Category Archives: Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual

Wednesday Reading

You know, it’s been a while since I’ve done a link post, and there are some great posts out on the web right now. Here are a few that have caught my attention over the last week or so.

  • I’m so glad to see Lara posting again at Root and Branch. Her latest, “Fight On The Flag, Damn You!” is an excellent tale of bloodshed in the gulch.
  • Gnomaggeddon gives great advice, again, to folks who want to lose quickly in How to end a BG quick – without bitching!
  • Murmurs has got a great post up on Blood Pact about How to be a True Warlock, covering the basics of the class in what might be the best warlock post ever.
  • Psynister delivers another great leveling gear post by asking, Are Heirlooms Really Best in Slot? (He also reminds me I should probably drop my heirloom weapons on my Rogue and get some decent ones.)
  • I know that this has nothing to do with PvP, and my own adventures as a druid are of the Fail!Druid type, but A Sunnier Bear has a great post up on Feral Macros. I love me a good macro post!
  • Speaking of Druids: Oombulance. That is all.
  • Heavy Wool Bandage has a great expose on Yetimus, because what you don’t know will hurt you.
  • Jaedia has a wonderful post up on How to Win the Stranglethorn Fishing Extravaganza. (I finally won it!)
  • Jinxed Thoughts took a look at Healing classes and the 5×2 project, with some great results!
  • Vidyala at Manalicious has two interesting posts up about alts, mains, and which one you raid with. I think a lot of us with dedicated mains can identify with this struggle – I know I sure can.
  • And, in case you had any doubts that Blizzard really wants people to start playing Rated Battlegrounds in 4.2, there will be New PvP Mounts for Rated Battlegrounds. I’m sure you’re all shocked that another carrot has been offered.

Also, for fans of Cynwise (the character), I’ve added an Artwork page to this site.

Enjoy!

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The Persistent Problem of PvP Rating Exploits

Velidra sent me the link to the above video of a Destruction Warlock tearing apart battlegrounds with his bare hands. The guy takes on 3 Rogues at once and walks away the sole survivor. If I walk away from an encounter with a single Rogue, I usually count myself lucky. Three of them at once? Game over, man. Game over.

But not for Adouken.

I enjoy PvP videos. They usually make me feel bad about my own UI (how do they do that with so few addons?) but they make me feel great about the potential of my class, and I try to learn from them as best I can.

Videos naturally show a skewed version of a player’s skill, but that’s doesn’t mean that players who show off their skills in them are somehow faking it. They might not be that good all the time, but damn if they weren’t that good at some point, when the cameras were rolling. Odds are pretty high that they are that good, and that they operate at a high level of play all the time.

I don’t play anywhere near as well as you see Adouken play in that video – far from it. Watch that first segment and realize that he’s casting Nether Ward inbetween the time a spell is cast at him and the time it reaches him. You notice how it looks like he reflects Death Coils back at their caster? He’s casting his own Death Coil while his opponent’s spell is in the air. That’s awesome.

There is an objective difference in skill between Adouken’s player and me. While it may not be easy, surely, we can measure it somehow, right?

That’s where PvP ratings are supposed to come in and help us know the great from the good, the poor from the mediocre. They way they work is simple, at least in concept.

  • There are two numbers used in the rating system: Matchmaking Rating (also called MMR) and your PvP Rating. You have different values for each bracket.
  • Your Matchmaking Rating changes with every win and loss, and is used by the system to try to find a level of skill where you’ll win about 50% of the time. You can think of the MMR as measuring your aptitude, your potential rating.
  • Your PvP Rating is based upon your performance over time, changes slowly, and is what PvP achievements, gear rewards, and titles are based upon. PvP Rating, in theory, measures your performance over time.

The goal of the PvP rating system is to match you up with people of equal ability, not to allow you to win all the time.

That’s kinda weird, isn’t it? From a sport perspective, it would be really strange to have a system that wasn’t based on win/loss records (performance). But you also have different leagues and ways of stratifying talent that don’t exist in computer games – local, regional, and national competitions, playoffs, major, minor, and little leagues. So instead, the goal is to put a number on you and say, this is an arbitrary level you’re performing at.

All other things being equal, you should win about 50% of your matches against teams and people of similar PvP rank.

But that’s not how it works.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE MISSING MMRS

So a funny thing happened in the 4.2 Patch notes.

  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Arena scoreboard.
  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Rated Battleground scoreboard and replaced with a team Matchmaking Rating.

This is kind of curious, isn’t it? What’s going on here?

I’ve said several times that Blizzard is trying to encourage people to get into Rated Battlegrounds in patch 4.2, and that many of the changes are with this in mind. You might think that a change like this is just to make it so that people who join rBGs don’t see how outmatched they are and throwing the match immediately.

While this makes a limited amount of sense, it’s not what’s going on. Yes, this is to try to make Rated Battlegrounds more fair, and therefore more attractive. But hiding the personal MMR is aimed at stopping a series of exploits people are using to get titles in both Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, exploits which are running rampant right now. The most common exploit involves using alts to boost the main characters’s MMR, then winning enough games at the various high levels to get the desired titles.

If you’ve been comfortably playing in a lower Arena bracket, you may have noticed that the last 2 weeks have been rather… more painful than before.

You’re not imagining things.

THE PROBLEM WITH MMR, OR WHY THAT TEAM JUST STOMPED US

[Player]: How about a joke before you go?
[GM]: Your Arena rating.
[Player]: /facepalm

Consider the following facts about how MMR works.

  • Your team MMR (different from your rating, mind you) is equal to the average individual MMR of all the players on the team.
  • In the event of a win, individual MMR should go up, thereby raising the team MMR. Losses reduce MMR, but not as much as wins do.
  • Players on new teams start out with 1500 MMR.

Let’s look at how this works out.

You start the season out with your two friends and start playing 3v3 on your mains. You win some, you lose some, but your individual MMR rises and falls together. If your MMR hits 1800, your teammates are also at 1800. Your MMR, and eventually your PvP rating, accurately reflect your team’s performance to date. Everything is rosy.

Now let’s say one of you has an alt you want to bring in. Maybe it’s because it’s a better comp, maybe it’s just time for a change. Now you’ve got two people at 1800 MMR and one person at 1500 MMR, so your team has a MMR of 1700. You’re facing teams which are a little worse than you were doing before, but maybe the alt is undergeared, so it balances out.

What’s interesting is that it might balance out to fair matches in the 1700-1800 bracket, your individual MMRs are now going to be out of sync. The alt will always have a lower MMR than the other two main characters, and can never catch up.

Now let’s take a step back and change the conditions a little bit. You have a 3v3 team, starts fresh at 1500 and goes to 1800. Two of you drop your mains and swap to alts. Your team’s MMR is now 1600. You’re facing easier teams than you did at the 1800 bracket, so you win, even though the alts might be a little undergeared. They gain +200 MMR, you gain +200 MMR, you’re now at 2000 MMR, they’re at 1700 MMR – and your team is back at 1800 MMR.

With me so far? You’re still playing at 1800 MMR teams, but your personal MMR is 2000, your team’s alts are at 1700.

Now, you swap to to one of your alts, and one of your teammates swaps to their mains. 1500 alt, 1700 alt, and 1800 main are now on a 1666 team. You play until your teammate’s main is at 2000. (You’d be at 1700, the second alt would be at 1900.)

You see where this is going, right?

By cycling through alts, teams are able to artificially boost the individual MMR of their main characters.

Now let’s take this a step further. The team cycles through once or twice, everyone’s mains are sitting around 2000 MMR. The alts are all around 1800, which is really where people’s skills are at.

So the team hops on their alts and loses every single match. Their MMR tanks. They go from an 1800 MMR team to a 500 MMR team in a night. Those characters have terrible MMR now, which is exactly what they want.

Because now, you have a crop of alts at 500 MMR to swap into a team with a 2000 MMR main. The team’s matchmaking rating is 1000, so they’re going to be facing significantly easier opponents. But they’re capable of playing at 1800 MMR, so they dominate. The main’s MMR shoots up to 3000+ while the alts are climbing back up to 1800.

And then once everyone’s mains have an MMR of 4000+, they all rejoin the team and play enough matches to bring their team rating – and therefore their PvP rating, which gives the Gladiator titles – up to the desired level. Yes, their MMR will fall from the heights it reached, but the PvP Rating will rise to meet it somewhere in the middle.

When that team comes and stomps your 1000-rated group you and your friends put together to screw around on with perfect CC chains, huge burst damage and flawless target switching… they should never have been playing you in the first place.

BUT WAIT, RATED BATTLEGROUNDS ARE EVEN WORSE

You know why MMR boosting is an even bigger problem in Rated Battlegrounds? It’s not because they’re BGs, and it’s not because I am trying to pick a fight with rBGs this week.

No, it’s because:

  1. There are 10 people on your team, and
  2. Rewards are based on your individual MMR, not your team MMR.

Nice, huh?

Swapping alts (or even players who don’t care) in and out of BGs can be done like in Arenas, but it’s a little easier to boost MMR due to the number of low rated alts you can bring to the team. If you have 2 players at 1800 and 8 players at 1000, your team will be at 1160 MMR and (hopefully) get matched accordingly.

The coordination required to alt swap and lose MMRs is harder to do with 10 people than with 3. There’s a lot more time involved with Rated Battlegrounds, and the effort put forth by a low-rated character is often the same (or more) than a high-rated one, but the high rated one will get rewarded disproportionately to their efforts. While there is some alt-swapping going on, it’s not as easy as some other methods of boosting your MMR.

No, the best thing to do is to work with a strong group until you’re all up to a decent level – say 1800-2000 – and then PuG like crazy. Get into the worst groups you can find who still have a chance of winning, and play with them. This has the same effect as the alt-swapping MMR boost – when you win, you win big, when you lose, you don’t lose that much – with none of the headaches of having to swap alts yourself. You can go from PuG to PuG, increasing your MMR with each win. You may not win as consistently as you do with your set group, but you will get a great rating, which in turn gives you access to the PvP titles. You don’t even have to win any matches at your new MMR to get the titles, because nothing is based on your team’s MMR or rating – just your individual rating.

Remember back when you thought people’s rating really measured their skill?

/AFK FTW

At some point above, you probably wondered how people can preserve their ratings while losing.

Well, if you leave a match before it finishes, it doesn’t count. This is how win-trading works – people queue in off-hours, trying to get specific teams to match up against, and leave the match if it’s not them. When people leave the match as soon as things start going a little wrong? They’re leaving to preserve their MMR, which gets modified at the end of the match.

You didn’t think people were /afking because they were scared of you, right? :-)

WIN TRADING

Another reason why people /afk out of an Arena (or Rated Battlegrounds, though I think this is less common) match is because they’re trying to trade wins with another team.

This often happens late at night, when there aren’t a lot of teams playing in the different brackets, and it’s been a problem since Arenas started, but obviously if you can find a team who will throw the match for you, it’s a great way to get your PvP Rating to match your possibly inflated MMR.

I don’t have a lot to say about win trading. Don’t think it doesn’t happen, because it does.

WHY BLIZZARD IS HIDING INDIVIDUAL MMRS

Given that there are two different types of MMR inflation going on in both types of Rated PvP, you can start to see why Blizzard is trying to hide that value. It’s not going to prevent the problem from happening, especially not in Rated Battlegrounds, but it can reduce the precision with which people are doing it now. There will be more guesswork when exploiting, both in boosting and tanking individual MMRs.

There’s a concept in security circles called “Security through Obscurity,” which is a way of describing any security system that relies upon something being hidden for it to be secure. It’s usually treated as a bad thing, because once something is found that relies on it, it’s completely insecure. In cryptography, if your sophisticated code algorithm uses a single seed to generate codes, once the seed is known your code is useless. In piracy, if you bury your gold but don’t put a lock on it, anyone who finds the gold can take it.

In other words, security through obscurity is generally not very secure.

There’s a temptation to say that hiding the MMRs is just that – not making the system any less susceptible to exploitation, just hiding the problem. People can still do the things they’re doing now. You are going to face teams who are boosting themselves, who have great gear and skilled players but are playing with an MMR well below their real skill, and you won’t be able to tell anymore.

But, removing the data points does make it more difficult on the exploiters. Not a lot – not like a complete revamp of the MMR system would – but a bit. It’s a relatively simple change in terms of development time which will have some impact. That’s why it’s happening now.

I don’t really like this change, but I see that Blizzard has to do something.

Will teams still be able to boost their MMR into the stratosphere? You bet. As far as I can see, as long as the three conditions I laid out about the MMR system hold true, boosting is possible. You can’t have flexible teams and not have this kind of potential abuse. Will it be harder for other players to find out who is boosting? Yes, it will.

It’s not great. But it’s a start.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

Man is the measure of all things.

-Protagoras

The interesting thing about the PvP Rating system, at least the Platonic ideal of the PvP rating system, is that it provides a way to compare people with very different character types. No matter what you play, or what your team is like, it should provide a relative measure against other players. The values are arbitrary and entirely dependent upon the actions of other players, as well as your own.

I think about other rating systems that assign a numeric value to your ability – college aptitude tests like the SAT/ACT, IQ tests, even professional placement exams – and they all measure ability based upon fixed criteria. Here is a test, there are right and wrong answers, how did you do? (Please note, I am an old fart, and I still think of the SAT as having all multiple-choice questions, none of this fancy writing stuff.)

Both types of test assign numeric values, which of course makes them more scientific.

But more than that, both purport to measure aptitude, but one is easy to game for your advantage, while the other is not. Why is that?

Take a look at the exploits again. Each one of them involves using other people. The system isn’t the problem, the people are. The system relies upon measuring you and your teammates, and your performance against other teams, which provides two places where it can be exploited.

Your opponents can really only modify your rating through throwing a match and win-trading, which is one kind of problem. You and your teammates can modify it through careful manipulation, boosting some characters, tanking the ratings of others, and preserving gains through /afking.

If these ratings were static and based upon some kind of objective performance, this kind of exploitation would not be possible. You can’t cheat an aptitude test by trying to throw off the bell curve and flooding the test pool with people who are going to score 0. You can’t get a 1600 on the SATs by being better than everyone else in your testing pool – you have to get every question right.

There are objective measurements of player skill, even in an environment soaked in relativity like PvP. Go back to the video at the top of the page. The player’s reaction time is faster than many others. They choose the right spells and abilities to succeed. They position themselves well, they use their abilities in the correct order. There is a measurable difference between that kind of play and my own, and that means we could construct a static test to measure it.

But static tests are hard. They have to be randomized, administered sparingly, maintained and updated. I don’t know how it would capture performance in the field fairly. I have only the vaguest ideas how a static PvP test would work. Perhaps like kata in martial arts, where mastery of a ritualized set of moves – perhaps a scripted PvP encounter for each class – is required to move to the next level?

That doesn’t feel much like PvP to me. PvP requires other players, living, breathing, thinking teammates and opponents.

And yet, as soon as we bring other people into our measure, we open the door for manipulating that rating.

SKILL > RATING

PvP Rating is not equal to skill. As much as we would like to have a system that really represents skill, the PvP Rating system is not it.

The more I look at how the PvP Rating system is being manipulated, the less I respect it. There are a lot of highly skilled players with high ratings, where ability and performance are in sync. But there are plenty of other teams that are taking shortcuts, who are going for the quickest way to their desired goal. They’ll stomp through the lower brackets while boosting a friend’s toon. The only incentives that aren’t about gaining the coveted rating are designed to get people into Rated Battlegrounds – everything else is about getting your numbers up.

Players who deliberately game the rating system sadly affect other players. A 2500 player playing in the 1250 range artificially depresses the ratings of people who would naturally be in the lower brackets. The upper brackets, in turn, get filled with people who have artificially inflated their ratings, giving the people who actually perform at that level easy opponents, inflating their ratings in turn.

The more players who game the system, the more imbalanced the brackets get.

And none of this is a reason to not play Arenas or Rated Battlegrounds.

  • Arenas remains the best place to learn how to win fights in PvP, period. (The only other activity that even comes close is dueling, which is really 1:1 Arena.) Yes, it’s a death match. Yes, there are strict limits about what you can and can’t use. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. Try to win them anyway. Learn from your losses.
  • Rated Battlegrounds delivered on their promise – they let you play BGs with the team composition you want against really good opponents. You have to win the individual fights, you have to execute a strategy, you have to do it against an organized opponent. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. So what? Get stronger.

As long as PvP Ratings are a relative measure, players will work together to game the system and artificially inflate their ratings. The exploits I’ve discussed are just some of the ways that players are trying to get around the system.

Is this cheating? Yep, you better believe it. Creative use of game mechanics, my foot.

But while it unbalances PvP, it’s not a reason to abandon Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds.

Skill is not equal to rating. Skill can’t be gamed, it can only be acquired through work and talent.

Screw your PvP Rating. Focus on improving your skill instead.

If you do that, all the exploits in the world won’t matter one bit.

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Disguising Sticks as Carrots: the 6/16 Conquest Point Cap Update

The 4.2 Patch notes have been updated last night (6/16) with a dramatic shift from punishment to reward regarding the Conquest Point cap changes of 4.2.

The entire set of patch notes are below, with my comments following. Updated information is in red.

  • The minimum cap on Conquest Points earned per week from Arenas is now 1500 1350 at 1500 or less Battleground Arena rating. The maximum cap remains is now 3000 2700 at 3000 or more Battleground Arena rating. The cap continues to scale non-linearly between those two points. For comparison, during season 9 the cap ranged between 1343 and 3000.
  • The game now separately tracks different Conquest Point caps for Battlegrounds and Arenas. The cap for Arena rating will always be 2/3 of the cap for Rated Battleground rating at any given Arena rating. Battleground ratings receive a bonus of 22.2% to the cap they generate, meaning the cap from Battleground rating now ranges between 1650 and 3300. Players may earn a total number of Conquest Points per week equal to the higher of these two caps, but once players have reached the cap for either Arenas or Battlegrounds, they can no longer earn Conquest Points from that source. Conquest Points from Battleground holidays only count toward the total Conquest Point cap.
    • Example: During the first week of Season 10 everyone starts with a rating below 1500. Therefore, the cap from Rated Battlegrounds will be 1500 1650 and the cap from Arena rating will be 1000 1350. In the first week, the character wins enough Arena matches to reach the 1000 1350 point cap. After that point, Arena wins will no longer grant Conquest points for the week. However, the character can still earn up to 500 300 additional points, but can only earn those points from either Rated Battlegrounds, or from the Conquest Point bonus for holiday and/or daily random Battlegrounds. The following week the cap will be recalculated based on the character’s ratings, and it is possible Arena rating could now generate the higher cap. The second week, the character’s cap from Arena rating is 1600 1800, and the cap from Rated Battlegrounds is 1500 1650. The character has a total cap of 1600 1800 Conquest points for the week. Up to 1500 1650 points can be earned from Rated Battlegrounds, but the last 100 150 must come from a different source.

The situation remains essentially the same, with sticks replaced by carrots. The ratio is slightly different, the math is more complicated, but the design goals are identical to last week’s version.

Players are being encouraged to go to Rated Battlegrounds, and it has nothing to do with slowing down the rate of acquisition of gear.

Take a look at the changes.

  • The gap between Arena and RBG caps has been reduced from 33.3% to 22.2% across the board.
    • The gap for the lowest-rated players is now 300 Conquest Points, down from 500.
    • The gap for the highest-rated players is now 600 Conquest Points, down from 1000 points.
  • The Arena cap for high rated players has been increased 700 points.
  • Instead of phrasing the change as a penalty to the Arena cap, the change is now phrased as a bonus to the Rated Battleground Cap.

High-ranked Arena players now continue with a majority of their play in Arena matches, but will need to do some Rated Battlegrounds, Zulroics, or raids to get their remaining 600 Conquest Points.

Since there haven’t been any changes to the Arena Conquest Point per hour rate on the PTR, low-ranked Arena players are now able to gain gear at the exact same rate that they got it in 4.1. Unless the prices for Ruthless Gladiator’s Gear go up, there is no change to the absolute rate of acquisition.

If this was PvE, then this would all be a moot point. Gear increases are relative to a static encounter difficulty, so you can make the argument that you can choose to do, or not do, Rated Battlegrounds, based on the desires of your raid group.

But this is PvP. The encounter difficulty of PvP is entirely relative to other players. Players who play Rated Battlegrounds, even who play them poorly, will gear up faster than players who do not. 

Rated Battlegrounds are not giving out more Conquest Points relative to their current version. Rated Battlegrounds are not being made a more attractive investment of one’s time – but they are being made into a requirement to stay competitive.

The only substantial change in this update is psychological. The stick has been replaced with a carrot, but there’s still a stick there. Cutaia pointed out this morning that this kind of change worked well before with Rested XP – changing the model from “Tired = XP Penalty” to “Rested = XP Bonus” made it vastly more attractive to players. That the time spent leveling didn’t change wasn’t important - giving players a bonus instead of a penalty changed their behavior. Rested XP is a bonus!

But it’s also the speed at which you were expected to level with originally. Whoops.

Ignore the hands, people!

The challenges of moving players away from Arenas into Rated Battlegrounds are substantial. It’s hard getting 10 people together when you’re used to only getting 2-5. It’s hard when rBGs don’t have enough players to offer newbies a fighting chance. It’s hard when the coding has been broken, when the maps aren’t tuned well, when you need a very specific comp to be successful. It’s hard.

I appreciate that Blizzard is at least looking at the way in which this change is presented. I really do. It didn’t go down well when it was announced, Blizzard is obviously trying their best to fix the the queue problems in Rated Battlegrounds, and they have to do something.

But no matter how these changes to the Conquest Point changes get spun, their purpose remains the same:

Get players into Rated Battlegrounds at any cost.

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The Carrot and the Stick: Rated Battlegrounds and the Conquest Point Cap of 4.2

Ed: Please see my next post for the PTR changes of 6/16/11.

There has been a conflict brewing in the Arena community over the last few weeks over an upcoming change to the way Conquest Points will be awarded starting in 4.2. From the PTR notes:

The game now separately tracks different Conquest Point caps for Battlegrounds and Arenas. The cap for Arena rating will always be 2/3 of the cap for Battleground rating at any given Arena rating. Players may earn a total number of Conquest Points per week equal to the higher of these two caps, but once players have reached the cap for either Arenas or Battlegrounds, they can no longer earn Conquest Points from that source. Conquest Points from Battleground holidays only count toward the total Conquest Point cap.

This is a somewhat confusingly-worded note, but the intent is that there will be a fundamental change in the way Conquest Points are earned. The only way to reach the weekly Conquest Point cap will be through doing Rated Battlegrounds, not Arenas. You can get 2/3rds of your weekly CP through Arenas, then the remainder have to come from Rated Battlegrounds.

If you want to be competitive in higher-end PvP, you must play Rated Battlegrounds in 4.2. That’s the intent behind this change. All rated PvP is not equal. Zarhym writes:

So, as many of you are interpreting this change, it is to encourage more participation in Rated Battlegrounds. We see the fact that participating in Arenas is by far the superior way of obtaining top-notch PvP gear, in terms of time investment, as a problem. If you want to maximize your Conquest Point gains in patch 4.2, you’ll need to participate at least a little bit in Rated Battlegrounds.

We know this may not sound very appealing to those of you who have grown accustomed to spending as little as an hour a week getting the top PvP currency in the game via Arenas over the last couple of expansions. To put things in perspective though, the total number of items that can be purchased with Conquest Points today is much larger than what you used to be able to buy with Arena Points pre-Deathwing world explosion. And there is no longer a requirement to “grind” unrated BGs for Honor each season, so the real time investment isn’t changing as much as some players are perceiving it to be.

On top of that, the frank reality is that the total time investment required in season 9 to get all your points has been much, much too low, as you could do that from a few 2v2 Arena games each week completed in less than an hour’s time. It shows that Rated Battlegrounds are currently sub-par in terms of the rate at which points can be accumulated.

We do feel this change is necessary to keep the time investment vs. high-quality item accumulation in check, even if it doesn’t read well on paper. However, as always, your constructive feedback is welcomed. :)

This is an interesting response, because there are two reasons given for why this change is being made, not one.

  • First, to encourage participation in Rated Battlegrounds.
  • Second, to require more time playing to get high-end PvP gear.

The first one is obvious, but what’s interesting is that it’s not the focus of Zarhym’s post. Of course this is being done to motivate players into playing Rated Battlegrounds. But why? After the first sentence, it’s not mentioned again and the entire response is about the problem of time investment versus gear acquisition.

Doesn’t this strike anyone else as being a little odd? Give one reason, then talk about another one that’s not really related to the first?

Let’s say that the problem is that Conquest PvP gear is too easy to get – a problem that I’m not sure is a real problem, but I can accept it for now. It’s not even that it’s too easy, it’s that it doesn’t take enough time each week if you do Arenas. Put the problem another way: too many Conquest Points are awarded per hour in Arenas.

Okay! That’s a solvable problem!

When we’ve seen similar problems with Battlegrounds and Honor Points in the past, you know what Blizzard has done? They adjust the rate of points gained in a battleground. This is not rocket science – we’ve had several Honor Point adjustments when developers felt that it took too much time to gear up via Battlegrounds versus Heroics (patches 3.3.3 and 4.1 most recently, if my memory serves me correctly.)

The logical response to Arenas giving too many Conquest Points per hour is to reduce the number of CP awarded per match, not to send players into a different activity. I’ve seen many good, creative suggestions about how to handle this on the official forums and Arena Junkies. Any of a number of solutions could be implemented to increase the time per piece. In fact, Blizzard has already done this once before in Cataclysm, normalizing the CP per Arena win in 4.1 so it took at least 7-8 victories, regardless of bracket, to reach the minimum cap instead of 5.

First I’m asked to believe that the graveyard changes of 4.1 were an anti-camping measure, and now I’m being asked to believe that these changes are to solve the problem of Arenas awarding too many Conquest Points per hour?

I… I actually feel kinda insulted by this post. I never thought I’d say that about a Blizzard blue post, but … there it is. I know I’m supposed to take a page from the Vulcans on just about everything, but… really? Really?

You really expect me to believe this is about CP/hour?

THE PROBLEM OF RATING

I think there are numerous problems affecting Rated Battlegrounds right now. These problems drive players to disproportionately avoid rBGs and favor Arenas, which in turn causes problems since Blizzard must justify the development cost of Rated Battlegrounds. My hunch is that, much like in Tol Barad, Blizzard feels that the solution to these problems is one of scale, not design, and that by adding more people the problems will resolve themselves.

They might even be right.

Gevlon describes the underlying problem with Rated Battlegrounds when he writes:

Rated games have about 50% win rate. A bit more when you are underrated and a bit less when overrated, but after you reached your “real” rating, it’s 50%.

If you played rated BGs, you know it’s absolutely not true.

The objective of rated play is to determine ratings. That sounds silly to say, but I think it’s important to come out and say it. It’s not about being “better” or “harder” – it’s about putting quantitative measurements on people’s play, which in turn can elevate the level play with good matching. Ultimately, though, it’s all about assigning numbers.

In theory, every team (and player within that team) has a equilibrium that they’re moving towards, a rating that represents their true ability demonstrated over time. Players should converge on their real rating as they play, and – in theory – they should have a roughly even chance of winning against someone with the same rating. Through the crucible of rated play, your team’s measure is taken.

When it works, ratings can be a hugely compelling incentive towards playing Arena because they guarantee that you’ll win some of the time. You can pick up a new partner and after a few hours of play your rating will settle to that point of equilibrium. Once you’re through that initial period – and it’s often surprisingly fast – things will settle down and you’ll start winning about half of the time.

This is not the situation in Rated Battlegrounds. Team MMRs – the measurement of the overall team’s ability – are often wildly mismatched. And I’m not talking about 100-200 points difference – we’re talking 1000-1500 points variance. That’s just ridiculously unfair matching.

If we assume that the same matching programs are in use between Arenas and rBGs, then the problem isn’t that there’s buggy code – it’s that the finder slowly relaxes its standards until it finds a suitable match. Let that sink in for a minute. Assuming that it’s working correctly, the hugely imbalanced match was the best match it could find.

Which, in turn, means that there aren’t enough teams in the system, period.

At best, there are clusters of teams in the queue, grouped around certain rating points. At worst, the queue is empty enough that the clusters don’t exist, and it’s all about finding any match.

I expect that the truth is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes – the few teams that survive the initial beatdown get established, allowing them to rise a bit, which in turn lets them win against the hapless newbies. It’s a vicious cycle where the strong thrive and the weak are pushed out, causing fair competition to cease at the lower skill levels. (Oh, hi, Warsong Gulch 10-19 bracket before the twinks left. It’s nice to see you again.)

Cross-battlegroup queues was the first step towards solving this problem. Making same-faction matches possible was the next step towards solving this problem, as it effectively doubles the size of the matchmaking pool. Requiring Rated Battlegrounds to cap Conquest Points is a logical step in this progression.

As long as Rated Battlegrounds require a full raid group to enter the queue, this problem will bedevil the system. Twink battlegrounds have similar problems with population, but can draw from individuals queueing in addition to guild groups. Arena 2s and 3s will enjoy fairer matching (and more accurate ratings) than 5s or rBGs due to larger populations to draw from, which in turn is due to the relative ease of coordinating smaller groups.

Much like Tol Barad, Blizzard needs to do something to get people to play Rated Battlegrounds. If the problems are not simply technical, but rather one of scale and player distribution, then driving PvPers into rBGs is the logical solution.

Much like awarding 1800 Honor to the attackers for a victory in Tol Barad, I expect that this will work… in much the same way, sadly.

THE CARROT AND THE STICK

I think we’ll look back fondly on the problems we had with Tol Barad during the first few months of Cataclysm, because this change to Arenas is going to make the TB debacle look like child’s play.

I confess, I was nervous when Rated Battlegrounds were announced as part of Cataclysm. The idea sounded all well and good, but the devil is in the details of implementation. How would ratings be assigned? How would losses be handled? What would this mean for the current setup? I had dozens of questions without any answers.

- “Preparing for Rated Battlegrounds,” June 2010

I wrote that a year ago. Let’s take a look at some of the problems Rated Battlegrounds have had since launch.

  • Having both 10-man and 15-man rBGs proved to be very difficult to staff for, causing 15s to be underplayed.
  • 15s were cut to drive players into 10s, which removed half of the battlegrounds from rated play. This left only two types of games – Capture the Flag and Resource/Node Control – on 3 maps. (10-man Arathi Basin was added later to compensate.)
  • Compositions which dominated these two games – especially the 4-healer/1-tank teams in CTF – caused a very defensive type of game, necessitating major changes to all rated maps, which in turn affected non-rated play.
  • Wins were often not recorded properly, sometimes causing teams to lose MMR for a victory. Can you imagine going through the effort of putting together a 10-man raid, downing a boss, and getting penalized for it?

On top of that:

  • Due to a lack of players, inexperienced teams will usually find themselves facing far superior opponents. This demoralizes the new players while boring the experienced ones.

The devil is in the details. Any one of these problems might not be enough to cause a mass exodus from rBGs, but over time, they’ve whittled down people’s desire to play them. Looking at the list above, as well as the cross-battlegroup and inter-faction changes designed to bring more people in to Rated Battlegrounds, paints a rather gloomy picture of this part of PvP.

In Tol Barad, Blizzard used a carrot to get people to fix the problem of people not playing it anymore. By offering massive Honor Point rewards for winning on offense, they caused rational win-trading by masses of their playerbase, completely undermining the zone. They made 2 more changes to the reward structure before finally implementing the solution that actually “fixed” Tol Barad – change the game mechanics to allow for an easier final base cap.

The carrot got people back into Tol Barad, but it didn’t solve the problem.

It backfired pretty badly, to be honest. I’d be shy of offering carrots after that week, too.

So, instead of a carrot to draw people in to Rated Battlegrounds, Blizzard now offers us a stick. And make no mistake about it – this is a stick. If you don’t do Rated Battlegrounds, you will fall behind in Arenas. Instead of offering better rewards from rBGs – or poorer rewards from Arenas, which works out to the same thing – we get an ultimatum. Instead of making Rated Battlegrounds more fun than Arenas, we get handed a chore that must be done.

You will do Rated Battlegrounds if you want to cap Conquest Points each week.

Period.

THERE’S ALWAYS A BIGGER CARROT

Tol Barad has more incentives to play than Wintergrasp, but players are less enthusiastic about it. Rated Battlegrounds have more rewards than Arenas and normal battlegrounds, but participation is low. Conquest Gear is too easy to get, while Honor Gear is too hard.

What the hell is going on with PvP in Cataclysm, anyways?

It’s so strange to be writing about the problems with Rated Battlegrounds when, for me personally, Season 9 has been a blast. I have had so much fun screwing around in Arenas it’s not even funny. This is, admittedly, a very personal perspective – we finally have enough folks interested in Arenas in my guild that we have a definite PvP subculture growing. Some weeks are bad, but most are good, and the time spent in the Arena has been rewarding on a lot of levels.

I still think a lot about my motivations that led me to write Replay Value, and why it is I’d rather PvP than raid. Arenas play a large part of that right now; it’s more appealing to me, with a somewhat fractured schedule, to know that I can bang out my weekly cap in a night or two of play, no matter the comp I choose to go with. I hang out with my friends, we have fun, we win some, we lose some, we have fun. Bring the player, not the class, right?

All of these little carrots that Blizzard manipulates in-game help us justify our specific choice of activity – in-game. They guide us towards certain things that we want. If we want to be a respected PvPer, we’ll probably want a PvP title, so we’ll work towards it. Perhaps we want a cool mount to show off our raiding skills, or a title that shows how much we like Fishing.

But there are bigger carrots out there, motivations that have nothing to do with in-game bling.

  • Am I having fun?
  • Am I enjoying spending time with the people I interact with?
  • Do I have a sense of accomplishment for the work that I’ve done?

Sure, the loot is nice. Shiny purples make you feel like, damn, I done good. Having a character with accomplishments makes you feel better.

But what happens when something in game simply isn’t fun for people?

This is the biggest carrot of all that a game, any game, can offer – this is more fun than the other things you could be doing right now. Why are mobile games so popular? Because they’re more fun than just waiting around in line somewhere. You can play Angry Birds on your phone for a few minutes while waiting in line at the DMV. You can play Words with Friends while killing time at the coffee shop. You can play World of Warcraft instead of watching TV, to unwind at the end of a busy day.

Why are Arenas popular right now? Is it the easy loot? Sure, that’s part of it. But they’re also more fun than Rated Battlegrounds for a lot of players. When I took my casual PvE-oriented guild into rBGs for a night, we got matched up with teams way beyond our rating – and we got stomped. The next rBG night we begged and pleaded for people to give it another try – and got stomped again.

We haven’t been able to fill out a rBG team since. Arena teams? Yes. Regular battleground groups? All the time. But no more Rated Battlegrounds.

This is not an easy problem to fix. Rated Battlegrounds aren’t fun for those who aren’t already good at them, so inexperienced teams find themselves matched up against good teams who destroy them, which drives the inexperienced teams away, perpetuating the imbalance.

I find myself thinking about the bigger carrots more and more these days. Why did I find Wintergrasp so much more fun than Tol Barad? Why do I prefer Arena to rBGs? Are these little carrots even worth it anymore?

Having little carrots replaced with a little sticks makes me wonder about the bigger carrots.

THE PROBLEM OF MINIMUM COMPETENCE

I witnessed a fascinating exchange over Twitter a few weeks ago between members of a highly progressed raiding guild about Rated Battlegrounds. It went something like this.

  • GM: I’d like to put together a Rated BG team.
  • PvPer: Please make sure that the people on it are good, or we’ll get destroyed.
  • GM: Well, this is something that I think a lot of people are interested in.
  • PvPer: Seriously, people need a 1900 Arena rating, or this is a waste of my time.
  • PvEer: I was leveling a priest specifically to help fill out our PvP team, but since I don’t Arena I’m not sure why I’m bothering if that’s your attitude.
  • PvPer: I appreciate what you’re doing, but I’m also being realistic here. It’s not enough to have a priest. We need good players in every position or it’s not worth our time.
  • PvEer: Thanks for demeaning my contribution before I’ve even made it.
  • GM: I just wanted to have us run some rBGs, people.

Rated Battlegrounds are like raids in organization, time investment, and composition. You need to have certain roles filled, players need to invest time in getting appropriate gear, and players need to be able to execute their roles correctly.

They are unlike raids in that the difficulty of the activity will vary from encounter to encounter, and will never get easier – at least if the rating system is working correctly. You will go from getting your ass kicked all the time, to getting your ass kicked some of the time, to getting your ass kicked occasionally but still losing roughly half of the time. Raiding generally doesn’t work like that – you get your ass handed to you for a while, then you make progress, then eventually the boss goes on farm status and you move on.

The conversation I watched unfold on Twitter had two people arguing two very valid, but conflicting, points of view.

The first point of view is that you need to be good enough to play with us. Raiders already know this, and many raid teams enforce strict rules about who can raid or who cannot. If you ignore the labels, the PvPer was actually espousing a philosophy of minimum demonstrated competence – you have to put in the time to show that you can perform up to a certain standard before you get the job. You have to be able to run Heroics before you raid. You have to be able to play in the Arenas before you rBG.

The other point of view is that you need to value the contributions of the members of your team, no matter the level of competence. Dismissing someone’s effort of leveling another character to 85 and gearing it up for rated PvP play based on an arbitrary qualification absolutely destroys their motivation. The PvEer in question is an excellent raider with strong loyalty towards their guild, but without a lot of PvP experience on that character. By adopting the attitude that it’s a waste of his time if people aren’t already really good, the PvPer made his participation conditional on the PvEer’s performance – which is not good for building a team.

(As an aside, flip the roles around and see how this conversation applies to raiding. It’s a fascinating exercise.)

The problem here is that the bar for minimum competence in Rated Battlegrounds is high, because mediocre and fair teams don’t keep playing.

Guilds are in an awkward position here; many have preexisting raid teams of skilled PvE players who would like to try rBGs, but don’t have the same level of experience or commitment to PvP yet. They can’t even practice in regular battlegrounds to help gear everyone up – they can only hope to find a like minded group to war-game with, which is time fighting without improving even basic gear. PvPers in non-PvP guilds are in a similarly awkward situation, having to mentor and assist their guild in preparing for an activity not everyone signed up for.

The new guild system only exacerbates this problem. Guilds are tempted by the new achievement structure to expand their normal spheres of activity. Players are encouraged to do things in guild groups, further increasing the temptation to have guilds just try out things like Rated Battlegrounds – even if there’s not a solid PvP core. Players who want to both raid and PvP either have to find a guild which is a good fit on both, or consider splitting their time between guilds by having a PvP toon in one and a raiding toon in another – a hugely awkward solution.

I brought up this conversation because it reflects a real problem with Rated Battlegrounds – there’s not really any way to do them causally, unlike raiding. You can’t bang your head against them and make some progress. The content doesn’t get nerfed over time, things won’t get easier naturally. You never outgear your opponents, and the way things are structured now, you must have a good level of gear and competency across the team to have a chance. The similarities to the heyday of 10-19 Warsong Gulch twinking are apt.

The only way to make rBGs more accessible to casual PvPers is to lower the overall minimum competence required by flooding the system with weaker teams. Otherwise, the pool will remain populated by dedicated PvP teams who will crush aspiring teams as a matter of course.

I’ll let you try to find a good way to spin that inconvenient fact into a press release.

TAKE IT TO THE MATTRESSES

I keep coming back to that blue post about this change and wondering what the behind-the-scenes discussions are like at Blizzard regarding Rated Battlegrounds. Only they have the real numbers behind participation – only they can really tell if the amount of developer time spent on the key PvP feature of this expansion has been worth it. Are enough players playing rBGs to justify their cost?

The change to how Conquest Points are being awarded in 4.2 isn’t about slowing down gear acquisition; it’s an effort by Blizzard to get players back into Rated Battlegrounds to solve a number of problems that, upon due consideration, stem from not having enough teams distributed throughout the rBG system.

That’s okay. I can understand it. This is their business, and ultimately this is about their bottom line, not mine. I can be curious, I can have opinions about it, but let’s face it – my criteria for the success of a game (is it fun?) is different from theirs (is it profitable?). I can enjoy an activity that isn’t making the developer any money and call it a success. The popularity of Rated Battlegrounds, and therefore their profitability, is not really my concern.

At least it wasn’t, until Blizzard just made it my concern by affecting the fun I was having elsewhere.

There are things I care about as a customer of any product or service, and there are things that I decidedly don’t. I care about the product I get, the service I receive, and the price I pay. If you fail to deliver what I paid you for, here are some things I really don’t care about:

  • Your other customers.
  • Your internal problems.
  • Your bottom line.

This is just business; it’s not personal. I don’t care about your other customers if they’re taking away development resources on things I’ve paid for. I don’t care about your process problems which cause you to be 6 weeks late in installing a circuit, and then cause you to do it wrong. I don’t even care if you’re going to take a loss on the transaction. None of those are my problem.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that problems happen, I provide goods and services too. I value long-term partnerships, and don’t throw them away because of isolated issues. I want us both to be successful. I want my partners to make money and have a profitable relationship with me.

But when someone says the reason they failed to deliver something they promised due to an internal problem, or due to other customers, I remind them that I don’t care about their problems. I care about my problem, which is that you failed to deliver on a promise!

And if you can’t fix it and make it right, then I will start looking to take my business elsewhere. It’s just business; it’s not personal. You screwed up, which I can forgive, but then you tried to make your problem into my problem, and I don’t forgive that easily.

It took me several days to realize that my reaction to Zarhym’s post was exactly the same reaction I have to someone telling me they’re going to have to limit services I receive due to process problems that resulted from, say, a reorganization, or a new product launch. And hey, prices are going up, too!

I was actually quite relieved when I realized this. Like, okay, I get why I’m pissed about this. Got it.

Why should I care that Rated Battlegrounds need more teams playing it? I enjoy playing PvP with the people I play with. We tried Rated Battlegrounds, didn’t enjoy the experience, so went off to play Arenas instead. It’s not a judgement call on the Rated Battleground product as a whole – it’s just that it wasn’t fun for me and the people I wanted to play with. Other people love them, which is great! But not us, not right now.

I like Product A, and have liked it for a while. But now, in order to enjoy Product A, I have to also buy Product RBG, which is more expensive, is more of a hassle to assemble, and takes longer to deal with. I can get Product A on its own, but I get less than I used to without Product RBG.

And this change is because sales of Product RBG are low. It’s a quirk of the product that if more people had Product RBG, it would probably be easier to use, which is arguably a good thing for the vendor.

But how is it good for me, exactly?

Other people’s problems are not my problems, and I don’t appreciate it when they try to make them mine.

THE PROBLEM OF SHUT UP AND DEAL WITH IT

I don’t think it’s my place to say if Rated Battlegrounds are a success or a failure. In my world, that’s a business evaluation that only Blizzard can really perform, because it really only matters to their bottom line.

As a player, however, I have to look at it and ask why I’m being asked to change my behavior. Why am I being asked to stop having the fun I’ve been having in Arenas and start having less fun in Rated Battlegrounds? Does it add up that this is really about slowing down gear acquisition?

I think that’s what bugs me the most about this change. I understand corporate logic; you can’t come out and admit that a game is not attracting players, because that’s a tacit admission of failure in the marketplace. That’s not going to happen. It’s dumb of me to rationally expect Blizzard to come out and say, “Rated Battlegrounds are not doing as well as we would like; not enough teams are participating, so we’re going to force our PvP players to participate – despite their unwillingness to do so to date.”

Yeah. Not going to see that in a press release.

But this is the second time that major changes have been introduced to PvP due to Rated Battlegrounds that affect other parts of PvP, and the second time that such changes have come out with misleading explanations. And much like saying that the graveyard changes were to prevent camping (when they obviously were not), saying that the changes to Arena Conquest Points are to slow down CP/hour is simply … wrong. Dishonest. It doesn’t hold up.

Come right out and say it: we need more teams participating in the lower rating levels of Rated Battlegrounds. That is the fix that’s needed. If rBGs are to have a chance at being successful in this expansion, more people absolutely need to be convinced to put forth the effort to give them a try, casually, to give the matching algorithm a chance to work.

There’s a little carrot called gear that’s being held out to PvPers to get them to play Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds. The stick is now there, too – if you want to stay competitive in Arenas, you’ll do your rBGs and like them.

I don’t expect this to change, and I don’t expect Blizzard to say anything more on the matter.

All I ask is that that we be honest about why this change is happening, and make our choices accordingly.

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PvP Season 9 Ending Soon

Well, looks like it’s time to get ready to gear up for PvP again. From a recent Warcraft blog post:

Arena and Rated Battleground Season 9 is scheduled to end as early as June 21. …

At the end of the season, Conquest Points will be converted to Honor Points, possibly exceeding the 4,000 point Honor cap. … (A)ny Honor accrued above the 4,000-point cap will be converted into gold at a rate of 35 silver per point.

All Season 9 items will cost Honor Points (equivalent to their previous Conquest Point cost) when the season ends. … Season 10 rewards will be made available for purchase with Conquest Points awarded during the new season.

This is the first time we’ll go through the point conversion Blizzard described at the start of Cataclysm, and the process will be very similar between PvP and PvE gear. Come the end of this month:

  • All Conquest Points will be changed to Honor Points. If this brings you over the Honor Point cap of 4000, you’ll get some gold back, but you won’t be able to break the cap.
  • Conquest Points will get you new shiny Season 10 gear from the Conquest Quartermasters.
  • Honor Points will buy you Vicious gear from the Honor Quartermasters.
  • Crafters will be able to make Bloodthirsty-level gear, as well as the current ilvl 339 blue gear.

If you are competing only in normal battlegrounds, this means you will now be working to upgrade your kit to full Vicious, including the Vicious weapons. Current builds on the PTR have these purchasable with Honor Points, which has never happened before with arena weapons. Take advantage of this and upgrade your weapons as soon as possible. (Edit: You will have to earn a certain amount of CP/HP before you can purchase them – they can’t be your first purchase.)

PREPARING FOR SEASON 10

At this point, there’s not a lot you can do to stockpile points to make this into a hugely profitable endeavor. You can cap out Honor Points and get some money from your Conquest Points, but it’s not really the most profitable use of your time – you’d make waaaay more money fishing up Volatile Fire than trying to make huge sums off your stash of Conquest Points. Remember, you can’t grind Conquest Points due to their weekly cap. So if you have a stockpile, great, but if not, don’t sweat it.

What you can do, however, is have a stockpile of Honor Points ready to go for two reasons.

First, you will want to complete your Vicious Gladiator’s set quickly. If you have not completed your Vicious set, you’ll be able to do that with Honor points. Having capped your Honor now will give you a leg up on the competition then.

Second, you will want 3000 Honor Points to get the PvP helm and shoulder enchants. Once you start getting new Conquest gear, you’ll want to be able to enchant it quickly – but it’s entirely likely that we might get a new round of stronger enchants, so don’t go buying the Vicious ones just yet – unless you’re just totally out of things to buy with Honor, in which case, go ahead and stockpile these. :-)

I haven’t seen any indication of new enchants on the PTR yet, but given the names I’m being conservative here; if someone has knowledge about them, I’d love to know more!

MORE TO COME

There are some interesting changes coming on the PTR to how we purchase gear, but we’re still far enough out that I don’t want to comment on them too much yet. It looks like you’ll need to earn a certain amount of Honor and Conquest points before purchasing weapons, which will change gearing strategies and delaying their acquisition until later in the season.

We’ll see what this all looks like when it gets to live. Stay tuned.

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Double-O-Cyn

Last week, I had the pleasure of recording the Double-O Podcast with Oestrus and Ophelie. I had a great time with them and totally smashed through their 1 hour normal run time. (Sorry! I like to talk! Oestrus and Ophelie are terrific hosts!)

Cyn, Lose or Draw is available for your listening pleasure over on the Double-O site. I’m going to go have a listen myself now!

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The PvP Pause

One of the reasons I enjoy having a twink like Cynderblock is that, because she is not leveling, I really get a chance to understand the abilities she has, how they interact, and what their limits are. I love XP-locked twinks because I have time to figure out the intricacies of a class and I’m able to get the best gear without it changing on me. Playing with XP off lets you learn nuances to your character, like how to pull trash versus how to pull a boss, or how to quest in areas well below your level versus those well above your level. You determine the right gear and abilities to use in different situations, and then you modify your interface – on screen, macros, keybinds, mousebinds –  to reflect that knowledge.

By keeping your level (and eventually, your gear) static, you are able to deeply understand the abilities your character possesses, and play them to their full potential.

Endgame characters are similar to twinks in that you spend a lot of time learning how a class operates at the endgame, but there are some differences:

  • The gear available to you will constantly change. As time goes on, better and better gear will be released, and no matter where you are on the raiding/PvP tree, your gear will improve over the course of an expansion. This usually represents an increase in power, not playstyle, but it does require some adjustment.
  • Your class abilities will change. Nerfs and buffs happen, often. Spells and glyphs get redesigned, or removed. These changes often affect endgame play more than lower levels, because they’re designed to affect endgame balance.
  • There is more theorycrafting available for endgame characters than leveling characters, so there is less need to figure it all out on your own. You can learn to play a spec effectively by following a guide.

These differences between endgame toons and twinks are pretty small, and the first two come in intervals that leave plenty of time to learn how things work before they change again. You have time to get your UI and macros set up the way you want them, configure Power Auras and NeedToKnow to display the right information, to understand how different talents and abilities interact and work.

But if you stop playing for a while, your class can change underneath you, sometimes dramatically. I played my Death Knight only occasionally in the later days of Wrath, and I found the constant changes to be difficult to cope with. The transition to Cataclysm actually helped me a bit, because I was able to jettison my thought that I should understand the class and instead approach it fresh; but I still struggle with him. Guides have helped, but there is still a sense of discomfort whenever I leave the Frost 2H playstyle – because that’s how I learned to DK, as a level 59 PvP twink.

You also have to play relatively often to stay current on an endgame character’s gear – what is good gear for one raid tier or PvP season will be insufficient later on. Generally, once you’ve geared up for specific PvE content, you stay geared for that content, but new content will need new gear. PvP is an arms race, so if you skip a season, you will be facing better geared opponents, and suffer accordingly.

The last point I made above, that the ready availability of guidance on how to play a spec at the endgame makes you less likely to really master it, is one I wrestle with. You can excel in doing something without understanding all of it. I’ve seen this in many different aspects of my own life, in sports, in technology, in science, and even in video games – performance and understanding are related, but not dependent, variables. But I also think if you pick a spec up at the endgame,  you’re less likely to fully master it than if you leveled with it. That’s not to say you can’t excel at it, just that you’re not going to understand it as well as someone who leveled with it. There’s a knowledge base gained through learning how to do something yourself, of what works and what doesn’t work, that you can’t completely replicate with a guide or manual.

And yet… knowing how to level in a given spec doesn’t mean you’ll know how to play the spec at endgame. It doesn’t mean you’ll know how to squeeze out the last bit of DPS, tank a raid boss, or heal a heroic dungeon. Leveling is not as rigorous an activity as most endgame pursuits. Specs play differently at endgame than earlier. Knowing how to tank Ragefire Chasm like a pro doesn’t mean you’re ready to tank Cho’gall.

But it might help you be a better play of the class, overall.

WHY EXPERIENCE IN BATTLEGROUNDS IS BAD

I have a working theory about why I like playing my warlock so much.

Cynwise was one of a field of 10 characters I rolled when I first started playing. She was the one I got to 20 first, which still took a long time. She’s the one I explored with, she’s the one I learned not just the warlock class, but the game with. After a while, I deleted all those characters except ‘wise and my banker and got on with the business of leveling.

In retrospect, I was not very good at leveling. I was not a very good player, to be honest, but that was fine – I was learning how the game worked. I had sworn off PvP, because that shit is just scary, and I didn’t run dungeons, so I just quested and tried to make sense of WTF I was supposed to do. It was fun.

At level 51, and to this day I don’t know why I did it, but I queued up for a battleground. It was Alterac Valley, and it was exhilarating. We won. And I was hooked.

I eventually figured out that I would do better if I leveled up to 58 or 59, which I did relatively quickly, and then I set about playing battlegrounds full-time. This was before battlegrounds awarded experience, and only AV awarded a pittance for the deaths of NPCs, so it was pretty safe to stay in a bracket and PvP as much as you wanted.

All that background leads up to my theory. It has several parts.

  1. While PvP doesn’t teach you everything about your class, it can provide a crucible to learn how to use your abilities under pressure.
  2. PvP Battlegrounds provide short, manageable periods of time to try out different strategies and tactics, with immediate feedback about how they work. Did you win, or did you lose?
  3. When Battlegrounds awarded no XP, they served as the one place you could refine your play with a character without them changing.
  4. Therefore, XP-less Battlegrounds provided the ideal place to master a class.

I look at some of my high-level alts, compare them to Cynwise, and I wonder if I will ever come close to understanding them like I do the Warlock class. I don’t know about you, but I struggle when I know I’m not as good as I could be at something, and when there are better alternatives for me.

And I really wonder, how much of that is because it took me 6 months to get to level 80, with fully 3 of those months spent playing in the battlegrounds?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I know that when I get on my Druid, and I suck at PvP or PvE, it hurts to be incompetent. I hate it. I get overrun and wonder how I was supposed to escape. When a tank dies on my watch, I wonder why I’m even trying.

This is a natural response to poor performance, and I get over it, but I am really left wondering – will flailing my way to 85 make me happy? Or wouldn’t I rather go play someone who makes me feel good about myself and my abilities, even if it’s just my ability to play a video game?

I want, very much to take every alt and just PvP on them until I get it. I want to get how the class works before I move on any further.

Losing the ability to play in battlegrounds to our heart’s content at a given level has its downsides. It’s probably not enough to offset the massive benefits that XP-on BGs has brought – greatly increased popularity of BGs in general, making for more fair fights in most brackets – but it also has removed the PvP pause where we master our character before moving on to the next set of abilities and challenges.

WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

There are no more twinks in here anymore. We’re all just ex-twinks.

- Cynwulf

The other downside of XP in battlegrounds is that you don’t have a chance to form a community in them anymore. You’d see the same faces over and over again in battlegrounds before this change happened, on both sides, and you got to know people. Not in depth, but certainly you’d know if someone was competent or not.

My Death Knight, Cynwulf, was essentially a level 59 DK twink at a time when DKs were so massively overpowered even bothering to call him a twink sounds silly. He hung around in various bars in the cities of Azeroth, drinking his Scourge-induced woes away, and PvPing. I hated Warsong Gulch on my warlock, but on Cynwulf, it was a total love affair. Howling Blast packed a huge punch (and was available at 59). The confines of the map, coupled with having the only epic mounts at that level, meant it was possible to blow off steam and just destroy a battleground.

I particularly enjoyed Alterac Valley on Cynwulf, because it was my chance to tank Galv and Drek. And people knew me as a good tank. Players in that bracket would see me speaking up and know that I was going to tank Drek, and do a good job of it. Warbringers up? Give me a few seconds, let me get D&D/HB out, then go wild. There were healers I’d know would have my back. There was a Paladin who dinged 60 one match and we all had a very fond farewell party for him in the Field of Strife.

But, eventually, XP came, and the decision had to be made between staying and going, between leveling up and continuing to PvP, or hoping for an XP-off queue to pop.

They never popped, so I leveled Cynwulf up. And the familiar battlegrounds were thriving, but thriving with strangers. The community was gone. They might realize who I was from the big numbers I was putting up, but live or die, I was probably not going to see very many of these people ever again.

My hero of the Stormpike was no more. My dear, drunk Death Knight brother was going to have to move on.

I dinged 60 with Cynwulf in Hellfire Peninsula. I knew there was no going back to the 51-60 bracket that I knew so well with him.

It was time to move on.

WHEN IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON

I enjoyed playing Cynderblock so much that I rolled another warrior, Ashwalker, with the intent to level her. Ashwalker has taken up most of my alt time these days. I’m having a blast with her, questing, tanking, PvPing, seeing all the things I want to see in Cataclysm from the ground up.

At level 20, it was strange playing Ash over ‘block, because she had… half the health of my twink? Even decently geared with full heirlooms, there was a huge gulf between the twink and the leveling toon, but the playstyle was very similar, and therefore very comfortable. I tried Arms for a while, but eventually settled back into Protection, first to help tank some instances, then because it was fun in its own right.

By the time I hit the 40s, though, I was starting to get nervous. How does this new stuff work? Where do I put things on my bars? What am I missing? What do you mean, I don’t need to stance dance to Charge? When should I use Whirlwind? Should I look at Arms again? What about Fury? What about PvP?

So I locked my XP at level 49 until I could get my mind caught up to my character.

I talked a little bit about this in the 5×2 Project, but I found this pause really helped me out. It gave me time to fiddle with macros and keybinds and screen layout. It let me figure out what abilities I really needed to hit more often, and which ones didn’t make sense to use anymore. It even gave me time to set up my dual spec correctly!

What it didn’t do was give me a chance to try things out in PvP. I did queue, but never saw a single queue pop. Not one. If I wanted to try something out, I had to try it out in a dungeon. Not that dungeons weren’t valuable, because they were!

But it taught me how to tank well at 49. Not PvP well, but tank well. That’s important, too.

I found myself tempted, while XP was locked, to go do crazy twink things. I very seriously considered getting the Argent Champion and Ambassador titles at level 49. (I have the Argent Crusade tabard as a result.) I considered trying to get her twink-level gear and solo instances at level.

The temptation was strong. I’ll admit it.

But I did the right thingt; I spent only a few days at 49 before finally admitting that I’d gotten the main benefit from the exercise and turning XP back on again. I no longer felt overwhelmed by my abilities or bars. I was back in control. I was comfortable with the talent tree I’d chosen, of my macros, and of how to play. I didn’t need to grind dungeons for titles.

No, after some reflection it was very clear that I don’t need to spend months in the battlegrounds anymore to learn how to play a character. When I did that on Cynwise and Cynwulf, it was because I was not just learning the class – I was learning the game. I was learning how to win the battlegrounds, how they worked.

I needed the six months of time to get my first character up to 80, because there was so much to learn. This included how to play a class, but it also included how to play. I don’t need to learn those lessons again – but I do need to learn how to play a warrior. While that includes leveling, it also includes the endgame, and I know I have a lot to learn there, too. I need questing. I need dungeon experience. I need balance.

Ashwalker just dinged 58, and has entered Outlands. I don’t know what I’m going to do next with her – maybe quest for some rewards, level her professions, run some dungeons, PvP up to 60 – but I still feel like I have a handle on playing a Prot Warrior.

Maybe my theory that XP-off battlegrounds are the best places to learn your class isn’t that good after all.

THE VALUE OF PVP PAUSES

I absolutely think that PvP is a great part of the leveling process. Leveling is, by its very nature, a learning process, and including PvP as part of it is really vital to understanding all of a class.

But it has to be balanced.

I have to be careful to not read too much into my own experiences. Yes, I spent nine months in ICC as a Demonology warlock, and while I understood it well enough to teach it to others, I never felt like I’d mastered it like I had Affliction and Destruction – the specs I had leveled as, the specs I PvPed with.

Yet, I raided well as Demonology. It wasn’t a mark against me that I couldn’t PvP with the spec – I didn’t need to PvP with it. I was there to raid.

It’s odd that we can play a spec, and play it well, and yet not feel like we’ve mastered it. I can look at my Warlock at 85, with her overwhelming number of buttons, and feel totally comfortable – yet my level 70 Druid makes me go AMG WHAT DOES THIS BUTTON DO.

It’s not just a question of complexity – it’s how we handle the complexity. We don’t start off with endgame characters for a simple reason – they’re too complicated to play well if you don’t spend some time leveling them.

It makes sense, though, when we look at why the leveling process exists. It exists to teach you how to play the class. Abilities are given gradually, to allow players time to absorb their use.

The PvP pause from XP-free battlegrounds was nice, and when no other options existed to lock XP, they were the best option to slow down your leveling. Now that you can lock your XP at will, the PvP pause isn’t the same, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. You can lock XP, figure things out in PvE, and then return to PvP when you’re ready to move on. It’s the reverse of how things used to work – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Balanced leveling is the best leveling.

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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual, Green Tinted Goggles

Replay Value

Why do some areas of Warcraft hold our attention through repeated play, while others grow stale?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this while playing Cataclysm, because there are parts of the game which I really enjoy doing the first time, but can’t muster the interest to do them again. This isn’t new to this expansion, but it feels like it’s more prevalent now, like there’s more things to try, but that they don’t hold my interest for long.

What’s interesting is that it’s certain parts of an activity that hold (or don’t hold) my interest, not the entire activity. Leveling is kinda fun, but there are some zones which I’ve done once and have no desire to ever do again. (Worgen starting area, Vashj’ir, Hyjal.) I find most battlegrounds infinitely replayable, except Tol Barad, which I just can’t motivate myself to play anymore on offense OR defense. Raiding has zero interest for me right now, even though I really enjoyed it during ICC. I’m not even bothering with heroic dungeons at this point, choosing to spend my time in PvP or on alts.

What’s going on here?

THE RIVER IS NEVER THE SAME TWICE

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Heraclitus

Every single BG or Arena I queue up for is different. There’s a different opponent, I have different team mates, and the battle is going to be unique. Yes, the maps are the same. Change comes very slowly to the battlegrounds, so even major changes (like the new WSG graveyard) get assimilated into the collective knowledge of the map, and you can focus on trying to win the battle.

But even more than the external factors, I can see how I’ve changed as a player inside the battlegrounds. My recent forays into the Arena have given me better skills in breaking up a defending team, of working with others, of winning the 1:1 matchups. I’m slowly learning how to predict what different classes will do, and move to counter them. While the games played in the battlegrounds are static, the participants are not, and I still find that highly engaging.

PvP has high replay value for exactly this reason – the river is never the same twice. While the surrounding framework is the same, the individual experience of that specific battle is always different. Once a player overcomes the initial challenge of learning how to play the BG (and gearing their character appropriately), the replay value stays high. And there’s enough variety between the different types of PvP that, generally speaking, you can bounce between different matches and not get bored with a single battleground. Variety seems to be key here.

I wonder about the exceptions to this rule, though. I don’t play a lot of Tol Barad anymore, and I am hard pressed to figure out why, exactly. No doubt part of it is because I hit a wall with the daily quests, so the external motivation for capturing the zone is lessened. It’s still a great source for Honor Points, but I don’t need those. And after spending a lot of time in there learning how to win, once I started winning I stopped going.

If Tol Barad was part of the random BG queue, would I play it when it came up? Possibly. I think I might play all of the World PvP zones if they were part of the random BG queue if they were adapted for it. But as a separate activity? I find myself choosing to do other things instead of Tol Barad.

I don’t think it’s just the lack of external rewards, though that no doubt contributes to it. The other battlegrounds offer similar rewards (Honor, Achievements) to battlegrounds I’ll willingly play, even when you set aside the pets and trinkets and mounts and gold from dailies and another exalted reputation and Honor Points coming out the wahzoo. (And those are a lot of things for a battleground to have – no other PvP area has come close to having this breadth of rewards.) So that leaves two other places to look – factors internal to me, and factors intrinsic to Tol Barad.

I wanted to beat Tol Barad. I remember this so clearly when I wrote a post where I basically agreed with people who said it was too hard – and my own attitude in that post royally pissed me off. It wasn’t that the battleground was too hard, it’s that we weren’t trying hard enough and blaming the battleground for it.

Anger can be a positive thing. Anger can motivate you to buckle down and solve a problem, to get over yourself and do the hard things. Winning Tol Barad with a demoralized, outgeared Alliance-Durotan team before the rules was changed was hard. Figuring out how to hold the keep was hard.

And in learning how to overcome that challenge, I think a lot of folks had a lot of fun.

But what happens when the challenge is finally overcome? What’s left? PvP isn’t like PvE, where content gets progressively easier as you gear up (and when content gets nerfed down). The difficulty of PvP is dynamic, but you never get to the point where you overgear the instance – they can have just as many, or more, ubergeared characters on their team as you have on yours.

Tol Barad never really got any easier, even when the changes to how quickly the first and last base flips went in. It’s still a pain in the ass to win on Offense, and a game of musical chairs on Defense. It’s actually kinda boring – go to Slags, okay, go to ICG, okay, go to WV, frak, losing ICG. So in comparison to some of the other battlegrounds, there’s less nuanced strategy, it’s more difficult to coordinate en masse, and parts of it are kinda boring. It’s both harder than the other battlegrounds, and lacks a lot of the fun parts of the other games.

When you take away both the internal motivation of conquering the battlefield and the external rewards for participating, it starts to become clearer why I don’t queue up for Tol Barad anymore.

WHY RAIDS GO STALE

Tol Barad provides an interesting segue into thinking about the replay value of raiding. The initial play value of raiding is really high, drawing from internal player motivations to overcome challenges, external rewards, story advancement and exploration. This is a great set of initial values to have, covering a wide variety of accomplishment, collecting, and tourism.

Consider the challenge of raiding. Raiding is hard at first. Your entire team has to learn the fight, to try different strategies to see what works. You have to get great gear. You have to execute your strategy well. Everyone has to be on the ball at first. And then after days, weeks, or even months of trying, BOOM, a boss goes down! Mission Accomplished! You have met this challenge and triumphed! But wait, there are still 12 more bosses to go, so you can keep going.  Raiding provides small victories along the way to keep you motivated, without altering the difficulty of any one of them. The difficulty of the encounter is set; your approach to it varies.

Once you get all of the bosses down on normal mode, you can go back and make them even harder with heroic modes – oh yes, raiding as an activity has the whole “challenge yourself and your team” thing down pat.

What does change the difficulty of the encounters is gear, which is a game all its own. The more bosses you down, the better gear you get, which in turn makes it easier to progress through the content. Better gear means that the execution doesn’t need to be quite as precise, random chance doesn’t have quite as much to say in the matter. In some cases (heroic modes) it’s really necessary, but the really great guilds find a way to down bosses with lesser gear.

Also, purples are shiny.

Ahem. Right. Got distracted there.

Lastly, raiding allows you to see parts of the story of Warcraft that are, frankly, not accessible to non-raiders. A lot of work goes in to each raid instance – okay, maybe not ToC – and getting to see the story unfold really does drive a lot of people forward into heroics and raiding.

There are also social motivations for raiding – which I don’t want to discount – but just by looking at these three reasons why people raid, you see how raids naturally lose their replay value over time.

  1. Eventually, your team runs out of raid bosses to kill, or you hit a wall where you can’t get past one.
  2. Your team gets all the gear that is useful to them.
  3. You see it all.

Over time, raids will grow stale, and they won’t hold the same appeal as they did when they were introduced. That’s fine! They’re hugely appealing when we first encounter them. But over time, their replay value degrades.

You’ll notice that my argument presumes that eventually the bosses go down and the raid goes on farm status, or partially on farm. This isn’t how it works for most guilds, even during long, comparably easy raid periods (like ICC at the end of Wrath.)

No, raid teams hit walls. They get to 3/13, or 9/13, and can’t get any further. Weeks on a boss turns into frustrating months on a boss, and unless there’s some other factor at play to help motivate players (title, achievement, end boss of the expansion), the replay value of raiding drops precipitously. Teams do the bosses they can do, so there’s (hopefully) still gear being acquired – but night after night of failure can really wear people down.

The effect of failure is, interestingly, the same as the effect of success: it lowers the replay value of raiding. No matter where you stop, eventually your team does have all the gear available, even if it’s from Zulroics and crafted epics and you’re 0/13, or if you’re pushing HM 13/13.

The contrast with PvP is striking. WSG is still entertaining after 6 years, but most Vanilla and BC raids are just visited for reputation, vanity items, or nostalgia. Kara and Ulduar, arguably the two best raid instances still in the game, are gorgeous – but they’re not really a challenge with max-level characters. The appeal is to story, not to conquering the challenge.

Warsong Gulch is a challenge no matter what level you visit it at.

WHEN BLIZZARD ATTACKS

On some bosses, though, better armor and weapons may not be enough because some mechanics just can’t easily be outgeared. To mitigate that problem, our tendency is to nerf content over time just to make sure a wide variety of players see it.

Ghostcrawler

Ghostcrawler is referring to what happens when the natural nerfing of raids (due to improved gear and community knowledge) isn’t sufficient to allow a majority of the player base to get past the mechanical challenges of a raid. There are some bosses which require coordination and execution that can’t be overpowered with slightly better gear, so to prevent raider frustration, Blizzard periodically nerfs raid content.

Coincidentally, Blizzard just announced a massive round of nerfs to the current tier of raiding content that will coincide with the release of the next tier, Firelands. This is certainly in line with what the company said they would do, and it makes sense when looking at the tradeoffs they have to make between initial play value and replay value.

To keep raiding going, new content has to be released. The enjoyment that raiders derive from their activity requires new challenges – precisely because of the low replay value of raiding. Static content gets boring over time. You can only do the fight so many times before you’ve got it down.

But what about raiders who are stuck? It doesn’t matter if you’re stuck at 0/13 or 9/13, the new content is going to be arguably harder than the old content, and that means you’re going to leave more and more players behind. Soon you’ll have raid groups stuck in a variety of places throughout the content – some stuck in the previous tier, some in the current tier, some in the current tier hardmodes – and some who complete it all quickly. Frustration grows and people go do other things.

The only viable solution to that problem is to change the variable difficulty of old content. Satisfy player’s motivations to see the content (which doesn’t really diminish over time, there’s a lot in this game from BC and Wrath I still want to see), help them get back on track with gearing up for the new content, and still let them achieve their goals.

Nerfing older content allows it to have more initial play value than if it remained static. If raids remained static throughout the course of an expansion, players would have to wait until an entire new level cap was introduced to see content. That’s just dumb. Players want to see things. Players want the satisfaction of accomplishment, of reaching a goal, even if it’s easier when others did it.

Raiding is all about initial play value. We should expect it to get easier all the time because it lacks replay value, not because Blizzard hates people who have already completed it.

THE ACHIEVEMENT DICHOTOMY AND CATACLYSM LEVELING

The genesis of this post was not about PvP or raiding, but a discussion on Twitter about leveling in Cataclysm. I actually have been leveling alts between bouts of PvP, and have found it to be quite enjoyable.

But I’m struggling with questing, too. Not to do it – it’s really a lot of fun – but to do it over and over again, to parcel out the experience between characters.

Questing in any of the revamped zones makes me feel like they’re a single, extended quest line, custom made for that character. They’re laid out well, the story moves along at a nice pace, and the zone can become a defining moment for a character. Cynderblock’s story is Westfall. Ashwalker came alive to me in the Plaguelands (surprisingly.)

Once a zone defines a character, though, I don’t have any desire to do it again. They have limited replay value. Not only have I seen what there is to see, I’ve satisfied my storytelling urge with the zone and revisiting it with another character feels wrong.

This tendency to only want to play through a zone once really worries me about the 80-85 zones. I did three of them on Cynwise (Vashj’ir, Twilight Highlands, then Hyjal), got midway through Deepholm, and then stopped. Cynwulf is midway through Uldum, and I’m stalled there, too – I think his story is really more suited to Hyjal, but I can’t work up the enthusiasm to do that zone again. (And he’s level 83, so no real benefit there.)

Did questing have more replay value in Wrath? Questlines were smaller units pre-Cataclysm, so it was certainly easier to pick and choose what you did. There was less a feeling you needed to do an entire zone for the story, because there were lots of little stories you could pick and choose. Now zones are one big, epic story, which makes it more fun the first time through, but introduces problems the next time around.

So in this one respect, questing was better in Wrath. It had higher replay value, though it was less attractive initially.

I think of it like the difference between a movie (or miniseries) and an episodic television program; one presents a coherent, tightly wrapped story with character arcs that change quickly, while the other allows slower exploration of characters, with gradual arcs that meander through the seasons. They both can be exciting, they both can have great moments; but one defines characters quickly, the other more slowly. If you have a bad episode the series itself can recover; if you have a bad movie, well, the whole thing is bad.

This disparity between initial play value and replay value in questing also leads to an achievement dichotomy; what if I want to get Loremaster on Cynwise, but doing so requires her to quest in a zone someone else has completed? There’s a tension there between characters that’s hard to resolve in my head.

It’s not that one can’t go back and do the zones again; obviously, it’s possible, I’m sure that I could force myself to do Westfall with an 85. I have Fel Flame now on a mouseover macro, I can zap mobs with impunity.

No, the tension is between completing a zone on an alt in a way which defines them (therefore removing the desire to do it again) versus the desire to collect achievements on a single toon. Limited replay value of a zone implies a choice between richly characterized alts (which are fun) and an accomplished main (a different kind of fun).

Do I want to do all these quests? Or do I want to do all of them on a single character? Do I do them when they can benefit the character for leveling, reputation, and gear, or do I do them on my max-level main?

I want my cake and to eat it too – or account-wide achievements.

HARDCODED FUN


A few players set their own goals, … but most are focused on getting a recognised achievement. In a massive game like WoW, a lot of players rely on hardcoded suggestions to find new content.

Tim Howgego

I remember reading WoW Insider’s interview with Tim Howgego, also known as El from El’s Extreme Angling, and his very practical attitude towards achievements. Fishing has some of the hardest, most time-consuming achievements in the game, but by in large they won’t motivate people to fish. They might motivate people to fish in certain places, or for certain things, but it won’t make them like fishing. Players either enjoy fishing or they don’t, which makes the role of WoW fishing in the larger game problematic.

I really liked how Tim described achievements as “hardcoded suggestions to find new content.” It puts achievements in the proper context of guiding players to try things they might never attempt otherwise. They’re an additional reward that helps extend the replay value of an activity, little rewards for going and doing something that players might lack motivation to attempt. Perhaps it’s a title, or a mount, or even an ability that other characters don’t have. Perhaps it’s a pet, or a discount at some vendors. Perhaps it’s just achievement points! But there’s something there that encourages players to try it.

Despite how much I dislike certain achievements in PvP – you have no idea the personal anguish getting the Double Rainbow screenshot caused me, dear readers – I think they’re by and large an effective part of the game. They extend the replay value of content, they direct you to try things you might otherwise attempt, and they provide a focused goal to work towards. I have no reason to visit Serpentshrine Cavern anymore, but I’ll go fish up the Lurker Below anyways.

There have been achievements which I’ve sought which have been entirely positive experiences – getting Ambassador on Cynderblock helped me focus my efforts on questing through the Horde starting areas before Cataclysm so that I’d have gone through them at least once – even though I had no desire to level an alt through them. It’s nice to work on something and go, hey, I got this shiny thing, and even though it doesn’t make me a better player, it was fun to do.

There are other achievements which are very negative for players – School of Hard Knocks is commonly cited here, but for me it was Sinister Calling. I was sick with the flu that week, but I doggedly logged on, hour after hour, hoping that the gorram helm would show up in the treat bag, and then running SM:GY as many times as I could manage.

I was as sick as a dog, pushing myself to play a video game for a fast purple dragon.

That was probably a low point.

I deliberately left achievements out when talking about PvP and raiding because they work differently than other rewards. They are suggestions, nothing more, about what your characters can experience in game. You can choose to do them, or not, as you please. They don’t modify how your character plays in any in-game capacity – given equal spec and gear, it doesn’t matter if you have 1000 achievement points or 13,000 when it comes to PvP, raiding, or whatever. At best, achievements show player experience with that character – nothing more.

That lack of real difference is one of the reasons I have difficulty reconciling my feelings about the new zones in Cataclysm. Experiencing them at the appropriate level means the time is spent well, leveling an alt, gearing them up, enjoying the story the way it was meant to be told. But I also want to be able to do them on Cynwise, to say, hey, look, this girl and I, we’ve DONE things together. There’s no real practical value to that desire – it’s entirely social – but it’s there, nonetheless.

Achievements are highly personal affairs.

CYN Y U NO RAID

I haven’t raided in 4.1 because I find the replay value of PvP to outweigh the initial play value of raiding. I’ve also found that leveling, in general, has been more fun than raiding.

So when I sit down at night and log in, I’ll either PvP or level an alt, or maybe PvP on an alt.

As players, we make choices every time we log in about what we’re going to do. And, when Cataclysm launched, I made the choice to solely focus on PvP with my endgame character, instead of splitting my attention between PvE and PvP (like I did in Wrath), or focusing on getting ready for raids. Could the alts turn into raiding toons? Could I go raid on Cynwise? Maybe. None of this is set in stone. But I didn’t want to raid.

The easy explanation for why I felt this way is that I was burned out on raiding due to spending far, far too long farming ICC. I kept running it on Cynwise long after I should have stopped or switched to an alt, but the worth of a well-geared DPS on an alt run is actually pretty high. You have to pack a lot of the raid DPS into a few characters in order to beat the enrage timers, even on farm bosses. We spent a long, long time in that place. “Burned Out Raider Takes A Break, Film At 11” is not really news.

But that’s not really it. Plenty of people got tired of ICC, yet returned to Cataclysm raiding in force. Something drew them back in, something that didn’t draw me in.

No. I looked at the known value of raiding in Wrath – with its known highs and lows – and the perceived difficulty of raiding in Cataclysm – with the reputed difficulties of Heroics, not even talking about raids – and said, this does not sound as much fun as PvP, or even leveling. One or two hours to complete a heroic dungeon, with no guarantee of success? Weeks of wiping on the same boss? Are you kidding me?

I was willing to spend months wiping on the Lich King. There’s a sense of completion there, a huge amount of motivation there, to do it at least once. But wiping for months on a raid at the beginning of an expansion? Really? Shit, I’d rather go play some Arenas, run some battlegrounds, heck, go level an alt. I don’t get enough personal satisfaction from raiding as an activity to even make it worth the attempt.

Acknowledging the constraints on your time is important. I’ve said it before: if I had unlimited time I’m sure that I’d be able to excel in all the areas of this game. But time is limited, and we have to make choices about what we work on.

So where’s the failure, here? Is it that Blizzard failed to make something appealing to me? Is it that I’m just lazy, and that I’d rather wait to faceroll it later than spend my nights being the first to punch through?

I look at the failure of Tol Barad to capture my attention and idly wonder why I don’t play it more, but I don’t think I’m a bad person for not doing it. Raiding feels a little different. My friends, my guild, could use a solid DPS. They could use my DK or Warrior, leveled up, as tanks. They wouldn’t want me healing on my Druid (OMG, trust me), but they could use me as a Priest. There’s a direct social component to raiding that Tol Barad just hasn’t captured – I don’t feel strong loyalty to my faction, but I sure as hell do towards my guild.

My guild needing me was the reason I went Demonology in ICC – to help the guild with the best raid spellcaster buff in the game. That’s why I farmed that first wing for months – to help friends gear up, even if it was gearing up alts. I got to kill Arthas and see the place, which is what I wanted.

But it always bothered me, just a little bit, that the majority of my friends in game knew me a Demo raider, not as an Aff/Destro PvPer. The closest they came was on Faction Champs, which is very much not a PvP fight, no matter how superficially it resembles one. I was the purple fuzzy demon pulling aggro instead of the dot-slinger with the Felpup, and I was okay with that, because we were raiding on our own terms.

Things are different in Cataclysm. The guild system now encourages guilds to try PvP, so that’s what I’m doing. Instead of raiding I’m helping to get my guildmates involved in Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds. Instead of farming bosses I’m running battlegrounds with folks. I’m not worried about my rating or my comp, I just like to PvP. There are more things for a guild to do than just level and raid, and I’m enjoying contributing to the guild in those things.

Raids? I can see those later. I can satisfy my curiosity some other time about all the fights. I’m sure I’ll get a PvE gearset together at some point and go run with the rest of the raiders.

Battlegrounds and Arenas are fun every time I queue for them. They are as enjoyable at level 10 as they are at level 85, and every time I queue up I get a different challenge handed to me.

(Sometimes, I get my ass handed to me, too. It’s still fun!)

Replay value matters.

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Embracing Simplicity: The 5×2 Project, Keybinds, And You

I have a problem with my Druid.

Whenever I log in to her, I’m overwhelmed by the options presented to me. What am I supposed to use to do things? Why do I have so many heals, so many melee attacks, so many different interesting things to cast? And shapeshifting? I have to remember to shapeshift, where are those buttons? Honest to goodness panic sets in as I try to figure out what it is I’m supposed to use.

After about 15 minutes of flailing away at something, anything, I’ll switch to a different character, and I inevitably wonder – how on earth did I ever get this character to level 70? I’ve been a bear, I’ve been a cat, I’ve been a tree – but if you ask me how to play a Druid, I couldn’t tell you what works and what doesn’t. Mangle spam, maybe? Swipe and Maul? Rejuv and Lifebloom?

It’s not that a Druid is more complicated than other classes I play well – Warlock and Warrior, if you’re keeping track at home – it’s that there are too many options, too many things to take in if you only play it very occasionally, and that I haven’t figured out how to organize abilities in a way that makes sense to me. Look at that Druid UI and the keybinds – can you even guess what spec she is?

(Please don’t hurt me if I tell you she’s in her Resto spec.)

I was thinking a lot about my Druid when I read Ghostcrawler’s recent post, Number of Abilities, where he talks about how developers consider abilities and their place in a spec, and balancing abilities to keep play interesting without being overwhelming. There was a bit at the very end that resonated with many of the problems I’ve had with old alts in Cataclysm, where they feel unfamiliar and strange.

So when do we cross over from having “enough” cool abilities to “too many” cool abilities? The depth that comes from lots and lots of content can feel cool to a veteran player, but even for them, the intended role and nuance of every ability can become blurred. For the new or returning player, it just becomes incomprehensible.

I look at the action bars of many of my alts, and I see all these shiny buttons which are useful and I should have ready to press because buttons make me kick ass – and then I wonder why I can’t find the right ability to be effective. Druid, Death Knight, Rogue, Priest: they have bars full of abilities that I probably don’t need to use to be competent on the character.

In fact, I’d argue that having cluttered bars is a sign that I’m not really competent with the character – certainly that I’m not organized with them.

THE 5×2 PROJECT

I was really intrigued by an idea that Mat McCurley (@gomatgo) tossed out on Twitter:

The idea is a great one, and related to Ghostcrawler’s post. How can you cut away all the unnecessary spells so a disabled player can play, in a variety of situations? If you have only 11 buttons, how would you set them up? What would be critical to include for combat, what can you leave out?

While Mat’s project is geared towards disabled gamers, this shares a common theme with most accessibility initiatives in that this has a lot of value for everyone, disabled or not. What do you absolutely need to play? What are your rotational abilities, what are your situational abilities, and what are the top 11? What would you have ready and available to click, but not necessarily keybound?

Poneria at Fel Concentration has been brainstorming about the 5×2 project for warlocks, and has some great suggestions in there about distinguishing between group and solo play (and using macros to save space.) I took a different approach in my own attempt, trying to minimize the use of macros and provide a set of keybinds that would be consistent across different specs, to minimize muscle memory problems when switching:

For reference, entries marked with an asterisk (*) are castsequence macros, either set to reset before the first spell comes off CD (like Haunt/Drain Life), simple quick reset castsequence macros (like Bane of Doom/Curse of the Elements, both with long durations) or a pet ability macro. Click Attention are things you should keep handy for clicking, but don’t need keybound.

(Here’s the Excel file of the above graphic if you want to use it as a template.)

Assembling a list like this is an intensely personal exercise, and one that really makes you think about how your class operates. It also makes you think about what’s really necessary – is Soul Swap really needed, or is it for convenience? If you’re raiding all the time, can you afford to have Demon Soul off your keybinds? If so, what do you drop? Do you actually need your AoE keybound, or can you skip it?

Then there’s the question of arrangement: what is a primary keypress, and what uses a modifier? All of these are important, but some are more important than others. I chose to put rotational abilities in the primary row, with situational abilities like CC and executes in the modifier row, but perhaps you would want to move your interrupt into a primary spot.

There’s also the question of cross-spec consistency: should you design your keybinds so that similar keys trigger similar abilities? I did, but that’s because I think it’s important to keep your muscle memory consistent between specs. There’s a method to my madness:

  • 1 is your most important DoT, which should be up all the time.
  • 2 is your filler spell, or a secondary DoT.
  • 3 is Corruption, which every spec needs right now.
  • 4 is your spec’s special ability, which is on a cooldown.
  • 5 is your non-execute nuke, used for procs and keeping up buffs.
  • Mod-1 is your CC, Fear.
  • Mod-2 is your default boss Bane and Curse.
  • Mod-3 is your AoE.
  • Mod-4 is inconsistent, being either an execute or short range attack.
  • Mod-5 is inconsistent, being either add management or execute nuke.
  • Middle mouse button is mana regeneration.

What I like about the 5×2 Project is that it forces you to embrace constraints and really think about what your class abilities are, and how you use them. It provides a framework for analyzing your own actions, cutting away the cruft, and simplifying your setup to the necessities. You have to make hard choices about what to keep and what to take away. You have to work with macros to cast the right spell in the right situation. You cannot include everything.

The 5×2 Project simplifies keybinds for every kind of player, not just disabled ones. Players new to the class can look at it and know what the important abilities are. Returning players can see the changes and see how new abilities fit in. Players who are dabbling in a class outside of their main – let’s not call them altoholics, they might just have an “alt problem” – can see what they need to prioritize.

I don’t think that you need to play in a 5×2 (+1) setup in order to take something away from it. Thinking about your class abilities in this structured fashion is challenging, and the exercise of getting your character down to 10 primary buttons will make you think about what you really need, versus what you might need occasionally, versus the abilities you don’t need at all.

And that’s a very good thing.

THE CHALLENGE OF LEVELING

I’m leveling a Warrior right now, a by-product of the fun I had questing on Cynderblock getting her the Ambassador title, and I’m really enjoying it. I started off as Arms, but switched over to Prot to tank an instance at level 25 and haven’t switched back yet. Turns out I enjoy smashing my shield into the faces of my enemies, and madly charging around the Plaguelands, pulling more mobs, more, more, MORE MOBS!

I know how to play a Warrior well at level 19, but as I leveled up, the new abilities and talents started making me feel like … like I was starting to not really understand the class. By the mid-40s the feeling crystalized when I looked at my action bars and and realized that while I could continue doing all the things I did at 19 – Rend, TC, Shield Slam/Heroic Strike – I had accumulated a toolbox of tools I didn’t know how to effectively use. Should I use Overpower? It lights up a lot, maybe I should use it. Hamstring, old friend, glad to have you back again, but how do I use you and Disarm together?

And this was just my primary spec – I hadn’t even considered how to set up my offspec, Arms!

I’ve been working on a pet theory about the loss of the no-XP battlegrounds over the past few months. I’m starting to think that being able to take breaks between leveling, while still remaining active in normal PvP, was a very good teaching tool, and that the addition of XP gains to PvP has had an unintended detrimental effect on learning one’s class as you go. Every 10 levels you could, if you chose, stop to PvP for a bit, absorb the new abilities you’d gained, tweak your spec, figure out how things worked – and then move on once you’d had your fill.

Leveling is really fast now, especially with guild perks and heirlooms, so there’s not as much time to absorb the new information. You have a lot of levels to get through, after all! But the lack of a battleground pause button meant that as you practiced to try to really master what you’ve learned, you’re already moving on to the next thing.

That theory is a post all its own.

Anyhow, in response to this, I did what any sensible PvPer would do – I locked my XP at 49 and prepared to spend some time at that level. Not with the goal of making a twink – no, this goal was to get a handle on my growing Protection Warrior, to make sure I really understood how her abilities worked before adding more.

After locking my XP, the first thing I did was sit down and try to simplify her keybinds into something that made more sense than the organic mess which had sprung up.

I went from this, at level 45:

… which is not bad, just disorganized, to this:

The changes are subtle but deep. I went from using non-macroed abilities on paged action bars, and trying to keep track of exactly what would happen in what stance, to conditional macros that grouped similar abilities together.

Here’s a detail of the key area:

(See the spreadsheet for more details.)

You can see the influence of the 5×2 Project already starting to show. There are 10 keys in the primary zone, many of which use context-specific macros to select abilities according to the current stance. For quick kills I’ll only use 1-4, Q-E. Larger pulls will switch to using the Naga 1 and 2 keys to spam Revenge and Cleave once Blood and Thunder has done its work.

One of the big changes I made was consolidating abilities that did similar things in mutually exclusive stances in stance macros. Instead of having Disarm and Hamstring taking up two spaces, I went for:

#showtooltip
/startattack
/use [stance:1/3]Hamstring;[stance:2]Disarm;

This will put Hamstring up when in Battle or Berserker, and Disarm in Defensive.

Similarly, Execute and Revenge are mutually exclusive in stances. Even though they aren’t exactly the same idea, they’re both rotational abilities, so they get a macro and shared button, too:

#showtooltip
/startattack
/use [stance:1/3] Execute; [stance:2] Revenge;

Because Revenge and Execute both hit like trucks filled with explosives driven by angry bears when they’re available, I have them bound to both my keyboard and my mouse keypad, and I spam them gleefully when they light up.

There are some places I opted for a simple modifier of an ability, like having Heroic Strike bound to W and Cleave bound to Shift-W. Both of these are Rage dumps, but one is single target and one hits several. Pretty easy.

Some abilities require a change of stance to use: Charge (early on) and Taunt both require some stance dancing to use. For Taunt I knew I’d need to get into Defensive Stance first, so the macro looks like this:

#showtooltip Taunt
/startattack
/use [stance:1/3] Defensive Stance; [stance:2] Taunt

That’s a simple version of the ones used above. My mouseover Taunt macro (bound to my mouse) is from the web, and therefore a lot more complicated:

#showtooltip Taunt
/cast [nostance:2] Defensive Stance; [stance:2, target=mouseover, exists, harm][stance:2, nodead, harm][stance:2, target=targettarget, nodead, harm][stance:2] Taunt

Basically, if you mouse over a hostile mob, you’ll taunt them, mouse over a friendly mob, taunt the mob targeting them, or taunt your target. Lots of taunting going on there.

I should probably use this macro and not the other one, come to think of it.

See, that right there is the part that gets glossed over when talking about macros and keybinds and setups – that this is an iterative process, something that happens over time. I make a few changes, queue up for a LFD run, try them out, then make changes. Or go run some quests in a level-appropriate zone and see how the keys work there. I’d like to include PvP in this, because I think battlegrounds are actually the best way to really understand your situational abilities, but the XP-locked queues have yet to pop for me at level 49.

This will be a process I’ll continue for a while: tweaking, refining, and adjusting both my keybinds and UI to make sure that I really understand what’s going on. I’m sure that if I respec over to Fury and Arms, just to see how they play, I’ll have an entirely new set of questions, but I’ll have a good understanding of those specs before moving on, too.

And the best part is that after all this, I’ll unlock my experience and hit the battlegrounds with a clue of what I’m doing!

MAKING THE HARD CHOICES (AND SWALLOWING MY PRIDE)

In contrast to my Warrior, where I feel like I know what I’m doing (at least with one spec), my Druid continues to stymie me. Perhaps it’s because Druids are so flexible, able to fill any role, that I sort of drift along with her and never commit fully to an idea. I’ll level as a bear tank for a few levels, get bored or frustrated with it, set her aside for a few months, then decide to go heals, only to discover that I still don’t know how the heals work together.

Some of my incompetence with the Druid is because of inconsistent leveling. If you stick with one spec from 1-80, you learn that spec inside and out, you have the time to absorb it. But spending a few levels as a tank, then a few as a healer, then a few as a melee DPS – that’s not the way to make your knowledge gel. It doesn’t even come close to educating me on the right way to play in different environments, like questing, dungeons, and PvP.

I am the easiest HK ever in the battlegrounds on my Druid. It’s hugely frustrating to know what a class is capable of – I see you awesome shapeshifters out there! – and not be able to replicate even a little tiny bit of that excellence.

More than any other character I have, she’s the one that I most desperately need a 5×2 sheet for. She’s the one I need help with.

She’s the one I need your help with.

I think, and this is open for debate, but I think what I want to do is skip Northrend questing entirely and just do instances and PvP to level up. This likely means staying Resto, but I’m willing to start all over. If you think I should go Boomkin or Feral, make your case!

But what I really need is a good 5×2 grid. Yes, I know I should use VuhDo, but I need to know what to click there. I need to know what my top abilities are. I have a feeling that seeing what an experienced Druid player would do with 10 buttons is exactly what I need to finally find my groove with this character. I think I should use form macros, because paging action bars drive me nuts, but I’m not sure what I should prioritize. Should I have heals up top with mouseover macros? Should I put CC in the primary row and only heal through Vuhdo? Should I skip healing and just level Boomkin?

I don’t know, and I could use your help in figuring this all out.

Her name is Snowfalls, and I just don’t want to level her with Herbalism all the way to 85.

She deserves better than that.

THE 5×2 CHALLENGE

I think you need to do the 5×2 exercise. The act of taking a few minutes to think about what your abilities are, what you would keep and what you would trim away, is immensely valuable. You don’t need to do it for every possible spec your character could be, but you should do it for the ones you play. Just set up a 5×2+1 grid and plug in your spells – once you do that, you’ll start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s an amazing thing to try.

Keep in mind that the value of this exercise comes not from trying to play in the 5×2 grid, though you can certainly do it.  (I’m not advocating that, though it would make for a really interesting challenge.)

No, the value comes in looking at your abilities with a critical eye, and of concentrating your most important spells into a confined space. You’ll definitely use more than ten buttons – but you’ll know which ten buttons are the absolute most important to you.

And I think you should share what you come up with, too. Let @gomatgo know over on Twitter what your grid looks like. If you have a post, leave a link for Poneria at Fel Conecntration, as she’s started collecting pages on this project. Share it with your guild mates, on the forums.

There’s no correct answer for this challenge – people will surprise you with what they come up with. PvP and PvE will color people’s designs, as will their comfort with certain addons, hardware, and macros.

But I really, really want to see what you come up with.

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Children’s Week 2011 and the School of Hard Knocks

It’s unfortunate that Noblegarden and Children’s Week are so close together. The combination of two holidays back-to-back, and the pressure people may put on themselves to complete them (or complete them multiple times on alts) adds to the general stress of everyone’s least favorite holiday achievement, The School of Hard Knocks.

The School of Hard Knocks is many people’s stumbling block in accomplishing the meta achievement, What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been, and while the reward from that achievement doesn’t quite have the luster it once did – 310% flying can be bought for 5000 gold now, after all – it’s still a big accomplishment.

If you are going to attempt the School of Hard Knocks this year, let me point you back to my School of Hard Knocks guide from last year, complete with maps, videos, and as much advice as I could cram into a blog post.

The achievement hasn’t changed this year – you still have to perform some battleground tasks that many other people will be trying for. The one place I would recommend you bring friends to help out would be Eye of the Storm; that is a highly competitive environment, with some people actively griefing members of their own faction. And by griefing, I mean actively preventing you from returning flags, not just taking the flag and holding on to it, or running it back themselves. Report those people.

If you are a PvPer and a battleground enthusiast, I leave it up to you to consider if you’re going to take the next week off from BGs, or instead go tear up the newbies. I’ll remind you of both my modest and vicious proposals from last year, and while Southshore/Tarren Mill might not be the best place for Alliance to stage an attack these days. I’m sure you can be creative and just invade Undercity instead.

And don’t forget! If you’re in full Vicious Gladiator gear, go get an orphan!

Because nothing is more fun than having someone think you’re an easy kill, and then turning the tables on them.

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