Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm

This is the eponymous third post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

THE PROBLEM OF FUN

Popularity data from the previous two posts in this series shows the following trends:

  1. Warlock popularity at max level is down 12% between Wrath and Cataclysm.
  2. Warlocks are the least popular class to level with, ending at 41% less popular than the average class. The class popularity declines as characters level.
  3. Warlocks have done well in hardmode raiding, with two or three specs as viable DPS options within each tier. No other class can boast this.
  4. Warlocks are overrepresented in high end PvP, especially in high-ranked 3v3 Arena.

The picture that emerges is of a class which is balanced at the highest levels of the game, but flawed everywhere else.

The overwhelming feedback I’ve received from Warlock players who abandoned their class is that playing the class isn’t fun. It might be that it’s not fun anymore for veteran players, or that it wasn’t fun to level one for a player new to the class – but fun is the underlying reason behind it all.

Fun, for as basic a concept it might be, is a difficult concept to define and capture. What makes something fun versus unfun? Why do some activities give us enjoyment while others do not? How can we take pleasure in certain tasks and not others, even if they are similar in nature? How is it that some people can enjoy activities (e.g. Archeology, raiding, PvP) that others find boring or frustrating?

Bringing it back down to Warcraft, why are some classes and specs fun to play and others not?

The Problem of Fun is the central problem of game design. It’s the whole point of making a game! It’s not that a game must fulfill all of the player’s stated desires, but rather that the game satisfies their unspoken ones – desire for challenge and reward, for mental stimulation, for stirring our imagination, for telling a good story, for immersing the player in a world which transports them elsewhere. Game designers struggle with this, constantly – how do you make something that a lot of people find fun, enjoy enough to come back to over and over again?

Some people might not like calling it fun. Call it overcoming challenges and obstacles, putting in a hard day’s work and getting amply rewarded for it both materially and personally, call it whatever you need to to make this idea work for you. I call it fun, because that’s what we have when we play. We’re playing a game, we’re either having fun – or we’re not.

If I could summarize the problem of the Warlock class, it is that the class suffers from inelegant complexity without reward. The class has long had a tradition of being one of the more complicated classes in Warcraft, with lots of buttons and demanding rotations that require players to juggle multiple variables to achieve maximum performance. The cycle of damage and healing between a warlock, their target, and their demon is not a simple one – but it was an elegant one.

It just required a lot of buttons.

What appears to have changed in Cataclysm is that the complexity of playing a Warlock increased, while the rewards for doing so decreased. Furthermore, numerous changes were made to the class which made the mechanics clumsy and awkward. This is manifest in the two chief complaints about Warlocks:

  1. Combat on a Warlock is more complicated than other classes, yet yields lower returns. Be it in battlegrounds, dungeons, or even questing, you do more to get less done with a Warlock than on other classes.
  2. Outside of combat, playing a Warlock is harder than other classes due to quality of life issues. Leveling lacks flow, talents are poorly planned out, acquisition of new spells while leveling is confusing, and utility is lackluster.

These are two sides of the same coin.

Cataclysm ushered in a number of failures in class design, talents and abilities, rotation, balance, and quality of  life issues for Warlocks, all of which contributed to the class’s decline in popularity. Part of this was due to the major redesign the class underwent at the beginning of the expansion; part of it was due to changes made to keep the class balanced at the high-end endgame with the other nine classes as the expansion progressed.

Other classes were less complicated, more elegant, and performed better in many common situations than Warlocks. They were more fun, so players gravitated to them.

In hindsight, we should have seen a lot of this coming.

THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY AND THE SIMPLICITY TAX

The reason we should have seen these failures coming is because Cataclysm was, in most ways, a triumph of the Bring the Player, Not the Class school of class design. Buffs were redesigned so that they were distributed more equally between specs. Gone was the idea of the Hybrid Tax, where classes who could fill multiple roles would not do as well as those who could only be damage dealers. All classes could reasonably expect to have a competitive DPS spec. Select Hybrid DPS performed extremely well at many points throughout the expansion.

The implementation of this philosophy in Cataclysm is up for debate, but its presence is not. At no point did any developer say that Shadow Priests should do worse DPS than Mages, for instance. Blizzard’s design mantra has been Bring the Player since 2009. The goal was to create relative parity between the classes, and by in large Blizzard achieved it. Not perfectly – there are some notable omissions – but the attempts were made to keep classes in line.

What does Bring the Player, Not the Class have to do with the decline of Warlocks? Quite a bit.

The goal of Bring the Player is to equalize performance and utility across classes, in effect to remove the impact of class choice on common endgame activities. Raids shouldn’t be canceled or fail because you don’t have a certain class. DPS, tanks, and healers should all be relatively interchangeable.

So if all DPS classes are equal, what is the reward for mastering a complex class like the Warlock?

In many ways, this is the same question we ask when discussing pure and hybrid DPS classes, isn’t it? If all DPS specs are equal, what’s the advantage of rolling a pure over a hybrid? It’s the same concept at work, only dealing with spec complexity instead of role flexibility.

I think we need a new name for this idea that Warlocks are wrestling with. We already have the Hybrid Tax, the idea that hybrid DPS should do less damage than pure DPS because they have role flexibility. Perhaps we need a Simplicity Tax to capture this question: should complex rotations outperform simple ones?.

Quick quiz! Name the simplest high end raiding ranged DPS rotation?

If you said “Arcane Mages,” go sit in the corner for a minute. They have two buttons to push, sometimes three. :)

No, the simplest build goes to BC-era Warlocks with the 0/21/40 Shadow Destruction build, which was based entirely around sacrificing your Succubus and spamming Shadow Bolt. Remember that one, Warlocks? The rotation was a single button. One. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.

So, is it fair that simple rotations do high damage? Leaving aside the question of fun and game design – I think there’s an argument that you can make a rotation too simple to be fun anymore, and the Shadow Destruction build probably got there – the idea behind the Simplicity Tax says that if you keep 6 debuffs rolling with 2 nukes, 3 CDs and still manage to use a melee cone effect, you should do more damage than someone spamming Shadow Bolt.

Think about how often we see people talking about this in Warcraft. You have players mocking faceroll rotations, outrage over 1-button Death Knight macros, countless jokes about how easy Arcane Mages have it. It doesn’t matter if it’s bubble spam or rejuv spam or moonfare spam, simple rotations have a bad rap.

Rightly or wrongly, we have the idea in life that effectiveness should scale with effort or skill. This is the foundation of the Warlock’s complaint in the Bring the Player model. Should a DPS class which requires more complicated maneuvers than other classes do equivalent damage? If you have to track 6-9 variables and use 12-16 abilities, shouldn’t that be worth more output than someone who tracks 3 things and presses 5 keys?

In the Bring the Player model, the answer is a resounding no. The model rejects the Hybrid Tax, and it rejects the Simplicity Tax, because they are about bringing the class, not the player. Play your class because you enjoy it, not because it’s going to do more damage.

Because it’s not, in the Bring the Player model.

There’s an argument you can make against the Simplicity Tax in real life – work smarter, not harder. While it seems fair to say that effectiveness should scale with effort, real life doesn’t usually bear this out. You see it with employment, where you can work for 60 hours a week at a minimum wage job and just barely get by, or you can work 20 hours a week at a bank and live quite well. You see it working on repairing a car or maintaining your home, where having the right tool can make a backbreaking job trivial. You can go get an automatic screwdriver or good drill to put together that flat-packed Swedish furniture in no time, or you can use the screwdriver on your Swiss Army knife and have it take five times as long.

But the idea persists, and it’s a powerful one.

I know that I supported the Simplicity Tax for the longest time. My own statement on the Warlock feedback forum thread from last November:

How do you feel about your rotation?

Other classes seem to be easier. I enjoy the rotation because it gives me a lot of buttons to push, and think it’s fine, but it’s complicated. I seem to have to do more to be excellent than other classes.

I feel like I’m a stick driver, defending myself against the influx of automatic transmissions. I want to feel like the extra effort I put into driving makes a difference in performance and economy. But whether it does or not depends entirely upon the car and how I drive it, and those automatic transmissions keep getting better year after year.

Let’s look at it from the other side of the fence for a bit. Much like the Hybrid Tax, you can argue that the Simplicity Tax isn’t fair to players of other classes. Just because the class is simpler to play than another, why should it be penalized? Not to pick on Arcane Mages for my example, but I think they’re a great example of a simple but elegant spec, where the mana management minigame adds the necessary complexity to keep the rotation just interesting enough to still be fun without being totally boring. Sure, there are only a few tools that you use – but when you use them is paramount. It’s not a Shadow Destruction spec, no matter how I might tease Mages about it. Is it right that an elegantly simple spec be penalized just because other classes have more complex rotations?

This is the bind Warlocks find themselves in under Bring the Player. All three Warlock rotations in Cataclysm are defined by complexity; there is no simple spec, they’re all complicated now. But the prevailing design direction is that the Simplicity Tax, much like the Hybrid Tax, is gone.

Yet, the complaint remains: it is no fun to do more work for equal performance and rewards than someone else.

You have to enjoy the complexity on its own merits for this class to appeal to you. Warlock players have to be able to say, I’m okay with doing more work for my DPS because the work is so much fun on its own.

Or else Warlock is not the class for you.

The ascendancy of Bring the Player Not the Class put players who enjoy playing Warlocks in a terrible position in Cataclysm. Either they embraced the complexity of the class and had fun with it, and were satisfied with average results, or they discovered that it was the combination of effort and effectiveness which they really enjoyed, in which case they were now playing the wrong class for this expansion.

We should have seen the decline of Warlocks coming. Bring the Player forces the Warlock class into a niche for players who like complex mechanics for their own sake, not for the sake of improved performance.

We should have seen it coming.

THE PROBLEM OF COMPLEXITY AND NICHE CLASSES

This has been a discussion on class design theory up to this point; whenever you hear the phrase “assume equal DPS across classes” you can be sure you’re in theoryland.

It was important to start in theoryland, because it puts assertions of actual performance by Warlock players into a framework which lets us understand their rational flight away from the class. Playing a Warlock is hard, and has been made even harder in Cataclysm, but if their damage was exceptional – or brought other fun things to the player’s experience – then we’d see people stick to the class. We aren’t seeing that.

I do more work for less damage. I can’t keep up with other classes. All three specs have low damage output compared to other classes everywhere except for the top tier of raiding, and even at that level DPS isn’t stellar. It’s not bad, it’s just not overwhelmingly great.

I think a lot of this is because the rotations are unforgiving – if the Warlock player makes a single mistake, they’ll lose a substantial portion of their DPS. Players in the top raid tier are excellent players – they don’t make those small mistakes the majority of the playerbase makes. They time their refreshes to procs, they can juggle 13 debuffs across 3 mobs. That’s pretty damn impressive! But it means that if the class is balanced around those players, the small mistakes the majority of players make will add up. And if the class is competing against classes who can AoE or multidot with 2 buttons and no debuff tracking … well, then we have a real problem.

I think that Warlocks’ three viable raiding specs work against them here, too. Individual specs might be better or worse on a given fight, so really skilled Warlocks learn multiple specs and swap between them as needed for an advantage. That’s tough to do; not only are you now trying to excel at one challenging rotation, you have to pick up a second (or even a third) complex spec and master it, too. Then you have to gear differently for it, too, because that’s the way DPS specs work.

And it’s not like Warlocks have a simple spec anymore, either. In Wrath, Affliction was the king of complexity, with Demo a close second and Destro coming in as “the simple spec.” That’s no longer true in Cataclysm – all three specs are now about equally complicated, about on par with Affliction’s Golden Age of 3.0.8/3.1 (a time, coincidentally, where Affliction rewarded great skill with great output.) This is a big weakness when considering the appeal of a class – classes which have varied specs can appeal to a wider range of players than ones which do not. Warlocks, quite frankly, don’t have a simple spec anymore.

Consider what each spec has to deal with at level 85:

There isn’t much difference in complexity between the specs anymore. If you play a Warlock, you are going to have a complicated rotation at level 85, period. You get to choose your flavor of complexity (debuffs vs cooldowns vs nukes) but not if you want it complex or not.

Compare this to other casters (and forgive me if I get this wrong:)

There’s a real difference in complexity within the specs here – something that Warlocks lack. Arcane versus Fire is a very real playstyle difference, and I think that flexibility is a good thing for Mages.

I think we’re seeing Warlocks becoming the class for those who love complex caster rotations. This might not be popular, but it fills a necessary niche within WoW.

Niche classes aren’t something we talk about much in Warcraft. It doesn’t really fit in with the idea that you can roll whatever you like and enjoy the game about as well as with any other similar class. But the niche classes are there – Hunters, for example, are promoted on the character creation screen as “excellent for solo play,” and they are. Hunters are excellent for leveling and playing without a group. Rogues are great in PvP at pretty much all levels, even as their utility in PvE continues to shrink.

Niche isn’t bad. It’s hard to accept, because class is the one thing our WoW characters are locked into, and if we come to love a character but not that niche there can be dissonance and friction. Not every class is going to be niche, and some will genuinely be flexible enough to handle pretty much any role. (Druids, looking at you.)  There’s a strange dichotomy here in that Bring the Player forces classes who lack flexibility into niche roles at the same time it promotes the idea that classes shouldn’t have niches.

Isn’t that odd, when you step back and look at it? Why do you choose classes under Bring the Player? It’s not for the buffs, it’s not for the performance, it’s for the intangibles, the side benefits, the utility, the flavor. It’s for the mobility and simplicity of a Mage or complexity of a Warlock; the cool pets a Hunter gets to collect or the sneakiness of a Rogue. Flavor matters, but so does niche.

Warlocks are filling an interesting niche right now. They’re a support class, exceptionally good at small scale PvP, wonderful if you have a healer behind you and a burst DPS working alongside you. They’re a great support class for Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, but weak on their own. They need other players to thrive, which is odd considering their flavor as evil, somewhat solitary crazy spellcasters. In a way, Warlocks are the anti-Hunters: hard to level, require other players to be really effective, lack burst but bring steady pressure. Both classes received major resource system revamps in Cataclysm – yet one class is thriving and the other is not.

The only time niche classes are bad is when you discover that you’ve rolled a niche class, and want to do something that they’re not good at.

Or, worse, when your class’s niche switches on you without warning.

THE PROBLEM OF THE MAIN

What happens when you have been playing a character for some time and you realize that they’re just not the right character for you?

Perhaps it’s part of the leveling process – you look up one day and go, I really don’t like playing a Rogue, why am I struggling to get to level 60? Hopefully that happens early enough that you can abandon the character and start over again. Different people will have different tolerances for this – I remember my first week of WoW, I’d rolled on a different server from some friends and they told me to reroll. I protested, but I’m level 12! They laughed at me and told me I could make that up easily.

They were right, but at the time it was a big deal.

Perhaps it’s an endgame character. Maybe it’s your first, so it’s hard to let go of the only way to experience endgame content. Or maybe it’s one of many, but it’s the one you spend all your time on. What happens when you realize one day that you’re not having fun with that class anymore?

I think this is a real problem for Blizzard. Players who get frustrated with their classes might reroll, but they also might quit the game entirely. Classes are the lens through which players experience the game, and a bad fit between class/player can put players off the game permanently. Correctly advertising a class before a player makes an investment becomes paramount to avoid those times of customer uncertainty.

Niche classes like Warlocks and Rogues present a business challenge to Blizzard. They help broaden the appeal of the game by presenting classes which are good at specific things or for specific playstyles. Even under Bring the Player these kinds of classes fill a distinct role. It’s okay for a class to be unpopular if it fills a niche.

But when a class is unpopular and shedding subscribers because of that unpopularity, that’s when it gets to be a problem for Blizzard. Can a class be allowed to continue like that during a period when subscriber churn is a very real problem?

Identification with a single character can be a boon – players are less likely to leave a game if they feel they have a personal investment in their avatar, and the more time they spend on one character, the more investment they have. But that identification can also be a problem when it ties players too much to a limited view of the entire game. It can also cause people to stay with a class they no longer enjoy, breeding resentment and anger which finally results in them quitting the game entirely.

Several of the changes announced for Mists seem aimed at making the transition between characters easier. Account-wide mounts and pets, for example, help assuage our collector instinct and free us to try a different class without worrying that today will be the day the Baron’s mount drops. Shared achievements serve the same purpose, freeing up players to move between characters.

I think we will see more changes like these coming from Blizzard as they try to address this problem. We will probably see more Scroll of Resurrection-style offers to lessen the impact of a single decision made at character creation 90 levels before.

THE PROBLEM OF WARLOCK POPULARITY AND PLAYING WHAT YOU LOVE

Is unpopular bad?

I don’t know if many people picked up on this, but in the first two posts of this series I tried to avoid making any value judgements about the unpopularity of Warlocks. Their unpopularity was a fact, nothing more, nothing less.

But the responses to that fact show that it is a problem. There are a lot of unhappy Warlocks and ex-Warlocks out there. There are a lot of people who left the game because their class changed underneath them – and not just Warlocks.

It’s not that I think classes should be equally popular; that’s a bad goal to work towards. You don’t want to try to make popular classes less popular. Every time you put a player in a position where they consider changing their character, you have also put them in a position where they consider leaving the game. That’s not good.

Every class should be fun for somebody. I think that’s the guiding principle here – classes should be different enough so that they have the broadest possible appeal, but still be fun.

Warlocks got changed over the course of Cataclysm to become inelegantly complex, and the rewards for their complexity vanished. This is a topic which I’ll touch on in a lot more depth in a future post. But for a lot of their players, this caused Warlocks to become less fun, and therefore less popular. Warlock players had to struggle with a basic, fundamental question – do I still enjoy the complexity of the class enough to stick with it when it’s only average?

This is the challenge presented by the Bring the Player school of design – find a class you love playing, that you have fun playing, because a lot of external validation for that choice will be removed. There won’t be a Hybrid Tax or a Simplicity Tax to drive you to one class or another – so you have to figure out what you love.

If the complexity of the Warlock rotation floats your boat, stick with it. If not, it’s not the class for you anymore.

That’s a hard thing for someone like me to accept.

It’s hard for me, personally, to stand up and say: I don’t love this class anymore. I loved it once, but not what it has become, and that’s okay. It’s hard for me to watch it become unpopular, to see hundreds, thousands of other players reach the same conclusion as me.

It’s been really hard for me to set aside my main, to say that you’re not the character I loved playing before. I still like you as a character, but I haven’t liked playing a Warlock this expansion except in one place – Arena. It took me a long time to accept that my class had become a niche class, that the class design philosophy had left me behind.

I’ve talked solely about the philosophical shifts which caused problems for Warlocks in Cataclysm in this post. The deck was stacked against the class from the start, and even if all the changes had been executed flawlessly we’d still be looking at an unpopular class.

However, there were flaws – lots of them. Cataclysm changed the class from something which allowed us to enforce our will upon the game to something which left us, a class founded on control and domination, feeling powerless, at the mercy of others.

For our dots were easily expelled, and we had no mana drain.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number, where I’ll go into more detail about the issues Warlocks experienced in Cataclysm, and how those items need to be fixed in Mists to reverse the class’s fortunes.

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Interlude: New Series on Warlocks in Cataclysm

I have been completely overwhelmed by the response to my previous two posts about the decline of Warlock popularity in Cataclysm. I had tried to stick solely to conclusions that the data supports in those posts, and only focus on establishing facts. I needed numbers to tell me if my setting aside my Warlock main was just me or not. I fell out of love with the class. Had I failed the class somehow?

But what I wasn’t prepared for was how many other Warlock players were looking for the same reassurance I was. The numbers provided a safe haven to tell stories without fear of accusation of complaint, but rather stated as naked facts – yes, I used to play a Warlock. I stopped because of this.

I’ve now read hundreds of stories of Warlock players who have become frustrated with their class. They’ve become frustrated with something that used to bring them joy but was changed underneath them. They’re struggling with clunky mechanics, bugs, and low DPS. There are a lot of unhappy Warlocks out there right now.

My original intention was to come back with a post about the major problems I saw in Cataclysm, talk a little bit about what Blizzard was already doing in the Mists Beta to fix them, and call it a night.

But as I started writing, and writing, and writing, I realized there was no way a single post could contain it all. The problems are too damn big. It was no longer just about me; this was about a class I loved, once, and about how it disappointed and frustrated its players this expansion.

I’ve outlined where I want to go with this series, and to be honest – there’s a lot of material to cover. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. I will need another 4-5 posts to cover this fully.

So I’m making this a series, The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm. I’ve created its own index page in the Warlock section of this website (accessible in the left hand navigation), and will be adding links to the individual articles as they are published.

Hope you enjoy the series. :)

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Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought

This is the second post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

This is an addendum to Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?. It’s not the followup I promised, that is still in progress.

In that post, I wrote:

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there.

I would like to retract those statements about Warlocks, and the conclusions that follow from it.

I was wrong and underestimated how bad things looked for warlocks through the leveling process. They decline 20% in popularity from levels 20 to 85, and are substantially underrepresented at all levels. Few players are rolling them, fewer take them to endgame, and even fewer still play them at endgame.

Jason left a great comment on the post. In it, he said:

Your chart showing the trend of toon popularity would look better if you indexed them to the average (for pre-DK the avg is 11.11, and 10 after). This really drives home the trends.

For hunters that would make their trend: 159,151,143,134,109,120,131,120,109.

For Warlocks: 79,71,71,63,50,60,61,70,59.

For those that don’t understand indexes, that mean that hunters were 59% more popular than the average 10-19, but only 9% above average at 85. Warlocks were only 21% below average at the start, and a whopping 41% below average at 85!

I took Jason’s suggestion and indexed the leveling data, a stats term for assigning the average value to 100 and then comparing each value to it in succession.

So we start with our original leveling data from the WarcraftRealms Census:

Leveling characters as percentage of total census population

We then turn it into an index so we can more clearly see how each value deviates from the average value for that bracket. What’s better, we can now track the changes accurately over the leveling process – no longer do we have to wave our hands and ignore the effect of DKs changing the average value midway through the process.

Where’s what the index values look like.

Indexed values of character populations through levels 10-85

The average value of this index is 100, so values over 100 represent classes which are more represented at that level.

Here is the same data, this time presented as percent deviation from the average:

Percent deviation from average character population per class, 10-85

The Class Distribution Spreadsheet has been updated with a new tab for this information.

This data shows how under or over represented a class really is, compared to what the average should be. At level 10-19, Mages and Warriors are about where the average is, while Hunters are a whopping 59% more!

Using the index helps explain and quantify one of the things I was trying to articulate with the Mage numbers: even though they start at 11% of the population at level 10-19, and end at 11% at 85, they experienced growth as measured by the average.

The index also allows us to measure the relative deviation from the norm for each class as they level. We can clearly see things like:

  • If you get through the first 40 levels on a Pally, chances are you’re going to stick with them through endgame.
  • Hunters are even more prevalent at lower levels than your average WSG twink game would have you believe. They remain popular all the way up through endgame, when they get put aside for other toons.
  • Warriors are oddly struggling at higher levels. Is this due to the sudden difficulty increase of Cata dungeons at level 80? Gear dependency with rapidly inflating item level curves? Or is it an endgame effect? I honestly don’t know.
  • There are a lot of Death Knights just out of the starter zone.

But what the data shows regarding Warlocks is disturbing.

Warlocks drop in popularity by 20% between level 19 and level 85. There is no level that they are a popular class. None.

People don’t want to try them, and when they do, they don’t stick with the class to endgame. They barely make it to level 40, for crying out loud!

I thought that the 6.7% figure of total endgame population was pretty bad. I think the -37% at 40-49 and -41% at 85 is worse, because it shows that the class is in trouble through the majority of the game.

Keep this in mind as you hear about Warlock developments in Mists.

(Thank you, Jason, for suggesting this way of looking at the data.)

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Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?

This is the first post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Where have all the warlocks gone?

I heard this question more and more often as Cataclysm progressed. Raid leaders struggled to recruit them. Players didn’t see them in LFD, or later, in LFR. Battleground appearances became increasingly rare. Leveling warlocks became an elusive beast for me to find on my own leveling tanks and healers.

It’s not like warlocks were hugely popular in Wrath of the Lich King, but I didn’t recall quite so many people asking me questions like this one. Some of the major kills of that expansion featured warlocks prominently – remember Stars doing Yogg-0 and all those Drain Soul beams? – but Cataclysm had those kinds of moments, too. I remember several Demonology warlocks in the world first Heroic Rag video. DPS was never so lackluster that it couldn’t keep up. Warlocks weren’t getting benched for playing warlocks … they just became scarce.

At the same time, I went through my own problems playing my warlock main, Cynwise. At first I thought it was due to my dissatisfaction with the PvP endgame at the end of Season 9, but as the months ticked by and I made no effort to pick up a warlock, any warlock, I found myself wondering if it was really the endgame I didn’t enjoy in Cataclysm – or warlocks. I had become one of the missing warlocks, and I didn’t even really know why.

Was it me? Was it the class? I felt very uncomfortable extrapolating my own experience out to warlocks in general. The specific incident that knocked me off my warlock main was too personal, too isolated. It didn’t really have anything to do with warlocks at all – it had much more to do with the gear transition in endgame PvP, a lack of interest in raiding, and a desire to see more of the lower brackets.

Maybe it was just perception that there were fewer warlocks out there. Just because I’ve fallen out of love with a class doesn’t mean that the class is broken, right? People change. I changed. I learned to love healing and tanking, for crying out loud! What kind of a warlock likes to tank things that aren’t the floor?

The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I stopped playing a warlock when 4.2 was released. She went from my main to a neglected tailoring alt over the course of Cataclysm.

But the months ticked by, fewer people talked to me about the hexenfreude of playing a warlock, and more asked me what was wrong with the class. I had to wonder:

Was I the only one?

THE POPULARITY CONTEST

Are warlocks less popular now than they used to be? That’s the question we must start with – is the decline one of perception only, or is it based in fact?

Comparing WoW census figures from the end of Wrath (patch 3.3.5) and what is presumably the last patch of Cataclysm (4.3.2) indicate that the answer to this is definitively yes.

Warlocks are less popular now than they were at the end of Wrath.

This data is taken from two sources: Armory Data Mining (fortunately, not updated since 3.3.5) and World of Wargraphs. (Here’s the spreadsheet if you want to follow along.) Without knowing the methodology between these two censuses it’s difficult to assign a high certainty between comparing between different data sources, but these numbers appear to be consistent across other census sites. Let’s go with them as being at least relatively accurate.

  • Three classes experienced significant declines in their playerbase: Paladins, Death Knights, and Warlocks. All three of these had substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm.
  • Two classes had statistically significant increases: Mages and Hunters. Hunters received substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm; this is somewhat counter evidence to the opinion that the change to Focus from Mana was bad for the class.
  • Three classes had small gains in popularity: Shamans, Druids, and Warriors.
  • Two classes stayed about the same: Priests and Rogues.

There are several key points I’d like to raise from this data set.

Paladins and Death Knights suffered a larger decline in popularity than Warlocks (2.1% and 1.9% respectively), but because their relative popularity (#1 and #2 in Wrath) was so much higher, the loss was less noticeable.

The Wrath numbers for Death Knights and Paladins may have also been inflated by the Legendary Effect, where more players were playing classes with a current tier legendary (Shadowmourne) available for them. What’s interesting is that we don’t see a corresponding rise in warlocks competing for their legendary, which is only one raiding teir past current (and still exceptionally good), while we do see a corresponding rise in the popularity of Rogues with their legendary in this tier.

Class popularity concentrated in a few classes in Wrath, with the outliers (Paladins, DKs) skewing high. There’s a nice little clump of 6 classes between 7.5% and 9.1%, Warriors are pretty close to even at 10.1%, and then there are the popular classes (Druid, DK, Paladin.) There isn’t an absence of Warlocks, Rogues, Hunters and Shaman in this distribution – rather, there’s a lot of people playing Paladins! Players notice that there was an abundance of a certain class, not an absence.

In Cataclysm, the popular classes became less popular and – overall – classes were more evenly distributed. There’s a nice clump of 4 classes at 10-11%, a clump of 2 at 9.3% and the popular classes (Paladins and Druids) at 12-13%. There’s less of a range between those 8 classes than in the previous model.

But notice that the outliers shifted from the high to the low end. Rogues are, relatively speaking, less popular compared to Hunters and Shamans than they used to be, even if their popularity hasn’t changed. Warlocks are even worse off – not only did they decline in popularity overall, they’ve declined relative to the standard set by other classes. No longer do you notice that there are Paladins everywhere; you notice the absence of Warlocks.

The salient feature of Wrath’s class popularity distribution was the abundance of Paladins and Death Knights; the salient feature of Cataclysm’s class distribution is the dearth of Warlocks.

It’s interesting that this is both a decline in fact and in perception.

UNDERPOWERED, OVERPOWERED, OUT OF POWER

So why are Warlocks in decline? Are they particularly bad at a particular area of the game? Is this a problem of balance, or power? Is this a case where warlocks are just plain underpowered? Are people making rational choices in raiding by shunning warlocks? Are they just bad in PvP? While I hadn’t heard of any of these problems, perhaps there was a rational reason to choose another class.

I first looked at DPS in heroic raids. While heroic raids don’t represent the entire universe of PvE, they’re a good place to start when looking at DPS. I took a quick look at Raidbot’s DPSbot and 25m H encounters:

Huh. Nothing in the last two months, really. Warlocks are solidly middle of the pack performers in hard mode raiding. Unlike some classes, their three specs are pretty well balanced between each other.

Maybe we need to look further back. Let’s expand our view for the last year.

Okay, now we’ve got a lot more data, with more diversity in the data set, so we can see trends over the expansion.

  • In 4.1, Affliction is one of the top DPS specs, sharing the lead with Shadow Priests and Arcane Mages. Balance Druids, MM Hunters, and Arms Warriors are also very strong. Demo and Destro are in the second tier of DPS.
  • In 4.2, Affliction is no longer top of the DPS, but still competitive. Demonology remains mid-tier, while Destruction drops like a rock to the bottom of the charts.
  • In 4.3, Affliction, Demonology, and Destruction are all mid-tier DPS performers. If you zoom in to various displays of the data on the linked site, Affliction is still the top Warlock performer, while Destruction has improved substantially.

So the picture that emerges of Warlock DPS is … it’s fine. I know that’s a judgement call, but realistically, it hasn’t been bad, and it’s even been pretty good at times. It hasn’t been so awesome that it’s an outlier (like Fire Mages an Shadow Priests), but at the same time, it hasn’t really struggled. It’s a solid performer.

What’s interesting is that all three specs have had a pretty good run of it in Cataclysm – more so than any other pure DPS class. Mages have tended to have one superior spec in PvE at any given time, either Arcane or Fire. Hunters have had wildly erratic performance in PvE, with Survival either great or terrible, but Marskmanship and Beast Mastery lagging behind. Rogues have also been forced into Combat or Assassination, mostly Combat. Except for a period in 4.2 with Destruction falling way behind, all three Warlock specs were viable for Cataclysm raiding.

That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You’d think that having viable choices for your PvE spec would be a benefit, wouldn’t it?

Nothing in the DPS rankings says that the class needed to be buffed dramatically. While there are some superior choices at specific times, there were few classes that were consistently better. Shadow Priests, maybe? Mages weren’t until they got the Fire buffs of 4.3.

So maybe there’s something more going on here than just straight DPS problems. Let’s go back to popularity and see if that sheds any light on how warlocks have done in raids.

One of the great things about the World of Wargraphs site is that it allows you to drill down to a specific environment, and compare how a class/spec combo does there, versus its overall popularity. This is important, because it allows you to avoid bias. If you looked at population distribution and said: 15% of everyone who killed 8 HM bosses was a Druid, therefore druids are overpowered in HM PVE content, you’d be making an erroneous statement. You have to compare this to the overall population – if 30% of all players played Druids, but only 15% killed HM bosses, Druids might be underpowered. Or Druids might have a disadvantage in PvE. Or there might be another class which is simply better than Druids at their tasks.

Let’s take a real example of this. Here’s the current distribution of classes of all characters who have killed at 4+ heroic raid bosses this tier.

Class Distribution in Heroic Raids, 4.3.3 (From World of Wargraphs)

Looking at only this data, you might conclude that Paladins, Priests, and Druids are better at heroic raiding, and Death Knights, Hunters, and Warlocks are worse at it. But this would be incorrect. You might have more Priests raiding than Shaman simply because there are more Priests playing the game, not because Priests have some natural advantages in raids.

When we take the data and mash it up against the global popularity percentages, we get numbers like this:

Class Popularity in 4.3.3 - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

4.3.3 Class Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This allows us to see which classes tend to be brought to heroic raids a bit more than average (those with green Popularity Deltas) versus those who are not (those with red scores). Priests and Hunters make up about the same amount of the player base, but one gets brought to the heroic raids more often (Priests).

The remarkable thing about Warlocks? They appear to be properly represented in heroic raids. They’re appealing enough to bring at the same rate as the general lock population. No advantages, but no real disadvantages, either.

The hybrid nature of some classes might throw these numbers off, though. We’re not really being fair to hybrids by lumping them all together – you might have a great healing spec but an awful DPS spec, which would balance things out.

Okay! Let’s look at it by spec, then.

4.3.3 Class/Spec Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This chart not only shows which specs are currently raiding hard modes successfully, but which ones are disproportionately good (or bad) at it. Survival Hunters make up only 3.1% of the WoW population, yet account for 7.5% of successful hard mode raiders. I think it’s safe to say that Survival is a good raiding spec. A Beast Mastery hunter, on the other hand, is scarce in hard mode raiding (only 0.3%), yet is 2.7% of the total population.

In this case, the results we see here match the results we saw looking at DPS. That’s good! This shows that for Hunters, at least, if you want to do Heroic Raids, you go for the one that produces the best DPS – which, right now, is Survival. I like it when data matches up like this, and we see it in other specs and classes, too. Fire Mage? Overrepresented. Frost Mage? Under.

Warlocks are a pretty small sample size, but we still see some parallels between the DPS scores and popularity. Each spec is equally represented, 2%-2.6%. Interestingly, Destruction is the most popular spec, and both it and Demonology are slightly more popular than their global populations. Affliction is less so. These don’t quite match the DPS figures that we saw earlier, but this might be because the current tier requires more burst, which both Destro and Demo deliver better than Affliction. The perception is that Destro was buffed and Affliction is weak right now. We find statements like the following boilerplate from the Elitist Jerks warlock guides:

With the release of Patch 4.3 the warlock class sees a number of changes, in particular the Destruction spec, along with a few changes to the Demonology spec. Following these changes we see that all 3 specs are quite close, and all have something to bring to the table. For single target DPS, the following should be true at all gear levels:

Demonology > Destruction >= Affliction

While Demonology does pull ahead in single target DPS by ~2k DPS, this is only in close to perfect conditions where there is minimal to no movement and the player is able to stand in melee range. This means that in most situations Destruction and Affliction will perform better than Demonology.

On multi-target fights with strictly 2 DPS targets Affliction and Destruction should be quite even. However once any additional targets are introduced Affliction will perform considerably better than Destruction. Heavy AoE fights are where Demonology really begins to shine, followed respectably by Affliction and then Destruction behind by a considerable margin.

As confusing as they are, I think these observations are pretty accurate. All three specs are quite close, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses is important when deciding which spec to play on which fight.

This leads to an interesting observation about specs. When there’s a clearly superior DPS spec for a class in raiding (e.g. Survival, Fire) players will flock to it. When two or three specs are raid viable, other considerations factor into the decision making process and muddy the water. We should not assume that having three viable raiding specs is better than only having one; Warlocks might have choices, but that isn’t drawing people to raid with the class more than, say, Survival Hunters or Shadow Priests. It may be more flexible, but it isn’t necessarily more appealing.

For Warlocks, there isn’t an easy choice of spec in raiding right now. Should you go Demo/Destro on Spine for burst, or stay Affliction? Do you have the gear to switch between Destro and Demo? Will you be multidotting, or just handling a few adds? Which spec is the player more skilled at playing?

Aside from having more spec choices than any other DPS class, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Warlocks in PvE raids.

Warlocks aren’t underpowered in heroic raids, but neither are they overpowered.

THE GREAT MYSTERY OF PVP AND RLS SYNERGY

If Warlocks are doing okay in PvE, perhaps poor performance in PvP is driving players away from the class.

I dunno. It could happen!

I toss this theory out because if you’ve leveled a Warlock lately in PvP, you know that battlegrounds can be tough on you. You have to have exceptionally good gear to succeed, and even then you’ll probably die a lot. I don’t think this theory holds at the endgame – warlocks have traditionally been pretty potent in PvP – but we should test it out.

The following graph presents all classes in all rated PvP environments  - Arenas, Rated Battlegrounds – with a rating of 2200+.

This is the first population chart where Warlocks are not on the bottom. Not only are they not at the bottom, Warlocks are disproportionately well represented in highly ranked PvP.

Class Distribution in 4.3.3 PvP (Season 11) - 2200+ Rating

There are classes which do better at rated PvP play than others, and Warlocks are on that list. If you look through the current 3v3 comp ratings, Warlocks are part of the dominant comp (RLS, Rogue Lock Shaman), and integral parts of most of the other comps.

3v3 Comp Popularity in Season 11 - 2200+ Ratings

The structure of 3v3 is usually straightforward: healer, controller, burst. Affliction Warlocks have the right tools to apply constant pressure on the healer, they’re hard to kill, they have great CC, and they can put out a lot of damage. What they can’t do is burst, which is why pairing them with a Rogue works so well. And Shaman healing works really well with Affliction PvP – Spirit Link totem is one of the keys to this synergy.

The PvP data on World of Wargraphs tells this story in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t matter what Arena size it is, there are a disproportionate number of ranked Warlocks in it.

  • 5v5 they are practically essential (Affliction is top spec, 12.7% of all players).
  • 3v3 they are dominant (#4, 8.5%).
  • 2v2 they’re respectable (#7, 6.1%).
  • Even rated battlegrounds, which I thought might have some falloff, sees 10.2% of all players as Warlocks – just behind Rogues.

That pretty much means every rated BG team is going to have a warlock – if they can find one.

The data tells a story about a class which is exceptionally good at ranked PvP, especially when working with several other players. They might be weak on their own, but they are very potent in a group. They are a damage support class, providing pressure everywhere. Other classes keep them alive or burn down the opponents; Afflocks provide the control and damage needed to create those openings.

Rogues are in a similar position; great PvP abilities, great PvE output, relatively low numbers. Both classes have received legendaries in Cataclysm, though Warlocks shared theirs with other caster DPS. Rogues are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Dragon Soul, with their legendaries providing both class interest and top DPS for a class which has deserved some love for some time.

Hunters are in the opposite position. Terrible in ranked PvP, a single PvE spec doing well in raids after struggling for much of the expansion, and a completely reworked resource system. But Hunter popularity is up, and Warlock popularity continue to slip.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Warlock numbers.  That’s what’s so frustrating about this problem. The class isn’t out of balance, it’s not pulling in low DPS, and it’s doing really well in PvP.

So why the hell are people not playing warlocks anymore?

WHEN YOU HAVE ELIMINATED THE IMPOSSIBLE

The preceding sections tried to establish facts of the case:

  • Are Warlocks in decline? Yes.
  • Do they have DPS issues in raids? No, they even have some advantages over other pure DPS classes. DPS looks okay.
  • Are there problems in rated PvP? No. They’re part of the most dominant comp this season. Locks are consistently represented with high rankings.

The two most obvious reasons players would not choose Warlocks at the endgame – that they have performance issues in PvE, PvP, or both – are just not there. Especially when we look at the expansion as the whole, the data simply doesn’t support the idea that Locks can’t hack it. They can. They can shine.

They just aren’t.

So we must look elsewhere for answers.

My first theory about the data we’ve looked at is that it is very focused on level 85 play – and the upper tier of endgame play at that – which is why it fails to explain the lack of Warlocks. Heroic raiding and 2200+ PvP are not the activities of the majority of the player base, but they are activities which receive a lot of scrutiny from both players and developers. This upper tier endgame bias allows us to focus on the potential maximums of each spec, as well as see how a class is performing in demanding conditions, but it doesn’t represent everyone at 85, let alone everyone in the game.

PvP is not balanced around any level other than 85, and arguably it is only balanced for rated PvP play at level 85. Several detrimental changes were made to regular battlegrounds during the course of Cataclysm to solve problems that only existed in rated play. Changes were made to classes based upon their performance in Arenas, not regular battlegrounds. The emphasis of Cataclysm was getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, which meant that they were the (flawed) yardstick by which all PvP was measured.

PvE is a different beast, but the fundamental assumption is that balance still happens at 85. I think that the different buff and nerf cycles experienced in Cataclysm support this. I can’t say that they’re not looking at performances in 5-man content or daily content, but we don’t see a lot of changes aimed at fixing balance in those activities. Raids are where the logs are. Raids drive the nerfs and buffs.

So this theory surmises that the problem with Warlocks is not visible in the endgame data because the data is looking at the wrong activities. It’s looking at the endgame. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the class at endgame – people rolled warlocks, but end up not playing them at the endgame.

There could be a few things going on here.

  1. Warlocks attempt to raid/PvP at endgame, but stop for some reason other than their performance. Possible reasons include class mechanics, better buffs from other classes, easier to gear other classes through raid content/5-mans.
  2. Warlocks get to 85, don’t attempt to raid at all, but enjoy other endgame content.
  3. Warlocks get to 85, but are not played in the endgame at all, and the player rerolls or quits.
  4. Warlocks never get to 85, and therefore never get to endgame content.

The population popularity comparison is about the only data that we have to go on for the first point, but it’s telling that Warlocks are fairly represented in heroic raids compared to the general population (6.7%). If you want to raid, you can, and you can do well. If you are a serious raider leveling to 85, you’re about as likely to raid on a Warlock as a different class.

Casual raiders, of course, might have a different story. Warlocks might do well if executed perfectly, but if their rotation has less margin for error, then there could be a problem between the upper tier or raiders and the masses at 85. So we can’t rule the first possibility out just yet.

The second possibility is that people level their locks to 85 and choose to not raid on them, but do other things. Hunters and DKs appear to be in this situation – they are underrepresented in their raid popularity compared to their overall population. Warlocks, as break even, don’t seem to be here.

Three and four are different but would look the same to most of the data we have, just because the data appears to measure active 85s. We need to look at different data – in this case, realm population data across all levels, not just endgame data.

We have to find out if people are even bothering to level warlocks.

RISING THROUGH THE LEVELS

I was talking about this post with Narci from Flavor Text, and she was kind enough (thanks, Narci!) to cull the following data on class populations in different level ranges from Warcraft Realms:

Class population percentages, by leveling bracket, in 4.3.3

Let’s look at these graphed out, too.

Active Character Level Distribution by Class in 4.3.3

The Warlock line is there below everyone else. It doesn’t start there, but once it crosses the Shaman line around level 20 it never really recovers.

The introduction of Death Knights at 55 causes a population depression in all the other classes because, without warning, over a quarter of the player base is playing a DK at level 55-60. So we should ignore that anomaly, throw out the 50-69 data, and keep it in mind for the the 70-80 data. It skews comparisons for all the other classes, too, because there are only 9 classes represented at 1-10, and 10 at 85. Mages might be 11% at 1 and 11% at 85, but that’s actually an increase in popularity because of the larger number of classes at 85.

Look at Paladins! They start off behind a lot of other classes, but the loyalty shown at 85 is remarkable! There’s a 2% gain of total population share between 84 and 85, which means that people level them to 85 and play them there. Paladins like playing at the endgame. It looks like Druids – and Shaman – do this as well.

Hunters are almost the complete opposite – heavily loaded at the low levels, with a constant decline all the way up. Hunters are excellent leveling toons, and are extremely strong at low level PvP. As they get older they get more complex and less dominant, driving people to put down the class for a while.

It’s really amazing how popular Hunters are at the character selection screen. I wonder if this is because of the new races available to them? Does adding a class to a popular race increase its popularity? It’s something we have to consider when talking about class changes – Hunters got Humans and Forsaken, Warlocks got Dwarves and Trolls.

I like Dwarves, but very few people actually play them.

There are 3228 Dwarf Warlocks and 3867 Troll Warlocks on US and Euro servers versus 34,366 Human and 10,783 Forsaken Hunters (data from Warcraft Realms again).  Even if those numbers aren’t absolutely correct, they’re relatively correct. Hunters benefited more from their new races than Warlocks.

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there. The trajectory is never one of growth, unlike Paladins.

I think if I had to break apart this data, I’d summarize it as follows:

  • Hunters and Death Knights are initially very attractive at character creation and for early leveling, but are normally represented at endgame. Death Knights are probably skewed because of farming/banking toons.
  • Rolling a Rogue is extremely popular right now, likely due to the Legendary Effect, but leveling them to endgame is a challenge.
  • Warriors and Warlocks are somewhat more popular at character creation than at endgame. There may be leveling problems with these classes.
  • Priests, Shaman, Mages, and Druids all increase their popularity  from 1 to 85. The relatively consistent numbers (or slight increases) are subject to the DK effect, making 11% at 85 mean more than 11% at level 10.
  • Paladins dramatically increase in popularity at endgame. They may not be the easiest class to level to 85, but once there, people play them.

Warlocks aren’t a popular choice at creation. I think it’s safe to say that – they’re not Hunters or Death Knights or Druids. But they are also not complete pariahs – people are choosing Warlocks at about the same rate as Priests and Shaman.

I had a theory that one of the reasons Rogues and Warlocks aren’t popular classes is because they’re the “bad guys” of the character creation screen. Both classes have evil flavor and feel to them – Warlocks perhaps even moreso than Rogues. Warlocks aren’t paragons of virtue, defenders of nature, or even very heroic – at best they’re ruthlessly efficient, at worst they’re evil incarnate.

But the data doesn’t really support that. People do choose to try out Warlocks, just not a lot of them – and even fewer make it all the way to the 85 with them.

Update: There is a followup post to the data in this section, Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought, based on Jason’s comment on this post. I was wrong about some of the data this preceeding section – I was overly optimistic and conservative in my interpretation of the leveling data on Warlocks, and should have been more open about how bad the situation is. Looking at the data in a different way revealed a different situation.

Thanks to Jason for his comment and guidance in building this data model.

THAT WHICH REMAINS, NO MATTER HOW IMPROBABLE

Where have the Warlocks gone?

I started this post with some ideas in my head about what caused the decline between Wrath and Cataclysm, and why Warlocks are just not getting played. The problems with the class’s unpopularity in Wrath were only exacerbated by Cataclysm. 

Fewer players are playing Warlocks. People who are noticing that there aren’t as many Warlocks in game are absolutely correct. It’s not that there is something wrong with their performance at the endgame – both PvE and PvP performance is adequate at the high end – but something is driving players away.

Leveling data suggests that the character concept is not the problem. People are rolling them, albeit not as many as other classes. Something happens between rolling the character and getting them into endgame content which causes the class to fall into disfavor. It may be questing, it may be dungeons, it may be battlegrounds. It may be class mechanics.

But something happens.

Here’s the conclusion I was hoping to avoid: people simply don’t like playing warlocks. It’s not that they don’t try them; they do.

Players simply stop playing them.

Some of them, no doubt, give up on Warcraft entirely. There’s plenty of evidence that that has happened. But it’s also likely that they look at other classes and switch. It’s likely that players are migrating to the classes which they find to be the most fun.

And they aren’t finding Warlocks fun enough to stick with them.

Next week, I’ll dig into why this is happening to Warlocks, and what Blizzard is doing to address the problem.

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Wednesday Reading

You know, it’s been far too long since I did a Wednesday Reading list. Let’s fix that right up!

Enjoy!

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On Silverpine Forest

Silverpine Forest.

I didn’t know if I’d come back to it after On The ForsakenI know that I’d said:

I think the best leveling in the Forsaken zones is yet to come. I have actually enjoyed my time leveling in Trisifal, and fully intend to hit Silverpine and Hillsbrad on the Forsaken Cynwise, so I can see it firsthand.

But the reality turned out that I wasn’t ready to hit Silverpine yet. I’d finally given voice to some strong opinions on the Forsaken, finally articulated what it was that bothered me about them so much – so I needed to step back and let the project lie fallow for a bit.

I couldn’t tell you why I decided to pick my Forsaken Warlock up again about a month ago, but I did, and sent her off to finish the last few quests in Trisifal before heading off to Silverpine Forest, to see what the Dark Lady had in store for me.

Obviously, I will be talking about the events in Silverpine Forest a lot in this post. This is a long post – a really long post, with a lot of different topics – which will only make sense if you’ve played the zone. Spoilers will abound. I also wrote it under CFN rules, so when I say long, I mean long.

Consider that several warnings, all rolled in to one.

LILIAN VOSS AND THE DAUGHTERS OF LORDAERON

Lilian Voss is the key figure in the final quests of Trisifal Glades, accompanying you to steal your kills and present what is perhaps the most interesting, dramatic, traumatic storyline in Azeroth. She is the bridge between the worlds of freedom and slavery; the convergence of indoctrination, willing subordination to authority, loyalty to causes greater than our ourselves, and our struggles to find places for ourselves in this world.

Not to put any more pressure on Ms. Voss, of course.

This is a mighty burden to put on a single character in lore, but it was only after Silverpine that I realized how absolutely critical Lilian is to the heart and soul of the Forsaken story. Everything that comes after depends on her, because she frames the Forsaken dilemma in stark purple flames.

Are you free, or are you a slave?

The questline is relatively simple: High Executor Derrington sends you off to find Lilian Voss, who you’d met when you awakened. You find her, this strange young woman possessed of tremendous power, in the middle of a camp of slaughtered Scarlet Crusaders. You accompany her to visit her father, her father who had ordered her slain as soon as she returned to him.

Lilian’s story was discussed by Rades in his speculative post Why I would love to see Heroic Scarlet Monastery and Anne Stickney in The Unfortunate Tale of Lilian Voss, both of which cover the details of how she came to be here, in Trisifal, and why you help her kill her father. She doesn’t really need much help, but it’s through the player’s agency which we see these events unfold, and her revenge illustrates the choice Forsaken characters face.

What happens when you resolve your debts from your lifetime? What happens when your life’s purpose is fulfilled, and endless days stretch before you filled with horror and despair?

The question of purpose in the face of death and horror occupies the Forsaken; the strength of the Banshee Queen’s cause is that she gives the Forsaken that purpose. Choose to serve her, and find purpose in that servitude. The cause of the Forsaken people – of Sylvanas – becomes your own.

Catulla’s wonderful short story about Lilian Voss, Daughter of Lordaeron, captures this question perfectly:

Satiated at last of her need for vengeance, Lilian felt herself gripped by terror as it was replaced by a void demanding answers she could not give. Who am I now, without someone to kill?

Who is Sylvanas, now that Arthas is dead? Who am I, if I reject the Dark Lady? Alone, bereft, hunted by friend and foe alike, no one to turn to, no one to trust?

I spoke before about how the story of Trisifal Glades was getting you to accept the cult of personality around Sylvanas; I remember that I went along with the indoctrination campaign with a raised eyebrow and assurances to myself that I would betray the Forsaken at my first opportunity.

But it’s here, in the final quests of Trisifal, where you’re presented with what will actually happen to you if you choose to not go along with the Banshee Queen. Alone at best, but most likely hunted by those who want to use your power.

Keep Lilian in mind. We’re going to talk about her again.

KNEEL BEFORE YOUR QUEEN, CYNWISE

Holy shit, Silverpine Forest is epic. Epic. You report for duty at the Forsaken High Command and Lady Sylvanas is there. But I was impressed at how quickly the story moved you from the Dark Queen as a object of veneration for a cult of personality to her as a presence in your story.

I was stunned when I delivered a report to Sylvanas and interacted with her for the first time. She greeted me with the following:

Kneel before your queen, Cynwise.

… and at that moment, I was struck by role-playing paralysis.

Do you kneel, or not? That is the only question, and the story pulls no punches here. This might be a throwaway greeting of a quest giver, but if you care about the story to this point it’s huge. Before 5 quests have passed, Silverpine delivers the crisis point that Trisifal has primed you – are you ready to become one of the Forsaken, or not?

The phrase ‘kneel before your queen’ has so many wonderful layers. With the arrogant poise of royalty, she’s already assumed that you are one of her subjects and that you will render her obeisance without question. This isn’t the paternal Cairne or relatively genial Lor’themar here, nor the military Warchief. This is the Dark Queen, and when you approach her you fucking get on one knee and look down at the ground before you speak.

I’m not going to lie; I stopped there for a few minutes, just looking at that screen, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I was really glad Rades was in the game at that time, because I needed to joke about it with someone who would understand that I couldn’t just accept this quest. I either had to kneel, or not kneel.

When you are awakened by the Val’kyr in Deathknell, you are shown three different paths of coping with becoming Forsaken; fight, flight, or acceptance. If you accept – reluctantly or not – then you’re going to be considered one of the subjects of the Dark Queen. Up to this point, you hadn’t taken an oath, you hadn’t had to demonstrate your loyalty to her person, not just the Forsaken kingdom.

  • If you don’t kneel, you take the blue pill and the zone ends. You walk away from Silverpine Forest and believe whatever you want to believe.
  • If you kneel, you take the red pill, and see how far down the rabbit hole swearing allegiance to Sylvanas goes.

This is one of the big limitations of the linear storytelling model introduced with Cataclysm – you don’t really have a choice if you want the story to continue. Normally that’s a criticism, but here I think it’s actually pretty realistic.

See, it’s not just the kneeling that does it; the kneeling is symbolic for what’s going to happen throughout the entire zone. This is a zone which takes you from a new recruit to Sylvanas’s most trusted soldier, where you become an extension of her will. You will become her confidant, you will heroically advance the Forsaken cause by tackling missions no one else can complete. Through your actions you will deliver a significant setback to the Alliance, expand the borders of Lordaeron, and smash the Gilnean resistance. You will watch the Dark Lady die and come back to life through your actions.

If you try to go through Silverpine uncommitted – an angry former citizen of Lordaeron who doesn’t want to see it twisted into a mockery of what it was, an ex-Scarlet Crusader, an ex-Alliance warlock brought back to life who’s trying to be a double agent – then you won’t complete the zone. At some point you’re going to say, okay, wait, stop, now would be the perfect time for me to be a turncoat. At some point you’ll say, this is crazy, why am I doing this for an upstart Ranger General from Silvermoon?

At some point you realize that if you complete Silverpine Forest in character, you do so as one of the Banshee Queen’s most trusted servants, and that you have chosen to serve her.

For me, as a player, that moment came with that fateful command, kneel before your queen, Cynwise. It will probably be different for you, but at some point it will hit you – either you go forward or you don’t.

Are you going to make Lilian Voss’s choice, or are you going to make your own choice to serve the Banshee Queen?

Perhaps the highest praise I can lavish upon a zone is that even simple dialog boxes stopped me in my tracks to consider what had been asked of me.

PROPERTY DISPUTE: REAL ESTATE AND THE UNDEAD

I loved that so many of these quests get you right into the dispute over Lordaeron’s future. You ride with Sylvanas to The Sepulcher, and along the way she tells you why she’s doing what she’s doing.

The people who called this land their home in life, do so in death as well.

This cuts right to the root of the matter, doesn’t it? The citizens of Lordaeron are still there after the plague wiped them out, what, 8 years prior? They are still there. I’m going to set aside my arguments based on their inhuman behavior for a bit and just focus on Sylvanas’s defense of her actions.

  • The citizens of Lordaeron are still here, are still sentient, and still call it home.
  • They were robbed of their life and sentience by the hereditary nobility of Lordaeron, but through Sylvanas’s actions, regained their free will.
  • The Alliance seeks to deprive the rightful inhabitants of Lordaeron of their land and take it for their own.

Set aside Silvanas, Princess Calia Menethil, and the kingship of Lordaeron for a moment, and just consider the claim Sylvanas presents. The people of Lordaeron are still there. The sovereign nation of Lordaeron still exists, though the government has been radically altered. Not only has it been altered through what amounts to a populist uprising, but also… uh… everyone is dead. Still functioning! But dead.

So many questions come up from this simple statement! Can dead people own property, legally? Can they enter into contracts if they’re dead? Can they form sovereign bodies, capable of self-government, if the corpus is literally corpses?

Obviously, the Forsaken are doing all of these things. There’s no question that while it might not look much like a human kingdom anymore, Lordaeron is – once again – a functioning kingdom. But does the law recognize that they should be able to do so? That they have a legal right to do so? How do Azerothian laws deal with undeath?

This place is a scholar of jurisprudence’s dream.

You could argue that when they died of the Scourge Plague, the people of Lordaeron forfeited all rights as citizens of that nation. Their property reverted to their estates, which would then go to their next-of-kin or other beneficiaries, which in turn (since everyone was dying) eventually probably reverted back to the original property holder – the King. It doesn’t matter that those people came back from the dead. It doesn’t matter if they come back as resurrected human beings or raised undead monstrosities – their property rights already passed to someone else.

I wager that most people would at least say, okay, that makes sense for a legal system where life after death is an uncommon (but possible!) thing. It’s interesting to consider what it implies for resurrection versus transformation into a horrific undead creature – one suspects that people would be more sympathetic to someone who came back whole and relatively attractive to human sensibilities, as opposed to an animated cadaver.

But let’s face it – Lordaeron fell 7 years ago in the timeline of World of Warcraft. The legal systems haven’t had time to catch up to an entire kingdom (and parts of neighboring kingdoms) getting wiped out by a plague of undeath. And Sylvanas is appealing not to Justinianic codes of law, here – she’s appealing to common law concepts of inhabitation and dwelling. Sedrick Calston may have died, but he’s still working hard on his own land to make it better.

You work hard your whole life, and what do you get? Killed by a plague. Then you work even harder in undeath, and what do you get? Money, yes, and a small estate with a few pesky hangers-on, but happiness? Not so much.

Common sense tells us that Sylvanas is right. Most Forsaken retain their memories of their lives. They have similar, if somewhat traumatized, personalities.

This is a land populated by its deceased inhabitants. They are still a nation, and Sylvanas is right, in some ways – the Alliance refuses to accept their claims, while the Horde accepted them as a sovereign nation.

They are not the old kingdom of Lordaeron. Riding through Silverpine Forest, listening to Sylvanas, this is a kingdom whose monarchy apparently betrayed them in the most horrific way possible, and then whose former allies turned against them when they regained their free will. The old feudal system was swept away when the reigning monarch abandoned them to become the Lich King; Sylvanas stepped into the position with massive popular support. It was a coup of the people of Lordaeron against the absent reigning monarchy.

(As players, we might know that Arthas was fighting the Lich King, but that absolutely cannot be common knowledge.)

This is the rationale of the Forsaken, what they are fighting for. This is our land. It was our land before the Scourge took it from us. It is our home.

It’s a good reason to fight for it.

EXPANSIONISM, MISOGYNY, AND CAUSES FOR WAR

The simple reasons Sylvanas gives for her defense of the Forsaken are compelling if you’ve already taken the red pill. If you knelt before her at the High Command, you’ll have no problem accepting that yes, this is good and right. If you’re playing a former  citizen of Lordaeron, you better believe she’s right.

But that’s really only one side of the story. Overly simplified:

  • Alliance: Crap, Scourge in Lordaeron! Kill them all!
  • Forsaken: We’re free now! Don’t shoot!
  • Alliance: Scourge trick! Kill them all!
  • Forsaken: Well, if you’re going to be that way, we’re gong to fight back! And capture your people to torture them and experiment upon them to develop superweapons to wipe you out!
  • Alliance: So, we think might have made a mistake back there, but that whole “wipe you out” thing? We don’t want you as neighbors.
  • Horde: Hey. We’ll take you.
  • Forsaken: Deal. Our neighbors are crazy and want to wipe us out. You probably want to wipe us out too, but you can live for now.
  • Alliance: You joined the Horde? Are you fucking crazy???
  • Forsaken: We did what had to be done to survive.
  • Alliance: You’re totally batshit crazy and evil, and deserve to be put down like a rabid dog. And you just joined the Horde.
  • Forsaken: Bring it, breathers.

I’ve already talked about my take on the moral stance of the Forsaken, but let me set that aside for a moment and talk practical politics.

What would it take for the Alliance and the Forsaken to come to peaceful terms?

Assume that that’s actually a goal worth working towards, because lord knows it’s not what you do in Silverpine. How would you do it? The Alliance would have to get over the fact that the citizens of Lordaeron are dead but still moving around, that they committed a bunch of atrocities against Alliance civilians, and that they joined the Horde. The Forsaken would have to get over the Alliance attacks against them when they were newly freed, and the subsequent events (like the Battle of Undercity). The RAS would probably need to be disbanded, or their experiments repudiated. The Alliance would have to concede a lot of strategic land to the Forsaken, and would probably insist that they leave the Horde.

That’s an awful lot of forgiveness expected from two factions which aren’t known for it.

I thought about those peace conditions a lot while working through the quests which send you into the Ruins of Gilneas, where you join the front lines of the Forsaken advance. The execution here is great. It feels like a real battle, like a battle that matters. The war engines, the Worgen commandos sneaking up, the lines of Forsaken catapults and gunners – it’s a great feeling to quest through. If you’ve taken the red pill, it’s easy to get swept up in it – FOR SYLVANAS! I really enjoyed it.

But I’d log off and find myself wondering things like, why are the Forsaken attacking Gilneas? Strategically, what does it gain them? Land? They don’t really need land, do they? A port? It’s not like Lordaeron is landlocked, and their expansion to Southshore gives them more direct southerly access.

Gilneas is a neutral country. It’s important to remember that, no matter what, they don’t actually present a clear and present threat to the Forsaken. Stormwind is the threat. Ironforge is the threat. The Alliance is the threat. Gilneas left the Alliance and is hiding behind their walls, with no indication they’re coming out.

So why am I here, amidst the siege, killing worgen, invading another country?

From Dave Kosak’s Edge of Night:

Master Apothecary Lydon ran his bony fingers through his tangle of hair. The roar from orc, tauren, and Forsaken alike overwhelmed the thunder. How does he do it? Lydon wondered. My Forsaken brothers cheer for their own destruction!

Lydon desperately tried to form the words, some last plea for sanity against Garrosh’s plan. He tried to imagine what the Dark Lady would say, how she would tamp down his bloodlust. His jaw opened, but no words came out.

Garrosh spurred his war wolf to the side of the army, clearing the way for a charge. “Heroes of the Forsaken! You are the point of my spear. Lift your arms; lift your voices; and do not stop until you lift the Horde banner upon those walls.” Gorehowl dropped down. “Chaaaarge!”

Garrosh.

I found myself, a trusted soldier of the Dark Queen, kneeling in the cold mud of Gilneas for reasons I didn’t quite understand, but knowing that somehow, somewhere, Garrosh was responsible for it.

That was actually a pretty cool moment. It felt like a real war story at that point, going to war for reasons that didn’t make sense but damnit, I had orders and I was going to follow those orders.

Outside of the game, I know that the Forsaken invade Gilneas to provide an enemy in the Worgen’s starting zone. It would have been interesting to perhaps leave it as a Human vs. Worgen zone to ratchet up the internal Gilnean politics – but having the Forsaken invade adds a Horde element to the Gilnean problem, and forces the PCs to abandon the zone.

But inside the game, I’m trying to wrap my head around why Sylvanas is spending her troops, her people, this way. And of course it comes back to Edge of Night, Wolfheart, and Garrosh’s philosophy of expansionism at all costs. Ashenvale! Hillsbarad! Darkshore! Gilneas!

Sylvanas has a resource problem; no new Forsaken means that her nation will eventually wither away. With no reproduction, the Forsaken are doomed. And once vengeance is served against the Lich King, the Forsaken lose their need for revenge at all costs. So why go to war, when every soldier is irreplaceable and your main enemy is dead?

Obviously, some of this is due to the fallout from the Battle of Undercity. Garrosh didn’t fight in that battle, but the Horde did, and Sylvanas owes the Horde for it. This is an interesting political dynamic, and one that I don’t really claim to understand – how beholden are the individual member states of the Horde to the larger organization? Is this a personal debt that Sylvanas owes? (If so, wouldn’t that be to Thrall, not Garrosh?) Is this a personal grudge against the Greymane family, or did Gilneas do something to Lordaeron? (Doesn’t seem to be any interactions with Gilneas except for their withdrawing from the Alliance, and hey, the Forsaken did that too.) Strategic reasons, maybe? Nope.

Maybe Garrosh wants to punish Sylvanas and the Forsaken. Not for anything they’ve done, but because he’s afraid of them. Even before she gets the Val’kyr, Sylvanas is scary. He saw her in Northcrown (presumably) when she was hell-bent on killing Arthas. Her troops are loyal to her in a way which Garrosh can only hope to achieve.

And then there’s the scene, the scene, early on in Silverpine, when the Warchief Cometh:

Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: With the aid of the val’kyr, we are now able to take the corpses of the fallen and create new Forsaken.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Agatha, show the Warchief!
*The Val’kyr Agatha proceeds to resurrect fallen corpses as Undead*
High Warlord Cromush: ABBERATION!
Garrosh Hellscream: What you have done here, Sylvanas….it goes against the laws of nature. Disgusting is the only word I have to describe it.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Warchief, without these new Forsaken my people would die out…Out hold upon Gilneas and northern Lordaeron would crumble.
Garrosh Hellscream: Have you given any thought to what this means, Sylvanas?
Garrosh Hellscream: What difference is there between you and the Lich King now?
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner: Isn’t it obvious, Warchief? I serve the Horde.
Garrosh Hellscream: Watch your clever mouth, bitch.
Garrosh Hellscream: Cromush, you stay behind and make sure the Banshee Queen is well “guarded.” I will be expecting a full report when next we meet.
High Warlord Cromush: As you command, Warchief!
Garrosh Hellscream: Remember, Sylvanas, eventually we all have to stand before our maker and face judgment. Your day may come sooner than others…

It all comes together here.

We see Sylvanas solving the problem of her people’s survival through the only means possible. While it might not have been the val’kyr specifically, the Forsaken always needed to either find new ways to raise the dead or die out as a people.

We see Garrosh taken aback, as he should be. This is the kinda stuff that no one is really prepared to deal with. She just raised an entire field of soldiers – in game it was like 20 corpses? – and turned them into units ready for training. That is both militarily a huge advantage – you now have the power of the Lich King on your side – and very, very frightening that he doesn’t control it.

And then there’s the comment that hit me, like most people:

Watch your clever mouth, bitch.

… which is astonishing. I know the game is rated T for Teen and all that, but I really wasn’t expecting it. It really bothered me at the time, but looking back at it from the perspective of the broken Greymane Wall, it makes a little more sense why Blizzard kept it in the game.

My first reaction was that this had entirely the wrong tone, that the comment seemed wildly out of place. Bitch is not a term we hear often in Warcraft. It doesn’t fit. NPCs don’t use modern swears or insults, as befits the setting, so seeing something that’s so culturally grounded in the here and now was jarring. Genre shows like Battlestar Galactica or Firefly go to great lengths to establish a common tone with vocabulary and cursing; breaking the rules of the created world snaps you out of the story. I found Garrosh calling Sylvanas a bitch had a similar effect on me; it was so out of tone with the rest of the game I suddenly snapped out of the dialog and went, woah, what was Blizzard thinking!

If I start thinking about the company who created a game while playing that game, something has gone wrong.

But when I got back into the story, I realized that this is an example of misogyny that fits the character of Garrosh, for good or for ill. While I don’t think it fit the game, nor do I think it was appropriate to use for the gaming audience, I think it conveys Garrosh’s fear of Sylvanas, his realization that he is dealing with someone that he can neither control nor trust, and who is completely unlike him.

He lashes out at her feminine nature because he fears it, and seeks to undermine it and her. Don’t lose sight of the entire insult – watch your clever mouth, bitch – phrased with the threat of violence inherent in nearly all misogyny. He threatens her for her words, not her actions, because her actions frankly terrify him. He goes after her for her insubordinate tone and  mocking half answer, because it was something he could let his anger deal with.  He didn’t know how to deal with her admission that she essentially is the Lich King, only on his side.

It’s interesting how this exchange changes your perception of both characters. Garrosh looks like a brute, even if his general objection – WTF you’re the Lich King now? – is completely reasonable. Sylvanas inspires us, as players, to at least be sympathetic to her in relation to the rest of the Horde. Scenes like this help establish a Forsaken’s basic set of loyalties, which is Dark Queen > Forsaken > Self Horde > Everyone else. If you’ve bought into the Cult of the Banshee Queen, you’re going to want to leap to her defense after this insult.

But gender and physical violence mean nothing to Sylvanas. Not anymore. From Edge of Night again:

At that moment, nobody dared look Sylvanas Windrunner in the eye. Nobody but Garrosh Hellscream.

What he saw was a great black void, an infinite darkness. There was fear in those eyes, but also something else. Something that terrified even the great warchief. His wolf began to edge away instinctively.

“Garrosh Hellscream. I’ve walked the realms of the dead. I have seen the infinite dark. Nothing you say. Or do. Could possibly frighten me.”

The army of undead that surrounded and protected the Dark Lady was still hers, body and soul. But they were no longer arrows in her quiver, not anymore. They were a bulwark against the infinite. They were to be used wisely, and no fool orc would squander them while she still walked the world of the living.

Sylvanas invades Gilneas not because she is afraid of Garrosh, or because he called her a bitch. She invaded it because she was working to secure her people’s place within the Horde. She did it to give her people a task, a purpose now that the Lich King was dead. And she did it to expand her empire on this continent, bringing the Gilnean dead into her armies.

Did she do it because Garrosh ordered her to? It appears so, if you’ve done the Worgen starting area:

General Warhowl says: It appears you are losing control of Gilneas, Sylvanas. Garrosh fears he’s going to have carry out this invasion himself.
Lady Sylvanas Windrunner says: You can assure Garrosh that this is a minor setback. Our victory in Gilneas will be absolute.

But from this side of the fence it looks like there’s more going on than simple Horde expansionism, the kind attributed to Garrosh’s invasion of Ashenvale (both in-game and in Wolfheart.)

Garrosh is afraid of Sylvanas. She is everything he is not as a leader. He may be a war hero, but he remains ragingly insecure about his right to be Warchief. The Dark Lady has fanatical support of her people – her people, it should be noted, who are not overly burdened with scruples or the moral codes of the living. She has powers at her disposal which are, frankly, terrifying to contemplate. Even without the Val’kyr, the Forsaken were able to soundly defeat a combined force of Horde, Alliance, and Scourge in Northrend using their superior biochemical technology.

Sylvanas is the most powerful faction leader in the Horde. She served as an interesting counterpoint to Thrall, who in retrospect managed her through diplomacy, tact, and even genuine support. Thrall could have abandoned her to the Alliance after the Battle of Undercity – but he did not.

Garrosh is no Thrall. The position of Warchief was given to him, not taken from him. Had Saurfang the Younger survived in Northrend, Garrosh would still be relegated to the frothing sidekick of the leader – but he did not. Cairne is gone. Gallywix and Lor’themar are not real threats.

But Sylvanas… Sylvanas is a threat. Not to his leadership of the Orcs, but definitely to his leadership of the Horde. And she scares the living daylights out of him. She’s a tactical genius, she broke free of the Lich King’s will, she possesses chemical superweapons, and now she has power over death itself. She claims equality with the Lich King.

And, because this entity, this powerful being of will and hate, happens to be in the body of a half-dressed sin’dorei female, Garrosh lashes out and calls her a bitch.

Smooth move, dumbass.

It’s easy enough to say, listen, the Forsaken had to invade Gilneas because the Worgen became a playable race in Cataclysm, and someone had to drive them into the arms of the Alliance. It’s more difficult to construct a plausible reason why the Forsaken would invade Gilneas for their own benefit, especially when Sylvanas was trying to solve ‘the problem of the Forsaken,’ the reproductive problem of undeath. Garrosh as a bat-shit crazy expansionist provides a convenient surface reason, but I think the more compelling reasons are deeper, darker, more sinister.

Garrosh is terrified of Sylvanas, so he orders her to undertake an expansionist war against a neutral country to weaken the Forsaken forces. He tries to take control of the several times with the intent of using the Forsaken as shock troops. It is his actions which, eventually, bring the Worgen into the Alliance, which in turn lead to his defeat in Ashenvale.

Sylvanas still desires the protection of the Horde, but with the addition of the Val’kyr to her forces she now has the ability to expand her forces past those created by the Lich King. Expansion serves her purpose by bringing more potential nations into her armies and following. Invasions which use up Horde resources allow her to raise more dead while weakening those who threaten her.

War serves the Dark Lady’s purposes now.

THE CHOICE OF FENRIS

Why was I fighting in the mud of Gilneas?

To expand Lordaeron. To expand the ranks of the Forsaken. To support my Queen. Because from the moment I entered Silverpine Forest, I had been under attack from the Worgen, so they must be the enemy.

From the moment that I knelt before the Dark Lady and jettisoned my old character concept, I went along with the Silverpine narrative wholeheartedly. I was a defender of Lordaeron, pushing back the invading werewolves. The story flows smoothly from assault to assault. There was no question that the Worgen are invading my land, and that what I was doing was right.

When the story takes you to Gilneas, and you ride through the walls for the first time, you’ve had an entire zone to get used to the Worgen as savage enemies. When the Alliance comes in to support their resistance movement, it’s clear that now the Worgen really are the enemies of Lordaeron.

This is a fantastic political bait and switch. I didn’t even realize it until after I’d done the zone, that my reasons for being in Gilneas were not the same as those when I started at the High Command in Silverpine, when I stormed Fenris Isle and forced the refugees of Hillsbrad to choose between lycanthropy and undeath. This was not a war fought for our land.

I was the invader, though I had no way of knowing that as a player character.

The clues start on the Isle of Fenris:

Lord Darius Crowley says:  Die in battle and be raised as a servant of the Forsaken or… Drink my blood and be reborn as worgen, immune to the depravity of the Forsaken. Help us destroy the Forsaken and retake Lordaeron for the Alliance!

Magistrate Henry Maleb says: We would rather die than be turned into worgen, but seeing as how even death provides no relief from the atrocities of this war… We choose vengeance!

I thought the Isle of Fenris was a great series of quests. You take on the first mission – kill refugees from Hillsbrad and turn them into Forsaken – which leads to the refugees meeting with the Worgen resistance, where they make a terrible choice of accepting the Worgen curse instead of falling under your curse. You and your Val’kyr companion present such a threat to these people that they choose to become werewolves instead of zombies under your control.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

You don’t have enough information yet to know what these refugees have fled – the Forsaken invasion of Hillsbrad. You don’t have enough knowledge to know why the Worgen are here, stirring up trouble – because of the Forsaken invasion of Gilneas. But what you do know is that you’re acting under the orders of the Banshee Queen, and that the Alliance is trying to stop her. They are trying to take Lordaeron!

This completely validates the reasons Sylvanas gives you, a few minutes later, when riding to The Sepulcher – the Alliance doesn’t respect the Forsaken claims to the kingdom and is trying to take it away from the rightful citizens of Lordaeron. The Worgen, as agents of the Alliance, are in the wrong there.

By the time you’re kneeling in the mud of Gilneas, that’s the message you remember. The Alliance are trying to take my kingdom. Gilneas is a threat that must be neutralized.

You might forget that not so long ago, humans who fled the Forsaken, who fought against the undead, were willing to succumb to a horrible curse they considered worse than death itself in order to avoid coming under the control of the Dark Queen. The mud is cold, even on your undead flesh, and the worgen are everywhere. There is all kind of shit flying around in that battle.

You might forget that you raised corpses of fervent opponents of the Forsaken – and that they immediately defected to your side. That you watched the Val’kyr raise dozens of corpses – and they fell in line, almost uniformly.

The Isle of Fenris is a place where, as a GM of a tabletop RPG, I would have drawn out that horror longer. Much like Gilneas, too much happens too quickly there for proper role playing, because man, this is meaty stuff. You, stalking the humans, sowing fear and terror as they fall before you and your protective angel of death. Their huddled conferences, their desperate situation, the appearance of the Worgen and choice between two awful fates.

To become Forsaken, in the Hillsbrad refugee’s eyes, is to lose your free will, is to become a slavish servant of the Dark Queen. You may retain your intellect, and your memories, but do you retain your will? Can you really rebel against Sylvanas when raised?

Consider what they’ve seen – their friends and family have been turned against them. People who fought the Forsaken in Southshore and Tarren Mill now march under the Banshee Queen’s watchful gaze. You’ve seen it, too – mass resurrection of troops with little will. Perhaps we’re supposed to dismiss them as mooks, but any serious consideration of the story has to get over that trope and consider them as real human beings.

Who rebels against the Dark Queen’s control? Marshal Redpath, Lilian Voss… maybe you and me. We don’t see a lot of examples of free will in the second generation of Forsaken. It appears that the Val’kyr process does something similar to decrypting, keeping the memories and skills of the raised intact, but their allegiance is shifted to that of the Forsaken. There’s no need to persuade those you turn on the Isle of Fenris – they arise saying things like:

  • “I am Forsaken.”
  • “At your command.”
  • “I am eternal… I am death.”
  • “I LIVE!”

Some react with horror. But most accept their fate and willingly embrace their enemies.

This should be utterly, utterly chilling. The choice of Fenris is a horrible one, but understandable.

To have death hold not only the promise of unlife, but an unlife of unwilling servitude? Worse, of knowing that you will obey without question, that your body and mind will follow the commands and will of your enemy, with a tiny spark of yourself howling in outrage and horror for the rest of your unending days?

I haven’t referred back to On The Forsaken in a while, but there’s a part I think is relevant when talking about the choice of Fenris:

It’s not just that the Forsaken keep living, sentient creatures caged to experiment upon, or enslave them – it’s that they were willing to go further than mere slavery. They are willing to completely destroy someone’s free will, to leave them aware of what has been done, screaming silently in horror through the end of her days, but unable to change any part of it.

The question of free will continues to hang heavy over Silverpine Forest. Do you, as the hero, serve Sylvanas out of free will? It looks like it, yet there is all kinds of evidence that she compells unthinking loyalty. Can you trust your own loyalty in that situation?

The Worgen of Gilneas are your enemy. They have been since Trisifal; defeating them is the ultimate purpose of this storyline. But when you look at the larger story, they are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting for their homeland. They are fighting to not be turned into slaves of the Forsaken.

Because the worgen curse prevents the bearer from being raised as a Forsaken, these two cultures will forever be polar opposites. It’s interesting to see how that plays out from both sides of the conflict.

MAKING CURSES TACTICAL

Since I’m already talking about it, let’s talk about something that really bothered me about the Isle of Fenris – the pacification of the Worgen Curse.

In the Worgen starting area, getting bitten by a worgen is terrifying. You become a feral worgen, out of control, hunting your fellow humans for weeks… months… who knows? But you lose all control until only the brilliant alchemist Krennan Aranas solves the problem, and then the Night Elves step in and perform a ritual for you to make the potion permanent.

The Isle of Fenris removes some, but not all, of the danger in becoming a werewolf. It’s presented quickly, but by drinking Crowley’s blood all the refugees become Worgen, yet retain some large measure of control (they are capable of speech, for example). We see this in other places, but this is where it stuck out – a mass conversion of people to a state which should reduce them to a state of horror, but is instead used tactically.

In many ways, this is the exact same problem that you face as a Forsaken player character. You have a horrific experience and you have to come to terms with your new existence. You appear to have free will, but there are things about your current state which indicate that might not be the case. You work through your metamorphosis over the course of a zone-long story. Yet there are others who go through the transformation in seconds, and come out the other side without any problem.

I remember this problem coming up a lot when I played Vampire: the Masquerade. Players would try to use their blood in a purely tactical manner, to create ghouls or weaker vampires with specific abilities. As a Storyteller, I’d have to balance narrative and flow of the game, so sometimes it would be as simple as a roll (“yes, you ghoul the tiger… and the monkey… and the snakes.”) and sometimes it would be an entirely separate roleplaying session, filled with dramatic tension and terrible consequences. One player ripped apart her mortal lover in a blood frenzy when trying to tactically use an elder’s blood to gain power; another found himself in the middle of a blood feud he was not prepared for.

It distresses me a bit when we see a horrifying event neutered because it’s happening so often it becomes commonplace. After you see a few hundred corpses get raised in Silverpine Forest, it’s not really a big deal. (LIGHT SHOW!) After you see a few hundred humans get turned into Worgen, okay, it’s time to man the guns, not weep for their fates.

There are often explanations for why this happens, but just because an atrocity is repeated over and over, doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the horror.

(And I’m including both werewolves and zombies here.)

SILVERPINE COMEDY TROUPE

Lest you get the wrong idea from the previous 5000 words, I really did enjoy Silverpine Forest. The quests are exciting, thought-provoking, and fucking hilarious. From Mortuus calling me Cynwisenub (that’s New Undercity Battalion to you!) to using the Sea Dogs as comic relief, I think the humor in this zone brought some much needed relief to the utter seriousness of the Forsaken predicament.

There are a lot of in-jokes for previous players in this zone. I have a note scrawled in my field notes about this – “are these only funny to gamers?” – but I don’t know how to answer this, since I’ve played long enough that my perspective is tainted. The Sea Dogs are a kind of lowbrow humor that probably would work well – the orc pup in Steel Thunder‘s lines are so good (“Dis giving me a hernia. Captain, what is hernia?”) I ran around the zone, herbing and mining with my sea pup in tow just to see what he’d say next. Putting beer on your back and rousing the troops is a nice variation on “click on friendly troops while fighting off their enemies.”

Playing the orcs for comic relief helps strengthen that sense of Forsaken self that permeates the zone. It defines a friendly Other, within the Horde, which allows you to feel superior as a Forsaken soldier. Ha ha, look at those drunk orcs! Us Forsaken aren’t buffoons like those Sea Dogs! It’s a common ploy in propaganda, and it honestly works well here.

It’s interesting that Blizzard presents the orcs this way here. By presenting Garrosh as a blustering, fearful leader, he’s hard to take seriously in this zone. I’m sorry, but the bitch comment sounds like it came from a scared, angry, low-class worker, not from the leader of one of the most powerful factions on Azeroth. The Sea Dogs are funny, but not really presented as, uh, vital allies. They aren’t playing a major role within Gilneas itself, and their scope of operations in Silverpine is limited.

It’s a problem when you play a group off for comic relief, and then you start thinking about if they were really contributing to the plot versus the story. I’d miss the orcs if they weren’t here, and think they made the zone more fun.

That’s probably all I really need to know – I laughed at them, and they raised my opinion of the Silverpine Forest questline.

Also: Inconspicuous Bears. What’s next, inconspicuous seals? Could you imagine it?

DEATH, REBIRTH AND FREEDOM

Daughter of Lordaeron, again:

“Lilian deserved a choice,” he declared, slamming his fist on the table. “That has always been our way.”

“Indeed. I am disappointed in your failure to ensure she made the right one.”

“I didn’t realize that was my responsibility.” He stood up, lifting the tent’s flap of heavy indigo canvas open. “Get out. I have more important things to attend to than debate with some grasping slip of a girl who dares to suggest I ought to share more in common with the Scourge.”

In the end, I loved questing in Silverpine Forest. Loved it. The story made me think. The story put me right in the center of actual lore events, without regard to level (which I think is absolutely appropriate.) It had absolutely epic moments. It told the story of my rise from a simple soldier in Her Dark Majesty’s Service to a trusted lieutenant and hero of the Undercity in my own right – a good mirror of the Undercity reputation bar, now that I think of it. This was more than “kill 10 rats” over and over again until you got killed of rats.

I didn’t know if Silverpine would change my overall opinion of the Forsaken. I tried to go through it with an open mind. I realized, very early on, that I needed to change my attitude and my concept of my character to make it work – so I jettisoned my previous idea and made Cynwise the Forsaken a somewhat surprised citizen of Lordaeron, instead of an ex-Alliance hero. In the end, that change let me enjoy the story much, much more – though it didn’t end up changing my opinion on the Forsaken.

The zone ends with a dramatic confrontation with the Gilnean nobles and death of Sylvanas. That you are there for it, that you fight to bring the Dark Lady back to life, is the high point of the zone. It happens so fast – in the moment of triumph, suddenly, betrayal. That’s how it should be. You prove your loyalty, as do the Val’kyr. And there are many, many questions about what happened there, that you will probably take to your grave. It doesn’t matter that this is a 10-20 zone – the events are bigger than the levels. Story trumps levels.

I think that point needs to be driven home more. Zones are enjoyable not when they tell “level appropriate” stories, but rather suitable stories for the zone. The story of Silverpine is the story of the renewed conflict between Lordaeron/Undercity and Gilneas, and is treated in a properly epic way. It’s okay to have zones which are not quite so epic – consider how Silverpine was before, where you were fighting Arugal’s feral worgen, the wizards of Dalaran, spiders and worgs and bears, oh my! That kind of scattered questing was fine, but once the Greymane Wall fell, the zone needed to change to reflect the epic conflict going on there. Epic doesn’t require max level.

If Trisifal is your introduction to the Forsaken, Silverpine is where you take your place among the heroes of the race. You come into it facing the choice of Lilian Voss, and leave it having committed to your liege lady. Silverpine is the zone which makes a Forsaken a Forsaken; before that, you’re simply a free-willed undead. I’m glad I went through it.

The events within Silverpine are profoundly disturbing. The entire zone abounds with questions of mortality and free will. Throughout I found myself wondering, am I doing this because I want to serve the Banshee Queen, or because she compels me to do it? Would I stop if I could? Or would I press on, for her glory? What does my life mean, now that I am dead?

As a player, I achieved a satisfactory separation between my own opinions of the Forsaken and my character. That speaks highly of the quality of the zone, that it could suspend my dislike of the Forsaken enough to not only let me play through it, but enjoy that play. I can respect those Forsaken caught within the grip of the cult of Sylvanas’s personality a bit more now, and understand the conflicting loyalties that reside in the former residents of Lordaeron.

But I still think the Forsaken, as a political faction and cult of Sylvanas, are evil. Not misguided, but outright evil. Silverpine Forest strengthened my conviction that Sylvanas is leading the people of Lordaeron down a very dark path, and that while there are heroes among the undead, Azeroth can’t turn a blind eye to them. The Horde condemns its own moral imperative by allying with them. Garrosh is right to fear her. The Alliance might be able to make peace with some elements of Lordaeron, but will never do so with Sylvanas – war serves her too well now.

She is, perhaps, the single biggest threat on Azeroth’s political stage now that Deathwing is gone. Both the Alliance and Horde would do well to fear her.

And yet, I now have a character who is proud to call herself a servant of the Dark Lady.

Well done, Silverpine. Well done.

Next stop: Welcome to the Machine.

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Five More Crackpot Theories about the Scroll of Resurrection

You know, there are crackpot theories, and then there are crackpot theories.

Here are five of mine about the revamped Scrolls of Resurrection.

1. The Scrolls are for the Q1 Earnings call. Offering it right at the beginning of March will mean that everyone who comes back for it will count as an active subscriber during the important part of the quarter – the end. Timing is vitally important here.

2. The Scrolls are to counter Mass Effect 3 and SW:TOR. This isn’t rocket surgery, people. Bioware launches a game in late 2011 which zips up to 2 million subscribers; Blizzard counters with 4.3, perhaps the most fun patch of Cataclysm. Bioware launches a new game this week; a day later, Blizzard offers players a level 80 toon to revive their account for 30 days.

Striking while wallets are already open is a good move by Blizzard.

3. The Subscriber Loss is becoming a big deal. Subscriber decline is more of a PR problem than a financial one, but it’s still a big problem, and becoming a bigger one in light of the 2012 expectations placed on Blizzard. During the last earnings call, Thomas Tippi, the Activision/Blizzard COO/CFO, said:

Specifically, this year, we expect growth from Blizzard.

This is a very strong statement that the analysts took note of. While a contraction of subscribers may be acceptable while profits rise, it is a black mark on a company balance sheet which relies upon “the high-margin Blizzard product slate.” A subscriber loss indicates that growth has stalled on a product. That product will generate a fixed revenue, and cannot be counted upon to increase revenue without somehow increasing ARPU through raising prices on existing services, offering additional services, or lowering operating costs. Wall Street sees a product that has hit maximum market penetration; Blizzard has to show that it’s at least a stable subscriber base, if not actually increasing.

There is also the following statement:

Blizzard revenues are also expected to be down in the quarter [Q1 2012] due to tough comps, as last year they benefited from a higher subscriber base and the strong holiday launch of Cataclysm.

Cushioning statements like this, cautioning that subscribers will be down from a year ago in March, are trying to avoid uncomfortable comparisons with previous expansion launches. No matter the truth behind it, analysts think that SW:ToR has hurt Warcraft’s subscription numbers.

Further decline in the subs will be terrible press.

4. The Scrolls are a high-ROI subscriber boost. This should be obvious – for the cost of two pieces of digital artwork, updates to the SoR program administration, and customer service time, Blizzard nets a few tens of thousands of subscribers. Maybe it’s a few hundred thousand. That’s a pretty good investment with high margins. You have to watch the little things in Blizzard’s earning calls, like another quote from Tippi:

In addition, we continue to undertake productivity improvement initiatives across key areas of operating expenses.

If you don’t speak corporate-ese, this means that Blizzard is going to be trying to do more with less, or at a minimum with the same as what they have now. There is a huge stress on the Blizzard’s high margins in the earnings call, and that means costs will be slashed across the board. Blizzcon was an inevitable tragedy in hindsight – too much money without direct ROI. The February 2012 layoff of 600 employees is likely related to this – corporations often eliminate positions to reduce salary costs while revenues remain at their current level.

The Scrolls will provide a cheap way to boost subs that does not require much marketing on Blizzard’s part. They’ve even opened up a thread on the New Player Forum - a place where recruiting has been forbidden for several years – to allow strangers to SoR each other.

With apologies to my friends on that forum, my first reaction to that was “that’s a really cheap way for Blizzard to make money.” There wasn’t an official place for people to do that before, so they put it on the forums. No need to build a special site, or set up a service – just allow a thread on the forums and point interested players to it.

It’s pretty smart if you’re trying to maximize your margins.

5. Non-subscribers need incentives to subscribe – that’s why they’re not current subscribers. This sounds trite, but it’s worth mentioning, given that current subscribers aren’t getting showered with gifts. People who have left the game are, by definition, not satisfied with the product as it is (or was). Offering them an incentive to return is necessary if Blizzard wants to increase revenue.

This isn’t unique to Blizzard and World of Warcraft, of course. Back in the days when long distance telephone costs mattered, your optimal strategy was switching every few months when a new offer came out from the other companies. If you didn’t want to switch, you could still call up your current provider and tell them MCI was offering X deal and you were thinking of taking it. The problem here is that there isn’t competition per se within Warcraft, though there certainly is within the broader category of leisure time.

The counter to all of this is that regular subscribers feel slighted by being loyal customers. This is why phone companies discount phones (and even rate plans) for long-term customers, why they have retention departments. This is why airline and hotel loyalty programs exist, and to be very frank it’s a god damn travesty that Blizzard hasn’t come up with something like this. This is a big mistake, something contributing to long-term subscriber decline, and once they get past the Q1 earnings call I hope that they realize this.

Long-term subscriber retention requires planning and work up front, but it prevents you from having to blast out Scrolls of Resurrection every 3 months between content patches.

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PvP Playbook: Pulling Defenders Off Flags

I'm at your flag, stealing your base, because you got pulled away chasing my friends.

Ninja.

In PvE, being called a ninja is a bad thing, but in PvP, ninjas are awesome. Ninjas come in and steal objectives out from underneath the enemy’s noses. They snatch reinforcements away from a node and send them tumbling across the map.

Ninjas are awesome. But they often don’t work alone.

Let’s open up the playbook.

PULLING DEFENDERS OFF FLAGS

Every PvPer needs to learn this one. Unlike the DPS pick, this is one where you need to be able to read the situation at a node and take one of two roles – decoy or ninja.

Let’s start with a quick discussion on flag defense.

Effective flag defense requires defenders to be alert, pay attention to their surroundings, and be aware of several different avenues of potential attack. They have to be aware of their position relative to the flag, and try to make sure that they engage any attackers far enough away from the flag to deny them access to a potential cap, but close enough to interrupt any caps that get through.

My healing druid Cynli is defending the Blacksmith in the above picture. She’s moved out about as far as I’d consider safe and still defending. She could heal any DPS on the road or approach from Farm, but not quite reach the bridge. I’ve outlined the healing range with the green line so you can see it.

The red line represents how far back I can get with Hurricane, my main flag defense tool. I try to keep the flag within view when defending at all times with the camera angle, and have hotkeyed flipping my camera around to the delete button just so I can check behind me if the flag is not in view.

As a solo defender, this is as far as I should ever get away from a flag. Right now I have visibility only to the Farm and some of the LM road – I’m not defending against the GM or ST approaches, and parachutes from LM will probably land behind my field of vision.

Your goal is to draw me even further away.

THE DECOY AND THE NINJA

Every node could be broken down into a map like this one – where is the flag, where is the graveyard, where are the lines of sight?

Most nodes have an obstruction between the flag and the graveyard, and at least two avenues of approach. That’s deliberate – if you can’t see the situation at the flag while waiting to rez, you can’t call it out to your teammates. You might be able to see someone approaching the flag, but not from all approaches.

The goal of this play is to create a distraction away from the flag, so that the defenders leave it outside of their line of sight. This is one of the times where it’s okay to not fight at the flag, but one of the only ones.

The decoys pull the defenders away from the base by making a very obvious approach. They also pause at extreme range to allow defenders a chance to 1) notice them and 2) engage them. When fighting, they pull back a bit instead of going forward.

Once the DPS are pulled away, the healers will likely follow. This is something that personally frustrates me as a healer, watching DPS tunnel vision their targets and going over the BS bridge. They’re out of range, and if I’m the solo defender, the right thing for me to do is stay right where I am.

But sometimes, even a wary defender can get pulled out of position without even realizing it. That’s what a good decoy attack should do. They should be loud, they should be inviting targets, they should look like a credible threat – or healers who have to die.

Whatever bait works, use it.

While the decoys are drawing attention away from the flag, the ninja comes in from the opposite approach. Now, it’s great if you have a stealther who can do this, but it’s not necessary at all. I think a lot of players think that they can’t ninja cap flags if they can’t stealth, and that’s just not true. It is all line of sight. In the above example, a rider coming up from the GM road may be seen from the BS graveyard, but it’s not really all that likely. If you approach from the water or parachute in from LM, you’re completely invisible to the defenders.

Use the buildings. Use the terrain. Check to see that the decoys have pulled the defenders away, and then cap that flag.

The key here is patience and communication. If you see someone on your map coming around behind a node, call out what you are doing – pulling defense off the flag – and tell them to get the flag. If you see someone pulling defense away, go in and grab it. You can even rush in past the decoys and get the flag, but your team has to know that they should switch to snares, slows, and do whatever they can to keep defenders away from you.

Every node is a little different in Arathi Basin, Battle for Gilneas, and even Eye of the Storm. This also applies to towers and bunkers in Alterac Valley, though with restricted lines of sight.

Every class can ninja cap, and every class can serve as a decoy for a ninja. All you have to do is get the defenders focused on one group of you, while another goes in and steals their node out from under them.

Good luck.

 

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On Headshots and Dynamic Content

I used to spend a lot of time designing RPG systems with my friends. This hobby was born out of both frustration with the existing systems we had for various genres (so close! yet so far away!) and a genuine enjoyment in tinkering with games. We’d write up a set of rules, run a few play tests, tweak, and repeat the process. Sometimes we’d move the system we came up with over to different genres and see how it fared; other times we’d try completely off the wall ideas and just see what worked.

One of the questions we always asked was how to deal with the gun-at-the-head problem. This is a simple problem to phrase, but not always simple to answer within a RPG:

What happens if you put a gun to a PC’s head and pull the trigger?

The very first RPG systems, based around miniature gaming, didn’t deal well with this kind of question. If you took a sword to someone, the rules stated they did a certain amount of damage. If the person had more hit points than the weapon could do, they would survive. As characters gained hit points, the percentage loss fell, making them effectively invulnerable to a single attack, no matter how it was presented. It doesn’t matter where you hit them or how you hit them.

Much of this problem was ameliorated by having a reasonable game master, of course, but it exposes a fundamental problem with the concept of increasing health in a game and realism versus gameplay. Realistically, human beings can get one-shot by all sorts of things – falling pianos, automobiles, knives, guns, poison, elevator shafts (only on soap operas, though) – without adding fantastic elements into it like dragons and spaceships and aliens and mutant radioactive cowboys. But within the context of a heroic game of any kind, we have to suspend realism – a bit – and make up the concept of being able to handle those kinds of events.

The great thing about RPGs is that there’s no right answer here to how you proceed with this suspension disbelief – it all depends on the game you want to play. AD&D explained Hit Points as a combination of many different survival factors – luck, ability to avoid blows, skill in defense, maybe magical defenses – that allowed for characters to fight dragons and survive. Twilight 2000 took a far more realistic (and fatal for PC) approach, with detailed combat hit tables that could spell a head shot. I couldn’t even conceive of getting too attached to a character in that system; I swear I rolled a new one every game session. White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater had a very elegant staged system (before the Revised edition came along and required PDA-based combat) that emphasized that combat was a terrible idea, because you could die really easily if you hadn’t designed your character to survive it. Paranoia gave you six clones and assumed they would all die in hilariously gruesome ways.

Does your character die, or not die, when that trigger is pulled, that is the question.

Game Master discretion played heavily into a lot of the highly fatal game systems. Most (but not all) look at the game and tell the GM, if this death doesn’t make sense, don’t let it happen. If it does make sense, let it happen.

In the World of Warcraft there are no Game Masters, no judges you can appeal to for character survival or death. The computer is your master, All Hail the Computer.

RELATIVE VERSUS ABSOLUTE POWER

I bring up the gun-to-the-head question because it brings to the forefront a real problem when talking about WoW – is it really an RPG? I think it’s safe to say it’s not a traditional RPG, though you can comfortably role play within it. There’s a spectrum of immersion that goes from complete (detailed character histories, interaction, all actions are taken in character) to practically non-existent (arthasdklol), but even within the most jaded anti-RPer’s experience are role playing elements. There’s art, there’s story, there’s questing. There are different worlds to play in. Raids are not abstract exercises – they are a digital simulation of an environment. You are not just playing a digital object which has properties and affects other digital objects through predetermined routines – you’re playing a hunter, a priest, a mage. You’re raiding Ulduar or Firelands or Trial of the Crusader.  The RPG elements are always there.

But there are many concessions to the truth that this is a computer game based on gear acquisition that break RPG immersion. I’m not talking about things like language barriers or profession limits, unchanging zones or any of the other things that are design decisions, or part of being an MMO. Warcraft’s systems are set up to drive you to acquire more and better gear.

1. Levels introduce artificial barriers to encourage leveling.

What is to stop a young Tauren brave from wearing the mighty gear of his elders? Get your head out of WoW for a moment – what is to stop him from putting on the physical garb which conveys these great bonuses? What prevents him, exactly, from picking up an epic mace dropped by Deathwing himself and smashing opponents around him? Okay, let’s say the mace isn’t from Deathwing. Why not a level 60 mace? Or a level 35? How does that work, exactly?

Plenty of games encourage leveling through the promise of more power. You get more skills, you get more points to assign to abilities, you get more talents or feats or whatever. WoW has a lot of that – riding, flying, professions, etc. – but it differs in that it uses gear as a motivation. Other games give out better gear as a result of more challenging opportunities – you can take your level 2 characters in to see an adult red dragon, but they probably won’t come out alive – but they don’t explicitly limit gear to levels.

The Hit mechanic is another example of this kind of artificial barrier used to prompt players to level. It’s interesting playing with a level 19 twink who has more health than most mobs in level 30-40 zones, who does enough damage (at level 19) to tackle those zones, but to be unable to effectively function because everything misses. There’s no real reason Cynderblock can’t hit the raptors in Arathi Highlands, except that the rules say so to promote the idea that leveling is important.

(Also, Crushing Blows can bite me.)

2. Levels grant abilities, but require better gear to maintain the same level of effectiveness.

In AD&D, a +3 sword is a +3 sword, no matter what level the wielder is. More powerful characters have more magic items (and more powerful ones) but there is no scaling in efficacy. WoW is radically different: as your character levels, that +3 sword becomes less and less effective. All combat stats decay; Hit, Haste, Crit, Resilience are obvious examples of this (you need more points to achieve the same percentage at higher levels), but even straightforward things like a weapon’s DPS will indirectly decay due to higher health pools of opponents. (e.g. If you used a 5.0 DPS sword to kill a wolf in Northshire, each swing takes off a certain percentage of the wolf’s health. Using that same sword to kill a wolf in Northrend would result in a far weaker attack.)

If you don’t acquire gear as you level, you will quickly find yourself unable to function effectively. The Ironman Challenge is a good example of what happens if you continue to wear white-quality clothing throughout the leveling process. It gets really hard, really fast.

3. Endgame content releases are designed around increasing gear power, not character power.

It’s strange to write it that way, because it’s such a fundamental part of what WoW’s endgame is. But there you have it. The endgame removes the acquisition of additional abilities, talents, skills, and replaces leveling with additional tiers of content. There is no fundamental difference between a fresh level 85 character and one who has been playing at 85 for a year, except for their gear.

And that gear will determine what content they are able to participate in.

In a tabletop fantasy RPG this gets handled differently. It’s hard to set aside the idea that you don’t gain experience for actions in AD&D, but let’s try for a moment. Let’s say you hit the end of a campaign and the big confrontations are happening. You’re level 20 and stuff is epic. You might realize that you need a specific magic item to tackle the final challenge, or that you’re not strong enough and need to recruit others. Or it happens without you being able to prepare for it – you go in with your wits and your sword and your luck and hope for the best.

You don’t sit there and say, I need to go grind out points in dungeons so I can tackle the dragon.

4. Gearing/leveling make all damage, and therefore encounter difficulties, relative.

The ultimate nail in the coffin of the gun-to-your-character’s-head scenario is that the combination of gear and levels make every encounter highly relative. Realism gets thrown out the window when you can’t even sit down and say “a gun does X amount of damage.” Which gun is it? What level is the person wielding it? What are they wearing? What about the person getting shot, what level are they, what are they wearing?

Warcraft makes it so that you can’t make statements like, a punch does 1-2 points of damage modified for strength, a gun does 1-6 modified for dexterity, a sword does 1-8, which in turn means you can’t evaluate that and say, yeah, a gun could kill an average person or not. No. In WoW a gun might do 10-35 damage or 4000-5000 points of damage, and the target might have 100 health or 150 million health. A punch from a level 85 character could kill half a village in terms of raw damage.

This kind of system suspends realism in favor of in-game power.

It’s interesting playing through a lot of the revamped leveling zones in Cataclysm. The presence of elite Forsaken and Gilnean troops in Silverpine brings to the forefront that while these mobs are badasses for your level, they’re still like… level 25 elites. Objectively, they’re not that tough. Level up a bit and come kick their asses later. But doing so breaks the immersion of the story – you might be Sylvanas’ most trusted soldier, but let’s face it, a level 60 Forsaken with decent gear could beat the entire Gilnean army without breaking a sweat.

I think it’s even more interesting when Warcraft suddenly decides that it’s going to follow realistic logic. Nobody gets one-shot in World of Warcraft by a gun to the head, right?

Well, right up until Sylvanas gets killed by Godfrey in Silverpine Forest, that rule pretty much makes sense. But suddenly she’s dead, and you’re like, wtf, can’t you move out of the pistol barrage?

And then you realize, no, the most powerful Forsaken on Azeroth just got one shot by a pistol. Anyone can die at any time.

(As long as they’re NPCs in a cutscene.)

We need to keep this in mind when we talk about level-appropriateness of zones.

OUTGROWING ZONES

Kleps over at Troll Racials Are Overpowered had an interesting article today about how level 85s shouldn’t do low level battlegrounds. It’s an interesting read, and though I had a couple of knee-jerk reactions this morning, I sat down and thought about it for a while. And it’s an interesting proposition, even if I don’t agree with it.

I tried to step back from my position that battlegrounds having the highest replay value in the game and really see what Kleps’ is saying, how battlegrounds and dungeons are handled in such radically different ways.

  • Dungeons get easier as you level and acquire gear.
  • Battlegrounds remain more or less the same as you go.

This variability of difficulty doesn’t have anything to do with the inherent nature of either dungeons or battlegrounds. While there are some abilities which make different maps easier (having mounts for large terrain expanses), generally none of them render a map unplayable. It’s nice to be able to mount up and run in ZF or AB, but you can run LFD without it. You can play AB without a mount.

But there’s an interesting kernel in here, this idea that we outgrow content. That, at some point, Wailing Caverns becomes too little, too wee, too small. It’s in the past, it’s in our history, it’s not appropriate for us to run anymore. We aren’t young heroes any more, we’re saviors of Azeroth, freeing a druid from the Emerald Nightmare in the Barrens is beneath us. There’s no challenge in doing it (except getting lost, and the map is no longer the hardest boss in WC.) There’s not really any reward, unless we’re tying to find some purple and green gear for a mog outfit. It’s appropriate when we are leveling through the Barrens, but not afterwards.

Most dungeons are, indeed, like this. Outland and Northrend dungeons make sense only in their relative contexts, and only provide challenges there, too. As you level up, your potential gear grows, and you become more and more powerful relative to that old dungeon.

Battlegrounds don’t really make sense – have never really made sense – in this context. How could you have a bunch of level 85 characters fighting over Ashenvale, when that conflict zone is for levels 20-30? It’s not appropriate. Neither is level 35 characters fighting in Netherstorm – the leveling problem goes both ways here.

It’s easy enough for me to say, listen, PvP is entirely relative. It’s not about how much health you have, it’s about how much health you have relative to the damage your opponents put out. It’s not about how much damage you put out, but how quickly you can deal it during periods when defenses are low or healing is unable to address it. This is why battlegrounds work. This is why they work from level 10 all the way up to level 85 – it is about the relative challenge. Yes, there are issues within each bracket. Yes, burst is too high in some. Yes, health is too high in some. Yes, there are too many/too few counters in some.

But perhaps the easy response is not really the right response. Perhaps it’s not that battlegrounds are broken, and that their design needs to be defended – but rather that dungeons are broken.

MAKING HEADSHOTS MATTER

Increasing health as you level makes no sense. There are a lot of things about leveling that don’t make sense when you really think about them, but the increases in health are a big one. It’s a construct of the RPG genre, a gameplay element that helps you feel like your character is progressing.

That progression is completely divorced from the story. Look at many of the successful early zones in Cataclysm: Silverpine, Westfall, Darkshore, Barrens. You are interacting with the story on a heroic level in these zones. It doesn’t matter that you are only level 16, you are interacting with your faction leaders and named lore characters. You are taking on challenges with significant lore-based ramifications. Your actions shape nations.

And your level doesn’t matter.

It’s not just leveling zones where we see this, though. Leveling dungeons have plenty of hugely significant events. It’s tempting to trivialize some of them because of their low levels, but you discover important facts about the origin of the dwarves, kill Therazene’s daughter, bring down the remnants of a troll empire, kill the Dark Iron Emperor and bring Moria Bronzebeard to power. You free druids and dragons from the Emerald Dream. You counter the Defias threat to Stormwind.

All of these things are important for the story of your character, and are pretty heroic on their own. But because they’re at lower levels, we tend to dismiss them as invalid or unimportant. But they are!

The more I play, the more I think this is the real, fundamental flaw behind MMORPG storytelling. There has to be a way to say, hey, make the gun to the head matter. Make this content relevant to me. Make it appropriate for the story, and appropriate to my character. If it’s supposed to be a challenge, make it a challenge, even if it’s Wailing Caverns and I’m level 85.

This is one area where I think PvP outshines PvE by a longshot. For all of its flaws, PvP in Warcraft allows the content to be relevant to you no matter what level you participate in it. Alterac Valley is as much of a challenge at 85 as it is at 70 as it is at 51 because other players make it so.

When talking about game design I often refer back to the FUDGE Scale – a relative measure of the quality of something in a RPG. Instead of increasing without limit, character abilities get defined relative to base standard. So, for example, I could be playing a starship engineer who is a Poor pilot, but a Great mechanic. If I attempt to make a repair with a Good difficulty, I’m probably going to be able to make it. If I try to make a starship maneuver with a Good difficulty, I’m probably not.

You can think of the FUDGE scale as fuzzy logic applied to RPGs – it’s how we tend to think about actual characterization, abilities, the gut check to make sure that the numbers and the system work right. It helps us describe problems like the problem of Cataclysm 80-85 leveling – you go from a Superb character to a Poor character over the course of this journey, and then back to Superb through the course of Cataclysm’s raiding tiers. It’s a disconcerting journey to take a character through – I went from faceroll tanking Northrend content at 79-80 to getting my ass kicked in the Throne of Tides at level 80, struggling to stay alive and wondering what I was doing wrong. It’s simple – my relative power level dropped, dramatically. That’s okay, but disheartening.

What if we could adjust this, though? What if we could turn around and say – make it easier. Make it harder. Three levels of content difficulty – leave it the way it is, make it easy for your level, make it hard.

Gee, that kinda sounds like Dragon Soul raiding, doesn’t it? Only instead of three tiers structured with absolute values, create them with relative difficulties: as they were (“at-level,” “normal-mode,”), easy for your current level, and hard for their current level.

Heck, get rid of levels as a gate of content. Allow people to try content at any level, just normalize the content for their current situation. (“Level 10 twinks raid Dragon Soul, down Deathwing, film at 11!”) Take a page from SW:TOR’s PvP and make it so that levels are irrelevant – gear and abilities are normalized so that level 10s can fight level 40s. Expand that to PvE, make it so level 40s can get together and raid Ulduar – skill trumps leveling.

Gear could even be reworked in this kind of a model – instead of providing constant increase in power, we’d seek out gear that had certain special abilities. Perhaps it’s elemental slaying gear for MC and Firelands, undead slaying gear from ICC, and you raid so that you get gear with special abilities which carry you on to other raids.

Instead of obsoleting Battlegrounds because our characters outgrow them, why not make Dungeons more relevant throughout the leveling process? Make it so that you pick a raid not upon what’s current content, but on what you enjoy or has gear you actually want?

It’s a very different world to consider.

DYNAMIC CONTENT AND WARCRAFT

This isn’t going to work.

As a system, relative difficulties make a lot of sense. If you design a RPG so that difficulties are Easy / Normal / Hard from the ground up, you can go ahead and ensure that your content is fresh and valuable no matter how your leveling system works. Characters wouldn’t outgrow the story. You could take your 85s through Silverpine and Darkshore and have those be interesting experiences, instead of 1-shotting your way through everything. A MMORPG designed around dynamic content difficulties would be a lot of fun to play.

But that’s not the World of Warcraft.

WoW is a game of gear acquisition. That’s the fundamental premise of the entire game. You get good gear, it will become old and crappy gear as you level up. You’re going to need better gear every few months at the endgame. You’re going to need it with every new expansion.

If you take the importance of gear away, you remove many of the motivations people have for playing WoW. Characters don’t level to get better abilities, don’t run dungeons and raid to get better gear. They don’t subscribe month after month trying to get the newest latest best gear; they run through the content, enjoy it (all of it), and then go do something else.

Conversely, battlegrounds stand outside of this. While gear is important, it’s only important relative to your fellow players. Gear as well as you can for your opponents. This rule works from levels 10-85! Your opponents will always be dynamic. Having a static set of maps allows people to master the game-within-a-game of each individual BG, but they aren’t tied to specific levels. There’s nothing in them that really refers back to the PvE zones which they live in – they’re just maps. Timeless maps with high replay value that the developers don’t have to mess with while they create new content for PvE to consume – and outgrow.

Changing the foundations of WoW makes for an interesting thought exercise.

But ultimately – headshots will never kill your toons.

(Except in a cutscene.)

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