Tag Archives: Rants Disguised as Posts

On Faction Imbalance in Random Battleground Populations

Cynewise - Arathi Basin Farm

The fantasy of Warcraft battlegrounds is that there are two relatively equal sides to the conflict. This isn’t just a fantasy that is pushed thematically, through lore and storytelling. This is an idea that is promulgated through the structure of random battlegrounds themselves, through the random queue mechanism that promises a similar experience to all players, no matter what faction their characters are.

However, this fantasy is false. It’s not false because of story or lore, but rather because of the interplay between three factors: 1) experience and gear providing advantages in PvP, 2) the random matchmaking mechanic itself, and 3) the separation of the pool of players into two teams.

Under the current system, faction imbalance in random battlegrounds is inevitable and leads to negative player experiences on both sides.

Let’s look at why.

THE IDEAL SYSTEM

The core idea of random matchmaking for games is: given a large enough pool of players and a large enough number of games, any given match will be equal. You should have approximately the same ratio of inexperienced to experienced players on each team, an equal distribution of gear. The goal is to allow individual performance to dictate the outcome.

In an ideal world, it looks like this:

Faction Imbalance - Figure 1

The above picture represents the overall pool of players for random matches.

The first factor that we have to account for is that gear (on a character) and experience (of a player) both influence the success of a game. Gear is a fundamental aspect of World of Warcraft that affects a character’s ability, and in PvP it is acquired through experience. I’ve represented the combination of player experience and character gear through the relative size of the dots above – the larger the dot, the more influence that player can exert through a combination of experience and gear.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

The random battleground mechanic is the next component to consider. At any given time, a group will be drawn from these pools of potential players.

When the system is at equilibrium, the queue times on both sides will be the same and the total area of all dots selected will be equal. Some flux is expected due to random selection of players, but over time the result should be solid queues and a 50/50 split in wins.

At this point we have the ideal state of random matchmaking.

Now let’s introduce faction into the population.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 3

Now there are two pools. There’s limited fluidity between the pool – a player can choose to take their dot and go to the other side, either by rerolling (with a smaller dot) or faction changing (with the same size dot) – but that’s limited by the barriers of time (leveling) or money (faction change fees). So we’ll assume resistance to change within the pools unless there’s a reason to change.

Ideally, faction shouldn’t matter. But by splitting the source population in two, it creates a situation where not only is equilibrium impossible to achieve, it becomes something players rationally choose to avoid, creating bad experiences on both teams.

INTRODUCING IMBALANCE TO THE SYSTEM

The key to making the above system work is that the two pools that feed the teams in matches need to be equal. Any imbalance between the two affects the teams in a match, which in turn introduces a feedback loop into the population pools. Over time, small imbalances become magnified until the system stops working.

I’m going to assume just two things here.

1) The perception of an imbalance is more influential than the actual imbalance. Players only respond to imbalances that they perceive, through experience or communication with other players.

2) Experienced players are more likely to respond to imbalances than novice players. New players have not yet been exposed to the imbalance, and the chance that a player will respond to an imbalance increases over time.

Let’s start off with a simple case: the perception that one faction is better at PvP.

CASE 1: THEY’RE THE BETTER TEAM

It doesn’t matter how this idea originates. This could be through an early legitimate imbalance in a smaller population. It could be through a bad sample. It could be through some vocal members of the community repeating it. It doesn’t matter if the seed is real or not – all that matters is that players believe it.

If one faction is perceived to be better than the other, we should observe a slight shift of experienced players to that side.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 4

Once this happens, a feedback loop starts with the matchmaking algorithm.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 5

What might have started as a rumor now has evidence behind it, as the matches skew slightly in one team’s favor. As players grow in experience, they slowly react to this imbalance rationally.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 6

The players on the losing team evaluate their performance over time and consider that maybe the other faction is better. Their experience is that they lose more than normal, that the other team just does a better job. The pressure to investigate the other side increases.

The players on the winning team feel far less pressure to change sides. Matches become progressively easier as more and more big dots join their pool. Why stop when you’re winning?

Queue times are also affected in this scenario. One side will have a larger pool of interested players than the other, resulting in long wait times for the perceived ‘better’ faction, and nearly instant queues for the ‘weaker’ faction. This amplifies the feedback loop and introduces the negative experience to the stronger faction.

Long wait times but higher chance to win, or fast queues for a probable defeat? Those are the choices you have when one faction is perceived to be better than the other.

CASE 2: THE STREAMS THAT FEED THE POOL

Let’s go back to our original state of equilibrium and look at a different variable – new players.

Player population is never static over time – people pick up and put down Warcraft all the time. A certain amount of churn – loss of experienced players – is expected within the pools as players either stop participating in PvP or stop playing Warcraft entirely. Churn is offset by new players joining the pool, either new subscribers or experienced players who are trying PvP for the first time.

So here’s another assumption: dots of all sizes can drop out of the pool, but only small dots join the pool.

Because of the gear structure and scaling present in instanced PvP, no player can start out as a really big dot. They might be a great player with experience in the class, but even with the best heroic raid gear the character will be undergeared for PvP. Best case: an experienced player with great PvE gear tries PVP and enters as a medium dot. That’s pretty rare, so we’ll assume only small dots enter the pool.

In a state of equilibrium each faction will have equivalent churn and growth rates, resulting in equal-sized pools. If one side churns or grows faster, imbalance will be introduced.

Let’s say that one side is slightly more popular than the other. Not popular in PvP, but overall more popular with the entire player base.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 7

Over time, one pool will get bigger than the other – but not necessarily any better. The ratio of small dots to big dots is maintained over time as players improve and gear up. As long as the flow is consistent, equilibrium is not disturbed by overall faction imbalance. That’s great!

But what about when you have events which disrupt that flow?

Faction Imbalance - Figure 8

The more popular side finds itself at a temporary disadvantage. More small dots entered their pool than the the other side, yet there hasn’t been any time for them to mature into big dots. The numerator of big dots hasn’t changed, while the denominator of little dots has gotten bigger.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 9

Ironically, an influx of undergeared toons affects the more popular faction more adversely than the unpopular faction. Team quality declines on the popular faction, causing more losses. More losses means more churn as new and old players alike get frustrated.

Conversely, the unpopular faction weathers the influx better and their small dots grow and mature in a victorious environment. The popular side has a double whammy of initial frustration with their teammates followed by better-geared opponents.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 10

And that brings us back to Case 1’s feedback loop.

Faction Imbalance - Realmpop, US Faction BalanceI’ll just leave this here with a note that undergeared, inexperienced boosted level 90s are about the smallest dots you can represent on these graphs.

CASE 3: BETTER GEAR

World of Warcraft is a game of gear acquisition. Even with the experiments with uniform gear scaling in Mists of Pandaria (Challenge Modes, Proving Grounds), there’s no indication that random PvP will move to an entirely uniform set of gear across players.

So what happens when one side has an advantage in gear acquisition?

PvP gear is generally acquired through three methods: crafting, honor points, and conquest points. Everyone has access to crafted gear, honor gear is available through both random and non-random BGs, and conquest is available from random BGs and rated PvP play.

There’s no immediate faction advantage with the above gearing strategy, especially not from a state of equilibrium. If everyone starts off equal, with the same access to gearing opportunities, there won’t be a problem. But as soon as a problem is introduced, the gear system throws another wrench into the works.

The key is the rewards for winning a random battleground.

Over time, the faction which dominates the random BG queue will acquire more Honor and Conquest than the side which does not. Rated play is essentially factionless, as is crafting – so those two methods are effectively a wash. But control of the random BG reward allows that subset of players who don’t do much rated play to gear up faster than their opponents.

In the dot model I’m working with here, the really big dots get big at the same rate no matter what, but the small and medium dots grow into bigger dots at a faster rate, causing a feedback loop independent of faction changes.

In the North American servers, we see an additional layer of complexity to this problem. Alliance PvPers dominate only the two largest BGs – AV and IoC. Horde dominates the random queues. Alliance PvPers therefore queue specifically for those two BGs (and ONLY those two) so they can gain some honor with a victory, and those BGs reward a lot of honor anyways. The Horde is able to queue for random BGs specifically excluding those two maps, therefore ensuring both that they’ll both gain better gear faster and that the Alliance will continue to dominate those maps. The only reason to venture into AV or IoC as NA Horde is for achievements.

My understanding is that the situation is reversed in the EU, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which side is on top. Both sides suffer because of the feedback loops introduced by gearing strategies.

I should note that the current PvP gear system at endgame is an improvement over previous seasons and twink brackets, when individual items could enter imperfectly into a faction and tip the balance quickly. The level 85 twink bracket experienced an influx of 3 Lute of the Sun-Kings from the BMAH in 5.2, causing a dramatic increase in the relative power of the side which possessed them. This, in turn, caused the opposing team’s twinks to abandon the bracket, which destroyed the competitiveness of the bracket.

I mention the fate of that bracket only as a cautionary tale.

The Hooded Monk - Cynwiser - S14

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

There are a few different ways to address the imbalances caused by faction in random BG matchmaking. Some work better than others.

1) Remove gear as a factor entirely. This leaves experience as the only determining factor between teams. It reduces the impact of new players joining, but doesn’t address the perceived imbalance between factions, which is the more pernicious long-term problem. Also it runs completely counter to the core idea of Warcraft.

Since this is offered as a solution a lot, I think it’s worth pointing out that while eliminating gear as a factor in PvP would fix some problems (mostly with class balance), it won’t address faction imbalance. Players will still gravitate to the perceived better faction.

2) Remove the bonus for random battleground wins. This has several drawbacks, most notably that it reduces the overall pool of players for BGs. It also only stops the gearing feedback loop (case 3), and doesn’t address anything about cases 1 or 2. Ineffective and possibly counterproductive.

3) Allow players to group cross-faction. I’ve been a strong advocate of this for rated play – let me do Arenas and RBGs with my opposite faction friends, already, no one cares about faction in rated play! – but for unrated random battlegrounds, it’s actually counterproductive to solving faction imbalance! This removes the obstacles for faction switching AND puts you in a premade group within a match, further skewing the results. Experienced players on the weaker side would just jump into groups on the stronger side, resulting in further domination.

(I still think this needs to happen for rated play, but that’s a different discussion.)

4) Eliminate factions entirely from the matchmaking algorithm. The implementation of this could include giving players the appearance of the opposite faction or not, but completely removing faction from random selection solves the problem completely. With no perceived faction advantage, players will no longer migrate. Queues become optimized and extremely fast. Best of all, matches become random again. You can enforce rules like role selection (X number of healers per side) and gear logic because your pool is doubled in size.

This is a massive paradigm shift and runs counter to the idea that Warcraft is a game of factional combat. Adding options like “queue as mercenary” help address this somewhat, but not completely, since the population will still be segregated into non-random sets.

5) Rig the system. Give the weaker side a behind-the-scenes buff to their abilities. Use real-time data to see what a faction’s overall performance has been and calculate buffs to tip the scales back to equal. Perhaps this is dynamic scaling instead of flat scaling – one side might scale up to 510 while the other scales up to 504.

This is hard to implement right. It adds in another level of variability and addresses some of the weaknesses of case 1, all of the issues of cases 2 and 3, but it’s a tremendous amount of effort to get in place and will require maintenance and constant tweaking. The best system is one that self-adjusts, but that requires time and development resources which could be spent on new content.

6) Bribe players on the weaker side. A CTA-style bribe bag (like is offered to tanks and healers to queue for heroics) doesn’t incent good players to queue on the weaker side – and the weaker side already has a surplus of players. Any solution needs to get the good players off of one side and onto the other in a completely random fashion, and bribe bags actively work against that.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

My personal opinion is that the correct solution is to get rid of factions entirely from the random matchmaker. Every other solution keeps some type of imbalance which will inevitably cause a feedback loop to skew the balance one way or the other. Eliminating factions brings queue times back down while equalizing opportunity for victory. It solves the major complaints of both sides of the faction divide.

This solution will not be popular with many parts of the playerbase, entirely for thematic reasons. I get that. For the NA region it means Horde players win less often (but have shorter queues) and Alliance players win more (but give up dominance of the PvEvP battlegrounds.)

Making the game more fair isn’t going to make everyone happy – everyone loses something.

But until the mechanics of random battlegrounds change, dramatic faction imbalance is not just a possibility – it’s inevitable.

—-

If you like this kind of analysis and think you could use someone like me on your team, drop me a line. I am a kickass IT professional with an emotional need for thorough analysis, and I’m recently unemployed. My brain is for hire. :)

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Analysis of the Post-Hotfix 5.2 Battleground Scaling Changes

Cynwise, Twin Peaks FC

The hotfix applied on March 12th addressed the most obvious bugs present in the battleground scaling changes of patch 5.2.  More testing will be required, of course, but I think we can say that we’re looking at the final, intended version of the scaling.

Battlegrounds for characters under level 90 in 5.2 have been changed so that a character’s effective level is scaled up to the top of the bracket. A level 10 character becomes 14, a 37 becomes 39, a 69 stays 69. For characters who are not at the maximum level of a bracket, this has the following direct effects:

  • Health pools are increased and normalized.
  • Primary attributes are increased slightly.
  • Heirloom items scale to the new effective level.
  • Normal gear does not scale.

The goal of this change was to normalize Hit between characters at opposite ends of the bracket and help balance low-level PvP. This change takes steps in the right direction for both goals, but there are a lot of issues that undermine that forward progress.

Let’s take a look.

THE QUESTION OF HIT AND SECONDARY STATS

WoW uses a system where you gain combat values as you level, but their relative effectiveness declines. You need more of a given stat to remain at the same power. I covered this in my previous post On the Broken Battleground Scaling of 5.2 as well as in an earlier post, The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP, so I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the concepts covered there. The point which is relevant to analyzing the 5.2 scaling change is that if you stay in the same gear as you level, it will do less for you. For primary stats (Strength, Agility, Intellect – or Attack Power and Spell Power), they increase linearly but decline relative to the character’s environment. For secondary stats (Haste, Hit, Crit, Dodge, PvP Resilience, etc.) they decay directly as more rating is required to achieve 1% of a given stat.

So the first problem that is introduced is that characters at the bottom of the bracket have their secondary stats reduced upon entering the battleground. A item with +8 Hit gives 4% Spell Hit at level 20, but only 3.2% Spell Hit at level 24. When a level 20 character zones into Warsong Gulch, they will need to stack more Hit, Haste, Crit, etc. to be as effective as they were before. For secondary stats like Haste, Crit, Mastery Dodge, PvP Power and Resilience, this results in the character performing worse inside the battleground compared to outside of it. Casts are slower, regen is slower, Crit is lower.

Hit isn’t quite so cut and dry. Lower levels will need more Hit to achieve the same rating as before, but the amount of Hit required to cap is also lowered (from 10% to 5% for melee hit and 20% to 4% for spell hit) because everyone is now the same level. You will need more Hit at the lowest level to hit the at-level PvP Hit cap, but once you hit it it’s good against everyone in the bracket.

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Do Low Levels Need More to Hit High Levels?

The chart above is from a Hit Analysis spreadsheet to compare the hit ratings necessary at the tops and bottoms of each individual bracket. The values in red are those places where the lower end of the bracket needs more hit (a positive number) to hit cap against the top of the bracket under the new scaling system; green values are where they need less hit. (Less Hit is the goal, which is why it’s green.)

As you can see, there’s a uniformly positive impact on casters, and nearly all brackets have a positive impact for melee. That’s the good news. It looks weird and nonintuitive because your Hit definitely goes down, but it’s easier to cap your Hit against a level 79 now at 75 than it was before.

The problem is, do you want to cap your Hit against the top of the bracket? The scaling means that you’re slower, less keen, less able to defend yourself against attacks. If most of your opponents are also at the bottom of a bracket, you’re less effective against them than you were before. Take a look at the same chart, only this time comparing low levels hitting low levels:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Do Low Levels Need more to Hit Low Levels?

Uniformly melee and casters are worse off trying to hit people of the same level if they’re in the bottom of a bracket. Why would the majority of people be in the bottom of a bracket?

I never thought you’d ask.

Cyn - Warblade and Vicious Pyrium Set - SW - procs

BRACKET SKEW AND GEAR AVAILABILITY

In the previous post I described brackets as either skewing high or low. Each bracket has a different combination of stat weighting, gear availability, and possible expansion overlap which gives one end or another unique strengths. High skew brackets are characterized by:

  • Better gear is available at the top end of the bracket than the bottom.
  • Rating decay is relatively flat across the bracket.

High skew brackets tend to avoid expansion breaks and are characteristic of most of the middle levels.

I’d consider the following high skew brackets: 15-19, 20-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 65-69, 75-79.

The 20-24 bracket is a little bit of an odd duck amongst the high-skew brackets because of the preponderance of Starter Edition players. The population skews low, but the bracket itself favors high.

Low skew brackets are different. They usually are:

  • The best gear is available at the bottom of the bracket.
  • Rating decay hits sharply across the bracket. This can happen either at the beginning (after an expansion break) or across the entire bracket (due to expansion level compression).

Low skew brackets are usually situated near expansion breaks due to the stat scaling and gear combinations afforded by endgame development. (A good reference to understanding how this works is Ghostcrawler’s blog post The Great Item Squish (Or Not) Of Pandaria, where he illustrates how each expansion introduces item inflation at the endgame.)

The following brackets skew low: 10-14, 60-64, 70-74, 85-89.

The 80-84 bracket used to skew low, but the introduction of Mists gear is starting to make it skew high despite the dramatic combat rating dropoff at 83. There are still classes which excel at 80, depending on gear availability, but there are sweet spots for gear at 81, 82 and even 84 which twinks pursue.

All clear on bracket skew? Okay, good, because the second issue the new scaling model introduces is that it skews all brackets high, eliminating any benefits of being low level. It’s not just that it turns the low skew brackets high – it’s that it skews all of them higher.

Compare a low skew bracket like 70-74 against a high skew bracket like 75-79. At level 70 you have access to Sunwell gear and Brutal PvP gear. At 71 you can have the same gear, but your secondary stats are 25% lower, and it goes downhill to 74. With one or two exceptions, the gear at 74 just isn’t any better than what you had at 70. With the new system, everyone PvPs at level 74 in level 70 gear, which means you can level and gain some abilities (and maybe those one or two pieces of gear) without any drawbacks. It’s not great – everyone is worse off than before – but it’s not terrible, either.

In a high-skew bracket like 75-79 the situation is much worse. Level 75 characters only have access to Wrath questing gear (about ilvl 154-160) – which is still about as good as the Sunwell/Brutal PvP epics you had in the previous bracket. Level 79 characters have access to Cataclysm greens (about ilvl 277-289). The gear disparity is magnified in this bracket: the low end (normally 75) is now 79 in level 75 gear, while the high end is unchanged!

Because high skew brackets have better gear at higher levels, lower level characters are further behind relatively under the new system. They’re locked out of the better gear (because of their level) and the gear they do have functions worse (because they’ve lost their scaling.) Low skew brackets are affected as well, but not to the extent that a high skew bracket is.

In this case, I think scaling has made brackets a little more unfriendly to the bottom. How unfriendly it has become depends very much on how skewed the bracket was before the change.

Generally, it’s now always optimal to level to the top of the bracket if possible.

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 9.00.32 PM

A BIAS TOWARDS HEIRLOOMS

In my post The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP, I didn’t think that level disparity was the real source of inequality in low level PvP. Ability distribution, player experience, and wild variance in gear levels still seem to me to be a bigger issue than levels and hit. Heirloom gear is where the scaling change directly meets my own concerns about gear disparity, since I think enchanted heirlooms are practically essential PvP gear for leveling at this point.

Heirlooms have created a new strata of player in the battleground ecosystem, leveling twinks.  Sometimes called heirloom twinks, these players rightly gear as best they can for PvP with stamina-heavy heirlooms that give them solidly good gear in nearly every slot as they go. Leveling twinks are different from XP-off twinks because they are in the same bracket with players in quest whites and greens, yet have dramatically better gear than their opposition. XP-off twinks are shunted off into their own battlegrounds and (generally) play against similarly well-geared opponents. As XP-off twinks aren’t leveling, they will often go to great lengths to secure the best in slot gear – lengths that you might not even pursue on an endgame character – because they know it will be good for the life of that toon. Leveling twinks might lock XP and run some dungeons to fill in non-heirloom slots, but generally they have blue-quality gear and good enchants.

The third issue is that heirlooms have increased value and power under the new scaling system. Because they scale to the top of a bracket with a character, they don’t suffer any stat decay. They’re as good at 36 as they are at 39, at 55 as they are at 59. Heirloom items have the stats they are supposed to have at the top of a bracket even if the character is at the bottom. Normal gear doesn’t do this – if a belt gives you +8 Intellect at 40, it will give you +8 Intellect at 44. A heirloom that gives you +8 Intellect at 40 will give you +11 Intellect at 44.

This seems like a small issue, but I don’t really think it is. New players are already at a disadvantage if they try out PvP on their first character. People like me bring heirlooms and enchants and gems and consumables which are really really difficult to acquire until you have high-level assistance and knowledge of the game. Heirlooms contribute to the imbalance of low level PvP, and now they’re more imbalanced. Not a lot – quick testing showed me each piece was like 5-10% better in terms of raw stats – but better.

This change makes sense in the confines of scaling, but not in terms of achieving PvP balance.

Cynwii - Loch Modan Bush Disguise

AN AMUSING SIDE EFFECT

One thing I noticed while testing the new system amused me more than it should. If you level out of a bracket – ding 40 in the 35-39, for instance – instead of being one level above your opponents, you’re now five. All of the Hit balancing goes out the window because everyone needs 11-25% Hit to get you now. Your heirloom gear scales up, too, so while you’re not quite as good as you can be (unless you carried gear with you to equip later) you’re not that badly off. The slight advantage people used to get for dinging in a battleground has been replaced by a very large one, and honestly it’s kinda funny.

I opened a ticket because I saw a level 69 Druid running around my level 60-64 Eye of the Storm this week. This is how that happened. (Addon nameplates are reporting the incorrect level. The stock UI should display correctly.)

Cynxi - Pandaren Rogue - Melee at Rest -SW

INCREASED HEALTH AND THE GOOD PART OF THESE CHANGES

There are some things about this change which I don’t like. It skews brackets high, it rewards heirloom gear in low levels, it makes Hit a PITA to manage, it destroys secondary stats like PvP Resilience and PvP Power. It makes my characters feel different (read that as worse) inside a battleground than outside them, and that’s awkward. Don’t like it.

But there are some good things, too, things that any analysis needs to acknowledge.

Combat seems slower now. Burst is lessened in many higher brackets because secondary stats like Haste, Mastery, and Crit have been slaughtered at the same time health pools have been increased. This effect is very pronounced at the higher levels where health pools have shot up 100k or more. Here’s how my warlock looks:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Cynwise 85 Lock

(This is from my post-hotfix 5.2 Battleground Scaling Data spreadsheet if you are following along with the math.)

Without trying to stack any Resilience, her effective health is up 110k – almost 40%! If damage goes down and effective health goes up, fights are slower and more strategic, you don’t get 1-shot by an Eviscerate crit or Chaos Bolt, and – perhaps most importantly – healers are more potent. (Your opinion of this depends on if you’re playing a healer or facing a healer premade.)

These scaling changes make battlegrounds more healer-friendly. That’s not a bad thing, and not something I expected.

The changes in lower levels are not quite as dramatic, but they’re still present. Here’s my heirloom-clad Mistweaver monk:

5.2 Scaling Analysis - Cynwii 39 Monk

I mention the heirlooms because they fight against stat decay while providing level 44 stats in the second example, but in general you see that there’s a solid improvement in health with only a moderate decrease in secondary stats. (Secondary stats from 35-60 decay at much slower rate than those from 85-90.)

It’s a small boost to survivability, but it certainly does change the feel of some brackets.

PASSING JUDGEMENT

Now that we’re past the buggy part of the implementation – and make no mistake, it was buggy – it’s tough to get past it and move on to adjusting to how the new scaling system works. Now that I’ve had a chance to sit back, do some math, and more importantly think about it – many, if not most of my objections below are qualitative and personal.

  • Hit scaling is non-intuitive if you play at the bottom of a low-skew bracket. Hitting 4% Hit at 85 was pretty easy, but hitting 20% wasn’t ever a goal of mine. If you miss some of the 89s in there, you miss them and move on.
  • DPS specs feel less bursty, and I was enjoying playing a bursty class. The survivability tradeoff doesn’t feel all that great. (Counterpoint: my healer partner absolutely adores the loss of burst and feels like a god.)
  • The hit to secondary stats devalues PvP Resilience and PvP Power. Once you hit level 70, Resilience becomes a Thing You Should Have, but now it’s hard to argue for it in the face of increased health pools.
  • I feel clunky. Casts are slower and hit much softer than they did before. I step out of a BG and it’s like I’ve got a supersized-ICC buff on me! I zone in and things slow down. I notice this more at 85 than at 40 or 60.
  • I don’t like how some of the brackets have skewed even higher than before.
  • Having to choose between awesomeness in PvE (by staying at the end of an expansion) and PvP (by leveling to the top of a bracket) isn’t any fun. I like having my cake and eating it too!

It’s not bad. It’s not great, either, and I understand why people are upset and confused by it. But it’s not as bad as my initial reactions, and it’s not going to break PvP and cause the Battlegrounds to be unplayable.

From an IT perspective, it looks like it was a reasonably simple development change with a lot of downstream impacts. While I’m pleasantly surprised that it does achieve the goal of making it easier for the low end of brackets to hit the high end of the brackets, the tradeoffs in secondary stat reduction, elevated heirloom importance, and skewing bracket imbalance doesn’t seem like a positive change overall.

That said, the increased health pools and reduced burst have made my pocket healer very happy. And keeping my healer happy is important too.

Jury is still out. Let’s see how this change works for a bit.

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On the Broken Battleground Scaling of 5.2

The 5.2 BG Scaling dramatically reduces secondary stats. Natural 85 on the left, scaled 85 on the right.

Effects of Battleground Scaling after 5.2 Normal is on the left, scaled is on the right.

The 5.2 patch notes contained the following intriguing note for battlegrounds:

Players in low-level Battlegrounds will have their effective level raised to the maximum level allowed in that Battleground bracket. Players’ base stats and spells are scaled accordingly, and are treated as the same level when determining hits, misses, and critical effect chance.

There wasn’t any more explanation about this change, but the general idea is to smooth out battleground brackets so that players at the bottom levels of a bracket can compete with those at the top. That’s a noble goal, I suppose, though the last time I wrote about the problems of fixing low level PvP I hadn’t really thought that level imbalance was the source of imbalance in leveling PvP. Player experience, gear decay, and class imbalance were far more pressing matters. But if we’re fixing levels, okay, we’re fixing levels.

The optimist in me interpreted the above patch note as follows:

  • Miss chance will be equalized across the bracket at a uniform 4%.
  • Because the hit/miss chance is now equal across levels, the chance of melee critical strikes on the Attack Table will also be uniform.
  • Base health will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.
  • Spell effects will be scaled up to the top of the bracket.

This presented the changes in the best light – it allowed characters to gear as best they could for the battlegrounds while minimizing the effects of disparate levels. A level 15 player wouldn’t need to stack 20% Hit to always hit level 19 opponents anymore, which seems to be the real purpose of this. Either gear would scale up to the new level using the amazing Challenge Mode technology released in Mists, or all stats from the gear would remain the same so the character wouldn’t experience any loss of potency. The change was to normalize hit and health.

What was actually implemented this week was much simpler, and far more disastrous:

  • Character levels are raised to the top of the bracket. Base stats and health increase accordingly.

This causes all kinds of problems, most notably placing lower level characters in a bracket at a serious disadvantage from those at the top level. Instead of solving the problem, it makes it far worse.

The issue is gear and scaling.

BATTLEGROUND BRACKETS, GEAR AND SCALING

As you level in Warcraft your gear gets less effective. Oh, the numbers stay the same – a +5 Intellect hat doesn’t start going down – but what that +5 does for you gets less and less. You need more and more stats on your gear as you level to remain at the same ability level. This combat rating decay is a fundamental part of encouraging players to level without causing actual ability imbalance. As you level up your character gets weaker and needs more and more numbers on their gear to keep up.

Gear is restricted by level to prevent characters from progressing too far and gaining too much power. Within the five level spread representing any given battleground bracket you’re going to see more quantitatively powerful gear at the higher levels. At certain levels you’ll see radical jumps in power due to expansion inflation – 58 for BC, 68 for Wrath, 77 for Cataclysm, 80-82 for Mists. This means that the gear available to players at the top of these brackets is substantially better than the gear available to the bottom.

These two factors combine to create an interesting see-saw between powerful gear and stat scaling. Generally the epics available from the end of an expansion will outweigh anything else in that bracket no matter what level a character is, so it’s best to stay at the bottom of those brackets to take advantage of improved stat scaling. If you’re in the 70-74 bracket – which contains Sunwell epics and Brutal Gladiator gear – you’re almost always better staying level 70 because you’ll have the best gear and the best combat ratings.

When you go up to the next bracket (75-79), though, things flip. The Cata gear available at level 79 is so much better (ilvl 277+) than the Wrath gear available at 75 (ilvl 155-179, tops) that the bottom part of the bracket gets destroyed. Heck, anyone gets destroyed if they aren’t in full Cata greens – they’re better than the best level 80 raid epics you could get in Wrath!

This cycle of low / high starts around 55-59 and lasts for 20 levels, up to 79. It gets muddied as the levels between expansions contract at level 80, where a level 80 in Wrathful gear used to be quite good against most classes at level 84 (with a few exceptions). Mists gear contaminated this bracket, though, adding superpowered ilvl 409+ gear. Now it’s a toss up between staying low and reaping the benefits of combat scaling or leveling up for better gear. Stats decline faster over 5 levels than they do over 10, and every level hurts.

The 85-89 bracket was dominated by mixing and matching Cata PvP gear and Mists blue gear, with most classes staying at 85 but a few advancing on to gain exceptionally good abilities. There’s some gear improvement at 87, but most every BiS item in the bracket can be equipped at 85. There’s nothing at 89 which beats what an 87 can wear, and not much of it beats what a 85 can equip.

In each one of these brackets the power skews low or high. If overpowered gear is available at the top of the bracket, then level becomes a major issue. If favorable stats and great gear is available at the bottom of the bracket, level isn’t an issue and the bracket is generally easier to level through.

Scaling changes on PvP gear. Normal is to the left, scaled is on the right.

Scaling changes on PvP gear. Normal is to the left, scaled is on the right.

HOW LEVEL EQUALIZATION FAILS

The change in 5.2 brings everyone’s effective level in a bracket up to the maximum while leaving gear intact, causing two different and distinct problems. These problems will be better or worse depending on the way the bracket skews.

First, lower level characters are locked out of the gear they need to compete on an even field. Raising effective levels does little to nothing to address the gear disparity between expacs. A level 75 character will still be clad in Wrath blues and greens (and possibly BC purples), facing off against level 79s in Cata greens. (Keep in mind that’s a 150 item level disparity.) In the high skew brackets (55-59, 65-69, 75-79 and now 80-84) this is a serious problem.

Second, lower level characters suffer increasingly dramatic penalties to their secondary stats in brackets where gear is mostly equalized. In the low-skew brackets (10-14, 20-24, 60-64, 70-74, 85-89), combat scaling favors the lower level characters and allows them to compete with the increased health, damage and abilities of the top of the bracket. Gear is relatively balanced across these brackets, so you avoid the first problem.

Equalizing only the level and not the gear means that the low level toons are now walking in with gear 5 levels below their opponents. If those 5 levels span an expansion gear break, they’re in trouble. If those 5 levels encompass a sharp decline in combat ratings, they’re really in trouble.

Let’s look at Hit as an example.

I thought the original idea behind this change was to make a smooth 4% Hit Cap for PvP, basically negating any advantage the top of a bracket holds over the bottom. Everyone needs just a little Hit and it’s all even.

Hit scales (down) with level. The higher level you are, the more Hit rating you need to get +1% Hit. But your gear doesn’t scale. You’re now level 84 wearing level 80 gear, itemized for level 80. That 4% Hit you had before you zoned into the BG? It’s now 1%. You’re going to need about 14% Hit on your gear to get to 4%. I don’t even want to think about how much Hit dual-wielding classes are going to need to be competitive.

If the goal was to equalize Miss/Hit across a bracket, this change absolutely failed to achieve its goal. It fails twofold:

  1. It doesn’t make it any easier to hit players of a higher level.
  2. It makes it harder to hit players of the same (low) level.

If this wasn’t the specific goal of the change, I fail to see how this helps equalize the top and bottom of a bracket.

I went ahead and pulled some data off of my Warlock last night and compiled it into a spreadsheet.

5.2 Battleground Scaling Changes

I lose 61% of Cynwise’s secondary stats – Hit, Crit, Haste, PvP Power – in exchange for ~35% increase in effective health. She goes from being agile and hard hitting to clunky and slow, just like everyone else in the battleground. Keep in mind that her gear is exceptionally good (item level 414-438) and she has an overabundance of Hit. She’s got more Hit than Cassius Clay.

This really changes the feel of each battleground, and not for the better.

At this point the only sane gearing strategy while leveling is to go for as much of your primary SP/AP attribute as possible and ignore secondary stats. Any nuances to gearing don’t matter

HEIRLOOMS AND BUGS

Up till now I’ve just been talking about how the scaling change affects low level characters in a bracket based on the design. There are two wrinkles to add to all of this – heirlooms and bugs.

Heirlooms scale according to your effective level. This means that a level 20 toon with heirlooms now has the stats of a level 24 with heirlooms, which is the only place where scaling seems to be working right!

The drawback is that this now means that heirlooms are more essential to leveling battlegrounds than ever before. Players in non-heirloom gear will be at a significant disadvantage to those who have them, and the more heirlooms the better.

The biggest gap in leveling battlegrounds is caused by experienced players with enchanted heirlooms. They are the new twinks of PvP. This change, as implemented, strengthens their superiority and makes it even harder for new players to compete. Without normal gear scaling the problems of low level PvP will now get worse, not better.

The second problem is that the scaling is really buggy right now. Players are reporting on the forums that no secondary stats from heirlooms are getting applied (at all). I was in my PvE set last night and missing every few casts (which absolutely should not happen). Players have reported that you are better off taking off all your gear and fighting naked rather than using the scaled gear. There are a lot of problems here and it doesn’t seem to be working as intended.

It’s my hope that the implementation can be straightened out or rolled back, as these changes have all negatively impacted PvP play in sub-90 battlegrounds. They don’t accomplish the putative goals and exacerbate existing problems in low level PvP.

—-

Update 2013-03-08: Ghostcrawler confirmed this is bugged and a hotfix is coming soon. Nobody panic, nobody level, someone tell my Arena Partner that he’s not going to remain godmode healer forever and then pass him some smelling salts.

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On Why I’m Not Level 90

Cynwise in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms

I like Mists of Pandaria. This expansion has been the combination of Warcraft’s Oriental Adventures and Lone Wolf and Cub that I’d hoped it would be, and I’m quite happy to be playing it. It’s rich, immersive, gorgeous, with genuinely fun things to find and do. On top of it all, the class of my main character has been dramatically improved from Cataclysm.

Yet after three months I have no level 90 characters and my main is XP-locked at level 85. I’m not enjoying Pandaria in the traditional sense of leveling through zones and then doing endgame content. I feel no rush to get my characters to level 90 yet.

“Slow down,” the Pandaren NPCs tell me all the time. “There is no hurry.”

It’s good advice.

Cynwise - MSV Pool

THE PROBLEM OF ENDGAME PVP GEARING

The dark truth about Warcraft PvP is that it is a game of gear as well as skill. Nearly all of the systems for PvP gear are designed to keep you playing simply to stay at the same relative level – you first start with crafted gear to grind out Honor Points to purchase moderately decent gear, which then allows you to compete for Conquest Points for better gear. If you’re on a good RBG or Arena team, you get more Conquest Points and get better gear then your opponents over the course of a season. Eventually opponents catch up, but there’s always a gear gap that favors characters which get an early lead. The gap is even worse if you start late.

The PvP changes in 5.2 are cleverly designed to help reduce this gear gap and make it easier for late starters to catch up. The system still favors those who push early and hard for great ratings, but the imbalance is definitely reduced later on. The incentives remain to get an early start, but the obstacles presented by a late start are reduced. That’s good for overall competitiveness over the course of a season – but nothing is really different about the gear treadmill.

Hamlet (from Elitist Jerks, not Shakespeare) made an offhand comment about how PvE isn’t really a gear treadmill because you get to consume content while doing it. You see new things while leveling up to endgame, doing dailies, running dungeons, raiding each tier, overcoming challenges at a difficulty they’re tuned at. I think his point highlights the problem with PvP gearing by providing contrast. I’ve argued before that PvP has very high replay value due to the changing nature of your opposition, while PvE loses replay value quickly due to the challenge becoming easier. The flip side of this is that PvE provides new, fresh content as a reward for playing, while PvP does not. You get to see new stuff and learn new fights while gearing up for PvE! You get to run Strand of the Ancients and Isle of Conquest again and again while gearing up for PvP.

Gearing up for endgame PvE is more like running through the countryside than a treadmill. You get a new countryside every expansion, which is pretty neat. Gearing up for endgame PvP is running through your neighborhood where you might not know the weather but you sure know the route.

This is the fundamental problem I have with endgame PvP, and why I locked my XP at 85 on my main to avoid it. Not only don’t I have time in my schedule to do Arenas with friends anymore, I don’t want to have to keep working to stay on top. I want to run Battlegrounds because I enjoy them, not because I feel obligated to.

I don’t know whether to characterize this as a flaw with the PvP system or just a personal incompatibility. One of the lessons I took away from Cataclysm was that you need to make decisions on an individual basis, and that those decisions might or might not be reflected in general population trends.

I can say, however, that I enjoy playing PvP more than I enjoy constantly gearing up, and that my dislike of the PvP gear treadmill outweighs my desire to see all of Mists of Pandaria.

This feels like a problem to me, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

Cynwise - Level 85 PvE Twink Stats - self buffed

THE PROBLEM OF COMBAT RATING DECAY

One of the quirks of World of Warcraft which my poor pen-and-paper RPG and LARP brain has trouble getting around is the idea of combat rating decay. Starting at level 10, the ratings which impact how effective your character is go down as you advance in level. This ratings decay encourages players to get increasingly better gear to make up for the loss of power. The numbers get bigger, but you’re not necessarily getting any more powerful for that level. I get the math behind it, I get the psychology behind it, but I don’t get why I should think it’s a good thing.

The FUDGE system greatly shaped my game design principles with the idea that all characters can (and should) be described in relative terms. The terms themselves don’t have to be fuzzy, but they should always be described in terms relative to their environment. Heroic raiders and gladiators are Superbly powerful, possibly Legendary. This kind of fuzzy system is actually quite compatible with more absolute systems like d20, where a +1 weapon is always a +1 weapon no matter what.

But Warcraft turns that on its head. You progress up in power through an expansion – first through levels, then through gear – until you reach a pinnacle. Once at that pinnacle you can do great, awesome things – until the next expansion comes along. Once you start leveling, the numbers get bigger but the ratings decay until you’re less powerful than when you started.

Twinking finds the sweet spots in these leveling curves and pushes the numbers to their limits.

I find it hard to convince myself that leveling Cynwise is a good idea. At first, I thought I would just finish up Battlemaster and then unlock – but now I’m not so sure. She is far more relatively potent than she could be at level 90, and the level 90 content that is available to her provides some solid challenges moving about the world. If I pull a level 90 rare, I really have to work to bring it down. It’s a lot of fun!

I bring this up because I think it’s intimately linked to my dislike of endgame PvP gearing. Taking a Superb Warlock and making her Fair – or even Mediocre or Poor, only to bring her back up to Superb over the course of two years – doesn’t feel right to me.

There’s no reason I can’t wait until the final patch of the expansion, level her to 90 then, and get the absolute best gear with one single grind.

I suspect that thoughts like these are why I’m not really a MMO’s target audience.

Cynwise - Vale of Eternal Blossoms - Contemplating Whisperpool

THE PROBLEM OF FREE WILL IN A SKINNER BOX

Hamlet – the Shakespearean one, now – wrestles with the charge laid upon him by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder. Hamlet chooses how to do it, causing tremendous collateral damage, but he was prodded on by that unyielding spirit. We are left wondering if the Prince of Denmark really had any choice in the matter or not, yet every step he took was his own.

Did he have to kill Claudius? Would death have freed him, or plunged him into unending guilt-wracked torment? He doesn’t know, and neither do we.

The question of free choice in games is not quite so weighty, but neither is it any better defined. For an expansion dominated by talk of those things players feel they have to do, I think it’s reasonable to step back and look at ourselves and our choices. To look back at myself, to look at why I made the choices I’ve made.

I locked my XP and postponed chasing after the treasures of Pandaria for other goals, like Battlemaster. I turned down the big brass ring that the game offered for a smaller one, one that mattered more to me. Most of my time spent in game is chasing after those old brass rings, the ones nobody wants but I find kinda shiny still. And then there’s the PvP, which I enjoy on many levels.

It’s been interesting watching the rest of my friends settle into their level 90 lives, questing through areas which I can’t, running dungeons and scenarios and dailies, killing 12 more Mogu, getting more fatty goatsteaks, raiding those shiny pretty raids I can see the outside of. I see glimpses of it but not the whole thing. Those glimpses intrigue but don’t compel.

There are days I feel like a fel-using Bartleby the Scrivener, telling Warcraft that I prefer not to level, thank you very kindly. Why should I trade this game of riotous battlegrounds and exploration of unseen content for one of dailies? Of finishing up achievements which I never had time for in the past for a world of repetition and toil?

And yet, before I think myself above anyone, I remind myself that I am still a rat in a Skinner Box, pushing the buttons for the rewards I want. I’ve chosen which buttons I push — but is that really a victory if I am still pushing the buttons?

Perhaps I am not as much like Bartleby as I would like to believe I am.

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Start Here, at Cataclysm’s End

One of the great flaws of the weblog format is how older information, no matter how good it is, fades away under the deluge of new posts. As Mists of Pandaria launches next week, I thought it appropriate to take a look back over Cataclysm before everything gets buried.

This post has a secondary motive. I am going to take a bit of a vacation from Cynwise and recharge my mental batteries, so this blog will be on hiatus until 2013. Since this weblog is pretty big – I write a lot, okay – I thought putting a map for new visitors up at the very top of the front page was the best way for me to leave the store unattended for a while.

So let’s start here, at Cataclysm’s end.

THE ESSENTIALS

In 2012, I wrote a book called The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm. It didn’t start out as a book, but rather as a series of posts analyzing why warlock populations were falling. An unpopular class was growing less so: why?

The core thesis of Decline is that warlock populations declined because of Inelegant Complexity without Reward; that multiple factors lead to players either abandoning the class or the game entirely. This thesis was debated in comments, in forums, in emails, and even in Blizzard development team meetings. It was, and remains, a contested theory, but it’s one that I absolutely stand by. Decline framed the discussion around the future of warlocks at a critical time in their development in Mists, and I think the class dev team did a great job with fixing the problems of Cataclysm.

I would love to share more of the stories behind this, like getting emailed by Xelnath while at my kid’s soccer game and going, okay, this is only the second strangest email I’ve gotten from my blog, or arguing with my editor Narci over whether a tangent was worth exploring (it almost always is.) I’d love to debate more about if Demonology should be a tanking spec (yes) and the challenges that have to be overcome to make that happen (itemization, player resistance, tank balance, active vs. passive mitigation strategies) – but alas, there is no more time. Mists is here, time to move on.

I’ll have to share those stories over tacos or something at Blizzcon next year.

If Decline was the most important post I wrote in the past year, I think my best post was something totally different – On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal, which I wrote back in January. The “Snow Crash Post” (and its followup) was born out of a frenzied realization where I could see how Twitter and Facebook had irrevocably changed the MMO landscape, and that doing stuff with your friends is the whole thing now.

Ghostcrawler said “playing with your friends is the sleeper hit of Mists of Pandaria,” and I completely agree. So many changes have been made to Warcraft to enable this simple thing that I can’t help but add two more predictions to the Snow Crash list: cross-faction grouping will become a thing, and Blizzard will license the Battle.net API infrastructure.

We’ll see if I’m right.

This weblog started off as Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual and (mostly) focused on casual battlegrounds and Player versus Player (PvP) content. It was an area which I have really enjoyed writing about, but there are three contributions I’m most proud of:

Topological Battleground Maps – inspired by the London Tube map, I depicted the logical flow of the various battlegrounds instead of the terrain in maps. (Developed here, refined here and here, seen all over.) In many ways, this map style was essential to my future writing on battlegrounds – I needed a better way to explain what I was talking about than just marking up maps.

Resurrection Vectors – BGs are won and lost by controlling graveyards, but the why and how is hard to explain if you don’t have a way to describe the way troops move when their killed. Starting with Arathi Basin and Alterac Valley, my posts on Graveyard Control and Rez Vectors looked at a lot of the battleground maps before I stopped. If you want to know why you don’t take the South Graveyard in Strand or why graveyard camping works, you should read these posts.

Relentlessly Positive Attitude – More than maps and theory, what I hope my writing about PvP accomplished was to inspire people to do better. To try those things they thought they couldn’t do, to find fun in things that they thought were too hard. That’s why I kept writing for so long – I really enjoyed teaching people how to play, and I hope I inspired them to have fun. You’ll see this attitude in posts like my guide to The School of Hard Knocks (wow, is that old!) or How To Win Tol Barad – where I had to take my own advice, knuckle down and figure out how to win that damn thing. But you’ll also find it in my passionate defenses of Healers Have To Die, talking about disposable heroes and iterative twinks, and even the ever popular PvP gear guides.

PvP can be fun. Just don’t give up. You can do this. Keep on trying.

There are other PvP posts which I think are worth noting – The 20 v. 24 War looked at the impact of Stater Edition twinks on the 20-24 bracket, The Battle for Gilneas is a straightforward guide to the best battleground of Cataclysm are both standouts – but I think it’s also important to remember the things which didn’t go well in PvP, like the rating exploits which caused so many problems in S9-S11, the increasingly hard PvP reputation grind, the repeated attempts to make Rated Battlegrounds popular, or the S9-S10 gear transition fiasco.

Actually, that last post about the S9-S10 PvP gear transition is a good one to stop and reflect on for a bit.

THE PIGGIE AWARDS AND THE FIELD NOTES EXPERIMENT

While writing Decline, I repeatedly said that I didn’t quit playing my warlock because of the increased complexity without reward, but that is very much the reason I didn’t go back to her for over a year. The reason I quit playing her was twofold:

You could look Cataclysm as an arc in my weblog: starting with Blizzard Killed My Dog (I still love that title), to a nadir at On Priorities, Elephants, and Desire, and then up to the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm. This has been a story of someone losing his way and finding it again.

The way back was through an experiment I started right after the one-two punch of the elephant post/S9 transition, Cynwise’s Field Notes, an experimental weblog where I stopped writing about warlocks and PvP and instead wrote about … whatever the hell I wanted.

It was liberating. Instead of the long, researched, carefully considered posts that went up on the Battlefield Manual, I adopted what were to become my Five Rules for Cynwise’s Field Notes, where I stopped obsessing over every little detail and just hit publish. Post after post came out, some not very good, others that I think were quite groundbreaking or prescient for the time.

I was really honored to receive several nominations for the 2011 Piggies on MMO Melting Pot. I was even more blown away by not only receiving several honorable mentions, but also winning the 2011 Most Memorable Blog Post award for my CFN post, On the ForsakenThat post not only led to On Blogging Heroes (in response to the Piggie award), it inspired several entries in the Blizzard Global Writing contest, including one of the 2011 Finalists, Daughter of Lordaeron. This, in turn, led to me picking the thread back up again in On Silverpine Forest, which lands me right in the middle of the Forsaken storyline and embracing the cause of the Dark Queen.

Will there be an On Hillsbrad Foothills? I hope so! Baby Cynwise is still waiting… though she’s like level 29 from leveling gathering professions. >.>

During this time the PvP Columnist position at WoW Insider opened up. I declined with several regrets, as I think the staff there is great and it would have been a great experience. But in retrospect it was the right decision, not only for me, but for WI. (Oliva Grace is fantastic in the role, much better than I would have been, and has become a great contributor to their site. I wish her, and the entire WI staff, well heading into Mists.)

There are a lot of standouts from the CFN days; take a look through the CFN tag on this site, or visit the original site on Posterous if it’s still available. (I moved the posts back to this site because I had, frankly, too many sites. This decision seemed really wise when Posterous’s future came in doubt after the company was acquired by Twitter.) Some of them, like On Digital Detritus and the Merit Badge post, are still really applicable as we head into Mists.

I’m not going to lie, I kinda miss that website now.

TAKING A BREAK

I don’t really know what will be involved in this break. There are no hard and fast rules in life, just guiding principles like “don’t give up” and “put first things first.” I have been Cynwise online for almost 4 years now. We’re comfortable friends, she and I, even though I’m a middle-aged married father of two and she’s an ambitious warlock from Northshire in a video game. I, the person behind Cyn, who’s the player and author behind Cynwise, need a bit of a break from all those layers. I might set aside my Twitter for a bit as Mists gets going, I might not, who knows? I sure don’t.

Thank you very much for reading Cynwise’s Warcraft Manual, Cynwise’s Battlefield Manual, Cynwise’s Field Notes, Green Tinted Goggles, Punt This, Go Mog Yourself, The Adventures of Sparkbinder Cynix in the Worldbreaker’s Shadow, The Warlock Is For Burning, and the continued insanity which is @wowcynwise’s Twitter feed. (Dear LORD that is a lot of weblogs, did I really do all of that?) I really appreciate it, and hope that you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read.

My BattleTag is Cynwise#1158. I’m still planning on playing, but will be quieter on the internet – so please, keep in touch.

Be good to each other, and enjoy the pandas.

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On Worse is Better

I’ve mentioned before that JWZ was one of my blogging heroes; but one of the most dramatic influences he had on me was introducing me to Richard Gabriel’s essay, The Rise of “Worse is Better”. Even though it’s about Lisp and Scheme versus Unix and C++, it’s an excellent, thought-provoking read which looks at why certain computer languages work and thrive, and why others fail. You should read it.

How many of you still use Scheme after college? I know I haven’t touched it or MATLAB since COMP 101, but I’ve sure used Python, Java, and C/C++ in my career as a professional programmer. Is Scheme still useful? Yes. It is widespread? Not outside of academia.

The core idea of the Worse-is-Better philosophy is that simple implementations which achieve most of the desired functionality are superior to complex implementations which achieve the whole thing. UNIX is really a collection of small programs which do certain things adequately, assembled and refined over the years until it’s a rock-solid operating system. But it’s not the stability which makes it so ubiquitous – it’s how it can run on almost anything. Microsoft figured this out with the NT to XP transition, and the success of XP – and relative failure of Vista – should be object lessons

Warcraft, in many ways, is an adherent to the Worse-Is-Better philosophy. The cartoonish graphics and relatively low pixel counts have allowed Warcraft to spread, like a virus, on computers which would not normally be considered gaming machines. The graphics degrade well because the style is simple and doesn’t require high resolution to convey the desired image. More processing power adds better effects but isn’t a requirement to play.

Simplicity is good for adoption. At any time, half of the computers out there are below the median, and if you are spending marketing dollars to get people to try your game you don’t want their machine to be an impediment. Games that don’t support certain operating systems or have high graphics requirements automatically start off at a disadvantage because they limit their customer base. This is a tradeoff from a development standpoint – you can’t port your game to every operating system, you can’t support everything, but you have to support enough to be profitable. I probably would have tried SW:TOR if it had a Mac client, but it didn’t, and I didn’t feel like buying a Windows 7 license and running Boot Camp to try it out. Bioware made a conscious decision to not support Macs to keep their development costs low, which eliminated me as a potential customer. That’s an acceptable tradeoff! It happens all the time. You have to focus your efforts to ship a product.

But that development decision had implications down the road.

Yesterday’s WoW patch (5.0.4) brought with it the new graphical requirements for Mists of Pandaria. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since my laptop – which had run the Beta fine – was suddenly unable to run Warcraft. I wrote about how it affects me personally on tumblr, but I don’t want to dwell on it. It’s done, I can’t use the laptop, my playtime is reduced until I upgrade it (which isn’t happening soon). Other people have it worse than I do – their only computer can’t play their favorite game, and I feel really bad for them.

I think it’s more interesting to consider the bind Warcraft’s longevity has put Blizzard’s developers into. Every year that WoW continues is another year where technology gets better. If we follow Moore’s Law, computers today are 16 times more powerful than when WoW launched, and the game competition being developed now can take advantage of that increase. Warcraft is competing against games that can count on a computer having an order of magnitude more resources than when it was first designed.

In many ways, that’s Warcraft’s strength, because it’s a social game, and mass adoption is key to continued success. I’ve said before that Warcraft is really a video game bolted on top of a social network. But that strength is also a weakness as the game ages, because WoW competes in the market with those other games. It has to adapt, which means that events like yesterday happen. Customers log in and discover that they’re suddenly unable to play because their computer is no longer good enough. All the marketing costs to acquire that customer, all the support and development costs to keep that customer, are lost if they choose not to upgrade their computer.

Consider that cost for a minute. Blizzard incurs a cost to acquire a customer (marketing dollars, core game development, retail packaging and distribution) and an operational cost (customer support, continued development, server hosting and operational upgrades, corporate expenses). The customer has an initial startup cost (buying the game) and an operational cost (subscription fees). This is all pretty straightforward in the short term.

In the long term, however, both sides incur costs to support the game. Blizzard has to spend development resources to maintain old operating system versions, old hardware models. Customers have to invest in hardware to be able to continue playing the game. (The initial investment in buying a computer which can play the game is often overlooked, because it’s the very first part of market selection – “does this person have a computer?” – and is a fundamental assumption.) Increasing the minimum requirement for the game brings this specific assumption into question – does the player still have a computer which can play the game – and also increases the cost for the player. Instead of $15 a month, now the player needs to look at it and say, should I spend $1-2k on a new computer so I can continue to play WoW?

If we assume a 36 month lifetime of a given computer upgrade, it’s $27.78-$55.56 additional a month for the customer. So at a minimum, purchasing a $1k computer to continue playing Warcraft is effectively the same as spending $45 a month on on sub.

Warcraft (or any software package which forces one) gets an unfair part of the blame in this decision to upgrade. There are usually other reasons to upgrade a computer which factor in to the decision (faster CPUs, more hard drive space, more memory) – but psychologically, the triggering event is the one which we focus upon. If I want to play Warcraft on a laptop, I need to get a new laptop. That’s the decision some people are faced with today. They aren’t saying, my web browsing is kinda slow or running a lot of applications (they probably are). They’re looking at Blizzard and Warcraft and going, is this worth an additional $30-60 a month? Do I have the cash to do this? Oh god Christmas is coming up and I was going to get Mists and now I can’t play Warcraft holy fuck what am I going to do I wanted PANDAS.

But computers are sixteen times more powerful than they were when Warcraft launched. That’s amazing!

This is a really interesting aspect of the game industry, and the MMO industry, which I don’t think gets enough attention. How do you have a subscription model where, over the long term, your customers will churn due to equipment requirements? What happens when your product is still going strong almost a decade later? How do you get the broadest adoption?

Worse-is-better is the answer.

Warcraft has taken a lot of heat for its cartoonish graphics, its low-polygon models, its antiquated engine. But that art style, that engine, has had good survival characteristics in the marketplace. I think other game developers and game enthusiasts alike should take note of it – long term success requires broad adoption over a variety of platforms. Your product needs to be easy to port, easy to adapt. Making a hugely complex jewel of a game which can only run on 5% of the computers out there is not going to be as profitable as making a Facebook game.

There’s a somewhat unique balancing act here that Blizzard has to walk. They are tied to old technology that has good survival characteristics, yet have to compete against new tech that can be shinier, faster, fancier. Much like UNIX, I don’t think that a competitor who follows Blizzard’s model is going to usurp them. MMO game clients which overly rely upon the customer’s hardware will keep running into adoption problems. Thin clients with broad platform support are much more of a threat than a traditional MMO because they can be adopted quickly. Put most of the graphical processing up in the cloud and watch the same game get ported to consoles, PCs, smart TVs, smartphones, microwaves, in-car entertainment centers – who knows where they will end up next?

I know I don’t. Not really, not yet.

But I do know that the game industry needs to start thinking more about the lessons Common Lisp taught more than 30 years ago, because asking your customers to purchase new hardware to continue your revenue stream is a tough sell.

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Revisiting Gnomebliteration

I was in Uldum tonight questing for some transmog gear when I came to everyone’s favorite mass-murder excused by a machine, Gnomebliteration. As the gear I wanted for my warrior was a reward from said quest of doom, I set aside my in-character brain for a bit and rolled a flaming ball of death over the doomed expedition.

I killed a thousand gnomes for some red plate gloves. And I liked it.

My opinion of the quest hasn’t changed since the last time I wrote about it. I still think its morally repugnant, out of character for a lot of characters, and a hell of a lot of fun.

But at the end of Cataclysm I’m left wondering, why wasn’t this made into a daily quest?

This is a serious question. You’ve got a quest which is popular and provides a fun little mini-game. It’s in a zone which only has two daily quests for reputation, both of which have different mechanics than normal play and the body count of an ’80s action movie, so killing cursed gnomes fits in with the theme of Uldum. The quest got a lot of positive feedback on the forums and on wowhead. Players asked to do a quest again – that’s pretty high praise!

So why didn’t it happen?

Normally, when I write a post like this I have some kind of action that I’d like to argue for, some option or alternative to pursue. Here, I don’t. There are less than two months before Mists; thinking this should get changed now would be naive folly. It’s done. Gnomebliteration is never going to be a daily quest. That’s okay! It’s time to move on.

And I don’t think we, as players, will ever know why it didn’t happen. Development priorities are subject to a lot of different pressures, and I don’t subscribe to any A/B team conspiracy theories. Did this idea even get raised to the developers? Did it get serious attention? We’re there other priorities that kept it pushed down on a feature request list, or was it shot down for technical reasons? Was it deemed more important to keep it a unique part of leveling, one shot and you’re done on that toon?

Or did someone just not like the suggestion?

I have no idea.

What I do know is that, while rolling around a giant flaming ball of death on a quest I should have morally objected to for any good-aligned character, I had more fun than I’d had in the entire zone. Possibly the only real fun I’ve had in Uldum, once I get over how gorgeous the place is. Wheeeee! roll down the steps, pick up more gnomes! It’s not a complicated mini-game, it’s a visceral one.

And to me, this quest seems to symbolize the problems of Cataclysm. Many things were done right, but the things which were truly fun seemed to be shunted aside, fleeting moments. Opportunities to create more fun weren’t capitalized upon. Instead of Gnomebliteration as a daily, we got Tol Barad and the Molten Front. There were a lot of almost-rights, of things which were just a bit off, of things which didn’t quite flow enough to be fun.

Would we have gotten bored of crushing cursed gnomes? Maybe.

But we never got the chance.

I’ve come to accept that I don’t think Cataclysm was a very good expansion. Yes, there were plenty of quality of life improvements which made the game more enjoyable to play – vast UI improvements, transmogging, revamped old content, flight almost everywhere – but many missed opportunities for making the game fun. It was so close to being good, in so many places, but the execution was off. There was a lot of good work, and the game of Warcraft itself is still enjoyable, but I just haven’t found Cataclysm content compelling. I haven’t found it fun.

I don’t really have much else to say about Cataclysm; I had fun, I had frustrations, I’m glad it’s done.

And I’m left wondering why Gnomebliteration never became a daily quest.

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