Tag Archives: wow

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 😀

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.

So we’re bribing the tanks now

Blizzard finally caves in and pulls the Oculus maneuvre. Remember how all the whining about getting Oculus in the random dungeon finder abruptly disappeared when they added a small chance at getting a rare mount from the end boss, but only on random runs? Remember how the dungeon itself didn’t become any less annoying, but the complaints stopped anyway?

Now we get Call to Arms, which is supposed to do nothing other than bribe people into tanking dungeons. Much rejoicing to be expected from those who long ago suggested that tanks and healers are shiny and special and thus should receive special rewards compared to those filthy damage dealers who are totally exchangeable and surely contribute nothing to the success of a run.

The Oculus experience shows that this can work. Since WoW distilled itself down more and more to a purely reward oriented game, people will do everything for a reward. I would expect queue times to become shorter indeed. Not sure how much shorter though – or at what cost. It seems obvious that the club of “wanted to jump queue”, “wanted to help a friend jump queue”, “wanted to try tanking, can anyone tell me what rotation to use?” and others will get a new member in “wanted to get the mount lol”. The whole thing is about as bizarre as the demand for Blizzard to “fix the tank shortage” itself, because what’s happening here is that people who don’t want to tank or heal are being bribed into doing it anyway.

Are you happy running with a tank who doesn’t want to tank and a healer who doesn’t want to heal? Remember, their class had the spec for that role before, but they weren’t using it. Now they are. Not for the experience or because they’re interested, but for the mount. Exaggeration? Look at it this way, if you are a damage dealer and your queues became half as long as they used to be thanks to Call to Arms, that technically means that there are twice as many tanks and healers now. Which means that 50% of those available are doing something they don’t like, aren’t really interested in and consequently are probably not very good at. 50%. And that still leaves you with a 15-20 minutes queue.

The problem is not that tanking and healing are not rewarding – they are already more rewarding due to the high horse you automatically get placed upon, instant access to everything you want included. The problem is that most people find these roles boring, and not without a reason.

Healing goes from this nerve-wrecking experience with barely being able to keep people alive while going stark OOM to a ho-hum process of hardly having to do much within a few weeks of gearing. There’s only a brief period of time during which it feels “just right”, when it’s challenging but not exhausting, when you make interesting decisions rather than going through the motions or hectically jumping all over the place. And let’s not even talk about being forced to stare at little green bars for all eternity. Or actually let’s talk about it, but not now, because it’s too large a topic in itself. Healing is broken, fundamentally. A rare drop mount won’t fix it.

Tanking fun scales inversely with gear. Always has, because tanking gear is not exciting. Oh, being highly survivable is exciting. But you never know or feel what’s effecting it. When a damage dealer gets a higher crit chance, bigger numbers pop up more often on their screen and their crit-response procs trigger more often. When a tank gets more survivability stats, well, they can pull an additional mob. Which is why tanks end up overpulling, because it’s the only way to still get the kicks. And then the aforementioned healer suddenly goes from “ho-hum” to “oh my god, what just happened!?” and no one is really amused. And let’s not even talk about Vengeance.

The entire age old concept of the Holy Trinity is to blame. It comes in with the foregone assumption already that damage dealing is the “fun” role, and then introduces two other roles and offers them a Devil’s Contract: you’re going to be really good at This Essential Thing, but in return your damage MUST be rubbish and your play style WILL often be boring. Ever since, and Call to Arms is a great example, developers are mostly busy trying to coax players into signing that contract, rather than addressing the rubbish and boring parts.

Many people already enjoy many aspects of tanking and healing. Many more people could be encouraged to those or equivalent roles if the promise was interesting gameplay rather than inalienability. Everything else is merely a band-aid.

Travel and Exploration

I have not seen Gilneas yet. I heard it’s rather impressive. It would hardly cost me any effort to visit it. And yet, I haven’t done it. Does it not put a dent of sorts in my claiming that I want to have “more to do than just raiding” and “a world to experience”? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. Because of the two E – effort and experience.

All I have to do is hop on my flying mount, zip over and look at it. The same way one would look at screenshots on the internet, or a YouTube video. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Of course being there in person means you can run around, climb around, get interesting looks and perspectives, some of them may be pretty awesome. But still, it’s not a matter of “going to Gilneas” or “exploring Gilneas”, but really just happening to be in Gileas. Consuming Gilneas. And then getting the hell out of there, because you need to catch the teleporter to where you need to be next.

I often hear Melmoth complain about the need to travel in LotRO. Funnily, I mostly didn’t perceive travel in LotRO as an annoyance (with the exception of Forochel, where the main epic story mostly consisted of two people sitting at opposite sides of the Bay and making you ride back and forth around that damn freezing-cold thing carrying meaningful one-liner messages). I used to think of it as an experience. When I was in Bree and there was a reason to go to Rivendell, there was the possibility to take a swift ride (i.e. instant travel) from the stable master at the South Gate, but I would rarely use that. In most cases I would mount my own horse, just a plain, simple, brown horse, no pink elekk or angry mammoth, and get on my way.

I would ride eastward through Bree-land, circling around the Midgewater Marshes and remembering the little stories and events I was part of when I was just a beginning adventurer. I would enter the Lone Lands, pass the Forsaken Inn and ride on, frequently looking up towards the Weathertop, towering impressively and visible even from a distance. I would reach The Last Bridge, a monumental construction. I would usually stop there for a bit, especially if the sun was about to rise or set (LotRO doesn’t follow the real-world time of day, but instead a roughly 3 hour cycle, with 6 times of day and 6 times of night, each about 15 minutes in length), because the colours at those times were amazing; and especially when travelling with a friend, because it was a good place to halt and enjoy the scenery.

Then I would enter the Trollshaws, not quite where the lore would have them, but moved south for a greater gameplay relevance and experience, with their beautiful red-leafed trees and the winding road leading further east. At night, a couple of stone trolls (elites) would patrol the road. We used to kill them to make life easier for young adventurers who might have been travelling nearby. We’d sometimes steer off the road a little and towards a stone troll den, killing a few and looking intimidatingly at the others, so they’d remember to fear us and not dare to make too much trouble. Then we’d continue our travel.

We would cross the Bruinen and climb the steep path towards the last part of the journey, a barely touched wilderness where Turbine really managed to capture Tolkien’s description of the journey, the path gradually getting lost between plant and beast, confusing and making the traveller think he’s ultimately lost, and just then he would realise that he’s already there. And then you would descend into the wide valley to the swelling sounds of cheesy string music and the colour palette turning brighter and more vibrant, The Last Homely House in view.

This experience is what made Rivendell an actual place, rather than a postcard motif. We’d sometimes travel there on the eve before a raid night, so we could meet up with the others near Glorfindel the next day. Sometimes we’d go there for a quest, sometimes we’d go there so Alqua could do her scholary business in Elrond’s unique library. Sometimes I’d travel there because I wanted to mine ore in the Misty Mountains. Or for whatever other reason.

The only location I’m lacking to Explore Kalimdor is Orgrimmar – not even Durotar, just Orgrimmar. All I need to do is take the portal to Hyjal, jump on my gryphon, fly, reach, ding, gratz, done. I can do it any time. And since I can do it any time, I can’t be bothered to do it at any particular time. It just doesn’t feel like there’s an experience attached to it.