Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dungeon Scaling Tech Mostly Complete, Apparently. How Might Rewards Work?

While we aren't going to be seeing it in 5.4 (which is a mere two weeks away, and is presumably in the last stages of being polished,) Blizzard has made mention of the fact that they have been working on adapting the sort of item-scaling and Flex-raid scaling features to allow us to run old content (as in, previous expansions) scaled-up to our level (or perhaps with us scaled down.)

The only reason, according to Blizzard, that they have not yet implemented this system is that they are not yet sure how to reward participation in such a thing. While it would be nice to simply think that people will run it for... you know, fun, WoW is a game that really encourages you to run content with a potential for a good reward over one that doesn't. Player-power is the biggest reward, but there are a lot of tangential rewards that feed into that that are not so high-stakes as to require a massive challenge. Current raids of course drop the most powerful items, but running dungeons, scenarios, and daily quests give you Valor Points, which is more "grindy," but are therefore seen as a fair way to amass power without perhaps challenging the player quite as much.

I can imagine that you could do a weekly old-school raid quest and you could have a weekly old-school dungeon quest. These would reward a decent amount of VP, but not enough to cap. Subsequent runs of old-school content might reward a smaller number of VP (much like LFR, Dungeons, and Scenarios.) You could even keep item drops the same, as their main value would be for transmog (and thus you aren't flooding the item-possibilities with a million different things to min-max.)

You might then add one or two scaling items or perhaps new pets and mounts. How about a little djinni pet from Throne of the Four Winds or Vortex Pinnacle? Or a flesh-beast from the Arcatraz? Come to think of it, why the hell do we not have a mini-Kobold pet yet?

There is such a wealth of content in WoW that we never really get to see anymore. The heroic revamps of Deadmines, SFK, Scarlet Monastery and Scholomance were all great (well, perhaps Shadowfang Keep might have retained at least some Worgen? Somehow?) but of course, now that we're past Cataclysm, the former two are just as irrelevant as they were before the revamps. Hell, heroic dungeons are such a small niche in the days of LFR that even the latter two (which in my mind were done far better) have even fallen out of relevance within their own expansion.

I'd love to see scaling allowed for lots of things. Just being able to go back and enjoy the quests in a zone again would be cool, as long as it didn't feel mandatory for those who did not wish to do them.

So, even while we see VP being de-emphasized, it is perhaps the perfect reward for content that you want to be attractive while not feeling mandatory. We all get our VP the way we want - some do dailies, some raid, some run dungeons, some run scenarios. Let's let Old-School content be another option there.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Siege of Orgrimmar Confirmed for September 10th

Blizzard has officially confirmed that patch 5.4, the Siege of Orgrimmar, will release on September 10th.

(As a personal note, this is great for me, as the previously-rumored date of the 27th of August was when I was leaving town, and the 10th is when I'm getting back, so I won't miss out!)

Heart of the Thunder King and Celestial Blessings

With 5.4 approaching, many may have caught up in the Legendary chain long ago, but on the other hand, some are still stuck on the first stage of it.

After receiving the Legendary Meta Gem for collecting Secrets of the Empire, forging the Lighting Spear, and charging it using Nalak, Wrathion sends you back into the Throne of Thunder, this time to collect Titan Runestones, all of which drop from the bosses in the second half. Despite having to collect only twelve such items, the limitations on the bosses that drop them will mean that this stage will actually take longer on average.

The silver lining is that with each Titan Runestone, Wrathion will read what is written, and you will find out about the history of the Mogu, their fight against Y'shaarj, the silence of the Titans, the Curse of Flesh, and the rise of Lei Shen.

With all twelve runestones collected, Wrathion will then send you to take the heart of the Thunder King. As you've likely killed the guy ten or more times by now, another kill is not much of a burden. Finally bringing the heart to him, Wrathion actually eats it, but then goes into a strange trance.

Wrathion speaks cryptically about Azeroth (presumably) and a strange voice takes hold of him, saying "We must complete the Final Titan." Strange indeed.

This event concludes chapter III of the Black Prince Legendary chain, with no reward other than the previously-rewarded meta gem, but seeing as 5.3 is already out, you can immediately move on.

The next chapter is remarkably simple. Wrathion informs you that, in preparation for the oncoming battle in Orgrimmar, you must seek the blessings of the four celestials. You travel to each of the temples and speak with them. Wrathion learns lessons about Fortitude, Strength, Wisdom and Hope. To complete the quest, however, you must also accept and defeat one of the challenges given by the celestials.

Each celestial represents one of the four basic group roles: Niuzao for Tanks, Xuen for Melee DPS, Yu'lon for Ranged DPS, and Chi-Ji for Healers. Each challenge is tailored to one of these roles.

I was only able to attempt Xuen and Niuzao's challenges, though I understand Yu'lon's is very similar to Xuen's.

Xuen has you fight Wrathion, but he is blindfolded. You can thus get behind him and avoid most of his damage. However, he has several attacks that will require you to be light on your feet. One is a large arcing slash that does massive damage. He also creates fire patches on the ground that likewise do tons of damage, but this ability can be interrupted. Additionally, he summons packs of fiery blood (think Spine of Deathwing.) These must be killed quickly or they will overwhelm you. He will also occasionally summon a rain of fire, but you can dodge the falling fireballs.

I actually did not succeed with Xuen's challenge, because any moment of latency spelled instant death.

Niuzao's challenge is somewhat easier (given that I was able to do it in an offspec for my Death Knight, and got it on only my second try with Jarsus.) Here, you must defend Wrathion against an image of his father (that cool humanoid Deathwing model they didn't use that much.) In this case, he uses many of the same abilities, but of course your priority is to stay alive. Occasionally, he will fixate on Wrathion, requiring you to taunt him away. Everything is balanced a little differently, so the adds will go down without much effort, and Wrathion will effectively dodge out of the arcing attacks. The primary wrinkle to this is that at certain points, Deathwing will disappear and Wrathion will go to the center of the courtyard. There, four elementals will shoot shards of flaming rock. You need to intercept these with your body while dealing with adds, as they do huge damage to Wrathion, but only about 30k to you. As a special trick here, you can actually accept a Shado-Pan daily quest and bring along one of the companions, who will help you a little in your fight.

With your challenge achieved, you will return to Mason's Folly and Wrathion will give you your cloak, which is iLevel 600, with three secondary stats and a gem slot. This will of course be upgraded to the Legendary cloak in 5.4.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Scottish... er, Durotarian Play?

What makes for a compelling villain?

This is one of those questions that applies to practically all of fiction. While there are stories where there is no bad guy, and the conflict is rather between the protagonist(s) and circumstance, a great variety of stories across all media have villains. Sometimes, the villains are more iconic than the heroes. Indeed, sometimes, the greatest villains are in fact the protagonists.

I'm going to talk about World of Warcraft here, but I'll start by describing one of the most iconic villains in fiction. In the theater world (to which I am somewhat connected, though I haven't personally been involved in it much since High School,) the name of this character, which is also the name of the play, is considered cursed (actually, the whole play is considered cursed, but especially the name.) It goes that you're not supposed to say his name in a theater unless it is the play that is being performed, and even then, you want to keep it to a minimum. Thus, people instead refer to it as "The Scottish Play."

But this ain't a theater, and I ain't afraid of no curses. So we're going to talk about Macbeth.

Unlike the other two members of Shakespeare's Tragic Trifecta, namely Hamlet and King Lear (he, of course, wrote plenty of other tragedies, but these three are usually considered his best,) Macbeth is no hero. Hamlet's trying to avenge his father, and Lear is trying to survive his daughters' betrayal. But Macbeth's story is not unlike that of Garrosh Hellscream or Arthas Menethil. Here is a man who rose to power and became corrupted by it, seeking more and more until he became a monster.

To sum the play up, Macbeth is a nobleman in Scotland who has just made a real name for himself by defeating the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. En route back from the battle, he and his friend Banquo meet a trio of witches. They greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (which is his current station,) but also as Thane of Cawdor, and future King of Scotland. They also address Banquo as the father of future kings, but neither man really thinks much about the implications there (perhaps they assume that their descendants will marry or something.)

Thus, the seed is planted. King Duncan bestows the title of Thane of Cawdor upon Macbeth, adding this to his role as Thane of Glamis. So Macbeth is very humble at first (not unlike Garrosh) and accepts the title.

Here's the thing. Macbeth's home life is not great. He and his wife, Lady Macbeth (no other name given - times have changed) have been married for many years, but they have never had a child, and not for lack of trying. So there's a bit of emptiness there. Macbeth tells his wife of the prophecy from the witches. Latching onto this - finally a chance for them to do achieve something as a couple - Lady Macbeth suggests that they host Duncan for a visit, and then murder him and his two sons. Macbeth is hesitant, but ultimately the seduction of power wins him over.

Duncan is murdered, but his sons escape to England and Ireland. Nevertheless, Macbeth is left in position to take power, and he does.

And then things go from bad to worse. Every dissenting voice, he silences. He rules through brute force (I saw a production of this with Patrick Stewart that set it in Stalinist Russia, which was very apt, and Captain Picard was awesome as usual.) Even Banquo, his oldest and dearest friend, is now considered a threat, because of the same prophecy that prompted his rise to power. Macbeth has Banquo murdered, though Banquo's son escapes (this was probably tossed in to appeal to the current monarchs, who traced their ancestry to a historical Banquo.)

Macbeth has gone off the deep end. He just can't retain power except through fear and violence (just like Garrosh) and it begins to take its toll. Lady Macbeth, who had been so gung ho in the first place, becomes convinced that her hands are still covered with Duncan's blood, and compulsively washes them over and over. As a resistance rises up to confront him, he returns to the witches, who now promise him that no man of woman born shall kill him, and that he will remain in power until Birnham Wood march upon Dunsinae Castle. Since everyone is generally born from women (not going to get into the whole topic of gender vs sex on a video game blog, so let's leave it at that) and most trees don't tend to go around marching, Macbeth figures he's perfectly safe, and that the witches just had a particularly poetical way of saying "You'll be fine!"

Well, Duncan's son Malcolm, and Macduff, whose family was murdered by Macbeth's death squads, march their army, camouflaged by the trees of Birnham Wood. The armies clash, but ultimately, Macduff confronts Macbeth, and, having been born by caesarean, qualifies as "not of woman born," and thus defeats him, cutting off his head.

So why is this one of the greatest stories ever told? Because we witness Macbeth's fall. Remember, as Thane of Glamis, he is a hero of Scotland, and makes his name defeating an enemy to the crown. We can see what power does to a man, pushing open those small cracks and flaws in his character until they cause what was once a good person to crumble into evil.

In many ways, I think that Garrosh's transformation into a villain owes a ton to Macbeth. Hell, the failed assassination attempt on Vol'jin is almost equivalent in terms of story-propulsion to the murder of Macduff's family. Vol'jin is Macduff, Thrall is Malcolm (and, paradoxically, Duncan,) and the Alliance is England.

Of Warcraft Villains, generally Arthas is considered the most compelling. Now part of that is that the Scourge, with its whole aesthetic, is really cool. But we also see how a bright young Paladin could find himself gripping Frostmourne. Arthas' main flaw in life was equating fighting evil with doing good. Rather than staying in Lordaeron and dealing with the plague, establishing a Lordaeron CDC, essentially, he followed Mal'ganis to Northrend, leaving his country to its fate. Sure, Arthas thought that by fighting the Scourge on its home turf, it would protect his home, but ultimately one wonders if there wasn't simply an inherent blood lust there. Just as Macbeth finds he only knows how to exercise power through violence, Arthas finds that he cannot retreat, cannot allow for a defeat. Did his actions at Stratholme prevent the spread of the plague? Clearly not in the long run. Yet perhaps a different Paladin might have instead quarantined infected areas, and saved those citizens who might have avoided the plagued grain. But Arthas was ultimately too bloody-minded to consider that. One even wonders if it was purely the Lich King's influence that turned him into such a monster after taking up Frostmourne. Perhaps he finally felt liberated. Rather than being forced to use his power and strength to protect the weak or uphold some abstract concept of "good," he was now unfettered, and came to the realization that the reason he slaughtered the people of Stratholme was that he had always felt a certain contempt for the weaker, common people of Lordaeron. Perhaps, Arthas was always a Death Knight at heart.

As has been said even by Blizzard, Garrosh is ultimately a weak personality. Just as Macbeth was swayed by his wife's ambition, Garrosh was swayed by the romanticization of the strength of the Old Horde. Thrall showed him that his father had managed to fight off his demons (literal and figurative) in the end, but what Garrosh took from that was that Grom had overpowered his demons - that his strength could conquer evil itself. From there, Garrosh fetishized any sign of strength. And conversely, "weakness" became equivalent to "bad." Garrosh was given power, and he came to hate the Alliance. Not because he had any reason to - the Alliance had never done anything to Garadar. It was merely because he felt that the Horde's purpose was to fight the Alliance. Garrosh's obsession with strength made him enemies, but rather than looking at himself (and unlike Macbeth, Garrosh had no "original sin" of murdering his beloved predecessor, though perhaps one could argue that the death of Cairne was always at the back of his mind - the frustration that Magatha's treachery had made him look not only dishonorable, but weak) he struck out at dissenters. Just like Macbeth, Garrosh has alienated nearly all of his people (and just like the rebel Scots in Macbeth, they've enlisted an old enemy to help support the war against their leader, namely the English/Alliance.) And just like Macbeth, a day of reckoning is coming.

I really think that a whole bunch of Ancients and Treants should march right up to the walls of Orgrimmar during the Siege. There's precedence.

(PS: JRR Tolkien always found the play-on-words-style fulfillment of the witches' second prophecy disappointing. That is why in the Two Towers, the trees and the Ents march on Isengard, and why the Witch King of Angmar, whom no man can kill, is killed by a woman.)

Changing up the Expansion Dynamic: Azshara's Deception

The way that World of Warcraft is structured, there a few things you need from every expansion. You need to raise the level cap so that new players and old will be drawn to the new content. You need dungeons (though they keep shrinking this aspect of the game, which worries and angers me.) You need at least three raid tiers. You need some incentive for people to create new characters. And you need a final boss of the final raid. These tend to be seriously heavy-hitters. Kil'jaeden, The Lich King, Deathwing, and now Garrosh Hellscream.

In the past, expansions have often centered around a particular villain. Much of Burning Crusade was about dealing with the Illidari, who had strong ties (though they were at war) with the Burning Legion. Wrath had us arrayed against the Scourge. Cataclysm was largely about a reinvigorated Twilight's Hammer that had embraced Deathwing as the primary means to their apocalyptic ends.

Mists of Pandaria has broken the mold somewhat. Sure, the Sha are a constant threat, but the expansion was in many ways exploring Pandaria itself. Everything was fairly interconnected, with the final bosses of tiers 14 and 15 representing the two most powerful native threats. But just as Lei Shen was resurrected by outsiders (the Zandalari,) the Sha were empowered by the arrival of the Alliance/Horde war. Thus, despite Mists being all about a journey to a distant land, in the end, it has come all the way back to the central capital of one of the two player factions. The journey that began with the exploration of a mysterious and exotic local ends right at home (for Horde players, at least.)

While there are some obvious problems (*cough* lack of Alliance plot *cough*) with this approach, it's fairly refreshing to see the focus of the game turn inward. This isn't about saving the world from some external threat, it's about making sure that the society one has built is worthy of remaining in the world.

So I was thinking about Azshara. Frankly, while the Naga have been around throughout the game's history, I wonder how well they could really serve as the main villains of an expansion. So this got me thinking:

What if Azshara isn't threatening to flood the world, or enslave its people, or open up a gate to let Sargeras come through. What if, instead, she comes to us, asking for help?

Now stay with me: The Naga are cruel and barbaric, sure, but they also have an ancient culture, and a huge population that lives in a true civilization. They were transformed by the Old Gods, but do we know for a fact that this made them automatically evil, or was it just a variation of the Curse of Flesh - a physical transformation that still leaves the subject capable of free will?

Sure, the Naga were "saved" by the Old Gods during the sundering, and they allied with the Faceless Ones in Vashj'ir to fight the Kvaldir, but are they truly loyal to them? The Klaxxi revere Y'shaarj, but they detest the Sha. It would seem that loyalty to the Old Gods varies.

So imagine if the Azshara expansion begins with Naga emissaries arriving in Stormwind Harbor and Bladefist Bay. The Naga's home under the sea has been overrun - by Old Gods or Faceless Ones, or something.

So, after some heated debate, we decide to go investigate. We befriend members of the Naga. Perhaps, even, certain members are allowed to join our factions, determined to save their own homeland. Azshara allows Alliance and Horde embassies to open in Zin-Azshari, and we go to work fighting the bad guys.

But then... well, we start to uncover some suspicious activity. Maybe an Alliance representative in Z-A goes missing, or a Kraken sinks a Horde ship. Sure, the brave Naga adventurers who have joined up are just as worried by these events, but some of Azshara's ambassadors seem to be quieting any uproar over this.

And then, in the second raid tier, we battle our way to the heart of an ancient, underwater Titan vault, where we fight and defeat the Lord of the Kvaldir, perhaps a Titan watcher himself. As he dies, he asks us why we trust the queen of the Naga. Don't we know what she's planning to do?

And then the final patch comes, and Azshara's plan is revealed. Tidal waves sweep across the coasts of Azeroth. Armies of Naga march onto the land, using their water elemental slaves to spread the floods. Azshara retreats within her palace while great Kaiju rise from the waters to attack the capitals of the Alliance and Horde. Yes, we've been helping her prepare for this all along, and now we need to stop her.

Friday, August 16, 2013

...Or Maybe All Bets are On Again?

Ok, so it's possible that The Dark Below was not a hoax after all.

I don't really know much about the nuances and intricacies of trademark law. Supposedly there is a European copyright for the Dark Below, and not simply an application. This is the internet, folks, so take everything with a grain of salt.

To give a little more detail, the reason we thought the Dark Below was a hoax was that someone found a similar application from Blizzard for a game called "Corgis Unleashed," which did not have the sound of your typical Blizzard game (though who knows? Maybe they want their own version of Nintendogs?) The conclusion people reached was that some person who was not involved with Blizzard made the trademark application, and that someone else applied for Corgis Unleashed under Blizzard's name to demonstrate it could be faked. However, if there is, actually, a registered trademark for the title by Blizzard, that is probably harder to fake. So, it's either definitely real, or totally fake. We just don't know!

Essentially, I would say that this puts The Dark Below in strong contention to be an actual expansion. Again, though, this title is vague enough that it could refer to any number of things. A lot of people seem to think it has to be Azshara, though somehow I think a title referring to her would use "Deep" or "Depths" instead of "Below," though Ozumat's epithet "Fiend of the Dark Below" does lend this theory some credence. Still, I would not rule out an Old God expansion, a Burning Legion Expansion, or a Titan-based expansion on this title - or, frankly, any number of things.

I think it bears a look back to 2009. At the time, Wrath of the Lich King was still in full swing. We were raiding Trial of the Crusader, eagerly anticipating the release of patch 3.3, which would bring about Icecrown Citadel (funny that the expansion with the most raid tiers had the fewest patches...) At that time, dataminers discovered that there was a new set of Hallow's End masks. At the time, said masks were only for playable races, and so it was quite an interesting development that nice-looking, new masks were found for Worgen and Goblins. Thus, it seemed evident (and, as history showed, absolutely correct) that the new playable races for the following expansion would be Worgen and Goblins (somehow, some people tried to argue that Worgen would go Horde and Goblins would go Alliance, despite the fact that Goblins were obviously never going to go to anyone if not the Horde.)  Blizzard responded by adding new files, creating masks for Ogres, Naga, Vrykul, and Murlocs, though some of these had less impressive visuals. While many of us remained confident that Worgen and Goblins would become playable, this demonstrates the lengths to which Blizzard is willing to go to discredit a leak.

So is "Corgis Unleashed" the new iteration of those extra masks? It's possible. Ultimately, we won't know for sure until Blizzcon, but I'm leaning back to "yes, The Dark Below is probably the next expansion." Whether that's a Below that is Dark or a Darkness that is Below remains to be seen, as does any other detail about the expansion, but I've got my fingers crossed for a new hero class (with its own starting experience, etc.) and a really cool new environment.

Anyway, just for fun, I'm going to list expansion titles that I'd like to see some day. Just to be explicit: these are coming straight from my brain to my fingertips. I don't work for Blizzard (I don't know how their story team works, but man would I love to be involved there) so unless there's a huge coincidence, none of these are titles of future works.

World of Warcraft: The Return of the Titans

A Titan-themed expansion with a cool Magitek theme (with a side of steampunk, because hey, who doesn't love some steampunk?) The heroes of Azeroth have to fend off creators who aren't happy with the state of Azeroth. Maybe a Tinker class?

World of Warcraft: Flames of the Legion

The ultimate Burning Legion expansion, where we confront Sargeras once and for all. Maybe set on Argus, or perhaps on some Titan-built home world. Unless this comes later than another Legion-themed expansion, we'd get Demon Hunters (mixing some of Illidan's abilities from Black Temple with Diablo Demon Hunters to get around the fact that Warlocks stole most of the DH's abilities from WCIII)

World of Warcraft: Shadows in the Deep

Azshara ascendant. Set on the raised city of Zin-Azshari, a continent-sized urban environment, we face Azshara's Naga forces, with both Satyr-demons and Faceless Ones having strong presences. Perhaps Ny'alotha is a raid? If they could swing it, maybe the Naga as a playable race?

World of Warcraft: Nightmare

We travel into the Emerald Dream to discover that the Nightmare has spread once again (there would be some retcons to allow druidic towns to exist there.) The Dream is a surreal, Alice in Wonderland-style place, and the Nightmare is like insanity, manifested. We would encounter the Druids of the Pack, as well as the Ancients. N'zoth might be the final boss.

Anywho, there's some ideas. Pure speculation, of course, but given the ambiguity of the legitimacy of "The Dark Below," I can't really say these are necessarily any less likely than that.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Humanity and The Titans' Return

They shaped Azeroth. They created the Well of Eternity, the Elemental Planes, the Emerald Dream. They anointed the Dragon Aspects and are responsible for the creation of many, if not most of the mortal races of the world. They are beings of immense power and unfathomable intelligence. Mere constructs of theirs have been worshipped as gods.

The Titans.

All of this, and yet they are absent. The Titans have not been seen on Azeroth since long before the War of the Ancients. Just one of their number, who fell to evil, created the Burning Legion.

Despite the multitude of truly ancient people of Azeroth, knowledge of the Titans is a mere whisper. It seems as if none of them (except, perhaps, their primordial foes, the Old Gods) know their true nature.

We tend to think of the Titans as benevolent, especially when weighed against the chaotic evil of the Old Gods, but can we feel secure in that interpretation? The closest the people of Azeroth have come to interacting with Titans have both been periods of calamity and danger. The Dark Titan Sargeras possessed Medivh, the Last Guardian, and unleashed a corrupted, blood-frenzied Horde on the unsuspecting Kingdom of Stormwind. More recently, Algalon, a messenger of the Titans, threatened to destroy the entire world when he discovered that things had not gone exactly according to plan.

What plan? Well, there's another mystery.

Well, Wrathion's super-cryptic remarks after eating the heart of the Thunder King (or are they truly his remarks?) suggest that somewhere, somehow, someone is attempting to "build the final titan."

Remember, we have never interacted with an actual Titan. We don't know what they are like. We have only met their constructs, the Watchers, who are sentient beings made of stone and metal. But ultimately, are the Watchers really any different from the mortal races? Is Mimiron not simply the first Mechagnome? The most powerful of these creations we have faced was Algalon, an artificial being, yes, but one that seemed to be made of starlight.

What could have created these things? If the "Final Titan" emerges, we will know.

Three problematic scenarios present themselves. After defeating Algalon, we convinced him to send back a beneficial response to his makers, giving Azeroth the all-clear, and thus not qualifying the implementation of the Re-Origination Device in Uldum. But would the Titans concur? Algalon is powerful, but must pale in the shadow of these... well, Titans. Perhaps they would not be so charitable in their assessment of the mortals of Azeroth, and would decide that the planet must be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch.

Or, perhaps the Titans would find that Azeroth could be salvaged, but not unless great changes were implemented. They might reverse the Curse of Flesh, returning millions (or billions... not sure what the population of Azeroth is) to a fleshless state. Additionally, they might purge those populations that had been too greatly altered, like the Worgen or the Undead, or even both varieties of Elf. And that's not to speak of the Orcs or the Draenei, both fully alien species that have no direct ties to Azeroth older than roughly forty years.

And let's even say the Titans do nothing to the mortals of Azeroth, and allow them to continue as they are. What happens when the Final Titan is finished? Will the magical energies of the planet seep away to feed this new being? Will the Final Titan rise from beneath the earth and bring about greater destruction than the Sundering and the Cataclysm combined?

The Titans may have created many of the people of Azeroth, but that does not necessarily imply they have a parental sense of responsibility to them. To the Titans, we may merely be like a computer program or a yeast culture, there to serve a purpose and then to be cast aside. We've seen this happen before: the Mogu were created to fight against Y'shaarj, but upon succeeding in that endeavor, and doing the impossible by actually killing and Old God, they were merely left to their own devices, to fall to tyranny and aggression, a warrior race without a proper enemy to fight.

Then again, this raises a new question. The various mortal races that were afflicted with the Curse of Flesh each had a purpose. The Earthen (Dwarves) were created to shape the underground places of the world as miners and builders. The Mechagnomes (Gnomes) were technicians, to keep the Titans' machinery working. The Mogu (...Mogu) were soldiers and Old God slayers. The Tol'vir were guardians for the Re-Origination Device. Who does that leave?

The Vrykul. And, by extension, Humanity.

What is the purpose of humanity? The Vrykul civilization spanned what would become Northrend. Their descendants would settle the Eastern Kingdoms. Humans are adaptable, and let us not forget that The Watchers themselves look like humans.

Thorim, Hodir, Freya, Auriaya, Loken, Isiset, Archadas, Ironaya, the Maiden of Virtue, the Maiden of Grief, the great stone guardians of Uldum, Algalon: all human or vrykul in shape. The Titans themselves, wherever they have been portrayed, appear in the form of humans. Dark Trolls were exposed to the waters of the Well of Eternity, a Titan creation, and what happened? They became far more human-like than they had before.

It's easy to think of the humans of Azeroth as just another race that happens to be in a position of power at this point in history. They are short-lived, compared not only to the ageless Night Elves, but also to the Dwarves.

Yet the Titans seem to know that humanity is important. Why did the vrykul not only suffer from the Curse of Flesh, but also have these strange pygmy children, sent off into exile to escape infanticide?

Is it possible that humanity is the ultimate goal? Is humanity what the Titans are trying to create? Let's ask our buddy Sargeras.

When Sargeras decided to try once more to take Azeroth, ten thousand years after his defeat in the War of the Ancients, where did he go? Not to the Night Elves. No, instead he possessed the Last Guardian - the human mage who was more powerful than any other mortal on the planet. He used Medivh to open a portal so that the Orcs could attack Humanity first. Was this a coincidence? Would the Orcs have made the Tauren their primary enemies if the Dark Portal had been opened in the Barrens? No. Sargeras knew that humanity was the key to Azeroth, and thus the Horde was unleashed on the world of men.

So when the Titans do return, perhaps we are in for a big shock. Perhaps, in the end, when the shapers of Azeroth arrive, we will find them more familiar than we realized. Perhaps we have been living amongst them all along.

5.4: The Siege of Orgrimmar

Here is the patch trailer for Siege of Orgrimmar. While these trailers usually come the week (or weekend, even) before the patch drops, given the end of the current arena season on the 27th, I think we will still have a week before it comes. Or maybe not! Anyway, enjoy the trailer:

...And All Bets are Off

Well, guess what?

Looks like the Dark Below trademark was a hoax.

So it turns out all this mad speculation was based on what seems to be totally incorrect information.

But this could be good news: If you didn't want an expansion about dark things below other things, you can rejoice. There is now no real reason (beyond my insane extrapolation based on the level-ranges of the Hellscream heirlooms) to believe there's any more likelihood for an Azshara expansion than there is for an Emerald Dream one.

But don't despair! Just because we do not have any idea what the expansion's name will be does not mean we can't speculate.

In fact, I imagine that this blog will be filled with article after article talking about possibilities for expansion 5, which is now extremely unlikely to be called "The Dark Below."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

That Shadiness Underneath

More Dark Below speculation time! (This should be a fun Blizzcon.)

It has been pointed out that, supposedly, the Dark Below trademark is for specifically a computer game, and not for a console game. While I don't know if there is a legal distinction between the two, if this is correct, it almost certainly means that TDB (or DB, or whatever we're going to wind up calling it) is the next WoW expansion, given that Diablo III is coming to consoles.

Now, in my previous post, I took the name on its own and was fairly convinced that such a title would necessarily refer to the Old Gods.

On the other hand (and as I suggested in the bonus section at the end,) this title could refer to a few other possibilities (barring a totally new threat, of course.)

So I'm going to expand on that bonus section and talk about various possibilities that are not just plain "the Old Gods."

Azshara and the Naga:

Azshara has always been one of those villains that's been waiting in the wings, ready to take the stage. The Naga have popped up now and again throughout the game since Vanilla (Mists is the only expansion where they have not appeared at all.) There's a lot of history to the Naga, and given that their realm is below waves, we have a potential threat that both fits the title and also could exist in a continent-like area that has yet to be seen.

But do the Naga, even with Azshara leading them, have what it takes to be an expansion-wide villain? Unlike Illidan, Arthas, or Deathwing, we haven't ever interacted with her directly, except for one brief moment in the quests in Darkshore. The Naga certainly represent a persistent threat, and much like the Zandalari, they seem to be another mortal race that could actually rival the Alliance or Horde in terms of power. (Third faction of Naga, Zandalari, and Mogu? Probably not, but knock on wood.)

Obviously, they would need fleshing out, but that tends to happen when you have an expansion to yourself (well... maybe not so much for Deathwing.)

While I enjoyed Vashj'ir, I don't think we could do an entire underwater expansion. So perhaps we could have some sort of raised city, perhaps seeing Zin-Azshari raised from the depths.

The Naga could also be part of an Old God expansion, with the city of Ny'alotha being the raised area (and how cool would an entirely urban continent be for an expansion?,) but we're talking about other versions, so hush.

The Twisting Nether:

In the semi-canonical Warcraft RPG (a tabletop game that predates WoW,) the Dark Below was a realm that demons came from, but also one that sorcerers pulled their magic from. This is clearly what has come to be called the Twisting Nether, which serves similarly as the home of demons but also the source of Arcane power.

So indeed, The Dark Below could, in fact, be that very same Legion-themed expansion I have speculated about. The only issues I have with it are these: The Twisting Nether seems to be tied more to outer space and alternate dimensions. Unlike some fantasy settings, we know that Azeroth is a planet much like they exist in the real world, and we know that it's not demons that come from below, but cephalopod-like Old Gods. (Ironic, given that Lovecraft's creatures came from outer space while traditionally demons have been seen as coming from an underground hell-like place.)

More recently, Warcraft lore has described both the Twisting Nether, which seems to be a parallel dimension that is something akin to Hyperspace, and is the home of demons and arcane magic (and Outland, which is why the sky is so weird there) while the Great Dark Beyond is more explicitly outer space - the normal, black expanse filled with stars and planets and such. Typically, we think of space as being above us (though it is, of course, around us in all directions,) so the "Dark Below" doesn't really fit with that, suggesting instead a "beneath the earth" sort of location. Likewise, I think one typically thinks of the Twisting Nether, despite its name, as being above us in space (despite the fact that it's really more accurately to our "side" through an alternate dimension.)

Yet there is some precedence here, so I'm not giving up entirely on a Legion-themed expansion to come next.

The Final Titan:

We got some mega-cryptic stuff out of Wrathion during the ToT-leg of the legendary chain. Namely, upon eating the heart of the Thunder King, Wrathion's voice changed, and he exclaimed that they must complete the Final Titan.

Well what the hell does that mean?

It would seem that even without the Well of Eternity, there is some seriously powerful stuff within Azeroth. Could it be that we've finally discovered the true purpose of the planet? That it is the incubator for the birth of a new (and, ominously, "final") Titan?

What if, beneath the squamous undulations of the Old Gods, we discovered a vast Titan facility, of which Uldaman, Ulduar and Uldum are mere satellites?

The Titans appear to be benevolent (when they aren't trying to atomize us so they can start the planet over,) but they're also known to use some morally-questionable techniques in their "ordering" of the universe. They employ demons, after all. And all of our exposure to the Titans has been fairly surface-level. We only barely know that they were responsible for the creation of various mortal races (were these creations wholly original? What if the Curse of Flesh wasn't so much a curse as it was a reversion to original form?) As I've speculated in a Tin-Foil-Hat kind of way, the Titans may, in fact, be responsible for the Scourge! (Though take that with a big bowl of salt.)

So I could also imagine a giant eternal machine chugging away deep underneath Azeroth's surface. And in the midst of it, we'd have to contend both with the Old Gods and the more dangerous creations of the Titans.

Expect a lot more speculation on this subject matter until Blizzcon. As a disclaimer: we still only know that this is a trademarked name for a Blizzard computer game. It could very well be totally unaffiliated with World of Warcraft. That said, I am about 75% confident that The Darkness Below will be the next expansion for WoW. And unlike Mists of Pandaria, whose title caused many to scratch their heads (though the story turned out pretty good in the end, despite all my crankiness,) the name "The Darkness Below" itself suggests huge stakes and a serious threat.

Reaper of Souls is the Next Diablo Expansion

Just a brief bit of news, but it's of great import concerning  yesterday's trademark of "The Dark Below."

Blizzard has created a new website (and supposedly a new trademark) for "The Reaper of Souls," which is the first expansion to Diablo 3.

If this is the case, and Blizzard isn't going to extreme lengths to screw with us, that raises my estimated chances of The Dark Below being the next WoW expansion from 75% to about 99%.

The Dark Below is almost guaranteed to be the name of the next WoW expansion.

Now, whether the Dark Below will focus on the Old Gods, Azshara, the Burning Legion, or the Emerald Nightmare (or something else) remains to be seen. The name certainly evokes a sense of dread, but is otherwise extremely vague.

Barring some huge leaks, we will not know until Blizzcon. So get to speculating! Let's see how close or how completely off we can be with our predictions!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Dark Below

It's Trademark Datamining Time!

Blizzard has apparently just trademarked "The Dark Below" as a new computer game title.

So, disclaimer/caveat first: THIS COULD BE A DIABLO EXPANSION, OR SOME OTHER INDEPENDENT GAME (though the latter seems far less likely.)

These trademarks are typically a very solid indicator of what is going to come out of Blizzard. Both Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria were trademarked names before anything was announced at Blizzcon.

So, is this WoW? Or Diablo?

Well... possibly. First off, if you are unfamiliar with Diablo, Blizzard's point-and-click RPG shares a lot of DNA with WoW. Power is largely based on gear and you have a set of classes with customizable layouts of spells. In fact, much of WoW's original infrastructure was derived from Diablo, like the old talent system, and practically the entire Warrior class.

More to the point, Diablo is also a fantasy setting, but it decidedly more gothic. Whereas Warcraft doesn't really have anything that explicitly angelic in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition (though angels in the Bible are a lot weirder than you typically think of them being, so perhaps the Naaru aren't that far off,) Diablo fully commits to a gothic look. Demons are not space aliens - they are demons and devils and there's lots of gory, bloody stuff that they like to hang out with. Angels are not exactly typical (their bodies are invisible, so you recognize them by their clothes) but the whole setting uses a fairly dichotomous world structure, with humanity representing the middle-ground.

So "the Dark Below" would totally fit within a Diablo setting, representing some aspect of the Burning Hells, which is where the demons are from.

On the other hand:

The Old God expansion?

The World of Warcraft has a very dangerous, very dark threat that has always been looming, or rather, skulking, beneath the surface of the planet. While the Burning Legion is known to be out there, threatening to come back here and burn us all to cinders, the vast majority of the supernatural problems we have encountered are all thanks to those horrifying, tentacled abominations, the Old Gods.

In case you somehow don't know the basic story of the Old Gods, here it is in a nutshell.

There are two versions of this story, one in which the Old Gods arrive first, and one in which the Titans do, but I think that the latter story makes the most logical sense, so that's the one that I'm going with.

The Titans arrived on Azeroth (or maybe built the planet itself) for mysterious purposes (though Wrathion's recent quests suggest that they meant to create a new Titan.) Once they had set the planet up, they departed, presumably to continue their business of bringing order to the universe.

Then the Old Gods came. The Old Gods were massive and completely malevolent beings that raged across the planet, warring with each other for sport, twisting and mutating the native population of Azeroth to fight for their armies. They freed the Elemental Lords, either to serve as their commanders or to simply watch the ensuing conflict.

Then the Titans returned. Horrified by the chaos wrought on Azeroth, the Titans went to war with the Old Gods. There were terrible losses on both sides, which included the "fall" (whatever that means) of one Titan and the death of Y'shaarj (Pandaria's local Old God.) When Y'shaarj died, the Sha were released, and the Titans realized they could not simply kill the Old Gods, or every part of Azeroth would be haunted by similar dangers.

So the Titans decided to imprison, rather than kill the Old Gods. And this decision has not been without its consequences. We've seen Neltharion corrupted into Deathwing. We've seen countless mad cults arise (most notably the Twilight's Hammer.) And we've seen the Curse of Flesh, which transformed several types of Titan creations into mortal races, including the dwarves, the gnomes, the tol'vir, the mogu, the vrykul, and humanity itself (by way of the vrykul.)

All this time, the Old Gods have lurked, their armies of Faceless Ones, along with the off-shoots of the Aqir, ready to swarm the globe.

In fairness to us, it's not as if we haven't made an effort to stop them. Both C'thun and Yogg-Saron have been defeated by mortals. Are they truly dead? Well, that's an interesting question. Kalimdor and Northrend aren't swarming with manifestations of negative emotion, but then again, perhaps that was a special quality to Y'shaarj only.

We do know that N'zoth is still around, possibly in the Emerald Dream, generating the Nightmare around him. And beyond the four Old Gods that have been named, there may well be others we have not yet encountered.

Cleaning House before we Go Abroad

The Old Gods have always been the massive, tentacled thorn in our side. But we've never quite been able to work out how to kill them without dooming Azeroth. However, as Wrathion demonstrates, it is possible to extract Old God corruption using esoteric Titan techniques. That said, taking the evil mojo out of a single dragon egg might be a tad bit easier than extracting the sources of said mojo from an entire planet (for one thing, what do you even do with the bodies when you're done? These things are the size of continents!)

Regardless, lasting safety on Azeroth cannot be achieved until the Old Gods are dealt with in a serious manner. These guys predate the Burning Legion, and arguably have had a greater negative impact on Azeroth (though the Sundering was nothing to sneeze at.)

So what do we think?

Well... I'm still a little more inclined to think it's the Diablo expansion, maybe just because I was hoping for a Burning Legion expansion. We've been dealing with Old Gods or the direct consequences of the Old Gods for two expansions now, and Wrath had a considerable presence for them as well (though I'd argue Ulduar was more of a Titan-themed raid, as the Faceless Ones and Twilight's Hammer didn't really show up until the final wing.)

Still, I was convinced that Mists of Pandaria could not be the name of a WoW expansion. As a name (remember that all of this is just speculation based on a name,) The Dark Below doesn't seem that much of a stretch.

Regardless, given that we're getting closer and closer to Blizzcon (three months away!) I'm happy to have this little gem to drum up expectations for the next expansion, even if it turns out this title has nothing to do with WoW.

Bonus: Other WoW-based Interpretations of "The Dark Below."

So I'm clearly convinced that such a title would refer to the Old Gods, but there are other ways it could go:

The Dark Below... the Sea?: Azshara and her Naga have always seemed like a potential threat that could carry an expansion. Perhaps this would be our Island-Hopping South Seas adventure (though not too far south, or you'd hit Pandaria.)

The Dark Below... Reality?: "Nether," means "below," or "lower," after all. The Netherlands are called that because they are so low down, even below sea level in some places. Might this actually be our Burning Legion expansion after all, set within the Twisting Nether?

The Dark Below... Tirisfal Glades?: Blizzard has stated explicitly that the dark presence resting beneath Tirisfal is not, as you might guess, an Old God. So what the hell is it? There is a little circle of mushrooms in that hard-to-access grove in the west, where Fae Dragons show up on a daily basis. Why? Big mystery here.

And again: This might just be for Diablo.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Song of Alliance and Horde: Moral Complexity in Warcraft

As I often do, I read a great article on WoW Insider, this time about the nature of Garrosh Hellscream as the main villain of Mists of Pandaria, and felt this would be a good prompt to talk about the moral complexity of World of Warcraft.

One of the things that really drew me into WoW was the fact that the Horde was not truly evil. Orcs have, since Tolkien (and possibly before, as Orcs actually date back to at least Roman Mythology, deriving their name from Orcus, aka((ish)) Pluto. Orcs are actually etymologically linked to Orcas!) always been seen as evil. On TVTropes, they're probably the poster-child for "Always Chaotic Evil." Yet, starting with WCIII and expanding on it in WoW, the Orcs of Warcraft were given a more fleshed-out backstory that explained how they weren't really evil, but mislead. Likewise, the Trolls and even the freaking Undead were given backstories that redeemed them to the point of relatable, even if they weren't perfect. (Tauren were always good guys, so they needed no redemption.)

Despite this great set-up, where the Alliance is the typical group of heroic fantasy races (Humans, Dwarves and Elves, with Gnomes filling in the miscellaneous category that Hobbits do in Tolkien) but the Horde is a group of stereotype-defying "evil" races, Warcraft still seems to be struggling to decide just how complex the moral scale should be.

Aesthetically, Warcraft's always been a little cartoony - there are bright colors and a very strong vein of humor that runs through everything. There's certainly a lot of wish-fulfilment in the ability to just be a crazy badass in (currently) eleven different flavors.

But in terms of actual characterization, the main plotlines for each expansion are played pretty much straight. We're supposed to take the Old Gods seriously, and the Scourge really would be a menace. There are tragic losses and glorious victories. We're not supposed to laugh about the Wrath Gate, or the destruction of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Nor are we just playing around when the Sunwell is reignited, or Algalon the Observer is convinced to give Azeroth a chance to live.

But even serious plots can be done in a simplistic way. And sometimes, these simple stories can elicit the most powerful, raw emotions. Fantasy, after all, has the potential to give us villains who are truly evil, whom we can fight with no qualms. In the face of super-powered, horrifying evil, victory feels like something amazingly glorious. I mean, we've killed (ish) two Old Gods. There is nothing not awesome about that.

And yet, moral complexity in any form of drama, be it a novel, a movie, or a video game, can draw us in. In the real world, bad people are not "just evil." Just as fantasy allows us to create characters with pure intent - both good and evil - it also allows us to examine how a black-and-white world view can develop, and how it can be transformed into something else.

So it can sometimes be disappointing when the Warcraft factions and races fall back into their stereotypical ways. To me, the fact that Sylvanas is clearly raising the dead against their will (no matter what Blizzard says, there's no way those people would immediately join up with the Forsaken) will be extremely frustrating until we deal with the fact that the Banshee Queen is basically turning the Forsaken into Scourge 2.0. Garrosh, and more to the point, the cult of personality he built up among the Orcs, is a serious back-slide into the ways of the Old Horde, back when the Orcs were more generic.

And on the other side of things, it can be frustrating when the Alliance comes off as nothing but pure good. Not only does this mean they can basically never act aggressively (unless the majority of the Horde is in on it as well,) and thus has them constantly losing territories or heroes, but it also means that it's harder to create conflict within. The Worgen are supposed to be monsters. Remember how that guy in Grizzly Hills wants you to skin an Orc? I want to see that kind of brutality in the Gilnean heart, even if their allies hold them back before they can do it.

Good vs. Evil can be a great story, but when you're dealing with two opposed player factions that are ostensibly the good guys, it demands more nuance.

Which brings us to Garrosh Hellscream.

To me, it seems that a lot of people who complain about his being a villain almost seem to wish he had been irredeemably evil from the start, or that he had never gone down this path.

More reasonable people wish that the transition had been more gradual. They point to the rift between a Warchief who is willing to examine himself and attempting to forge himself into a proper leader during Cataclysm and the Warchief in Mists, who seems to be a single-minded, genocidal tyrant.

The WoW Insider article suggests that perhaps, if we had not known that Garrosh would be the final boss, his transformation might have been more impressive. I agree with this assessment largely, though I also think that perhaps there might have been more care put into his development.

That said:

I am very happy that Blizzard has taken on this challenge. For all the fallout that it has caused, I love that we have a villain whose motivations are recognizable. Garrosh doesn't arbitrarily want to destroy the world like Deathwing or the Old Gods or the Burning Legion. Ultimately, Garrosh believes that he is doing what is best for the Horde. He has a vision for a livable world, but it is one that requires unparalleled brutality to maintain.

Make no mistake: Garrosh is a villain. Real human history is filled with horrific villains (the list in the 20th century alone is stomach-churning) but every single one of them, deep down, was actually a human being, and it wasn't demons or Lovecraftian horrors pushing them to do what they did - it was their own flawed logic and philosophy.

Does every expansion need to focus around a flawed mortal, falling down an ideological slippery slope? No. I want to kill more Old Gods, I want to fight the Emerald Nightmare, and I want to fight Sargeras (though in his case, he actually might be a little more of a Garrosh-style villain than a Deathwing.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Jumping to Conclusions, part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Ok, so I talked in the previous post about my extreme extrapolations from a number-value on a piece of gear that may never make it to the game live.

In short, the conclusions to which I jumped are that A: the next expansion will raise the level cap to 100, and therefore B: we will have our big confrontation with the Burning Legion.

So going from there, what else might we expect?

Draenei Lore!:

If ever there is an opportunity for the oft-neglected Draenei to get some attention, it's when we're facing the Legion. No race has fought and out-maneuvered the Legion as long as the Draenei. That, coupled with Velen's Army of the Light, means that we've got to put the Draenei center-stage.

Demon Hunter Class!:

Demon Hunters may never become a real class in-game, but if ever there was a time to add them, it would be a Legion-based expansion. I would love to see a new Hero Class added to the game, and I can't think of one with more exciting lore and aesthetics than the disciples of Illidan.

The Return of Illidan!:

They've said they want to redeem Illidan in some way. Maybe that was accomplished by the Sindweller quests in Felwood, who managed to provide him with sympathetic motivations, but this is Fantasy, and as epic as Black Temple was, Illidan didn't really get the send-off he deserved (I actually think Arthas is a better villain, but no one can argue that his character didn't end in a grand and final way.) So let's bring him back from the dead - as an ally this time.

The Return of Turalyon and Alleria!:

Oh man, have they been teasing this one for years. No one has seen these two since the closing of the Dark Portal after the Second War. We've met their son, but presumably they're just too badass to sit around and have spent the last 30-odd years slaying demons non-stop. It'll be nice to bring in an ass-kicking, takes-no-bullshit Paladin back into the fold, along with a stone-cold killer of an elf.


Oh man do I want to go to Argus. We've heard just barely enough about it to have our interests peaked (we know the capital is Mac'aree, for instance.) I know that Blizzard seems to be on this "focus on Azeroth" kick, but you know, we've spent the last three expansions on the home planet. I think we're ready to take to the stars once again. Plus: it makes us more proactive in a quest against the Legion.

Flight of the Exodar!:

The Exodar has been fixed. While the Cataclysm and the current Alliance-Horde War have been huge distractions, I imagine that when things have settled down, Velen's gong to be pulling up the anchor and welcoming any able-bodied soldier aboard. How awesome would a pre-rendered cinematic of Exodar taking off from Azuremyst Isle be?

So there are my further crazy extrapolations, or rather what I would want to see in a Burning Legion expansion.

I eagerly await Blizzcon to see how much of this holds up, if any.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Jumping to Conclusions: Hellscream's Heirloom Weapons

One of the funny things about WoW is that the final boss of any given expansion tends to have a stunning array of awesome weapons. The Lich King and Deathwing both had loot tables entirely made up of weapons, and in both cases, defeating that final boss was necessary to complete the final legendary quest of the expansion - creating Shadowmourne or the Fangs of the Father.

This is all the best loot for the most significant slots, but there's a problem: Once you have defeated the final boss of an expansion, what more is there to do?

Now sure, you can go up in difficulty, start working on heroic modes, but if you're one of the seriously hardcore who beats the final boss on heroic, that amazing new weapon is useful for precisely... what? Leveling in the next expansion, basically. Not really that exciting, especially given that the way new expansions work is that they need to have massive gear inflation to reset everyone's progress and level the playing field.

The solution, it would seem, is to turn such awesome drops into scaling heirlooms that will take your character up through the next expansion's leveling content - giving those weapons at least some time to shine, rather than getting replaced by a green piece one or two levels in. So, for that reason, the Hellscream weapons (at least on normal/heroic mode) will be heirlooms that scale from level 90 to level 100.




Oh, did you think this was going to be an article about heirlooms?

Nope! It looks like this is the first hint that the next expansion will break from the more recent mold of Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, and bring back a full ten levels of content to go through.

Caveats: This is on the PTR, and for all we know it could be a typo. It could change in development. These heirlooms may never actually be part of the game. I am building my argument on the head of a pin here. As the title of this post suggests, I'm taking this one, tiny detail to extrapolate some seriously huge conclusions, many of which I'm almost certain will be refuted (Blizzcon is in November. We will know then.)

So if the next expansion is ten levels, that indicates a few things. First, the more straightforward things:

There will be a smoother leveling experience. Instead of gaining 100k health (or whatever equivalent that will be if they do the item squish) every level, and watching our crit chance drop from 35% to 20% when we hit level 91, we'll probably see a more gradual shift.

Beyond that, the numbers are maybe arbitrary, but if I had my druthers I would hope that a ten-level expansion would bring about a new continent with the scope of Northrend. Pandaria has six relevant leveling zones, with only one pair that overlaps in range. Northrend had eight, with two such overlaps, which doesn't sound like much more, but if you ask me, it felt like a much more fleshed out continent because of this. I would also hope that a longer leveling process would mean more dungeons - compare BC's 14 dungeons at launch and Wrath's 12 to Cataclysm and Mists, which both had 9 (and only ever 9 in Mists' case.)

Now let's take greater intuitive leaps:

A ten-level expansion means two big things: If they are choosing to go back to ten levels instead of five, we might imagine that they want this expansion to feel somehow more epic than the previous ones. Cataclysm was always more about the familiar, low-level world changing than the threats at the highest levels, and we entered Pandaria not as naive recruits who would become battle-hardened veterans, but as battle-hardned veterans who find their own vicious history catching up with them and subjecting a mostly peaceful land to the consequences.

In both cases, we haven't really grown much stronger. Perhaps we have grown a bit wiser, but that's a more subtle thing.

And thus, the ten levels could reflect the fact that we are truly facing a more dangerous and cunning threat than we ever have before, and we need the time to truly prepare ourselves to face it.

The other big thing is that, since we are level 90 now, ten levels puts us at level 100. That's a pretty big milestone for the game. We're breaking into triple-digits. Combine this with the fact that if the next expansion is released within 2014 (which it probably will,) it will be coming at the tenth anniversary of World of Warcraft.

Milestones everywhere. Sounds like the right time to do something big. And I mean BIG.

Ok, you're ready for my big conclusion?

We're taking the fight to the Legion. No small distractions like Illidan, and we're going to let the Old Gods sit tight. Kil'jaeden, and indeed, maybe Sargeras himself, are in our sights now, and at least he former is going to truly die by our hands. In the wake of the Siege of Orgrimmar, Alliance and Horde may be as united as they ever have been. We've had Wrathion working to prepare the world's champions, and Velen's been slowly working on his "Army of the Light," and damn it, it's about time we kicked some demonic ass.

I know that this isn't exactly the most surprising conclusion to draw, but this tiny, minuscule, potentially-completely-irrelevant detail feels a lot like the last piece in the puzzle. I think we're going to get the real, for-serious Burning Legion expansion you knew was coming as soon as WoW first began.

And all from a single number of some heirloom weapons that aren't live yet.

If I'm wrong, then whatever. But man, if I'm right... Blizzcon can't come soon enough.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Exodar Triumvirate

WoW Insider has a great story about the issues with Draenei lore in-game. The Draenei, since I first got to know them in 2007, have been one of my favorite races, if not my very favorite. Not only are they my favorite color (even their blood!) but they also have an amazing backstory (which conflicted with Warcraft III's Eredar backstory, but whatever - this one is better, because it gives us the modern draenei, as opposed to the Lost Ones we saw in WCIII.) They also look super-badass.

Anyway, the problem that we see with the Draenei is that they all seem to follow every one of Velen's directives to the letter. Now, this is kind of a wider problem in the lore. Each race tends to act in full accordance with their leaders. The Forsaken seem to dive into evil whenever Sylvanas gets ideological, and an amazing number of Orcs let their loyalty to Thrall and his image of a return to shamanism fall by the wayside the moment Garrosh replaced him.

But as one of the less-developed races, the Draenei really seem to be all of a mind. We occasionally see rogue draenei working for equal-opportunity evil organizations, like Twilight's Hammer or just good old pirates, but never as serious characters with real backstories and motivations. In fact, we haven't really seen a true Draenei turn away from Velen's vision since that one Aldor guy in Netherstorm who succumbed to despair.

And as the article points out, and as I've said many, many times, the Draenei have a strong motivation to really bring the pain to the Horde. Sure, their society has a very strong tradition of forgiveness and benevolence, but surely one or two people would like to take revenge on the brutes who murdered their families (if I RP'd, that would be the backstory for my Death Knight, with his experiences in the Scourge removing the last bit of restraint preventing him from going on a vengeance-fueled rampage.)

So then there's this question: What temporal power does Velen hold over the Draenei? We don't actually see much of a true government, exactly (though admittedly, we don't see much of that elsewhere, either.) Certainly the Draenei revere Velen for his spiritual leadership, but what of an actual government?

In fact, Velen does hold the office of a political leader. Way, way, way back, 25,000 years ago (the Draenei must just not age,) Velen was one of the three leaders of the Eredar back on Argus. The Eredar were ruled by a triumvirate, and as far as we know, they had no religion to speak of. Velen was a secular leader, along with his "brothers" Kil'jaeden and Archimonde.

We know next to nothing about pre-Sargeras Eredar culture. After all, the Man'ari Eredar we have encountered have spent 25,000 years warped by demonic magic and serving as part of the Burning Legion. But the Draenei culture is also, presumably, far removed from the original Eredar way of life, both by their existence as exiles and refugees, but also because of the strong influence of the Naaru, making worship of the Holy Light such a core thing. Hell, we don't even call the Eredar Eredar. We call them Draenei - as if they are a different species.

The goal of the Draenei is to eventually return home. Argus is to be liberated, and presumably they wish to return to the lifestyle they once enjoyed as Eredar (I like to imagine that Argus was astonishingly brilliant and magical.)

But with this accomplished, would Velen's work be complete? What form would Draenei structure take?

The Draenei have been gone for a very, very long time, but they are also a long-lived people. Some members, such as Velen or apparently all Draenei Death Knights, were actually born on Argus itself. So while they have been gone for a long time, the society on Argus may not actually be forgotten.

So here's what I'd like to see: The establishment of a secular Draenei government. Velen would obviously remain a powerful and important figure in Draenei life, but this new "Triumvirate of the Exodar" would provide a true structure for their society. (They could even help the Dwarves flesh out their own three-leader government system.)

Do all three members of the Triumvirate have the same duties? Perhaps not. Maybe they reflect the three branches of American government - Executive, Judicial, and Legislative. Thus you could have a Paladin (executive,) a Shaman (judicial) and a Mage (legislative,) reflecting different aspects of Draenei society.

Not only would this be a fantastic opportunity to create some interesting Draenei characters (there aren't really any notable Dranei NPCs beyond Velen, or maybe Vindicator Maraad) but you could also see how conflicts might arise, meaning drama, which is always good for any story.

Transmogrification and Void Storage: Making Your Old Epics Worth Keeping

I figured I would condense these two into a single article, because I don't have a huge amount to say about Void Storage.

Transmogrification has changed the visual look of the game in a very significant way. Back during Wrath, particularly since the latter two tier armor sets were purchasable entirely with the contemporary equivalent of Valor Points, pretty much anyone of a particular class was wearing armor that looked the same. In much of 2010, if you saw a Paladin, chances are they had burning skulls on their shoulders (I think it was a serious missed opportunity that "Lightsworn," Paladin tier 10, wasn't called "Ashbringer.")

Ultimately, especially with the way that gear is designed to match these days, you don't really go through a lot of different looks. There's the standard dungeon blue armor, and then the various tiers (and occasional non-tier looks, like the 5.0 VP gear/MSV gear.)

Transmog opens up the entire history of usable gear for your character to wear, and also decouples the appearance of your gear from the quality. My standard look for Jarsus is a mix of Paladin tier 8 off-set pieces (with pants, rather than a skirt/kilt) and Mists-era engineering goggles, along with Vagaries of Time off Morchok in Dragon Soul (my favorite weapon model ever) and Force Reactive Disk, which comes from a schematic out of Molten Core and looks like a giant spinning gear. Thus, I'm pushing an engineering/Titan/magitek vibe with my look, and it looks awesome.

Here's the downside:

One of the fun appeals to an RPG, particularly one that places such a high value on gear, is the fact that our characters change in appearance as we make our journey. Sure, we must have hit an "epic plateau" at some point, where they couldn't really make any tier armor sets that look inherently more powerful (I'd say probably tier 6 was that moment for most classes,) but we still see how we change, and how our gear reflects the environments in which we are doing our heroics.

Transmog provides us an out to that, though. We don't ever have to have that scavenged, thrown-together look again. It's a temptation that may be hard to resist.

Thus, ironically, while you may no longer look like other players (though sometimes you will, like if you go for Paladin tier 2) you'll pretty much just look like your past self forever, which may not be much of an improvement.

However, my verdict?

Transmog is absolutely a positive for the game.

All those drawbacks can easily be negated by simply not using it. There's nothing whatsoever power-wise that makes transmog necessary. It's purely a cosmetic thing.

And giving us an out if we don't like the look of the latest tier is absolutely a good thing.

Ok, so now Void Storage:

What's there really to say? It's basically just more bank space, but for long-term deposits. Void Storage was vastly improved by the new changes to allow you to Transmog without actually taking the pieces out (a technology that apparently was in-game before, but not possible within the default UI.)

Really, Void Storage is just a place to put gear that you never intend to actually wear or use again, except for transmog. It frees up bank space.

So yeah. Good, I guess.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another Strategy for Fixing Alliance Lore

I'm going to try to keep these faction-specific posts limited (unless I can do two in a row that focus on either side,) but as we've all discussed (perhaps too much, which is why this caveat is here in the first place,) the Alliance has a bit of a Lore Problem.

Basically, playing as Alliance feels kind of thing. If you look at 5.3 content, beyond the introductory quests with Amber and Sully (and only them) there's basically no Alliance presence beyond the player him or herself. The whole Darkspear Revolution is totally a Horde story, and while theoretically the Alliance is taking a Cold War approach and backing the enemy of an enemy, shouldn't we be seeing SI:7 agents providing training and logistical support to the Darkspear? I'd love to see, in addition to the stole Kor'kron supplies, big shipments of blue-and-gold weapons and armor flowing into the Darkspear Rebellion's arsenal (like we did with the Grimtotem!)

So here's a problem: Taking down the Warchief of the Horde surely looks like a big lore moment for the Alliance. After all, doesn't this mean that team blue is officially the victor when the dust is settled? The problem, of course, is that in order to do this storyline, tons of resources have had to be poured into giving the Horde a reason to kill their own Warchief. And that means that the Alliance side of things basically has to take a backseat to a giant Horde story.

So can Blizzard not really win? Is the Alliance unpleaseable?

Well, no. Obviously not.

Right now, yes, the story revolves around the Warchief of the Horde. The problem, of course, with having every faction-pride-enhancing moment revolve around beating the other side is that one side's moment of awesome is the other side's moment of sucking. And if both sides are ultimately doing the same thing, it kind of dilutes the excitement of the victory.

Siege of Orgrimmar isn't even out yet, but already the victory on the Alliance side feels a bit hollow, given the fact that they aren't really proving their superiority over the Horde, because Garrosh (despite his "True Horde" rhetoric) doesn't actually represent the Horde anymore. We aren't removing the entire Horde threat - in fact, we're pretty much resolving their civil war in the vain hope that A. The Horde will dismantle the dangerous war apparatus Garrosh built up and B. The Horde will have enough good will for the Alliance's help to not strike again.

Still, it wouldn't be fair to the Horde players to just say "hey guys, you got your ass kicked. Your raid consists of just constantly wiping until some Alliance NPCs show up and lock you in cages."

So here's the way to look at it:

The Horde's story (unless you were hoping for Garrosh to grow and actually become a good Warchief, which seemed to be how it was going in Cataclysm) has been good: It's compelling, and it stands on its own. The entire civil war could be happening without the Alliance (pointing Garrosh's extremist attitude toward some NPC faction.) There's enough happening within the Horde itself that outside factors aren't really that important (If he hadn't found the Sha, Garrosh might have turned to some other dark source of power.)

So, finally, to get to my point: What the Alliance really needs is some story that doesn't involve the Horde at all. There's lots of stuff to deal with: the resurgence of the Defias (though admittedly that was kind of dealt with in Heroic Deadmines) and strengthening the Kingdom of Stormwind (perhaps really uniting Elwynn, Westfall, Duskwood and Redridge,) the threat that Azshara poses to the remaining Night Elf population, the integration of the Dark Irons into Dwarven society (preferably with greater depth than "they fought those trolls. Guess we're all best friends now!") The Gnomes need to either take back Gnomeregan for real, or they need to build a new home for themselves - maybe looking into their titanic origins for inspiration. The Draenei - and I can't stress this enough - the Draenei have fixed the Exodar. They could move on if they wanted to. I'd love to see that debate, and perhaps see how some Draenei wish to stay thanks to the bonds of fellowship they've formed with the Alliance.

The Worgen story, admittedly, most likely requires us to kick the ass of the Forsaken out of Gilneas, but given that the Forsaken are almost an independent thing, and the fact that they creep most members of the Horde out anyway, means that we could get away with a victory in Gilneas that doesn't demoralize Horde players.

Though even the Worgen have potential for story that doesn't involve the Horde. They don't seem to touch at all on how the Worgen are integrating into the Alliance. Let's see some real socio-political shake-ups, and not just a bunch of druidic nonsense (no offense, druids.) If all of this could end with the Worgen rebuilding the Park in Stormwind to make it look like Gilneas City, THAT would be a fist-pumping moment for the Alliance.

Likewise, inner conflict does not need to utterly negate unity. We don't necessarily need Alliance leaders plotting to kill one another. Instead, we might see vast disparities in opinion when it comes to strategy. Remember how Velen suggested evacuating the planet before Cataclysm? Likewise, while Tyrande seems to be warming up to Varian as a leader, Malfurion might regard him as nothing more than a passing minor player.

The real key to all of this, though, is that such a plot needs to be a serious, major plotline. Arranging the marriage of some dwarves or even clearing the Zandalari influence out of Dun Morogh is not nearly enough. This needs to be a serious, long-term narrative that develops over the course of multiple patches, or even multiple expansions.

Anyway, to make a long story short: If you're worried that one player faction is suffering from a lack of good lore, then give them something to accomplish that doesn't involve the other one. It worked for the Horde. It should work for the Alliance.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nobody Panic, Stormwind's Fine! (Other than the Park...)


Ok, folks. Let's talk about those screenshots of Stormwind Harbor all ruined and covered with Sha-fire and under siege by four Horde ships.

A lot of people are worried that, once again, the Alliance is taking another kick in the groin to add to the list that include Southshore, Gilneas, and Theramore. It's kind of been established that Blizzard seems to keep thinking that we need that big atrocity to rally us to action, but then never gets around to the actual rallying, and then instead forgets that they've done it already and comes up with a new atrocity.

What I'm saying is that there's plenty of precedent to be worried about it.

But good news: These shots are taken from an instanced version of the zone that appears to be part of the Garrosh Hellscream encounter, and is joined by images of the four Celestial Temples as well.

From sound clips, we know that Garrosh has been using Y'shaarj's heart to seek visions, but he's so damned proud (Sha of Pride's still around, after all) that the visions he gets are only of successful conquest. We appear to fight them within those visions.

So yeah - Stormwind under attack looks bad, because that's what the Big Bad of the expansion is trying to do. But he won't, because we're going to kill him.

Reforging: Making us all Min-Maxers

When Reforging was introduced in the pre-Cataclysm patch at the end of Wrath of the Lich King, the main purpose I saw in it was to get my hands on some of that sweet, sweet mastery. Because no gear before Cataclysm had Mastery on it, the only way for Paladins to increase their block chance, or for Enhancement Shamans to improve their Elemental damage, was to reforge some iLevel 200+ pieces.

The ways in which we alter our gear have expanded since WoW's inception. Back in Vanilla, you got an enchanter to work on your gear (there was no Vellum back then, so you really had to find an enchanter, and you could never use an alt to enchant your main's gear) and that was it. Some factions provided shoulder or head enchants, and it's possible that tailors and leatherworkers were already making leg armor and spellthreads, but the gear really pretty much stood on its own, apart from the enchantments.

Gem sockets were added in Burning Crusade, which provided a much more modular way to alter your gear. Now one guy could go for Spell Crit while another went for Attack Power.

Still, when you got down to it, the piece of gear itself was what mattered. If you had a whole mess of hit rating on all your gear, it would behoove you to trade some of those pieces out once you hit the cap.

Unlike Voidbinders, I'm a little more ambivalent about reforgers (before 4.3, when the Ethereals were brought in with Void Storage and Transmogrification, reforgers were called Thaumaturges, which was a way cooler name.)

So let's break it down:


Reforging makes hitting hit and expertise caps way, way easier.

Back in the day, the amount of trading out gear pieces to maintain these "minimum caps" was a real pain (likewise for the now-defunct Defense rating for tanks.) As you got to higher item levels, you'd get bigger chunks of each stat, which meant it was harder to fit that one piece in. Reforging makes it a lot easier to get just slightly above the cap and then devote the rest of the stat's value to more useful stuff. Similarly, at low gear levels, reforging makes it a lot easier to hit the hit and expertise caps, and thus be able to contribute significantly to your group earlier.

It gives players a little more customization. You can make a piece of gear your own, and focus on a stat that you like, or even tweak off-spec pieces to be stepping-stone mainspec pieces.


Long ago, when you got a new piece of gear, you could pretty much just put it on immediately and happily go to town on the next group of enemies. Now, however, getting a new piece of gear involves several steps: buying an enchant or other item-enhancement, buying gems (usually) and then going to the reforger. It's one more step we're forced to take to make our raw gear usable.

The pressure to min-max: A piece of gear could, potentially, have a profound impact. Trinkets, for example, usually have a huge chunk of a particular stat. If you have that one really crit-heavy trinket, you would really notice the difference. With reforging, all of that gets sanded down. Sure, you can't reforge procs, which are usually pretty powerful, but it does start to put you in a position where you're never really going to see your itemization shift all that much.

Likewise, it makes individual pieces of gear matter less. For example, I've been half-heartedly going for the sword off of Iron Qon on my tankadin for a while now because it has hit and expertise, instead of parry and dodge, like the sidegrade mace off of Primordius. Even though I'm hit and expertise capped, I'm not really trying to get those stats, but rather doing a weird thing where I'm shifting as much avoidance out of my gear as I can to reforge into stuff like mastery and haste. So the sword on its own is not that appealing - it's really just how it fits into the larger puzzle of my whole gear set. And that leads to the next point:

It makes lesser stats even less desirable. Getting a little dodge or parry on a piece of gear that otherwise has great stuff used to be pretty much just a bonus. But nowadays, because of the flexibility afforded to us by reforging, it seems to be an expectation that we check Ask Mr. Robot every time we get a new piece of gear and utterly purge any less-than-desirable stats from our gear.


Reforging unquestionably allows players to become more powerful, but of course the thing about game design is that making players more powerful across the board really winds up being a wash (because enemies will just be balanced around that greater level of power.) Reforging gives us another dial to tweak, but I don't think we were ever really in danger of having not enough dials.

Philosophically, I think there's an argument to be made for making gear a little funkier and less convenient. Obviously in a game where the players are obsessed with balance, this could be untenable, but I wonder if the game would be more fun if we were a little scrappier, a little thrown-together. Blizzard's philosophy is to make players feel overpowered, but I don't know if turning us all into armor engineers is the right way to do that.

Unlike item upgrades, reforging has been around since the pre-Cataclysm patch. That doesn't mean it is a sacred cow, but it means it is a lot less likely to be removed. Additionally, in a game where player gold is undergoing insane inflation (there was a time when I wouldn't spend a hundred gold on something at the auction house,) having a regular gold-sink is probably needed for the economy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Are Item Upgrades Good for the Game?

Short answer: no.

But let me take some time to actually outline why I am against the Voidbinders.

Voidbinders were first added to the Transmog/Void Storage/Reforging Etheral shops in 5.1, and then they were taken away in 5.2, and then reintroduced with 5.3, now charging far less for their services. If you want to upgrade an epic, it will cost you 250 VP for 4 iLevels, capping at two upgrades, or 500 VP.

Now, the cost-reduction was a good move, if one accepts upgrades as a good thing for the game. In 5.1, the steep cost of upgrading your gear made you essentially gamble against getting any new drops. Admittedly, Valor Gear itself has a bit of this element, but upgrades were competing (more directly, in fact) with them as well.

Getting stronger over time is arguably the most important defining trait of an RPG, and this certainly allows for it. However, I think the problem that voidbinders cause brings us back to the usual "you're never done" problem.

WoW is built in such a way that only the very most elite, top guilds, will ever reach that plateau where you have the best possible gear, so since day one, it's true that everyone had room for improvement.

Yet there were times in the past where one could reasonably feel like they had finished with the current patch - caught fully up, they would not feel any obligation to play just to prepare for new challenges. For example, in late Wrath (summer of 2012,) I got to a point on Jarsus where I had all the (then Emblem of Frost) gear that I needed, and I had filled out every slot that wasn't covered by "badge gear" with 251 epics out of Icecrown Citadel.

Even in other eras, there have been many times when I've gotten to a point where I've got all the Valor gear I need, and thus I can take it easy on the grind, or start spending those points on my retribution off-set.

Allowing someone to feel that they have completed the point-grind (even if they still need a few drops) opens things up to them. They can start gearing for another spec, or they can take some time to work on an alt, or they can... GASP! take a break from the game for a while.

Obviously, the last option there is available to matter what state your toon is in, but for those of us who do want to keep our toons in decent shape and not have to play catch-up in the future, Voidbinder Upgrades are just another thing that seems to be expected.

One of the justifications of Voidbinders was that they sort of allow players to nerf the raids themselves over time. Instead of a debuff to slap on the bosses that lowers their damage and health, players would just naturally get more powerful. Of course, the problem here is that new players would not benefit from such a "nerf," as they'd still be in the state that the more advanced raiders were when the raid was released, which kind of defeats the point of those nerfs in the first place.

And lo and behold, it looks like they're going to be doing a nerf debuff in Throne of Thunder anyway.

Getting more power over time is, of course, part of the appeal of the game. But item upgrades seem too simple, too straightforward to really feel like anything other than an impetus to grind more. The cynic in me suspects that it was cooked up by people who just want to keep your subscription, but while I think that the topic of ethical game design is a real and important one, I'm going to try to remain "intentions agnostic" in regards to Blizzard and comment purely on the gameplay consequences themselves and operate under the premise that Blizzard is simply trying to make World of Warcraft the best game it can be.

More power's always fun, but if Voidbinders are merely elevating the entire plane, then they're pointless and should go.

(Ooh, ooh! Next time I'm going to talk about Reforging! We could do a whole series on Ethereal Services...)