Saturday, May 30, 2015

Monetization in Heroes of the Storm

Despite myself, I've actually been enjoying HotS quite a bit. It's nowhere near the complexity of a game like WoW, but it has that Smash-Bros-style elegance that makes it fun to play multiple games.

Now, I'm on the record as someone who detests microtransaction-based free-to-play models, as I think the games' makers are incentivized to make the game frustrating in order to get you to pour money into them. HotS (and to be fair, this could be true of other MOBAs as well) does certainly want you to pour money into it - and frankly, the prices on a lot of the options are kind of absurd - but what I appreciate is that unlocking characters is all doable with in-game gold. It will take you a while to grind said gold, and I think the number of matches you'd have to play to unlock every character is enormous, but at least the option is there.

It is a bit of a frustration-feature, but with the hero rotation (and actually a feature in the store that lets you test out heroes as well as skins, though this only lets you play versus a simple AI,) you get to see which heroes call out to you and then worry about purchasing those. And there's never a sense that buying stuff will make progression faster - except for the stimpak, which explicitly does that - so once you find a hero you like, you can usually grind out what you want from there.

Cosmetic things appear to be largely money-based, but if I find myself with more than a passing interest in the game, I might toss them a chunk of change for the "Crown Prince Arthas" variant - after all, it's not that I'm opposed to paying people to play the game they've made. Really, my beef with F2P is that these games often get you to pay more than you would normally for a similar game by just having you pay in quick bursts. I believe there is a giant bundle you can buy that unlocks everything (or at least a ton of things,) but it's over a hundred dollars - and that's the discount, buying-in-bulk price! (EDIT: Actually, my bad. The big Nexus Bundle is discounted at about 40 bucks, which isn't so bad.)

Anyway, the reason it's not so bad is that the only thing that really alters gameplay - control of characters - is all available for gold.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

First Impressions of Heroes of the Storm

Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard's own DOTA/MOBA game (I think MOBA has become the preferred nomenclature, given that Valve has got the trademark on DOTA, despite the fact that Defense of the Ancients was a mod for Warcraft III, a Blizzard game) is now in an open Beta, so anyone who wants can download it and try it out. In fact, this "Beta" is really just an early patch of the game in practice, as you can already purchase game elements that will carry over into the "live" game, which is the only way the game is monetized - it is... free to play. (Queue thunderclap sound effect.)

Anyway, this is the first time I've ever played this sort of game, so I'm coming at this from the angle of a 100% newbie. If you already know how these games work, feel free to skim, because a lot of what is totally new to me is old hat to someone who knows these games.

HotS is basically Blizzard's Smash Bros. It takes an existing genre and throws characters from its own IPs into the mix. There's a pretty tongue-in-cheek tutorial where you fight as Jim Raynor under the tutelage of Uther the Lightbringer in order to fight Diablo. Yep, that's a solid mix!

Right off the bat, one of the things that stands out to me is that this is a game designed for the microtransaction era, which immediately puts a nasty taste in my mouth.

That said, like Hearthstone, you'll be able to earn things by playing, albeit at a fairly slow rate.

There is a, I believe, weekly rotation of heroes that are available for free. Build up enough gold or take out your wallet, and you can permanently purchase the hero of your choice (I'll stick to the former.)

Pretty much everything else you buy with real money is purely cosmetic, and many of these can also be earned through in-game gold. The game encourages you to pick a favorite hero and focus on him or her (or it,) because as you level up your hero, you'll unlock new talent options (and at level 10, which I assume is the max, you'll get a "Master" cosmetic skin.)

After some brief experimentation, I picked Arthas, who focuses on melee attacks and is great at dealing with large swarms of minions due to a toggled AoE attack that burns mana as long as it's on.

Given how it grew out of WCIII, you can see a lot of the DNA of the RTS genre within the MOBA. Your goal in each game is to destroy the "Core" at the enemy's base. However, this will take a lot of time to do, as there are serious obstacles in place, not to mention the enemy team. You can play against AI, but at least for a new player like me, the bots pose a pretty significant challenge. I expect a well-coordinated team with voice chat would do better, though. I was playing with strangers.

Each map is mirrored, with a red team and a blue team (I don't know if it was luck, but I was always on the blue team - the superior color.) Bases will have a Core, as well as Forts, healing Fountains, and Gates.

Forts will periodically spawn small minions (I believe they're called "Creeps") who will automatically head off toward the enemy base. They'll clash with one another, but with the imbalance created by the players, they'll eventually start hitting the gates and bases.

Gates are protected by a pair of turrets, and these will hurt your hero significantly, but they will always prefer to hit your team's creeps, meaning that you'll need to wait for your army to get there before you storm them. The turrets can run out of ammo, but I'm not sure if they recover ammo over time (or if this is a mechanism to keep the game from going on forever.)

Fountains in your base can be right-clicked to give yourself a significant heal over time, but they'll go on cooldown for a minute afterward.

As you defeat enemies, you'll earn XP for your team. You'll level up, gaining talents as you go - and the higher you've "leveled up" your character through repeated matches, the more options you'll have at each talent tier. To clarify, there are two "leveling" systems. Over the course of a game, your team will level up as they kill creeps and enemy players (the team levels up together,) but over the course of several games, your personal skill with a character will level up. This won't make you unstoppable, but it will give your more talent options, as well as things like gold to spend on new characters, skins, and mounts.

One of the fun features of the game is that each arena is somewhat different. All of the areas have a very "Blizzard" design without technically belonging to any of the existing franchises. The arenas will typically have a special item that you can collect by defeating certain enemies or doing certain tasks, and then these can be translated into some large attack that will significantly harm the enemy team. For example, in the Haunted Mines map, there will be a mine area that opens up filled with zombies. Killing the zombies will allow you to collect their skulls, and later on, a Grave Golem will be spawned for each side, with power proportional to the number of skulls the respective team has collected. The Luxoria arena, which has a whole Egyptian thing going on, has various altars that will blast away at your enemy's structures while you occupy them, but you'll have to fend off guardian statues that activate while the altar is active.

Most of the arenas will also have mercenaries who, once defeated, will join your side as extra-powerful Creeps.

As always, Blizzard's art direction is wonderfully colorful, and you get that Smash Bros. joy of seeing figures from different franchises duking it out. This is a game designed for the eSports world, though, and if you're looking for stories, don't look here. I'm thankful that one can face off against AI, but fundamentally, this is a game built around PVP, so you can expect that the gameplay isn't going to undergo any big changes, and your first match won't be fundamentally different from your hundredth (except you'll probably be a better player by then.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Shadows of Mordor... Review, I guess?

With a pretty horrifying number of orcs burned, exploded, decaptitated, or stabbed, my playthrough of Shadows of Mordor has reached its conclusion.

I enjoyed the game, overall, and would recommend it, especially now that it's gone down in price - though I'd recommend playing it on a gaming PC or next-gen console, as the old 360 sometimes had a bit of huffing and puffing to do (textures especially would sometimes go super-low resolution until the game could catch its breath.)

One of the things that's a little odd about the game is that it feels fairly short. Now, that could very well be a result of my having been playing Skyrim just before starting in on Mordor. Shadows of Mordor is sort of an open-world game, but almost more in an old-fashioned, Metroid kind of way. I think the main reason for this is that there really isn't any "safe" area. You're in Mordor the entire game, and while there are certainly places to run around with relative freedom, the whole game map is basically swarming with Orcs.

This is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, you've always got Uruks somewhere nearby that you can mess with. But it also kind of flattens the game world. You will encounter new, tougher classes of grunt orcs as you go, but once you figure out the combat system (or level up enough to have a nice complement of stat boosts, abilities, and weapon runes) you're basically not going to have to worry about any big surprises in your travels.

The nemesis system, with named enemy Captains and Warchiefs, is pretty cool, but it feels like it could be more central and dynamic within the game.

One problem is that there's basically only three ranks - Grunt, Captain, and Warchief. You'll see Captains getting promoted from one of the three tiers in the Captains' ranks to the next constantly, but if there's any value to that promotion, I don't really know what it is. Warchiefs will only come out when certain conditions are met, and it doesn't seem like you ever see Orcs who aren't under your influence back-stabbing their Warchiefs. I think the promise of the nemesis system is that the politics of the Orcs give you a constant need to readjust your strategy, but in practice, with a bit of intel, you can just zero in on the Orcs you need to take down.

That said, intel is actually fairly rare. While you can, with diligence, get the skinny on every captain and warchief out there, chances are you're going to be running into Captains you've never heard of, and you'll have to rely on your standard combat to beat them - but the thing is, once you get the hang of said combat, most of these guys won't feel like much of a threat, even if they do have certain immunities.

Another problem with the system that could be dealt with in a sequel or something, is that the orc officers actually get less interesting and unique as their power levels increase. When you're dealing with officers in the lower levels, you'll find that some can be killed instantly with stealth attacks, or ranged attacks. Now, yes, instant kills would make them a little dull, but when you start to deal with high-level opponents, you often find ones that are totally immune to ranged attacks, stealth attacks, and beast attacks. And what that means is that you've just got to go fight them the old fashioned way.

Occasionally, an orc you've "killed" will come back to life, and awesomely, they'll usually have some scar or metal prosthetic to indicate how you defeated them the first time. The thing is, this doesn't happen very often. Usually, if they do come back, you'll have - for example - already killed their Warchief, making them just a nuisance. I'd have liked for there to be a bit more of a real rivalry built up between Talion and these orcs.

Orcs will permanently die if you behead them, but this is kind of determined randomly as far as I can tell - sometimes your "Execute" attack will take their heads off, and sometimes you'll just super-stab them.

Still, it's a really cool feature that I think could use some refinement.

The game world has some great positives and some great negatives. On the positive side, the game does a good job recapturing the dirty aesthetic of the LOTR movies. This definitely feels like the version of Tolkien brought to us by Peter Jackson. The voice acting is also quite good. Storywise, it's... tantalyzing. There's tons of backstory (the Elf-Wraith who is bonded to Talion is a pretty important figure in Middle-Earth's history,) but the characters we deal with are a little thin. There is a human refugee kingdom that has for some reason decided Mordor would be a good place to live (in fairness, they were there before the Orcs came back,) but their story doesn't really go that far beyond "we need to get the hell out of Mordor."

There's also something weirdly unsatisfying about the fact that there are two large game areas, rather than three. As I played through the Udun section of the game, I actually began to suspect I might spend the entire time there. But upon entering the Sea of Nurnen area, the game seemed like it was going to open up into a much larger expanse. However, in the end, other than a couple of areas you only go to when dealing with the major bosses, that's it. Now, each of these areas has districts that vary somewhat. You'll get to know the various towns and fortresses with larger populations of orcs and contrast those with the open spaces.

The major "boss fights" are also not really that. The Hammer is the only one that you fight in open combat, and he's definitely a challenge (especially with a constant stream of Orc grunts joining him.) The Tower, however, is an attempt at a "Stealth Boss." Obviously, SoM is a game that allows you to do things stealthily, and thus it would be weird for every major enemy to be fought in open combat. The problem is that adjusting difficulty in stealth gameplay is always tricky, as it tends to operate on a scale of "do I see you or not?" (Actually, there's an idea for game developers - is there a way to make a type of stealth gameplay with more variation.) The final boss, rather than involving the Bow, as you might guess, is actually just an old-school "Quick Time Event," where you have to press the buttons that pop up on the screen.

Before summing up, let's talk combat. Stealth really works just like in a game like Assassin's Creed, though you have other options than just killing an enemy if you can nab them. The psychology of the orcs plays a role here - in the second half of the game you can "brand" orcs so that they'll fight for you (and obey your commands without resisting.) You can also "brutalize" enemies from stealth, which is actually a pretty clever alternative to the old "pick them off one at a time" style of stealth from similar games. Brutalizing will have you stab the target multiple times. This is useful when attacking a group of orcs, as it will cause at least one of them to run away screaming, and it will also charge up your hit-streak before you engage the remaining orcs.

Melee combat is pretty fun when you get the hang of it. Each time you strike an enemy (with any weapon,) your hit counter will go up by one, and will continue to climb as long as you don't miss, get hit by an attack, or go for a long enough time without hitting anything. When you get up to eight, the counter will turn red, allowing you to use a powerful finisher (such as Execute, which instant-kills grunts and does significant damage to captains and warchiefs.) There are plenty of abilities you can unlock as you go that will make it easier to rack up this counter and pull off more of those moves. Oddly, though this might be just me, and potentially a result of the default control scheme, but parrying can be tough to pull off. When an enemy tries to strike you, you'll have a brief moment to respond, and it can be difficult to pull this off when trying to keep on the offensive. There aren't really any "counter-kills" like in Assassin's Creed, and enemies will often attack at the same time, so you'll need to be quick to respond - though thankfully, if you strike a guy while they're winding up for an attack, you will interrupt them (except the shield-carrying guardians, I believe.)

Ranged combat has cleverly been designed so that you can fight like Legolas pretty effectively. Unlike the sword and dagger (the latter actually being the remains of a broken sword,) the Bow is an ethereal extension of the Elf Wraith. This means you'll go into Wraith mode automatically when firing the bow. Additionally, by default you'll also start using Focus (a regenerating resource) to slow down time while firing. This allows you to get off multiple charged headshots before the orcs you're fighting can react, or allowing you to shoot an orc in the head right in the middle of a grand melee. Arrows, or "Elf-Shot" can be recovered either by finding the ghostly projectiles in the walls and floors of the many ruins in the area, or by "draining" poor orcs who get in your way (this attack cleverly employs a dutch angle for the camera to sell how unsettling it is.)

There is a story through which to progress here, and there's a structure to the game's quests, but I think the main selling point is that it's truly fun to get in there and mess it up with some Uruks. Some gameplay features could definitely have been more emphasized, particularly the nemesis system (I'm still not entirely sure how useful it is to "terrify" my targets,) and while the two main game areas did feel relatively different, I think they could have done more to vary the environment. But any of the problems I might have had with the game could be fixed in a sequel, and given that it ends with an utterly shameless sequel hook, I expect we'll see one before too long.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Archimonde Fight Spoilers

Archimonde is the final boss of the Hellfire Citadel raid (Archimonde B, that is, given that our version died in WCIII, but I'll trust everyone to understand the whole "alternate universe" thing.) The fight looks pretty intense, and it definitely looks like a pretty big epic culmination of the raid, and potentially the expansion (though recent news makes me doubt that a bit.)

However, one major detail of the fight is actually a pretty big spoiler for the fate of a certain character - I'm trying to be vague here to give anyone trying to avoid the spoilers a chance to read the warning.

Got it? Ok. Spoiler Town:

Friday, May 22, 2015

On the Plus Side: More to Draenor after 6.2

In the same interview given by lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas that shattered our hopes for the ability to use our prized flying mounts once more (the way that they were intended to work, as opposed to galumphing along the ground,) we got a bit of bright news: Blizzard has "plenty more story to tell" in Draenor after 6.2.

Now, that's certainly some squirmy word choice, but it looks like a confirmation that there is another content patch to follow 6.2. Given that 6.1 didn't even have enough content to warrant a name, it's a nice step back from "huge disappointment town" that we'll be getting more development after Tanaan Jungle opens up.

Does this guarantee a new raid tier? I think that's really up in the air, though I'd hope so. Given that neither Grommash nor Gul'dan are present as bosses in Hellfire Citadel, many have been scratching their heads about the upcoming raid. It seems like a pretty major set of bad guys - after all, we are fighting Mannoroth and Archimonde, along with several other established characters (Teron Gorefiend, Socrethar, Kilrogg Deadeye.) But Grommash was the headliner for the expansion, and Gul'dan very quickly established himself as the major threat.

I suspect that Blizzard intended to give themselves some wiggle-room. If they had expansion six essentially ready to release this year in the fall or winter, they might make HFC the final raid tier, but I'd guess that isn't the case (given that no expansion has every come out that quickly.) So you could have ended the expansion with the Legion taking over the Iron Horde only to be defeated anyway by our combined might, with Grommash repenting for his actions and Gul'dan either dying for failing the Legion or scampering off to be a persistent, expansion-straddling threat (now that Garrosh is gone.)

Still, I've really got to wonder just what that third raid would consist of. Hellfire Citadel is going to be the Legion proper - something we really haven't faced since Sunwell Plateau. With the Old Gods pretty much benched for the expansion, who the hell can we fight that's more of a threat than the Burning Legion?

That's not meant as a build-up to my reveal of who I think it would be, it's an honest question.

I think bringing the Infinite Dragonflight into the mix would be interesting, but I also know that there are a lot of people who just want to plug their ears and hum loudly any time someone tries to introduce time travel elements (admittedly, what's satisfying to some - like the movie 12 Monkeys for me - can be infuriatingly frustrating for others when it comes to time travel stories.) Yet even with the, you sort of have to wonder about what the actual venue to fight them would be. The Infinites don't really have a headquarters that we know of, and if they do, it's probably on Azeroth (in fact, it's probably in the Caverns of Time in an alternate universe.)

Other that Farahlon, another big player-speculated area would be the alternate Azeroth. The Draenor we're coming from doesn't seem to be some small, bubble-universe, but seems to be a part of a cosmos just as large and complex as the one our characters are from. With the Iron Horde directing its assault on Azeroth A, that leaves Azeroth B relatively safe... sort of.

If we can assume that, while certain small details are different (like Rulkhan being alive or Grommash having no son,) most of the changes on Draenor are due to Garrosh's interference, then we can assume that there's still a Medivh on Azeroth B who is possessed by Sargeras. And this is an incredibly powerful being possessing an also incredibly powerful being who, we can assume, is really pissed off that the invasion he called for hasn't arrived yet.

Because while Gul'dan has been in contact with Kil'jaeden and Archimonde and the Legion Proper, he has also presumably been in touch with the boss-man himself. Without the Orcish Horde marching through the Swamp of Sorrows, what had Medivh/Sargeras B resorted to in order to further his goal of conquering Azeroth B?

Granted, that's the kind of thing you might need a whole expansion to address, but it could be really cool to see what the Kingdom of Stormwind was like before the First War (consider, for instance, that pretty much all of Stormwind City had to be rebuilt.)

Anyway - there's a lot of speculation to be had, but the short version is: more to come between 6.2 and 7.0.

Flight Basically Going Away in All New Content

Apparently, Blizzard has announced that they will not be unlocking flight in Draenor, and will most likely not be allowing flight in any future expansions.

Now, I've made my opinion on this pretty clear (generally pro-flight, though I'm ok with level-based restrictions on it.) I'd also argue that there are some pretty big problems with offering things like flying mounts for real money and then taking it away. Yes, you can technically use the Rylak mount on the ground, but I seriously doubt anyone is all that excited to see their two-headed bird/wolf awkwardly hobbling along over its giant wings.

I'll agree that flight can trivialize some quest content - the tried-and-true "named enemy in a sea of mooks" sort of quests are pretty easy to do when you can just pop down and tag the guy (though given that these quests pretty much always get paired with one that says "and kill x of these guys while you're at it," you'll probably have to fight through the area anyway.)

Still, to me it's all about having a toolkit. Flight opens up things that can be awesome. For example, I loved the gunships in Icecrown (the zone - actually, the fight in the raid was pretty cool too) - in fact, I just generally love the idea of airships as a thing in World of Warcraft. Perhaps my favorite moment questing in Deepholm was investigating the Alliance airship that had been taken over by a Twilight's Hammer mutiny.

Blizzard has said that they could allow flight in particular zones or expansions where they felt that it fit, flavor-wise, but I worry that this decision is more likely to be a pure blanket statement, and we will see any such designs torpedoed due to the reliance on flight.

My hope is that we will one day see new zones that use the vertical axis in interesting ways, like Icecrown and Storm Peaks, but this decision does not bode well for that hope.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dominating Orcs for Fun and Profit

Right now I've been playing a bunch of Shadows of Mordor, which is proving quite fun. Having finished the "Udûn" section, I've moved on to the Núrn area - a region on the coast of an inland sea that is far more green than the previous one. For context, Udûn is, I believe, the area directly inside the Black Gate - which is the heavily fortified entrance to Mordor in the northwest. Núrn is farther south, and is used as farmlands to feed Sauron's army (even Orcs gotta eat, and they can't live on pure cannibalism, what with the conservation of energy.)

While your efforts in Udûn had you killing all of the Orc Warchiefs there, here you'll unlock the ability to "brand" them. You can brand any orc you defeat - regular grunts can be branded easily, whereas Captains and Warchiefs will require you to weaken them or terrify them. In addition to the old interrogation abilities that you used in the first part of the game, you'll also be able to send them on missions. Captains can be sent to get in as bodyguards to Warchiefs, and once they've proven themselves (something you can ensure by doing a quick mission,) or if the Captain you capture is already a bodyguard, you can send your agent to assassinate his Warchief. If he succeeds (and again, you'll need to help,) you'll have a loyal Warchief.

You can also send said Warchiefs to make trouble for others of their rank, which starts a "Riot," where both of their forces clash.

I had a particularly nasty Warchief I wanted to replace (though you can also just brand a defeated Warchief instead of cutting off his head,) and after sending a Death Threat against him (which increases his strength but also the reward for killing him) he was at what I believe is the maximum power level, which is 20. Worried that my coup would be difficult, I did a LOT of groundwork. I killed one of his bodyguards and branded the other, sending my agent to assassinate him. But I also had a previously-branded Warchief (who had a bodyguard Captain I'd also branded) start a riot against this guy.

So when I finally showed up to take him on, the tough bastard was surrounded by troops friendly to me. The biggest challenge in the fight was just not killing my own loyal Orcs while we all swarmed this poor sod. And despite being a very powerful enemy, we took him down (though not with a satisfying decapitation. Normally that would mean that he could come back after some time, but given that my branded Captain had betrayed him, he then took his position.

So with that, I have 3/5 of the Warchiefs in Núrn under my control (one of them I got just by branding him in combat.)

Taking control of the Orcish hordes in Mordor is fairly satisfying, as you feel like a combination of assassin and Machiavellian chessmaster. On the other hand, I feel like there will be some kind of reckoning here. Power is a volatile thing, especially in Middle Earth. And Sauron often preys on people who seek to take his power for themselves. It's not as if the Orcs I have under control are suddenly becoming model citizens.

But for now, having a few allies at my side, however odious they may be, has its advantages.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

First Hour or So of Shadows of Mordor

I recently got enough storage space for Shadows of Mordor on the XBox 360 (and yes, I know this is more of a next-gen game, but let me know when an XBox One or PS4 is like $150 and we'll talk.) I've barely scratched the surface, only really doing a single side mission to get a new Dagger Legend. I've managed to die twice, though, and that's teaching me something about the game.

From the looks of the game, my closest analog that I'm familiar with is Assassin's Creed (though I'm given to understand it's more similar to the Batman Arkham games.) However, at least so far, the game is much more punishing when it comes to combat.

Fighting Uruks will give you various forms of XP - just killing them will earn you ability points, which can be spent to gain new abilities, but then you'll need to kill Captains and Warchiefs to gain power, which unlocks further tiers of those abilities. There are also weapon Legends which will have various effects on the weapons you use, and some other forms of leveling that increase base stats like health, arrows, and other such things.

You certainly can fight large crowds, and I'm sure that as I get used to the controls and the subtleties of the game I'll be able to do better in these fights, but there's much less of the "Mook Chivalry" you see in AC games.

Out of the gate, I really, really recommend stealth. The Orcs don't seem to be terribly vigilant, but if they do notice you, you're going to have trouble. You're also more likely than I expected to run into Captains, who are pretty serious threats if they've got anyone helping them (and probably on their own as well.)

The game is built around you dying though - the whole premise is actually that you were killed in the prologue, but cursed in such a way that prevented you from actually dying (and bonding you to the spirit of an Elf wraith... and that's pretty much all I have so far.) So your deaths aren't just retconned away like they are in just about every video game. Instead, an Orc - sorry, Uruk (which I thought was just an Elvish word for Orc) - that kills you will gain prestige. A random grunt will be promoted to Captain and will then engage in a power struggle (this might not happen if there are slots in the ranks made "available," but I don't know,) and kill off one of the other captains. The funny thing about this is that you can kind of do "Death Intel" by dying and then knowing that the guy who killed you has risen in rank. Uruks that kill you will gain power, but you also gain a bit of power when you die, so I don't think you can paint yourself into a power corner if you die too often.

I only had sporadic time to play today, so I was only able to accomplish a little. I'm sure I'll have more to share as I explore the game more.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Seventeen Rings for the DPS, Pew-Pewing from behind, six to the healers, spirits lifted high. Two to the tanks, faces smashed by boss.

While we might worry that they aren't as flashy as weapons, or even cloaks, the Legendary Rings coming with 6.2 tap into some of the oldest and most potent fantasy lore there is: Lord of the Rings (and yes, that in turn taps into Norse Mythology.) If you're some philistine who for some reason cares about World of Warcraft but isn't familiar with Tolkien's Opus, here's a quick breakdown: Sauron, who was basically the Kil'jaeden or Archimonde of Tolkien's setting (being a number 2 to the big bad, Melkor, also known as Morgoth,) showed up disguised as a good guy and taught the elves how to make rings of power that would... well, it's actually kind of vague. The rings would basically make the bearers more powerful and effective leaders, and potentially enhanced certain magical abilities, but again, it was kind of vague.

Sauron helps the elves make three for themselves, plus seven for the dwarves and nine for humans. But he also makes a single ring for himself, which is the One Ring that is the macguffin of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The One Ring is basically the master control for the other rings, allowing him to mind-control anyone using them and bend their power to his will.

His plan doesn't work perfectly, though. The Elves figure out who he is before they put their rings on, and they're only willing to use them during the Third Age, after Sauron is separated from the One Ring (in the Fourth Age, which is what happens after the events of Lord of the Rings, all the rings get de-powered because the One Ring is destroyed.) The dwarven rings only partially work because Dwarf minds work differently - part of the backstory is that they were created separately from Elves and Men (Hobbits being an off-shoot of humanity.) The one resounding success, however, is the set of nine rings given to powerful humans. These guys, mostly kings and sorcerers (not wizards, though, because that's a term reserved for five specific Maiar, aka second-tier angels,) become the Ring Wraiths, the Dark Riders who hunt after the ring and serve as Sauron's top lieutenants (though clearly even here it didn't work perfectly, as there are plenty of humans who didn't follow them.)

Anywho, rings of power. They tend to come in a set and interact in interesting ways. And that's what we're doing in Draenor.

For the record, I've never really bought any of the "Khadgar is Evil" or "Khadgar isn't Really Khadgar" fan theories. I've found his wry wit to be a lovely change of pace from the teeth-gritting serious hero stuff we usually get from Varian and Thrall. Yes, he does talk a lot about power, but power's not inherently bad - it's how you use it. And Khadgar is trying to capture Gul'dan, who is definitely public enemy number one (well, at least until he summons Archimonde.)

A group of rings isn't necessarily a bad thing either. In a recent blue post, Watcher addressed some criticisms and concerns about the model for the design of the legendary rings, and while Tolkien's influence (beyond the "standard fantasy setting" he created) is definitely something they have in mind, they're also going for a more benign, Captain Planet kind of thing: "By your powers combined," etc.

Just mechanically, I don't really see our rings suddenly turning evil on us because Khadgar has forged his own ring in secret. But it would be kind of interesting to see some kind of mirror image to what we've been working on. What if Gul'dan was working on his own legendary all along? We still don't know what his fate will be - it's fairly surprising that he isn't a boss, or the final boss, for that matter, of Hellfire Citadel. We do know that our Legendaries will be complete by the end of HFC, but even that said, it could mean that we've got another raid in which to use them, if we're sticking to the Mists model.

Anyway, it is kind of cool to think that we're creating these rings of power. It's a grand and storied tradition.

PS: Something I always thought was cool is the fact that a lot of the most famous fantasy villains are technically liches. Even though the "Lich" as a fantasy trope was invented, I believe, by Dungeons and Dragons in the 70s, Sauron totally fits the bill (even though he's really a fallen angel as opposed to a mortal spellcaster staving off mortality,) as does Voldemort from Harry Potter (Horcruxes being JK Rowling's word for a Lich's phylactery.) Within Warcraft, Arthas is technically an involuntary Lich, with Frostmourne serving as his phylactery (though it clearly works differently depending on whether you just grip the handle or die by the blade.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Up and Down: Subscriptions to WoW back to Mists Levels

When Warlords of Draenor launched, subscriptions shot all the way up to 10 million - not quite the 12 mil watermark that we hit at the end of Wrath and beginning of Cataclysm, but far higher than I think anyone expected after the steady decline during Cataclysm and Mists. Well, it seems that that bump was too good to last, and things have almost returned to the levels they were at pre-Warlords.

So what gives? Why was the expansion such a huge success when it launched but then sank back down to... well, still the most successful subscription-based MMO out there, but much less popular than it had been?

The obvious answer is the one Blizzard doesn't want to hear, which is that the game's old. We've been around the merry-go-round several times already, and we know their tricks. Fundamentally, it's getting hard to rearrange the elements of the game in such a way that feels new and exciting. Facing new enemies and delving into new dungeons feels less urgent. During Wrath, we faced down the Lich King, and the whole thing felt like a pretty epic struggle to face down this enormous threat to Azeroth. But since then, we've faced down tons of other threats that have, at least theoretically, just as much of a chance to kill us all. And from a gameplay perspective, it may have felt really important that you get that tier five set bonus so that you'd be able to push further into Black Temple, but nowadays, you always know that the next expansion is coming around the bend before too long, and you'll be able to see all that cool stuff once you've outleveled it. These are problems that Blizzard can't solve because they're directly linked to the passage of time.


The first is probably the most painful one for me to bring up, because it goes against my overall philosophy of making the game easy enough for casual players to enjoy (the very word casual is incredibly subjective. Casual to some is "I log in once every two weeks" and to others it's "I'm only 9/10 on BRF Heroic.") So here's my dreadful confession: I think LFR has been bad for the game. It's not that I don't think raids should be accessible - I do. I think Wrath of the Lich King had the difficulty pretty much right. But LFR has done something to the design/development team, which is that with LFR, the expectation is that all players will raid. And if all players are raiding, the team is disincentivized from making alternative content. BC brought us heroic dungeons, which, at the time, were not considered a stepping stone to raiding, but an alternative path to raiding. Badges of Justice, the original incarnation of Justice Points, didn't even drop in raids at first, because they were there to allow non-raiders to gradually gear up. Wrath added new dungeons with the later raid tiers, and Cataclysm did as well (kind of. The Zul'agains were originally meant to come out with Firelands.) While these varied in popularity, there was still a sense that players in smaller groups with less fancy gear could do something heroic and become more powerful.

It also gave raids a certain mystique. When we were working on Icecrown Citadel, I was excited to just see the Lich King fight. The raids were places that we would explore.

But the thing that was fantastic about the Frozen Halls dungeons is that even players who were not getting far into the raid had their chance to at least confront the Lich King. The last "boss" of the Halls of Reflection allowed us to beat Arthas, albeit just barely, and yet still get a great sense of how much of a threat he was. But with LFR, you find yourself having the final confrontation with the big bad pretty quickly, and it makes working through the harder difficulties - i. e. traditional raiding - less about having that role-playing experience of finally confronting the villain, and more about getting cooler, better-looking gear.

The game has narrowed in on raiding as the be-all end-all of PvE content. Now, I'm fine with it being the end-all. It's been that way since the beginning. But more and more, we've had other types of content swept away. Mists made dungeons totally irrelevant after stepping into MSV LFR, and Warlords saw daily quests eliminated without even giving us a timeless isle-like area to replace it. We've been getting fewer dungeons with each expansion, and with all of them coming at the beginning, the gear there becomes irrelevant (Timewalking and Mythic Dungeons are both things I look forward to, but they're not a satisfactory replacement for all new dungeons.) What this has done, among other things, is make WoW into a weekly, not a daily game. Once you've run your raid for the week, there's little else for you to do in a player-progression sort of way. And sure, I don't think any player should have to log in every day and run a dungeon or something, but if you want to figure out why players are complaining about a "lack of content" despite the 10-boss raid that dropped relatively recently (well, I guess it has been a couple months now,) I think that's where you should look.

The final thing I'll throw in is a big difference in opinion I have with Blizzard when it comes to loot. Blizzard has gotten rid of PvE gear currencies, and I think that was a terrible mistake. In order to get gear, one has basically no recourse but to pray to the random number generator gods. There is so much randomness in gearing up that it can really deflate one's ambition to actually work on it. The loot-table/dice roll thing is fine, but I think it should be the exception rather than the rule. Crafting in Warlords - a controversial subject to be sure - might have been the way to create a "work long and hard enough and you'll get it eventually" option for gear, but the three-piece limit prevents it. I'd much rather have the loot dropped from bosses feel like a cool bonus, but allow the real meat of progress be something that gives players a bit more agency.

So, is this good business advice or merely the rantings of pathological complainer? I don't know. But searching for the things that made me enjoy the game so much in the past, these are the bits that I can put forward. And I'm sure there is some player, equally passionate about the game as I am, who hold the exact opposite opinion on all of these issues than mine. Still, even if WoW is simply going into its white dwarf stage after the red giant Cataclysm, they might be able to keep it glowing for a good while yet.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Get the Tin Foil! Naval Missions a Hint of What's To Come?!?!?!?

As you can tell from the absurd title, I'm taking a big ol' grain of salt with this. But it is interesting that one of the big new things coming in 6.2 is the addition of a naval port to our garrisons. Interestingly, when imagining the next expansion (I believe in an earlier post,) I had thought about the possibility of a naval yard in our South Seas garrisons, should we find ourselves there.

Could we infer a battle with Azshara from this feature?

Well... no, probably not. It's really early to say what aspect of Warlords, if any, is leading directly into the next expansion. I don't even think we can expect a Legion-heavy expansion to come, because we're already building up to a confrontation with alt-Archimonde, and unless you go all the way to Sargeras, there's not really enough ramp-up space to build an entire legion expansion to come next.

It does really seem like Azshara's time has come, especially if we have a surviving alt-Gul'dan coming to Azeroth to follow in his main-universe-doppelganger's footsteps and try to plunder the Tomb of Sargeras for relics that could bring him power.

But we've been wrong about that before. Hell, I think most of us were convinced that Azshara would be center-stage before the announcements of Mists and Warlords. I even remember, after the name "Mists of Pandaria" was leaked, thinking that it would still have to be an Azshara expansion (at the time, the canon...icity? Canonicity, is that a word? Apparently, as there's no squiggly red line below it. Anyway, at the time the canonicity of Pandarens was sort of up in the air.)

I'm actually not even so sure about these new naval missions - it seems primarily like a way to reset the progress for those of us who spent time leveling and gearing our followers.

But I do think we could have some exciting action on the high seas. I know a lot of people disliked Vashj'ir (personally I thought it was the most memorable zone in Cataclysm) but I think there's huge potential for zones taking place over the water (I'd love a zone that's like a massive floating Booty Bay.) And island-hopping would be a cool alternative to the traditional expansion-continent, as you could still have them all be in the same continuous game area, and maybe have remote islands - outside of any particular zone - with cool secrets dotting the map.

I expect that the naval missions in 6.2 are going to be basically just a new form of the follower missions, but thematically, it could hint at things to come. Warcraft on the High Seas could be really exciting.