I was recently watching the recording of a political cabaret live performance. For my German readers, it was, of course, Volker Pispers with the 2010 version of his “Bis Neulich” programme. He was ridiculing the economical nonsense of a news announcement predicting the pension premium rates for 2050, wondering how one can pretend to derive any serious information from such detailed predictions that far in the future, including his wonderful line “economic experts are people who calculate how the future will look like if everything remains exactly as it is now”. He invited us to think back in time and to consider which events of the last 20 years would have appeared like a reasonable prediction in 1990. In an off-hand joke he posed as a hypothetical student asking “what, no Wikipedia? How did you do your homework then!?”. And then it hit me.

Just because Wikipedia exists, schools didn’t stop giving out homework. Even the most slow-to-adapt school systems can’t help but realise that at this point, virtually everyone has access to the internet, meaning that all answers can be looked up, interpretations can be found, essays can be assembled from sufficiently reworded sources and Google generally knows everything. I pulled a somewhat audacious stunt myself about 10 years ago, when I failed to read an assigned book in time and instead looked up a one-page summary and interpretation of “what it is supposed to mean” on the then-young internet, and proceeded to score an A+ for an oral discussion of a book I never read. And yet, homework is still around, going strong and I think we’d be rather surprised if it was announced to us that there is now a general consensus that “homework is pointless, since everything can be looked up”. We’d have a thing or two to say about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

This made me wonder whether we’ve been all a bit rash to completely and indisputably give up on riddles, secrets and mysteries in games – especially online games, especially MMORPGs. The widely accepted reasoning goes that with the power of crowd-sourcing, the more interest your game generates (i.e. the less likely you are to simply go bust because nobody buys your stuff), the less time it will take for every single secret to be discovered, disclosed and meticulously broken down on countless wikis, guides and community websites. Thus, in the Age of the Internet, every task or mechanic relying on the player having to find something out in one way or other may as well just not exist at all. Everyone will tab out, look it up and the development effort will be disproportionately higher than the game experience derived. Occam’s Razor did the rest. Was it wrong to assume that riddles and secrets are worthless because you can circumvent them with external knowledge? I think it depends.

Granted, educational institutions have a slightly different take on things: their goal is to teach you to seek out and apply knowledge, not necessarily to create knowledge. Finding the answer on Wikipedia isn’t really worse than finding it in your textbook; training in finding desired information through modern media is arguably quite beneficial. In the above personal example, the primary reason I got a good grade was that whenever a classmate would stumble through a failed attempt to express their thoughts concisely, I’d catch the drift of what he was going for, cross-match it with the short summary I read, wait for the teacher to cut them off, pipe up and deliver a well formulated version of that same thought. You see, I dare say I’m somewhat clever and can express myself reasonably well, and since those are the very qualities the school system is out to teach, I don’t think I cheated it all that much. Or, in other words, I did cheat it, but without invalidating its purpose.

Games don’t have this particular advantage going for them, but they have another, revealed once again by looking at the goal: games aim to be fun, to increase your joy, your level of satisfaction. Satisfaction can be derived from various aspects (achievement, immersion, socialising etc etc) in varying combinations, but it is always the overarching goal of a game; in the simplified world view where you do things either because they keep you alive or because they bring you joy (not necessarily mutually exclusive), games are firmly in the second camp. So the question that needs to be asked is not whether someone would tab out to look up the solution, but why someone would tab out to look up the solution. And the answer is simple: because searching for it themselves is not fun. It doesn’t mean that people hate riddles, it means you gave them a bad riddle! Riddles have a bad name because they tend to be this thing that slows your gaming flow down to a crawl and makes you stand around staring at some unintuitive interface or some such. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Several questions need to be asked.

Is the process through which the riddle is solved fun in itself? – Clicking on static objects cannot be the only mechanic used in solving riddles. An element of “figuring it out” can be applied to all sorts of game activities, and all sorts of game activities can be involved in the process of solving riddles. If your game is about slaying dragons while your riddles all consist of clicking on bottles, then yes, they’ll come across pretty lame.

Is the process through which the riddle is solved part of the game world? – A riddle should be a challenge posed to and solved by my character/avatar, by means available to my character/avatar. Sure, it’s me who controls him, but … no, actually that’s not even a “but”. The riddle should be solved as I control my character, not as I sit there with pen and paper, ’cause that’s less than a step away from Google.

Do you focus on the solution or on the search for it? – Easy mistake to make: here’s my riddle, here’s how the riddle is solved. But how, i.e. through what process and activity, does one arrive at the solution? If all you focus on while designing the riddle is the solution, that will be what players will focus on as well. You have to provide a path if you want people to walk it.

Are your players in a hurry? – Also known as the WoW-Syndrome. If the driving force in your game design is the accumulation of staggered rewards, then yes, the majority of your players will take every short cut imaginable to get to the reward faster. Be warned, because WoW shows that speed is addictive, and you’ll need to somehow increase it with every update, endlessly streamlining until every second not spent rushing full speed towards some destination is perceived as wasted.

Did you try to design a game element or a time sink? – Be honest. Players will know.

Will everyone like it? – Doesn’t actually matter. No one game mechanic was ever universally beloved by everyone. Tastes are different, perceptions of fun are different. Even in one person: what I want to do today, I may not like tomorrow. If anything, it should be an incentive not to design all of your game around One Thing, rather than to kick out features not everyone may love. If you leave out everything someone might not enjoy, you’ll end up with a blinking dot in the middle of a rectangle faster than you can finish reading this post.

Can it be done in a group? – Massively Multiplayer. At the very least, multiplayer. If your riddles are a process during which one person works towards a “Eureka!” while everyone else sits around unaffected, go back to the drawing board. Think about meaningful sharing of gained knowledge, think about mechanics that allow people to help each other: “help” being notably different from “do it for you”! This isn’t easy. It’s a challenge. But solving riddles together that allow you to truly cooperate in finding the solution is so much more satisfying. It is, in a way, the essence of MMORPGs.

Does it stay the same every time? – That’s the question, isn’t it. A static riddle isn’t always bad: not if it’s well designed, with a focus on the search for the solution and using entertaining mechanics while being rooted in the game world. Bringing in random elements isn’t automatically good: it is, if you can meaningfully diversify. Now, a riddle which is not actually a riddle but a problem situation as presented by a dynamic state of the world with various available solutions through differing approaches, each with built in variations: jackpot.

As a friend of mine tends to say:

We can’t stop people from ruining the game experience for themselves, nor should we try. All we can do is to design in a way that doesn’t make them want to.

PS: Despite having a heavy crush on RIFT, I am objective enough to not really consider its puzzles (one per zone) very much as riddles in the above sense. They’re all variations of clicking on static objects; are completely devoid of any relevance or connection to the game world (as a matter of fact, they are, as a rule, always in particularly hard to access spots, there is no explanation or justification for their presence whatsoever, nor does solving them have any perceived or even hinted at effect on anything); are entirely solution-focused, the only effective progress feedback being “you won!”; they incentivise through very powerful rewards; are for the most part solo-only deals (and the one that actually encourages cooperation does it in a horrible way); all in all leaving an impression of “just being there for variety”. Which is all good and fine, but they don’t make RIFT a “game with riddles” in any other than the most literal way (it mathematically contains riddles).

Blizzard and guilds

As requested – and, to be honest, intended anyway – here some thoughts on the announced premium (i.e. pay-for) feature to, in some future, be able to invite people to groups who are on a different server, but on your RealID friends list.

Before I begin, let us get something out of the way. Something that needs to be considered in all musings about WoW: Blizzard is not stupid. This is very important. Blizzard didn’t get to where they are due to blind luck or by comically stumbling around. Of course they do make mistakes on the small scale – like in balancing, tuning, or with particular design decisions – of course some of their experiments do not work out as expected or intended, but on the large, strategic scale, Blizzard achieved success exactly because they played the market exactly right, pushed the right buttons and pulled the right levers. If an argument, at any point, hinges on the assumption of Blizzard being stupid, the argument is flawed. Just because they do something you don’t like or I don’t like, doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means they deliberately and consciously don’t care about you and/or me, they simply cater to others. Keep that in mind. Now, let us begin.

What happens when you kill a raid boss? I mean, what does really, tangibly happen, what is the change that measurably takes place? I tell you what: in some database, a variable flips from 0 to 1. Or increments by 1. Or something pretty closely along those lines. This is what actually happens. Was it worth it? But, wait, no, you overcame a challenge, you mastered a difficult task – that’s what counts! Really? Well, single-player games are capable of offering a much better tuned, much more thrilling, much more involving level of challenge. Why, then, do we (if you’re reading this, you’re likely an MMO-gamer, like myself) rarely derive the same (or even any) sense of satisfaction from beating them as we derive from beating a raid boss? Because this boss kill contains so much more. It contains the unlikely stories how you crossed paths with the people around you, and sometimes the equally unlikely stories of how you all developed into the players you are now. It contains that time you had to deal with that huge drama that nearly tore it all apart, but those who remained, came out of it as a stronger unit. It contains that time when you were short a permanent tank, or running low on healers and people volunteered to respec. It contains those times when you had to adapt to having a rather exotic raid composition and managed to play to your strengths rather than succumb to your weaknesses. It contains that time when you were way past raid end time, but kept going and got the kill you were so desperately after. It is this “social context” that gives the actually measurable impact of an entry in a database changing value .. well .. context. A bold statement to make, maybe, but truth is, you can make that statement because it’s the only difference. Everything else is just electrons heading from A to B.

Now, I am a sucker for this whole deal of team success, prevailing together, figuring it out, winning as a team, Semper Fidelis. I don’t know why, but this whole coming together and walking the path really makes me feel good inside. Which is why online games and I are such a good (and dangerous) combination, I guess. Being the team-spirit-junkie that I am, I find it easy to make a concession that is, literally, unfathomable for the vast majority of people: I’d rather miss out on something now and do it with teammates later, even if it means much later. Understand, this is not about “demonising strangers” – strangers won’t ever become your friends if you don’t meet them first. It’s about doing it with strangers being ultimately meaningless. “Why don’t you pug it,” is a question I’ve heard a hundred times in the last several years. “What do you have to lose?” Err, nothing. The point is, I don’t have anything to win either. I don’t care about flipping it from 0 to 1, it’s meaningless to me. I don’t want to do a dungeon to “have it done”, I want to do a dungeon to enjoy doing it. I want the emotional context. I want the jokes (although not too many please, let’s focus when it’s needed! … I know, I’m an ass, yes). I want the memories of “back in January, I used to run lots and lots of dungeons with Alq, Dy, Daine and Ron, and we really grew together as a unit, knowing each other inside out”, rather than “and then I hit the DF to make the raid requirements”. I want to save each other’s asses in the most unexpected ways, and I want to let each other die in the most hilarious ways. I want to have a story to tell. It’s deeply important to me, it’s what I play for.

RIFT has an interesting example for the above with the .. err .. rifts. You run into one, you can just click a button at the top of your screen to join up with others who are nearby, you fight it, you close it. It’s good, emergent, quick, no-strings-attached fun. We do it for the reward and because fighting monsters is fun, and those are some pretty cool monsters to fight. Really, rifts are just FUN, there is a simple structure, there is a sense of accomplishment, cool effects and even some (not entirely fake) sense of impact. I don’t even consider it negative that there’s usually not much (mostly none at all) talking in the process. It actually makes perfect sense. You’re an Ascended, I’m an Ascended, we see planar invaders, we fight planar invaders, the “grouping up” is not some emotionally charged event, it’s only there so we can see each other’s names, roles, positions and health bars. Immersing into the simulation aspect, if it was “real”, we wouldn’t stop and converse about the necessity to rid the land of the evil that besmirches it either. We’d cut the crap and get on with killing it. We’re only random people who met based on the shared desire to slay monsters. So, yeah, it’s good fun (and I do make a point of thanking the others or congratulating on our victory in other ways). But it also feels relatively meaningless, because we are, after all, only random people who met based solely on the shared desire to slay monsters. It becomes meaningful when you are working in a specific group. Together with your friend and regular adventuring partner (I can’t even begin to describe just how much RIFT rewards pair-levelling), when you can really see your teamwork develop, reacting to each other, supporting each other. Or even with another person you just randomly met, but you are actually a bit too weak for what you’re supposed to fight, so you really try and work to your strengths and bite through it. Meaning is acquired through people. Special meaning is acquired through special people.

The following is going to be a somewhat bold statement: people like me are the backbone of guilds. People who prioritise “getting it done together” higher than “getting it done myself”. People who are willing to sacrificein a game. We’re not “the only thing that makes guilds work”, far from it, but still, we’re kind of important, regardless of whether we’re in some official role or simply there, contributing energy and investment.

Guilds, on the other hand, or clans or kinships or whatever they’re called in different communities, are the backbone of online gaming. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “everyone needs to be in a guild”, or “everyone needs to be a raider/endgamer”. There is a lot that can be enjoyed solo, or mostly solo, and that’s good and important. What I mean is that long term commitment to a game (and thus long term revenue for the provider) tends to correlate with guild membership and participation in multiplayer activities. Not all that surprising, seeing as these are multiplayer online games, and the presence of other people is what separates them from single-player games.

Guilds are the gate keepers to a significant part of the content and experience (not XP) online games can offer. Blizzard knows this. Last year, or maybe the year before – those rants are impossible to date – I read someone on some forum go for the usual “do what I want or be doomed” angle, saying that if Blizzard doesn’t change the game the way he wants it to be (can’t even remember which way exactly that was), over time it will piss off all the guild and raid leaders, those will leave and then the game will die. Hyperbole, of course, but not without a grain of truth. Blizzard is wary of guilds, because while World of Warcraft belongs to Blizzard, the guilds, as a hypothetical whole, have an uncomfortable amount of control over it. And so, bit by bit, Blizzard started its quest to weaken the position of guilds and repossess that control.

Please pause and re-read the second paragraph of this post if necessary. No, Blizzard is not stupid, nor evil. They are strategically savvy and they don’t like the idea of another institution, or structure, having that much control over what is theirs. People quitting because their guilds fell apart and there was nowhere else to go; people quitting because their guilds got stuck and they could not get into a better one; people quitting because their friends quit and they suddenly felt alone in Azeroth – it’s not something that is or was happening “left and right”, but it was happening, and it was not to Blizzard’s liking.

The first monumental battle Blizzard fought – and won – against the influence of guilds was the introduction of the Dungeon Finder and its subsequent ascension to the widely accepted standard of group play. It fundamentally changed the way we approach group content. Think back. Does the line “find a decent guild” seem familiar as an advice to someone complaining about having difficulties assembling dungeon groups? Obsolete. Even more importantly, simply jumping into the DF queue became the more efficient mode of action even compared to asking guild mates. Not necessarily “better” or even “preferred”, but for many, more efficient. Asking means waiting for answers. Asking means potentially waiting for someone who says they’ll be available in half an hour. Asking means not being independent and self-sufficient (curious, you’d think the very point of a multiplayer game is not doing everything on your own). You’d get guild mates pugging at the same time instead of queueing together. If you read a lot of blogs, you’ll often find the episode of “and then I took care of my gear by running many randoms”, rather than “and then we as a guild helped each other gear up”. Curiously, this process of helping each other gear up is among my dearest and most pleasant memories – of early Mines of Moria, of early Cataclysm – it was team progress, and team progress was great.

The downside, of course, was that the randomly assembled groups would frequently underperform, not because they were filled with bad players – we all live in the Gaussian curve – but because all these people didn’t really care, because the runs, see above, were meaningless to them, except for the end reward. At least we all got an entertaining amount of rage-blogging out of it.

Why is there no Raid Finder then, if it’s so important to Blizzard, you ask? At this point in time, I am convinced that the only reason is that they truly can’t figure out how to implement one – how to handle composition, lockouts and the compared to 5-mans higher time requirement. Once again, Blizzard is not stupid and they don’t want to come out with a tool that won’t work satisfactorily.

So, indignantly ask efficiency fans, would I rather go back to cumbersome and time consuming group assembly? What, I would like to ask back, is more important: running a dungeon, or enjoying a dungeon? Again, I don’t see an inherent value in simply running a dungeon – I want to do it for the pleasure of doing it, not to get it done. So, yes, I’d rather invest extra time in improving the quality of my experience, rather than into complaining about it not meeting my desires. Of course, we got an external value in place – badge reward. Clever, eh?

The second great and genius move by Blizzard was the introduction of guild-bonuses and guild-levelling. Wait a second. Were those not supposed to strengthen guilds? And now I’m claiming they were intended for the exact opposite? Guild-levelling and guild-bonuses changed the very notion of what a guild is. The exceptional position of guilds used to be that they were social constructs. They were so strong exactly because they existed outside the system, outside the game mechanics. Inside the Matrix, they were everyone, and no one. Ahem. Becoming part of a guild was a decision based on what the people in that guild would provide you with (access to content and friendship both being viable criteria). Admitting someone to your guild was a decision based on what that person would provide you with. Guilds were about people. Now guilds are about points and percentages. Perks and privileges. By moving guilds into the realm of game mechanics, Blizzard dispelled the mysticism surrounding them. Your guild became a game element, like your buffs, like your mount, your talents. I don’t even want to get at pushing non-team-oriented players into guilds or encouraging guilds to accept everything with a pulse. Just think of the word “guild” now. Was the feeling it evoked the same as the feeling the same word was connected to a year ago? It’s a different thing now.

RealID .. well, RealID doesn’t need much commentary. However, it offers an opportunity to link to maybe one of the best posts ever written about WoW. Reading highly recommended. RealID is the bold first step from “heroes venturing to vanquish evil” to “people hanging around in a lounge and playing games”. Like, you know, Facebook gaming. Yes, yes, I know. I won’t go there. Not now, at least. Just keep this in mind: the market for Facebook games is much larger than for the “real games” we enjoy (again, I’m counting on you being a certain type of person, based on the observation that you’re reading this). Blizzard wants that bigger market. If you believe anything else, you’re being naive.

The recently introduced Looking for Guild tool is another interesting actor here. Like Adam, I can’t help but wonder how little someone needs to care about what guild they’ll end up in to use it for their search. And, also like him, I also can’t help but wonder whether the principle of the path of the least resistance will, over time, make this into the default method for most people regardless, similar to how the Dungeon Finder – in a shorter period, due to much more immediate benefits – became the default method of group forming and obsoleted all other methods for most people.

Roughly 2.5k words in, we’re now getting to the promised topic. What about the announced premium feature? First, the indisputably good: it does offer a fix for the much-lamented (at least by me) problem of meeting someone nice on a random-dungeon run and having to leave with the near-certain assumption of never seeing them again. Of course, the peculiarities of the RealID system render this application worthless quite quickly – there is a certain cleft between “nice person, during the last 30 minutes they appeared polite and competent, would be happy to group with them again” and “here’s my real name and email address”. It’s not, you know, quite the same.

The other positive: you can now finally group with your dear friend who is stuck on a different server! Err, wait a second. No one’s stuck anywhere these days. If you are such good friends, why are you not on the same server to begin with? Maybe because your gaming habits do not match up quite as well as your personality traits? And, you know, maybe running a dungeon is not necessarily the best way for friends to “catch up”. Especially if you are doing it with 3 other people, whose intentions are statistically most likely “get through here as quickly as possible”. Meaningless dungeon run is still meaningless.

What it does though is to further dislodge you from the “grasp” of your guild, your server or any other virtual-physical place of origin. It is a logical and sensible addition to RealID to help its goal: change your mindset from that of a player of an adventure game to that of a user of a social network with 3D graphics and instanced gaming. The good news is that this feature puts us only one step short of having at least one way to form cross-server raids. The downside: Bastion of Twilight or a bit of Starcraft 2 – at which point will you stop caring? At which point does the world turn into a lounge?

So, did I just bore you with a long winded conspiracy theory? Not really. The difference between what I wrote and what you usually find tinfoil-hat-inducing is that my reasoning is not based on the assumption that Blizzard is simply out to troll you. What I described matches observation and makes assumptions based on Blizzard being a strategically wise player (cf. paragraph two again, if necessary). Silly conspiracy theories claim that for some reason Blizzard collectively wants paladins to be bad. My theory claims that Blizzard wants to maximise their profit and is taking appropriate steps. The game environment they envision does not appeal to me – doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it means I’m no longer their target audience.

Oh, and about it being a feature that needs to be paid for? Hey, why not. Lots of people have claimed they’d be willing to pay extra for the privilege of being surrounded by a better community or a better Dungeon Finder pool. Will they put their money where their mouth used to be? Or will they think of it as ineffective, e.g. due to the aforementioned caveats? In either case, another interesting field-study for Blizzard regarding how much people are willing to pay extra.

I’m sorry the climax I built up towards got a bit short, but I hope you found the intended meaning in the context of the run up to it. Have a nice weekend!

The Day Azeroth Stood Still

As you may or may not have guessed, I am not playing WoW any longer. For a while, I was pondering how to write this post, it felt like it needs to be an impossibly long post, not bashing, but pointing out bit by bit why the game lost its appeal for me, as well as incorporating references and commentary on statements of other bloggers. Indeed, I could probably write a very convincing leaving-WoW post simply by quoting countless posts by Klepsacovic, who analysed everything that he felt was going wrong with WoW for months before (and after) calling it quits; I could quote Melmoth, Syl, Tessy, Larisa and probably many others. It has all been said, really, but I’d equally like to explain my personal view, my personal disconnect with the current state and direction of the game, my personal preferences and objections. And I may well do that still, but in more bite-sized discussions of several aspects, because, as Klepsacovic wrote, it is not one particular change that “ruined the game”, it’s the sum of many small things that accumulated and made us stop caring. But not today.

Today, I am going to tell you about the moment when I realised that my days in Azeroth are counted. It was a Thursday in early March. I logged on and found myself standing in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. Which meant that on the day before, I logged off in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. On that Wednesday, I came home very late and very tired, and just wanted to immerse myself into Azeroth a little, before going to bed. I did my Tol Barad dailies, hit “Exalted”, bought the trinket and started to torture my tired brain with how to reforge. All my items were reforged, the optimal combination (hitting the expertise cap on the point) determined by myself, not by some Mr.Robot script, which likes to suggest you get rid of half your expertise, because who needs expertise after all, and getting an upgrade meant doing all the calculations again. I sighed, tabbed out and started writing a program to calculate it for me. Given the hour and the degree of tiredness, I failed. On the next day, with a fresh mind, I analysed the problem again, figured out an algorithm that would work, implemented it, tested it, let it calculate the perfect reforging (again precisely hitting the cap) and was rather proud of myself.

And then, in the evening, I logged in to find myself standing in the middle of Stormwind, next to a vendor. No, I wasn’t AFK’d while tabbed out and programming. I did, when I realised I’m too tired to achieve anything, tab back in, say goodnight .. and then I logged out where I was standing. That’s the thing. You see, I never before just logged out where I was standing. Never. Not unless I was in some sudden and unexpected hurry. In any game, I was always very “aware” of this being my character, my avatar in the virtual world, of the whole “what would be a reasonable thing to do” aspect. Doesn’t mean I’d log out in a carefully prepared bed after putting on my pyjama, not at all. But regardless of whether it’d be in a player-house, an inn, a city, a village, at a camp or a lake, there was always this bit of awareness present, “this is the spot where I log out, where my character will wait for my return, and logging out here makes some sort of sense“.

Until that Thursday in early March when I logged on to find that I had logged out in a random spot. I didn’t tell anyone, because it rather scared me, because I didn’t want it to be true. But this was the exact point when I realised that it doesn’t matter anymore whether the next patch is going to buff Raging Blow or nerf Mastery, whether T12 raid will be released before we manage to clear T11 or not, even whether people will finally start to reliably show up for raids or not. It didn’t matter anymore, because deep down, I stopped caring about the game, about the world, stopped being able to see it as anything but a set of numbers that grow, shrink and cancel each other out. Games, a wise person once said, are just databases with pretty interfaces. It is, I shall add, all about how well that interface is presented and how skilfully it hides what’s beyond it.

It was The Day Azeroth Stood Still, and if you follow that analogy further, it makes sense that it’s not the day when something specifically went wrong, but the moment when all things accumulated from the past caught up and disassembled the World of Warcraft around me.

What does it mean for this blog? Nothing, really. This blog has always been about my gaming adventures, and those are not likely to come to a stop. I’ll continue writing – about RIFT, about WoW (because it is a fascinating specimen of a game that warrants analysis – that’s analysis, not angry bashing) and about whatever else may be on my mind. Keep coming back, you’re always welcome, but remember: Do Not Try This At Home 😀

Words of Truth

I’ll get back to answering comments and writing my own long winded points of view shortly. Today, however, I would like to just full-quote a post from the RIFT forums, a response to a discussion about the DPS advantage of a Warrior build sub-specing into Beastmaster. Highlights by me.

I’ve never understood the whole “this is the only good spec because it wins the meters by 50 dps” mentality, or moreover the people who are convinced it is a game developer’s goal to create some uber cookie cutter build and just force everyone to play that and only that. Do people really believe Trion hates its player base and is deliberately sabotaging a game their developers and investors have put significant amounts of time, money, and effort into in an effort to rickroll millions of players at personal expense? Of course, if some other spec happened to parse 50 dps higher than beastmaster builds, there would be half a dozen threads about how terrible Trion is for shoving warriors into that spec, and that some people want to enjoy having a pet out and still be competitive.

There will pretty much always be one spec that, for a given set of equipment and utility buffs, deals more damage to a stationary single target than any other in a specific time interval. Capacity for single target damage in perfectly ideal stationary conditions is rarely the only mechanic you’ll have to worry about in an encounter (and in the cases where it is – then yes, you use the “best single-target stationary damage” spec). The question becomes, what is an acceptable margin of disparity, and what other benefits does a spec yield in exchange for that damage? And yes- not having to babysit your pet is a real advantage that can and should be considered when selecting a spec for an encounter.

I personally feel that anything which comes within a 10% margin of the ideal-case spec is perfectly acceptable, assuming there is some element of mechanical difference to be leveraged. I run three different damage builds for various encounters. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and these are quite often more than enough to overcome a minor loss in damage from a spec with better perfect-conditions throughput. Way of the Mountain is a real benefit – not having to leave melee range for knockback mechanics can increase your damage significantly. Not having to resummon a pet can increase your damage significantly. Being able to dive into an encounter early, switch to adds immediately, and completely ignore threat limitations can increase your damage significantly. Providing a key buff or debuff effect that your raid currently does not have can increase not just your damage, but the whole raid’s damage, significantly. Having fewer class-based elements to watch and react to during a complex encounter can keep you alive, which will increase your damage significantly. These are all elements that a training dummy will never show you. Some of them can be mitigated by “playing better,” but any strategy or rotation which relies entirely upon sustained perfection is bound to inevitably under-perform. **** happens, and you can’t ‘outskill’ an ISP hiccup. The goal is to meet requirements as consistently as possible, not to set the highest mark in one attempt out of many [Rem: yes, this warrants double-highlighting].

Here are what I view as core problems for the warrior class:
* Dual wielding damage, in any spec I have found, is at least 20-30% behind the top dog two-handed specs. This is enough of a margin to be difficult to overcome via class utility. Furthermore, just about all utility available to these specs can be reached by two-handed builds.
* Certain specs are unique to the raid due to debuffs which are unique to the target. (This is a bug, being fixed in 1.2)
* Beastmaster buff effects do not refresh after zoning; the pet must be resummoned. This is a bug.
* Attack power scaling on warrior skills is relatively low, making AP (and strength) less significant than alternatives such as crit rating (or dexterity). This creates awkward gear contention with rogues, among other problems.
* Strike Like Iron’s tooltip (and % damage scaling in general) is misleading. Perhaps something like “Increases skill damage by 48% of the unmodified value” or “increases damage modifier by +48%” would be more accurate.

Here is what I don’t see as problems:
* BM/champ/paragon is slightly higher than other two-handed builds. Someone’s got to be the top dog, and the margin’s not insurmountable.
* Strike Like Iron is a keystone ability for most specs. It is not as overpowered as the tooltip would lead you to believe. It is still good, adds depth to skill rotations, and forces a choice about immediate returns versus throughput damage.
* Burst abilities do not scale with weapon damage. They’re off the global cooldown, and they DO scale with attack power. The GCD you save by having an off-gcd finisher means another ability which does scale with weapon damage gets used. At absolute most, you’re losing 40% of weapon damage (140% for a 3 AP finisher versus 100% weapon damage at worst for AP-buildup attacks), and even then Rising Waterfall and Enhanced Burst mean it’s rarely the full 40% lost.
* Long-term scaling concerns. I don’t care if the class in its current state will be completely non-functional in 2014. Odds are that bug fixes, the addition of new stats or procs, or general class revamps will occur somewhere in the next three years. Whether the class is propped up three tiers down the road by gear or by developer-based changes, it will still be competitive and still merit a raid spot.

That’s my wall-of-text opinion on the matter, for better or worse. I’m sure some people will agree with me, and some will not, but I feel the statements are justified and well-supported. Thanks for reading, and I hope I’ve at least put a few worries to rest.

I am playing a Champion again

In LotRO, I played a Champion: a heavy armour (cf. plate) wearing melee damage dealer. The class concept of the Champion boiled down to a simple principle: kill it before it kills you. You had the Fervour stance, which you were basically using at all times – it increased your damage by 15%, massively boosted your power regeneration and completely disabled your avoidance. So your only line of defence was your armour and the ability to kill things quickly. A side effect of this configuration was that you were really, really motivated to maximise your damage output – not just at some abstract point in the distant future when you face a boss encounter and someone tells you that your DPS is low, but pretty early on, because your progress through the levelling game was directly impacted by how well you utilise your damage dealing abilities.

In RIFT, I am playing a Champion again. Well, actually I am playing a Warrior. Champion is only my “main soul”. And naturally Warriors have tanking souls as well, where the emphasis shifts to survivability, but I’m currently focused on damage dealing souls and that old Champion-feeling is back with a vengeance: how well I progress is directly related to how efficiently and effectively I deal damage. I can’t self-heal and the mobs – even very standard normal ones – don’t just take the punishment, but actually fight back. They cause enough damage to put me – in the long term – in very realistic danger of death if I am not being careful and efficient. And the quicker I can kill it, the less damage I take, the longer I can keep going before having to stop and drink. It all gets emphasized when dealing with rift invaders instead of normal mobs. The better I play, the better my gaming experience becomes. Revolutionary constellation, isn’t it?

Now, I don’t want to claim that RIFT is somehow OMG-hard. It isn’t. Nor do I want to jump on the “WoW is easy” bandwagon. WoW isn’t “easy”. Not in its whole. The problem is that WoW picks the spots in which it decides to be hard very selectively. Any glimpse of challenge is rigorously confined to level-cap dungeons and raids. Which, sure, are hard, but getting to that hard bit requires quite a number of preconditions (many of them social and organisational) to be met. The levelling game, on the other hand, is a joke, especially post-Cataclysm. At some point, someone at Blizzard got incredibly terrified that some hypothetical player will cancel their subscription upon encountering a quest they could not complete, and that hypothetically lost revenue could not be accepted. Thus the levelling game apparently was tweaked, tuned, adjusted and balanced for the damage output of a healer combined with the survivability of a clothie damage dealer. Consequently, levelling takes no effort whatsoever.

And then we wonder why there are so many “bad” players, especially damage dealers. If you are never challenged, how would you learn? Or why? If mobs die so fast that it is almost an accepted fact of life that you won’t be able to practice your “real rotation” until level cap .. well .. how would you practice your rotation then? If good play is not rewarded simply because its results are indistinguishable from the results of bad play, how would someone learn what constitutes good play and why it’s important? It is a weird vicious circle, in which the endgame is positioned as the one true thing, but you have so many levels to get through before you can get to it, so the levelling is streamlined and accelerated, which only further devalues the levelling and accentuates endgame, so levelling is trivialised and sped up further, which makes it even more inconsequential, and so on and so forth. The more it is trivialised and marginalised, the more it feels like a drag and a meaningless timesink.

Again, RIFT is not fabulously hard or anything. But it puts you up against mobs who can pose a danger to your health. Who survive your attacks long enough to make a difference in whether you hit the right keys or not. And while it’s far from screwing you over when you screw it up, the better you play, the better it goes.

Another advantage is that when the difficulty level is just that bit higher, it makes playing together with someone an actually advantageous endeavour again. In WoW, levelling as a team is mostly an impairment; there is always inevitably a coordination-and-thoughtfulness overhead, and since the “outer world” is trivial even for a single player, a team never gets a chance to make back in effectiveness what they lose in efficiency, and you only ruin each other’s rotations by cutting mob life expectations even shorter. When, on the other hand, there is a more decent base difficulty present, along with roadblocks you may face and optional challenges you might be able to jump at, The Team not only becomes viable again, but thrives and flourishes and is very much fun. Putting back the middle M in “MMO”. Cooperation only works when you have weaknesses your partner can compensate. I don’t want to be a self-sufficient superhero, I’d much rather be part of a team.

Myth Busters: Heroics are Hard

Widely accepted thesis: Cataclysm heroics are hard, much harder than Wrath heroics. Conclusions range from being excited about it to quitting because of it. Unsurprisingly, I’m here to challenge the thesis itself.

Wrath heroics were easy, right? Like, really, really easy? Are you sure? Let’s have a history session. The Dungeon Finder, and with it the practice of running heroics in high volume, was introduced in patch 3.3, i.e. at the tail end of patch 3.2, also known as the TotC era, which, in itself, primarily served the purpose of gearing up absolutely everyone to where it could be guaranteed that they’d be able to take on ICC and Arthas, because this was going to be the conclusion of a 15 years old storyline, the storyline that made Blizzard into what they are today, and they didn’t want anyone to have to miss it. Prior to the dungeon, during patch 3.2 itself, we already had daily dungeon quests that would, via emblems, effectively reward us with raid gear. Saying that everyone entered the Dungeon Finder ridiculously overgeared would be an understatement. Everyone? Let’s go further back in time .. maybe a month or two.

During that time, in the middle of the TotC era, I reached level 80 and was just starting to run dungeons, together with a fixed group of friends, who, like me, were just beginning to learn the finer details of WoW group play. And you know what? Those dungeons were pretty hard! The first heroic we attempted was Violet Hold – yes, the same Violet Hold where later the timers between waves were hotfixed to be shorter and shorter, because everyone was just standing around bored, the same Violet Hold which I came to hate because the mobs were dealing so little damage I would be constantly rage starved. That Violet Hold. It was freaky hard. Granted, we pulled a tough one with Xevozz, and wiped, and wiped, until we finally managed to get past him and with much cheering and rejoicing completed the dungeon. We were cheering about beating Violet Hold, picture that!

We were really fighting our way through those heroics. We were using CC, following a kill order, taking breaks between pulls. I remember being proud of avoiding Loken’s Lightning Nova by breaking line of sight, which was more efficient than running all over the place – later you would just stand there and take it, a minor scratch on the health pool, giving you at least some rage and releasing the healer from total boredom. I remember us executing the complicated positioning tactic to get Consumption Junction – something a few months later was dinging on every run (assuming there would be someone who didn’t have it yet) simply by blowing him up in under 20 seconds. I remember racing hard to get the Bronze Drake in CoS. I remember the terror that was the Black Knight when you fought him in appropriate gear. I remember how half a year later, all that was gone, nothing could put much of a dent in our huge health pools a Rejuv-tick wouldn’t fix, and every group member would be putting out damage comparable to what an entire group once used to do combined.

Wrath heroics were not easy per se. I don’t know how they compare with BC hard hitters like Magister’s Terrace or Shattered Halls, but would like to suggest that during BC it was much more common to “design to niche”, essentially leaving you in the dirt if you didn’t have the specific set of abilities to handle a particular encounter/dungeon. Also – and importantly – even toward the end of BC, high quality gear was much less easily available than even at the start of WotLK. To anticipate: no, I do not mean to say that gear is all that matters – what I do mean to say that it helps a lot. Back to Wrath heroics – for those who had not, pre- or post-3.0, acquired a set of high quality BC raid gear, they did pose a rather reasonable level of challenge. However, lots of people brought their legacy equipment over, the quality jump having been much smaller this time around, crafted epics were more accessible than ever before (not BoP to begin with), and Naxx was deliberately accessible and over-rewarding. Thus for most active – and vocal – players, the phase of challenging heroics passed pretty quickly.

Most importantly, by the time the Dungeon Finder rolled around and transformed heroics into the sort of gaming popcorn we perceive them as today, that phase was long, long, long in the past. By the time dungeon groups went from manually organised to automatically matched, an estimated 80% of the participants were overgeared to the point of being able to just power through. Even new characters were not exempt from this, as rewards were – deliberately – coming in so quickly, that after a week or two of running along with overgeared others you’d already be overgeared yourself. This is the “Wrath dungeon experience” that we remember. This is, curiously, what we compare Cataclysm heroics with.

Cataclysm reset us to zero. The gear jump was so big again, that whatever you acquired in Wrath raiding, wouldn’t matter. It didn’t give us a shortcut to superior gear, but kept us honest. Cataclysm heroics were brutally hard … back in December and early January, when I was carrying spell plate shoulders, an agility cloak and a self-crafted PvP piece in my bags to make the 329 item-level requirement – and everyone else in the group was doing the same. When we didn’t know the fights and were still getting to grips with how our abilities changed. We used excessive crowd control, we treated every trash pull like a significant battle, we really worked together. For a month or two. Come March and 346+ gear with some raid loot sprinkled in, a tank would typically say “I would ask for CC, but it’s better I pull the entire pack, that way I get more Vengeance, makes it easier to hold aggro”, a healer would say “hmm, it’s getting boring” and we’d go off, rampaging and destroying.

I’m not exaggerating, nor am I showing off. Except when having fresh 85s in the group, our guild heroic runs have long began to increasingly resemble the “Wrath dungeon experience”. Not quite there yet, but certainly on our way. It turned out that Cataclysm heroics are not “clever hard” – they’re “numbers hard”. Klep wrote about this in January already. To sum up his post very briefly, there are two very different kinds of reasons to use crowd control: to counteract an encounter mechanic, or to reduce incoming damage. The latter becomes obsolete as soon as you gear up a bit. Quite evidently, what we got in Cataclysm, after much advertising and discussion, was pretty exclusively of that second sort. So, here’s the thing: Cataclysm heroics do not require crowd control any more. With every passing week and the increasing average gear level of the population, they require less and less coordination. By design.

Heroics are not hard – not all that hard, at least. It’s just that it’s the first time the Dungeon Finder exists in a time when there is no vast difference between player gear and dungeon level. And it’s been a culture shock to many having to relearn that a dungeon run can be something other than a trip to a vending machine.

Myth Busters: Tanking is Hard

First, my credentials. For the vast majority of my time in WoW and for nearly the entirety of my time at level 80, I have been a tank – primarily because it was fun. I tanked every single encounter of WotLK, all of them. Having said that, I am here to tell you now: tanking is NOT hard.

I’m writing this because all the usual suspects have crept up again to elaborate how incredibly hard tanking is, how tanks are actually gods in human disguise, who shoulder the entire responsibility, carry the entire load, rule over life and death. Healers are their archangels, who help the tanks to right the wrong, and everyone else is clearly worthless, exchangeable, irrelevant. It is being stated as indisputable fact, and most people boggle at the notion that the tank is not the cornerstone, the pillar and the rooftop of a group all at once. And I am going to once again tell you that this is nonsense.

I wrote about the difference between skill and entry barriers before, and this is pretty much a continuation of the reasoning, which is based on the following: it is no more difficult to be a good tank than it is to be a good damage dealer. The difference is that as a tank you are required to be at least decent (if we cyclically define “decent” as “sufficient to beat the encounter”), while as a damage dealer you can get away with less than that. It is much harder to compensate for a sub-decent tank than it is for a sub-decent damage dealer. But it is not inherently harder to be a decent tank than it is to be a decent damage dealer. It is equally demanding to be a good tank as it is to be a good damage dealer. And being an excellent tank requires the same effort and dedication as being an excellent damage dealer.

Tobold designs a hypothetical encounter which, by intentional design, challenges tanks and healers more than damage dealers and, despite being an actual scientist in real-life, goes on to claim that this scenario, which has precious little in common with any currently available non-trivial encounter, proves the higher difficulty level of playing a tank. I don’t think it proves anything, because there’s a difference between hypothesis and proof. Encounters like that don’t exist. Actually existing encounters these days require the damage dealers to mind where they stand, group up, spread out, to quickly switch targets, burst on cue, AoE on cue, don’t do this, do that, interrupt, don’t interrupt, etc. It is not more or less difficult than what tanks have to do, it’s just different. What does the tank do, for example, when everyone needs to “spread out, spread out!”? Stand in place, of course, and not be bothered. For some reason you rarely see bloggers citing this as evidence for “tanks having it easy”, although that was pretty much always what I thought when I was tanking and everyone had to run somewhere while I could just stand where I wanted. Of course it is, in many cases, easier to slack as a damage dealer than it is to slack as a tank, as long as there are enough others to pick up the slack for you. That makes it more urgent for a tank to be good, but not more difficult.

Rhii makes an ad-hoc list of things different roles need to be aware of and goes on to observe, without any mean intent, I shall add, that the list for damage dealers is the shortest. Well, sure the DPS awareness list is going to be short if you sum all of “fight mechanics” up in a single bullet point – it’s understandable, in fact, because hers is a pretty strictly healer point of view, so for her, most of what’s happening is pretty much “all that wicked stuff that’s going on”. Goes back to healing being broken. By the way, damage dealers also have to coordinate cooldowns, among themselves as well as with encounter events. Sure the lists for tanks and healers are going to look more impressive if you include items like “everybody’s threat”. I can’t remember, when tanking, being overly interested in the threat of the fourth-highest person – you only care whether anyone’s creeping up on you and not to inadvertently pull off each other in tank-swap fights. Healers don’t actually care about threat at all, they only care about aggro (i.e. who has it). Then, she concludes the listing with an interesting phrase: “and of course, raid leaders have to watch EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME”. That is interesting, because I would claim that being more or less aware of all crucial parts and element of an encounter is not characteristic of only a raid leader, but of a good raider. In different encounters, different roles (not necessarily always the damage dealers) are able to get away without concerning themselves with what the other roles have on their plate. But ultimately, every problem is everybody’s problem. Why would a tank, for example, be always more concerned about healer mana than damage dealers? There is very little a tank can do about healer mana, while on the other hand damage dealers can adjust to healer mana expenditure, both by avoiding taking damage (it’s not universally always bad to risk some extra damage, if you can do relevant good stuff in return, but you need to be aware whether your healers can afford to keep you up through it) and by realising a necessity to dial up the damage output to shorten the fight duration. Or the other way round, realise that things are fine and care is more important than speed. Good damage dealers (in a game that is deep enough to provide them such options) can do that, EJ-monkeys can’t.

Every role has its challenges. Tanking is not inherently harder than dealing damage, it is simply less forgiving at the low end. It is possible to be a good tank, and it is possible to be a good damage dealer. It is possible to strive for excellence in both roles. Bad tanks usually have a greater (negative) impact on the group than bad damage dealers, but on the other end of the spectrum, the one which should matter, very good tanks and very good damage dealers have a very similar (positive) impact, varying mostly due to encounter mechanics. Being a very good tank is as hard or as easy as being a very good damage dealer. Not being a good damage dealer is less consequential than not being a good tank, but that should not be mistaken for one being harder than the other. Climbing the curve is equally hard, and the one who did expend the effort of climbing will make your life easier, in either role.

I shall conclude quoting a former friend and companion from LotRO. She played both a damage dealer and a tank character, both at very good raid-level, and once quipped, half-joking half-serious:

“Tanking is easy, you just spot the biggest thing in the room and thwack it ’til everything’s dead.”

Don’t let your heads grow too large for your hats, dear (fellow) tanks.