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Blizzard should rethink their content release model

Sleeping druids
Blizzard changes many things for each new expansion: raid structures, class spells and talents, game systems, UI elements -- few aspects of WoW survive an X.0 patch untouched.

It's time for Blizzard to change the one thing that has stayed the same since The Burning Crusade: the "event patch" release cycle. In WoW today, every patch is a big deal. We get previews. We get a trailer. We get fancy artwork with the X.X numbers. The patch release is an event.

Every patch has tons of content for nearly every aspect of the game. It's exciting -- there's almost too much to do. When a new patch releases, we're in WoW heaven.

Then months go by and that content grows stale. Blizzard doesn't give us new content at that point, but peeks at future content. We're starving for a delicious content meal, but we can only look at pictures of the food.

It's a feast and famine cycle that has to end. It creates this massive gap between the final content patch of one expansion and the release of the next. We must cross it once again in 2014. Players put up with it because we know Blizzard will deliver, eventually, a tremendously fun experience. But should we have to endure this, still, after the game has been around for almost ten years?

It's time for Blizzard to rethink the way they release content.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion

Should there be another kind of five player dungeon?

The first dungeon I ran in World of Warcraft was the Deadmines. Not the Deadmines we have today, of course, although the layout is largely unchanged, but the original, Edwin VanCleef helmed Defias operation. From there, it's been a lot of years and a lot of dungeon crawls (not just in WoW, either - I've been crawling around in dungeons ever since the Caves of Chaos were build adjacent to a Keep on some Borderlands) and so I've come to have some opinions on dungeon design and variety that I think are worth nattering on about.

In general, some of the dungeon complexes released with the launch of World of Warcraft took labyrinthine to new extremes. As much as I love it, Blackrock Depths is a positive pain to navigate for a new party - it was terrible before the dungeon finder existed, it's not any better now. Modern dungeons tend to have moved as far away from the 'sprawling mega complex' design as possible. Current dungeons tend to be what I call 'bite sized' in comparison - smaller, self contained wings or experiences that contain between three and four bosses, to be consumed in a 20 to 30 minute chunk of time with four strangers via LFD. It's understandable and even unavoidable that this had happened, but I think there's some wisdom in considering how to have a happy medium between these extremes.

Dungeons like Dire Maul, for instance, saw minimal change in Cataclysm because it was already perfect for the new system. Three wings, mostly self contained (one could previously get from north to west via a tunnel into the library, which was removed) with a reasonable assortment of bosses, tied together by theme yet distinct in terms of what you faced in each. Maraudon, on the other hand, is still a sprawling, difficult to navigate dungeon made worse by the addition of incredibly arbitrary starting locations that the dungeon finder only exacerbates.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor

The case for catch-up dungeons

The 'catch up' dungeon was a commonplace design in Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, one that's fallen out of favor in Mists of Pandaria to be replaced by the Timeless Isle and Raid Finder. It's understandable that this should be the case - designing a dungeon or dungeons is a lot of work, and it means other content (like, say, an open world zone like the Timeless Isle) won't be delivered. And as a catch up mechanic, the Timeless Isle is in many ways superior to a five man dungeon. Art assets were reused and gear randomized - you get a piece for your class and spec, but it's not necessarily ideal for them, so there's benefit to keep farming the zone. Furthermore, there's an upgrade mechanic in place (Burdens of Eternity) that will allow you to make pieces that are much closer in quality to current raiding, giving you even more incentive to keep running it.

However, I'm much more a fan of the catch up dungeon. As much as I like exploring on the Timeless Isle, there comes a time when you've explored all that you can, and the Isle stops having any use for you. Even for a dedicated alt-maven, it's lack of weapons (yes, I know you can get some weapons, but even after the upgrade in 5.4.7 they won't be very good) at a reasonable cost makes it less appealing to me. The Timeless Isle trades the random drop factor of catch up dungeons for near certainty - you will get every piece you want, eventually. It's an efficient and workable system and I dislike it. In comparison to Wrath and Cataclysm it lacks in the following areas:

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor

How will we take our content?

How will we take our content
I do a podcast from time to time about World of Warcraft, and as a result I tend to talk about the game, instead of just play it or even writing about it. One of the conversations I've had about the game that I've never really sat down and explored is this - Mists of Pandaria has seemed like a gigantic experiment in terms of how we receive our content. From the original Golden Lotus daily questing hub, which in turn unlocked the Shado-Pan and August Celestials, to patch 5.1's daily quests that unlocked regular, one-off quests that further advanced the story, to patch 5.2's progression on the Throne of Thunder unlocked unique solo scenarios. Patch 5.3 brought us no dailies at all, but a short series of quests that led to an unlockable weekly quest that was, frankly, one of my favorite ways to get the Lesser Charm of Good Fortune in the numbers needed for my weekly raiding.

Now in patch 5.4 we've lost dailies (the Golden Lotus have been pared back to a few in the west of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, now the Vale of Eternal Sorrows) and we've gained a content hub which is mostly about exploration and good old fashioned grinding in the Timeless Isle. Over the course of this expansion we've seen all sorts of delivery systems for content - scenarios, heroic scenarios, flex raiding - and we've even seen some complaints from players about older, tried and true systems like five man dungeons not getting the emphasis people might want. And this leads me to wonder what we've got in store for us down the road. How will the next expansion present itself to us? I expect there will be the usual leveling quests, they work pretty well overall and there's room for flexibility in their design, but what will the max level content look like?

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Raiding, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria

What's the least fun you ever had for rewards?

What's the least fun you ever had for rewards
Let's face it - we do stuff in game to get stuff in game. It's in our greedy little natures. So it isn't surprising to hear that players will do things they don't enjoy if they believe the reward is sufficient to warrant it, but it still has interesting things to say about us as players. Ghostcrawler tweeted the following and it got us thinking.
For myself I'd have to admit this is true - as just one example, I really didn't like the Isle of Quel'danas when it first came out (on my server at the time the area was extremely crowded) but my tauren needed a good shield and the expertise neck for his tank set. I didn't need the expertise proc, however, so I had to switch from Scryers (which I was exalted with) to Aldor (which I was not) at the same time I was also grinding Shattered Sun reputation to exalted. It was, frankly, agonizingly painful for me, but I did it. The best part was, of course I eventually got a better neck. But there was no way I was going to grind Scryers back up to exalted by that point, and so he remained exalted with the Aldor.

So this leads to the question - what about you? Have you done something you didn't want to do or didn't enjoy purely for the reward at the end of the rainbow? Was it worth it? Or, like me, did you end up with a sour taste in your mouth (and a whole lot of trouble remembering which base in Shadowmoon Valley was safe to land in)?

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, PvP, Raiding

Gear is good. Gear works.

Gear is good Gear works
I initially had the intention of refuting Adam's dissertation on why we don't need gear in World of Warcraft with the same length and exhaustive detail he himself used. But I don't think that's the proper course here. By now, many of you will have commented in similar fashion. Instead, I'll go for simplicity and list some reasons why WoW should keep gear.
  1. Gear provides a means to tune content for consumption. Right now, dungeons, raids, scenarios and even leveling content is tunable along many aspects of gameplay, including whether or not it's intended for groups or to be soloable, whether or not it's for certain size of groups, whether a healer is intended, and what level of offensive power/healing/tanking ability is permitted by gear. Removing gear from the game means content loses a slider, giving the developers less options.
  2. Demanding that all content difficulty be based purely on skill is unnecessarily restrictive to players. Quite frankly, letting groups outgear content is good for the game. It allows groups that couldn't quite get an encounter down for whatever reason to come back later with better gear and try again. It lets groups go down a raid tier and have fun blasting through previously difficult content, or lets players shine in dungeons or scenarios that were once grueling. It even allows players to go back an expansion or two and have fun soloing what once took entire raids to complete.
  3. MMO's that eschew gear work best when designed from the start in this manner, and even then they often use things that are gear in all but name. A game that uses enhancements to modify powers, for instance, is just using gear by a different name.
So let's talk more about why gear is in fact good and shouldn't go anywhere after the break.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Mists of Pandaria

What's the purpose of a heroic dungeon?

What is the purpose of a heroic dungeon
One of the more volatile announcements that we've heard so far from Blizzard regarding Mists of Pandaria is the fact that Mists will not include any more 5-man dungeons. In an expansion where new content seems to be rolling out on a much faster, tighter basis than any expansion prior this seems a little bizarre to players, particularly those that enjoy dungeon-based content. Yet one of the things Mists has been doing consistently throughout the expansion is delivering a wider array of things to do. In fact, there's such a variety in endgame content that players sometimes feel legitimately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it.

But just because we aren't getting any new dungeons doesn't mean we aren't getting alternate ways to obtain all that sweet, sweet gear we know and love. Patch 5.3 will see the introduction of heroic scenarios, slightly tougher versions of the scenarios we've already seen this expansion. In addition to valor, the heroic scenarios will offer raid-finder level rewards for players that choose to participate in them -- better than any gear you'll find in a heroic dungeon at this point.

While this may seem pretty cool for some people, it does make one wonder -- what's the purpose of heroic dungeons?

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Blizzard

Are patches coming too fast?

throne of thunder
So the Patch 5.3 PTR was announced earlier this week, and I am currently downloading the files for it as I write this. Patch 5.2 only went live a couple of weeks ago, and its PTR began in January, a mere few weeks after 5.1 was released. Oh, and Mists of Pandaria itself has only been available since October! Whew! Ladies and Gentlemen, content in WoW's fourth expansion has been coming at a breakneck pace, and I'm not entirely sure I like it.

I'm a slow player, in all honesty. I like to take my time and explore, do lots of quests, level professions, and generally just take my sweet time. I play WoW largely to relax, and for me, racing through everything as quickly as possible is not relaxing. I also have a pretty hard limit to the amount of time I can spend playing before I start to go stir crazy and really need to get up and do something else. That isn't conducive to rapidly completing things like daily-based rep grinds. So for me, I'm a little disappointed by the short spaces between new content being released. It kind of stresses me out, makes me feel like I need to play more, and harder, to keep up. I realize that feeling is all in my own head, but it doesn't stop me from wishing I had, oh, maybe two extra weeks before the 5.3 PTR was announced!

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Mists of Pandaria

What if all raids were end game raids?

What if all raids were end game raids
Sometimes the forums come up with some interesting discussions. Poster Locomonkey over on the EU forums posted this doozy of an idea, which Taepsilum then responded to in detail. They both have me thinking about the idea as well -- what if every raid, from the original 60 raids to the Cataclysm level 85 raids, was updated to level 90? What if, when the next expansion came out, all the Mists of Pandaria raids as well as all those previous raids were in some fashion made current with level 95, or 100, or whatever current endgame happens to be? What are the pros and cons of this idea?

I'm not going to dredge over every point already made, you can go read Locomonkey's original post, and Taepsilum's well reasoned list of what the pitfalls to avoid in such a system would be. Instead, I'm going to speculate on how you could address those pitfalls. How do you make a system with so many potential raids tuned and balanced, deal with all the updated loot from those instances, and keep from drowning raid groups in choices? My suggestions are as follows:

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, News items, Mists of Pandaria

Does Mists of Pandaria need new heroic five-man content?

Does Mists of Pandaria need new heroic fiveman content
While recording the WoW Insider Show this week, my two co-hosts Anne Stickney and Olivia Grace were discussing heroic five man dungeons and made the interesting point that, while Cataclysm used new heroics to help people catch up in gearing as new raid tiers were released, the advent of the Raid Finder might mean that it isn't necessary anymore. If you're running LFR as your primary way to see/experience raid content, then you'd simply run previous LFR's in order to gear up and collect valor points for the various reputation vendors. This would allow you to get geared enough for further LFR as new raid tiers are released, and keeps the previous LFR's relevant. If you're running the current 10 or 25 man raids, you can use the LFR's for those raids to bootstrap yourself appropriately if you're not already geared well enough from the previous tier of raiding.

Either way, you don't need new heroic dungeons for the task - between daily quests, scenarios and LFR, the Cataclysm model which placed new five mans in patch 4.1 and 4.3 might no longer be necessary. Challenge modes keep the heroics that launched with Mists of Pandaria evergreen, since you can't outgear them, but is that enough for fans of five mans? While both Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm introduced post-launch dungeons, Burning Crusade really only introduced Magister's Terrace in its last content patch. This makes me wonder if we really need any new five mans, and if we do, what would/should they be?

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Raiding, The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria

Valor points and player choice

Valor points and player choice
I get very frustrated with the valor point system. One of my characters is at the point where the only thing to do with valor points is upgrade gear, while the other struggles to accumulate enough valor to buy anything. Worse, they're on different servers, so I don't even get the buff when I cap valor on my main. Plus, in order to even spend valor, I had to grind a whole bunch of reputations so for a while I had valor and couldn't even spend it.

So it was with interest that I saw this forum thread detailing one player's issues with valor, which were interesting to me precisely because they weren't a problem I was having - instead, the argument seemed to be that the player was wasting effort and doing enough in a week to generate over 2000 valor, but the cap meant that more than half of that weekly play was meaningless. That kind of surprised me, because I only cap valor when I clear all the raid content, but I could see it after thinking about the issue. What was even more interesting to me was the idea presented that the valor cap served as a punitive measure punishing players who were running enough dailies, doing the daily scenario and heroic, and hitting each LFR in a week.

Vaneras responded, and those responses are worth discussing I think.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, News items, Mists of Pandaria

Mists of Pandaria and optional content

What optional means in WoW's design
I'm always interested in the idea of what's optional vs. what's compulsory -- and more important, how optional something can become before it's too optional and thus entirely skippable. For instance, in Wrath of the Lich King, I completely bypassed that Kalu'ak reputation grind. Why? Well, for one thing, I refuse to fish. I will not do it. I won't fish in real life, and therefore I won't fish in game. So in a way, my bypassing Kalu'ak was because I've bypassed fishing. Fishing itself could certainly be seen as completely optional, although I know a lot of players who do it purely for the cooking benefits and even a few who claim to enjoy it.

In a recent forum thread discussing the removal of head enchants and the possible conflict in game design with putting valor gear on the reputation vendors in Mists of Pandaria, Ghostcrawler discussed all the varieties of optional content. I thought it an interesting topic because in Mists of Pandaria, optional seems to have a different meaning than it has before.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Mists of Pandaria

Breakfast Topic: How much content would be enough?

One of the topics I see come up again and again is the speed of content release versus the consumption of said content. Mike Morhaime specifically mentioned content production as one of the challenges of a game like World of Warcraft, and the diversification of content in Mists of Pandaria has to be seen as a response to how fast players churn through what the game has to offer. My question therefore becomes how much content would we need on launch to prevent players from going through it too fast. Would it even be possible?

We all know I hate attunements. One argument that can be made for them, however, is that they prevent players from gobbling down all the content available in one great, orgiastic burst and then, after the frenzy is over, complaining that there's nothing left to do. We introduced throttling to valor points in Cataclysm, and it seems to have worked, keeping players from chain-running heroics until their eyes bleed to buy all the valor gear imaginable in three days.

The argument could be made that some form of gate to keep people from burning out on raid content could be useful and even beneficial to the game. Perhaps the answer isn't to try and rush Blizzard into providing more and more and more content but to allow them to produce content at their own pace and simply to limit our ability to pig out on it, giving it to us in a controlled manner.

I'm not personally a fan of that idea, but it merits discussion. So let's discuss. Do you think the answer is more content delivered faster, or should there be systems in place to keep us from consuming it too fast?

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.

Filed under: Breakfast Topics

Metzen talks user-created content at GDC panel

Blizzard's Chris Metzen was on hand at GDC Online to discuss user-created content for World of Warcraft and how the system just wouldn't fly in WoW's architecture. The logistics of player-created content in a game with millions upon millions of players would, most likely, be too overwhelming for a system and game that thrives on polish and quality control. Don't expect to see user-generated content in WoW any time soon.

While I am a fan of this type of content, I don't believe it really has a place in WoW. Azeroth is a much more story-driven, linear experience than most people want to discuss, and Blizzard likes to hold our hands through it all to make sure we're doing things according to plan. I don't think that's a bad thing, just one approach to an MMO's leveling and group content. In games like City of Heroes, the player-created content that was available made sense in terms of logistics and volume. For WoW, I can't even fathom how hard it would be to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Filed under: News items, Cataclysm

Breakfast Topic: What PvE content will tide you over until Cataclysm?

We've gotten a lot of news lately about the timing of Cataclysm. It's confirmed for this year, though likely in the latter half. There will be a big pre-expansion patch before its release. Duh. And we're going to have some PvP and PvE content before that big patch. Many are speculating about what the PvE content will be.

The Spousal Unit thinks it's going to be another Troll dungeon, since we're due. I'm hoping for a sandbox area like the Isle of Quel'Danas. Others have expressed hopes of more from the nether regions of Northrend.

What extra PvE content would you like to see before Cataclysm? And what do you think is most likely to happen, regardless of your wishes?

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Breakfast Topics

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