Friday, May 31, 2013

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 3

The Penny Arcade Adventure games have been quite enjoyable in the past. While some small-scale, indie games tied to a niche audience sometimes come up a bit flat (much as most tie-in video games, with notable exceptions like GoldenEye or a large number of Star Wars games, do,) the Penny Arcade games are actually fun, which one would hope for given that they're based on a web comic that has a profound influence on the gaming community.

The first two games were plenty of fun, with a lot of that wonderfully off-kilter Penny Arcade humor and gameplay that was simple but with enough depth and skill to require a bit of thought. But after a few years of development hell, Episode 3 finally came out with a different studio and an utterly different style.

PAA: OtRSPoD 3 is a grand homage to the JRPGs of the Super Nintendo era - a golden age of SquareSoft that gave us such epic titles as Final Fantasy VI (or III, or whatever,) Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger. This era appeals particularly to someone of my age (upper 20s) as those were the games that I was playing when I was first discovering the wonders of gaming (ok, in fairness, I actually hadn't played Chrono Trigger until college, but still.)

So for me, this is a nostalgia-fest like whoa. It features 16-bit-style graphics and turn-based combat (with a little meter at the top to show the order of when people are moving and see how speed will affect things,) but a few more modern innovations to speed up the flow (health and items reset after each battle and you gain 1 MP per turn, though you start with zero by default.)

Episode 3 looks and plays just like a Final Fantasy game of this era, and even though it may be a little on the short side, it's five bucks, and thus well worth the download. There's plenty of depth, between switching out equipment, balancing tons of abilities, and switching out the several "class pins," that you can give to each of your four party members to give them a number of new abilities. Of course, these all have the Penny Arcade sensibility to them, like the Crabomancer, which gives you various defensive spells and attacks based on your own defense level, to the Hobo, who can inflict Hoboism on your foes (which deals damage-over-time.) Like Final Fantasy classes, the class pins have their own special feels to them, and likewise, each character's permanent class (Gabe is a Brute, Tycho a Scholar, Jim, the skull in a jar, is a Necromaster, while newcomer Moira is a Gumshoe.)

So if you want to feel like a little kid again, I highly recommend checking this out. Plus: because of its primitive graphics, pretty much anyone will be able to play this without worrying about lag, even if you have a weak computer.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Legendary Chain: Secrets of the Empire and The Crown of Heaven

5.2 actually brought a ton of stuff to the Legendary chain, but even though 5.3 is already out, I have only just now gotten through the first half of 5.2's Legendary quests and attained the Crown of Heaven (in my case, a Capacitive Primal Diamond.)

Strangely, there is more to get from this leg of the quest chain, even though the main reward, comparable to the Sha-Touched Gems and Eye of the Black Prince from 5.0/5.1, is already sitting on Oterro's forehead, blasting his enemies with lightning at a very decent rate (about once every 8 seconds or so.)

But the first half of 5.2's content is fairly epic.

First off, you'll need to get exalted with the Black Prince by fighting trolls, mogu, and saurok on the Isle of Thunder. If you're doing this on a character you've been focusing on, this shouldn't be too hard, and given that IoT is still probably the best source of Lesser Charms, it's not like you'll be going out of your way.

While you work on that, you'll need to collect 20 Secrets of the Empire, which drop off of every boss in ToT, as well as 40 bars of Trillium. Thankfully, as a scribe, my DK has been stockpiling Spirits of Harmony (there's not much to spend them on with Inscription) and thus I was able to buy trillium ore from the vendor at the shrine, send it over to Jarsus for smelting, and got it over to Wrathion with ease.

The next part is where things get very interesting - far more so than the chain has been. You meet up with Wrathion at the Thunderforge (assuming your realm has unlocked it, which it probably has at this point unless your server has a super low population,) and begin a solo-scenario.

The first part of the scenario has you fending off Mogu while Wrathion charges the trillium you brought with Itoka's foundry. You get three Shado-Pan guys who will fight for you, and the foundry itself will provide little balls of lightning that buffs you and causes any heals you cast (on yourself or the Shado-Pan dudes) to damage nearby enemies for equal damage - a nice thing to make this easier on healers. (Not sure if there's anything to make this better for tanks, as one of the Shado-Pan guys taunts, but I guess I'll see it when Jarsus gets 13 more Secrets of the Empire.)

Once this is completed, you head into the forge itself (the Shado-pan guys leave) and you help Wrathion create a spear out of the trillium. A celestial/Titan blacksmith appears (Algalon-style star person) to work on the spear while you and a larger star-construct guy defend the blacksmith from the Sha. This part is pretty easy, and you can use the various anvils to damage and debuff the Sha.

Of note, the titanic protector guy will do more damage the more health he has, so healers can pour a ton of healing into him to speed up the process. (Still not clear on how they make this easier for tanks.)

Once the blacksmith is done, the final phase begins, and this part is the hardest. A big Sha shows up that attacks your protector. He has some nasty abilities, and you'll need to use the anvils to interrupt "Insanity," but each anvil can be used only once. This is definitely one of those "just stay alive" fights, but luckily the protector guy seems to bounce back if his health gets too low (I was using Gift of the Naaru on him, but obviously they can't expect, say, an undead mage to heal him.)

With the Sha defeated, the scenario is complete, and you just have one more step. You need to fight Nalak and hurl the spear at him to charge it and complete its creation.

Once you find a group for Nalak and pull him, you can toss the spear. This will summon an add that will chase you around (you'll see a golden beam pointing at you.) The add will pretty much one-shot you, so you need to kite it (I might just have to go Ret for this part on Jarsus,) but thankfully it's pretty slow and only takes a minute or so before the process is complete. With the kiting complete, you can help your raid take down Nalak and hope for some sweet 522 tier.

Returning to Wrathion, you will now get the Legendary Meta Gem, each of which (there's one for casters, tanks, physical dps including hunters, and healers) has some fairly cool, powerful procs.

Now, you'd think this is where you would begin the 5.3 chain, but you're not done. You now have to collect 12 Titan Runestones from the bosses in the Halls of Flesh-Shaping and the Pinnacle of Storms. That's where I am now.

Here's hoping that by the time 5.4 comes out I'll actually be caught up!

Titan Delayed, so how does this affect WoW?

The rumor is that Titan, Blizzard's secret project, which is supposedly a new MMO based around a new IP, has been delayed as they adapt the idea to new technology. The developers working on it have largely been reassigned to the other Blizzard properties until they are ready to scale things back to full-fledged development on the new project.

What does that mean? Well, your guess is as good as mine, though I'm willing to bet that it means that we will not be seeing Titan at this year's Blizzcon. The additional manpower for the other projects, including WoW, will have some impact, I'm sure, but what it will be? Again, who knows?

My hope is that WoW's next expansion will be HUGE, with way more dungeons and zones and quests to level up with (despite having greater choice in leveling during Mists than we did in Cata, Kun-Lai's really the only zone that doesn't feel linear.)

If I could allocate more people to work on various parts of WoW, the main thing I'd like to see is more 5-man dungeons. I think the quantity of raiding content this expansion has been great so far - tier 14 was varied and huge (the largest raid tier since tier 7, if I'm not mistaken,) and Throne of Thunder is fantastic. Blizzard claims that Siege of Orgrimmar will be comparable to Throne of Thunder in length, which means that while we still aren't quite back to the volume we got in Wrath or BC, it's far from Cataclysm's anemic raiding game.

But Mists will be the expansion to have brought in by far the least 5-man content (admittedly, I love the Scarlet Monastery and Scholomance revamps, but they are revamps in the end.) Not only are there very few dungeons this time around, but their relevance has dropped precipitously thanks to the lack of any beyond the initial expansion's patch, with no new dungeon loot to be found.

I would be thrilled if we could get Frozen Halls/Hour of Twilight-quality 5-mans with each raid. Both were fantastic sets of dungeons (ok, Hour of Twilight the dungeon, rather than the group thereof, was a little underwhelming, mainly because End Time and Well of Eternity were so good.) It would be great to see 5-mans come back as an alternative to the daily quest grind as non-raiding content that still helped you out in the long run (maybe 10-15 Lesser Charms with your day's first random heroic?) The reason they claim they can't do so many 5-mans is because of the people they would have to pull away from making raids (to which I point out 3.3, which had a ToT-sized raid as well as three new dungeons with new environments.) But if they have more people, that excuse goes away.

Anywho, with Titan getting delayed, you can bet your ass that the biggest news at Blizzcon will be WoW's fifth expansion.

And Blizzard, if you're reading this:

Put some of those people on designing the new hero class: the Demon Hunter.

(Mine will be a Worgen.)


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Karazhan: The Truly 10-Man Raid

Sometimes I forget that I've been playing WoW far longer than most people - the game's mainstream visibility was at its peak in the year or so after launch, so the fact that I joined after that has always made me feel like a "new" player, which, after four entire expansions, is a pretty silly way to feel.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that some newer players may not be aware that before Wrath of the Lich King, all raids were designed for a specific number of players. Vanilla's raid sizes were larger, with 40-man raids as the main event and 20-mans as the "smaller, intimate" ones. (Before my time, some dungeons would actually allow for up to 10 players. There was more granularity between raids and dungeons back then, though I don't think it was necessarily a good thing.)

While it caused some problems later in the expansion, due to the fact that almost all the other raids (save Zul'Aman, which was a kind of "interquel" raid, with lower quality loot than the contemporary top raid, which was then Black Temple/Mount Hyjal) were 25-mans, Karazhan served as the introductory raid for Burning Crusade.

I could have some of this wrong, so feel free to correct me, but I believe that work on Karazhan first began in Vanilla, to serve as either a dungeon or a raid, but they ultimately postponed it and brought it in at the launch of BC.

Karazhan had (and has - it's almost unchanged from its original state, save for new battle pet drops and a less impossible-to-solo Chess Event) a lot going for it. It is, as far as I know, the only raid to have an actual quest chain that runs through it, filling you in on the story of the place. Karazhan also has greatly varied environments (though the second half, when you get into the Guardian's Library, gets a little repetitive,) and a wonderful overall tone and flavor, aided by the spooky Karazhan theme. It even had the first "bonus boss," Nightbane, which required the completion of a quest chain that took you through the entire raid and even into some of the heroic dungeons.

But the thing that I find interesting about Karazhan is the way that it really felt scaled properly for a 10-man raid. The place was huge, and the climb up the tower certainly felt epic (despite the repetitiveness of the Guardian's Library section, it's hard to argue with how cool it was to look all the way down and see how far you had climbed from the Curator's Menagerie, which you should remember is itself very high above the ground floor.) Yet despite the size of the raid itself, each room felt reasonably human in scale. The lower half in particular, which feels much more like a nobleman's palatial manor house, feels like every room has a real function, and you could actually imagine someone living there.

There's certainly a place for 25-man raids. If you want to feel like an army really storming a heavily guarded fortress, having a large group feel pretty great. But there's another side to the epic coin that I think 10-mans, and particularly places like Karazhan, embody. The feeling of investigating a mystery, going into a dark and foreboding place that is almost certainly dangerous, but not in a way that is obvious.

Mogu'shan Vaults, for instance, I think feels more like a 10-man kind of raid, even though its huge spaces can easily accommodate 25. Heart of Fear, on the other hand, or Black Temple, on the other hand, are massive military assaults. Siege of Orgrimmar, I'm sure, will be huge.

But frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing more raids in the vein of Karazhan. Sure, Malchezaar kind of came out of nowhere, but with Blizzard's great steps forward in their ability to tell a story in-game, through scenarios, quest hubs, and cut-scenes, I think we could have more raids with an air of mystery that we unravel as we progress through it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hordebreaker or No, Alliance Needs Something More

I found it telling when a PTR patch went through changing the wording of a few Alliance achievements surrounding Vol'jin's rebellion. At first, Alliance players would be getting the same title: "Darkspear Revolutionary," and the achievement wording was "Aid Vol'jin in his fight against Garrosh's Kor'kron forces," or something to that effect. In a later patch, the Hordebreaker title was introduced, and the wording was changed to "Pit Vol'jin against Garrosh's Kor'kron forces," implying that there was a little more ruthlessness and a little more Alliance-central action to be taken.

But the overall structure of the Alliance quests turned out to be unchanged. You went there to help SI:7 and then piloted a robotic cat around until you met Zentabra and pretty much synched up with the Horde chain.

It's a little underwhelming, but not nearly as disappointing until you see things from the Horde side. The defense of Sen'jin, Thrall's grim announcement of going back to Orgrimmar, and the truly amazing, epic march on Razor Hill, with a whole Darkspear Army.

So the problem is this: not only does the entire patch focus on the Horde - Horde leaders, Horde internal politics, Horde territories (though this last part I'm fine with - it's exciting when quests send you where you're not supposed to be) - but the Alliance doesn't even get to see the juicy bits.

And this is just one example of a long pattern of this kind of stuff. Alliance players don't get to see what happens to Gilneas post-evacuation. Alliance players simply arrive in Twilight Highlands without seeing the battle that took place on the way there.

The promise of Mists of Pandaria was that the experiences on this new continent would change both factions in dramatic ways. The Horde is clearly falling apart, and Garrosh's decision to try to have Vol'jin assassinated is clearly the root of his downfall.

But the Alliance just. hasn't. changed. They went from unified, with shared common values like honor and justice, and have... continued to share those values.

Now, one could say that it's not Blizzard's fault. The nature of the Horde is just more compelling, with its dark and troubled past and the fact that it's all about several societies completely reinventing themselves or just plain inventing themselves (seriously - consider that, among the western Horde, not one race is living where they did fifteen years ago, and that among the eastern Horde, both races are not even called what they used to be called - High Elves became Blood Elves, Humans became Forsaken.)

But that falls squarely on the shoulders of the writers.

If the Alliance is not compelling enough for Blizzard's writers to give them something to do, then they need to make them more compelling. There's a whole lot of rich lore to delve into here, and we've had some great stuff in the past.

The Alliance has what I am going to call Superman Syndrome. Superman is a good guy, through and through. Practically his defining characteristic (after "having whatever superpower he needs at the given moment") is that he is always good. Something really weird has to happen to ever make him do anything bad. There is no selfishness, no ambition, no flaw in his character.

And that's why Superman is super boring.

The narrative of the Alliance has always put them on the good side of things. Every wrongdoing they perform is in the name of reacting to something far worse. In the Southern Barrens, they torched Camp Taurajo, but A. the commander tried to minimize civilian casualties in a justified attack on a military encampment, and B. we had just come off of seeing Krom'gar murder hundreds of school-aged druids with an enormous bomb. Taurajo pales in comparison.

Alliance plots often feel like afterthoughts. Take the new scenarios this patch: the Horde is delving into the titan facilities of the Vale and discovering the remains of an Old God, or discovering a bunch of really worrisome stuff in Ragefire Chasm. Meanwhile, the Alliance is dealing with one random Zandalari guy who's rallied the Frostmane over on Shimmer Ridge. It doesn't really tie into the plot at all, and certainly has nothing to do with Pandaria. All we get out of it is Moira, another Alliance leader, reaffirming their solidarity.

So what can we do?

If Blizzard wants to make the Alliance plot interesting for 5.4, we've got to see a few things:

- The Alliance needs to truly work like an Alliance.

I want to see the vast contingent of Draenei, pledging to put down this dangerous Horde before it can go all genocide on them again. I want to see the Night Elves pushing back through Ashenvale, swallowing up logging camps with magic tree stuff. I want to see Worgen guerrilla squads performing hit-and-run attacks on Horde positions. And I want to see Dwarf and Gnome siege tanks rumbling toward Orgrimmar.

- The Alliance needs to demonstrate how they've changed.

What change is marked in the Alliance since Pandaria? Unity isn't really a change, as Alliance forces have always been fairly unified (think about how Warsong Hold and Vengeance Landing in Northrend were totally different, while Valiance Keep and Valgarde were very similar.) A more interesting change (that Blizzard has yet to really follow through on) is that the Alliance is truly taking the initiative now.

Whatever 5.4's outdoor content will be, I want to see Alliance forces moving in in force. If Durotar is where we're getting our big confrontation, I want to see an actual Alliance presence there. Right now, it's just Sully and Amber. I want to see a phased version of the Kul Tiras base totally occupied by Alliance forces - make that the staging ground.

- Turn that asymmetry around!

Really, the crux of the complaint here is that there just seems to be more happening for the Horde than for the Alliance. You have real, compelling stories for the Orcs, for the Trolls, and for the Blood Elves, and we get to check in with the Tauren (the Forsaken haven't gotten a lot of exposure, but they're not exactly lacking in good stories.)

The few times we've had a good balance of Alliance/Horde stuff (Jade Forest, for instance,) it's served to reinforce how evenly matched the two sides are.

One of the big, inherent problems in the Darkspear Revolution story is that if Vol'jin and his ragtag rebels are able to accomplish what the entirety of the Alliance can, it once again makes the Alliance seem like chumps. Garrosh is on home turf, which is why it makes sense that the Alliance isn't just going to steamroll him despite his current disadvantage, but the Darkspear Rebellion ought to be in an even weaker position.

The main presence during the Siege of Orgrimmar has got to be the Alliance. Even Horde players need to find themselves doing things for the Alliance, and it should be emphasized that without Alliance support, the Darkspear would be ground into dust.

- Let no story exist in a vacuum

Right now, the Horde could exist in a vacuum. There's a compelling story, a villain, twists and turns, and the entire thing exists within the Horde. Even if the Alliance were nowhere to be seen, the conflict between Garrosh and Vol'jin is great stuff. While internal stories are great, the consequence is that, with half your audience outside of that, you are obligated to create a second story that is equally compelling. The Alliance has not even remotely had anything approaching the Horde's story this expansion.

As I was saying earlier, I can point to Garrosh, Vol'jin, Baine, Lor'themar (admittedly only recently,) and Sylvanas, and see exactly what is going on with them, and get excited about the direction each of their stories are going in. As characters, and also representatives of their respective people, the various differences between them interlock in interesting ways to make their stories go somewhere - that's what this rebellion is all about.

But in the Alliance? I literally only see Varian and Jaina doing anything. And though Jaina's actions unintentionally foiled some of Varian's plans, we aren't really getting anything else. Tyrande and Moira each got their own scenarios, but the ultimate conclusion of both? They are both just going to fall in line and do what Varian wants.

So it may be too much to hope that the Alliance will get something really compelling to do in 5.4. In the long term, though, Blizzard really needs to change their attitude toward team blue. Don't just give us lip service, and don't sell an Alliance that is totally homogenous. Sit down, and really figure out what can make the Alliance compelling, and delve down in there and mine it for all it's worth.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Soloing Karazhan's Chess Event for Fun, Profit, Transmog Loot, and The Chance at an Abyssal Pet

Thanks to some recent nerfs, the Chess Event - the puzzle-like encounter toward the end of Karazhan, is now easily soloable.

Karazhan was the introductory raid of Burning Crusade. It was designed for ten level 70 people. As such, it's very easy to get through the whole thing. I just took my level 86 Troll Mage up through the place and had very few problems (I got to about 50% health on Curator, but otherwise things were very smooth.)

After climbing through the tower, you'll eventually come to the Chess Event - the final encounter before Malchezzar.

The thing that makes the Chess Event difficult is that it's one of those encounters that does not scale with your own player power. This was an encounter designed for several people having control of several pieces, and with just the one of you, you're going to need to jump from piece to piece in order to make it.

To break things down:

You begin the encounter by controlling your side's "King" piece. For Alliance, this is King Llane (Varian's dad.) For Horde, it's Blackhand the Destroyer (the Horde's first Warchief, and a brute puppet of Gul'dan's.)

Controlling a piece will give you access to four commands.

Two are movement commands: You can move to a space if it is accessible, or you can turn to face a particular direction. Because pieces will auto-attack enemy pieces directly in front of them, this is actually relevant.

When you wish to control a different piece, you must cancel out of your current one and then wait several seconds for a debuff to fall off while you run to the piece you want to use. Usually you'll get to it before the debuff is gone, and the option to control the piece in the dialogue window will not show up, so let that thing fall before you click.

Your opponent is a kind of ghost/memory of Medivh (the guy whose tower you're in.) Because he's magic and mean, he will occasionally cheat. There are two ways he does this. The less worrisome one is that he'll occasionally buff all his pieces to do twice as much damage. The far more dangerous move he'll use is setting fires underneath your pieces - usually both your King and your "Queen," which is a Conjurer for Alliance or a Warlock for Horde.

So strategy:

As soon as you have control, drop out of the king and move the pawns in front of your king and queen forward, to grant you maneuvering room if Medivh puts fire down.

From here, get in the queen. Both of them have an AoE DoT (Rain of Fire for Alliance, Poison Cloud for Horde.) Try to hit the enemy king with this. The queen is the key to winning here, so if there's an enemy pawn or something attacking it, you can take some time away to protect your queen.

When the fires appear, immediately move your king and queen out of it. When you're in your king, hit heroism/bloodlust, then get back in the queen asap.

Depending on luck, the enemy king will hopefully be in range of your queen's main nuke spell. Try to keep your dot on him, but every other cooldown you should use the nuke.

So far, I've done this three times, and I've won every time.

From there, all you have to do is fight past a couple Fleshbeasts and climb all the way up the spiral staircase and you'll get to Malchezaar, who, like everything else here that you get to fight yourself, is a pushover.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Betrayal or Unity in 5.4?

In 5.3, Horde players have a fairly straightforward story. Since the Cataclysm, Garrosh has been regressing the Horde back farther and farther toward the way it was during the Second War - ruthless, destructive, and a menace to enemy and ally alike. The Horde had grown past that, and under Thrall, had taken great steps toward being an unambiguous force for good in the world (it didn't quite get there, especially when you consider the Forsaken, but they were working on it.) Hellscream tossed out any notions of peace and balance, and especially any notions of cooperation with the Alliance, and instead took on a "might makes right" philosophy, deciding that others would simply have to fall for the Horde to have its "lebensraum." (German word. Look it up - it got thrown around a lot in the '30s if that gives you a hint.) Yet to Garrosh, "the Horde" did not actually mean everyone who had come to know themselves as Horde - only the superior races were allowed to take full advantage of the spoils of conquest and... holy crap, Garrosh is a freaking Nazi!


The point is, Warchief or no, members of every Horde race (though admittedly less so for Orcs, who would theoretically benefit from his style of leadership as long as they served as soldiers and didn't say anything to upset the Kor'kron secret police) have a reason to want Garrosh taken down. As an alliance of outcasts, the Horde puts a high value on freedom, and a tyrant like Garrosh is a dire threat to that lifestyle.

In their desire to oppose Garrosh, the Alliance perhaps has an even more straightforward story. The Horde, who burned Stormwind, marched across the Eastern Kingdoms looting and pillaging, killed Cenarius (he got better,) sacked and plagued Gilneas, committed straight-up genocide on Draenor... there's a long list of reasons why the Alliance wants to hit the Horde hard. For a long time, the Alliance stayed their hand - stepping away from fights because of the notion that there may, at some point, be peace, and that they could stand together against the much larger threats Azeroth has to throw at them.

With the Horde under Garrosh, though, that hypothetical day of peace is an impossibility. The very notion of a peace treaty seems anathema to Garrosh's philosophy - you either conquer, or you are conquered, and all that matters is strength. The Alliance is then faced with a dilemma - to assault the Horde would put their odds at roughly 50-50. Sure, it might seem like a glorious victory, should they win, but they could very easily not win, and even if they did, it would likely come at a grave cost.

Instead, knowing of the unrest within the ranks of the Horde, the Alliance is going to do a little covert-ops work to create asymmetry in that final assault. Vol'jin may not be a friend of the Alliance, but he has proven to be willing to set differences aside when it was called for - like when the Zandalari tried to restore the Gurubashi and Amani to power.

The thing is, from a standpoint of achieving a military objective, it doesn't really matter what their eventual plans are to deal with Vol'jin. All that matters is that he accepts their help. Vol'jin may have his own Darkspear, and possibly the Blood Elves and even some Tauren by his side (the Forsaken seem to be sitting this one out, which is appropriately savvy of them,) but he's a resistance fighter, and does not have a military machine at his disposal. The Alliance can remedy that, supplying him with both men and materials, but it also gives them control over his actions - if he turns against them, they shut down his support.

Meanwhile, Garrosh's loyalists will be distracted while the Alliance gears up for the real invasion. The real question I have is what exactly is going to happen when the fleet gets there.

Best Case Scenario: Unity

The Alliance shows up and teams up with Vol'jin. Even with Garrosh's discoveries in Pandaria, their combined might is enough to crush the Kor'kron and topple Garrosh. Vol'jin takes the reins of the Horde and puts in back on the course that Thrall had set. The Alliance, seeing a potential ally, provides enough assistance to get Vol'jin's Horde back on its feet, but maintains enough distance that the general populace of the Horde won't think Vol'jin is just an Alliance puppet.

Alliance Betrays Horde

Vol'jin defeats Garrosh, but ultimately this leaves the survivors of his rebellion and the survivors of the Hellscream loyalists weakened. Sensing that this is finally the time to press the advantage, the Alliance, which still has plenty of peaceful, productive lands and a huge, unified army, takes control of Orgrimmar, occupying it with peacekeeping forces that will allow them to undermine the Horde industrial base and cripple them, lest they ever try to raise their fist against the Alliance again. (Sounds evil and malevolent if you're Horde, but this honestly would not be that unreasonable, given the crap the Horde has put them through.)

Horde Betrays Alliance

Vol'jin takes Orgrimmar, sets himself up as the new Warchief, and then promptly kicks the Alliance out, giving them nothing for their efforts to put him on the throne, and building up the war machine to prepare for a renewed conflict.

Which One?

Honestly, I think the game could do with the first scenario. WoW was fine when the "war" in "Warcraft" was against the Burning Legion or the Scourge. Something resembling the pre-Wrathgate relations seems like the only satisfying place to land after an expansion dedicated to this war. The second one could be a possibility, except that I can't imagine an in-game Orgrimmar with Alliance forces patrolling (the Kor'kron in Undercity are bad enough.) It would be refreshing to see the Alliance be a little proactive, and maybe let the Horde feel like the ones under siege for once (I'm aware of the irony of that statement, given that the next raid is called "the Siege of Orgrimmar.") The third scenario would not make sense unless you were a psychotically devoted Horde fanboy who just couldn't take the Horde ever feeling the slightest bit weak or vulnerable (...prove me wrong, Metzen.)

The rebellion is only just beginning this Tuesday, but before too long (I'm guessing summer,) the war will truly come to a head. Things are going to change pretty drastically, but we'll have to wait to see just what exactly is going to happen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Patch 5.3 Confirmed for May 21st

Well, according to the Warcraft Twitter account, 5.3 is coming this Tuesday, the 21st (I had predicted earlier that it would either be this past Tuesday or the next, and while I favored the former, I still count this as a correct prediction, so hooray!)

As a quick reminder, as if Blizzard weren't doing that enough, here's what's coming with 5.3: Escalation:

- Battlefield: Barrens

A new World Event, somewhat akin to the Scourge Invasion or the various pre-Expansion Events, Battlefield Barrens will be (I believe) a temporary event taking place mostly in Northern Barrens, with some other stuff in Durotar.

Players will be able to either join the Darkspear Rebellion (Horde) or act as an SI:7 agent aiding said rebellion to destabilize the Horde (Alliance.) Rather than link everything to daily quests, players will be able to ambush Kor'kron convoys and kill Kor'kron officers while protecting their own caravans throughout the zone. Killing Kor'kron NPCs will grant Lesser Charms of Good Fortune, as well as many materials to aid in the war effort. Bringing in such material will grant various rewards, including a battle pet and cosmetic transmog armor, modeled after dungeon set 2 (not exactly sure what DKs and Monks will get.)

- New Scenarios

There will be several new scenarios, including two that are required to unlock the Battlefield: Barrens event. Story details will be revealed, showing how Garrosh has transformed Ragefire Chasm into a facility to fuel his war machine, and Moira and her Dark Irons are actually fighting hard earn the trust of the Alliance.

- Heroic Scenarios

A new difficulty for Scenarios is being implemented. Heroic Scenarios will have a chance to reward higher-quality loot than the stuff you get from the current ones, but they are tuned with a premade group in mind. You will only be able to queue for these if you already have your group put together.

- New Battleground: Deepwind Gorge

A new battleground, set in the Valley of the Four Winds, has Horde and Alliance forces attempting to secure the minerals underneath Pandaria's fertile farmlands. Players will try to capture various points on the map to get a steady stream of resources, while mine carts can also be taken to your territory in order to get a sudden burst of resource points.

- New Arena: Tiger's Peak

A Shado-Pan themed Arena is being added, apparently with some interesting new factors, such as platforms with fences that will allow LOS without making it that easy to knock someone off. Holding the high ground will presumably be very important.

- Wrathion Chapter IV

A new stage of the Legendary chain unlocks, where you will travel to the various temples of the August Celestials and test your skills to prove that they should grant you some of their power. The reward will be iLevel 600 (that's a six at the beginning!) cloaks.

- Valor Upgrades Return

The Voidbinders from 5.1 are back, and now things cost significantly less. The intention, according to Blizzard, is to have players upgrade nearly every slot, which will provide both a great outlet for Valor Points (even if you've already gotten everything from SPA) and also hopefully remove the need to nerf Throne of Thunder, instead accepting that people will have higher and higher iLevels thanks to this service.

- Pandaria XP requirements slashed

The XP required to level up from 85-90 has been reduced by 33%, which should make leveling through Pandaria an absolute breeze.

- Profession Leveling Improvements

Herbalism and Mining are getting the Blacksmithing treatment, allowing you to level them up entirely in Pandaria. When attempting to gather below the appropriate level, you will now get smaller pieces (the number depending on your skill level) that can be combined into the appropriate resources, such as Torn Tea Leaves, ten of which will combine into a Green Tea Leaf.

- Lots of Other Stuff!

Let's see: new pets from Old School Raids (this time in the earlier BC raids,) complete with a Meta achievement. New Brawler's Guild bosses, some changes to how PvP gear works (search me,) and probably some stuff I'm forgetting!

Anyway, there might not be a new raid tier coming, but this patch is far from small. I, for one, am looking forward to spreading death and destruction among the Kor'kron ranks.

Also, if the pattern established thus far in Mists holds, we're going to start hearing big things about 5.4 and the Siege of Orgrimmar very soon indeed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Granularity in Raid DIfficulty

There was a time when any given raid had only one version. Blackwing Lair was always meant for 40 level 60 guys. Serpentshrine Cavern was always supposed to have 25 people at level 70. Wrath introduced first two different sizes of its raids, which also corresponded with higher difficulties. Naxxramas, Eye of Eternity, Obsidian Sanctum, and in 3.1, Ulduar, all had a 10-man size and a 25-man size, with the difficulty and rewards of the larger raids tuned a little higher.

Ulduar also introduced the notion of hard modes - tougher ways to fight the bosses that would yield higher-quality loot. In Trial of the Crusader, this became the true "Heroic Raid" mode which exists today.

The latter two raids in Wrath had four difficulties - 10 man, 10 man heroic, 25 man, and the granddaddy, 25-man heroic.

Cataclysm shuffled things around a little, tuning 25-man raids down to be ostensibly equal in difficulty to 10-mans, but rewarding proportionally more loot to reward the extra effort needed to organize them. Tier 11 and Firelands existed within two difficulty levels - normal and heroic. 4.3 brought a new wrinkle to this, bringing back a third difficulty with the Raid Finder. Raid Finder difficulty is there to compensate for the impossibilities of being well-coordinated with a fluctuating PUG.

In many ways, Raid Finder feels very much like the 10-man difficulty of Wrath - a simpler version of the raids that you would generally not have too hard a time on, and a great way to introduce someone to the experience of raiding.

The thing about game difficulties is that there are many ways for someone to feel satisfied with their experience, but I imagine most people will play a game on the easiest difficulty. Sure, challenge is fun, but if your motivation is more to see what it's like to topple those bad guys, you'll probably find it satisfying even if it's not as difficult as it might otherwise be.

The Raid Finder difficulty makes downing those bosses very doable. After most people have learned the fights, wipes are unlikely (except on particularly tricky fights, like Lei Shen or Dark Animus.)

I think there's definitely a place for an easy raiding difficulty in WoW. The amount of time and effort it takes to be good enough (and geared enough) to raid even in normal mode is fairly substantial. I haven't run a heroic raid fight on heroic at the correct level since the Gunship Battle in ICC, but considering how difficult Normal mode has been for the last two expansions, I have to imagine Heroic is pretty damn brutal.

Raid Finder would seem to fill that niche, but there's a big, inherent flaw in it: it only works for groups put together using the Raid Finder. If you run RF, you need to PUG, and for many, PUGging defeats the fun of raiding. (I actually don't dislike running RF, but running with a guild is obviously preferable.) This means two things - you don't get the playful banter or the relaxed pace of running with your guildmates, and you're also locked into the 25-man raid size for the purposes of making role-balance as favorable to filling up your slots (it sometimes amazes me how few people run tanks.)

It seems to me that what Blizzard needs to do is create an Easy mode for raiding, that you can set your raid difficulty to should you need to. The great thing is that the groundwork has been laid. If you were to set your difficulty to 25-man Easy, you'd literally just get the version of the raid that you get in Raid Finder, but with each branch connected the way that it is in the normal and heroic versions. Ten man would have things scaled down the way they are on normal and heroic, but surely there's just a coefficient they can apply to things like healthpools that would do the trick.

This solves many problems, some large and some small: It lets casual or beginning raiders see the content without subjecting themselves to the unpredictabilities of RF. It allows you to forgo the RF loot system if you so choose (it's been good to me on Jarsus, and works better than Dragon Soul's Need+, but all those money bags can get a little sad after a while.) It also allows you to go back to old raids to pick up the Raid Finder version of various armor pieces for transmog after you outlevel the raids (even though I prefer the normal-mode version of Mage tier 13, I have almost a complete set of RF-version, except for the gloves and belt. I'd love to be able to get matching pieces, but alas.)

Don't get me wrong - Raid Finder is a great tool. But for those of us who really prefer raiding with the guild, but can't seem to make a dent in normal modes for whatever reason, this seems like an obvious solution that could be easily implemented as part of a new expansion (or even a patch - the raid finder itself came in with a patch, after all.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What New Races Might We Get In The Future?

My prediction for the next expansion is that we will not get any new races, but will instead get the new models for the Vanilla and BC races that they've been talking about for a while (the Dwarf, supposedly, has been done for a while, so we can probably imagine that they've actively been working on this.)

That said, assuming that WoW continues on for a while longer after the next expansion (and I expect it to do so,) we could probably see new races show up. I thought I'd talk about how they could work out.

First, a note on Neutral Races:

The Pandaren broke the mold in terms of how races in WoW work. Every other playable race that came before was strictly aligned with one faction or another. The Blood Elves had a decent reason to not be in the Alliance, and they made the story of how they wound up in the Horde work pretty logically. The Worgen were always sort of a monstrous race, which tend to go to the Horde, but everything about the Worgen backstory pushes them into conflict with the Horde, and the development in how the cause of the curse was revealed shows that really, the Worgen couldn't not be part of the Alliance. Even the Goblins, the prototypical "neutral race," were given exclusively to the Horde because of their status as a kind of mirror to the Gnomes and also the way that they do kind of fit into the Horde milieu better (green skin and recklessness.)

The Pandaren were made a neutral race for two major reasons. One, the just practical reason, is that in an expansion entirely focused on the homeland of the Pandaren, it would seem really unfair for one side to get them and the other to get something else - even if that other race was one people had been clamoring for. The other reason is that the Pandaren culture is all about light-heartedness, and so they seem like they would not want to choose sides. In fact, one gets the impression at the end of the Pandaren starting area that neither side really understands the conflict they're getting into. Aysa and Ji might have had a little falling out, but they certainly didn't expect to become blood enemies engaged in a constant war with one another.

I think it's perfectly possible that we could get more neutral races, but I also think that some of the races would really only fit one faction or the other.

I'm not going to try to pair every race with one for the other faction here.

First, we'll start with some of the more established races:


Ogres came through the Dark Portal along with the Orcs pretty much from the start. Sure, they splintered off and perhaps were never part of the Horde proper (with exceptions like Cho'gall,) but there are, in fact, a number of ogre towns for Horde players, and of course the Mok'nathal to which Rexxar belongs, who are half-orc, half-ogres. This would be a pretty obvious option for a Horde race, but as Blizzard has said, they have no idea what a female Ogre would look like.

Potential Ogre Classes: Warrior, Death Knight, Shaman, Hunter, Mage, Warlock


The Naga are one of the more common races we come across in-game, and also one of the few non-playable races to have both male and female models. Sure, they're corrupted, but I think that if we can accept Forsaken as beings of free will who can be good guys, we ought to be able to accept the Naga. The real challenge is to figure out how to do pants, boots, and mounts. The pants and boots I think you could just adapt to cover different parts of the tail. Mounts... maybe have them sit kind of draped over the mount...?

As to what faction the Naga would belong to, I'd put them once again with the Horde, though with some serious lore-nudging (to get around how unhappy the Night Elves would be) you could make them a neutral race. The Naga I feel would have an easier time relating the the Blood Elves as fellow outcasts, and even though they're far from the sort of quasi-barbarianistic vibe of the Horde, they obviously have a ruthless culture that would fit in well with the members of the Eastern Horde.

Potential Naga Classes: Warrior, Death Knight, Hunter, Rogue, Warlock, Mage, Priest

High Elves:

It would be a very simple thing indeed to grant High Elves to the Alliance - you'd simply use Blood Elf models with blue eyes instead of green. You'd also need to give them a different starting zone. While I wouldn't be opposed to this per se, I do think I'd prefer a real new race instead of just increasing the Elf population.

Potential High Elf Classes: Warrior, Death Knight, Paladin, Hunter, Rogue, Druid? (if you had their schism with the Blood Elves push them to rediscover their Night Elf roots,) Mage, Priest (no Warlocks, because I think the whole Fel magic thing is kind of a sticking point for them.)


The Centaur would be cool if they played a bigger role in the world, and they have a decent enough backstory, but ultimately I don't think they would fit well enough with either faction, aren't really cool enough, and that's before you get into the issues with how the hell anything other than a Running Wild-style mount would work.

Potential Centaur Classes: Warrior, Hunter, Shaman, Rogue, Mage, Warlock, Priest


The Murlocs are one of the iconic races of Warcraft. Could they be playable? That I'm not sure about. For one thing, they seem to be too unintelligent. Pretty much every race in the game is supposed to be of comparable intelligence (I like to think that any perceived differences there are really more cultural. Orcs might have a more anti-intellectual culture - something that Thrall was trying to fix - but hey, we now have Orc Mages.) Murlocs are probably not smart. It took the waters of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms turning them into Jinyu to make them a sapient-level race.

Potential Murloc Classes: Warrior. Shaman, Hunter, Rogue, Druid (just so we can see terrifying fish-bears,) Mage, Warlock, Priest

And now the newer ones:


The Ethereals would make a great neutral race. They are not without their problems, though. One is that there's a whole lot of overlap between them and Goblins (though there's also overlap between Goblins and Gnomes.) They also don't really have bodies or faces, exactly, though I suppose you could customize your character via the way their wrappings cover them - the wrapping serving like skin under the armor.

Potential Ethereal Classes: Warrior, Paladin, Hunter, Rogue, Mage, Warlock, Priest


The Vrykul have a pretty deep history, though one that we never really explored that much. The odd thing is that we haven't really seen many of them who weren't evil. King Ymiron was clearly a brute in the eons before the modern day, when the first human children were being born to Vrykul mothers. And then, of course, the Vrykul fell in with the Scourge (does Ymiron know that Arthas was one of those pygmy children?) The one time we saw Vrykul after Arthas' fall, they had joined Twilight's Hammer, attacking us during the Warmaster Blackhorn fight.

I personally like the Vrykul a lot (and hey - we've already got female models!) but I think they might be too limited in scope at the moment to become a playable race. If we could use them to delve further into the Titan lore, that would be cool. As to which faction they'd go to... Well, on one hand, their Viking Warrior culture would seem to fit very well with the Horde, but I could also imagine them being very reluctant to bow down to the Orcs (though given that the Horde is in for some changes...) Depending on how they view their relationship to humanity, they would either be drawn to the Alliance or pushed away from it. If they retained a solidarity with the fellow titanic race, I could see them getting along well with the Dwarves and Gnomes.

Potential Vrykul Classes: Warrior, Paladin (with a connection to Tyr and his silver hand, perhaps,) Death Knight (though I don't quite know how you'd fit them into the DK starting experience,) Hunter, Shaman, Rogue, Mage, Warlock, Priest


With the Thunder King dead, might the Mogu reform? The thing about the Mogu, in my mind, is that they seem to have almost gotten a half-dose of the Curse of Flesh. They got just enough for them to become disillusioned with the Titans and exploit their creators, but not enough to give them the kind of empathy and "humanity" to not be total dicks. There are only two female mogu in all of existence, and we've killed them. So... probably not.

Potential Mogu Classes: They actually explicitly say that Mogu magic breaks the barriers between the various styles, so I'm actually thinking this is just too unlikely.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What I Want to See From New Character Models

Cataclysm's introduction of the Worgen and Goblins made something clear: the graphics of WoW have gotten a hell of a lot better since its beginning. With Worgen, Goblins, and Pandaren now making up a sizable chunk of the race options, and all the detailed and crisp-looking models we've seen in recent expansions, it has become clear that the old races need a little tender care.

This is, of course, a massive undertaking. That said, I don't think every old race's revitalization will require the same resources as a totally new race. New races need tons of concept work and figuring out the overall culture and feel that will link in to the look of the race. For example, the original male Worgen (as you can see in Cataclysm's introductory trailer) were far less vicious-looking, and needed some feral-ization.

The new models would not be reimaginings, but just updates, taking the better tools they have developed and applying them to races with established feels and looks.

So I'm going to go race-by-race and talk about what I think needs work. I'm assuming that voices will remain the same (changing those could really alienate people from their toons,) but I think animations will be part of the package here (I recall reading someone from Blizz saying that.)

I only play male characters (ok, technically I have a female undead monk, but she's level 2 or something) so I can't really comment a whole lot on the female models.

Human: The biggest issue I have with the human model is the insane Popeye forearms. Granted, as someone who plays a plate class as a human, it looks natural enough as part of his armor. The faces also obviously need a bit of an update. Likewise, a lot of the animations are a bit stiff. He never seems to move his arms above the elbows while running.

Dwarf: I actually like the odd boxiness of the way that dwarves run, but I think the faces need a lot of work. Also (and this is a big thing for all races) I want their beards to show regardless of what helmet they are wearing. A dwarf without a giant flowing beard is either a woman or an impostor.

Gnome: There are some clipping issues here. Also, a male gnome without facial hair is pants-shittingly terrifying. I think additional crazy hair styles and beards would be a good addition, as well as maybe more crazy hair colors.

Night Elf: I'm actually fine with thin and lanky for Night Elves, but they obviously need to deal with giant hand syndrome. Also, their slow walk animation is just weird, not that you see it that much.

Draenei: On one hand, the insane top-heavyness gives the Draenei much of their distinctive look, but maybe it's too much. I also think the bounciness of their walk can undercut how badass they look while standing still or attacking. Also, when they sleep, their shoulder armor cuts into their heads.

Orcs: Orcs share a bit of the stiffness of humans (I assume these were the first races they designed.) I actually think it's less of an issue for Orcs, because we expect them to be a little blocky and tank-like naturally. They have some pretty decent fighting animations, but of course, the more the merrier.

Trolls: Even though the Zandalari stand upright, it seems fairly iconic that trolls would be lanky and have poor posture. On one hand, I think trolls could stand to be beefed up a bit (especially given how many of the other troll tribes we come across who seem far more Orc-like in their build.) That said, it's nice to have a different body type in there.

Tauren: Necks! Give them Necks! There's a ton of good concept art out there that shows Tauren with necks and real shoulders. They are still unmistakably Tauren. This would also solve a lot of the problems with helmets. Tauren should obviously have that massive feel, but perhaps allowing them to seem slightly more agile would be good.

Undead: First and foremost - fix their armor. The body is broken and decayed, not the armor. It's especially bizarre to see plate armor that has been torn with a zig-zag pattern. Next, I'd love to see undead with access to facial hair. Having a wispy, mold-covered beard would be awesome. They could also probably stand to have better posture. I mean, they are undead, but surely their exposed spines hurt from standing that way.

Blood Elves: Blood Elves mostly look pretty good the way they are. I'm not sure I get why they jump that way, but who am I to judge? Mostly, Blood Elves just need a touch-up with more polygons and better textures.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lessons to take from Mists for Expansion 5

I'll say it again: Mists is a damn fine expansion. The environment, the way that the lore is worked into the game, and the way class mechanics have been refined (Warlock revamp - for example) has all been great.

But it's not perfect - nothing ever is. So what might we do to improve upon the style of Mists to make the next expansion even better?

1. More Granular Power While Leveling

While I think the talent system really succeeds in allowing for meaningful choices (as someone who loves reacting to procs, I tend to go for things like Divine Purpose and Thrill of the Hunt) one of the problems with it is that you only get a new talent every 15 levels. Likewise, the new abilities you get come somewhat infrequently as well. What this can lead to is that "dinging" can feel somewhat unimportant. If you're in the Badlands and you go from 45 to 46, and you don't get any ability, that can feel pretty darn anticlimactic.

I know that they want and need to cut down on button bloat, but I think there must be some way for you to make more character improvements as you go. Even bringing back some of those crit or haste bonuses, but purely as spec-based, automatically gained passives (so you don't have to give up the more fun or weird talents to get them) could be cool. Remember stuff like Reckoning? Or Bloody Vengeance (I think it was called. Old Blood DPS talent that made your crits increase damage done for a while? Similar thing for Ret Paladins.)

2. A Real Final Zone

Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King both had you eventually come to the expansion's big bad's home zone. From level 67, you got to quest through Shadowmoon Valley, seeing the worst of the chaos the demons had wrought on Draenor, and you were able to besiege the Black Temple, which did a great job building up the stakes for when you finally went after Illidan (though they probably should have spaced out the raid tiers a little better.)

When you hit 77, you were able to go to Icecrown - an intense zone that literally didn't have any friendly place to land until you carved one out. For all of Wrath, Icecrown Citadel towered above everything, and it really made finally being able to get into the place feel like an accomplishment.

In the previous two expansions, the "final zone" has been the home of the first tier raid. Yes, I do think that the Dread Wastes build up one's anticipation of doing Heart of Fear, and Twilight Highlands was all about pushing in to eventually assault the Bastion of Twilight. The problem is that these threats were dealt with very soon. In both cases, later in the expansion's cycle, those problems felt over and done with.

Now admittedly, the Isle of Thunder does a good job of building anticipation to break into the raid, but the place was only released with the raid itself. If this had been around from the beginning, we would have been able to build up greater anticipation to our showdown with Lei Shen (whose resurrection was only known to players who happened to do a particular quest chain in Kun Lai - the zone with the most freedom to do different quests.) And even then, when 5.4 comes out, Lei Shen will be an old problem - already dealt with.

All of Wrath felt like a siege on Icecrown Citadel, which I think really helped build up the tension. Also:

3. Let us interact with the Big Bad more

I know some people complained that the Lich King let us get away too much in Wrath, but I think his having a cameo appearance in almost every zone was a great decision. Even if you didn't know anything about Warcraft 3, a player leveling up through Wrath knew exactly what kind of villain Arthas was. I never felt more personally invested in taking down a boss than I did when fighting the Lich King.

Now sure, Garrosh has had a lot of appearances over the course of the last several expansions, so perhaps we don't need to introduce him so much. However, if the whole concept of this expansion is that the Horde/Alliance conflict is the big bad, and Garrosh is the embodiment of that conflict, we probably should have seen a little more of the big guy causing problems.

4. New Dungeon Tiers

Raid Finder is great, and serves a very useful purpose. However, I don't think it should be the only method of progression in PvE. 5-man dungeons have been the backbone of WoW since its inception, and I think the marginalization of 5-man content in Mists was a real mistake. Heroics become simply a source of valor points after you qualify for MSV.

I think that giving rewards that are maybe half a tier below the previous raid finder would be a good place for them. For example, if with 5.2, we had gotten dungeons that granted 476 gear (I'm calling MSV half a tier below the rest of tier 14,) you'd be able to gear up through them, but need to either do some raid finder or get some VP gear to qualify for ToT.

But some people don't like to raid, and I think that's fine. I just don't think you need to draw a stark line between "dailies and more dailies" and "raiding is everything." Let's have a middle ground.

5. Vary Up the Factions

I think it's fine to have some factions that require you to do daily quests. Should they all? Probably not. If I could go back and change how the factions worked, I'd have had maybe Golden Lotus stay a pure daily faction (though I'd also change it so that instead of an increasingly long chain, you'd just go to different parts of the Vale each day, sort of like how the Klaxxi work.) But then I'd have something like the Shado-Pan or the August Celestials simply require that you run dungeons. There would be one dungeon rep, and you could grind that one out for gear. And then finally, you'd have a faction that focused on running the current raids (or perhaps one per raid.)

The point is, varying up the factions would make each faction seem both very different and also more optional. Sure, Golden Lotus might get you some great shoulders, but you've already got some decent ones and really hate dailies, so instead you just focus on running dungeons.

6. More Alt-Support

People love playing alts. But when you have so much gating - and gating that is tied to being able to log in every day for several weeks - it makes it very hard to put any serious time into your other toons.

I think Grand Commendations were a good start, and allowing you to at least get a little reputation from dungeons runs was also good.

Really, the main barrier to alts these days isn't that they put anything exactly in their way - just that the time commitment to unlocking all those factions is hard to justify on a third, fourth, etc. toon. Back in the day, alts were easy because you could just run dungeons on them when you felt like it - maybe you'd spend a weekend working on that toon, and you could make significant progress.With dailies forcing you spend an exact number of days or weeks to get what you need out of a faction, you can't really grind hardcore on a couple days to get that alt where they need to go (raid finder as the main gearing path for PvE is another barrier to this. You can't just chain run heroics to get decent gear. You now need to run the raid every week.)

I think that either we need to see some sort of return to the gearing options from previous expansions or we need to implement dramatic catch-up mechanics. Think Grand Commendations that stack with each toon that reaches revered. The first toon gets normal rep, the second gets 200%, the third 300%, etc.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mists Got it Right with 5.2

So we're all hearing about how there was a big drop in subscriptions since February (I even saw a story about it on the BBC news website.) As someone who still enjoys playing the game, it's always a little disheartening to hear that subscribers are on the decline because of the obvious fears that with fewer people playing, the game is marching toward its end.

Of course, 8.3 million people is still a crapton of people. Boston, my hometown, is a major city, but within the city itself there are only roughly 600k people. Even if you expand to include the Greater Boston Area (technically, where my hometown is) it's only about 4.5 million.

8.3 million people is a lot, and I think we could see the player numbers drop to a tenth of that and still see Blizzard making more of this game.

Anyway, I wanted to write here to say that, actually, I think the current state of the game is pretty damn good.

Mists has been overall a very good expansion. We got a new class (that was actually pretty well balanced from the start - DKs, I love you guys, but damn were you OP in early Wrath.) We got a cool new continent that felt far more connected than the spread-out zones of Cataclysm. Really, the only thing that I think was a misstep was tying ALL valor gear to doing daily quests.

It was a noble effort, I think, to give the various factions real personalities by requiring you to quest for them. In some cases, this worked out well - the Klaxxi and Operation Shieldwall/Dominance Offensive both I think worked out great. (August Celestials and Golden Lotus, on the other hand...) Yet even with the best daily quest content, I think it was a mistake to make all valor gear tie in to daily quests.

The Shado-Pan Assault is the ideal gating mechanism for Valor Points. One acquires VP by doing what you want to be doing anyway - going into raids and killing bosses. By having the SPA simply limit what purchases you can make depending on how much time you've spent killing bosses in that raid, it reinforces the idea that VP gear is meant to fill in the gaps left by whatever hasn't dropped for you.

Once you hit iLevel 480, and you can start queueing for Throne of Thunder, things smooth out pretty well. You can do the KTO/SO dailies, though probably more for Lesser Charms than for actual reputation gear, but really, if you just want to raid and only raid, at that point, it's a totally viable option.

As an aside: I know that farming Lesser Charms makes it seem like you really can't escape the dailies even if you are at that level. I have some sympathy toward that point of view - people always want to maximize their gear acquisition, and the line between optional and mandatory is pretty fine. I wonder if, perhaps, the bonus rolls could have been dealt with better. Perhaps only giving us a single roll per week, and making us really focus on just that one piece of loot, with less grinding required, would have been good (though the reduction from 90 to 50 lesser charms was inspired.) I actually wonder if the upcoming anti-bad-luck-streak measures - where a boss will get more likely to drop loot for you the more times you kill it - are really solving the problem that Charms were supposed to - though I don't know how you'd implement such a thing for Normal/Heroic modes.

Back to my main point: I think what Blizzard needs to do now is figure out a decent catch-up mechanic. I think it's fine, and actually preferable, that people are required to run each raid in sequence in order to queue for further ones in LFR. Given the ease of finding a group in LFR (you hit a button and wait) the old problems of attunements are no problem at all. However, I don't think that a person who hits level 90 after most players have already killed/arrested (or whatever) Garrosh should be forced to run MSV over and over, praying for that one ring he or she needs to get geared up for Heart of Fear.

There are two options, in my mind. One is to make the drop rate in older tiers absurdly high - far more than the 20-ish% they brought the 5.0 raids to in 5.2 (don't quote me here, I'm just giving a very rough estimate. I don't have figures in front of me.) If the drop rate for useful items in MSV, HoF, and Terrace jumped to 80%, and maybe 40% in Throne of Thunder, you'd have a situation where one could catch up without too much trouble - if they ran all the raids diligently each week, they'd be geared up in less than a month, probably, which I consider an appropriate time to pay your dues, make sure you understand how raiding works, and get enough experience that you can fly below the radar and not piss too many people off (a month of raiding will usually give you an idea of whether you're doing your job right.)

The other option is new tiers of 5-man heroics. This was the tried-and-true catch up mechanic in Wrath and Cataclysm. The only reason they were unhappy with it was that people could skip older raids. Well, fine, but that's what a catch-up mechanic is for. 5-mans are naturally easier to gear up in, because you can do that dungeon once a day (and really, with the dungeon finder and random dungeons, that limit's sort of moot anyway.) The other big win for this style is that you can make serious character progression even if you dislike raiding. Right now, there's really no way to get well geared in PvE without at least doing Raid Finder. If we want people to have real, true options, I think that having new tiers of dungeons (maybe even bring back the concept of dungeon armor sets?) would be great.

That said, given the state within the expansion cycle we're at, there's little to no chance we're getting new 5-mans in Mists. However, given the response to this, and comments from Ghostcrawler, I fully expect that the next expansion will have them come out with new patches.

Blizzard has been trying to wrangle what it wants WoW to be. In many ways, Mists was a revolutionary reimagining of the way the game functions. There have been some hiccups, true, but I think overall if we see them use the Mists formula and just tweak it a little next time, things will be great. Will it get back those players who left? I really can't say. What I can say is that WoW is a better game that it ever has been (yes, even better than Wrath, though I miss the Scourge.)

Next post I'm going to go into my personal wishlist for how they can build on past expansions to make next one great.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

5.3 Probably Coming Very Soon and Guessing How Far Blizzard is on Expansion 5

5.3: Escalation, has been on the PTR for a good long while now, and with Blizzard now posting a "getting ready for 5.3" announcement, I think we can expect the new patch to drop either this coming Tuesday or the next (though I'm leaning toward earlier.)

Like 5.1, 5.3 is a "small patch." We'll be getting a few new scenarios and of course the Battlefield: Barrens stuff. Even though I hope Blizzard will find a way to give the Alliance more interesting stuff than simply helping Vol'jin, I am nonetheless excited to take my Paladin and my Death Knight to Durotar to help the Horde become something better. (On the Paladin, it's more out of a sense of optimism for peace with Vol'jin's Horde, whereas on the Death Knight, it's a great excuse to slaughter Orcs.)

I don't actually know if there will be much in the way of daily quests, and there does not seem to be an actual reputation attached to Battlefield: Barrens, which makes me curious how it will sustain itself from here to 5.4. We do know that killing 90+ enemies will now have a chance to grant Lesser Charms, so one might be incentivized to take the fight to the Kor'kron regardless of rep and quests.

I'm also happy to hear that, as far as I know, the legendary stage added in 5.3 will be a one-time event. Collecting Sigils and Secrets of the Empire is a time-consuming process that is very luck-based. A Test of Valor was their way of making sure you didn't finish 5.1's stage very quickly, but there's now a pretty insane catch-up period for anyone who is a little behind (Jarsus, for example, is on his last week of a Test of Valor but already has mostly ToT gear. Guess I'll be running Retribution a lot?) Anyway, assuming that the Temple visits will truly be a one-day event, it will be a wonderful way for people to catch up. We can assume that 5.4 will not come out for a few months after 5.3.

Actually, perhaps the most exciting thing about 5.3 coming out is that we will probably start to be hearing about 5.4 about a week later. Blizzard has been keeping up the pace this expansion - as soon as the expansion hit, we started hearing about 5.1, and as soon as 5.1 was out, we started to hear about 5.2. Then, as soon as 5.2 came out, we started hearing about 5.3.

So here's a prediction: 5.4 is going to come out some time around Blizzcon. In the past, we've often had the Blizzcon that announces the next expansion also talk a great deal about the final patch. When Cataclysm was announced, we also got a big preview of Icecrown Citadel. When Mists was, we had not yet gotten the Dragon Soul.

However, given the increased pace of this expansion, I suspect that we will actually already be besieging Orgrimmar by the time we hear of expansion 5 (though keep an eye out for names Blizzard registers. We all thought Mists of Pandaria was going to be some kind of side project, but obviously it's turned out to be a fine expansion.)

Does that mean we'll get the expansion quicker than usual? I don't really know. In the past, expansions have been announced a little over a year before their release. The problem with that is that we tend to have final patches that span entire years - half the lifespan of the expansion. Now, I'm actually all right with the final patch of an expansion lasting a bit longer - people need time to catch up, and having that little grace period is a good thing - but sometimes it just goes on too long.

I think it's a very safe bet that the next WoW expansion will be announced at this year's Blizzcon. The question becomes when it will actually hit. I think there's a very good chance it will be some time in 2014. If they've really stepped up their game, we might see it as soon as the summer.

Each expansion has lasted roughly two years. Burning Crusade came out in January of '07. Wrath in November of '08, Cataclysm in December of '10, and Mists in September of '12. If we are truly going to see the rate of expansions pick up as Blizzard is always hoping to do, expansion 5 will have to come some time before September of '14.

It all really just depends on how much work Blizzard has already done on the expansion.

Knowing very little of the specifics of game design, I would nevertheless guess that at this point, they are probably pretty far into the design of the Siege of Orgrimmar raid. They might not have the whole thing tested, and there could be bosses that may be cut or redesigned, but I suspect that they have a general sense of the flow of the instance and whatever else will come with the patch.

Given, as I understand, that there's really just one raid-design team, I doubt that they have begun work on designing the introductory raids for expansion 5, other than perhaps a few brainstorms.

But I also suspect that Blizzard has known for a long time what the expansion will entail. The big, new features are probably set by now - whether we're getting a new race or a new class (Demon Hunters, Demon Hunters, Demon Hunters please) - and who the big bad will be, where the new continent will be.

The quest and world design teams are probably still working on 5.4 content. Just as 5.2 brought the Isle of Thunder (which I'd argue is their best daily hub to date, though I really wish there was more stuff to do in Stormsea Landing, and that we didn't get sent to the Lightning Mines every day,) I would guess that we're going to see some area open up in 5.4. These teams are probably working on that.

But once 5.4 is in the bag (and to be fair, the "design" might be done, and passed on to the "development" side of things) I imagine that these people will be hard at work putting together the new continent (or planet?)

Expansions take a long time. Really, everything depends on how long it takes for 5.4 to come out. Earlier in this very article I predicted that we'd see 5.4 land some time around Blizzcon, but actually, that might be a little to conservative. Assuming 5.3 arrives next week or the one after that, we could see 5.4 dropping as soon as July or August (somehow attacking Orgrimmar in the middle of a blazing summer seems right.)

If that's the case, and Blizzard seriously wants to avoid a year-long patch cycle, we could be seeing expansion 5 closer to a year from now.

Still, Mists is far away from overstaying its welcome, and I'm in no rush to see the expansion end, but novelty is exciting, and I'm always curious to see what the future holds. (Hopefully Demon Hunters.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Is Tank Gear Worth Designing Anymore?

One of the side-benefits of rolling a plate tank is that you get your own set of gear. When you're raiding with the guild, you've got at most one person to compete with for drops, and with Monks joining Druids in the ranks of tanks that use the second lowest class of armor, there's a decent chance that your Paladin, Warrior or Death Knight will have all that lovely gear for him or herself.

Back in Burning Crusade, when Blizzard was starting to embrace the various nonstandard class roles, we had specialized gear for many particular specs. There was leather with strength and extra armor on it for Bear Druids, and there was tanking plate with intellect and +spell damage for Prot Paladins. Wrath simplified matters by switching Druids over to a strictly-agility system (as well as Enhancement Shamans, who greatly benefitted) and giving Protection Paladins a built-in bonus to their spellpower that worked with ordinary tank gear.

Yet these days, we're seeing some very interesting things: Protection Paladins (and I could be wrong here, but I think also Blood DKs) are liking haste a lot. In fact, until changes to Grand Crusader were made, haste actually came before even mastery (today as I understand, the two are roughly even, depending on your stylistic choice.) Given that mastery is a fantastic stat for pretty much all tanks as well, in many cases, a tank will want pieces of gear that don't actually have any of the poor, neglected "tank stats" on it.

A lot has happened to make tank gear less complex. Defense Rating departed with Cataclysm, while Block Rating was transformed into mastery for the two specs who wanted it (and block value disappeared because the mechanics behind blocking changed.)

Really, the only things that make tank gear tank gear are the existence of Dodge and Parry rating (trinkets obviously being far more complex and thus sort of an exception to this.) Yet for a tankadin, for example, Parry is ok and Dodge is something you pretty much always reforge out of.

So I think Blizzard needs to make a real decision here - do they even want Dodge and Parry rating to still exist? Sure, I love that my tank gear is indisputably tank gear, but at this point, it's gear that serves a fairly small number of specs (let's not get into Intellect Plate right now,) and beyond that, specs that will have a very low representation in any group, because there just isn't much they can do to make you bring more tanks (well, they could do more, but you get the impression that they don't want to.)

Assuming they even want to keep passive avoidance as a thing (they seem to far prefer active mitigation,) it seems that they could link, as I've suggested before, the two major non-mastery secondary stats, haste and critical strike rating, to dodge and parry.

One could then do interesting things with the two stats - for example, a crit with Crusader Strike could give you two Holy Power instead of one, or twice the rage from a Shield Slam. Haste could continue working as it does for Paladins and Death Knights (maybe do a similar thing in lowering the cooldown for Rage-generating Warrior abilities.)

I love me some tank gear, don't get me wrong. It's a great feeling to have yourself decked out in awesome gear that makes you nearly indestructible, but it strikes me that the way things are going, tank gear as something removed from DPS plate could very well be on the way out.

In the future (probably not the next post, but soon) I'll talk about the way that tanks are becoming an endangered species, and both how Blizzard might encourage more people to play tanks and also how they seem to be discouraging people from tanking in the first place.

Friday, May 3, 2013

5.4 Other than the Raid

Obviously, most of the focus right now is on 5.3's addition of the whole Darkspear Revolution. Horde will aid in overthrowing the brutal tyranny of Garrosh Hellscream, and the Alliance will step in to help destabilize the region for an eventual invasion.

It's all setting the stage for 5.4's Siege of Orgrimmar, which will be the final raid of Mists of Pandaria. Obviously, this is the climax that the whole renewed Horde/Alliance conflict has been building to.

Yet there's likely going to be other stuff than the raid.

5.2 obviously brought Throne of Thunder, but we also got the entire Isle of Thunder, a big zone full of lots of nooks and crannies and special rare-spawn bosses, plus the KTO/SO daily quests and solo scenarios.

I expect we're going to see some other outside content coming in 5.4. Admittedly, the Battlefield Barrens plot certainly plays into the raid fairly directly, but I wonder if perhaps we might see other areas enlivened. It would, for example, be a great opportunity to flesh out the Alliance plot that has been sort of shaky recently (I like Jaina's story, even if by the end of Isle of Thunder she's pulled back from the brink - but that's good, as I don't want to see Jaina become a villain.)

Final patches have a tendency to add something quite big to the game. 2.4 introduced the idea of a daily quest zone, though I'm not sure that's what we'll be getting in 5.4. However, 3.3 introduced the Dungeon Finder, and 4.3 introduced the Raid Finder, both of which had revolutionary effects on the game. (4.3 also brought Transmog and Void Storage, which were pretty cool even if they had little effect on actual gameplay. Also the new Darkmoon Faire, which I doubt anyone can complain about.)

So what might we get this time? Admittedly, Raid Finder was really an extrapolation of the Dungeon Finder system, and all major PvE content is covered this way.

One thing they have been teasing is "something" that will make a lot of old content relevant again. I suspect that it might be a kind of level-scaling for old dungeons and raids. They've shown through Challenge Modes that they can de-power you pretty effectively. Presumably, they could either de-power players or buff up the enemies in old-school raids and dungeons to make the content appropriately challenging.

I think it would be awesome to see all the old areas come back into relevance. I loved, for example, Old Hillsbrad or the Forge of Souls, but these days, there's no reason to go there except for transmog gear.

If they were to implement these beefed up versions of old content, the only thing I'd really wonder is what the reward scheme would be. One of my biggest problems with scenarios is that a rather small amount of VP is not a great incentive to do them. It's so rare that one gets a piece of gear in one's little box, and rarer still that the piece is useful to you, making the whole thing (which, depending on the scenario, can sometimes take a fair amount of time - I'm looking at you, Theramore's Fall) underwhelming.

A big chunk of VP? Well, perhaps if you made these runs reward a serious chunk of your weekly VP quota, they could be good for people uninterested in running current dungeons, but I think it would be more fun if you were to have them give level-90 appropriate versions of the gear they always dropped.

Where would this go in gear progression? I don't know. But it seems that the huge breadth of content would make those weeks where the piece you really wanted didn't drop from this boss or that a lot less painful - you could simply kill Nefarian, or perhaps Marrowgar, or maybe Teron Gorefiend for the 2-hander you need.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Tweaking the LFR Loot System

The Mists-era LFR loot system is a vast improvement over the one that came with Dragon Soul and LFR's introduction. If you were ever frustrated by loot ninjas, like Balance Druids taking your Rogue gear, or a Warlock taking the Priest's spirit cloth - or a super-well-geared tank Needing on a blue tank piece because he or she "needs the gold" (which nowadays is a blatant lie,) imagine that multiplied by five, with cartels of players needing on everything to distribute it to their friends or people taking pieces they don't want just to trade it for those they do.

By making all loot individual, the notion of competition for gear is a thing of the past. I used to prefer to get Druid co-tanks because I wouldn't have to worry about them taking my plate or shields. Now, if I run with a Warrior or fellow Paladin, it's no problem. We can now wish each other luck instead of hoping that we are the one to get the gear.

The real problem, though, is the frustration of getting a Fail Bag. Now, in my experience, the acquisition of loot has not actually felt any worse than it did with the old system (in fact, I think I gear up faster.) The only real difference between a Fail Bag and just not seeing the item you want drop is that you don't get something that says "this is why you didn't get what you wanted." These days, the answer is always simply that the random number generator did not favor you this time.

Granted, even when something you wanted did drop, you could still get screwed by the RNG. If you're one of four Mages in a group, you only really have a one in four chance to get that nice robe (not to mention all the Warlocks and Shadow Priests.)

Yet despite all this, the Failbag is pretty unsatisfying. Maybe if gold were harder to come by, getting 30 would be a decent consolation prize, but when you consider that the average piece of epic gear sells on the auction house for tens of thousands of gold, 30 doesn't seem like much.

Admittedly, the problem could be mostly fixed in 5.3. Firstly, the more times you kill a boss without getting something, the more likely you'll be to win something off it next time. So persistence will be rewarded. One of those problems with statistics is that if something has a drop rate of 5%, you'd think that on the seventh kill, you'd have a 35% chance to have gotten it. However, this isn't true. First of all, over the whole seven attempts, your chance at getting the piece would be closer to 30%, as what you're really calculating is the chance of you not getting the item seven times in a row, which is 95% to the seventh power, and you then find the other part of 100% to get your chances. But also, if you're already on the seventh attempt, your chance at getting that piece is still just 5% - as soon each of those previous attempts occurred, they ceased to be statistical probabilities and simply became fact.

Anyway, the point is, this will make those long slogs of getting no loot feel less painful. If you've killed every boss multiple times with no luck, you can expect a pretty big haul in the next few attempts.

The other big fix is that you'll be able to choose a different loot type than what spec you've come in as. Now there will be no reason for tanks to run signed up as dps, or dps running as tanks (though in the latter case, what do those people expect was going to happen? Almost all bosses need two tanks, and if you don't down bosses, how are you expecting to get anything out of the run?)

I really think the crux of what people don't like about the LFR loot system right now is those damned Fail Bags. The fix is easy though - give us something better out of them.

Two clear options, in my mind, would be Valor Points and Reputation Boosts. Right now, Shado-Pan Assault rep is still quite valuable, especially if you haven't been clearing every ToT wing each week (I don't think it would even be possible to be exalted yet if you only did LFR.) So handing out some rep-boosts, like half a boss' worth of reputation, would be a good way to feel like you'd earned something better. Valor Points are an even easier thing to implement, and given that VP is closer to being a real, power-raising currency than Gold is, it would be quite welcome.

A more radical approach would be to somehow change the way that currency worked. I proposed a while ago a system that would really help you deal with rotten stretches of loot luck - make the bosses' loot tables available from a vendor, but make it so that in order to purchase things from them, you would first need to beat the boss. This way, a person who got lucky and got their item off the boss the first go would not have any unfair advantage over someone who had killed the boss many times. These items would be expensive, and of course you would still be able to get the loot quicker if you were lucky with the drops, but it would be a great solution that would not invalidate the need to progress through a raid or dungeon. In order to have that Heroic version of Lei Shen's shield, you would still have to beat Lei Shen on heroic difficulty - this system would not change that. It just means that if the other tank won the roll, you'd still be able to get it even if your guild moved on or just never managed to repeat the feat.

This new system could work across difficulties, from Raid Finder to Heroic. You would still be limited to those bosses you beat and the loot corresponding to the difficulty on which you beat the boss.

It might even make a separate inventory of Valor gear totally unnecessary (well, we'd probably want some pre-Raid VP gear still, but that's what Daily Factions would be for.) And if you still wanted some reputation gating, you could easily put certain bosses on certain thresholds. For example, the Zandalari bosses in ToT could require Friendly rep to buy their gear, the Forgotten Depths could require Honored, the Halls of Flesh Shaping could require Revered, and the Pinnacle of Storms bosses could require Exalted (though this might be a little unfair depending on where weapons are placed. One solution to that would be to arrange things so that the end boss of a raid segment would have just weapons.)

Anyway, that's a pretty radical re-think of the whole loot system. But changing what we get out of the Fail Bags would probably make them feel a lot less fail.