids, because they were carrying the PvP millstone around their necks in a dungeon that consisted of Olympic-level sprints.  Your best raid healers are Druids?  Too bad, only Shamen are allowed, because Chain Heal is required to keep up with the punishing damage auras and area-effect spells.  Want to bring some Mages or elemental-spec Shamen for damage-dealing?  Too bad, you won’t finish the DPS race alive unless you stack Shadow Priests and Warlocks, due to ridiculously short enrage timers.  Want to bring a Paladin who isn’t a tank?  Too bad, you’re SOL for damage-dealing and healing.

Blizzard has wisely backed off on this for normal raid progression in the latest expansion, but the damage has been done.  The game now has a permanent case of Dissociative Identity Disorder.  Raids routinely fall apart because half the class/spec formulations don’t function properly in their intended roles, and the people who can fill the roles properly frequently contract a nasty case of Real Life Problems.

The practical upshot of this is that you can routinely find yourself failing and having  to start over because the game itself is getting in the way of playing it.  I ran into this problem about 3 months after I first started playing, when I first started doing end-game raiding, and it has never gone away.  I’ve stuck around for quite a while hoping it would, because Blizzard has put together an extremely compelling world in this game. Compelling or no, though, this game is fundamentally broken, and Blizzard has no real intention of fixing it.

One common definition of insanity is repeating the same actions, in the same kind of circumstances, expecting different results.  I think it’s time I stopped paying Blizzard my presubscription fees for crazy pills.

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