Sunday, December 15, 2013

What is Draenor?

Admittedly, the title here might be a little misleading. Draenor was (well, in lore - probably not in real life) a real planet, with real people there. It witnessed the arrival of the Draenei, the rise of the Horde, the construction of the Dark Portal and the subsequent retreat of the shattered remnants of the Horde. The Alliance Expedition came in, and the shattering caused by Ner'zhul. It was transformed into Outland and saw everything that happened during the Burning Crusade expansion. The last real bit of lore to happen there was a gathering of the Earthen Ring in the lead-up to the Cataclysm.

But soon, we'll be trekking out to a very different Draenor. On the surface, it seems that we're stepping into the past - a Draenor that should have only existed in the memories of those who lived there. But it's different. It's a Draenor where the Orcs en masse did not drink the blood of Mannoroth, yet they were united nevertheless into an aggressive Horde bent on the conquest of both their world and of our modern Azeroth.

In theory, what we've got here is a standard alternate timeline. Garrosh, with the help of Bronze Dragon Kairoz, traveled back into the past and stopped his father from drinking the blood, instead introducing modern industry and technology to give them a military edge. Yet instead of changing our history, instead what appears to have happened was that an alternate universe opened up, parallel with our own.

Except it's not parallel. If it were, we should be coming to a Draenor that has been at war for 30 years, and the likes of Grommash and Durotan ought to be old, old men. Instead, it seems that at most a year or two have passed since Garrosh's changes to the timeline.

This new Draenor seems tied inextricably to our progression of time. It seems that both we and Garrosh have experienced the flow of time at the same rate, even as he's gone back into this past.

Seems a bit fishy, doesn't it?

When you first arrive on the Timeless Isle, you'll come to a small gathering of people - Lorewalker Cho, Anduin Wrynn (with his bodyguards,) Wrathion (with his bodyguards,) and Kairoz. There are actually two quests that send you to them. One, the standard one, prompts a little dialogue scene where Anduin and Kairoz discuss the interesting qualities of the Timeless Isle. However, if you're on the Legendary Chain, there's an additional discussion that begins between Kairoz and Wrathion. Wrathion's tendency toward shameless ambition is more evident there, but it prompts this tantalizing statement from Kairoz:

"What if it were possible to shape and mold time as you would a ball of clay? What possibilities await? What new worlds could we create?"

There's a lot that doesn't really make sense about this alternate Draenor. Why does it connect with the modern day? Why does it not change our history? Why does it not replace the existing Outland?

Because it's not really Draenor.

Kairoz created a facsimile of Garrosh's home world. He used the power he gained while studying the Timeless Isle to craft an entirely new world from scratch. And he populated that world with people who were based on these figures of the past, but are not truly them.

This alternate Draenor is real, and its people are real. But they've all only existed since the moment Kairoz created the world for Garrosh to travel there.

And with that, there are no paradoxes. This "alternate history" hasn't changed our for the very clear reason that it didn't even exist back then. The "red dark portal" does not need to be a time-travel portal in addition to its other duties, because the alternate Draenor truly is a modern entity.

Garrosh is satisfied. He has his army of Orcs and Orcs alone, ready to take revenge on the enemy who defeated him and the allies who betrayed him. He believes he has saved his people from demonic corruption. He has an entire world to himself.

But Garrosh is just a pawn in all of this. He's a point of inspiration and a catalyst for the true mastermind: Kairoz. Alternate Draenor is the first experiment in using the power of time to shape and create entirely new worlds, and if you don't care about the rampaging barbarian army you've unleashed, it counts as a resounding success.

Creating entire new worlds out of the fabric of time: there are infinite possibilities for what you could do with such incredible power. Take any force, any artifact from history, and merely imagine a world where it could still exist, and you have it. Did something go wrong in that world? Did something disrupt or corrupt that person or that object that you need? Simply rewrite history, change a few variables, and you have your readymade tool available to you.

Sounds impractical? Sounds convoluted?

Two words: Dragon Soul.

We've already done it. The Dragon Soul was shattered to a million pieces, and corrupted into the wretched Demon Soul by Deathwing. But through the manipulations of time, we were able to create a new version of it to use in the fight against the Aspect of Death.

A group of time-travelers at some point have, or will, figure out what Kairoz has been able to accomplish. Perhaps he is their instructor, or perhaps he has been manipulated by them. And all of the alternate, broken histories that they create, will be the crises that we heroes of Azeroth will be tasked with resolving in the Caverns of Time.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Currency Gear Needs to Come Back

While there was a lot in 5.4 to be excited about - the removal of reputation requirements on the 5.0 and 5.1 gear, which, incidentally, was also downgraded to JP gear, as well as the huge slew of alt-friendly timeless armor pieces (and with cross-realm mailing, you can equip all your toons, regardless of which side!) - one thing that seriously worried be was the lack of new valor gear. At this point, the best stuff you can buy with valor points is Shado-Pan Assault gear, which has been around since 5.2.

Instead, the seeming intention is to have us use Valor Points to upgrade the iLevels of the gear we find dropping off of bosses.

I realize I've gone into this before, but I think it bears reiteration. The entire point of Valor points and its forebears was to help with bad luck in drops. You could run a raid many times over and just from sheer bad luck, never get new gear - or perhaps just never get those gloves you needed. With vendor-bought gear, you could end that streak.

What we've traded that system for is one that merely rewards being lucky with those drops. Sure, you might consider the ability to upgrade your, say, 522 gloves to 530 allows you to close the gap a little between what you have and the piece you want, but ultimately, upgrades just raise the numbers. Your newly 530 gloves are not a substitute for the 540 ones you want, because if you had gotten those 540 gloves, you'd upgrade them to 548. The only, only thing that valor upgrades as a game mechanic do is give people a reason to keep grinding valor.

Blizzard might want us all to raid more, and I think they've accomplished that to an extent if you consider LFR to satisfy that goal. What I miss, and I think a lot of people do, is the sense of progression you can make in alternate forms of content. The reason they started awarding valor points for doing daily quests was theoretically to allow people to just be hardcore questers (how many dailies you'd need for a full set, though, I don't even want to think about.)

Cataclysm gets a lot of flak (much of it deserved - I'll definitely say the raiding game is far better in Mists than it was in Cata) but one thing I think it got dead-on was the progression of Justice Points and Valor Points, and the gear one could get from them. Combining that with progressive dungeon tiers (admittedly, the 5.2 Zul'agains might have worked better if they had come in with Firelands - and the difficulty of heroics in Cata was definitely too high until 4.3,) you could feel like you were getting a serious sense of character progression even if you didn't want to deal with the hassles of raiding.

I worry, especially with the randomized nature of gem sockets, tertiary stats, and "war forged" iLevel boosts for gear in WoD, that Blizzard is determined to dismantle the system that they built up starting in Burning Crusade. Yes, getting a drop off a boss is exciting, but the game's a lot healthier when the routes to gear acquisition are diverse.

Give us raid drops, dungeon drops, crafted gear, Valor gear, and Rep gear, and anything else you can come up with.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What is the Ideal Difficulty Level for Heroic Dungeons?

We've seen heroic dungeons swing wide on the pendulum between easy and hard. In Burning Crusade, heroics were kind of like mini-raids. In Wrath, the necessity for crowd-control and the like mostly went away (which was good, because every class - even Rogues! - had been given AoE tools that they really wanted to use.) In Cataclysm, we saw heroics get beefed up to be far harder - with plenty of 1-shot mechanics and crowd-control and bosses where a single error could make the fight unwinnable unless you far out geared it (letting the Faceless Ones reach the eggs on Erudax, for example.) And then Mists swung the pendulum far in the other direction, making probably the easiest heroics ever.

So where should the difficulty be in heroics come WoD? I'd argue that they've never been just quite right, but the biggest problem is that there's a huge difference between what people want from them. Some want an intense, raid-like challenge that requires careful coordination and fast reflexes. Others want something they can breeze through quickly to get their VP.

Generally, the player base is better than they used to be. I actually think a large part of the perceived drop in difficulty is actually due to us all knowing our classes better. We also have great online resources to help us squeeze every last drop of juice from our gear and rotations. Likewise, our toolkits of abilities have gotten more diverse, so every player has a way to respond to most situations (Rogues used to just have to pick a target in an AoE pack, for example.) I would actually argue that a lot of Mists' era LFR fights are more difficult than many of the old-school raid fights from Vanilla and BC, but Blizzard can design around better-skilled players these days.

There is another factor that is crucial to remember: heroics need to be designed for the people who are just getting in to them. Many of the so-called hardcore complained about the Wrath of the Lich King heroics as being too easy because they remember blowing through them in ten minutes. But the thing is that that didn't really start happening until the latter days of the expansion, when most people (at least on their mains) could easily get a 4-piece set of tier 10 (the highest raid tier during the expansion.) When they were new, the heroics were certainly not as hard as BC ones, but you'd still wipe frequently (heroic Loken was brutal when you still needed gear off him.)

One of the reasons it is so important to bring in new dungeons over the course of an expansion is that as people run the current ones, they'll outgear them. While Mists dungeons were probably too easily tuned from the start, the effect has been compounded by the fact that nowadays, most of us have a decent set of 528, or at least 522 SPA gear, which allows us to utterly destroy everything in our paths with impunity.

There is, of course, also the problem of designing dungeons for pre-made guild groups using voice chat, and LFG groups that will use the in-game chat window at best. In general, the former will have a far easier time with just about any challenge than the latter.

So here's a fairly radical solution: do to dungeons what they've done with raids. Create a "Dungeon Finder" difficulty for heroics, which would be tuned for LFG groups. You would then be free to make more challenging versions with higher-level rewards, but this would only be accessible with a pre-made group (and given the new group finder that's coming - the non-automated group finder - you could push people toward that style of dungeon-run by offering the better rewards.

Ultimately, I think that as long as dungeons are seen as a stepping stone to raiding, they've got to remain easy enough to let new players get through without quitting out of frustration. While I do think it would be nice if the community was less wipe-averse these days (really? quitting after one wipe on Sha of Pride? Don't you want your Valor?) I don't know if the solution is just desensitization through ball-crushing difficulty. We saw how that worked out in Cataclysm, and it was not pretty (and while I hate to bring in the old subscription number game, as I think there are tons of factors that influence that, not the least of which is the worldwide economic downturn that may make some people think they can't afford what they see as a luxury expense, it was the early days of Cataclysm, with nothing but brutal content, that saw Wrath's constant ascendence in subscriptions turn around and start to drop.)

I wouldn't mind, actually, seeing a new "Mythic" dungeon difficulty to satisfy the people who miss the super hard Cataclysm or BC heroics, but I think that there needs to be a meaningful progression through 5-mans that is not solely for the hardest of the hardcore.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Questions Awaiting Answers for WoD

Warlords of Draenor was announced last month, and as tends to happen with a new expansion, we got a big flood of information. The folks at Blizzard have kept in touch with the community, largely clarifying things (like the new secondary stats, and the way that gem sockets and such will work.) But there are some questions that they haven't really touched on.

Final Boss:

This one's frustrating because someone (I want to say Kosak) said flat-out that Grommash was going to be the final boss, but someone else said that the boss would not be an Orc (hoping for the latter, personally.) There's been a lot of debate about whether that comment was just a joke (if it was, it was the most deadpan delivery I've ever heard,) but most notably, Blizzard has not weighed in at all after the fact.

The first three expansions were all built around ramping up to a final confrontation with the primary villain, though admittedly, Burning Crusade's true final raid was a bit of a twist - we didn't really know that we'd be fighting Kil'jaeden. Mists of Pandaria was a little odd in its structure. While they were up front about the fact that Garrosh would be the final boss, the expansion as a whole very gradually turned its focus away from the exotic locales of Pandaria and toward the Horde's Warchief. In a way, the real "main villain" of Mists was, collectively, the Sha and the remains of Y'shaarj, and in Garrosh, the Sha had found someone to wield their power effectively. There was only really one "Sha" raid, which was Terrace of Endless Spring, but the Sha's presence could be felt throughout the whole expansion (obviously the first wing of Siege of Orgrimmar was also heavily Sha-themed, even mirroring Terrace in several ways.)

So it is possible that the Iron Horde, with Grommash at its head, could be defeated in Blackrock Foundry, but nevertheless remain a constant presence, and also remain a threat that ties into whatever the final boss is.

Class Changes:

Beyond the level 100 talents and a few examples of the spell-upgrades we'll be getting from 91-100, we don't really know anything about how classes are going to change.

Every expansion has seen serious changes to how various classes work, whether it's something as simple as when they made Energy regenerate smoothly instead of in big chunks, or the huge overhaul of the Warlock we saw in Mists. While it does actually sound like they're pretty satisfied with how things are working out for the eleven classes these days, the fact that there is no new class and no new talent/ability system this time around actually gives them a pretty good opportunity to do some real house-cleaning.

The new goal seems to be a reduction in ability bloat, and while some of that can be achieved by making certain abilities passive (so excited about Assassination getting Slice and Dice passive,) we can also probably expect a few abilities to just get cut.

There's been very little talk about any philosophical shifts on various classes. Of particular interest to me is how they're going to make stats like Haste, Crit, and Multistrike useful to all five tanks.

Profession Details:

Obviously jewel crafting and enchanting are getting some changes, but we also don't know much about what they're going to do with the other professions. We saw Cooking and Blacksmithing get a lot of great catch-up mechanics in Mists, and I'm sure they'd like to expand those to the other professions, especially given the new level 90 boost.

We also don't know much about the resources we'll be getting. It's clear that things like Felblossom and Fel Iron wouldn't be in Draenor just yet, but might we see some thematic connection between the herbs and ore we get on Draenor and what we got in Outland?

Also, with the gear changes, what does that mean for all the armor-producing professions? As a personal note, is there any chance that Engineering could make weapons other than ranged?

Zone Levels:

Beyond knowing that we'll start briefly in Tanaan Jungle and then get shuffled off to Frostfire Peaks or Shadowmoon Valley*past, we don't really know where Talador, Nagrand*past, Gorgrond, or even possibly the rest of Tanaan Jungle fit within the leveling process.

Does the Alliance get to do anything in Frostfire Peaks, and does the Horde get to do anything in Shadowmoon Valley?

We know that Farahlon (known today as Netherstorm) will be added in a later patch, but do we have the slightest inkling of what is going on over there?

Other Enemies:

Every expansion has had a variety of enemies. Even though they are sometimes connected or allied, they tend to have different flavors to them. We know that the intro raid (what I assume will be the kind of Mogu'shan Vaults of the expansion) will be the Ogre-themed Highmaul, what other things might we have to deal with? Clearly, the Arrakoa pose a threat, and it's not unthinkable that we'd get a raid involving them (perhaps with their Old God connections?) The Ogres apparently once had a vast empire, so Highmaul might not be the last we see of them. It also stands to reason that the Burning Legion, while not central, will have a role to play (they must be pissed that Garrosh stopped the Orcs from drinking the blood.)

I would love to see the Infinite Dragonflight play a role, but Blizzard seems to be shying away from the trickier time-travel stuff (which I really hope is because they plan on doing something bigger with it later.)

Stat Changes:

With hit, expertise, dodge, and parry going away, what stats will we see replace them? Obviously this will be a short-term issue, as players who get to Draenor will only have the new array of stats to deal with, but for all the many items that still have those on them, what will we see? When they switched over from Wrath to Cataclysm, we saw Armor Penetration turn into crit, and we saw Defense turn into Dodge, if I recall correctly.

It might be cool if they brought in some of the new stats to replace the old ones, but that could be tricky, given that the new stats do wildly different things than the ones they'd be replacing. But given that there will be nothing like hit or expertise to replace them with, and nothing like dodge or parry to replace those with, it raises the question of what they'll do to adjust that gear.

Tons More:

There are many, many things that we have yet to find out about. I realize it's still quite early in the process to know a lot of these things. Really, we aren't guaranteed a big flood of information like we got at Blizzcon until the Beta test begins, and who knows when that will be? (I would love it if it came some time this month, though I realize that's pretty optimistic.)

In the meantime, we can only speculate.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gladiator Stance - Bringing Back the Hybrid Spec?

During Blizzcon, they showed off many of the level 100 talents. I was glad to see that a lot of them were passive abilities or ones that would replace existing abilities - a way to combat button bloat while also adding some new functionality (Necrotic Plague is exciting for Frost DKs, for example, because it means we can take Pestilence off our bars.) I also liked that many of the talents change depending on the spec, rather than forcing wildly different specs to cram the same ability into their rotations.

But no talent surprised me more than Extreme Measures for Warriors, specifically in the Protection version.

Protection Warriors who take Extreme Measures have their Defensive Stance replaced with Gladiator Stance. What this does is crazy. It causes Shield Slam to consume the Shield Barrier effect as damage dealt to the enemy, with an increased critical strike chance based on your critical block chance, and it increases all damage by 20%. It does not, however, provide bonus threat or damage reduction.

This, boys and girls, is a talent that turns Protection into a DPS spec.

Now, here's the disclaimer: this could very easily never make it even into the alpha test. It might not actually be possible to get a fully-fledged DPS spec out of Protection with this change alone. After all, most of the passive abilities and cool downs that a tank tends to have are based around survival.

At the very least, as it stands, this talent would be a great way for Warriors to switch to when they wanted to do some soloing. A warrior tank would have plenty of great gear for his or her sword-and-board set, and given that tanks will also be using crit, haste, and mastery, it will all be appropriate to a damage-increasing strategy.

But, if they can fully tweak this ability, it does two major things:

One is that it makes Shields a lot more attractive. While many Warriors (myself most likely included) will probably stick to Fury or Arms, just the fact that a Strength Shield will now be available to multiple roles means that we could see a bigger market for them.

The other, far bigger implication is that Blizzard is apparently playing with the notion of allowing specs to change roles based on talent choices.

Admittedly, going from a tank role to a DPS role is perhaps not so terribly difficult. Tanks have, before Active Mitigation became such a big thing, always played kind of like a DPS spec that just focuses a bit more on AoE (to keep things off the healers.) Making a Prot Warrior go to DPS is largely just an issue of tuning their damage output, whereas making a Warlock into a tank requires giving them a pretty substantial revamp of their toolkit.

It is easiest to allow DPS to have their own style, because downtime and gaps in their toolkit can always be made up for. If a Death Knight does 450k in 5 seconds but only 50k for the next five, and a Rogue does 500k over ten seconds, ultimately that's pretty much ok, because on a boss fight, it evens out. On the other hand, a tank needs to have a little bit of snap-AoE threat to deal with incoming adds, they need a cool down to survive the boss' big blast attack, and they all need to start the pull with sufficient threat to keep the DPS from pulling aggro. Tanks and Healers need to be tuned far closer to one another than DPS, which is why a tanking or healing toolkit has to be so similar across the classes.

We don't know if Gladiator Stance will make it through (though I really hope it does, because a DPS Sword-and-Board spec sounds awesome,) but if it does succeed, we could actually be opening a door to far greater diversity among specs and roles. This is an ability to keep your eye on.