ToGC, and Hardcore Raiding in Wrath of the Lich King

I apologize if this entry seems rushed. That’s because it is. With the release candidate up on the PTR for 3.3, I feel I need to provide criticism well before Tuesday, on the chance we could see 3.3 hit the live servers next week. I feel there are things Blizzard has not considered carefully enough.  Things that have driven some of us away from a part of the game we used to love. So there aren’t any links to help clarify terminology, and explanation is minimal.

To be fair, I think the raiding game is much improved. I like how raiding has become much more accessible with the separation of difficulty between normal and heroic versions of each boss. I like the way Ulduar was designed in terms of the presentation of its story within the dungeon. I love the artistic atmosphere of Ulduar. I originally thought I wouldn’t like it, because I’m not a fan of the old god storyline, but it took me by surprise. I also thought some of the hard modes were well-designed (even if some of them needed to be re-tuned).

But then ToGC was released, and it was like taking one step forward, then a few steps backward. I honestly like that the normal and heroic versions of the instance have separate lockouts. It allows you to experience the normal content, without ruining your ability to attempt the harder versions of each boss. It also promotes a more linear progression route, without hindering a person’s ability to experience the (potential) beauty of a dungeon and the resolution of its various story arcs. And on a very basic level, I actually like the design of the heroic versions of a few bosses. However, everything else I dislike.

I dislike the concept of limited attempts on heroic. Creating an artificial pacing mechanism that limits the time people want to put into various areas of the game is a mistake. And the mechanic also turns what would otherwise be well-designed encounters into frustrating experiences. I dislike how rushed the instance feels. Not artistically, as I don’t actually care that most of the dungeon is just an arena in which to face bosses, but how the encounters were buggy and poorly tuned at release. I also dislike how poorly the Anub’arak storyline concluded, which contributed to a feeling that ToC was rushed.

Some of these issues I think Blizzard could stand to further evaluate. With Icecrown Citadel (ICC hereafter), they’re removing the separation of heroic and normal versions, and I feel that’s a decision that has its ups and downs. They’re still planning to use attempt limitations. Sure, they are making it so your available attempts go up as time passes, but I think they should have explored other options for heightening competition. That said, we are at least taking some more steps forward. It appears ICC will have the most epic storyline presentation for a raid instance to date. And the artwork and atmosphere is comparable to the likes of SWP and Ulduar. What’s more, Blizzard has recognized the fact that achievements like Insanity and Immortality have potential RNG components that could be frustrating for various content, so they are shying away from putting emphasis on them.

But there is, in my opinion, a better way to implement pacing mechanisms that challenge top guilds while allowing mid-level hardcore guilds to do what they want to do on their own time. There is also, in my opinion, a good way to separate normal and heroic versions of the instance without ruining gear pacing for heroic progression. And these are things I feel we, as a community, need to discuss and debate.

Limited Attempts

Imagine you’ve just picked up a new Zelda game. You’ve got the week off, and you’re ready for marathon sessions to beat the game. Like the good gamer you are (yeah, right), you’ve refrained from buying the strategy guide. A few hours into your first playing session, you hit the first boss in the first dungeon and you’re ready to begin figuring it out. The first time, you die because you’re not sure what to do. The second time, you die because there are a couple subtleties you missed. The third time, you die because a new phase takes you by surprise. The fourth time, you die while trying to figure out what to do in the second phase. And the fifth time, you die because of the subtleties of that final phase.

After the fifth death, the game bumps you outside the dungeon. When you try to re-enter, a message pops up on your screen sayng, “You’ve exhausted your attempts at clearing this dungeon. Better luck next week!” At this stage, most gamers experience a sense of disappointment. Being unable to play a game on your time can be frustrating. This is the way I felt whenever we’d run out of attempts in ToGC. You’re not stopping because you’ve exhausted your raid schedule. You’re not stopping because you’ve cleared the instance. You’re not even stopping because the content seems impossible for your guild. You’re stopping because an artificial pacing mechanism forces you to do so.

Limited attempts can also ruin encounters that would otherwise feel well-designed or enjoyable. For example, if attempt limitations were removed, I would probably enjoy the Twin Valk’yr encounter. I think, on a basic level, the RNG component to orbs is what makes it a challenging fight to defeat. It’s similar to the way the RNG components of Kil’jaeden and Archimonde were what made those fights challenging, as well. But when a random situation generated can potentially ruin your attempt count, I find the encounter annoying. When you have to stack for battle rezzes just to have a decent shot at Insanity every week, I cringe. When you have to wait for various cooldowns just to limit the loss of your attempts, so you can progress on Anub’arak, I get annoyed. Without limited attempts, and attempt-based achievements, these feelings disappear.

I understand the desire to heighten the competition for the top guilds in the world. But even people I know in Might (who ranked number two in the world on Immortality), who are former members of Lunacy’s raid, dislike the concept of limited attempts. While it definitely separates the skilled guilds from those who merely brute force their way through content with insane raid comps, bloated raid schedules, or a combination of the two, it has the very detrimental effect of forcing people to stop raiding the content they want to raid and return to content they’ve already exhausted and find boring. Some even choose to simply stop raiding for the rest of the week.

This isn’t at all good for mid-level hardcore raiding guilds (those ranked between 50th and maybe 200th in the U.S.). Most people at this level find normal modes uninteresting and nothing more than content that serves to supplement gear. Their enjoyment is obtained primarily from progressing, and the majority of their progression time is spent on the heroic versions of the newest dungeons. But there’s nothing more anticlimactic and disappointing in a given week than having your attempts run dry. If the first time you reach Anub’arak, you have two days left in your raiding schedule, but only five attempts, it’s quite disconcerting. You want to put in time on that content, but you can only put in so much because you have limited attempts. As a result, people lose a lot of the enjoyment they obtain when raiding such content.

I’d rather Blizzard not risk the well-being of mid-level guilds for the sake of a group of players that don’t even comprise 1% of the raiding population. Who cares if a guild wants to spend 16 hours a day to be number one in the world on an instance clear, when it means mid-level guilds could be happier overall. Some of the guilds that don’t spend as much time as those that do to achieve high rankings often don’t care whether or not they rank well in the world, anyway. And you can still have achievements Immortality, anyway, without limiting the attempts a guild has in a given week. You can still reward guilds for clearing an instance without wiping, without limiting others’ attempts. And there are other mechanics and accomplishments that can heighten competition for guilds, without limiting the raiding time for others who don’t care about such competition and only care about personal progression.

I’d rather see Blizzard overtune bosses initially, then slowly nerf them by doing something like decreasing their health and damage done by 1% each week, instead of limiting attempts. (Obviously, you’d have to set a floor per encounter to keep it from falling over dead by default, and to prevent it from becoming too easy, however.)

Insanity and Immortality

Personally, I’m okay with the inclusion of Insanity and Imortality-based achievements, so long as the raiding community can decide whether or not such achievements are major progression points. I think Immortality is too RNG-based to really be a basis for ranking guilds sequentially, even though accomplishing the achievement is definitely a testament to a raid’s skill (and composition). But because RNG can contribute to failure in that area, it is not something I believe you can use to make a distinction between the first and second place guilds. One guild could have had vortexes during the downtime between each mass orb spawn in their first week of seriously trying Immortality, while the other could have had vortexes during orb spawns that same week. The high-end community is typically smart enough to recognize these realities, and it is usually reflected on sites like WoWProgress.

I definitely think people shouldn’t be rewarded with gear for achievements that are highly dependent on RNG, in any case. A mount for Immortality is fine. But I’d like to see more rewards for other, clear-cut testaments to skill. I would much prefer people get an extra piece of loot for doing a speed kill of a heroic boss. I’m also fine with rewarding guilds for not losing anyone on a specific fight. This would give guilds multiples ways of exhibiting their skills and heightening competition, while minimizing potentially frustrating situations that individual encounters can often create. I’m not saying Insanity falls into the category of RNG, I definitely think the achievement is doable nearly every week, because you can counter the RNG with things like battle rezzes and raid comp. But Immortality definitely has a very high RNG component to it. But less emphasis on rewarding achievements susceptible to RNG is needed.

The interesting thing is, however, that you would need to separate achievements based on whether or not you’re doing the normal or heroic versions of an encounter. For example, a speed kill achievement of Yogg-Saron exists. However, that requires you to forego doing the heroic version of Yogg-Saron. So this why I also advocate putting the normal and heroic versions of a boss on separate lockouts. Or, alternatively, they could change the parameters of an achievement for each version–that way, you still get the achievement, without having to sacrifice your ability to do the heroic version if that’s what you would prefer. Such deserves more discussion in the “normal and heroic difficulties” section.

Heroic and Normal Difficulties

I’m a very big fan of the concept of having normal and heroic versions of each boss. By doing so, you can make raiding accessible at the normal level, and allow casual players to witness the development of various storylines, while maintaining the ability to challenge guilds with a hardcore disposition and creating more enjoyable content for them through heroic modes.

There is, however, an issue of how you separate these difficulties. Yogg-Saron I think was an interesting case, having five different levels of difficulty, each progressively more difficult than another. This is in and of itself an interesting design, and I honestly really loved the way Alone in the Darkness played out in terms of challenge and enjoyability. I know caster classes might disagree with me, but it was definitely fun and interesting for me as a healer accompanying the illusion room DPSers and then healing through the crazy damage in phase three.

But I also like the idea of putting normal and heroic versions on separate lockouts. By doing so, you make the heroic content more linear, and this creates a more intriguing grounds for competition, as people can’t skip ahead to other bosses and snipe realm firsts. I suppose you could still have different levels of difficulty even if you separated the lockouts of normal and heroic, though. Yogg4 would be in the normal version, while Yogg0/1/2/3 would exist in the heroic version. And having variable difficulty levels for final and optional bosses is something I support.

But I think in order to make this a reality, you need to design gear with lockout separation in mind. Otherwise, gear inflation becomes a problem. The obvious way to address this issue (to me) would simply be to make gear obtained from the normal version of an instance the same item level as the gear obtained from the heroic version of previous content. The same, likewise, for the heroic version of gear obtained from the 10-man. Gear in and of itself is a big issue, though.

Gearing

I think one of the things I find frustrating is that you often have to go back to older or easier content to get items that are BIS (best in slot). If you want to have a full set of BIS gear for a moonkin, for example, you need the GVH trinket, 2PT8 from Ulduar, and a ring from ToGC10. 2PT8 should no longer be requisite in 3.3, though I haven’t done any spreadsheeting to make sure that’s really the case (and probably won’t, because spreadsheeting moonkin DPS accurately is difficult, as our rotation doesn’t have a solid pattern).

Blizzard really should make every item in a 25-man heroic a direct upgrade from 10-man heroic, and also do the same for the normal versions. This way, 10-mans wouldn’t be requisite for hardcore competition, though they would still provide a way to supplement gear.

The way I see it, item level progression should have gone as follows:

  • 213: Uld10 Normal
  • 226: Uld10 Heroic, Uld25 Normal, ToC10
  • 239: Uld25 Heroic, ToC25 , ToGC10
  • 245: ToGC25

This in and of itself has its flaws, of course. Blizzard wants people to feel compelled to upgrade their gear each time new content is released, so this wouldn’t compel people to go from Uld25H to ToC25 to do so. So some separation between the previous heroic and the new content’s normal version might be called for. But then time spent in the previous heroic might seem wasted, because the normal versions are typically so easy you can PUG them, which is why I advocate the normal version of new content dropping gear that’s the same item level as the previous content’s heroic gear.

Class Raiding Balance

For the most part, I think Blizzard has done a decent job with class balance in Wrath. Yes, some classes have been, at various points, overpowered or underpowered. But more attention is being paid to the issue than was being done in both vanilla and TBC. They don’t always make the right decisions (4PT9 and pestilence remained situationally overpowered for DK’s in raiding all throughout 3.2), but they at least make decisions with much more frequency that before. And that’s more than nearly all other MMO companies out there do these days.

The Raiding Game Overall

Overall, I like the increase in accessibility to raiding. During TBC, a lot of the content in raid instances was exclusive only to a small amount of players. Even after 3.0, the number of people who actually got to see Kil’jaeden was still relatively small. People can surely go back to Sunwell nowadays, but it doesn’t come at all close to the experience of doing it at level 70. The look and feel of the Eredar Twins room holds much less important if people just barrel through the content without even blinking. So the increase in accessibility is a cool thing.

I also think the “gear reset” that happens with new content is a good thing. Back in vanilla WoW, you had to essentially guild hop just to meet the requirements for guilds running Naxxramas. For new players to the game, this was a rather arduous task. So having decent gear readily available to help prepare people to enter or re-enter hardcore raiding I also consider a decent concept.

The basic concept of heroic versions of a boss is also good. Yes, admittedly, it does make the experience a tad cheapened when you’ve already seen the boss and its fundamental mechanics on normal. But I still really enjoyed defeating Yogg0 for the first time, and heroic modes are a great way to accomplish the increase in accessibility I also like. And nothing says Blizzard can’t design the heroic mechanics to be completely different from the normal version, while still maintaining the same artistic and story-based elements that exist in normal. That’s something Blizzard could certainly consider.

But the raiding game needs tweaks–some serious, some minor. I think limited attempts need to go, and better concepts need to be employed. More consideration in hardcore content needs to be given to mid-level guilds.

ToGC’s failures and the resulting frustrations of people need to serve as an example on which the raiding game can be improved. While I am no longer planning to be involved in that part of the game, it’s still important for the game’s overall health. Let mine and others’ frustrations, criticisms and praise serve as something for Blizzard to consider for the future development of WoW. By voicing out opinions, we can help Blizzard design Cataclysm to please as many people as possible.

Memories of Lunacy’s Raid

To accompany my personal farewell, I just want to reflect on Lunacy’s relatively brief history. Our highlights include:

  • U.S. 49th Kalecgos.
  • U.S. 50th Brutallus.
  • U.S. 40th M’uru.
  • U.S. 64th Kil’jaeden.
  • U.S. 52nd Lose Your Illusion.
  • U.S. 45th Steelbreaker (no VW cheese).
  • U.S. 57th Heartbreaker.
  • U.S. 60th GVH.
  • U.S. 56th Yogg1.
  • U.S. 85th Yogg0.
  • We also placed fairly well on 5-minute Malygos, but WoWProgress no longer has that on record.

We did this all while raiding on merely 20 hours a week (only more than 20 hours roughly three times each expansion).

Lunacy was a fresh guild at the beginning of TBC. Its birth was a result of my desire to create my own guild, and a friend’s willingness to help me co-lead. We started with only a small handful of players looking to raid hardcore at the beginning of TBC and built the guild from scratch. We managed to get the server second clear of Karazhan, and the best legitimate attempt of Gruul on the server pre-nerf (5%), despite the fact that we had only just managed to build the guild to a level where we could raid 25-man content.

We started getting realm firsts with our kill of Hydross, and from there we succeeded to do so on every boss except Lurker (because the guild that beat us did him first, while we focused on harder bosses), and Illidan (due to tank attrition).

The guild’s atmosphere was relaxed, but not to a point where performance suffered. We had really only a few people with questionable attitudes, and they didn’t dominate our otherwise friendly and crazy shenanigans.

Tempest Keep was really where we hit our stride. We took off entire raiding days to do marathon heroic sessions to make sure people were prepared for attunement. Our kill of Kael’thas was three weeks before the next guild on Proudmoore. And the same happened in Hyjal with our kill of Archimonde. A crew of 19 people stuck around after our Kael’thas kill to knock off Rage before the reset so we could be ready to do BT comfortably the following week.

We had our bumps at the end of Black Temple, however, with the guild that beat us putting in extra time while we suffered because we had only three tanks to work with (one of which was often two hours late to the raid). We only lost by 30 minutes, despite the fact that we didn’t put in extra time on BT at all, except a handful of us who would farm trash for hearts. We put in a grand total of two extra hours on Hyjal for the early attunement push.

Fortunately, people in the guild recognized our strengths and didn’t let the loss get to them. As a result, our first week in SWP was extremely strong. We got the U.S. 49th kill of Kalecgos and 50th of Brutallus.

But we stumbled greatly on Felmyst, dropping down to 121st. It exposed the weaknesses we had in terms of situational awareness. But we were determined not to let that happen on subsequent kills, and sat people who did not meet our standards of performance in that regard. This allowed us to improve by 51 places on the Eredar Twins (70th in the U.S.) and M’uru (40th in the U.S.).

Kil’jaeden was also a stumbling point, again showing our weaknesses in terms of situational awareness. But the people who had major problems on Felmyst showed improvement and we still managed the 64th kill in the U.S., despite the fact that we were often running with barely enough people to attempt the encounter, much less repeat M’uru before the major nerf.

Come Wrath, we started having major problems. A lot of our stronger players used the transition from one expansion to another to step away from WoW or raiding. Some of our stronger players remained, but we had gaping holes to fill. And we were never the same. We went through a lot of truly mediocre recruits to find some good ones, but we never found enough to man full raids every day in our schedule, despite the fact that we lowered our standards slightly just so we could man full raids enough to progress.

It’s amazing to me, however, that despite our problems, we were still managing a lot of top 100 kills in the U.S. for Ulduar hard modes, and even one in the top 50. It made me wonder what we could have accomplished had we not taken such a huge hit between expansions.

Alas, our problems slowly caught up to us, and this version of the raid is no more.

There were a lot of fun moments. Even in Wrath. It is thanks to nearly all members of Lunacy’s raid, past and present. Admittedly, not all of you, but roughly 98%. Thanks for making the time spent well worth it! I leave you with some of the videos of our fond memories.

A Farewell to (Hardcore) Raiding

This likely won’t come as a surprise to people on Proudmoore who have already heard the news, but my time as a hardcore raider is over. Lunacy’s existence as a hardcore raiding guild is also finished (though I add “for now,” since we still exist as a social entity and a raid could form under the tag in the future).

The reasons I’m stepping back from the hardcore raiding scene are several. Prime in my reasoning is simply life. However, I still would have stepped away in the future, regardless. This is because the mid-level hardcore raiding atmosphere is extremely stressful and I was losing a lot of the enjoyment that used to come with hardcore raiding. I have to admit ToGC’s design also played a role in my loss of interest.

This So-Called “Real Life” Has Me Running

I don’t think the audience of a gaming blog would be very receptive to the story of my life. You’re here for insight into WoW and the act of playing it. If anything, you probably read this and other blogs because you can’t stand reading people’s personal blogs. But as it is a reason for stepping back, and stepping away from raiding will affect this blog’s content, I owe a short summary of why my life is getting hectic. So here goes:

  1. I’m finishing my BA in English.
  2. Afterwards, I will be applying to enter an MFA program in creative writing.
  3. I’d like to take running more seriously.
  4. Related to #1 and #2, I’ll be taking my writing from hobby to serious pursuit.

However, though I have plans, I don’t have expectations. I don’t expect to become a famous author of bestselling novels, or a Hollywoord screenwriter. I don’t expect to become an Olympic marathoner, though I’d love to break my personal bests. I just want to finish my degree and try things that will either work or not, be it journalism, commissioned writing, teaching, or something I don’t expect.

These are things I cannot do while maintaining a rigorous raiding schedule, much less while leading a hardcore guild. Gaming needs to take a back seat.

Wrath’s Mid-Level Hardcore Raiding Atmosphere Was Extremely Stressful

It’s difficult to talk about issues concerning the raiding atmosphere without being candid about recent events within my guild. However, because Lunacy still exists (albeit casually), I don’t feel comfortable discussing even vague examples that could be applied by our current and former members to specific incidents that may have occurred, no matter how accurate or inaccurate.

So I’ll use ambiguity.

I hate drama. I hate snark. I hate irrationality. I hate not having the tools to deal with people who have problems, be they attitude- or performance-related, because you worry about not being able to replace that person swiftly. When the major reason your guild exists is to progress and defeat bosses at all levels of difficulty, it’s difficult to potentially put yourself in a position where you can’t do that. People who joined to progress become unhappy when you can’t kill bosses, and when that happens you risk falling apart.

On the other hand, if you keep the people with attitude problems around, you risk driving others away. And if you lower your performance standards, you hurt your progression. So by not doing anything, you also risk the guild falling apart.

If I had 5 or 6 people waiting on the bench every night, the course of action would have been obvious. But because raiding is now much more accessible than it was before, mid-level hardcore guilds are bleeding members left and right. So you have a glut of guilds, and a shortage of recruits. Fixing problems becomes extremely difficult when that happens, as you become a victim of the situation.

It’s not Blizzard’s fault, however. The increase in accessibility to raiding is a good thing in the long-term. But it’s created a short-term problem with a glut of guilds and a shortage of hardcore raiders that I don’t think will resolve itself until Cataclysm’s release.

ToGC’s Design Problems

There are several reasons I dislike ToGC:

  • Limited attempts.
  • How the random mechanics of certain fights can affect your attempt count.
  • How the awkward AI on a couple fights can be a frustrating component that results in losing attempts.
  • Warriors in full block gear taking half the damage of a protadin in better overall gear.
  • How rushed it felt, with major changes needed on three of the heroic encounters shortly after the heroic modes opened (Northrend Beasts, Jaraxxus and the Twin Valks).

These issues warrant a much larger entry. A mere list of issues does not accurately summarize my thoughts in detail. For example, I wouldn’t care about RNG-based difficulty if the attempt system didn’t exist. In any case, I much prefer different design concepts, and I’ll express my full thoughts in a post as soon as possible (I want to try to get something out there before next Tuesday, as the PTR has a release candidate version going up).

So Where Do I Go from Here?

Honestly, I’m not sure where I’ll be going from here. There are so many conflicting issues going on, I just don’t know where I’ll be several months from now.

I really want to set up a serious PvP crew on Proudmoore (something that hasn’t been done for a very long time), but I worry about having to turn down people in Lunacy who just wouldn’t make the cut (the types that run off for HK’s instead of being there to assist the flag carrier in WSG).

I want to set up a serious 3v3 team, but I’m not sure my current plans will follow through the way I want them to. And I’m not sure Proudmoore will provide me with the tools to create a team as successful as I’d like, if the current plans don’t work out.

At the same time, I don’t want transfer off, because that would hurt my ability to rebuild the social side of Lunacy.

And then Cataclysm is likely to change the game in extreme ways. So I have no idea what I’ll be doing until I know what Cataclysm is actually going to change and introduce.

What I do know is that I’ll be playing much more casually than I was before.

What’s in Store for the Blog?

Stepping away from raiding means I won’t be writing about how well or poorly a boss is designed if I don’t experience it. But the blog is changing (and has already changed) for reasons more than just me stepping away form raiding.

To be honest, I’ve found it difficult to write about a game in the MMO industry with any sort of enthusiasm. It used to be that I was excited about a lot of things. I was even planning to develop my own web site, the details of which I’m going to keep under wraps, in case I end up going down that road if other life plans don’t work out. But the volatility behind the development of games in the industry has me weary, so I’d rather try other possibilities in my life first and not spend so much of my focus on it.

That said, I still enjoy parts of WoW. And the blog still exists. So I will write about it. But I probably won’t bother addressing topics like how Arthas is an antithetical version of King Arthur. It’s very possible Blizzard could have gone down that road. But then you know some head designer is going to say “No, scrap that! It wouldn’t make for an interesting raid encounter!”

I’m not saying the designer is wrong. You want an interesting encounter for the last boss in an expansion. Entertainment is as important as story. Take PvP, for example. PvP is a source of entertainment. And there needs to be a reason for PvP to exist in the game, even if Garrosh and Varian are extremely superficial characters.

I’ve merely come to the conclusion that various parts of the game won’t ever be exactly the way I want them. No matter how much I advocate the practice, I don’t think story arcs will ever be fully contained within the world of WoW. There will always be something introduced I won’t like. In short, “You can’t please everyone.” This is simply how MMO design and development works. And so I’ve lost some enthusiasm, and I won’t be going out of my way to write about certiain things anymore. You might have noticed I haven’t done that for almost a year, now. But I will probably write more than I have lately, at least.

In any case, I’ll be around.

Blizzcon 2009

The Opening Ceremony

There was one thing missing from Blizzcon in 2008: a major announcement. Diablo III was announced at the Worldwide Invitational. Starcraft II and Wrath of the Lich King were announced the prior year. Wrath, in fact, had already been in the midst of an extensive beta test. So the WoW panels were mostly full of information already covered by the likes of World of Raids and MMO Champion.

Blizzcon 2009 was completely different. Just like last year, there was a new Diablo III class announced: the monk. But then Cataclysm was also announced. It was nothing surprising, sure; MMO Champion had leaked a lot of the information about the new expansion. So Mike Morhaime didn’t shy away from obviously referencing the upcoming announcement by calling it “cataclysmic.” After a long lead-in by Chris Metzen, and the Diablo class announcement, the trailer was finally shown.

You can watch it outside the context of the convention at Cataclysm’s official site.

Watching the trailer on a computer or TV screen holds no inkling of similarity to watching it at the con. While most people knew the announcement was coming, the booming woofers, blaring speakers, and the uproarious response to Deathwing at the end of the trailer really made the opening ceremony (and the convention). It’s difficult to tell just how loud it was in my video, because my camera has surprisingly good noise balancing capabilities. But the commentary at the end should give you an idea. (And for those wondering, I’m the one that says at the end, “No it couldn’t have!”)

Following the trailer was a preview panel for Cataclysm. Of course, the goblins and worgen were covered. Both race decisions generated a positive response from the people I know, including myself. I already suspected both would become new races at some point, and that was reinforced with MMOC’s investigations. While I have complained about the hack writing involved in the original presentation of the worgen origin story (the one referenced in quests involving Shadowfang Keep and Arugal), playing a wolf-like race that can transform between human and worgen out of combat is very, very enticing. Also, Gilneas seems to be based on 19th century London, which is just awesome!

And goblins? Well, let’s just say that I originally intended to play a goblin when WoW was released in 2001. But as time went on, the goblins never entered playable territory. So it’s great to see them finally cross that threshold. However, my dreams of playing a goblin sapper will likely never become reality.

I do not want to cover too much of Cataclysm in this post, however. That merits another entry entirely. So, to summarize:

  1. My opinions about the importance of renovating the old worlds seems to have been shared by the likes of Blizzard.
  2. Goblins and worgen are both awesome choices for new races.
  3. Rated battlegrounds will rock, and has long been something I have advocated.
  4. Guild achievements and progression are intriguing.
  5. I’m neutral about the removal of spell power, attack power, mp5, etc.
  6. The separation of talent trees into talents and masteries seems interesting and potentially necessary with the simplification of item stats.
  7. The introduction of “Paths of the Titans” as a new end-game progression system is interesting, but I am wary given my experience with “Master Levels” in DAoC.

These points will be covered in my entry about Cataclysm and the direction of the game in general. But this is a post about Blizzcon, so I’ll talk mainly about that.

The Panels, or: Art Panel FTW

My favorite panel from 2008 was the art panel. This year was no different. Last year, when it seemed every other panel was filled with subject matter already covered by WoR and MMOC, the art panel broke the mold and went over various iterations of Dalaran and showed concept pieces previously unreleased to the general public. They also went over the progress of spell effects, including those that weren’t yet in the game, and those that might not ever be implemented. This made the panel interesting.

While the other panels had new information to feed us this year, none were better presented than in the art panel. Perhaps this is because art encompasses virtually aspect of the game. You need models, textures, animations and effects to create and modify cities, zones, bosses, spells, and new races, afterall. Or perhaps it’s simply because the art team does an awesome job sneaking snippets of virtually everything into their panel, occasionally with some humor.

The art panel explicitly covered various topics: the new races and their animations, a bit about their starting areas, some of the new dungeons, the new water, etc. They even touched on the guild achievement system by showing us a brief preview of how it might work in the context of the current achievement system. There was also a live demo during the Q&A session.

Perhaps the most exciting thing was when they revealed the new water. While most other MMO developers would laugh at how far behind the curve WoW is on water effects, this really elevates WoW’s art beyond any level they have achieved (in my opinion). Simply put, I like WoW’s “concept art” style. Many other games try to create an artificial level of realism that just doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work is because PC Games have not yet achieved a graphical quality on par with pre-rendered cinematic CGI. So when I see lighting shimmering off a character, and an extremely dark shadow following the character, it feels like I’m looking at a moving representation of something created in 3D Studio Max circa 1999 by a high school student.

Not to knock on all other MMOs (or psuedo-MMOs), however. I love the art and graphics in Guild Wars, for example. And the water in Lord of the Rings Online and Everquest 2 is fantastic. But WoW’s new water fills a huge artistic gap in a game that already has some great art. The goblin starting area highlights this very well.

The Other Panels, and What Information They Had to Share

There was new information to be told at all the other panels, so I won’t be ignoring them. However, as the panels themselves were straightforward, I will simply summarize the information:

  • The new level cap will be 85.
    • They said something about the leveling being more meaningful, but I’m not sure specifically what they meant by this. A sense of accomplishment is, afterall, subjective. So who knows.
  • The reemergence of Deathwing has transformed the old world.
    • His entrance back into Azeroth has literally caused an “explosion” and sundered various parts of the world.
      • The Barrens, for example, will become two separate zones.
  • Blizzard is also going back to change the quest density and flow in older zones.
    • Hopefully like the Scarlet Enclave.
  • Some gear stats are being removed. Examples:
    • Spell power will now be lumped into INT.
    • AP will be lumped into AGI and/or STR.
    • mp5 will be lumped into SPI (for all healers).
  • The talent system is being splintered into two different concepts (talents and masteries), and a new end-game progression specific to Cataclysm is being added on top of this (called “paths”).
    • Talents will be more “fun,” “utility” and “use”-oriented. For example, as a resto druid, you’d likely see things like wild growth and swiftmend remaining as talents.
    • Masteries will be passive. For example, 10% additional healing will become a mastery, not five talent points.
    • There is a new type of end-game progression called Paths of the Titans. This system is tied to a new secondary profession: archaeology. It will essentially allow you to customize your masteries and talents further.
      • In its current form, you choose a titan “cult” which determines your “path.” Each path then has “ranks.” Once you earn a rank, you can then trade an artifact (obtained through archaeology) and choose between a few “ancient glyphs” for each rank.
      • An ancient glyph can provide a passive benefit or can be an activated ability.
      • You can “respec” your path.
      • Details still being worked on. Things may change, and I do have a lot to say about it, but I’ll save it for my detailed entry about Cataclysm.
  • Reforging will allow you to adjust stats on some pieces of gear.
    • Reforging will be tied to blacksmithing, leatherworking, tailoring, jewelcrafting and engineering. Essentially, you’ll be able to adjust one stat on a piece of gear and change it into something else, but not if the gear already has that stat (if I’m remembering correctly).
  • Four raids will be open at the beginning of the expansion.
    • I do not know the details of these raids, however. Some could be single-encounter, or they could all be multi-encounter. Each possibility evokes differing opinions.
  • There will be rated battlegrounds.
    • Rated BG’s will be an alternative for arena points and gear (not a replacement or sidegrade).
    • One battleground will be featured each week as the rated BG.
    • When you win, you’ll gain BG rating.
      • But how much depends on your rating and the ratings of people on the other team. You could end up gaining nothing if the people you play are far below your rating.
    • When you win, you’ll gain arena points.
    • If you lose, you won’t lose rating.
    • The old honor titles will return with this system.
  • Arena points will be gained in real-time, but capped.
    • To factor for the way arena points are earned with rated BG’s, they’ll also be earned in real time with arenas.
    • But the amount of points you can earn each week will be capped, most likely based on the rating you had at the beginning of the week.
  • Tol Barad will be the Cataclysm version of Wintergrasp.
    • When active, it’ll be like WG.
    • When not active, it’ll be a Quel’Danas-style daily hub for the victorious faction.
  • There will be guild experience and talents.
    • Guilds will be able to earn experience doing various activities, including:
      • Killing bosses.
      • Winning rated BG’s and arenas.
      • Gaining reputation.
      • Leveling.
      • Ranking up professions.
    • The current plan is to use the top 20 earners in the guild per day as the source of the guild’s experience level. This will allow people with busy lives to rely on people who have more time to devote to activities outside of the guild’s focus.
    • Guild talents will include things like mass resurrection, reduction of durability loss, removal of reagent requirements for raid buffs, etc.
  • There will be guild crafted items.
    • Essentially heirlooms that can be passed between guildmates.
      • People who leave a guild will have their heirlooms taken away and placed in the guild bank.

As you can see, there was a lot of new information about the expansion given in these panels. And I may even be forgetting something. So while the non-art panels may have been straightforward, they were not boring and they were worth attending.

The Arena Tournament

The arena tournament wasn’t as good this year as it was last year. However, I did only catch the last few matches.

One of the reasons I didn’t find them as interesting was due to the disparity in skill between regions. The Taiwanese region was simply outclassed. Another reason I didn’t find them as interesting was because people did a poor job counter-comping. So many RMP (rogue, mage priest) teams continued to play RMP, even though it’s now pretty obvious they don’t perform well against cleave (DK, warrior, paladin) or HPD (hunter, paladin, DK). This trend continued during the tournament this past weekend in Dallas. eMg, the winner of the Dallas tournament, explicitly switched their comp to HPD whenever they came up against RMP. If the RMP teams learned how to play more than RMP, maybe they’d do well.

The final match at this Blizzcon was cleave (TSG) versus HPD. I think cleave is slightly favored on maps like Orgimmar and RoL for this matchup. Personally, for “grand finals,” I like mirror matches. It removes comp and map imbalance from the final result. So when I see different comps in the finals, I’m not quite as excited. You can watch all of the matches below:

TSG won 3-1. Hooray, America!

Now that there are five arena maps, I think tournament organizers need to consider allowing teams to alternate picking the maps they want to play on. The fifth can then be random if it’s winner’s vs. winner’s or loser’s vs. loser’s, and chosen by the winner’s bracket champion in the final. This would remove most RNG that can knock a team out simply because they get maps that leave them at a severe disadvantage facing specific comps on certain maps (and especially true if Blizzard adds another couple arenas in Cataclysm).

Another reason I didn’t like this tournament as much was because vhell wasn’t doing play-by-play. I realize most people think the WoW shoutcasters suck, but vhell is the best WoW shoutcaster, in my opinion.

One last thing: despite what any of the shoutcasters may say, I personally liked pre-Wrath 3v3. I would, however, be singing a different tune if we were watching 2v2. Hour-long rounds would be boring.

The Closing Ceremony

I didn’t go to the closing ceremony. My reasoning was because I thought Ozzy would mostly play his solo stuff, of which I’m not a huge fan. But someone told me after-the-fact that he actually played a lot of Sabbath. So I regret not going. I did, however, get in some good time demoing more of the worgen starting area.

Worgen and Goblin Demos

We did not get to test the entirety of the starting zones, only from level 5 onward. So I don’t actually have a very good grasp of what the starting areas are actually like. However, of what was available, I did I enjoy the goblin area much more than the worgen zone. This is mainly because the worgen area was extremely competitive for spawns–particularly with the quest that involved picking up barrels and throwing them on the heads of abominations. The barrels were sparse and took a while to respawn, and you could lose the tap on the abominations if someone’s barrel reached the mob before yours (which consumed your barrel, and gave you no credit). That quest created a bottleneck and took up a large chunk of your fifteen minutes of play time.

The goblin area, meanwhile, highlighted the new water effects, wasn’t nearly as competitive, and had a lot of fun quests.

Alas, for all I know, level one through five as a worgen could be much more awesome than one through five as a goblin. And Blizzard could also ease the competition in the worgen area before release. So I’m not going to conclude my opinion here.

What Else Was Better About 2009 over 2008

Last year, Blizzard rented out halls A, B and C in the Anaheim Convention Center. This year, they also rented out hall D. Hall D is gargantuan, about 42 percent larger than hall C (which was the main hall last year). Overall, the convention had 49% more floor space this year. The rise in attendance didn’t quite match that, so it felt less crowded, even though there was certainly more people.

Enough of Premonition was able to attend this year, so they put on a live raid. I skipped most of it, because I thought it’d just be Ulduar or Crusader’s Coliseum. However, when I was walking by with some guildies, I saw them raiding Patchwerk, Thaddius and Anub’Rekhan at the same time. I was calling out the strategy as soon as I saw it. Felt good being right about it, too. After they killed the trio on their second attempt, Blizzard spawned a beefed up Hogger and wiped them. Good times!

Last year, you pretty much had to hear how other panels went second hand if you missed them. This year, you could see other panels being broadcast on screens throughout the convention center. Also, between breaks and lulls in other halls, they’d broadcast other panels on the screens for that stage. As soon as an arena match was done, on came the raid and lore panels. Overall, it was much better than sitting through the same cinematic trailers between panels and arena matches. However, it did make getting seats more difficult, because people felt less compelled to leave and attend other panels or events.

Minor panels were also held in bigger halls this year. No more cramming into a tiny room upstairs half an hour before a panel starts just to get a back row seat.

What Could Be Better for Next Blizzcon?

There’s not much that could be done better at this point. One could argue Blizzard should look for a larger venue, considering the tickets sold out in 56 seconds. But the Anaheim Center is actually one of the larger centers in the country, now. The closest upgrade (over double in capacity) would be Vegas. But it would cost Blizzard a lot more, and I think there’s a certain threshold of attendees that becomes too large (imagine the view from the back of a 600,000 square-foot hall holding 40,000 people).

I’d suggest additional days, separating the tournaments from the panels and giving them their own closing ceremony. But I imagine the convention would bleed attendees at this point, especially as it drew into Sunday and Monday. Thus, it’s probably not a viable option.

So what could be reasonably done? Probably nothing. The only thing worth considering is holding Blizzcon overseas to give people outside the U.S. a chance to experience it, or at least a cheaper experience (for those that made the trip; /wave Argi).

Overall, A Great Experience This Year

Enough said.

Also, driving back home on 101 was the best decision I ever made. Fuck I-5.

vs.

Post-3.0.2 Analysis

This past week was rather interesting, to say the least. Last Tuesday, 3.0.2 was introduced. It is the precursor patch to Wrath that introduces most of the expansion’s talents and mechanics in preparation for its release.

My guild and I spent Tuesday downloading the patch and fixing our mods. We also endured lag, server crashes and restarts.

On Wednesday, a small group of us cleared Karazhan before our Sunwell raid. It took us a total of 50 minutes.

  • Attumen seemed like a trash mob.
  • Moroes died before his first vanish.
  • Maiden died before her first repentance.
  • Our tank was the target of little red riding hood and just tanked Big Bad Wolf through it.
  • Curator died well before his first evocate.
  • Illhoof died during the first weakness.
  • Aran lasted something like a minute.
  • Netherspite died during the first beam phase.
  • Prince died so fast he didn’t even enfeeble the raid once.

Out of all the encounters in Karazhan, chess took the longest. Following this, we had our typical Wednesday Sunwell. Well, typical in that we usually start it on Wednesday. Not so typical in that we cleared it in three hours total.

  • We defeated Kalecgos during the first portal rotation.
  • Brutallus died in less than three minutes.
  • Felmyst died right after her first flight phase.
  • We wiped to the Twins twice. Once because someone fell off the balcony, and once because a hunter botched the MD because they weren’t used to having a shorter range. Then we aced it.
  • I think we had two waves of humanoids on M’uru. The tanks were never in danger of dying during phase one. And we killed Entropius before heroism dropped.
  • We also one-shot Kil’jaeden with ease, though we almost botched it when our melee brought Kil’jaeden down close to the next phase before the warlock adds from the 85% phase were dead.

We followed our Sunwell clear with the first three bosses of Black Temple. We then called the raid an hour early, so people could get an early night.

On Thursday, we finished up Black Temple. We also killed Al’ar, Kael’thas and Vashj and again called it an early night. Some interesting notes:

  • We killed Shahraz without shadow resistance.
  • Illidan never once reached his demon phase. We brought him down to 30% with five seconds to go on the first timer. This reset the timer, and we brought him down to zero before the second.

In any case, we cleared all of Sunwell, Black Temple, the two most difficult T5 bosses, and Al’ar in a total of about seven hours. We could have done it faster if we hadn’t approached the raids in a relaxed manner.

Were the Nerfs Too Much?

I’m not going to view 3.0.2 in a negative light. At some point, guilds stuck indefinitely on content need the be thrown bones shaped like dead bosses and epics. And to have micromanaged the changes on each encounter of TBC would have taken too many resources away from development of upcoming content.

I am quite positive there are guilds disappointed about how easy M’uru or Kil’jaeden are now post-patch. Especially if they were close to killing either of them pre-nerf. On my own server, Risen was in line to become the third guild to defeat Kil’jaeden. Parn, Risen’s leader, posted this in the progression thread after this post-nerf kill:

Risen downs Kil’jaeden.

Patch came 1 week too early. Sorry about the cheapened victory, guys. But we would have gotten him regardless.

Thanks everyone for every effort they have made.

My own guild had the same thing happen to us with Gruul. We had him down to 5% pre-nerf and we were certain of his death the very next week. This would have made us the only guild on our server to kill him legitimately pre-nerf (Ruined killed a bugged version). But then they nerfed him and we came back and one-shot him during what was supposed to be our warm-up attempt. It was an anti-climactic end to the hard work, consumables and gold we had thrown at the encounter.

However, for all the disappointment, it would not have been worth it to micromanage the changes to raiding. With only a month left in TBC’s lifecycle, it would have been a mistake to push 3.0.2 back a couple weeks for the sake of making the encounters easier, but still challenging. Especially considering those encounters will become obsolete at Wrath‘s release.

It’s Too Difficult to Predict What’s to Come Using 3.0.2

I originally stated that I thought Blizzard would do well to prolong the introduction of 3.0 for the sake of benchmarking class performance in raids and PvP. However, I ended up changing my mind just before Blizzcon for these reasons:

  1. Encounter difficulty was going to change with new concepts and mechanics in place.
  2. The encounters weren’t designed with the new talents in mind.
  3. We are missing ten talent points and new abilities that we will have at level 80.

Tack on the additional nerfs to raiding that Blizzard introduced, and there’s very little point in using 3.0.2 as an environment in which to test a class’s viability. And the same could be said for arena. Without an official ladder going on, a lot of people are using this opportunity to simply test new abilities and specs. But optimal team composition and specs for level 80 will not become evident until Wrath‘s first season.

I Hope 3.0.2 is Not a Precursor to 25-Man Raid Difficulty in Wrath

One of my colleagues, Matticus, had this to say about the current ease of 25-man raiding on live:

Don’t assume that things will be this easy at level 80, because it’s not going to be. You get yourselves new bosses, new mechanics, and new challenges to toy with.

To some degree, he is correct. Malygos is not nearly as easy as raiding in 3.0.2 is currently. However, conventional wisdom and statements made by the developers leave me to disagree on a level more subtle. Afterall, the developers did say they thought Sunwell was too hard during Blizzcon’s raids and dungeons panel. So I’m not about to assume that the 25-man version of Icecrown Citadel will be as difficult as the Sunwell.

Having worked my way through Sunwell well before 3.0.2, and killing M’uru before his first nerf, I have a keen understanding of just how difficult raiding can be. And while, yes, slogging through that content was at times frustrating, I am retrospectively appreciative of just how difficult both M’uru and Kil’jaeden were to defeat. As I said some time ago, downing them provided two of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had since picking up an Atari controller when I was three.

So I personally worry I will never have that experience again in WoW. In fact, I would be upset if the 25-man version of Icecrown only stood at the difficulty level of Black Temple. Afterall, one of the very reasons I thought 10-man versions of every raid dungeon were being introduced was to provide an alternative, more accessible form of the content people might find too difficult in a 25-man setting. Getting stuck at the 25-man level will result in a lower impact on morale when people can simply form up a solid 10-man raid and experience that same content in an easier and more accessible environment.

My Advice for Guilds Clearing or Deep into Sunwell Pre-3.0.2: Tighten Your Recruitment Standards

If you were clearing Sunwell level pre-3.0.2, I would say you shouldn’t use the time to recruit new people unless they come from an extremely solid and verifiable raid background.

As it stands, it is currently too difficult to trial someone in the difficult aspects of raiding you will see re-introduced come Wrath.

  • For Sunwell-clearing guilds, Felmyst won’t last more than one ground phase on a perfect attempt, meaning you will have limited opportunities to use the encapsulate as a situational awareness check.
  • Sacrolash dies so quickly, there will be a low chance for your new DPS recruits to be the target of conflag on the Eredar Twins.
  • Since bosses have had their melee damage reduced so dramatically, you won’t have ample opportunities to challenge your healer recruits.
  • Furthermore, because bosses hit so weakly, you can’t challenge your tanks to accurately time their cooldowns to mitigate awkward damage bursts.
  • Also, for tanks, positioning plays less of an important role when you don’t have to worry too much about avoiding gravity balls on M’uru, or creating an optimal pattern of flame patches on phase two of Illidan.

That said, if people coming from top guilds are applying and their skill level is already verifiable, it might be worth it to take a chance on them now. However, if this is not the case, I would advise taking a pass on them until you can incorporate them into level 80 raiding.