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15 Minutes of Fame: Fishing for insights with El's Extreme Anglin'

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Admit it: You thought the person behind the curtain at El's Extreme Anglin', the web's preeminent World of Warcraft fishing resource, was female, didn't you? Just one look into the soulful blue gnomish eyes of El, blinking innocently from atop her guides or curled up at the feet of the intrepid Nat Pagle, beckoning you through your first steps as an Azerothian angler ... You were hooked. You're not alone -- most players seem to have bonded with El's friendly female face.

In reality, the blogger behind El (and El's Extreme Anglin') is none other than British analyst, consultant, writer, and thinker Tim Howgego. He's known for his penetrating blogging about public transport policy, market development, the application of internet-related technology -- oh, and of course, game design and WoW fishing. "To be honest, El is a lot more interested in catching fish," he confesses. "Tim is more interested in patterns of human behavior."

Whatever the focus, it's wildly successful. El's Extreme Anglin' Googles in as the top result for searches on "fishing guide" -- that's just plain "fishing guide," nothing to do with the World of Warcraft.

In a unique twist on our usual interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame managed to catch up with both Tim and El this week to talk shop about fishing. (Does that mean this is really 30 Minutes of Fame? 225 Minutes of Fame? No, wait -- with a gnome the size of El, perhaps it's more like 18 Minutes of Fame.) Between El's sagacious gnomish observations on Azerothian angling and Tim's insights into game development, there's something in this interview for everyone.

Main character El
Realm Ravenholdt EU-A

15 Minutes of Fame: We're so glad to have both of you with us, El and Tim! El, how long have you been dropping lines around Azeroth?

El: I learned to fish as a young gnome. I still have fond memories of catching Smallfish in Iceflow Lake, and cooking them for dinner. Happy times... before the Troggs invaded. As I travelled the world, I became quite an accomplished angler. I remember being the first gnome to fish up Gahz'ranka; none of the other guilds had any members capable of fishing in Zul'Gurub! Skill was more important back then.

Tim: A friend got me hooked on WoW about a year after release. My first character (who was a dwarf) had an excellent mentor called Mot, who introduced me to Sutorix's Fishing Buddy. So I must have shown interest in fishing early in my WoW career. El, my second character, was created on Ravenholdt's first day of operation, and fished from the beginning.

Tell us a little bit about what drew you to the fine art and science of fishing.

El: I was fascinated by the fact that fish were never seen until caught. And however many I caught, there were always more. I theorised that each cast opened a temporary portal to a "plane of infinite fish". And if there was a plane of infinite fish, there should also be infinite planes of other things. Like dwarves. Imagine opening a portal to a plane of infinite dwarves -- the ultimate weapon against the Horde! Unfortunately, I haven't yet discovered where fish come from. But my research has helped a lot of dwarves catch fish.

Tim: I enjoy exploring patterns. Patterns in data, game mechanics, player behavior, whatever grabs my curiosity and hasn't been done already. Ironically I was never especially interested in fishing; WoW had (even then) over a million players, some of them quite clever, yet I couldn't get answers to basic questions like what skill was required to fish in an area? Do catches really vary by time of day? How do pools spawn? Vanilla WoW fishing transpired to have a rather "old skool" game design: A really simple set of underlying patterns, mixed up just enough to fool all of the players. Since realising how popular WoW fishing is, I've become more interested in why players fish.

Speaking of the fine art and science of fishing -- which is it, an art or a science?

El: If it were a science, like a masterpiece of Gnomish clockwork engineering, my bobber would always land in the middle of the pool. Yet it doesn't. If it were an art, like a drunken dwarf on their way home from the inn, pools would never appear in the same place twice. Yet they do. Fishing is predictably unpredictable. It's both. Just ask any Sea Turtle owner!

Tim: Ask a gnome a simple question... Modern Western distinctions between art and science - which were essentially contrived a few hundred years ago - simply aren't helpful: Fishing contains elements of both. For example, if you analyse why WoW anglers select a particular zone as a favorite fishing spot, 4 themes of roughly equal importance emerge: Purely artistic, personal emotions, practical benefit of the catch, and social presence. The same pattern repeats throughout WoW: At first glance it's driven by knowledge and rewards, yet curiously set within an incredibly rich aesthetic and social tapestry, which in turn transpires to be the context that creates the value that drives the search for knowledge and rewards.

Let's talk a little bit about the evolution of fishing in Azeroth. What would you say have been the best and most important improvements made recently?

El: When I was young, anglers would swim out to Azshara's Bay of Storms after midnight to catch Stonescale Eel. After midnight the open water catch rate rose to almost 25%! Maximum personal fishing skill wasn't enough to cast there, and even using the best lures, some of your fish would still get away. The flasks made from Stonescale Eel were essential for dungeon raiders. These days, the taller races get upset if they can't catch buff food fish from plentiful, minimum skill, pools.

Tim: World of Warcraft has gradually become more accessible to a wider range of players, and fishing is no exception. Fishing has become less of a traditional MMORPG grind: From the addition of pools in patch 1.7, to the reducing importance of fishing skill during Wrath of the Lich King. Meanwhile many new reasons to fish have been added: the Stranglethorn Fishing Extravaganza (the first contest), Mr. Pinchy's Magical Crawdad (the first true angling status symbol), Outland daily fishing quests (the first attempt to actively direct where players fish), Dalaran's Eventide Fountain (the first highly successful attempt to bring lore into fishing), and achievements (not least Salty, which is still one of the most respected titles in the game). Unfortunately that evolution isn't recent: Recently we've seen a lot of recycled ideas and content. For example, another set of 5 daily quests, with the same rare rewards as the previous dailies. It is hard to get excited about fishing in Cataclysm.

Underlying that are more serious issues: First, fishing has struggled to find a place in the game. Should fish-based food be essential for raiding, or should it be a purely social (vanity) activity? Scott Cuthbertson [in The Battle For Azeroth] may argue that fishing is the most important element of the game, but if half (I'm guessing) of your players hate fishing, maybe your development time should be focused elsewhere? Second, grinding has been replaced by excessive randomness. A veteran angler is now someone with the dedication to play (approximately) 1 in 5,000 odds for a Sea Turtle, rather than someone that has the patience (in vanilla) to reach 300 fishing skill and then stay awake until 2 in the morning. Unfortunately most humans don't enjoy excessively random outcomes, especially when they can't see any progress towards their goal. The game designers acknowledge this in progressive drop rates for quests, yet not in fishing.

What would most improve current fishing systems?

El: All fishing poles should cast when used. Separate poles and fishing skill icons always confuse the dwarves!

Tim: My biggest frustration when writing about WoW is that I can't fix the problems new players have with the game, merely document how to work round those problems. Instinctively new players click on the fishing pole, expecting it to do something. 5 years on, I'm beginning to conclude that the designers don't appreciate the problem, and that they don't appreciate the problem because they are shielded from it by guide writers like me.

That's a tough accusation, because WoW is widely lauded for its accessibility: It is easy to learn, which is vital for attracting the new players that keep the game alive. When developing the game Blizzard split documentation from gameplay, so on launch, all WoW's helpful guides were on a separate website, not directly linked intot he game itself. This meant that (technically) game development could continue without also improving the documentation. So as Blizzard struggled to scale the game up for millions more players than they had expected, player documentation was abandoned. That's one of the reasons WoW has so many excellent 3rd party sources of gameplay information: Players were demanding something that Blizzard wasn't able to provide. Unfortunately Blizzard now can't get the genie back in the bottle, and an important feedback loop for designers has been lost. As WoW's audience shifts away from MMOG veterans, towards computer game newbies, understanding what makes the game difficult for new players will become ever more challenging.

So that's why fishing poles should cast when used. Not because fishing poles should cast when used, but because it would demonstrate that a routine newbie problem had been identified. Ultimately that's probably more important than fixing any of the issues raised by the previous question. Or giving anglers a boat.

The Salty title certainly takes a great deal more time and luck with the RNG than many seemingly similar profession-related titles. Do you think the bar for Salty is set too high?

El: Not if a gnome can reach it! If anything's too high it's the water around those pools in Nagrand.

Tim: Fishing's most contentious issue! Salty that is, the pools in Nagrand only upset those will little legs. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with very rare titles. The problem is that Salty is the only fishing title available. There are plenty of very dedicated anglers that work weekends (so miss both contests), or have spent months failing to catch One That Didn't Get Away. A few more angling title options would be great.



Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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