30 September 2013

A Non-statistical Argument for "Stat Squish"

So I was running around on the Timeless Isle and I was once again struck by what remains for me the primary reason why World of Warcraft needs a "stat squish."  Now this is an issue that Blizzard has "danced around" for several years now.  There were rumblings about it before Cataclysm launched, but it took a backseat to the old-world revamp and other features.  There were more rumblings about it before Mists of Pandaria, but again Blizzard decided not to pull the trigger, more than likely because of the massive overhaul to the talent system that came with that expansion.  Now as we near BlizzCon and the (hopefully) inevitable unveiling of the next expansion, the rumblings have begun again.  This time Ghostcrawler is all but promising the "squish" saying that WoW's combat engine is reaching its limits in terms of the current gear inflation and associated statistics.  It is at the point where either a total rewrite of the combat code will be required, or a "stat squish." 

While there are arguments against such a "squish," and such a thing will definitely have to be applied carefully, I am fully in favor of it, and in fact even before the next expansion's theme is even announced, it is already a factor in my decision to continue playing the game.  The "numbers" associated with WoW's combat are simply becoming ridiculous.  And I know, our inner epeen absolutely loves those crazy million damage crits we can get with some bizarre combination of buffs or specific boss mechanics, but for me it is passing the point of enjoyable and just becoming silly.  The main reason really has little to do with the numbers themselves, but more about how I interact with the game world itself.  As a long time player, as someone who raided Molten Core when it was "cutting edge" content, the fact that I am now butchering sea turtles with MORE hit points than the manifestation of Ragnaros had........... "breaks" the game world for me.

Now don't misunderstand, I fully realize the need for game mechanics to trump things like lore, continuity, and internal consistency.  I know that intuitively, the game is not trying to tell me that a sea turtle is more powerful than a fire god.  But at the same time, that is how it feels.  And if you've been reading my posts for very long, you know that "feel" is something that is very important to me.  A game just has to "feel" right in order for me to get the most enjoyment out of it.  In almost every way, WoW nails this "feeling" for me.  But this is one of the few ways it falls short.  The rampant gear inflation that has taken place since the later stages of Wrath of the Lich King and continuing to the present has turned the game into an avalanche of exponentially increasing numbers without any increase in satisfaction.  It is a system driven purely BY the numbers for the sake of the numbers.  And again, I understand that is a consequence of a "gear treadmill" type of game that WoW is, but even that can be "tamed" to a degree, and that is what the "stat squish" will do.

I won't feel any less powerful when my attacks hit for 1000 damage as opposed to 100,000 damage.  The size of the numbers don't really mean anything to me.  But the game world itself will "feel" a little more consistent to me.  Items won't have thousands of stat points.  Monsters won't have millions of hit points.  And to me, that is all worthwhile.  I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me and have become accustomed to the massive stat values and huge damage numbers.  I know that for many of those people a "stat squish" is going to feel like a "nerf."  And in their defense, if Blizzard does not apply the "squish" properly, it certainly could turn out to be a nerf.  But considering this is something Blizzard has been studying internally for several years now, I am fairly confident that when the time comes to apply it, it will be done in such a way as to not actually change the relative power curve, just the numbers behind that curve.  I also trust Blizzard to know that if they do it wrong it will piss off a lot of people, and they need the WoW "cash cow" to continue for at least a couple more years.  It is definitely in their best interest to get it right the first time.

So regardless of what new frontier we go trekking off to in the next expansion, so long as Blizzard follows through this time and does the "stat squish" as planned, I'll be along for the ride.  I really think it will be a good thing for the game in the long term, and even those who are uncomfortable about it at first will probably "come around" when they realize that it will actually simplify things to a degree.  And then Rag can go back to being more powerful than a sea turtle....

23 September 2013

More Playing = Less Writing

I find it somewhat ironic (and frustrating) that the more time I spend playing games, the less time I have to write about them, but there are more things I want to say.  It shouldn't be a surprise though.  There are only so many hours in the day (especially the kind of "free" hours that permit such activities) so you just have to do the best with what you have.  Lately I've been spending most of my time back in World of Warcraft.  I haven't been doing much with Hearthstone because I've pretty much discovered everything I "need" to know about it at this point.  It's quick, it's fun, it's casual, and I'll be pitching a few dimes at it here and there.  But with a full wipe still on the horizon, I really don't feel any need to continue to play it at this point, knowing that everything will be reset.  It just doesn't feel like an effective use of my time to "sink" more into it right now.  And as we just talked about, time is certainly of the essence these days.  So I thought I would share some observations I've had about WoW and the 5.4 patch.  There are spoilers below if you're one of the two or three people that is still trying to avoid discovering who the new Warchief of the Horde is until you finish Siege of Orgrimmar for yourself... so fair warning.

A Timeless Experiment

First off, the Timeless Isle.  It does a couple things that are necessary, albeit in a rather clumsy fashion.  The first is that it feels like a "test" on Blizzard's part in terms of attempting to implement more "dynamic" open-world content.  Now how we define "dynamic" is open to interpretation as many MMO's have their own spin on the term.  But regardless, Timeless Isle is Blizzard's first real attempt at designing a zone with very few directed activities or quests and a much more "open" event structure.  The biggest problem is that it is just too small of an implementation.  The Isle is very small, and the events are too few.  Granted part of the problem is that it is so new and there are so many players involved, that the time scale of events is probably not exactly what Blizzard had in mind.  But the fact remains that it is very difficult to participate in a lot of events if you aren't actively "camping" them and waiting for them to begin.  If you are off on your own somewhere and waiting for a notification, odds are the event will be long over before you can arrive, even given the Isle's small geographical space.  So I'll give Blizzard a "thumbs up" for trying, and maybe we'll see more of this type of activity in the next expansion, but for now it is really too small of an experiment to be effective.

The other thing the Isle does is assist in very rapid gear progression for alt characters (or in my case, inactive mains).  Of course this always brings up the inevitable debate about the effort required to obtain items, "dumbing down" the game, etc.  But I'm going to leave that issue aside because quite frankly, it isn't really relevant to WoW (or any other themepark style MMO).  The fact is if you are going to design "rides" for your guests, you have to give them a way to access them.  WoW has decided to follow a model where significant story events and other pieces of content are only accessible through raids.  Well if that is the case, things like "free epics" on the Timeless Isle (or LFR itself for that matter) become a necessity.  We can debate whether or not that overall design decision is a good one or not, but for better or worse that was the decision that was made, so we get things like Timeless Isle. 

The problem I have with this aspect of the Isle is there is no real way to take random chance out of the equation, even at higher cost.  My shaman has enough timeless belts and boots to open her own accessory boutique, but can't find a set of spaulders.  My death knight has enough timeless pants and shirts to open his own Hot Topic, but can't find a set of gloves.  Now for 7500 coins you can buy a timeless token of a specific armor type....... but totally random slot.  Essentially there is no way to get a specific token for both an armor type and slot.  I know we are already getting a lot of stuff basically for "free" here, but I really think Blizzard should have included a way to obtain specific tokens, even at a much higher cost.  I'd be more inclined to "grind" more coins if I knew that, for example, I could buy a timeless plate glove for 20k.  There should always be a way to reduce the "random" nature of things, even at extreme cost.  It gives the player a bit more sense of control, and a feeling that "eventually" they can earn what they want.

Too Obvious?

The other significant part of 5.4 I wanted to talk about is the leadership of the Horde.  I really hope they have something more in the works here, because passing the title to Vol'jin just feels lazy to me.  Sometimes the obvious choice is the good one, and sometimes it's not.  Right now this feels like a "not" situation to me.  It feels like they just took the quick and easy way out and they really don't have a sense of direction for the Horde right now.  Of course I could be totally wrong and they already have a plan in place to make the transition to Vol'jin a more interesting event.  And if that is the case, then the decision makes more sense.  But right now it just feels like "Oh snap, we gotta do something.  Umm... here, Vol'jin.  You lead for a while until we figure things out." 

One way this might make more sense is if Blizzard intends to "de-escalate" the Horde/Alliance conflict for a while in favor of a new storyline in the next expansion.  Varian seems willing to "walk away" at this point with Garrosh being dealt with, and Vol'jin is certainly in no position to lead the Horde on any offensive campaigns at this juncture.  But the problem with this is that Blizzard has clearly sown the seeds of dissent within each of the factions.  Sylvanas and the Forsaken are becoming stronger and more aggressive, and her position is actually strengthened further by the removal of Garrosh.  She probably controls the strongest military faction in the Horde right now with the Orcs and the Kor'kron decimated.  And on the Alliance side of the equation, Jaina and the Kirin Tor have no love for the Horde whatsoever.  She already pushed Varian to continue the campaign after the defeat of Garrosh.  Why would she all the sudden be content with a new peace?  These are issues Blizzard will have to resolve in the interim between now and the next expansion if that expansion is going to open a new storyline and leave the Horde/Alliance tensions behind.

In terms of what that expansion will be, we will almost certainly find out at BlizzCon in a couple months.  The defeat of Garrosh already brings about the "end" of the Mists of Pandaria storyline, at least insofar as Blizzard has revealed it.  If you think back to Burning Crusade, remember that the whole final patch with the Sunwell raid and the Isle of Quel'danas was basically an "Oops, the next expansion isn't ready yet.  Here, play with this."  With Mists ending so abruptly, and no real time frame on the next expansion available, we may see a similar scenario play out here.  This actually could work out nicely as a way to "tie up" things with Sylvanas and Jaina as noted above... or it could do what the Sunwell did in BC and completely invalidate most of that expansion's storyline.  We shall see.

09 September 2013

Warcraft Casting Stage: Warchief Auditions

With patch 5.4 and the Siege of Orgrimmar on the horizon, the popular past time amongst World of Warcraft bloggers with an interest in lore has been to speculate about who will replace the soon to be killed Garrosh Hellscream as the leader of the Horde.  The usual suspects include all of the other faction leaders and there are good points to be made for and against each.  Vol'jin seems to be the most popular choice although it is far from a consensus pick.  Arguments have all been made for Sylvannas, Lor'themar, and even Baine Bloodhoof.  I haven't seen anyone suggest Gallywix yet, but that would certainly be amusing.  Needless to say there is quite a lot of interest among players in terms of who will be the next Warchief.  So with that in mind I thought I would indulge in a little speculation of my own and throw out my pick.  (Disclaimer:  As I basically "sat out" Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria to a degree, it is entirely possible I overlooked something in the recent lore that totally invalidates this pick.  I did search through WoWWiki and other sources to see if I missed anything.  So... this might all be meaningless.  If so, please let me know in the comments what I overlooked.

The Usual Suspect

So my pick is really something of a "dark horse," but it comes down to some well-reasoned logic in my mind.  First, I think the new Warchief has to be an Orc.  Regardless of Garrosh's misdeeds and the large number of Orcs who followed him, the Orcs remain the largest and most powerful military force within the Horde overall.  And again regardless of Garrosh's actions, I do not see the remainder of the Orcs agreeing to follow a non-Orc Warchief, even if it were a respected veteran like Vol'jin.  And I certainly cannot see them following a corpse (Sylvannas) or an elf (Lor'themar) or a child (Baine).  So that pretty much disqualifies all the other racial faction leaders within the Horde.  If the new Warchief has to be an Orc, then of course the first place to turn would be to a former Warchief, the shaman Thrall.

Right off the bat, I don't think Thrall would accept the position even if it were offered to him.  It doesn't seem to fit where his character is right now.  Yes he did attempt to set things right on his own and correct his mistake by confronting Garrosh, but I don't see him returning to the primary leadership position within the Horde.  I think he is more focused on the shamanistic aspects of his character right now (not to mention his child).  Now if the new Warchief wanted him as an adviser of sorts, I could certainly see Thrall agreeing to give his wisdom and support in that fashion, but a return to the Warchief's throne just doesn't seem to fit with where Thrall's character is right now.  In addition to that, he may view his initial decision to put Garrosh in charge as "proof" that he is no longer suitable to lead the Horde as a whole.  If he could make such a bad decision, then he should not be the leader.  So if Thrall doesn't want the job and all the other Horde faction leaders are unsuitable for various reasons, who does that leave?

The Man for the Job

Varok Saurfang is an almost perfect choice in my mind.  I don't think there is an Orc left alive that has "been there, done that, got the t-shirt" more than Saurfang.  He was with Grom Hellscream and drank the blood of Mannoroth.  He razed the cities of the Draenei.  He marched through the Dark Portal.  He fought at Blackrock Mountain.  He suffered in the internment camps.  He helped Thrall assemble the new Horde.  He led the assault against Ahn'Qiraj.  He fought in Northrend.  He carried the corpse of his son from the ramparts of Icecrown Citadel.  You name it, he's done it.  He has seen the depths that the Orcs can sink to.  He has seen the heights they can ascend to.  No other Orc that I can think of has the depth of experience, wisdom, and tenacity of Saurfang.  Not only would he command the respect of the Orcs themselves, but he has the experience and battlefield clout to command the respect of the other factions within the Horde itself.  I can't think of many others right now that would stand toe-to-toe with Sylvannas and try to keep her in her place.

Would Saurfang take the job?  That's somewhat unclear.  As near as I can tell, Saurfang has basically "sat things out" since the conclusion of the Northrend campaign.  I haven't seen any major references to him or any activities on his part in either Cataclysm or Mists of Pandaria.  While I cannot imagine that he would have supported Garrosh in any way, I think this can be interpreted as Varok simply isolating himself in Northrend and mourning his son's death.  Now again as I noted in my disclaimer it is entirely possible I overlooked something here and Saurfang has had some role in what has happened since the death of the Lich King.  But since I couldn't find anything to that effect, my whole argument basically rests on the assumption that he has kept to himself in Northrend while events in Pandaria have played themselves out.  I think his sense of honor and responsibility would carry the day and if he were approached with the offer of leadership, he would accept it in an effort to serve the Orcish people.

One of the "myths" about WoW these days is that it has become a "lobby game" where one just queues up for various activities and never really ventures outside the major cities, both while leveling and at the level cap.  This is something I have talked about myself here before.  Well, now that I am back in the game for a while, I thought that while I am enjoying the new Siege of Orgrimmar content that I could also run a bit of an "experiment" on the side.  Is is really feasible to level a character entirely through queued activities like dungeons and battlegrounds?  Or would you still be better off out questing in the broader game world?  So I rolled a brand new character and my intention is to level him entirely "through the queue," using only dungeons and battlegrounds.  Obviously I'll have to do a few quests here and there to get to the minimum level to use those features, but my goal is to not quest at all once I can do so.  And to really test the theory, I rolled a pure DPS character, a mage.  No quick queue times by playing as a tank or healer for this guy.  So in the end we'll see if this is truly a better leveling path, or if it is just a "myth" propagated by those who dislike how Blizzard has implemented features like LFD.

02 September 2013

Relationship Status = It's Complicated

So first off a little bit of "business."  I've finally decided what I want to do with the blog moving forward.  My life gets busier by the day (baby #3 arriving within a month) but I don't want to abandon the idea of a blog because dangit, sometimes I just really have something to get off my chest!  Bottom line is I'll probably only be posting here once a week.  I am planning to do it on Monday's, but of course that is always subject to life's little entanglements.  I also can't promise it will always be about MMO's.  I find myself playing MMO's less and less these days.  But I'm not going to rename the blog again just because I can't seem to make up my mind about what I want to play.  I think the concept itself still fits.  I'd like to be playing MMO's, but it just doesn't seem to be in the cards lately, so instead I wander from place to place as the mood suits me.  That having been said, my recent wanderings have brought me back to some old familiar territory.

What was Old is New Again

If you've read my articles on Utopian Chaos (and I hope you have!) you'd know that they were kind enough to facilitate my entry into the Hearthstone beta test.  I won't rehash my impressions of the game here because that isn't really what this post is about.  But needless to say I really enjoy the game in short "bursts" and the game really drove home a point to me about Blizzard as a company, and that is really what this post is about.  Playing Hearthstone has reacquainted me with many of the reasons that Blizzard is so successful regardless of perceived missteps or decisions that many gamers may not agree with.  Hearthstone is a simple game, so much so that it already has attracted a fair degree of criticism from more "hardcore" players who want a more complex experience.  But those players should know by now, that is not what Blizzard is about.  They don't make the most complicated games, or the most mentally taxing games.  They make the most fun and polished games.  And they do it very well.

In order to play the Hearthstone beta, you have to use the new Battle.net launcher, which is itself still in beta and not yet required for players of Blizzard's other games, although I think anyone with a B.net account can download and try it.  So having the launcher I could see my currently inactive World of Warcraft account as well as potentially download the "starter versions" of Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3.  I'm already interested in the Siege of Orgrimmar and have been planning a brief return to Azeroth to see how that plays out (more on that later) so I used the launcher to update my WoW client and also to download the starter version of D3.  Now I'm not sure if this is something Blizzard had in mind when designing the B.net launcher (maybe it was) but I never would have really given D3 a second thought if I couldn't have tried it out for free.  But I did, and after just a couple hours with it, it too reinforced the point that Hearthstone had already made.  Blizzard just makes amazingly fun and polished games.

Dungeon crawlers like D3 aren't my preferred genre of game, but they are good for a quick romp and lots of satisfying death and destruction.  I really enjoyed Torchlight 2 (especially it's much more friendly $20 price point) but after just a brief amount of time with D3 it is obvious where it really puts TL2 to shame.  Now don't get me wrong, TL2 is still a fine game and in many ways is actually "more like Diablo" than D3 itself.  But at the same time, D3 is a much better game in many ways.  Everything about it just oozes with charm, refinement, polish, attention to detail... all the things that Blizzard has become known for providing in its games.  Again this is not to say that TL2 is "sloppy," it isn't.  But when you put the two side by side, the shortcomings in TL2 become glaringly obvious.  And for all the criticism for D3's loot distribution, frankly I found TL2 just as frustrating in this regard.  I can't tell you how many high level drops I couldn't use because the stats were wrong, it was class restricted, or even just didn't fit my current character due to my chosen talent distribution.  So D3 hardly "cornered the market" on the itemization problem.

Put Aside Logic, Do what Feels Right

But the result of all this has been to really drive home my "love/hate" relationship with Blizzard in general.  I haven't really "agreed" with anything they have done as a company since the Cataclysm expansion for WoW.  I absolutely hated that expansion.  I absolutely hated their decision to split Starcraft 2 into three separate games.  And I absolutely hated the inclusion of the real-money auction house in D3.  Basically every major decision involving their three main franchises over the last few years has pissed me off.  After playing Hearthstone and D3 though, I am forced to acknowledge that while I may not like the decisions Blizzard has made, I do still like their games.  Hearthstone has the potential to be their Candy Crush or Angry Birds.  It is just that fun to play and has that "pick up and play" feel that will really appeal to casual gamers.  I can easily see people lining up for the Arena over and over again and buying pack after pack for the chance to crack that Onyxia they really want for their deck.  (Or for the dust to simply craft it.  The ability to craft any specific card is a genius decision in my opinion, and something that any card game without player trading needs to consider).

Which brings me full circle back to World of Warcraft.  I've gone through phases where I have irrationally loved the game, and phases where I've irrationally hated it.  But in all my wanderings one thing has remained true, it is simply the best game at what it does.  The most important aspect of a game to me is that is just has to be fun to play.  You've heard me talk about this a lot here.  A game just has to "feel" right.  WoW does this in a way that no other game I've played can match, and it is just a testament to Blizzard's ability to refine games in a way that other developers try to emulate but can't.  Call it "feel," call it "polish," call it the "it factor," whatever you want.  The bottom line is that WoW has IT and most other games simply do not.  Which is why when patch 5.4 drops, I will once again return to the world of Azeroth to see what Blizzard has in store for us this time around.

Basically I'm not going to let my animosity towards Blizzard for some of their choices I didn't like stop me from playing the games that I do like.  It's silly to hate on WoW just because it is popular, or choose not to play a game just because you don't like a certain aspect of it.  For example if I were to ever buy D3, I'd never touch the RMAH.  As far as I would be concerned, it simply wouldn't exist and I would play the game as if it were not even there.  And in WoW... well let's just say I try and pretend that any content associated with Cataclysm doesn't exist.  I did actually like the old-world revamp.  I just absolutely can't stand any of the 80-85 and associated content.  If Blizzard were to put a token in their upcoming WoW item shop that said "Level your character automatically from 80 to 85," I would buy it.

So quick question, who out there is struggling with Final Fantasy XIV right now?  I have to admit this game wasn't even really on my radar until I saw the folks at Utopian Chaos going ga-ga over it.  For me Final Fantasy has been crap ever since #10.  And I'd like to take a look at it, but you can't even buy it right now!  So any opinions on it?  Interesting at all for a guy who prefers WoW-style MMO's?