Thursday, March 31, 2016

4.66. Pander Express

The Priest talent tree in Cataclysm (left) vs. Mists of Pandaria

You Say Potato, I Say Casual

The remainder of BlizzCon 2011 played out like a turn-of-the-century medicine show. Every new "feature" and each new "bonus" filled me with suspicion rather than excitement. Each presenter traveled down that familiar road with, "Players are really gonna love this new ______" Which players were they referring to? I was an in-the-flesh representative of their core demographic, having loyally contributed my $14.99 for seven years, never wavering, never cancelling. They might as well have been speaking another language because few of their proposals made sense to me. And so my suspicion grew as I tried to figure out exactly who was getting the short end of the stick.

The Mists of Pandaria panel went off the rails faster than a Sony executive giving a security presentation. Talent Trees, long the staple of character progression in WoW, were gone for good. In their place were flattened, non-hierarchical utility rows sporting exactly three options. The developer panel declared that this new type of talent specialization allowed players to "geek out with more interesting character builds than ever." Interesting was a stretch, to say the least.

When questioned about the failure of the old trees, Blizzard stated they "provided false choice, constantly forcing players into the same cookie-cutter builds." Who decided that was necessarily a bad thing? The panel made zero acknowledgement of legacy talent trees serving a vital game design purpose: confirmation of proficiency.

There is something to be said for learning the ropes, playing around with options, discovering newer, stronger combinations, eventually working your way up to maximum effectiveness. That a select few theorycrafters streamlined this process didn't render the design of hierarchical talent trees ineffective, obsolete, or most importantly not fun. Recruitment just became an order of magnitude more administrative. If Blizzard thought I was going to believe that "all players spec'd into X" were worth vetting, I'd have asked them if their hiring practices allowed for a trial period of every single applicant that sends Blizzard a resume.

Suspicion eventually turned to outright disbelief as the panel revealed more planned features for the next WoW expansion. I shook my head through the entire portion of the panel dedicated to Pet Battles. Instead of watching their PowerPoint deck unfold, I just kept looking at the developers on the panel, trying to get a read on what they actually thought about their intention to blatantly ripoff Pokémon. Were they sitting upright, leaning forward, eyes wide, excited, thrilled even? Or were they lounging in resignation, tired, disengaged from the presentation. I had to know. Were they personally invested in these new changes? Or were these the actions of acceptance in surrender, like a Hemingway in search of shells?

I didn't get any vibes. Neither excitement nor complacency. Nothing. The developer panel carried themselves with the reserved professionalism of a corporate seminar delivering a road map.

The level of detail Blizzard put into the
Pandaren facial expressions was especially vivid and lifelike.

Reading From the Script

A few other DoDers managed to make their way to BlizzCon that year: Insayno, one of our newest members, met up with Goldy and I, as did Bonechatters, Zedman, and even-old schoolers Turtleman and Volitar made the trek to Anaheim. It wasn't nearly the showing that DoD made the previous year, but was respectable nonetheless.

I wandered the conference room floor aimlessly, sometimes with guildies, sometimes by myself, bumping shoulders with both civilians and Minecraft-themed Paladins. Goldy and I waited in line for a shot at the Diablo III PvP arena; it was surprisingly fun and was one more reason to look forward to the game's release.

Having come all this way meant a hands-on taste at the next expansion as well. I leveled a Panda through the starting area with conflicted emotion. The visuals, especially the animation, felt more alive than ever. The Pandaren were incomparable to any previous race added to the game. But the feel of the Monk and its resource system just Their energy bar regenerated exactly as a Rogue's would. This new class was an opportunity for Blizzard to do something radically new, something unheard of in an MMO. Something (dare I say it) cool.

In my mind, I pictured an alternate resource system: a pendulum swinging back and forth (think Boomkin Eclipse bar, but at the speed of a metronome) that would reward a player for timing their attacks. As a player successively nailed each attack with the tick-tock of the pendulum, this would, in turn, increase the speed of the bob, faster and faster, eventually capping out at a frequency just fast enough to warrant practice and mastery. If successful, this would transport the player into a Kung Fu movie -- the player would feel like Bruce Lee, chaining attacks together with lightning speed. How awesome would that be?

But of course, that resource system would never fly. Too complicated. Too inaccessible. Too many moving parts and things to learn and guides to read and timings to master. Strategy guides would be replaced with forum rants, like BS monk resource system forces me to practice, or Thanks Blizzard, Monks unplayable because I lack rhythm. Players don't want homework. They just want to press buttons and get loot. 

Which players wanted that?


The dungeons and raids panel was more of the same. "We really want you to feel special" came across as inauthentic against the backdrop of a game increasingly designed to ensure no player could make a bad decision. Cory Stockton explained their approach to Raid Finder, slated for 4.3, reiterating the message that raids were still inaccessible.

"I never disagreed with that," I leaned over to Bonechatters, "but this isn't the right approach."

Dungeons from the outside! flashed up on the screen, as if this was some new concept never before heard of in WoW.

Bonechatters leaned back to me with a hint of sarcasm in his voice, "So, you mean like Zul'Farrak?" I nodded.

When the Q+A began, I crossed my arms, "This ought be good." What colossal injustices had been levied on the community? Having to work with other players to earn achievements cramping your style? Pressing a button to join a raid still too complex a task for you to wrap your head around? Typing in your username and password too much of a chore?

One of the Blues Brothers asked how kicking and the queue system would work in Raid Finder. Cory responded with Blizzard's algorithm intending to monitor abusers historically. "We want to allow people to kick, but we also don't want people to be kicked for no reason."

"Good answer," I said to Boney, "but it doesn't work today in Dungeons. Rando players make boneheaded judgement calls all the time."

"I've been kicked from LFD plenty," Boney whispered back.

"Exactly. How's this gonna suddenly start working for Raid Finder?" Boney just shrugged back a response.

Another fan stepped up and asked why legendaries couldn't be designed so that guilds could assign it to the most deserving player rather than a class, letting the item take the form appropriate for that player's role. I loved that question. I struggled to find ways to acknowledge specific star performers and wished for flexibility like this.

Cory rebutted the idea by starting off with, "I think you'll lose the luster of the fact that anyone can get it at that point..."

"Wait a second," I whispered back to Boney, catching the contradiction, "It's OK to get everybody into raids, regardless of their competency, but it's not OK to give everyone everything they want?"

Boney broke out the self-deprecation, "Sounds a little duplicitous to me."

Handy translation for the BlizzCon 2011 Dungeons & Raids panel:
1. Make the game easier.
2. Make the game easier.
3. Make the game easier.
4. Do things we've done before but call them something different.
5. Throw 1% of our players a bone, since 99% of them will queue
for a dungeon with a button click.

Poker Face

One player asked if Blizzard might consider splitting the 10- and 25-Man achievements back up, in order to more accurately acknowledge the effort, and difference in difficulty, separately.

But I thought 10s and 25s were exactly the same in difficulty!

That's when I caught my first vibe of authenticity. Not in the answer, but in what came before it. Just before responding to the question, Scott Mercer let out a deep sigh. Frustration. Contention. An ongoing battle waged behind closed doors, of designers divided, and of second thoughts on good intentions. It didn't really matter what Scott said after that. The tell said all that needed to be said.

The panel announced the final question. A kid in a hoodie, braces across his teeth, and Scott Pilgrim hair, leaned into the mic.

"Hi, what's going on? I was just wondering how, in Ulduar and, y'know, heroic Lich, when you did Zero Light and you did heroic Lich King, you would get would get...uh... y'know, the no-head mount. It was 100% on hard mode. But in Firelands, you guys made normal mode people get the firehawk mount. And it made people, like, who got was just kinda like a bummer can see these, like, noobs or whatever...running around on mounts that you kinda have to work for to get, y'know? Do you, like, plan on continuing to do that? Just keep giving these awesome mounts to people who don't deserve it?"

The crowd cheered for the first time during the panel. Had the kid struck a nerve? I leaned over to Boney, "You need to recruit Michael Cera after this raid panel is over." Color me impressed.

Less impressive, by far, was Blizzard's answer.

Scott looked at Cory and began his response after a chuckle, "On heroic you did get them every single time you killed them, on normal I don't think that's the case..."

Cory shook his in his disagreement, confirming Cera's observation, "It was random drop."

As if he had said nothing at all, Scott ignored Cory's clarification and continued his response, ", you were rewarded more, like...y'know..."

Cory tossed in some help to save his drowning teammate, "...and it's a different color!"

Silence washed across the crowd, save for mild muttering amongst one another, musing on the non-answer. To break the awkward silence, Cory immediately rolled into why good rewards would be kept out of raid finder and reserved only for the normal/heroic raids in Mists of Pandaria.

I looked back at Bonechatters and said, "I think my favorite part of Cataclysm is how it was all just one big experiment."

I left the Dungeons and Raids panel rethinking my stance on Mike Morhaime's free Diablo III offer. The more Blizzard opened their mouths, the more I came to believe there was a new WoW demographic they were targeting. It disappointed me to think that the core subscribers -- those diligent, loyal subs that had paid the bills all these years -- were now the guinea pigs.

Blizzard's attention was solely focused on ruining their MMO by designing for players whose defining characteristic was that they didn't like MMOs.


Anonymous said...

Ahh thank you Shawn for a most amusing April Fools article. The parody of the whiny entitled toddler like MMO player, so wrapped up in their own narcissistic arrogance and (lack of) sense of self worth had me in stitches of laughter. I swear you didn't miss a single trick - tho perhaps the ANAL "jokes"? :-)
I look forward to the followup where you and your guild clearly saw past these surface negatives and instead saw all the opportunities these changes had made, and how you exploited those opportunities to your guild's benefit, as my own guild and so many others did!


Anonymous said...

Wow, was that other comment a Blizz employee?

The funny thing is, when looked at through a WoD point, MoP wasn't that bad. In fact, I had a lot of fun PvPing in that expansion. The raids were decent too. I agree with everything you wrote though and I think WoD was the end result of Blizz's effort to expand their audience which in turn decreased it tremendously. If Blizz was still independent and focused on making great games, a lot of the employees that made these horrible decisions would be fired, but the bigger a company gets the more the failures hang around.

Legends Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on the talent tree change. I found that the old system was archaic and completely non-intuitive.

When I started playing WoW and tried to figure out my talents, a friend showed me a website that broke it all down. So there I was, one-click away from maximizing my talent potential.

That's OK for things like the old-school Thottbot to figure out a quest. But the new talent system has been a breath of fresh air that is being fine tuned.

In the old talent system, they would just add more points every expac (or take some out in Cata). In Legion, they appear to be maximizing the potential of the new system.

Hell, in MoP, I reveled in the fact that my Prot Warrior would actually get to use Bladestorm.

I can see why you felt that way about the change, but the cookie-cutter click to find your talent system was just boring. It was filled with mostly passives that did nothing.

Waerloza said...

@ Legends Anonymous

I agree. In Cata I re-specced my Prot Warrior I think twice, once for a Maloriak add0kiting build and then back to my usual tank spec. In MoP I found myself swapping Glyphs and Talents based on the encouter and my role within it. Some have argued that the previous trees offered the illusion of choice, but as you stated, one just went to a website and looked at a spec's tree and spec'd that way and put their one to four spare points where ever the hell they wanted, it rarely made a difference.

For the most part I really enjoyed MoP, particularly the second two raid tiers. Also, CMs were a blast and I loved knocking them out.

Prot Bladestorm on Iron Qon trash with trinkets and a Strength Pot was awesome.

Linc - Malygos US

Aedilhild said...

Ha! As I read, I was working up a quip about Blizzard's predilections over the last 5 years, then saw you already nailed it with "designing for players whose defining characteristic was that they didn't like MMOs."

With the company's portfolio as conspicuously diverse as it is, maybe there's hope one-off extras can stop finding their way onto the top of priority lists.

Anonymous said...

Agreeing with legends & waerloza. With the talent tree there was very little room for personalization as (as you yourself stated in an earlier post) any deviation from the accepted cookie-cutter form was seen as an example of not knowing your class. With the new system they tried to make all the options viable to allow for gameplay customization. You could now tailor it to your own personal preferences eg pursuit of justice (constant moderate speed buff) vs speed of light (big burst speed buff with cd), your level of experience/coordination eg holy shield (constant passive, no button-pressing needed so easy to use) vs seraphim (burning holy power for burst, very effective in the hands of someone experienced & disciplined enough to manage their rotation correctly) vs needs of the encounter eg execution sentence (single-target) vs lights hammer (aoe). Not having a fail-proof model to follow means that players need to be more aware of mechanics, stats & their own limitations in order to leverage the best build for each encounter.


Aedilhild said...

Regarding talents, although I prefer the current tier system for customization, Blizzard's pre-Mists design had something that was irreplaceable, I think — flavor.

Old trees showed not only how a spec functions mechanically, but why a character would assume that persona fictionally.

The pinnacle is the 3.0 death knight. I don't even like the class, and still those three trees make me want to play one. For fun, I've sat down and read each tooltip while click-resurrecting a fallen hero through Blood, Frost or Unholy powers — oh, I totally buy into it. This is Greg Street's and Alexander Brazie's magnum opus, from what I understand, which takes you back to a high point of excitement. Subtle marketing, but so effective.

Nowadays, specs work because they work, and in the Warlords beta many passive talents were consolidated — reduced to abilities' footnotes.

Even with modern talents, I'd love to see class anatomy once again described this way.

Laeus said...

I preferred the classic talent trees for three reasons: potential, learning, and leveling. Potential in terms of them always feeling like maybe, just maybe, there was a cooler combo lurking under the cookie-cutter builds, not something all packaged up into an Activate Spec button. Learning because you had to put each point in, which meant you had a better idea of what your character was eventually doing, instead of all these random passives being packaged up with a given spec, suddenly proc'ing auras all over your screen or around your ability buttons, not knowing why you're suddenly getting random buffs without studying and re-studying your spellbook on a new class you're trying out. And Leveling because you got to improve your character in some way each level, sometimes in a really powerful way. These days, a character's toolkit barely improves as you level, and later in the leveling curve it's possible to go hours between any sort of character kit power or variety (made even more horribly worse by Legion's removal of Draenor Perks, resulting in literally ZERO character ability power/variety improvements from lv90 until lv100). Those last two are of course less relevant for those who have no alts, but it all just became way too streamlined for me, much like other parts of WoW.

Adrian Foekens said...

Bad troll is bad.

Adrian Foekens said...

Bad troll is bad.