Monthly Archives: August 2011

Five Reasons I Cancelled My Remote Auction House Account

  1. Don’t really play the AH anymore. When I do, it’s almost all automated scans with Auctioneer.
  2. When I have a few spare cycles, I play non-WoW phone games now, like Frisbee or Angry Birds.
  3. Guild chat? Don’t use it, I have Twitter.
  4. Spending 20 minutes hunting for virtual bargains while walking outside means 20 minutes not paying attention to where I’m walking. Ouch!
  5. $36/year.

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On Why I Shouldn’t Read the Official PvP Forums

I shouldn’t read the official forums. I’ve known that for a while. I am rarely ever left happier for having read them. They occasionally increase my knowledge of the game, but it’s a bit like reading tech news all the time – you have to sift through so much drek and crap to stay on top of things, it’s honestly better to just ignore it and give up the idea of “being informed.”

Screw being informed. I’d rather be happy.

And it’s not just that they’re a cesspool of grammar, of bad reasoning, of really bad arguments. Because they can be. (To be fair, they can also be quite civil – time on the New Player forums has helped me see the good side of the forums, and why they are a good thing.)

The bad arguments make my job as a blogger easier, if nothing else. I guess.

It’s not even the overpowering sense of entitlement which comes through every post that starts with “Blizzard has all this money, they should fix my pet peeve.” It’s not that they shouldn’t fix your pet peeve, it’s that it’s the worst possible argument you can make for them to fix it.

Seriously, how does anyone expect that to work? Who tells a company, “you have a lot of money, so you should do X?”

Let me rephrase. Who tells a company that and expects them to actually do it? Jesus christ, do none of you people saying this know how to sell an idea? Hey company, you should do X because:

  • It will make you more money!
  • It will keep making you money!
  • It will be really cool and your competitors will be jealous and copy you!
  • And then you can sue them and make money!
  • It will save you money!
  • It will save you money AND make you money at the same time!
  • It will get you laid!
  • It will get your users laid!
  • It will screw your competitors!
  • It will get the auditors off your back!
  • It will get the government off your back!
  • It’s the right thing to do!

Please note the lack of:

  • You have a lot of money! Spend it!

because that doesn’t sell shit. Don’t tell a company how to spend their money. Give them an actual fucking reason to do it.

(n.b. Fertilizer is sold in bags that stress how much better your plants will grow using it, and why you should buy this brand of shit instead of a different brand of shit. Seriously, look at organic fertilizer packaging sometime.)

No, the real reason I shouldn’t read the forums – the PvP forums especially, but pretty much any of the scary forums – is because …

It’s because I find myself starting to agree with them.

I don’t even know what to say when I realized this. I had to step away from the internet for a day or so just to get over how I could actually agree with a lot of the points expressed in such a poor fashion. Not all of them, but there are some points which are really, really valid.

I’ll go ahead and link one of the posts, creatively titled Blizzard’s Total Disregard for PvP, and just say that I disagree with almost the entire tone of the OP’s posts and a third of his arguments – and yet, I agree with the sentiment behind it. Hell, I agree with most of the points!

I wrote three posts in a row on CBM that captured that bitterness I was feeling as a player, of being told “this is important” when the actions didn’t show that it was. I didn’t like that bitterness, not one bit. So I resolved to try to be more positive, not because Blizzard deserved it, but because I did, and you did, and people coming across my blog for the first time did.

But I realized something, something that came out when I ranted a bit about Azuremyst Isle – sometimes it’s okay to say, look, this isn’t very good. It wasn’t done well. It wasn’t handled well. It’s not designed well. I can still like playing this game, but man, this isn’t designed well.

Here’s a forum topic which actually spells out that hey, here’s how this PvP shit is broken, and that when you say that you care about endgame PvP, well, your actions don’t match your words. The post is rude, it’s insulting, it complains too much – but I certainly can’t dispute the points made within it. The points about PvE gear, especially Legendaries, in Rated PvP, are spot on. Why is this shit still happening? This is a solvable problem – if it’s important to solve.

And that depresses me. A lot.

The last few weeks have found me Leaving the Endgame Behind, and you know what? I’m pretty happy with the direction my gaming has taken. Yeah, I’m dinking around on twinks. Yeah, I find level 70 PvP more fun than endgame PvP. I’m wondering if I’ll ever really get another toon up to 85 who isn’t there for professions – and even then, why should I bother with that?

But when I read about the latest on BG balance, or how AV weekend sucks (seriously? It’s like raining free honor all weekend, you get to have me tank Drek for you, how could it suck?), or the latest exploits in the rated BG system – and I’m like, wow, this really doesn’t sound like fun.

Then I get sad again, because I want, so very much, for BGs to be fun for people. And they are, still! But many of the criticisms are valid. (Yes, even about AV, and you know how I feel about AV.) And for a while, I’m reminded of how much I enjoyed many of those things before all the problems piled up and made me go – no more. This isn’t fun anymore. This isn’t how I want to spend my time.

I guess my first reason to avoid the forums was the right one, after all.

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On Synapse Springs, Fishing Hats, and the Best You Can Get

Ashwalker_-_walking_here_with_my_big_mace

I made a comment this morning about whether I was crazy enough to level Engineering to 450, repeatedly, to get Synapse Springs on Ashwalker. (Twitter responded unanimously that of course I was; thanks for the vote of confidence, y’all!) The reasons why I would do it repeatedlybear some explanation, because they’re not apparent.

With the introduction of engineering tinkers in Cataclysm, you get a chance to learn the tinkers as you learn new recipies and create new stuff as you level from 450-525. The first one you get is at 450, and there are 8 of them distributed throughout the 75 point skillup curve, mostly at the beginning. Which one you get is completely random.

If you’re a level 70 twink, that means you get one random tinker at 450, your max Engineering skill. (Gnomes get 3.)

Synapse Springs is an on-use burst effect which grants you 420 of your primary stat. That’s pretty damn good for Cataclysm stat ranges, but for level 70, that’s fucking awesome. Ashwalker has 523 Strength unbuffed, which probably averages out to about 575-600 with normal buffs in PvP. +420 Strength is huge – consider that it’s a 75% buff for 10 seconds every minute, and you’ll see how big this is.

But you only get one shot at it. You can level to 450 and are likely to not get it – you can get the Quickflip Deflection Plates (which would admittedly be very good and awesome for tanking) or any of the others, but you only have a 1 in 8 chance of getting this particular buff.

So, is leveling Engineering repeatedly to 450 worth it?

If she were a leveling character, obviously not. Why level Engineering multiple times just to get her a bonus that will come naturally with leveling? That’s silly.

But if she were an endgame character – let’s say this was a situation at 85 – then it becomes a really difficult question to answer. How much effort do you spend on getting something awesome – but that will be outmoded with the next patch? People (including me) dropped 15-40k on Darkmoon Cards in 4.1 to have great trinkets; but that was honestly pretty easy compared to this. Leveling Engineering is a PITA, and I might end up spending 10k-20k on getting it. Do I like this character enough to go through that effort and expense?

I liken this to when I considered going for the Lucky Fishing Hat on Cynderblock, which was really the first “crazy” piece of twink gear I tried for. There’s a real dissonance when you say, I’m going to spend this much effort getting a single piece of gear (or enchant or tinker or consumable or whatever) for a character who isn’t at level cap. That’s the key here – level cap somehow makes it okay to spend hours farming for a piece of gear, of running 14 hours of Heroics for a piece of gear that will only last a single raiding tier – sometimes not even that! – but not okay to spend 12 weeks logging in at random intervals to get an awesome trinket for someone at level 19.

Why is that? Why do we think that way? Is it because one is the best you can get in game, but the other gets outmoded by something as simple as leveling?

It’s funny, because our brains play tricks on us here. The best you can get in game is only good for so long, and then you have to get something else. There’s transient value there which decays over time. All you have to do and wait and your Valor gear and T12 gear will be replaced.

The best you can get at a given level is static. The effort put in to get it isn’t wasted, it doesn’t decay. You get the best and you’re done.

Aside from this difference of decaying value, though, it actually doesn’t matter if you’re at the endgame or not. The simple reason is that: if it’s worth it for you to play your character as well as you can, it doesn’t matter if it’s level 19 or 39 or 70 or 85 – then it’s worth it to you. If I’m willing to spend 20k gold on Cynwise for an advantage for a few months, because that’s who I’m playing at the time, then why should Ashwalker’s level matter? Or Cynwulf, or Cynderblock, or any of the others?

It’s an interesting, and disturbing train of thought.

Interesting, because it helps to frame gear decisions based upon longevity and benefit.

Disturbing, because I just fucking talked myself into leveling Engineering to 450 as many times as it takes to get this damn tinker.

FUCK.

I’m going to need some Copper Bars and Wool Cloth.

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On The Failed Characters

Snowfalls_-_level_70_login_screen

Professions are the last refuge of the failed alt.

Above is my druid. I’ve written about my struggles with her before on CBM, though in that post I tried to end on a positive note.

It … well, it didn’t really work. The 5×2 project helped – it helped a lot! – but it elevated me from a Terrible to Poor druid player, or maybe Poor to Mediocre. It helped me get a bit more organized, but I found my Warrior lured me in more than my Druid.

There’s a part of me, a very strong part of me, which feels like I should start over entirely new with the class. Delete the level 70 toon, roll a Worgen (or go Horde), and start over. Thow in the towel and say, I let this one get ahead of me, I don’t know what to do anymore.

It’s okay to say that. Right? I think it’s okay to say that. I leveled this character not with elan and joy, but with white-knuckled Bear tanking runs, sweat-chilled Tree healing, and a lot of dying in BGs. I know how much fun I’m having on a toon by the amount of style and flair I can put into playing it. The only style I have on my Druid is “fumbling noob.”

And yet, there’s so much potential there.

Leveled professions, epic flight form, fast flight. Finally has some decent gear for level 70. Do I really need to delete one to make room for another? That’s alt guilt talking again, isn’t it? I should be good with this character. I should be happy and proud to log in to her.

But instead, she sits on the login screen, making me feel like I’ve failed. That’s why I want to delete her.

But she is my herbalist, and my alchemist – so she stays.

Perhaps I’ll see if I can level a Horde druid for a bit – perhaps that will be enough to get me over the sense that I’ve failed with this druid.

Perhaps.

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The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP

In Zarhym’s recent foray into the PvP forums, the sentiment that low level PvP is broken in Cataclysm was voiced over, and over, and over again. The floating skull responded diplomatically:

We talked to Ghostcrawler about this yesterday. He’s well aware of this, but more importantly, he’s not very happy about it either. The class design team’s first priority is obviously balance around the end game, but absolute neglect of low-level balance isn’t okay. This is something that isn’t going to improve much in patch 4.3, but we hope to have more sound solutions coming.

I really sympathize with Zarhym here. This is not an easy topic to cover; I think the issues around low level PvP are actually more difficult to resolve than the balance problems of the endgame, because there are contradictory elements that simply cannot be reconciled – elements which do not exist at the end game.

These elements have a name. They are called new players.

And they are the reason not only why low level PvP is imbalanced, but why it should stay imbalanced.

THE PROBLEM OF LOW LEVEL PVP

It’s not enough to wring our hands and say, “low level PvP is broken.” While it may be true (and I believe it is), we have to look at the specific ways in which problems manifest in the battlegrounds.

  • Classes are imbalanced. Some classes have very good burst, others do not. Some have very good defenses, others do not. Some have counters, others do not.
  • Damage is very high relative to health. Characters die quickly in 1:1 situations.
  • Statistics vary wildly between characters within a bracket. Whether it is due to gear, professions, or enchants, players in the very early brackets show up in a wide variety of gear that can make one character ten times more powerful than another.
  • Stat scaling at low levels heightens small differences in gear. Due to rating decay, a few points in any stat will have a more dramatic impact at low levels than at higher ones.

These four interrelated problems cause lowbie PvP to appear “borked” and “broken.” I don’t like using those terms because I think that even in its current form, lowbie PvP is actually a lot of fun, both on the geared and ungeared side. But these problems combine to create strata of twinks within low level battlegrounds that can create seriously lopsided matches.

The real problem of low level PvP is that Blizzard removed one kind of twink from lowbie battlegrounds, only to have the void be filled by by another, more pernicious kind of twink:

Regular, experienced players.

LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME

Think back to when you first started playing WoW, or your first MMO. Not just the early levels, either – the very first day.

I remember my first login, fumbling around on my MacBook’s trackpad, trying to right and left click with a single button, struggling to simply move and target. Concepts like combat stat decay and burst damage were far from my mind; I was trying to figure out how to perform the most basic functions of character control. And I struggled with it! It took me a week to get up to level 12; I didn’t even know basic MMO conventions. I didn’t get my first green piece until my second character – it was a Disciple’s Vest of the Whale, and I had no idea that green items existed before then.

I bring this up because the starting experience for a new player has a radically different set of challenges than that for an experienced player, and the game must take those into account. It must teach them basic mechanics of the game while also making them feel like they are accomplishing things. In order to retain customers, the game must reward new players and make them feel powerful and heroic – to pull them in and get them so they want to see more, to challenge them just enough so that they hit level 10 and go, WOW, this is awesome, let me keep on playing!

What Blizzard does not want to have happen is for someone to get frustrated at level 5 and walk away from the game, leaving a virtual corpse in the road outside Goldshire.

This is why characters start off with one ability and grow slowly – so players don’t get overwhelmed. This is why early abilities were substantially reworked in Cataclysm – so that each class would have just enough abilities to keep things interesting without overloading someone. It’s not just to make classes easier to learn – it’s acknowledging that new players are learning a lot of other things, too, and that low levels don’t need class complexity to make things worse.

Compare and contrast this with an experienced player, one who has learned the fundamentals of an MMO through the endgame. Zones which forgive the mistakes of someone just learning how to steer their character become trivially easy to a character who has a gaming pad and mouse set up, customizes their UI on the fly, writes attack macros as soon as they log in, knows how to pull multiple mobs, etc.. This isn’t about “catering to casuals,” however you want to take that term – this is about a real difference in skill between someone who is just picking up the game and someone who has played it for some time.

I used to think that the lower levels were easy for me because I outgeared them on my alts. I’d go roll an alt with enchants and heirlooms and stuff would die very quickly. It was only later that I realized I could do the exact same thing in starter gear and quest rewards, because I was a better player than the first time I leveled a character. Of course I should find the content easy! It’s made to be challenging to someone else, to teach them the skills which I already possess!

Think of how big this skill gap is that these early zones have to cover – be accessible enough to a completely new character, but not completely bore a veteran rolling yet another alt.

This is a fundamental truth of the lower levels which cannot be ignored when talking about low level PvP imbalance: the early game has to hook new players on the game and teach them the skills to play it. It has to be accessible to new players – not just to teach them the new skills, but to hook them on the game so they don’t go do something else! World of Warcraft has to be engaging enough through the first 20 levels that someone picking it up for the first time says, hey, this is pretty cool, it’s worth paying money to keep going.

From a business standpoint, this is a far more important priority than keeping experienced players challenged for 30 levels or so. They’ll get their challenge through other means.

Keep this in mind as you think about low level PvP, and as we dive into the math of stat scaling.

WHY THINGS ARE ALL DOWNHILL FROM LEVEL 10: THE PROBLEM OF STAT SCALING AND RATING DECAY

Most of the low level zones follow a fairly consistent character development arc. You start with trivial tasks at the very early levels, overcoming a minor obstacle by level 5 or 6, gaining experience, and overcoming a moderately difficult challenge by 10-12. By then you’re ready to move on to another zone, where the difficulty increases substantially over the next 5 levels or so, but so does the importance of the story – and the rewards. By the time you hit level 20 in that next zone, your character is authentically heroic – low level, but they’ve saved the day in a major way.

This arc is reinforced by a substantial shift in game mechanics that takes place at level 10.

I love going over at Shadowpanther.net’s formula page when trying to explain why a character at lower levels is sometimes better than one at higher levels due to stat scaling. Having each level laid out in a chart provides a better visual aid to see how ratings decay for a lot of people than mathematical formulas.

If you haven’t read these kinds of charts before, the first seven columns go over how much of each combat stat you need for 1% of the value; so if the Crit column in the level 19 row says 2.94, that means you need 2.94 Crit to equal 1%. (3 Crit rating is therefore 1.02% at 19.) The rest of the table relates to a very specific Rogue (and Hunter) stat called AEP, which isn’t relevant to our discussion here.

The Shadowpanther chart helps illustrate how stat scaling works. The more you level, the more value of a particular stat you need to get 1% of it. You need more stuff on your gear as you level in order to maintain a certain level of power. You can think of it as gear getting weaker as you level, if you like, or of driving you to acquire better gear to stay in good form.

Where stat scaling gets interesting is in the really low levels. Look at levels 1-10. There is no change in stat scaling in those first 10 levels – 1 point of Crit will get you 1.85% increased critical strike chance. There’s no gear decay at all until you reach level 11 – when suddenly, stats start to drop off pretty quickly.

Let’s go back to the initial character development arc again, but this time, looking at stat scaling.

From 1-10, characters get increasingly more powerful as they level. They gain primary statistics at each level that apply linearly; if you gain 5 of your primary statistic, you get the full benefit of that 5 points. This happens with or without good gear, mind you – because combat statistics are flat, the more you gain, the better your character becomes.

This increase has a deliberate, positive psychological effect on players. People feel like they’re getting more powerful as they level – because they are. This is much like a traditional RPG, where a level 5 character is substantially more powerful than a level 1 – it’s an entirely different ballgame.  Challenges have to be adjusted for the fact that you’re now a badass. That can be pretty cool.

Magical gear and enchants function in a linear fashion with this model. Just like in AD&D, a +1 Sword in the hands of a level 1 character functions exactly the same as in a level 10 character. It increases the chance to hit and damage the same amount. The damage might be a lower percentage of the higher level character’s overall damage, but that’s a function of them doing more damage overall. The gear remains unchanged.

Let’s translate this idea into WoW: let’s say a piece of gear gives you +3 Haste, which (for example’s sake) gives you +1% Haste at level 1, and at level 80, and at level 85. The more you level, the better gear you gain, the better your stats get. You could wear your level 70 gear and be just as effective at level 85 as you were at 70 – more so, since your base statistics have improved! Perhaps your linear stats (like Stamina and Mana) are lacking, but your gear is as effective as it was when you raided in Burning Crusade! It would make for a very different kind of game, since once you reached a certain level of power on your gear, it would be sufficient to handle most challenges in the game – but that would eliminate the idea of a gear tier, where it gets progressively more powerful.

For the first 10 levels your character gains in power, drawing you in, making you feel like yeah, I’m getting good at this!

Starting at level 11, linear scaling goes completely out the window, and rating decay sets in.

Starting at level 11, characters get decreasingly more powerful as they level due to stat scaling. At some point, they actually get weaker as a result of rating decay, as each point of a statistic they get by leveling counts for less than it used to. Gear becomes required to start making up the difference.

Look at the charts again. See how all the stats (other than Resilience) start going down in potency at level 11? That’s rating decay in action. Each point of a rating contributes less actual impact the more you level.

During the normal questing arc, this change is ideally hidden by moving to a new, more challenging zone. Things feel tougher in the second zone because they are tougher – but it’s not just because the opponents are tougher. You’re getting progressively weaker as you level, at least until you start getting gear to help make up the difference – and even then, you never really go back to the great scaling you enjoyed at level 10.

The story arc carries you towards a heroic achievement at level 20 at the same time game mechanics make you less potent. In a way, it makes a lot of sense to increase the overall difficulty of the game at this point for new players – but instead of making the mobs substantially more difficult, WoW makes PCs weaker and more dependent upon gear. This bait-and-switch works because it prepares players for the rest of the game, where they will be acquiring increasingly powerful gear to overcome more powerful challenges. The challenges are harder, but characters don’t get any more efficient from their improvements. The damage numbers are just bigger. The mana pools are bigger  - but so are the spell costs. You’re not actually any faster or more accurate. You’re not more skilled, you just have bigger numbers.

This ties in directly to the first symptom most people point to when talking about low level PvP’s problems: gear.

THE PROBLEM OF GEAR AND ENCHANTS

Heirloom gear and enchants represent two sides of the same problem – adding stats where new players lack them. They are both fundamentally unbalancing because the early leveling game is balanced for new players who lack those stats, not for experienced players with them. By walking into one of the 1-20 zones with anything other than quest rewards, you’re overgearing the content.

Generally speaking, that means the content is geared for:

  • Mostly whites through level 10-12
  • Whites and greens through level 15
  • Greens and maybe 1-2 blues by level 20

Keep in mind that many slots will not be filled either, even by white gear, so you’ll be missing a head, neck, 2 rings, 2 trinkets, and maybe a ranged slot.

The obvious problem is that there are players who have gear with stats in slots where other players don’t. It doesn’t take long to figure out that someone in blues versus someone in whites is imbalanced.  And that is absolutely true: better gear increases the amount of damage, healing, and health available to low level characters.

But the unseen problem is that, even with rating decay, gear scales better at lower levels. That scaling curve makes small differences much more prominent at levels 11-20 than at 40-60. It’s not just that gear grants more spellpower, attack power, or stamina – it’s that it grants more Haste, more Dodge, more Crit than it will at later levels. Heirloom gear is better gear at level 10 and 19 than at 35. 

But wait; enchants are even worse.

I’ve maintained that enchants outperform heirlooms in terms of raw power, but they’re even more potent at lower levels because of stat scaling. Keep in mind that many of these enchants were to be used at level 60 for raiding, and are not scaled for the leveling game. So an enchant like +15 Agility is pretty good at level 55, but it’s amazing at level 10. With the right combination of enchants, you can approach 100% Crit, Dodge, even Haste (Iron Counterweights FTW)!

But only for levels 1-10. After that point, stat decay kicks in, but vanilla enchants remain overpowered for the early brackets (up to 20-24, at least.)

Consider that you can have two rogues in the 10-14 bracket, and one could have 10x as much Agility as the other. Ten times as much.

And that Agility is giving more Dodge and Crit than at any other point in the game.

Let that sink in for a bit.

You have experienced players with access to gear through heirlooms, professions, and the AH. They can get great enchants which are at the peak of their potency in the early brackets. They have access to consumables (scrolls, rum, buff food) that new players don’t.

And they are playing the same game with players who are over the moon about a blue cloak with +4 of their primary stat on it.

I don’t see any potential problems with this in PvP. Nope.

THE PROBLEM OF CLASS BALANCE

You know, the gear problem is actually probably the easiest problem to solve with respect to low level PvP. Modifying the BG matching algorithm to filter based on an aggregate gear score – be it item level, total attack power/spell power, things like that – would be hard to implement, easy to work around, but conceptually it could work.

Class balance is a much harder problem to deal with at low levels.

Cataclysm brought with it a complete reworking of how abilities were learned by classes. A few gained some abilities early on, but many abilities were moved to later. Most AoE abilities were moved up to at least level 20. And Talent Specialization at level 10 granted some new abilities, but at the cost of a more flexible playstyle. I once wrote in Wrath that I needed to think of myself as a Mage, not a Frost Mage. Now I have to think like a Frost Mage – only lacking a lot of the tools of one.

The abilities at lower levels always present people with a challenge. Things are so basic and elementary at low levels. You have some of your core abilities, but not all of them. You don’t have many things that work together. Very few classes have counters, and those that do are OP.

The decision to move abilities around was entirely driven by making a class easier to learn for new players and for players new to the class. The first 5 levels are very basic, with abilities coming at a relatively steady, bearable clip. (The only class where I feel like you get too much at once is Druid because of Cat form at level 8.) The first 20 levels see a lot of abilities get introduced to a character – but not all abilities are equal, or are granted at the same time. And that’s not a bad thing, for leveling! Druids having Cat form at level 8 is honestly good for their leveling!

But how do you propose to balance this?

Look at the level 10-14 bracket and what different classes gain. Warriors gain Taunt at 12 and Heroic Strike at 14. Warlocks gain Bane of Agony at 12 and Fear at 14. Hunters gain Wing Clip at 12 and Hunter’s Mark & Disengage at 14.

  • Warriors get basically one attack which replaces an attack they already have (Strike).
  • Warlocks get an instant cast DoT (dramatically improving their damage output) and the best PvP CC in the game.
  • Hunters get two different escape methods: a snare and a leap. Both of those can’t be countered at this level by melee classes. They also get an attack buff.

There are two points here.

First, each class changes between the bottom and top of the low level brackets. In most cases, these are important abilities that get picked up in the early levels.

Second, each class changes differently. Warriors are actually becoming excellent lowbie tanks, while Hunters are picking up skills to make them great in PvP.

Third, many abilities have counters later on – but not yet. Warlocks might have a reliable escape from melee – but it comes at level 80. Warriors get gap closers – but at level 35. Counters add a lot of complexity to a class that, frankly, a new player isn’t ready for, and many experienced players who are new to the class aren’t ready for, either.

This isn’t a case of simple DPS balancing, of tweaking damage output to bring classes in line with each other. Each change made for PvP has to be considered in the context of a specific bracket, not “low level PvP.” What will it do at 10-14, 15-19, 20-24? More importantly, what will it do to the leveling experience? Will it give players too many buttons to push too soon?

Here’s the thing – when you take away gear as a factor, like in the xp-off bracket, you still see differences between class performance in both PvP and PvE. This is true at level 10, it’s true at level 70, and it’s true all the way up to level 85. Level 85 is where it’s the most balanced, not only because that’s where the majority of the players play, but because that’s where class toolkits are complete.

If you ask me who you should play in low level PvP, my standard response is to play what you enjoy playing, because then you’ll have fun. But secretly, I keep a list.

(I know, you’re shocked, shocked I say.)

You want to be OP under level 25? Play a Hunter, a Sub Rogue, Arcane Mage (Frost is also good at 19), Disc Priest, or Resto Shammy.

Consider what is really being asked for when people want class balance throughout the leveling experience: please balance 30 specs across 15 brackets in addition to the endgame. That’s 450 different class/spec/level combinations to balance against each other at 15 different points.

Oh, with no real standard of gear.

And make sure it’s balanced for PvP and PvE, too. Don’t screw up the leveling curve and cause players to get overwhelmed.

And don’t forget that you have to keep the endgame balanced, too.

See where this is going?

I’m not saying that classes shouldn’t be roughly balanced – they should, and this is where homogenization comes in handy. And this is a real problem in low level PvP – some classes are just not very good at certain points, even with the best gear you can get on them. I don’t PvP on my level 19 Warrior twink anymore, it’s too damn hard to be successful.

But blanket calls to fix class balance at low levels have to consider the context of that balance, and why it’s not as simple to implement as it is to ask for.

LOW LEVEL UTOPIA, OR THE PROBLEM OF EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

When you combine aggressively scaled statistics, rewards for experienced players that allow them to easily and consistently overgear early content, and a redesigned leveling program which spreads class abilities further along the leveling curve, and then toss that mixture into the early part of a game designed for new players, you get a highly combustible mixture.

Sending it in to Warsong Gulch at level 10 makes it explosive.

The complaints about low level PvP are valid enough – burst damage is too high. Some classes lack any real PvP defenses. Other classes and races may have abilities which are perfectly suited to PvP.

But… these problems have always been there, in the lower brackets, in the higher brackets, pretty much everywhere in Warcraft.

It’s interesting that these complaints are so rampant now, in Cataclysm, when there were periods in Warcraft’s history when low level PvP was far more hostile to new players.

Before the split brackets, before xp-locked brackets, before heirlooms, there were twinks. Twinks ruled low level PvP with an iron fist. They weren’t kind or gracious about it – they were as good as they could be, they played to win against the other twinks, and if you got in their way as a new player you were going to get steamrolled.

It was not balanced. It was not fair. It was not a good experience for new players, to be sure. And twinks were reviled for it, but they had unapologetic fun on their own terms.

With 3.2, battleground XP, and the creation of the xp-off battleground bracket, twinks were moved away from new players and given their own playground. Battlegrounds became a place not to perfect your craft and your self, but rather part of the leveling experience.

And that, right there, is where the current problems started. Not with heirlooms, but with adding experience to battlegrounds.

The promise of twink-free BGs was a heady one. I remember the excitement of those first months when people flooded into BGs to level through PvP. And it’s remained great – being able to mix up PvP with dungeons and questing keeps leveling fresh and exciting. It lets you avoid Outland or Northrend entirely, if you’re burned out on those expansions.

But with experience came the expectation that leveling through PvP should be fair(er).That by removing the twinks, the leveling brackets were now safe places to go with undergeared characters or new players. They weren’t, of course, but as long as the gear difference between characters wasn’t too extreme, the brackets weren’t too out of whack. And that was actually what happened, since those BGs were for leveling, people didn’t stop to get great gear and PvP – they came in the gear they had.

And then came heirlooms.

Heirlooms allowed players to outgear their opponents right from the beginning in PvP, and as more heirlooms have been added, the problem has gotten worse. While enchants are actually more imbalancing than heirlooms, most players aren’t willing to blow 500g on a glove enchant for an alt. (Heirlooms are vastly more popular than Hand Me Downs, so they get the blame for this one.)

Heirlooms gave early PvP levelers the edge they needed to be really good in PvP, to the point where they could dominate (and level faster.) Others noticed this, and got BoA gear too, and Heirlooms are now a really good idea if you want to level through PvP from 10-60. A new twink class was born: experienced players.

Instead of the PvP utopia that removing the twinks and granting XP was supposed to create, the exact same conditions prevailed.

The only difference was that now there was an expectation that new players could participate in low level PvP, that you could go in without putting a lot of work into your gear and still be successful.

The expectation might be there, even if the reality doesn’t match it.

Oh! And that the people who formerly decried twinks had become them. Let’s not forget that.

But PvP in Warcraft hasn’t changed. It has been, and always will be, very dependent upon gear. If you have better gear, you will do better. It’s also very class dependent; certain classes will do better at certain points than others.

Can low level PvP be improved? Absolutely. There are class tweaks that can be made to help both with leveling and PvP – Destro Warlocks getting Soul Fire at level 20 was a good example of this.

But even if you can fix some of the class balance issues, you will still have to contend with the very brutal fact that there will always be a great disparity between new and experienced players. As long as you have PvP as a viable leveling option, there will be wildly different gear levels between players.

Balancing low level PvP makes the endgame balancing act look easy.

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Five Levels of How Much I Think My Post Sucks

Like most writers, I think most of what I write is crap. I’ve learned to suppress this kind of thinking long enough to hit Post and ignore the doubts and internal criticism, but hot damn if I don’t do it.

  1. Windbag: “Holy fuck, did I just take 4000 words to make my point? WTF, Cyn? Could you ramble a little more?
  2. Ranty McRanterson: “Seriously, isn’t this like the fourth time you’ve bitched about this? How long are you going to whine about Tol Barad / PVP gear / irrational exploit policies?”
  3. Fuck You Politeness: “Listen, you’re going to spend an extra two hours making this sound reasonable and balanced, when all you really want to do is tell that person to fucking adapt. You’re losing sleep for politeness’s sake. Tell them to fucking deal with it already.”
  4. Shut Up You Hack: “Oh god you haven’t researched this extensively what if there’s a minor mistake your credibility will be gone you’ll have to delete the blog and twitter and enter a monastery, not the Shao-lin ones where you trained to be a badass, either. Puhlease.”
  5. Powerpoint Is Better Than This Drek: “Seriously, I could make a powerpoint with a bunch of fucking made up boxes and arrows and THE CLOUD and it would be better than this piece of shit.”

Related: the latest CBM post is too fucking long.

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On Characters as Projects vs. Avatars

Discyngage_-_razor_hill

I have struggled with Hunters for a while. I’ve managed to get one up to 19, twink her a little bit, but lost interest pretty quickly. I’ve rolled easily a half-dozen hunters, enjoyed them for a night or two, and then … nothing. Laurana the archer with her pet wolf, Tanis? Deleted. Cynwagon, the feisty draenei who went into battle yelling “Praise the Light and pass the ammunition!” Deleted. Cyndershot, the blood elf with McSpeedy the turtle?

Okay, well, she’s still around, because how could you possibly delete a turtle named McSpeedy? But she’s kinda stuck at level 15.

Like a lot of young kids, I started off thinking the Ranger class in AD&D was about the coolest class you could possibly roll. (1st edition, naturally, before Drizzt had his way with it.) I had a half elf named… Fangorn? I think it was Fangorn. He became a demigod. I had a bow that shot lightning bolts, like on the TV show. I was 10, and Fangorn was the coolest thing I could possibly think of.

I was 10. Come on. Like you don’t have similar stories.

I grew up, my characters became more nuanced, and – somewhat surprisingly – I never really returned to the ranger class. I’d think I’d want to play a ranger, but I’d wind up going with something like an illusionist or an enchantress or a straight up, plain old fighter with longsword specialization. I think my last D&D character was a somewhat quirky sorcereor who worked as a cook in an inn who got drafted into a passing army. There was a nasty bit with some undead and he very seriously considered trying out the path of the paladin because the undead freaked him out so much.

There’s about 20 years between Fangorn and that cook. There are a lot of characters rolled for a single game in that time. It started as the wish-fulfillment version of my ten year old self to a very separate personality who shared some common traits with me.

I rolled an orc huntress the other day. I had been thinking out loud about what to roll next, and orc hunter surprisingly appealed to me. The racial abilities are good, but the gestalt of the archetype I think drew me to the specific choice. The act of rolling her, though, was prompted by a Twitter conversation by frequent posters of the New Players and Guides forums lamenting the influx of F2P posts in their boards, asking the same questions over and over again, complaining about the limits of the F2P accounts. Someone innocently suggested that perhaps they should all roll level 24 twinks to allow them to take out their frustrations against the F2P crowd while maintiaining a civil tone on the board.

Level 24 twink? Something that hunters would be good at? Okay, let’s give it a try! So I rolled Discyngage solely for this project – a level 24 (paid account) twink to go compete against F2P players. Let’s see how the real twinks do against the free accounts!

(She has a pig named BustaSwines. because I have Hunter Rap Boars on my mind. I think I love this character, it’s so absurd!)

Dis and Busta have a goal, a target. I know what I’m doing with them, it’s different from other things I’m doing, it doesn’t really overlap at all – it’s a good, solid project.

Ashwalker_-_dalaran_arena_enthusiast

So I realized, somewhere along the way, I’ve started thinking about my WoW characters as projects, not avatars.

That list I posted had a column in it I wasn’t sure I should have put in at the time – each character’s purpose. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, about how I really get uncomfortable having characters who duplicate roles and activities. It’s not class duplication or variety that I look for, but rather activites I’d like to do, and characters who fit that activity. Cynwulf was to be my Dalaran banker, instead he has become my gathering toon for when I’m on the treadmill. That’s it – I fly around zones with him and make gold while burning calories. I’m surprisingly content with this.

This is a somewhat radical departure from my relationship with Cynwise, who – out of all my characters, is the only one that I have considered my avatar, the representation of me. Not in terms of personality, or role playing – but rather, in a sense of her accomplishments should mirror mine. Your estimation of her as a character reflected upon me, I thought. This is what’s behind a lot of my crazy obsession with thinking about achivements – the reason I want(ed) to get all the PvP achivements on her, and not someone else, was because that would be equivalent to me getting it on me.

Let me give an example. There’s this achievement in Arathi Basin, Resilient Victory, which requires you to come from behind a 500 point deficit. It’s really really hard to get through 85 pugging – it involves a lot of coordination, of people willing to stop at one base, let them get behind, and then forcibly come out and flip it from 1-4 to 4-1 to win. It’s really hard.

I have it on Cynwulf, back from when he was playing the level 59 bracket. I’ve had it for a while on him, actually. It was easier back then, since the resources went up to 2000, but still – I have it.

It drives me nuts that I have it on an alt. An alt I don’t even PvP on anymore. Argh!

Step back and think about that. As a player, I was able to complete the task required for an achievement. But since it’s not on the character I consider me, it’s like I don’t have it at all.

I have about 75k Honorable Kills across all my characters, including the deleted ones. But I only have, what, 42k on Cynwise? Obviously, I haven’t really gotten 50k HKs then, because I lack the achivement! Grind more! I have a lot of Silverwing Sentinels reputation, but I’m only Honored with Cynwise – better get to winning, slacker!

The avatar paradigm is not a bad one to use in WoW, by the way. Especially when you’re starting the game, it’s very easy to define a character as “this is the lens through which I see the game.” I think I used that exact phrase to describe Cynwise last year.

But more and more, I’ve started thinking of my characters as projects.

My first side project was ‘wulf, who started off life as “let’s see what a DK is like” and ended up as “let’s have an option for when I need to blow off steam but endgame BGs are really sucking wind.” Having an OP toon who I could switch to was great – I knew when I could use him, but he never competed with my main character.

When I leveled him, both to 80 and again through Cata, I found myself lost with ‘wulf. Who was he, why did I have him? My almost-deletions of him became a usual thing, until – finally – I hooked up my computer to my treadmill so I could do something relatively mindless in game – gathering was good, and Cynwulf was my best Miner – and distract myself from the tedium of walking in place while making some gold.

Hey, ‘wulf, let’s burn some calories and gather ore!

As long as Cynwulf has a purpose, I’m content with him. When he doesn’t, he becomes a potential avatar, and then I freak out about him.

It was sobering to realize that this reasoning is one of my primary impulses behind deleting a character. I look at the server login screens and feel this overwhelming sense of alt guilt looking at my characters – omg you need to be trained and you need to be leveled and you need to have achivements and I should be grinding achivements on ‘wise – which then makes me go, okay, focus in on a few avatars, try to get them up and running, delete the rest.

But that hasn’t really worked out for me.

When a character has a defined purpose and set, limited goals, the compulsion to do more is gone. Cynderblock has been really good in helping me realize this – I have been slowly grinding out some of the Cata zones on her, not because I want the gear, but because it’s nice to quest on her. She’s an awesome tank, available when I need to run someone’s lowbie alt through 15-22, but otherwise she exerts no pressure. I don’t like PvPing on her particularly, so I don’t feel like I have to grind out honor points on her. I don’t feel like chasing 4k achievement points on her, so I stopped doing dailies. She’s fun but limited, and defined.

The more I treat characters as projects with defined goals and purposes, the happier I am to see them on the login screen. If I want to do X, hopefully I have a character ready to do X – whatever that is. If not, maybe I should make a character to do X.

It’s important for me to remember that while I might be known as Cynwise, the actual character isn’t me. She doesn’t – can’t – shouldn’t – represent the sum total of my accomplishments.

That’s not fair to me, nor is it fair to her.

Ill_fly_away_-_balloon_quest

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On Learning to Love Off-Tanking

Ashwalker_-_offtanking_the_iceblood_warmaster

I was on Ashwalker tonight, again, having a great night of level 70 PvP, again, when Alterac Valley comes up. I love Alterac Valley in its current form, though I’d love to see it become even better and return to its former glory.

I liked AV when I first encountered it on Cynwise, as a warlock. Hitting it on Cynwulf as a level 59 DK twink gave me a new part of the game – tanking the zerg with as many warmasters up as I could. This was back before the nerf bat had ever been waved towards the DK, when you could flip over to Frost Presence and pretty much be totally invulnerable.

Things are different now. I enjoy AV on Ash, and for much the same reasons as ‘wulf – being a Prot Warrior in a BG which requires a tank is pretty much guaranteed to make for 5 minutes or so of running and then waiting, then a minute of ferocious tanking, and then it’s either over or it’s time to go rez, PvP, and see how things really turn out.

Tonight, there were three tanks down in FWV, so the other two started posturing about who was going to tank Drek. I sized it up, realized it wasn’t worth getting into, and dropped:

/bg I’ll get the wolves and warmasters. 

I immediately got a whisper back from a shammy saying, “I got you then.”

Aw, yeah. Sweet, sweet shammy lovin’.

So in I went as the off-tank with all four towers up. I’ve not actually been able to tank Drek+4 at level 70, though I did several times in the 50s and 60s – I’m not sure if this is because of my healing team, Drek’s buffs, my tanking, or what. Normally I revel in being the MT, of saying I HAVE THIS, RAWR.

But saying, no, you guys figure it out, I’ll take the adds, get the job done on the big guy – it felt pretty good. It solved the problem in /bg, but it also solved the problem in Drek’s room – if all the tanks fight over the boss, the adds are going to wipe out everyone.

Tanking the warmasters was interesting. I thought the wolves were going to pack more of a punch, but they went down pretty quickly. Three of the four warmasters vanished about 15 seconds in, as their towers went down, but Iceblood stayed doggedly with me. I didn’t really have a good strategy, other than keep it away from whirlwinding other people, so I’d be like… excuse me, coming through … mind the angry orc, please … excuse me … make way, whirlwinding boss here … make way please!

(People stand where they want in Drek’s room. It never bugged me so much – until tonight.)

It seemed like it took forever to take down Drek tonight, as the Iceblood Warmaster chased me all over the room. All DPS was on the blind guy who should be in a wheelchair, as it should be.

But when he did go down, it was a surprisingly satisfying victory.

I could get used to this.

Also:

Ashwalker_-_flurry

3/4 tonight in the 70 bracket, with Flurry and Drop It Now!, 4 cap of EotS, successful defense of Strand, and an AV zerg. It was a nice cure for my earlier PvP blahs.

I am not missing the endgame at all right now. BGs filled with competent players? Quick gearups with no threat of a grind to keep it up to date every few months? Enough abilities to have the class function as designed, but not be overwhelming?

HELL TO THE YES, PLEASE.

I may never get another profession over 450.

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A Brief History of Alterac Valley

Foury @ Spinebreaker’s “A Brief History of Alterac Valley” is a gem of a post on the official forums.

Over the years, you have made a significant number of changes to Alterac Valley. Some changes appear to have been made in isolation. For example, maybe you felt that there were too many NPC’s before patch 1.8, so you conjured up a mighty avalance and buried the treacherous Syndicate stronghold. Other changes, such as the introduction of reinforcements, were in response to problems caused by other additions like the Mark of Honor system.

Unfortunately, each individual change has brought about such a drastic reshaping of this battleground that its purpose is now virtually unrecognizable when compared to what the initial vision seems to have been. Even the isolated changes became catalysts for a chain reaction that has, in the opinion of a significant number of players, gutted Alterac Valley and made it totally un-fun to play in.

We have been engaged in thoughtful discussion for some time now, but I have decided to provide some additional background for players who might not know exactly what they were missing when AV was truly a legendary experience.

He then goes through a detailed history of Alterac Valley, one that lives up to its promise of giving the reader a thorough understanding of how the somewhat fragmented battleground that exists today came to be. It is a long read, but it is exceptionally good, and I suggest you read all of it. Even the poem.

Starting with post #8, Foury then goes into a detailed proposal for how to change Alterac Valley to restore it to its former glory. Remove it from the random battleground rotation, lower the honor per minute, make significant restorations to the environment, make quality of life changes – make it cohesive and relevant PvPvE again. There’s a lot of attention to the little details of AV, things that have always bugged me (the location of the trinket teleport, the lack of owls in Van’s chamber) that shows that this is the work of a careful though.

Seriously. This is a good post; go read it. You can agree with it, or disagree with it, but you will learn something about Alterac Valley.

 

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Fence Jumping in WSG and Terrain Exploits

There’s a spot near the middle of the Horde fence in WSG where, if you approach it just right, you can jump onto the fence and then on to the other side. It’s over the tunnel entrance, to the left of the little juke in the fenceline, by one of the torches.

No matter the faction, pretty much every twink FC knows about this jump. Pretty much every twink knows about this jump after playing level 19 for any period of time – you see people going over the fence all the time, you better figure out how to do it quick or you’re going to be SoL. I expect that this is not as commonly known in Rated Battlegrounds, but skilled FCs know how to do it.

Seriously, this fence jump is the worst-kept secret terrain exploit in PvP. I’m a terrible jumper, and even I can do this jump.

It’s a little odd, then, that Blizzard GMs have finally come out and started saying that this jump is illegal and will get you a warning and a ban:

“Hello Dakoduh! My name is Game Master Rodoux. I’m going to need you to refrain from hopping up there on the fence in Warsong Gulch.” This was followed by a temporary ban when the request was not honoured.

In addition to the GM whispers, twinks are reporting that people are getting disconnected mid-jump. I haven’t had it happen to me yet (and I have jumped the fence in the past week, I FC at level 70 after all) but I’m sure it’s probably a matter of time.

I don’t think this situation is like the terrain exploit charges in the Walls of Wintergrasp. It’s pretty clear that there’s a glitch in the Horde fence, and that you have to hit it just right to get over. There’s no corresponding glitch in the Alliance fence, there’s nothing really ambiguous about this – this is a terrain exploit.

Yet… it’s been in there since WSG launched six years ago, and it’s something that tactics and strategies have adapted around. It’s one of the quirks of the terrain, just like the rocky patches around the zerk huts or kiting melee around the tree stumps while firing at them. Your opponents will use it against you, so you better know how to do it in response. It’s been reported many times on the forums as a bug, but has never been fixed. So folks do the jump.

My working theory is that all changes to the battlegrounds right now are due to balancing issues in Rated Battlegrounds. The developers have already stated that their focus is on level 85 PvP, as that’s where most of the player base is at. The BG graveyard changes earlier this year were aimed entirely at disrupting healer-heavy comps in rBGs, by preventing healers from getting back to the FC quickly.

And if your FC is skilled at jumping the fence in rated play, they have an advantage in getting back to their healers quickly. Graveyard blocked? Go fence. Fence blocked? Go ramp. Healers, keep moving to the left until you meet the FC. This isn’t rocket science – there’s a slight imbalance in the map due to this exploit. Even though it’s been there since the beginning, it only matters now because of rated play. This shouldn’t really be a surprise that Blizzard is treating it as an exploit.

But it is, a little bit. The timing is odd. This is one of those quirks which showed you knew what you were doing in Warsong Gulch, that you’d played the map enough to know all the tricks. It’d been there for ages. And it never got fixed.

The warnings, bans, and DCs are likely precursors to an actual fix of the fence. (I so want to see Orc Peons out there repairing the fence when this gets fixed. For real.) The GMs know it’s a problem, they’re watching out for it now, word is getting out that it’s no longer okay for this jump.

The dead-letter law of terrain exploitation may not have been enforced for 6 years with this jump, but it is now.

Part of me does get frustrated with Blizzard when they suddenly start handing out bans for behavior that’s been accepted for years. That’s the part of me that says, fix your shit, Blizzard, it’s broke, don’t blame players for this. More importantly – don’t put players into a position of choosing between using a jumping exploit or not to win in PvP, because even if some don’t, others will.

The other part of me says, yeah, but just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s not still a terrain exploit. It sucks, because it’s part of the charm of WSG – but it’s hopping over a fence that is obviously supposed to block movement.

Here’s to hoping that Blizzard fixes it soon so the issue is put to rest.

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