24 Oct 2011

Looking Through The Mists

This weekend has been a firehose of information. Although I’ve never been to a BlizzCon in-person (something I hope to rectify), I’ve been glued to the internet and live streams for information. There’s nothing quite like getting the latest on a games franchise straight from the source.

Like a good meal, it takes a while for me to digest and fully appreciate all the news that emerges. Now that I’m able to sit back and reflect on the dishes presented to us, I feel I’m ready to share my opinions on each delicate morsel that appeared.

There’s a lot to go through, both good and bad. From the changing pace of Azeroth’s story to the abolition of talent trees, from missed opportunities to interesting ideas, I’ll be giving my opinions on all the major topics. Grab yourself a drink, as this may take a while.

Incredible Expanding Azeroth

The last few expansions have been incredibly intense. We’ve saved the world from the Lich King and his undead army and we’re about to save it from the Aspect of Death. What’s badly needed is a chance to relax a little and move at a calmer pace. A moment to enjoy the cherry blossom and reflect on what we’ve achieved. Mists of Pandaria is exactly this type of expansion.

In some ways it looks like a reflection of vanilla Warcraft, back when there wasn’t an Arch Nemesis lurking in some far off castle. Instead we had Villain of the Week – Ragnaros, Nefarian, C’Thun and Kel’Thuzzad. I’m really hoping that we get a return to that feeling of a simpler life, back when there wasn’t some kind of apocalypse crushing down on our spirit.

This period of calm also has a wider purpose – to provide contrast between what’s happened before and what’s going to happen in the future. Without these contrasts the story becomes repetitive and bland. Players were asking who the big bad of the expansion will be and seem disappointed when they didn’t get an answer. A change of pace doesn’t mean the story’s going downhill, just that it’s entering a different phase.

The Killing Fields

As far as dungeons and raids go, there was a bag full of interesting news. First on the chopping block were normal level 90 dungeons. I can see the point here – as soon as you’ve geared up enough they become surplus content. It makes sense for level 90 heroics to become the norm, especially if there are other ways to gear up and prepare a character at level cap.

Next under the knife were Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery. While I love old dungeons being uplifted to become new heroics they need to still feel like fun. In Cataclysm Deadmines retained a lot of the original personality, while Shadowfang Keep became almost as disliked as Grim Batol. Scarlet Monastery is being remodeled from a 4-wing dungeon to a two wing affair, giving three revamped heroic dungeons.

Added to this total are 6 new 5-man dungeons on Pandaria itself. The total of nine might feel like a slim amount, but it’s the same as we had at Cataclysm launch. Plus there’s the hope that by providing a mix of PvE scenarios and endgame questing we won’t be spending ages running normal dungeons just to gear for heroics. Anyone who got fed up of running dungeons just to get over an arbitrary gear hurdle knows how that feels.

Assuming that “Three new raids” means three new raids at launch, Blizzard will probably use the same formula that they used in Cataclysm: a couple of raids to introduce the next tier and a third in the PvP zone for pick-up-raids to bash their head against and give up after two wipes. I’m not confident this will happen, as the new Raid Finder tool makes an equivalent of Baradin Hold pretty pointless.

There’s an argument from Blizzard that only one raid dungeon per tier is fine because “there are other ways of getting loot to the players”. I reckon this is the wrong approach, mainly because only a small chunk of players raid for the loot. Having two dungeons per tier is a great way of reducing the risk of player burnout, which reduces the chance of players abandoning the game mid-expansion. Variety and choice are wonderful things.

On the subject of PvP: I don’t do it much, mainly because I am very, very bad at it. I’m glad they’re introducing new and imaginative ways for characters to butcher eachother, but I’ll leave it to Cynwise to give you the full detail.

Still Got Talent

The bullet has finally been bitten – talent trees are no more and I will not mourn their loss. While they were a great way for me to tweak my character back in vanilla, they eventually became part of a fixed-broken-fixed cycle. If I could build an engine that was powered by talent tree changes I’d solve the fuel crisis in a stroke.

Towards the end of vanilla there emerged the concept of the “right” spec. Cookie cutter builds soon followed as players started crunching numbers. Tools emerged to chart player damage, and as information poured in the optimisations dripped out.  Since the start of Burning Crusade I’ve been pouring over forums, looking up the calculations and fine tuning my characters.

I’ve often held the belief that any game mechanic that requires extensive use of third party sites in order to work out the best way to play is not a good mechanic. Since the start of Burning Crusade I’ve felt this way about talent spec optimisation. I currently have the same opinion of Mastery and Reforging. The fact that there are some great sites out there to help with this is immaterial – I shouldn’t need to go somewhere else to work out the right answer.

That said, there are some downsides to the change. Eric over at Elder Game puts it better than me when he says that moving away from this level of customisation distances us from our characters. We’re not having to make as many choices as often as we used to, so we don’t feel as invested.

I really think that the changes will make balancing easier, but I also hope that this is it. Messing around with the trees has become perennial and needs to stop. Let’s draw a line under it and let Ghostcrawler find a different way to nerf paladins.

Extra Added Value

Confession time: I honestly felt that there were two ways that an MMO would go: subscription based when times are good and freemium-based when times get leaner. In one easy swoop Blizzard’s shown that there’s a third option: the Annual Pass.

In return for signing up for 12 months of Warcraft, we’re being given a free copy of Diablo 3 and guaranteed access to the Mists of Pandaria beta. For lifelong veterans like myself it’s a no-brainer, but it’s also going to be interesting to see how this evolves. I’d like to see the Annual Pass morph into a Blue Pass, where I commit to a 12-month plan and get rewarded in return. Things like a unified Warcraft-Titan subscription deal, early Blizzcon ticket access and more would all be fantastic incentives to me.

Land of (Missed) Opportunity

Just as there are some things that Blizzard has absolutely spot on, there’s also a whole pile of stuff seeping through the cracks. This is the soft, vulnerable underbelly of Blizzard’s latest set of games and are all things that they need to seriously consider addressing.

The first and possibly most obvious one is about the new Pet Battle System. While I think this feature is going to end up like Path of the Titans and the Dance Studio, it also represents an opportunity for Blizzard to take Warcraft beyond just being a desktop game.

The Pet Battle System is a way for players to use their collection of vanity pets in new ways. Central to this is a turn-based duelling system, where player pets can fight each other in small combat arenas. There’s also a levelling and training system, a way to accumulate more pets and so on.

Minigames like these are just ripe for providing outside of Warcraft as well as in-game. Imagine being able to challenge your friends on Google+ or Facebook to a pet fight instead of scrabble. Meet up for lunch and pull out your iPhones and have a battle there and then, without the need for logging in at home. You could even find a battle wherever you are, as turn based combat stands up to network fluctuations much better than realtime. It’s an idea so obvious it’s begging to be made.

Pets aside, it also feels like there’s no sharing of ideas at every level of Blizzard. Someone really needs to get the game engine coders and developers to have lunch together more often, because from what I saw at Blizzcon they’re living in very pigeon-holed environments. Let me show you what I mean.

The first example is Starcraft 2, which supports some great features to help promote PvP. Spectator Mode and recorded replays have helped to propel Starcraft 2 into the top tier of eSports, arguably eclipsing the success of the original. Yet these two great features are still not present in Warcraft and are unlikely to appear in Diablo 3. When you’ve already worked out how to make these things work, why not share the love with all your games?

The other area is in web APIs. The Web and Mobile team have released a bucketload of interfaces for third party tools like the Undermine Journal and Ask Mr Robot to just plug in and mine Warcraft for information. The impact these tools have on the community is huge. Gear optimisation is no longer a dark art, it’s a three click process.

When the Real Money Auction House was announced for Diablo 3, the top Warcraft auction strategists took notice. The existing gold-making community is huge, with all of them looking at this new game with keen interest. Yet where’s the API to support tools that might encourage this new market? “No plans”.

Once you’ve developed something for one game your fans will start expecting it from all of them. Introduce some consistency, save yourself some time and start sharing the love between your teams on how to solve these problems. We’ll thank you for it.

Obscured By Mist

Almost as important as what was shared by Blizzard is what they decided to leave out. The lack of a “final boss” meant that the discussion was focused on the start of the expansion and not how it will eventually end. While it’s a great move, it means that we’re only seeing the opening pages of this chapter. Later content patches are likely to have much more of a storytelling effect than we’re used to.

There’s also a whole heap of unanswered questions left from the weekend. What causes players to end up shipwrecked on the shores of Pandaria? Where will the later raids take place? What’s responsible for creating the Sha?

While it’s impressive that we saw as much as we did at this point in an expansion’s lifecycle, it’s worth remembering that we only saw a small fragment of what’s to come. What I’m hoping is that the full extent of the story isn’t revealed until the content patches start arriving later in the expansion.

A Balance To All Things

While this year’s Blizzcon wasn’t packed with edge-of-your-seat excitement, I’m still left feeling positive despite the cumulative cynicism of nearly seven years of playing. Warcraft has undergone a lot of changes in that time and it’s easy to become jaded and bitter with the franchise. Sometimes we need to remember to kick back, relax and have fun.

That doesn’t mean I’m happy with everything in Blizzard-land. The inconsistency of implementation between franchises really annoys me, while the lack of web and mobile vision is frustrating. There are so many opportunities to be had, yet it feels like Blizzard just aren’t interested in them.

Remember though, the Pandaran journey has only just started. The final shape of the expansion, what content gets cut and what gets added in is all subject to change. The only thing set in stone is the name. Don’t wed yourself to anything revealed during the weekend, as it could all change in a heartbeat.

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