Tag Archives: CFN

On Grabbing The Brass Ring

Cynli at the Stormwind Bank (edited)

“So what does it do, this … Battlemaster?” she asked.

I thought about that question for a moment. She was trying to understand. Things were still raw on that night; the topic of Warcraft itself was hard to broach. But I had done it, after the celebrations had died down and people got back to the business of farming Fatty Goatsteak. And she had responded.

“Does it give you special abilities? New powers? Make Cynwise … better, somehow?” she continued, trying to clarify her intent. Her familiar eyes met mine.

How do I explain it? The lines of questioning were obviously innocent; her knowledge of Warcraft was practically nonexistent. And it was a good question! What does this achievement, this title, do for you? It’s a diploma of sorts, a badge that you can flash and not say a word, cool and confident as you await the opening of the gates. But it’s not like gear, improving your character’s performance. It’s not like I suddenly had a 5% buff of awesomeness because I’d fulfilled a long list of criteria.

I was quiet too long. The social part of my brain set off alarms letting me know that; thanks, brain. I’m already flailing around with the deceptively insightful nature of this question: what does this achievement actually do for me? Getting it made me a better player, sure – through brute force repetition of actions I wouldn’t normally try. Never again will I take Snowfalls graveyard or race to be the first to recap a base in Arathi Basin. But I will hustle to do those things when they’re needed now, and not hang back, lamenting my role as a ranged damage dealer. So there’s that.

I’m better because of the journey, not because of the diploma.

Say something. Say anything. She’s just looking and you’re thinking about capping flags in Arathi Basin, doofus. 

“Mostly, it encourages opponents to pile on and try to beat the shit out of me.”

“Oh. Huh.”

She turned and went back to her work, and I went back to mine.

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The Few Versus The Many

Cynli - Eye of the Storm - Fel Reaver Ruins Hordeside - Black Leather

I really enjoy battleground healing on my Druid, Cynli.

She spent most of Cataclysm as a level 70 twink, and while she was effectively my main in 4.2, I haven’t played her much of late. That’s okay. We can go through cycles with our toons, hopefully they’ll forgive us.

The changes to BG scaling in 5.2 made me return my attention to my wayward druid, unlock her, and set out leveling her though PvP with a vague goal of either 80 for Herald or 85-89 for even more Mists-level PvP fun. Picking her up again has been a genuine pleasure. She’s the only toon, and I mean this very seriously, she’s the only toon which I feel completely comfortable displaying the Battlemaster title on in BGs aside from Cynwise. On everyone else I’m keenly aware of my limitations as a player playing below my potential; with these two, I feel like yes, I am as good as this title proclaims me to be.

Druid PvP healing is fun, hugely mobile, more than a little overpowered in the 70s, and gives me a different perspective on the game. I do things I wouldn’t ever dream of doing on a DPS character with Cynli – take the flag and go over to a Horde-controlled base, just to taunt the 4-6 DPS there with their inability to take down a single healer – but ultimately there’s still a sense of fun that comes from playing a character that I’m good at playing. Even though I know that I have a lot of room for improvement, the convergence of competence, confidence and cool toys makes for a character I love to play.

We’ve come a long way from the Druid which I deleted twice out of frustration.

I have an alt of every class. I didn’t use to – I used to delete alts whenever they bored me – but I’ve tried to stick with ones that I find boring, give them great outfits, learn the basics, and then put them in a corner where they don’t bother me too much. When I want to dabble with leveling they’re there, waiting. I might not be Great with them, but I can be Fair to Good, and that’s almost always more than enough for PvE leveling content. It irks me when I can’t perform up to the level I’m accustomed to in PvP, though. It really irks me. I know it’s a matter of getting fluent with a class, of having the muscle memory down for what buttons to press when you want something to happen, and that fluency takes time. When I’ve switched PvP specs on Cynwise, I usually need 2-3 weeks to get back up to speed so I don’t feel like I’m flailing and letting everyone in the battlegroup down.  Weeks! The first few days are terrible, I hate it, it’s one reason I stopped switching specs in PvP so often (and why I’ve never really gotten good a Demo PvP) – I hate feeling like my primary avatar is incompetent, because my skills are lacking. Dismissing that feeling of incompetence on an alt is far easier than on a main. You have to focus to be good, and you can’t focus on mastering 11 classes at the same time.

Well, I can’t. Maybe you can.

Cynwise - Binan Village Fishing

THE COMPETENCE TRAP

This story is from a while ago, so my apologies if you’ve heard it before.

I had someone roll an alt and whisper me a pretty standard question – what class should they play for PvP?

I answered their question with a question in return: what do you like to play?

“I like playing all of them.”

“Okay, what class do you feel you’re good at playing?”

“All of them. I’m equally good with all of them.”

Now, because I’m polite, I didn’t respond with what I really thought at that moment. But if you say that you’re equally good with all classes, you’re saying that you’re equally bad with all of them. (The personnel manager in me also says that you lack self-awareness and don’t know your strengths and flaws, and to expect overinflated evaluations of your own performance. But I digress.) There are 11 classes with 34 specs in World of Warcraft now, and you’re going to find that some are better suited to you than others. Classes appeal because of the playstyle, the mechanics, the function and power of the class. Maybe it’s the fantasy of the class which appeals, or the role, or the character. Maybe it’s the outfits.

But soon, competence appeals. As you learn to play it, becoming good at playing it is its own reward. You become good with the class and spec, and then great with it, and then you log over to another alt and … aren’t.

So now the other class is at a natural disadvantage because of your own competence with another class. There have to be reasons for flailing around on an undergeared alt, struggling through the initial learning curve, gearing up, making things click in your head, that makes the effort worth overcoming the skill gap. Sometimes it’s because of social pressures – your raid needs an X to fill a different role, too much competition on certain rolls, missing buffs. Sometimes it’s because you just don’t like the old class anymore because you or it changed. Sometimes it’s just to see how other classes play.

I have 1 main and 11 alts, one of each class, and I do not play them all equally well.

The ones I play well make me want to play them more, and playing them more makes me play them better, which widens the gap.

Cynwise - Setting the Shrine on Fire

THE LEVEL OF PLAY TO WHICH WE ARE ACCUSTOMED

I have friends who have lots of alts, and I have friends who have a few alts, and friends who have no alts, and it all seems to work out pretty well for them. Some folks can hop on a new class and be brilliant in no time flat. (Rades is particularly good at this, by the way. Little known fact about him.) Others stick with the tried and true and add alts very slowly, carefully, keeping their rosters pruned like a well-tended garden. Some are like me, and it bugs them when they can’t be good on an alt. Others aren’t fazed at all and just soldier right on through, leveling them up and getting the job done until they are good with them.

(I admire those folks. Wish I could take a page from their book.)

I personally can only be really good – really really good – with one spec at a time. I should probably amend that to one spec per role at a time, because I’m able to compartmentalize things like “this is how you tank” and “this is how you heal” and “this is how you ranged DPS” pretty well since they’re different activities. But even with that amendment, there’s a level of play within a given role that I’m accustomed to. There’s a class, a spec, where I feel like yep, this is as good as I play. Sometimes that changes – I used to feel really confident tanking on my Death Knight, but that was as a Frost tank back in Wrath – but as the years go on, I get settled in and never seem to achieve the fluency with a new spec as I do with an old one.

(I think it’s also probably still fair to say that even between roles, there’s only one spec that I’m best at at a single time. I am not nearly as good of a tank as I am a ranged pvp dps.)

That idea of the level of play to which I am accustomed really strikes me when I’m playing PvP. I don’t like being bad at a class in a BG. I really don’t. I can play all of my alts relatively competently in a PvE environment – in 5 years I’ve learned how to quest on pretty much anybody with an attack button, how to tank an instance or heal the tank through an instance. (My struggles with leveling in PvE are far more attention and interest-related than skill.) But I queue up for a BG and weaknesses come out. Sometimes I get through it, figure out ways to make it work. I know how to play the BGs and can (usually) contribute.

But on some alts, I just … flounder. Knowing how to heal a 5-man doesn’t always translate into knowing how to heal a BG. Being able to DPS through a pack of mobs doesn’t mean that I can win a 1:1 against anyone but a really weak opponent.

Those alts depress me.

Other alts surprise me. Folks told me to keep going with my Resto Shaman, switch to Enhance for a while but that Resto didn’t really get going until the mid-60s. You know what? They were right. Much happier with my performance as a Resto Shaman at 70 than at 50. I’m not great with her in PvP, but I’m not floundering anymore. There were definite toolkit problems there that got fixed later on. It’s tough sometimes as a novice to really identify those times when it’s you, and your lack of skill, versus the spec not working right. When you’re an expert, sure, those problems are apparent. But learning? Maybe it’s me.

My Shaman and my Mage are illustrative examples. I rolled a shaman because I sucked at them and wanted to not suck anymore. After about 2 years of dinking about on her, I’m no longer terrible and wondering when I can delete her. I’m slowly climbing that competency curve. My mage, on the other hand, started off strong – PvP on a low level twinked out mage is a lot of fun – but has gotten progressively weaker as I’ve leveled her. Is that me? Is it the class? I assume they’re fine, or reasonably fine, at the higher levels – so why does she suck to play so much in the 50s-60s? Is this just something to get through?

It’s tough to look at an alt and just say, you know, I could probably quest on you, and maybe do some dungeons, but the content I can do competently at  your level is just painful.

I’d rather log on to someone I could be a rock star with.

Cynxi - Pandaren Rogue - SW - II

ALTERNATE WAYS TO LEVEL

My Rogue is level 85 now. I don’t play a Rogue well at all, but she’s level 85 through a lot of pet battles. My Death Knight went from 80-85 solely through mining. My Paladin, Mage and Shaman have more than their share of levels solely from cooking dailies. These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, alts that I don’t feel all that great about playing. There are other ways to level aside from questing, dungeons, and battlegrounds, and I’ve tried out a lot of them.

I have really mixed feelings about using alternate ways to level. Part of me likes it, because I can skip over those parts of the content where I have trouble retaining any interest at all. Oh boy, time to get lost in Blackrock Mountain. Oh boy, Hellfire Ramparts with a fresh DK tank, yay. Oh boy, Utgarde Keep. Again. Doing pet battles or archeology or gathering at least lets me feel like I’m getting something out of the deal, be it a stash of gold from gathered materials or a leveled profession in addition to a leveled character.

But I’m also reminded that I’m using those alternate means of leveling because I don’t like playing the character. If I choose to level with something that could be done on any character on that specific alt solely for the experience gain, I’ve fundamentally said that playing the other parts of WoW don’t appeal to me with that toon.

Oh, if I do them as part of the leveling process those alternate means of experience gain are great. Pet battle and gather while questing? Perfect XP boosts. Grinding out a bunch of mobs for professions? Hey, at least you’re in combat and learning how the class works. Leveling by mining and hunting rare mobs in Pandaria on my DK has been the opposite experience I had in Cataclysm because I have had to learn how to play her to do it. I don’t have to quest, I hunt Karasang rares for their BOE drops and sweet XP. The rares are all challenging encounters, but not impossible, so I’ve actually watched my DK fluency rise again while leveling. I even felt confident enough to take her into BGs last night! I felt the competency gap, I was squishy as all getout, but I didn’t feel like I was floundering and a failure.

But I don’t know any more about playing a Rogue than I did when she was 70 now, because she’s the product of pet battles. I leveled her for her crafting skills and that was really about it.

When I find myself leveling solely through alternate means, I should probably take a long look at that alt.

Cynwii - Gnome Monk Training

THE FEW VERSUS THE MANY

This post started out with me realizing how much I really enjoy playing my Druid. I might have a lot of alts, and a lot of healers even, but when push comes to shove I know who I want to be playing in a battleground.

There’s a dynamic tension within a computer game like Warcraft that just doesn’t exist in a traditional RPG between multiple characters. In a tabletop or live-action RPG you’re pretty much expected to play one character per session, and probably only 1-2 characters over the course of a campaign. I played V:MET for 12 years and only played 5 characters total. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything by not playing a Nosferatu or Malkavian. When I played AD&D, I didn’t ever feel like I should play a Barbarian just to experience everything. If I wanted a Barbarian, I switched to one – but there was no need to have a Barbarian rolled up so I could have a crafter or fill another role. If I played a Ranger, I played a Ranger and worked within the limits of that class.

MMOs have concepts of roles and factions. There are in-game abilities which are restricted to certain classes. There are limits on professions which require multiple characters to learn. Even your social circles are limited – you can only be on one server and one guild and one faction at a time. You might still only play one character at a given moment, but you’re able to have a whole roster of characters to work around game-imposed limits. You don’t have to have additional characters, but if you want to bypass those limits an alt is the way to do it. Hybrids have an advantage here in that they can change roles in a single character, but it’s not a fix to profession, server, guild or faction restrictions. You also don’t really know how another class plays until you play it.

I have 11 alts, one of each class, and it kinda stresses me out. I’m trying to embrace having what – to me – is a lot of alts, because it seems like a good way to experience the whole game of Warcraft. But those classes I struggle on sit there on my screen, reminding me that there’s work to be done, a project which is not finished, and it’s not a fun project. There are times I want fewer projects, to just have the ones left which I really love. Then there are times I try to convince myself maybe just 4 characters would be enough, one for each role. Then it’s 5, because I need someone to play on the other faction with. Then it’s 8, because why not have the 4 armor types represented on each faction? And then once you have 8 you might as well have 11. But I don’t love playing all 11 of those alts. I like them well enough, but I don’t love them. I have them to cover my bases.

Do what you love. It’s hard for me to log in to a toon I don’t love playing when there are options which I do love playing.

And yet I do.

This game is weird.

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On Never Saying Never Again

Well, I don’t think I expected Cataclysm to turn out this way.

It’s not really a secret that I have a Forsaken Warlock. I wrote about her in my CFN essay, On The Forsaken, and it was pretty clear that while I didn’t dislike playing a warlock per se, I wasn’t really very enthusiastic about the alt. I didn’t sit there and go, I’m so enraptured by the gameplay that I am not paying attention to the story. In another post, On Revelations, I had talked about how I hadn’t leveled a Warlock past level 10, and how I hadn’t picked up my main since the end of Season 9.

So here I am, questing through Silverpine on a Forsaken Warlock when it hit me.

this is actually a lot of fun.

I don’t know if it’s the zone (it might be), or if I’m doing everything deliberately as wrong as possible on my little baby warlock, experimenting to find out what really works while leveling, or if it’s just because I’ve let go of big Cynwise, I’ve grieved for her and gone through my dark night of the soul. I hoped I would come back to Silverpine and see it someday; I just didn’t know when.

But I honestly didn’t expect to have fun again on a warlock until Mists. I thought I would do the Silverpine/Hillsbarad quests and then delete this toon.

Nope. She’s not my primary character right now, but she’s in my top 3.

It’s hard to reinvent ourselves.

It’s hard to look at ourselves and say, this isn’t working, this isn’t the way I want things to be going, and then to do something about it. It’s hard to selectively let go of the past, to say, I know I said I would only do these things and never do these other things, but … maybe I was wrong.

Or, more likely, maybe I became wrong, over time. It might have been the right thing then, but now it’s time to change, and to let go of the past and embrace new things.

Never say never again, and all that.

You may have noticed that this website looks a little different today. It has a different title. It has a different look. If you’ve been following me on Posterous, you know that I’ve not been writing as much about warlocks and PvP, but I have been writing a lot about Warcraft. And I haven’t been entirely happy with the platform, but I’m happy with the writing, and the rules around the writing.

I think it’s safe to say, actually, that my best writing in the past 6 months has been over on my Field Notes blog – an experiment I started on a lark – than over here. And that that has led to a bit of fracturing, a feeling like I’m picking up blogs like detritus and that I’m losing my focus. That I can’t keep this one going and this one and this one and oh god Go Mog Yourself is picking up massive steam.

So I’m going to change things a bit. Jettison the old, consolidate, focus. Digital stuff is still stuff, and it still weighs on one’s mind.

  • Cynwise’s Field Manual Notes will be moving over here and merging with Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual to form Cynwise’s Warcraft Manual. I’m not stopping writing about PvP, or Warlocks. Those topics will still be here, but will be mixed in with other topics again.
  • I will be closing up Green Tinted Goggles and Cynwulf’s Auction House Manual. Having both a PvP blog and twink PvP blog made some sense when twinking was a more controversial topic, but now the division doesn’t really make any sense.
  • I will be moving the archives of CFN, CAHM, and GTG over to this site over the next few days. (My apologies in advance if this floods your feed readers!) This is to make searching easier on everyone. One site.
  • Go Mog Yourself will continue to be a collaborative fashion site and remain separate and fabulous. Punt This will also remain right where it is – neither of these have ever really been my blogs – I’m more like the Chief Kermit running around trying to stay on top of the wonderful chaos with them. :)

(Nobody reads Cynix’s blog, and I dont blame them, so I’m not worrying about it for now.)

This is kinda weird for me to talk about – I don’t do a lot of administrative posts – but sometimes we have to talk about reinventing ourselves, about how we are changing, so that people can follow along and know that while we might be ending some things, we’re continuing with new ones in their place.

I never thought CBM would become what it did. I never thought GTG would find an audience. I never thought CFN would become a place with my best writing. (I think a lot of my early commentary about it was, “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”)

But they did.

So here’s to jettisoning the nevers, and getting on with reinventing ourself.

Let’s go.

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On the Holy Trinity, Roles, and Role Playing

Cynwise_-_uldum_-_lighting_the_obelisk_of_the_moon

Like many of you, I played AD&D before I ever touched Warcraft. My introduction to the world of fantasy gaming wasn’t through computer games, but through traditional pen and paper RPGs, and that pretty fundamentally shaped how I approached the genre. You start with the character first, and then figure out how to express them in game terms, and the same idea could often be realized through different classes with different results.

Swashbucklers are an easy example to use; you could choose to make them more combat-orientted, and so choose a Fighter (or later a Warrior). Or you could make them more agile, more daring, and make them a Thief – or later even a Bard. I didn’t like Swashbucklers so much in a fantasy setting, though – I loved playing Scouts. Masters of concealment and ambush, highly sought after by military forces – oh yeah, that was my thief. Or a serious archer with woodsman skills? Ranger, maybe a Fighter, depends on if “archer” or “woodsman” was top in my mind for the character. The great thing is that I could do this and still have a fun game  – one campaign was me playing a stealthy ranger with 3 PC thieves, which meant that our adventures were high on espionage, intrigue, forgery, politics, diplomacy – and the occasional assassination via archery.

Computer fantasy games never had that kind of flexibility. I remember Bard’s Tale (in various editions) and Dungeon Master allowing me to make parties of characters of different classes, but they weren’t really characters – I think my Bard’s Tale part was named entirely after X-Men? – because their classes defined them. This was certainly better than earlier fantasy video games like Gauntlet, where it really didn’t matter which of the 4 characters you took on – all it determined, really, was the look of your avatar and what it shot. “Elf, don’t shoot food.”

I liked to play the Elf. “Elf is about to die.” “Elf needs food badly.”

One of the (many) things I liked about AD&D was that there wasn’t a sense of roles you needed to fill to make a group. There were some things it was nice to have – always great if someone wanted to play a healer! – but it wasn’t like someone would say, no, you can’t run this dungeon without a healer. Play smart, play creatively, and group comp didn’t matter. This was, in part, because the GM could tailor the adventure to a specific group, but it was also because the assumption was that you didn’t need a damage soaker and healer for encounters. Some classes might be better suited towards a specific environment or situation, and some might fare better or worse against specific enemies – ask me about my sorceror who had a bad run-in with some undead and considered becoming a paladin – but by and large, class choice wasn’t an obstacle.

I didn’t really play much 3rd edition AD&D – it was almost all 1st and 2nd – and I know that this changed later on. But from what I saw, in those 10 years or so where I really played the game, was that you could make just about any character concept work. Game balance might be a different matter entirely – but the idea of tanks, healers, and damage dealers never really came into my fantasy games.

And then came Warcraft.

Cynwulf_-_vortex_pinnacle_-_cloud_bridges

THE HOLY TRINITY

Even after three years of playing WoW, I still don’t really know what to think about threat annd the holy trinity of DPS-Tank-Healing. I mean, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you posit intelligent opponents. It’s the fundamental flaw of Warcraft PvP. But it’s the foundation of the game, this idea that for an encounter to be challenging, it requires players to form the triumvirate and work within it, suspending disbelief and requiring some mental gymnastics to believe that this superpowerful being your group is facing wouldn’t go right after the healers, or the mages and warlocks, and instead will doggedly beat on the few people in front of it who are most able to take the punishment.

This is not a new topic. I bring it up not because I’m making an original critique of WoW’s holy trinity, but rather to contrast it with the original AD&D skirmisher style, and to get that contrast in your head while talking about roles in WoW.

I read Matthew Rossi’s Ol’ Grumpy post today about roles and this contrast came immediately to mind. I thought about those days of being a Ranger and how, sometimes, that meant I wanted the bad guys to focus on me for a bit because I was the “warrior” of the group. I think at the time it was mostly because I had the most hit points, not because I could take it any better than the rogues! But then I also remember games where my Magic User was the one who took the brunt of a dragon’s attacks, precisely because he specialized in defensive magics!

These are two very different ways of designing encounters, and designing classes for these encounters.

Part of me wants to say that the roles themselves are the issue, that the AD&D skirmish model is “better,” but I don’t think that part of me is being fair. That kind of model requires a deft touch and human intelligence – or really good AI – to make it work. Epic boss fights are possible, I suppose, with enough mitigation and damage swapping, but it would look a lot different than what we have now. And it’s certainly not a model that is worth scrapping an entire game platform for – instead, this kind of change is something that will take place over iterations of games, not within a game itself.

So if I accept roles as being part and parcel of my computer gaming experience, then I’m left with how characters fit into those roles, which flips me right into Matt’s article and how roles conflict with those concepts, and how some classes are able to fill multiple roles, while others cannot.

ROLES AND ROLE PLAYING

Are my WoW toons more like AD&D characters or Gauntlet characters?

At first blush, that seems like a good distinction to make. Is Cynwise like a sorceror or a half-elven fighter/magic user (conjuration spec), or is she like the Wizard? Is she a unique concept with a class describing her, or is she just a Warlock?

Scratch at that a little more, and I think that it becomes a bad distinction, because the two poles of the spectrum are actually the same thing. Both AD&D characters and Gauntlet toons existed in a game where their roles didn’t really matter. The Elf was interchangable with the Valkyrie; I could play a D&D campaign with all Fighters, Rangers, and Barbarians, and still make it work. It didn’t matter if they were pen and paper characters or video game characters, despite their apparently huge difference in flexibility – when you got down to it, your character choice didn’t restrict you from playing part of the game.

This is where Warcraft gets weird. I mean, it’s just weird. You have all the trappings of a fantasy RPG – characterization, race selection, class selection, fantasy setting – but class choice matters more than any other choice you make about your character. It determines what roles you can play in the game and how you play them. As much as it irritates me to be called “tank” or “healer” in an instance, or warlock or warrior or priest or shaman by some PuG, it’s actually a pretty fair assessment of the situation. I’m not Cynwise, mercenary spellcaster from Northshire, responsible for the Morshan Ramparts disaster. I’m the ‘lock in the instance or raid. The distinctions and subtleties fall away in an MMORPG.

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s illuminating to look at what you can change in a pen and paper RPG versus WoW. In WoW you can change your race, your gender, your faction. You can change from a giant Tauren to a pint-sized Gnome, an alien spacegoat to a werewolf. But you can never change your class. You can change what you are, but not what you do. This is backwards from regular RPGs, where you can pick up additional classes (though it may be easier or harder depending on the system), but changes to your character mean that you’re making a new one. Character continuity is essential.

This ties directly into roles.

We choose our characters based upon a lot of reasons – the flavor of a class, the look of a race’s animations. Maybe we have a character concept we’re trying out, or we just want to do something that amorphously “looks fun.” Each class is different enough that perhaps something about it clicks with us, where we understand it and it’s effective and it makes us feel powerful in game. The flavor of a character is important, otherwise we’d all be playing pink cubes with player inputs and special abilities influencing other pink cubes. The world and setting is important.

But because of the Holy Trinity, the choices we make for flavor reasons have a real impact on gameplay. So, to experience other parts of the game, we have to either discard that character and make a new one, or hope that we chose a character class that allows us to do those other things.

(I’ve gone this long without mentioning the term ‘hybrid’. But that’s what this is about.)

This is the rub, I think, of the holy trinity, and I don’t think it’s a solvable one. As soon as you say, encounters are designed to have three specific roles, one of two design choices are necessary.

  • Inclusionary Design: all classes can fill all roles.
  • Exclusionary Design: some classes cannot fill all roles.

It doesn’t matter the extent or breadth of the exclusion – as soon as you make the choice, be it for flavor or game balance, that some classes are not going to be able to fill all the roles in the game, the game is exclusionary and conflict will result. The conflict will be simple, manifest in a similar pattern every time, and will be insoluble.

We’ve seen all this with WoW. Faction-specific classes, hybrid tax, class/role superiority in PvE or PvP. And as long as classes are exclusionary, we’ll keep seeing it.

The argument is simple.

Either:

  • Classes should be able to perform about equally well in the roles they are able to do. In this case, the advantage is the hybrid’s, since they can perform multiple roles, giving them flexibility.

Or:

  • Some classes will have a distinct advantage over another in a given role, due to increased DPS, healing, utility, CC, damage avoidance and mitigation. The advantage will be to that class, which is the only situation in which a pure DPS class could be advantagous to play to offset the lack of flexibility.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too with the Holy Trinity. You can’t have roles and roleplaying in the same game without them coming into conflict. If you want classes to have a specific look and feel, different playstyles, then players will naturally choose between them. This is good! If I wanted to play Gauntlet again, where it doesn’t matter which controller I grab, then I’ll play Gauntlet! I don’t, so I play Warcraft, where I’m a pretty good Warrior and Warlock, a passable Resto Druid, and should really put in some more time to learn how to be a better Priest (because 5 mans taught me jack and shit for how to really play the class.)

I enjoy all three roles of the Holy Trinity. I’m surprised at how much I enjoy healing and tanking, to be honest, and I’d like to do them all on one character.

Since I didn’t happen to choose a class that could do that when I started, I’ve had to roll several more so I could enjoy those parts of the game. That’s okay, I guess, though I think it’s sad that choices which were made for playstyle and flavor have such a dramatic impact.

I don’t think this is a solvable problem under the current system. Even adding more roles to different classes, of breaking the Pure DPS model and letting everyone be a hybrid – only moves the line between full hybrids and partial hybrids. If you give Warlocks, Rogues and Hunters tanking trees, and Mages a healing tree, you may make players happier – but all you have done is move the line from Pure/Hybrid to Two/Three Role Hybrids. DPS spec heavy hybrids, like Shaman, Warriors, DKs, and Priests now face off against Paladins and Monks.

Druids will remain the most flexible choice of all.

Whether your choice will be the best choice, of course, will depend on which way the pendulum swings, and which class is on top this month. Because no matter what, an exclusionary model will have a right choice, and a wrong one. There will be an optimal class to have rolled for what you’re trying to do, and hopefully, that’s whichever one you picked.

NO EXIT

I’m trying to make sure that I’m not complaining about my lot as a former Warlock player. Just like my AD&D experience, it shaped my views on the Holy Trinity, protecting me from the pressures of healing and tanking but also preventing me from experiencing it without another character.

The experience left me somewhat bitter and jaded about the whole idea of roles within the game, to be honest. Why should I be locked in to only DPS roles? Why should I have to roll another toon if I wanted to heal or tank? I didn’t know what those things were when I rolled my first class of toons, and now I have to go roll another one? Put aside my main to go do these things? Is this fair?

But in the process of rolling those alts, I came to see the other side, too. Why should I be penalized for rolling a class that can tank? Why should my DPS spec be worse just because I can heal, too? How is that fair?

Both positions have a point. How is it fair?

And the answer is, it’s not. No matter which way you look at it, it’s not.

Warcraft has an exclusionary class and role design philosophy. That’s okay, it adds interest and spice to the RPG part of the game.

But it also presents an insoluble problem for class balance. And we, as players, have to deal with the fallout from that problem – constantly shifting class abilities, utilities, and balance.

(Even Druids! They can’t escape it, either!)

This isn’t all about being on top of the charts, or having the most utility, or the best tank.

It’s about how our role playing choices set and limit our roles within the game.

As long as Warcraft requires tanks, healers, and DPS, and classes have to choose between them – this is one of those problems we’ll have to deal with.

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On Digital Detritus

Cynli_-_green_druid_-_isle_of_queldanas_-_tranquilty_cast

I was moving over files – iTunes library – from my laptop to the new desktop when something strange happened.

I suddenly felt TERRIBLE about what I was doing. I was filling up my new, pristine hard drive with hundreds of gigs of … stuff. Stuff that I didn’t even USE. I don’t listen to my music collection that often, and when I do, it’s not that I need that much variety.

I have a lot of junk in there. A lot of junk that I just can’t be bothered to throw away.

And here I was, loading up a clean hard drive with … crap. And I felt it.

Storage space shouldn’t be an issue in my current environment – I have several NASes humming along, I have about 4TB of networked data storage available in some form or another. I have 10 years of hard drives in my closet in various enclosures that I can use to back data up and move data around and make backups and backups of my backups and backups of my backups and yo dawg we herd you like backups so we put a NAS in your NAS so you can backup while you backup.

Seriously, I have a lot of backup drives. I’m not even counting my offsite storage in this little soul-baring audit!

And yet, there I was, going … why am I putting all this STUFF on the machine I want to work on?

It wasn’t just iTunes. It was 40k photographs, it was a hugely messy home directory with documents scattered all over the place. I’d been going with that home directory for about 6 years now since the last good cleanout, and it showed. Documents EVERYWHERE. It didn’t matter, I kept saying. All I do is use Spotlight or Quicksilver for search. Doesn’t matter where I put stuff.

But … it does.

Cynli_-_tree_form_-_isle

I purge my toons periodically in World of Warcraft. If you follow me on Twitter you know that sometimes I’ll just get into a mood and start slashing alts. I used to be more judicious about keeping alts around, but after a long friendship with Psyinster and Fynralyl I adopted a more live-and-let-die approach to my toons.

CYN’S THREE QUESTIONS OF TOON SURVIVAL:

  1. Are you still fun to play? If no, go to #2.
  2. Do you have something irreplaceable on you, or a profession which would be a total PITA to relevel? If no, go to #3.
  3. Do you have your own blog? If no, you’re gone.

The third rule is the Cynwulf Rule – I leveled him to 80 and promptly stopped having fun on him, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete him because he had his own, dusty blog. He is a character in the ongoing story and GOD DAMNIT I MIGHT NEED SCREENSHOTS.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t posted there in a year… and a half. He’s safe.

My Shaman is trying to exploit the Cynwulf Rule for her own benefit. Or maybe mine. She has a blog solely so that she doesn’t get the axe! I’m like, this is silly, I have to stop deleting toons and give them an honest shake.

Yeah. It’s the only thing that kept her around last month.

Characters weigh on my mind. Leveling characters, especially, but character in general. They take up mental space. They have … presence, even when they’re not doing things. I like having them around, I like having them available, I like trying out new things, but …

Digital things can take up space.

Physical stuff dragging you down, I understand. Paul Graham’s essay Stuff is a great short read on how our society has come to a point where we accumulate and accumulate because stuff is so fucking cheap now. I go into my garage and attic and am like… why do I have all these boxes? Why do I have all these old college papers? WHAT POSSIBLE USE IS THIS BOX TO A CAMERA THAT DOESN’T WORK? It’s all stuff.

Oh, hey, George Carlin on Stuff:

Physical stuff takes up physical space. It’s matter! Can’t change the laws of physics. But it takes up mental space too. You have to remember where your stuff is. Stuff has memories attached to it. I’m not anti-Stuff, by the way – I think it’s good to hold on to important memories. But I know I have too much Stuff, too.

Digitial stuff is weird. It has no real presence… I mean, sure, there’s a stack of hard drives, there are computers lying about, there are those old Zip drive disks and 3.5 floppies I’m NEVER going to bother getting a drive together to read again – but it’s the digital ghosts inside those things which haunts me. It’s the 35 backups of my iTunes and iPhoto library which, when I think about them at all, makes me want to curl up into a ball and pay someone to just sort it all out for me.

Seriously. I’ve considered outsourcing organizing my photo library before. WTB competent tagger, PST rates.

It’s tough trying to clean this stuff out. It’s all mental once you get past the ones and zeros, it’s all mental. Do I need this file? Do I need this photo? What about this movie? Should I digitize it to preserve it? Do I save this or that? Did I encrypt my tax returns? Did I remember to save that PGP key?

Warcraft really isn’t any different. You have to maintain toons (hello, endgame). You need to keep their UI tuned up through various patches. You need to keep their possessions organized.

You ever log into a toon after a few month hiatus, look in their bags, and wonder what the hell you were doing the last time you played? WHY DO I STILL HAVE THIS why are these bags so messy why do I have vendor trash ON MY MAIN oh god I fail at this game /logout /posterous.

Each one is effort.

Each one takes up space.

And sometimes, just like the toys you have to clean out periodically when you have kids, or are a kid, you have to free up some space.

Screen_shot_2012-01-24_at_9

There are times I want to wipe it all out and start over.

I don’t think I’m alone in this desire. Zero it out, fresh clean slate… start over. No expectations, no baggage.

No resources.

No accumulated knowledge.

No history to search through and say, oh, that’s right, I did this, I needed this to do that.

There are tradeoffs to starting over.

I was going through some old websites of mine on Tumblr tonight, trying to reconcile what I used to do with what I do now. It’s so different. So, so different. But each one of them was out there, a record of a different time. Maybe it’s not worth deleting the past. Maybe it’s worth starting over, but leave a trail of digital detritus behind us, so that we can look back and see how far we’ve come.

Maybe we should leave those old toons where they are, in peace.

Or maybe we should type DELETE at the screen, and hope they don’t have any mail left.

Ashwalker_-_dwarven_district_-_ironforge_outfit

My time in WoW continues to shrink. My time spent in game dwindles as I find myself in the midst of a creative … explosion. I don’t know how else to describe what’s happening right now. Things are so hectic, so stressful, yet instead of logging in to veg out I want to MAKE THINGS and WRITE THINGS and CODE THINGS and DO ALL SORTS OF THINGS. When I do log in, I have been picking the strangest toons to play. My Forsaken Warlock? SURE. A random DK? OK.

I have two weeks left before I have to make the decision to go buy that game card or not, and I’ve thrown the bucket list out the window. I’m playing World of Fashioncraft more than world of Warcraft. I’m more worried about getting a decent outfit for my Druid than I am completing the grind for her BiS trinket.

I know before I talked about how constraints create focus, and they do. What I find interesting is that I’m focusing on things that don’t have a lot of digital baggage with them. Go, make someone look nice. Do they look nice now? Ok, go to the next one. Rinse, repeat.

WoW’s hold on me is very tenuous right now. I’m not compelled to go on, except to create something, or capture an image of something. Images and words, not accomplishments.

I don’t know what to say about that.

This is one of those posts where I write and write and hope that I come to a point, eventually. But I don’t know that I will, tonight. I mean, I’ve got stuff. Digital stuff. It weighs on my brain. We all have digital stuff, at least you good folks who are reading this do. What can we do about that stuff?

I’m deleting my iTunes folder off my new computer right now. It is stuff that I’m not prepared to deal with. It can stay on the old computer for a while longer.

The pictures might stay, but maybe I should get rid of them, too.

And my characters in WoW… are they passing the three questions of toon survival, or not?

Maybe that’s not even the right question.

What if the game itself is what needs to be going through that test right now? Is it a good tool, good entertainment, fun?

Or digital debris?

My sub runs out in mid-February, and then I’m on vacation for a week.

We’ll see what happens then.

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On Iterative Twinking

Magisters_terrace_at_night

Okay.

So I’m doing the Shattered Sun Offensive dailies on my level 70 druid twink, Cynli. I’m doing them for a very specific purpose – she’s an alchemist, and pretty much the best trinket she can get at level 70 is the Redeemer’s Achemist Stone, which requires SSO exalted rep. (One of the material components requires revered with the Shat’ar, which is the next grind.) So I’m running MgT and doing SSO dailies instead of PvPing on her, which is kinda boring but whatever. I can do it for +10 Intellect and +40% more effective Mana Pots.

And I’m thinking, you know, there’s a cheap and easy to get Alchemy trinket at 75. I even know how to make it already. But to get it I have to go to 75, which totally defeats the purpose of playing a level 70 twink. I’m killing all these demons and all these blood elves and all these naga (stupid naga) to get something that’s totally replaced in 5 levels.

I probably shouldn’t forget the really great engineering goggles, too. Though Cynli isn’t an engineer – it’s hard for me to remember that I have toons who aren’t.

So I’m thinking, you know, I wonder how many people did this back in the day. The BC day. You know, when this was endgame content and you had to sweat for it and getting this trinket was actually a BFD and having gear like I have was a BFD and not just the key to being one of those supremely irritating Resilience-stacking unkillable healers in battlegrounds, not like that’s a bad thing or anything, go ahead and Healers Have to Die me, I’m the one back here fending off your little tickly rogue daggers and you better bring Cataclysm tinkers because otherwise I’m leafing you in my dust.

Ahem.

Endgame content is it’s own game. It constitutes 1-2 years of playtime for players at max level during the expansion. That’s a significant amount of time spent making your character as good as they can be during that period of time. At the end, they’re fucking ROCK STARS.

But as soon as they level up, they start to suck. Little by little, hour by hour, level by level, they suck. Their combat ratings degrade. Their epic gear gets replaced by shitty quest greens that were formerly lining a birdcage. I seriously think I wore a gryphon’s feed bag for a while on Cynwise’s head, WHAT THE FUCK.

Then they get to the next endgame, and it begins all over again. New shoulder enchants. New helm enchants. New reputations to grind. New dungeons to run.

All the old accomplishments, wiped out. The time spent making that character a work of art – gone.

What good is your SSO reputation now, in Cataclysm? What value does it have to your character? At most, it might confer a tabard and a title. There’s no in-game benefit to it.

But for a level 70 twink, it probably does have value. It’s an endgame reputation with viable rewards.

So I’m on the Isle, firebombing a ship, getting ready to kill more blood elves with my LEET RESTO DAMAGE (do not fuck with me, I am a badass healer who will heal myself through everything you throw at me and then oh hi THORNS HURRICANE DOT DOT DOT), when a few things click.

  • Cross-realm retro raids are coming. People will want to do raids both with their mains (at 85) and with alts (leveling) or, possibly, with their at-level twinks (at the usual levels.)
  • With cross-realm raiding, PvE twinks become viable entertainment for raiders who would like a side project with some nostalgia thrown in. Kara is a faceroll at 85, but it requires some work at 70. (It’s not as hard as you remember, though.)
  • Players with expansion twinks at a variety of levels – 60, 70, 80, 85 – will be able to play with friends who like to level alts without having to level an alt to join them. You need someone to run through early Northrend? I have a 70 twink healer, let me come join you! Need a tank for Wrath Heroics? I’ve got a geared 80, let’s go!
  • Expansion twinks allow you to go through an expansion at the intended level at your own pace, If you didn’t finish all the Wrath quests? Go back and finish them on your 80 twink, get the reps all finished up! Want to do Silithus at 60? Go for it!

All of these ideas coalesced into the idea of iterative twinking.

You spend all this time making your character a badass, only to have that undone when the next expansion hits.

Don’t.

What if, instead of carrying your character forward each expansion and negating the work you put into them, you … don’t.

Lock their XP. Leave them be, play them in the endgame environment to which they have adapted. PvP with them, raid with them, do holidays with them, run dungeons with them. But leave them be. Leave your Wrath toon in T10. Leave your BC toon in Brutal/Sunwell gear.

(Maybe improve their skills and enchants, because, you know. twink.)

Say: this toon a testament to my efforts during this expansion. And reroll a new one for the next one. (Or promote an alt.)

Same class, same race? SURE. You have a good thing going. Try something new? OK!

Each expansion you create a new iteration of your main character. Here is what she was like in Vanilla. Here’s what she was like in BC. Here’s Wrath. Here’s Cataclsym. Maybe they’re all the same character, just with different outcomes. Maybe they’re radically different.

But each one allows you to retain the value you earned by playing at the endgame for that expansion. Iterative twinking keeps you from taking all that effort – all that time – and saying, it is for naught. 70, after all, is just a level you pass going fro 69 to 71. 80 is just a waystation to 85.

And soon, 85 will be a stopping point on the way to 90.

You can level a new toon to 85 in, what – about 2-3 weeks of casual, focused play these days? Let’s assume that holds true for getting to 90, too, if you have heirlooms and the assistance of a main.

You have an exceptionally well-geared level 85 character. You’ve spent months making him or her this good. Maybe you have a legendary (which you can’t transmog.) Maybe you have a really cool raiding title. And now, with cross-realm everything, you might, just might, have need to do some stuff at-level in Cataclysm again.

I’m not saying this is for everyone. Pet collectors are wringing their hands at me right now. Acheivement point collectors are going CYN YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR GOURD. Role players are going THIS SCREWS WITH MY STORY ARC but wait it has some possibities for alternative history DAMN YOU CYN. If you don’t have a lot of altoholic friends, or have no interest in revisiting old content, or you want to make sure you get to 90 as fast as possible for progression raiding? Ok. This might not be for you.

But for everyone else… I’ll just put this out there.

Think before you ding 86. :)

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On Blogging Heroes

Piggie_cfn

The response to my Snow Crash piece overwhelmed me a bit. To have a post which I thought was really not written very well – it’s way too long, too meandering, but it HAD to come out OMG get OUT of my head IDEAS it’s all related CAN’T YOU SEE IT’S ALL RELATED guilds are circles twitter is circles we just like doing things together can we just DO THINGS together METAVERSE is WOW OMG get OUT of my head ideas please get out – to have a post come spilling out just like THAT, that’s what it feels like sometimes, and have it strike a nerve with readers, to have people get the ideas, is pretty incredible and awesome and scary all at the same time.

Overwhelming. Much like that paragraph.

It can really be difficult as a writer to reconcile the ideas you’re trying to convey with the manner of their presentation. My opinion of the Snow Crash post is that the ideas were good, though I skipped over some interesting discussions, and that the presentation was okay but flawed, mostly due to length. I am seriously considering a followup piece just because I missed some key ideas the first time around – but this time it will go someplace other than CFN, just so I can edit it.

It’s somewhat overwhelming to punch a post like that out of your brain, hit the Publish button, and have people like it. It’s even more overwhelming when you realize people find your creation intimidating to their own creative spark. I’m going to pick on @DiscoPriest for a minute, not only because she’s a good sport, but also because she gets more pageviews each day than I do (NAKED BELFS > PVP), and quote her twitter response:

@wowcynwise I cannot BELIEVE you wrote that in one draft, you complete and utter bastard.

I laughed and gold starred that response (because it’s funny as all hell, and I enjoyed the ribbing) but then I saw that other people in my twitter stream were actually a bit … despondent? that they’d never be able to write like I’d just done. Write like me. That this flawed piece was somehow -

Holy fuck, I thought. That’s me. That’s me, right there. I have been there. I spent years there.

The last thing I want to do, ever, is squash someone’s spark. Be it in PvP or blogging, that’s the last thing I want.

Because I’ve been there. I’ve been there, looking at other bloggers, going – I will never be that good.

And it felt terrible.

BLOGGING HEROES

The header image above is a composite of two of the headers of blogs from my personal blogging heroes, Jamie Zawinski/jwz and John Gruber of Daring Fireball. Both of them had profound influence on me when I was much younger. I read them religiously, not just because they wrote about things I was interestd in, but because their style and verve was just … awesome. Cool. Cooler than I could hope to be. I was the awkward fanboy, aping the stars of the tech blogging world, imitating them in my own posts, but never with their panache.

I hoped they would notice me. Oh god, how I hoped they’d link me. That sounds dirty, but it wasn’t – it was hero worship on my part, and before Twitter was around you had to work through blogs. You had to have a blog, preferably hand-coded and stylish and XHTML/508 compliant. Or it had to deliberately say screw that, this looks best in Netscape 3.2 – the rules changed a lot and I didn’t navigate them very well. Daring Fireball is part of the commentless tech/design blog movement, which is daunting to break into the inner circles of, and while JWZ went to LJ for almost a decade, I never felt like I could casually comment on his site. My comments had to be INSIGHTFUL and WITTY and OMG OMG OMG BETTER BE TECHNICALLY ACURATE and possibly HIP.

And it all seemed so effortless to them. So, so effortless.

They looked like they had their shit together and all the little details fell into place for them.

I found, after a while, that I was jealous of how easy it all seemed for them. Not just Gruber and jwz, but all the popular folks I followed. Not because of anything they did – they were creative people being creative. No, it was me – unhappy with my own creative output, stymied by looking at really great examples and finding myself wanting.

You’re not good enough, Cyn.

You’ll never write like that. Never be that funny. Never be that insightful.

My tech blogs grew stale. I kept going through the motions, trying, trying. I got on Twitter, I made Favrd a few ties – does anyone even remember Favrd anymore? – and was sort of hanging around the outskirts of a cool tech community that I wasn’t really part of.

My online self was unhappy. I followed hundreds of blogs, trying to be informed and have well-formed opinions on the latest tech and work styles and life hacks and politics and cryptology and open source and photography.

I compared myself to other people whom I admired – good people, mostly all of them – and found myself wanting.

I didn’t like much of the things I talked about. Shit, how much can you talk about the latest device coming out of silicon valley or the latest web startup before they all start blurring together?

I came out of a brutal project at work, looked around, and said: none of this makes me happy. I think I love these blogs and I think I love these tools and I think I love all of this but it doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t make me thrive.

So I walked.

I walked away from an online presence I’d spent 10 years building.

I downloaded World of Warcraft, something I’d sworn I’d never do. (I didn’t play video games. That wasn’t me.)

And I let my heroes go.

Mftyy

FINDING MY OWN VOICE

I wanted to respond to each and every person earlier this week who said, your first drafts are better than my finished drafts, and say: please, don’t do that to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to me or any other author or artist. I know where that leads. I’ve been down that road.

And I never want to be the cause of someone else going: damn, I’ll never be that good.

That first year of playing WoW, I didn’t blog very much at all. I didn’t have any reason to. I was a clueless noob trying to figure stuff out. And the online persona I left behind? Well, he didn’t have much to say about Warcraft, so he didn’t say much at all.

I didn’t pick up a camera for a year, except to take pictures of my kid. (Only one at the time.)

I didn’t look at a tech news website. I trashed my feed reader.

And in WoW, I discovered a little voice. It was when I was searching for help trying to figure out PvP, and I found … nothing. So I figured it out on my own, but I remembered that. There wasn’t anyone really blogging about the thing I’d come to enjoy in this video game.

Hey. I can do this. I can help people. I can teach. I can show that there’s this part of the game and it’s REALLY COOL and yes a little intimidating but if I CAN LEARN SO CAN YOU and COME ON PEOPLE LET’S GO HIT SOME BGS.

That was the first thing I was missing before: an actual purpose in my blogging. Before, I wanted to be popular, to be cool, to be like my heroes.

But what I didn’t realize was that my heroes were just doing things that interested them and writing about it. That’s it.

The second thing was that, instead of a community that valued being hip, the Warcraft community valued the thing I actually wanted to write about: helping other people. Disseminating knowledge.

Druids often say that Druids should halp each other, but it’s not just Druids. The entire Warcraft blogging community is fantastic. People are open to new people. A new voice is something to be celebrated. Trying and failing is encouraged. Every blogger starts out a little rocky – I know I did. Give it time. Keep trying.

My first CBM Post: Wintergrasp Keep. It’s scintilating stuff, I tell you.

Warcraft helped me find my voice; not those of my blogger heroes, but mine. Through the mask of Cynwise, I can write. Warcraft gave me an outlet when I needed one, it gave me a supportive community to help me through the tough times. I feel totally blessed to have found people who want to read what I write and who find what I write helpful.

It’s that last bit, you see, that I’d missed before.

THE PIGGIES AND FINDING YOUR VOICE

Tonight, MMO Melting Pot announced the winners of the 2011 Piggies, those outrageous WoW blogging awards started over at the Pink Pigtail Inn. I remember last year how thrilled I was to be nominated last year – holy crap, people are noticing me? – but then to get nominated again this year?

And to win?

Holy fucking shit.

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Serious congratulations to all the other winners, honorable mentions, and nominees, and thank you to the crew at MMO Melting Pot for hosting and judging the Piggies this year. I’m overwhelmed again. Thank you.

Let me tell you a little bit about the post that won, On The Forsaken. I wrote it in a frenzy, over two nights after thinking about it for a week. I wrote it only after thinking about those quests and staring up at that statue in Brill for like 15 minutes. Seriously. Clink, clink, clink, things falling into place, I must write now.

It was also the first post on CFN that I looked at and said, I cannot publish this.

It is too much. It is too controversial. 

I walked away and thought about it.

What will other people think of me? That I’m biased against the Horde? That I hate Forsaken players? 

It was that phrase that did it. I remember that night very clearly. What will people think?

That’s how I used to think. That’s what led me down the path of not writing about things I cared about, but rather what I thought would be popular. Would be well-received.

Fuck that shit.

/Publish


If you had told me, at that moment, that that post would be the most memorable post of the year and help inspire several of the entries into the Blizzard story contest, I’d have told you you were out of your fucking gourd. That post is not good enough to do that. It’s too long. It’s too emotional.

But it did.

All because I got pissed off and hit Publish.

This isn’t really about me.

I think you’re smart enough to know that by now. Y’all are getting used to my tricks, where I talk about one thing and then realize I’ve been talking to you, about you, the entire time.

This is a great community. Seriously great. For all of its foibles and petty squabbles over things that don’t matter 2 inches outside of our little playground, this is a great community to be a part of. The Piggies are a nice way to celebrate each year.

But don’t let them stop you from writing.

I’m amazed at how many really good writers and artists I’ve met in this community.

But remember, this writer at least is just a regular guy, typing on a laptop, trying to finish up so he can get some sleep. We’re all just people here.

(I hear Matticus might be a superhero in disguise, though.)

The only thing that can stop you from writing – is you.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Read a lot, but write a lot, too.

Try things out. Different things. Don’t get caught in a rut.

Most importantly, write when you have that spark.

Don’t wait. Do it.

And then hit Publish.

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Five Rules for Cynwise’s Field Notes

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Here’s the thing. This weblog? This thing you’re reading? It’s not really a weblog. It’s an experiment designed to get me over my writing block on my main weblog. It’s basically a big fat I DARE YOU TO POST button in my face.

If you’re new here, you might get many of your questions answered in the first post, On Field NotesHowever, as time as gone on, I’ve codified several rules that force me to hit Publish – no matter what.

RULE THE FIRST: PUBLISH NO MATTER WHAT.

It doesn’t matter what I think about a post, when I’m done I hit Publish. The topic might be controversial, or I might take positions which I feel uneasy taking in public. I might think it’s piece of crap (this is usally the case) and not worth publishing. I might think it’s too long (also the case) and that the structure is terrible.

Screw that shit. Once I start writing a post on CFN, I have to publish it.

Fear of not being good enough is what stops so many writers from writing. Damn the torpedoes – publish it already. It’s good enough.

RULE THE SECOND: NO LOOKING BACK.

No editing. None. Each post on this site is a first draft, straight from the can. No futzing about with post structure. No rearranging to make it flow better. No fucking around with sections or post flow or sentence structure or even going back to fix my typos when it’s all done. I will edit a post to death if given the chance – how does it sound, how does it flow, does it make sense, did I get all the points I wanted to cover.

No.

I’m not writing this to win a prize. I’m writing this so that I can fucking write.

First draft is good enough for CFN.

RULE THE THIRD: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DEEP.

Holy shit, how many posts have I sunk because I thought, “this is dumb, no one is going to care?”

How many posts did I look at and go, this is like 200 words, max, that’s not even worth a post on CBM. I could tweet this!

How many posts did I go, this is not fully fleshed out, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I need to think about this some more.

Shut UP, inner editor! Take a hike! Just fucking write it out already!

RULE THE FOURTH: NO SUCH THING AS TOO LONG OR TOO SHORT.

One of the challenges I have to overcome is that I like to write a lot of words. I AM WORDY OKAY I know it. Jeeze. You have no idea how often I yell that at myself.

Related to that, one of my biggest problems on CBM was that I felt, very strongly, that each post needed to have substance and heft. That every post needed to be 2000 words minimum, that it needed to be a weighty topic, that it needed to be brilliant and funny and insightful and a good, solid, friendly guide to Warcraft.

What the fuck, self? Get over yourself already.

I like to write a lot. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” could be my motto.

And it’s okay.

I’m not allowed to judge if a post is too long or short on CFN. I write until I have no more to say, then I stop. Sometimes that will be a single graphic. Sometimes it will be 7500 words.

No looking back. No such thing as too long. No such thing as too short.

RULE THE FIFTH: TELL THE INNER EDITOR TO FUCK OFF.

This rule partly exists to cover all circumstances not covered by the preceeding four rules. If I find that my internal editor is trying to make a mess of things and stop me from hitting Publish, I get to tell it to go fuck off.

But also it’s to remind me that it’s okay to swear.

I don’t swear in meatspace, I have two kids and I actually feel it’s important to set a good example for them. I can’t swear in front of them and then ask them not to do so too, and I think there are good reasons to teach your kids to not swear before kindergarden.

But – let’s be honest – I swear a lot in my head. And I swear on the internet.

And it’s fucking okay to swear, god damnit!

Ok. Hit publish and move on.

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Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal

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Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applid makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Snow Crash, one of Stephenson’s early works from 1992, is a classic of the cyberpunk genre. It’s fully developed in a way that earlier entries in the genre (c.f. Neuromancer) were not, with a solid adventure story mixed in with cyberpunk distopian musings on technology. There are a lot of elements that strike false chords now from this 20-year old work – I simultaneously giggle and sigh regretfully when he talks about hypercards – but there’s a lot of really interesting predictions in there, especially about the Metaverse, an avatar-driven version of the Internet and key alternate setting for the story.

Fiction subgenres seem to go through this a lot, where the first entry is groundbreaking in idea and scope but might be of varying actual quality, subsequent entries are more nuanced but still settling in to what the genre means, until finally the formula is established and authors can churn out books in an established, comfortable setting. Snow Crash will ruin Neuromancer for you, but Stephenson couldn’t have written it had Gibson not made the first move. You should read both books, but remember that Neuromancer came 8 years earlier, in 1984, and that both the computing landscape and the cyberpunk genre were very different when these works were composed.

When Blizzard announced cross-realm raiding and rated battlegrounds would be coming to Warcraft, my first thought was of how Blizzard – by addressing the technical problems that separates players from interacting with each other – is moving towards recreating Stephenson’s Metaverse, and of how social networks on the internet are really the keys to their success.

It’s not about raiding.

It’s not about PvP.

It’s about virtual identity and social interaction.

And for all the troubles that advances like cross server random battlegrounds and LFD have caused, they laid the groundwork for something great, something unexpected. Something much bigger than a video game.

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VIRTUAL YOU

Virtual presence is a funny thing to really think about deeply. I mean, here I am – meatspace Cyn, a human being typing at a computer. Because of the pictures and words I’ve chosen to represent myself with, you – a human being reading these words on the screen – have an idea about who I am, or who I present myself as being, at least. Even in the most passive kind of relationship, author and reader, there’s a flow of information going on between two people across time and space. That’s what books do. “There is a young lady sitting in a wooden chair. A glass of water sits, untouched, on the table beside her, sweating in the humid night air.” BOOM, I have just sent you an image across time and space. That’s pretty awesome.

The internet changes this relationship by closing the feeback loop. The passive relationship becomes a potentially active one, with readers taking part in the conversation and becoming authors themselves. Personal web sites begat weblogs, which in turn begat comments, which spread to Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and a host of other ways for people to talk to each other. It can stay passive – often is passive – but the technology makes it possible to easily close the feedback loop and turn a reader into an author. Consumers become producers. Dialog happens.

Cynwise is only one aspect of my virtual self, albiet my best-known one. I exist, in different ways, on different networks – I’m a wildlife photographer on Flickr and a PvP warlock on Twitter, and those parts of me can be as separate or combined as I choose. I can blog under different names, and they’re all still virtual me, but separate and distinct from themselves. Different channels allow for different avatars. This is one of those things I think cyberpunk novels didn’t anticipate in the ’80s and ’90s, how fragmented cyberspace would be. The concept of a monolithic, single environment like the Metaverse is somewhat sunk in the techology of the time, and didn’t anticipate the wild democratization of the Internet which happened in the late 90s/early 00s. They may have anticipated Netscape, but they didn’t expect Javascript or Ruby on Rails to come along with it. The technoelite proved to be broader and wider than expected (and that’s a good thing.)

I find it interesting slotting Warcraft into this milieu of online social networks.

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IS WOW A GLORIFIED CHAT CLIENT, OR SERIOUS INTERNET DRAGONSLAYING BUSINESS?

(Or, false dichotomy.)

I’ve heard WoW called “a chat client I was paying $15/month for.” This is almost always in reference to quitting WoW, and it strikes me as both brutally honest and unfair at the same time. It’s honest because it can be just that – a chat client. That comment is often accompanied by stories of standing around in Dalaran, or doing laps in Dalaran, or doing other things that give the Dalaran Board of Tourism and Commerce hives. Something about Dalaran.

It’s brutally honest to realize what you’re doing, which is to log in to a video game to talk to people because you don’t feel motivated to “play” the game – i.e. have your avatar do things. You just want to get in and talk to folks, which, to be honest, you can do for free using a variety of other social network tools on this newfangled Internetthingy we have.

It’s a rational cost decision to quit WoW at that point. Why should you go and pay $15/month to use a chat client when there are free options? I wouldn’t, and I’m almost positive you wouldn’t, not if that’s all it was. Get on Facebook or Twitter. Visit your guild forums. Use Skype. Sit in Vent and chat with folks. All of these are zero-cost social media networks which can be used to talk with people, and while it’s not the same as doing things with them in the virtual world, if you weren’t really doing those things anyway, why spend the money?

The unfairness comes in the false dichotomy presented with the question at the top of this section, though. It’s not that WoW has to be either a chat client or serious internet dragonslaying business. It’s not like someone said, hey, we notice you’ve stopped raiding, how about you try this somewhat cumbersome text chat client with a severely limited participant pool? Hope all your friends are on this server / playing this faction / in your guild / haven’t turned trade chat off!

No, the social network is there no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing within the game, as an MMO it is designed to reward social experiences. PvP, PvE, auction housing, even leveling and questing – you are in a virtual world populated with other people.

WoW is a simple social network with a video game bolted on top of it. 

That’s really weird to say it that way. It’s an inversion of the normal way we look at WoW, and even how it was developed. WoW is a video game, right? And there are video games you play by yourself, and games you play with others. And those games you play with other have social media “tools” bolted on to them – Real ID / Facebook integration, anyone – but at their heart they’re a video game. Talking to other people is a side effect of having multiple players, not the core functionality of the game. It’s not like Farmville, where Blizzard said, hey, let’s use an existing social network site and build a video game around it.

(If they had, the flaws in WoW’s social network might not be so problematic. But I digress.)

I don’t think it was Blizzard’s intention to make a social network. I’m honestly not arguing that. But I think that what they’ve created has inadvertently become one, a powerful one at that, and that many of the changes we have seen in the last 3 years have been Blizzard and the WoW playerbase trying to come to grips with this fundamental paradigm shift.

Hear me out.

Simple video games don’t bother with an avatar. You interact directly with the controls and jack straight in; there’s no digital representation of you in the mix. If I start a game of Solitaire on my computer, I don’t go through and pick which player best represents me. That’s irrelevant to the actual gameplay and is (rightfully) discarded. These games can be incredibly complex, and even drop you into a story as an actor (like Zork or Myst), but there’s no avatar required. It’s all first person or second person.

Avatar-driven games get more interesting. You make characters, you present a face to the game. You may not be trying to represent yourself – think of all the different Shepard models – but this thing, it represents me, it is me in the game. It could be a car in a racing game, or a character in a fighting game, or multiple characters in a RPG – but as soon as you add an avatar, players are now able to say that is me.

Things get a hell of a lot more interesting when you add other players to the mix. Now, you have me and you and you and you and you. Maybe it’s just the two of you, so the avatar requirements are pretty simple. I don’t need a digital avatar to play Words with Friends on my iPhone – a username will do. But that username is an avatar. It’s important to remember that. Names are simple avatars, icons more complex, actual humanoid creatures even more complex, spiraling exponentially to the very fungible reality Second Life presents.

But for most video games, the avatar isn’t the point. The game is the point. The objectives and goals and gameplay within the game is the purpose of the game. This is startlingly different from a social network like Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or even weblogs, where the interaction between avatars is the point. That’s why Twitter seems so effing pointless when you first pick it up – what am I supposed to do with it? Talk to … who, exactly? About … what? What I had for lunch? You are given a blank tool with no real direction about how to find people with similar interests or who you find entertaining or useful or … wait, why did you sign up for Twitter? Was it to get short news updates, to keep up with celebrity gossip, or to chat about video games?

Video games provide purpose and direction. Social networks do not, letting the user determine what they want out of the service.

Avatar-driven video games provide a means for virtual projection, for assuming a virtual persona. And if they allow you to actually interact with other players, well, then they start functioning just like a social network, albiet a constrained one. Your avatar choices are limited, but perhaps more detailed. Instead of a picture of … anything, you have to pick a specific kind of wizard or spaceship captain. Your interactions can be confined in game – perhaps there aren’t global chat channels, and you have to move your avatar to places to interact with other players. Pure social networks try to reduce this interaction friction, make it as easy as possible (since that’s their sole purpose), but games might have different priorities.

Let’s take a limited interaction in WoW as an example. I logged in to my Horde priest, saw my keybinds were screwed up and that I really had to spend some time straightening them out to get the character playable again. I said hi to my guild, saw a friend of mine was online in a nearby zone – Nagrand. She was grinding rep, so I figured I’d swing by and fiddle with my keybinds in a beautiful zone, since Nagrand is seriously the prettiest place in Warcraft. I got a basic keybind settled, hit up one of the guards at Halaa to try it out (really high health, low damage, perfect training dummy) while chatting with folks.

About 10 minutes later my friend swings by on her warrior and tanks the Halaani guard for me. It was probably a second guard, they eventually die after like 15 mintues of Smite Smite Smite SCREAM Bubble Smite Smite Smite Smite WINGS, but that kind of practice is actually really good for settling your keybinds. We continued a conversation we’d had earlier over Twitter, and after a bit I needed to go so she went back to grinding Mag’har rep.

The details of the story don’t really matter – it could have been helping a friend run a lowbie through an instance, running heroics with guildmates, doing Arenas with partners – because so much of Warcraft is predicated around things like this, doing things with other people. You have social interactions all the time. The advantage Warcraft has over Twitter is that you can do stuff with people while talking to them. You can go play a video game with people while chatting with them! You can have a real avatar, one that like moves and talks and walks and can wear clothing and kill Internet Dragons! Holy moly, that’s radical shit!

I’m not being sarcastic, either. It’s pretty radical shit. You have a social network which not only allows, but encourages you to go do stuff with other users of that network. You want to just stand around and talk? That’s cool, you can do that. But you can also go run a dungeon together. You can go stage a dance contest in Thunder Bluff and get angry at the Tauren constables for running you out of town. You can go invade the opposite faction’s capitals – or maybe just Crossroads. You can queue up for battlegrounds or dungeons or even raids now with people you know.

That’s something Google+ hasn’t implemented yet. Neither has Twitter. And Facebook’s graphics engine is totally shit.

Listen, I know. Cyn, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it flies like a duck, it’s a duck for crying out loud. Saying that WoW isn’t a video game is … well, yes, it’s a video game.

But just try this the next time you log in: look around at what you’re doing, and think of it differently. Think of it as a social network that lets you do cool things (KILL INTERNET DRAGONS) while interacting with other people. Friends, hopefully, but strangers (potential friends?) too – see how much of the game is really oriented around that goal of doing stuff with other people. When you’re buffing for your first pull on raid night, realize that you’ve connected a group of 10/25 people together over voice and text chat, all to play a game together. When you log in to your guild, don’t just look at it as your guild, but as an exclusive chat channel, of a Friends/Followers list that you don’t have all that much control over.

When you take away the social aspect of WoW, it’s just a single player video game. And eventually you’ll get tired of it and move on, because there’s nothing to really keep you in it.

Your avatar means nothing without other people.

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BBSES, COMPUSERVE VS AOL, SERVER COMMUNITIES, LFBG/D/R AND WALLED GARDENS

It was 1987 and I was a BBS nerd. I knew this guy who knew a guy who ran a system up in Ridgefield with 4 (count them FOUR) 9600 baud modems hooked up to a BBS. It was a place where there were message boards about comics and D&D and computers and it was basicallly nerd heaven. I was … I was named after a famous comic book hero, let me just leave it at that. It was my first online handle and I’m not proud, but I was also 13, so I have an excuse.

The technical limitations of that server, no matter how cool the fucking hardware was, were pretty severe. That was true of all BBSes – you had to know the number to call, you had to create a user account just there, the sysop had to approve you and grant you access and then you had to check back periodically by dialing into the system. The internet was something bigger than that BBS, kind of talked about but not really known about. Accessing the internet was free, and there wasn’t a lot you could *do* there – while this BBS had stuff going on. Local comic shop news? D&D games looking for players? SIGN ME UP.

We told a lot of stories on that BBS, collaborative stories, some play-by-forum RPG games too. It may have been primitive, it may have been text based, but in many ways it satisfied a lot of the social needs Warcraft fills for me now – it let me do stuff with friends. Most of the were friends, at least – it’s not like a 4-line BBS could have thousands of users.

I know it sounds hokey, but that BBS was really cool to me. Yes, it was isolated – it served like 7 little towns in Connecticut. It wasn’t connected to other things. But there was a great little community going there, something that shouldn’t be extrapolated out to “this was BBS culture,” but “this was COMLINK, and this is a cool place to be.”

Yeah. Comlink. Don’t laugh. It was the 80s, we all get a fucking free pass for the entire decade.

Compuserve and AOL came into my life a little later, though Compuserve existed before then. Compuserve had banks of modems around the world that you could dial into and access their systems, a model that AOL copied and became huge and successful with. I used both, but mostly AOL later on when I dropped out of college. Especially early on, both services presented a walled garden to users – content hosted within their servers, theoretically vetted by their moderators, to contrast with the internet that was shaping up “out there”. In some ways they were like a BBS writ large, with forums and chat rooms and mail and content pages – holy crap, do you remember “Visit Keyword: X” before URLs became mainstream? – and there was a war going on between these two services, one being perceived as family friendly, the other more business oriented, both of them relying upon access fees and walled gardens of content to convince people to hook up their computers to their computers and give them things to do.

The internet was scary, it was difficult, but it was also the wave of the future. People were figuring out how to use it in the late 80s and early 90s, back when Compuserve connecting email to the Internet was a BIG FUCKING DEAL. Shit, as late as 1998 I was working at an place where one of our major selling points was email integration to the internet from a Lotus Notes network. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe we used to have to have clever internet gateways just to send an email outside of our little sandbox.

As time went on, however, the internet (specifically the HTTP and SMTP protocols, and the allmighty TCP/IP stack) became the de facto standards for communication between computers. Netscape changed a lot of this, to be honest. The walled gardens AOL and Compuserve provided were no longer the only places to visit on the web. People started saying, wait, why should I go through this proprietary gateway to get to the places I really want to go? Why should I have to pay for X content when it’s out there on the web for free? What about all those companies who offered their services solely on AOL (“Visit Keyword: JCPenney!”), what about the lost revenue by not having their stuff available for the wider web?

Other companies got in the act and began offering access without the walled garden, and while AOL and Compuserve managed to survive and make profits during that time (mostly by making internet access seem daunting, then providing a relatively simple solution), by the late 90s the internet was the thing, not the walled garden. The internet was where Everyone was, with global reach. All the promises of Cyberspace and the Metaverse were not to be found behind the high walls of the CIS compound or the towers of AOL – no, they were out there in the raw HTML floating around on the mutated bones of ARPANET.

The history of these services and how they connected people is entirely relevant to looking at the state of Warcraft today.

The limitations of technology restrict our individual social circles, that’s a self-evident truth. When long distance was expensive, we didn’t call across the ocean; now that we have VoIP, video calls around the world can be made for free. Technology breaks down geographic barriers in this way. When I was on a BBS, I could interact only with other geeks a few towns away. The internet’s global reach lets me talk to you, now, nearly anywhere in the world.

Warcraft has struggled because the technology for video games – how do I display this avatar, how do I display an internet dragon, how do I make them fight – has lagged significantly behind social network technology. It’s not because it’s being developed slower, games just require so much more hardware that limitations are in place which make no sense in light of modern social networks.

Pre-battlegroup servers were the BBSes of WoW. You had to have an account to play there, you could only interact with people on that server, which led (in turn) to highly specialized server subcultures. The social network was limited in size, and like any small community, standards of behavior got enforced. You knew the players you played with. You interacted with them all the time. PvP players knew their opponents because they played against each other all the time.

But there are problems with single, isolated servers. Faction imbalances are heightened, as one side may be demonstrably superior. Some servers just aren’t very good, while others are overcrowded. Instanced battlegrounds could take hours to get a game together, because it all depended on server population and playstyles.

These are legimate problems Blizzard faced with single servers. And, approaching it like a video game company, they set out to make their game more fun.

Battlegroup servers were the Walled Garden phase of WoW’s development as a social network. By bridging the gaps between servers – first with linked battlegrounds, then arena teams and battlegroups, then random bgs, then finally LFD in Wrath – Blizzard took steps to fix a huge problem with their game. People wanted to do activities, but getting a group together to do it was difficult. PvP was the place to start not only because it was lower participant population than PvE (and therefore longer queues, but because of the faction communication barrier, it was impossible for players to effectively coordinate this on their own in-game. Servers got imbalanced, factions got imbalanced, but if you could broaden the pool of players enough, then the inconsistences would even out in a statistical wash.

There were serious technical barriers that Blizzard had to work with to solve this issue, which is why the battlegroup system (based on data center) was used instead of a game-wide system. Network speeds and computing speeds had to get fast enough to allow players on different servers to interact without major latency on the server sides. As the techology improved, Blizzard could move servers out from BBSes to little walled gardens, where a dozen servers got together to bash skulls in with PvP.

The introduction of cross-server LFD was a big deal, but honestly, it was a logical outgrowth of the battlegroup innovations for BGs and PvP. Once you start connecting computers together, you can’t go back.

(Aside: I think it would be really interesting to plot out the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ chronologically against the social developments in WoW over time.)

Post-battlegroup/RealID servers are the current phase of WoW’s social network. The BBS community of each server is long gone, but RealID is the death blow to the walled garden phase of WoW – though that phase will be a long time in dying. Friend is on a different server? No problem! First BGs and 5 man dungeons, now rated BGs and old raids, eventually questing, Arenas, and current raids will be possible with RealID.

Mark my words; you will be able to do just about everything with a RealID friend on a different server as you can with a regular player on the same server. Interacting with the world – questing – will be the most difficult, because you have to figure out which server is “home” – but it’s going to happen. We’ll probably see arenas first, then questing, and then – only when people are used to the idea that the walled garden is really gone – will they enable cross-server current raids.

The trend in technology is to broaden reach and allow choice. Social networks are a bit ahead of the curve, but make no mistake – as an MMO, Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of its own social network, and it’s not just competing against SW:TOR or RIFT – they’re all competing against social media.

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BATTLETAGS, OR WHY BLIZZARD KNEW NOT WHAT IT WROUGHT

Hey, Battle Tags are coming to Diablo 3 (now) and Warcraft (soon). Battle Tags are everything that RealID should have been as the foundation of a social network. The Google+ real name fiasco showed this in even larger print than the controversy surrounding RealID when it came out – people want to have virtual avatars different from their real selves on the Internet. For a host of reasons – safety, security, branding, roleplaying, privacy, social anxiety, the stigma of playing video games – not everyone wants to use their real names.

Think back to the Metaverse of Snow Crash again. (You’ve gone and read it by now, right?) Some people use their real selves in the ‘verse – especially the heroes of the story. But many people don’t, choosing to appear more handsome or beautiful, more dressed up or exotic, or not even human at all. Those desires are real and have nothing to do with identity assumption, but rather play and whimsy.

Hey! Guess what! I like playing as a warlock, or a death knight, or a warrior for a little while. I don’t confuse that with my real self, but sometimes it’s fun to be someone else for a while!

That’s what Blizzard missed with Real IDs – pseudonyms. It’s easy to point to the Google+ scandal now, but at the time RealID rolled out I think they honestly believed they were solving the right problem – letting people play with their friends. And RealID does that, and provides a framework for doing it well.

The problem is that “friends” has different definitions in the context of different social networks, and that friends you trust with your name and email address may not be the same as friends you want to play a video game with. I might give out my real name to a business contact with impunity, but that’s because my name is my professional avatar. My warcraft avatar is established first and foremost by the characters I roll, and then by the ancilary avatars on other networks.

Does anyone else remember all the promises that RealID would be linked in to Facebook? I don’t use RealID or Facebook enough to know if that really came to pass, but I think it’s instructive into the thinking that dominated RealID development. Facebook is (in theory) all real names. The paradigm is that you sign up as yourself so that the FB network can match you up with all the connections you’ve made in your life. I went to school here, I worked here, I know this person, hey do you know that person?

Psudonyms don’t fit that model very well. While you can construct the same kind of formal and informal social network diagrams with them – Cynwise was in guild X and invited Fynralyl, she brought over Psynister, etc. – there’s not much marketing value in doing so, and there are also a lot of dead ends. Is this ths same Cynwise as the Cynwise on Lightbringer? What about that poor Forsaken Warlock who gets mistaken for me all the time? What if I delete the character and move on? There are a host of problems with pseudonyms associated with disposable avatars that are real and require thought to overcome.

RealID is the Facebook model, a walled garden of its own kind. But BattleTags is the internet model, the commenter on a blog, the Twitter account.

It’s a sign that Blizzard realizes they are really selling a social network service now, one with a cool video game on top of it.

And I personally couldn’t be happier that they finally get it.

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THEY ARE FIGHTING OVER YOU, OR HOW WARCRAFT CAN IMPROVE AS A SOCIAL NETWORK

Products live and die by their users. Either people find it useful and pay for it, or they don’t. Business models might include coercion to get people to pay for those services (record companies, telecoms, movie companies) or they might give it away (open source, many web applications), but they’re all out there, competing for your time and attention.

Blizzard is faced with a very real and serious problem. How do you keep people engaged in a video game and not wandering off to other activities? It’s not enough to say, don’t go off to another video game. Instead, the business challenge is, come visit here enough so that you think the price you pay is worth it. Keep coming back.

Websites usually call this “stickiness,” the pull that a website has to bring people back again and again. Facebook is really sticky. Wikia is surprisingly sticky. Photo sharing sites like Flickr is sticky. Once you’ve acquired the customer, keeping them around is actually quite a challenge because you’re not just competing with all your direct competitors, you’re competing with other kinds of activities, too.

WoW finds itself in competition with mobile games on the iPhone and Android platform, and is losing badly for casual gamers. It finds itself in competition with television and movies, which it actually does really well against.

It’s up against Facebook. And Twitter. And Google+.

And it’s up against turning off the computer and going and doing something else.

I think, in order to thrive in this new world, Warcraft has to embrace its new identity as the Metaverse. It has to recognize that it’s a video game and a social experience all molded into one, and the sooner it moves out of the Walled Garden mode and into the Global Internet phase, the better.

Some ideas on how it can do this.

Get rid of servers. Make everything cross-realm. The easier you make it to take your avatar to do things with other people, no matter where they are, the stickier WoW gets.

Break down the walls of communcation within the game. While a cross-realm Trade channel scares me a little bit (I’ll be honest), communication has to transcend its current constraints. If the guilds are to be important and survive, allow people to participate in multiple guild chats at once.

Grant more control over who people choose not to interact with. WoW is on the right path towards letting you group with people you like, but it sorely needs controls over the people you don’t want to ever see again. An ignore list of 50 worked in the BBS era of a single server. With LFR and LFD and LFBG and LFQ coming down the road, the ignore function should be unlimited, and it should be account-wide.

Break down the walls of communication outside the game. Why does WoW not integrate with Google+, FB chat, and Twitter yet? Why does it not support Jabber or other IM protocols? Make WoW the chat client of choice. I feel like I’m going to have to quote JWZ’s law of email envelopment: all applications expand until they can send and receive email. In this case, make it IM/twitter/FB chat and WoW wins.

Break down faction walls. I know this is controversial, and I know a lot of people will be all faction pride trumps everything, but it’s the last artificial barrier within the game to playing with people you want to play with. Give people a guest pass when grouping with cross-faction friends, transform them into the appropriate alternate race, and let them play.

Cross-server item mailing. This is one of two options in finally getting rid of the BBS hierarchy that servers impose on players. Bind things to your account, not to a server. Those things that are already bound to your account – heirlooms – the fact that they can’t be sent across servers so you can do things with friends is a serious irritation now. Yes, there’re technical reasons why this is hard. Yes, it might not be sexy. But it needs to happen. It should really be expanded to other items – perhaps mailing normal items across server binds them to your account – but let’s start with the ‘looms.

Alternately: Free, unlimited character transfers. This is scary, because servers could become ghost towns overnight, and other servers could crash. But if you get rid of the chains holding people onto a server, you don’t have to figure out how to move items around – just move toons. Perhaps they lower the gold cap to address questions of server economy. Perhaps they allow “guesting” on different servers instead of permanent transfers. Perhaps Battle Tag-enabled questing and dungeoning and PvP will solve this and make this irrelevant.

But perhaps it’s an easier solution than fixing the cross-server item mailing issue.

Cynwise_-_psynwise_-_original_clones

THE PROBLEM OF GUILDS

Last word here, promise.

The one real thorn in all of this are guilds. I think almost every other problem can get worked out – yes, even the problems of disrupting server economies by opening a “global” market – but guilds present a real challenge. Cataclysm has seen huge changes to how guilds work, and in nearly every single way those changes have been counter to the social network development.

I think that’s actually been maddening for a lot of players. Is a guild optional, or not? What was formerly a social tie now has real in-game impact. Smaller guilds that have struggled to reach levle 25 find it hard to recruit; larger guilds find themselves packed with opportunists in it for the perks. Each and every change to guilds this expansion has been designed to get you into a guild and keep you there.

And yet, nearly every other social development has been exactly the opposite direction: get you off your server and playing with people you like.

Guilds are real, living social entities. They breathe and live through the work of their members. They sweat blood trying to down bosses or enemies in the battlefield. A good guild is a wonder to behold, and a joy to be a part of. It might be the culture, it might be that it’s a safe haven, it might be that it’s a set of die-hard perfectionists chasing world firsts.

Guilds, as they stand now, are directly counter to the social network WoW is becoming. The first clashes have already begun – cross-realm LFR is excluding current raids almost certainly to force people to stay in guilds to raid, to make their guild and server choices still matter – even though that’s not the direction people want to go in, as evidenced by the very existence of LFR/LFD. The death knell has already been struck for PvP guilds – rated battlegrounds were the raison d’être for many of them, and once Arenas go cross server it will be complete.

The writing is on the wall for guilds. And that’s a terrible thing, because I think there are a lot of good guilds out there which deserve to survive.

I have two proposals.

Guilds must become cross-server. This has to happen, or guilds will die. Guilds have to join players in jettisoning the server and living in the WoW network cloud. Maybe they’re based on one server, but membership with perks needs to be extended no matter where the character is housed. Most importantly, guild chat needs to work cross server.

Players can belong to multiple guilds at the same time. People don’t want to have to choose between good choice X and good choice Y for their social company. Don’t force people to say that I raid with X, therefore I can’t hang out with Y while I’m on the bench.

Guilds are social circles of like-minded people with similar goals. Steal a page from Google+ and let people define those circles how they like. Perhaps you have to define which guild tag you are wearing at any time, and that’s what your guild rank/perks/loot go towards. Perhaps everyone in a dungeon needs to have the same tag on for it to count as a guild run – that’s okay too.

But give people the option to define their circles without excluding other options.

I know a lot of this is … unconventional. It takes the idea of the guild as a monogamous relationship and shatters it. Why couldn’t someone join a bunch of guilds and hop between them?

Well, why couldn’t they? Why stop someone from bringing different characters to different raids, depending on the need? Why force them to choose?

Yes, there’s the possibility of espionage in top guilds, of one player going in covertly and spying on another guild. You know what? That already happens. And denying features that would help the vast majority of WoW’s player base based on the race for world firsts is downright stupid.

I think guilds are going to have to be radically reinvented over the next expansion if they are to survive.

If not, I don’t think they’re going to survive outside the walled garden.

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On a Fistful of Cyns

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Since this comes up every so often on Twtter, here are all the Cyn-alts I’ve rolled over the past few years.

  • Cynwise
  • Cynwulf
  • Cyndershot
  • Aggravacyn
  • Cynedra
  • Cynew
  • Cynic
  • Cynshine
  • Cynsprocket
  • Cynwë
  • Discyngage
  • Cynbegone
  • Cynchronic
  • Cynderblock
  • Cynderbloom
  • Cynderburn
  • Cynderspark
  • Cynewulf
  • Cynexxister
  • Cynhilda
  • Cynix
  • Cynlthea
  • Cynnerella
  • Cynneth
  • Cynralyl
  • Cynstomp
  • Cyntilate
  • Cynwii
  • Cynwyn
  • Darkbladecyn
  • Cynwine
  • Ellicyn
  • Lillicyn
  • Lunacyn
  • Cyncodemayo
  • Cynebriated
  • Cyndragosa
  • Cynnestra
  • Cynsong
  • Cyndri
  • Cynxl
  • Cynstar
  • Cynli
  • Cynewave
  • Cynifra
  • Cynixie
  • Cynred
  • Cynder
  • Cynner

(It’s amazing what you find in your WTF folder.)

Proposed alt names from this afternoon that I haven’t used (so I don’t lose them):

  • Electricyn
  • Cynergy
  • Noncynse
  • Cyndication
  • Cyncerity
  • Cyncerly
  • Cynical
  • Lecyn
  • Cynonym
  • Discynchant
  • Cyngledout
  • Cymply
  • Cynseless
  • Medicyn
  • Cynsative
  • Cynnamon
  • Cynderella
  • Cynsational
  • Kerocyn
  • Cynpossible
  • Incynsear
  • Cynlikecheese
  • Cynse
  • Cynsible
  • Hemocyn

Some really good ones, like Cynchronicity, are just too long.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what the class/spec/hair color of many of these alts were. :)

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