Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is Haste Overpowered?

There's a lot of talk about class balance and spec balance - making sure that everyone can put out equal dps with equal effort, in single-target, cleaving, and AoE situations, and making sure that, as the expansion goes on, and gear levels increase, that balance is maintained.

So perhaps it's silly to be worried about one stat becoming so powerful. After all, everyone has access to the stats they could use. Sure, sometimes items are better itemized to favor one or the other, but it's not like being a Paladin means you are unable to pick up anything with crit on it.

In fact, one could argue that having one secondary stat benefit the vast majority of specs keeps everyone balanced in terms of itemization.

That said, is it me, or does EVERYONE freaking want Haste these days?

Ok, backing up: sure, there are specs that don't want it. Warriors of all stripes put it at the bottom of the list (unless one of the two Fury variants uses it.) And yes, stat weights are a little more nuanced than what the typical person understands - there are haste breakpoints for DoTs, and having more of one stat will make another more valuable.

But with those caveats aside, from my count, haste is the top stat for at least Demonology Warlocks, Affliction Warlocks, Frost Mages, Windwalker Monks, Balance Druids, Rogues of all specs, Feral Druids, Elemental Shamans, Frost Death Knights, Unholy Death Knights, Retribution Paladins, and even Protection Paladins. And I don't know anything about healing stat weights, but I'd guess that after spirit, haste is typically the top one for all of them as well.

Crit is good for a handful of specs, and Mastery, which was once the top stat for a fair number of specs, is now lagging behind (even for Protection Paladins, which I think is heresy - see my earlier article.)

So why is this the case? Well, casters have always liked haste. (Well, back in Vanilla and BC there were two different haste stats, one for melee and one for casters, likewise for crit and hit, which made gearing a Ret Paladin basically impossible.) Haste makes your spells cast faster. There's a really clear benefit to the stat. Add in the fact that in Cataclysm they baked in a lot of old glyphs and such that made DoTs scale with Haste as well and you can see why it's such a dominant stat for nearly every spell-caster in the game.

The other big Cataclysm change is that they made Haste affect resource generation for Melee classes. Back in the day, haste would increase the speed of your auto-attacks, and that was it. Dual-wielding classes, who would get nearly 50% of their damage from auto-attacks, saw a real benefit to this, but anyone lugging a big, slow, two-hander was far better off with crit or other stats that have since disappeared (and been replaced with Mastery.) A rogue's energy would always regenerate at the same rate, regardless of gear, as would Death Knight runes (though runes never had downtime like they do today, so it was still pretty fast-paced.)

The effect, really, has been to make haste a hugely dynamic stat: You do things faster, in every way.

So is this a bad thing? Well, other than my own personal aesthetic preferences (I like the idea of swinging a giant warhammer and slamming down with the force of a nuclear bomb, not continually smacking at my opponents with a wet noodle faster and faster until they finally give up) there might not be much of one.

However, here are the little issues:

Lag: Having to hit our buttons more often means more things for the game to process in a shorter amount of time. How much of a difference does this make? No idea: I'm not a computer engineer. But hypothetically, just as Blizzard has talked about doing an item squish partially because it takes the computers that much longer to calculate 100,000 damage than it does to calculate 100, it's possible that all this haste is putting extra strain on servers.

Of course, the other big issue with lag is that having a haste-reliant class makes you more susceptible to lag spikes. If you're expected to hit ten abilities in fifteen seconds, you're going to be hurt a lot harder than if you're only expected to hit seven. Lag will also have you "wasting" pooled resources. Rogues (particularly Combat) lose significant dps if they let their energy cap.

Item Variety: If haste is so awesome for everyone, it means that everyone is going to want the same pieces of gear. That means big fights over that one trinket that gives a huge haste proc, while the others will be more of a "yeah, I guess that's ok for me" situation, and more focused min-maxers might not even take it, despite it being, iLevel-wise, an upgrade.

Anti-Homogenization: I don't really like to beat the "homogenization" drum a lot. Frankly, people who look back at the BC era with nostalgia infuriate me, because that was a time when there were specs that even the designers didn't intend for you to play. Sometimes, people call real balance homogenization ("I miss the days when Mages had the best AoE. Now everyone can do AoE and the game is terrible and Ghostcrawler should... [Fake Ed. note: several pages of obscenities removed.]") However, I would say that if everyone is getting the same enchants, and fighting for the same trinkets, the whole gearing game loses substance. While I don't want us to go back to the days of "gear for Balance Druids" and "gear for Elemental, but not Restoration Shamans" era, I think that there are enough secondary stats in the game to produce fun variety, and spreading the love around would be welcome. Gearing for haste on every toon is kind of unexciting.

Anyway, I wouldn't say that rebalancing the three main secondary stats is a top priority (giving the Alliance some lore-love is way higher on my list,) I do think that this issue could stand to be looked at.

You Can't Go Home Again (Again)

There's a kind of conundrum in World of Warcraft. All the dense history of Azeroth that we've been dealing with since the RTS games is in the Old World. The major cities (though Dalaran got to move up to Northrend) that have the most lore are all in Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms (here's an irony for you: despite Kalimdor being the more "ancient" and "primeval" of the two original continents, the four capitals in EK are all far, far older than any of the cities in Kalimdor, unless you count Exodar, which wasn't a city until it crashed.)

It's in these continents that our characters really "live." My Paladin's home is Stormwind, for example.

And ultimately, Blizzard talks a lot about how the Old World really is where Warcraft is set - it's the hub. After all, we really only go to those exotic locales to keep the Old World safe.

The first two expansions, Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, were pretty lucky in that both Outland and Northrend were established locations from the RTS games that nonetheless felt "separate" enough not to include in the original game. Outland got to feel very different from Azeroth because it was literally a different world. Northrend always felt like it was part of the world, and it was an obvious place to go. Nowadays, I think of Northrend as fitting just as naturally into Azeroth as EK and Kalimdor.

But with those locations used in the first two expansions, Blizzard decided to go back to the Old World. I think this was for two reasons: One was that Outland and Northrend looked a lot better, and the questing experience (especially in Northrend) was far, far better. The other reason was that, with Outland and Northrend covered, there wasn't really any other established location to go to. The plot actually tied pretty well into the idea of putting us on the defensive, even if I think that ultimately, the Cataclysm zones didn't feel all that well-connected to the rest of the world (perhaps Gilneas being the exception, mainly due to the drastic and really well-done overhaul of Silverpine Forest.)

Anyway, Cataclysm was a troubled expansion. Nevertheless, I think the revamp half of it was a triumph (except for some of the zones they skipped that really could have used some attention, like Silithus or Arathi Highlands.) The Old World is "fixed" now, so even if there were enough resources to go back and revamp it again, I don't think it's necessary (aforementioned zones notwithstanding.)

Of course, the problem this generates is that this pretty much precludes them from setting more expansions in the Old World. Sure, Uldum and Hyjal had already been established, but especially now, where would you even put the new zones? Besides, having a disconnected group of zones that one accessed via portal was not a really fun way to "explore."

So it seems that we need a new continent for any future expansions, just as we've done with Outland, Northrend, and Pandaria.

But what does that mean for developing the story within the old world?

Let me pull out one of my go-to examples of a story that I feel needs to happen. Gilneas must be re-taken by the Alliance. Sylvanas' story is begging for a real setback, and the Alliance is desperate for a lasting win (don't mention Siege of Orgrimmar. It's the Horde that's ultimately going to be the better for all of that, and given the way Blizzard writes it, they're not going to make an concessions to the Alliance out of gratitude.) It would be great if Worgen (and other Alliance) players could take part in some story-rich questing that shows their side of the struggle against the Forsaken (using phasing, you could have it kind of mirror the way that Horde players get to do some quests in Gilneas.) But given that it's pretty much guaranteed that we're not going to get more leveling stuff in the Old World, that's probably not going to happen.

Now, this is not to say that going elsewhere means we can't do anything back at home. After all, look at Quel'danas/Sunwell, the Battle of Undercity (would be so cool to revive that as a scenario,) and the Siege of Orgrimmar. But it's unlikely that we'll get the kind of full-zone questing experiences that one gets with the new continent.

And that means that we can pretty much expect to see the Cataclysm-era Old World to keep looking basically like it does today. Sure, 90+ toons might see a different Warchief in Orgrimmar, and we'll probably get the occasional small update (like Stormwind Harbor, which newbies might not realize came with Wrath of the Lich King, and not Cataclysm. We used to have to use Menethil Harbor in the Wetlands to get to Darnassus!)

But is all of this permanent?

Who knows how long they're going to keep making new expansions. Sure, numbers have dipped by a huge factor, but there's still a large American city's worth of subscribers, and Blizzard certainly seems to be planning for multiple future expansions. In all that time, we might indeed see drastic changes to the old world again.

For now, I suppose all I can do is fly over to Silverpine and kill Forsaken NPCs on my Worgen characters and cheer on my fellow freedom fighters.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reflecting on Battlefield Barrens, Unscripted Outdoor Activities and World Events

With 5.4 taking further shape on the PTR, we can probably expect it to come in a month or two, and that means that Battlefield Barrens will come to a close.

Battlefield Barrens has been a somewhat unusual event. Throughout Mists of Pandaria, we've had tons of daily quest hubs - first the huge fusillade of them in 5.0: The Golden Lotus, the Order of the Cloud Serpent, the Klaxxi, the August Celestials, the Shado-Pan, the Tillers, and the Anglers (the Lorewalkers don't quite count, as they're actually not really based around dailies.) Then we got the Krasarang Beachhead in 5.1, followed by the Isle of Thunder in 5.2.

One might have thought of Battlefield Barrens as being the next in a line of daily quest hubs, but in reality, it shares its DNA with the sort of World Events we haven't seen since the pre-launch patch before Cataclysm.

Truthfully, World Events have not had much of a presence in-game since Vanilla, and one can pretty much name all of them easily: The Ahn'Qiraj War Effort, the Scourge Invasion (heralding Naxxramas,) the Battle at the Dark Portal (pre-BC event, also included one of the old World Bosses attacking various cities,) the Second Scourge Invasion and Zombie Plague (pre-Wrath event that fleshed out the Scourge Invasion and added some foreshadowing of what was to come,) and then the Elemental Invasion (pre-Cataclysm event.)

The point, and the fun, of these events is that they took you back to old areas and encouraged you have some non-progression, flavorful fun. The pre-expansion events worked best, I think, because any sort of gear you got out of them would be replaced quickly, and instead it was just an excuse to get excited for what was coming next.

But how deep are they? Really? Most of these events involved simply killing big waves of enemies in remote locations (or sometimes right in the home cities.) The point was not to gear up, but just to experience the story.

And it is here where I feel Battlefield Barrens didn't quite work out, even if it isn't really the fault of Blizzard. The point of the event was to A. Justify Horde players attacking their own Warchief and B. Setting the stage for the Siege of Orgrimmar.

We do get a bit of a lore event for Horde players, when Vol'jin's forces march on and take over Razor Hill. Alliance players get a far less interesting introduction that just siphons them into the Horde story (it frustrates me that there isn't at least an Alliance representative there with Vol'jin,) skipping forward to after the Darkspear have already taken Razor Hill.

And then you basically just go into the Barrens and kill Kor'kron.

I'll admit that hopping around and killing the various bosses, or escorting those caravans in a giant crowd, feels pretty fun. On the other hand, grinding out 150 of every resource is a pain. I understand that the point was to let you come back and do as much as you wanted, but given that you had to turn in 600 resources or that week was "wasted," made it far more attractive to just try to grind the whole thing out in a day.

Unlike other such events, there wasn't a sense of progression. Wrath's Zombie Plague and Cataclysm's Doomsday Cult both built up over a set schedule, but since Battlefield Barrens lasts the entirety of the 5.3 patch cycle, it needed more complexity, and not less.

Mind you, I like big world events, and I love being sent back to low-level zones, as I feel they make the world feel like a more vibrant setting. Still, I don't really think I'll be too heartbroken when Battlefield Barrens ends (and I've got the Darkspear Revolutionary title on my Troll character, so I'm all set.)

The upcoming Timeless Isle seems like it will be a grander experiment into an Unscripted Outdoor zone - hopefully with more substance than the Isle of Giants.

In terms of World Events, though, as with most people, I was sad that Mists had no pre-expansion event. Sure, they had a lot to do with putting Pandaria together, but these things do a lot to set tone and get excited about something.

I think generally these events should stick to what has worked in the past - make them short, like two-to-three weeks, and give them a clear story and sense of progression. One of the problems with 5.3's event is that by the time Siege of Orgrimmar actually comes out, the Barrens will likely be pretty barren again.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prot Haste and the Implications for Dodge/Parry

One of the interesting things to come out of the PTR is that the Paladin tanking tier set actually has some haste itemized in it (it's not a lot, I think only one one of the five pieces.) This seems to suggest that Blizzard has decided to fully enshrine haste as a key stat for Paladin tanks.

Now, I was all up in arms against Active Mitigation tanking, but thankfully the design of boss fights has mostly made it a gameplay style with integrity. The main reason I hated haste for Paladin Tanks was that it stepped outside of our traditional tanking itemization. That might not have been a problem if it were not for the fact that, due to LFR's automated loot system, we would never receive haste from any of the bosses as long as we were signed up as tanks.

Yet haste tanking has become very popular, and indeed, it seems (from my subjective perspective) that tank threat is balanced around the assumption that a Protadin is going to be stacking haste, even if the greater theoretical appeal to the faster rotation is the increased Shield of the Righteous uptime.

I am willing to adapt to the change, but here are some ground rules:

1. We've got to be able to receive this new "tank gear" with automated loot systems. If it's got some combination of hit, expertise, mastery, dodge, parry, or now haste, we've got to be able to get it without running as Ret.

2. If we start to see haste and avoidance stats appear together, it's got to be useful to the other plate tanks (DKs already essentially have Sanctity of Battle baseline, given how Runes have been affected by Haste since 4.0, but Warriors should benefit rather than finding themselves in the same situation as a Wrath-era Death Knight with a whole bunch of useless block rating.)

3. Mastery should still remain a good stat - I'm of the opinion that Mastery is the most interesting stat in the game, but also a great across-the-board stat for the tanking role. Melee has Agility or Strength, and casters have Intellect, but in an age where we're not getting slammed for 95% of our health pools every time a boss connects, Stamina isn't really as clearly beneficial as other base stats. I like the trend of having tank trinkets deal largely in mastery.

So all this is fine, but what picture does this paint for tank itemization in the future? Since both avoidance stats are basically reforge-aways (with two secondary stats per item, you'll always have either haste or mastery to reforge an avoidance stat into) it starts to make you wonder if the whole tanking paradigm needs another look.

An obvious step would be to consolidate parry and dodge into one stat. Certain classes (usually melee-capable ones) have parry in addition to dodge, while others don't. Oddly, Druids, a tank- and melee-dps-capable class, have always only had dodge. There's flavor to it, sure, but overall, given that both stats function identically (for players, at least,) it stands to reason that we could shrink it down.

Then, of course, there's the problem that avoidance is entirely passive. Active Mitigation has proven to be a more engaging way to tank for most people (and thankfully has been balanced more along the lines of "bonus for playing like a pro" than "penalty for playing like a noob," at least in LFR.) Yet there is something appealing to better gear making you simply harder to kill. Armor does this pretty elegantly, and avoidance is a lot like armor, except that by its nature, it is streaky. In a way, that's fine, because a little unpredictability can make the game more engaging (it's why procs are such a key to making a class fun.)

So perhaps the solution is as simple as making avoidance a single stat, thus lowering avoidance chances automatically, while of course balancing encounters around letting the classes survive if played well.

If Parry is lost, that makes Dodge the only strictly-tanking stat. That actually makes it unique among stats, being associated with a single role. Healers, after all, use the same stats as DPS casters, only with a different emphasis (stacking Spirit where non-Mage/Warlock casters only get it to a certain cap.)

I had proposed getting rid of Dodge and Parry altogether, and simply making Haste and Crit provide those benefits. Another option is to get rid of the secondary stats and merely boost the dodge and parry gained by Agility and Strength, respectively.

The point here, is that I think Blizzard needs to make a decision before the next expansion comes out. If they want tank gear to remain tank gear, they seriously need to do something about the avoidance stats. Currently, the "lipstick on the pig" approach, such as the changes to Grand Crusader, are a band-aid - acceptable given the difficulty of doing a major re-haul in the middle of an expansion. However, in the long run, these stats need to see a significant change, either in the way that they work or their emphasis in itemization.

The existence of haste on the Paladin tier 16 Armor, however, suggests that Blizzard is well aware of the issue, and I look forward to a clever and elegant solution.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The In-Game Store: Attempting to Predict the Consequences

WoW has been, from its inception, a subscription-based game. You pay for the box itself (though I seem to have gotten by with just the 10-day trial version, later converted to a subscription, without paying for Vanilla WoW) each time an expansion comes out, and you pay 15 bucks a month (or less, if you subscribe for bigger chunks of time.)

This opens to you the entire game. There is nothing you cannot see of the game if you pay this subscription, if you have the time, skill, and put in the effort.

All that changed with the introduction of the Sparkle Pony, the Celestial Steed, which came in Wrath of the Lich King. For $25, you could have a pretty cool-looking mount. Since the Sparkle Pony, Blizzard has put many mounts and companion pets up for sale on the Blizzard store. The common refrain for supporters of this store/service is that none of these items affect gameplay. The Sparkle Pony was exactly the same as any other flying mount - it went at the same speed and performed the same function. Admittedly, with Pet Battles introduced, some bought pets could theoretically have an advantage, but there are so many pets out there that we can probably imagine that there isn't truly a serious advantage to having, say, your Lil' KT fighting other pets.

However, things are changing again with the introduction of new items that may or may not come in 5.4. These include a potion that can increase the XP you gain by a huge amount.

XP, unlike star-studded horses, is an aspect of player power. The one saving grace here is that there is a cap to XP, and in many minds, hitting the level cap is only the start of WoW-proper.

The reason I worry is that we are seeing the scale of precedent slide slowly in the direction of tying player power to microtransactions. Rumors suggest that in this real-money store, you will be able to purchase Lesser Charms of Good Fortune. Again, there is effectively a cap here due to the fact that you can only spend 50 of these per week, but if I spend, say, an hour doing IoT dailies to get said charms every week, there is a pressure to go the easy way.

Like the problems I've talked about with DLC in other games, I think the danger of microtransactions is not an inherent one, but that it opens a path toward unsavory business strategies. As Chase Hasbrouk of WoW Insider suggested (I paraphrase here,) from a business perspective, if you add an item that speeds up a grind, you might be tempted to add more grinds into the game to make the product more appealing. You may make more money off the people who are willing to pay, but the game objectively gets worse as a result.

My other objection here is that WoW is a subscription-based game. We pay roughly 15 bucks every month, and for that, we expect certain things. It is that 15 bucks that pays for new raids, new dungeons (ehem!) and other new content. We are effectively constantly paying for the new goods (and the maintenance of the server, to be fair.) So to be, asking for additional money for anything new is already a bit dishonest. Despite this, I'm willing to forgive the mounts (though I'm pretty sore over the bat) for the most part because I've got so many mounts already.

But if we start going in the direction of buying our gear, well...

If you recall, Diablo 3 got pretty stupid thanks to the Real Money Auction House. The gear you could get there was so far better than what you found in-game (actually, this applies to the fake money auction house too) that the game ceased to really be an RPG and was more a "slaughter things until you aren't powerful enough to do so anymore, then go back to the Auction House."

WoW has been far better than that, and so it remains, for now. Blizzard has got their toes sticking over the edge of the cliff. I seriously hope they take a step back.

Caveat Epilogue:

The other option here, is of course, going free-to-play. No subscriptions, just microtransactions. While in some ways I think this could wind up being better psychologically (no desperate need to make sure you make that 15 bucks worth it each month,) I also don't really know how a F2P MMO works (I know there are many, but I have time for just WoW.) If it's anything like how Diablo 3 wound up, though, please put a stake through its heart, chop off its head, and bury it at a crossroads.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Let us Sing and Dance and Ring in the New! Hail Justice Points!

Some new patch notes have come by for the 5.4 PTR, and there is some fantastic, excellent news!

All the 5.0 reputation vendor gear (as in, Mists' original VP vendors) is now:

A. Reputation-Free - no dailies if you don't want to! and...
B. Justice Point-available!

Justice Points, which this expansion have been far more useful when converted to Honor Points (because PvP gear has stuck to the Cataclysm old/current gear model,) will now allow you to purchase a full set of epics at iLevel 489 (not sure if Shieldwall/Dominance is included in this change.) Now, before you poo-poo 489 gear as you sit on your throne averaging at an iLevel of 510 or so (main and prime alt are both at about 512 as regular ToT LFR participants,) you should remember that this is not for you, but for all the new 90s and alts. Remember alts? (Ok, I've actually got plenty of alts at 90, but I'm that guy ((see: blog title.)))

Now, this is certainly not as generous a catch-up system as Cataclysm or Late-Wrath had. This stuff is two tiers behind, rather than one. Still, considering that the iLevel to queue for Siege of Orgrimmar is currently 496 (meaning that if Shieldwall/KTO/Horde equivalents thereof get downgraded to Justice, you should be able to get there pretty easily,) and as you'll still probably need to run through each of the raidfinder segments in sequence, and thus likely get some pieces out of the preceding tiers, it will be not too bad at all getting a new alt geared up.

I imagine a lot of people don't even bother running heroics anymore (I only do about one a week on my best-geared toons, which makes me sad.) Therefore, you may not realize that you actually get a pretty sizable chunk of JP from each run. Likewise with Scenarios.

The crappy 458 blues aren't going away entirely, but their price is getting slashed by, I believe, 75% - basically just if you really need that one extra item point to queue for MSV or something.

I'm very happy that Justice Points are finally getting to serve their stated purpose.

I don't know how much to read into this move, I'm very curious to see how this system evolves in the next expansion. Frankly, if you ask me, the Cataclysm currency model was the best they've used (rare to praise Cataclysm, I know, but that expansion did have its saving graces.) Philosophically, I know they are wary of "content skipping," or probably more accurately "content obsolescence" but I do think that at the end of the day, you need a way to let people catch up, and this is one of the ways you do that.

Probably too early, but I'm going to hoard JP on my lower-geared toons!