Tag Archives: Rants Disguised as Posts

Play Now, Not Then

This too shall pass.

I think about that proverb a lot.

I remember how much pressure I felt two years ago to see everything in WoW before Cataclysm changed it all. It was this palpable weight on my mind, this knowledge that it was all going away.

I had been playing just long enough to have seen enough to know how much else there was to see, but not long enough to have seen it yet. It was my first expansion transition, but also one where the changes to the game outweighed any changes I might have expected to my characters. I knew that there were changes coming to how I would play, but I didn’t really pay them much mind. I had two goals – Ambassador and Kingslayer – and getting those two titles on two very different characters helped me put Wrath to bed and get mentally ready for Cataclysm.

Those titles don’t mean very much anymore. Their value has passed, as the changes in the game made them easier to get. But I remember those accomplishments fondly, and I value them still. I’m glad that I did them then, and didn’t wait for Cataclysm.

Over the past few months I have quietly set aside my twinks and reclaimed my warlock main, Cynwise. There’s a certain natural flow to playing her that I don’t have on any other character, even after almost a year of disuse.  I’m not near Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to master her yet, but I’m working on it. I find myself enjoying PvP on her again – something I hadn’t expected – and that I no longer bemoan her professions or her gear or how Rogues love to gank her.

We just play. It’s uneasy at times; I find I miss healing any BG that lacks a healer, and I tend to tank old raids without a viable tank spec. But by and large, we just play. I’m slowly working on Battlemaster and Justicar, but they’re more an excuse to PvP than goals for Cataclysm.

I realized, though, that there’s a fundamental difference between where I was at the end of Wrath, and where I am now at the end of Cataclysm. Pre-Cataclysm, I wanted to see the game before it went away, and it didn’t matter who I saw it on. Pre-Mists of Pandaria, I want to enjoy playing a Warlock as they are now, flawed yet challenging, before they go away.

This class that I love – it’s going to change in Mists. It’s going to change a lot. I can look ahead and go, I think that I will like the new Warlocks – but I don’t know. I thought I would love Cataclysm, but I didn’t. I don’t think I really even liked it very much, as a whole. There were parts I loved – many of the revamped leveling zones – and there were things I enjoyed well enough – but the sum total wasn’t what I anticipated two years ago.

So I look at the changes to Warlocks with very guarded optimism. I know leveling will be better, but beyond that – I think they’ll work out okay, but I really don’t know. I think I’ll have fun with the specs, but I don’t know which ones will click with me, which ones will work in PvP, which ones will be fun to quest with. I don’t know.

I do know that the specs I enjoy now are going away in a few months. There is a countdown timer running on them. Time is running out for me to play the way I’ve learned over the past few years.

I don’t know if what’s coming will be better or worse. I hope it’s better, but I don’t know. I’m afraid it will be worse, but I don’t know.

I know it will be different, and this too shall pass.

So I’m playing Warlock now, because I enjoy it now.

Changes will come soon enough. They always do.

It’s ironic that I spent so much time in Cataclysm trying to freeze things in place, trying to deny that change should happen, was happening. I built over a dozen twinks – characters locked in various XP brackets – this expansion, each working on different Best In Slot lists, frozen in time. My surprise main character for 4.2 and much of 4.3 was my level 70 Druid Cynli, who is about as geared as I can make her for her primary role.

Cynli was one of many attempts by me to thumb my nose at Heraclitus. All things are change, that ancient greek philosopher maintained, and yet I tried to step into the same river over and over again. I was upset that Cynwise had changed beneath me, that not only had the foundations of the world been torn asunder, but my vehicle for experiencing them had, too.

Was it too much change for me to deal with? Honesty compels me to admit that it might have been.

The Mists Beta is full of all sorts of scenes like the one above. Classes change dramatically without warning. Abilities work, or don’t work, or kinda work, or have interesting bugs that might not really be what was intended – or maybe they might! It’s hard to say.

But as time marches on, and class design starts to solidify and Blizzard developers start making balance passes with the new mechanics, it hits me more and more – I don’t really know what this game will be like in the future. I don’t know what my favored class will really be like.

It’s not going to be like it was in Burning Crusade, or Wrath. There’s no going back.

But there’s also no skipping ahead – no hurrying up the expansion so I can get to leveling my baby Horde Warlock, no trying out the Glyph of Demon Hunting as an off tank in retro raids, no cool new glyphs or simplified rotations or wondering what Haunt is really for.

There’s just the Warlocks of now, the Warlock class I know how to play.

Yes. I know that this, too, shall pass.

So I’ll enjoy it while I can, and take the changes as they come.

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On the Tyranny of Classes

I know I’ve said this a few times before, but it’s still strange to me, as a traditional RPG player, to be faced with the limitations of MMORPGs. In many ways these are two radically different mindsets that share the same type of setting and gameplay elements; the entire concept of and RPG character is flipped on its head for MMOs, especially WoW.

There are traits I’d consider immutable for an RPG character: race, gender, appearance, identity. (It’s not that they absolutely can’t be changed, but that they are beyond the normal magic/technology of a fantasy setting. You need strong magic to make this happen.) There are other traits which can be changed over time – professions, proficiencies, even classes (depending on your RPG engine of choice, of course.) Who your character is takes precedence over what they do, and – just like in the real world – they can change what they do, learn new things, take their own path.

World of Warcraft turns my expectation upside down. The only thing about a character that can’t be changed is their class; everything else is up for discussion. Who they are matters not at all; what they do is the important thing. My druid has gone from a female night elf to a male tauren and back again, all without ill effects in Warcraft – but there’s no plausible way for this to have happened. That’s okay! Not everything needs to make sense when talking about class mechanics. But it’s weird. It’s weird to think that that kind of radical character transformation is possible, but a warrior can’t become a paladin (or vice-versa). A Highborne mage can’t find the ways of Elune and become a druid; a disaffected mage can’t become a warlock.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this again while playing Cynwise, my warlock main whom I discarded about a year ago. Seemingly like a lot of folks, the effect of Decline and Fall on me was to pick up my warlock again and start playing her. At first it was to check things for accuracy, then it was to see LFR and Deathwing. After that I started PvPing again, first to get the Cataclysmic Gladiator’s Felweave outfit, then because I realized that now is a great time to work on Battlemaster. I’m having a mixed time playing her; there are times I enjoy it a lot, and other times I find it frustrating and absolutely no fun at all.

But she’s the closest one I have towards that goal, my only real vehicle in the endgame, and if I am going to be PvPing I may as well be working towards some goal. I enjoy it well enough most days.

It’s not the comeback I was hoping for, but it’s at least a quiet return.

CHANGING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAME

One rather important development that’s happened in the past month has been the announcement of account-wide achievements in Mists of Pandaria. Basically, most achievements will now be applied across all your characters, so if you Explore Mulgore on one toon, you’ll get that achievement on all of them. Meta-achievements will roll up the accumulated achievements of your characters, so if you have done all the quests in Kalimdor, but not all on the same toon, you’ll get it across all the toons. Some achievements are going to roll up your totals across characters – honorable kills for the Bloodthirsty achievement, for example – but details of which and what are sparse.

This is a cool thing. As I come out of my data-induced warlock stupor I like it more and more, even without the details which would help me answer questions like:

  • Will accumulated wins contribute to the Veteran achievements of specific battlegrounds? I have 80 WSG wins on Cynwise, but 253 on my extant toons. Will victories be rolled up into a single total like Honorable Kills, or not?
  • Will the individual BG Master achievements be treated as meta-achievements? I have almost everything for Master of Arathi Basin on Cynwise except Resilient Victory, which I have on Cynwulf. How will this work?
  • Will PvP reputation be additive? I am about halfway through the absolutely brutal and ever-worsening Justicar grind on Cynwise; will the rep I earn on other characters apply? I’ve played in 522 WSGs and 410 ABs on my non-deleted toons, but only 202/234 with Cynwise. Will reputation across toons be added like HKs?
  • Will Battlemaster even be a Meta-achievement? There are no guarantees here! Things change in development. Some metas may get left out due to coding constraints; others due to policy discussions. To preserve prestige, Battlemaster might be deemed an achievement which needs to be done on a single toon, perhaps like the Insane.

The old advice is to not count your chickens before they hatch, and that applies as much to software as it does to poultry. It’s interesting to speculate about account-wide achievements, but I’m having a tough time convincing myself that they’re going to be there, and that if they’re included at launch they’re going to work all in my favor.

I mean, the idea is great. The idea is awesome! Quoting Greg Street from his post announcing the change:

Overall, we never want you to play Character A instead of Character B because of achievement concerns. If Character A had the Violet Proto-Drake, then you might not play Character B. If Character A was only one holiday away from the Violet Proto-Drake, then you may not play Character B. If Character A had completed most of the raid achievements from Dragon Soul, you may not want to bring Character B for one fight and miss out on the achievement. Having alts is cool and working on achievements is cool, but we don’t want the two systems to work against each other.

I like this direction a lot. Play who you like, in the situations you like, and it all counts. Which toon you play – which class you play – doesn’t matter anymore. So many achievements I work on that I’m like, this doesn’t need to be done on Cynwise. Some I can motivate myself to do – cooking and fishing dailies, since she’s Chef Salty Cynwise. Others – Loremaster – I just look at and go, I would get so much more benefit from leveling an alt through that zone than taking an 85 there. This change is so, so very welcome from that standpoint.

But the implementation of something this complex causes me concern. There are caveats, and gotchas, and corner cases; I’m just wary. I want to see it in action, on live, before I let myself relax and go, yes, this will be okay.

See, it comes back to the immutability of classes in WoW, and the experience of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

TRAPPED BY A CLASS

What do you do when you decide a class isn’t right for you?

I think the answer to this is heavily dependent upon how long you’ve played Warcraft. When I’d been playing for a few weeks and I didn’t like playing my Paladin, deleting him was no big deal. There was no commitment to the character besides a fondness for the name.

But as characters grow, and level, and become a player’s main character, that kind of abandonment becomes more difficult. That character accumulates stuff; not just levels and gear (though don’t discount them!), they get pets, awards, titles, achievements, mounts. They have experiences and start forming part of our amorphous digital identity. They get reputations in game, and with guilds, and with real people. Their UI gets customized, their abilities get internalized, their macros get fine-tuned. It’s progressively harder to say, eh, fuck it, I’m going to switch and play something else. It can be done! But it gets harder than ditching a level 46 character.

Players I know who have switched mains for raiding or PvP seem to go through certain stages of anguish over this. Every time someone drops a pure DPS to tank or heal, it’s always emotionally complicated. The player is experiencing the content, but not necessarily on the character they’d like the experience on. Or they enjoy the class they’re playing on but it’s not their main. Sometimes it works out well – the new class is a better fit than the old one – but even then there are questions of discarded mains, of emotional attachments which need to be resolved. Rerolling is a tough step to take.

Changing for the need of the group is at least voluntary – players can at least take a stand and say, no, I’m a Hunter, take me as I am or else – while changes to the class are more pernicious. What do you do when your class changes underneath you to the point where you don’t enjoy it anymore? This happens to many classes between expansions, but it can also happen in the middle of them.

I think that when this happens to players it’s a very dangerous thing for player retention. When a player is forced to choose between playing a class they don’t enjoy (to achieve their in-game goals) and one they do (but doesn’t contribute to those goals), a crisis is created. Play the game in a way you don’t like to get what you want – or play in a way you like but not get the rewards. This is a no-win situation for the player.

Furthermore, this crisis removes the incentive to keep playing the game at all, which makes it a problem for Blizzard. If the options are:

  • Don’t have fun + get what you want
  • Have fun + don’t get what you want

Players will rightly say, why should I play this game? They may be able to force themselves to do it for a while, but eventually fatigue will win out.

I call this getting trapped by your class. You want to play something else, but don’t want to not be playing your main. Or you go and play something else, but regret leaving your main behind. Whenever I hit a BG on my warlock and there are no healers, I’m immediately sad panda because I would rather be playing a healer. Give me a healing spec, even a shitty one, and I will be all over it in PvP.

But now that I’ve started working on Cynwise again, and she’s so damn close to so many of those Battlemaster/Justicar achievements, it seems a real shame not to at least make the attempt.

RELEASE FROM BONDAGE

I still wonder what it would be like to have class changes in World of Warcraft.

I’m sure that technically, a class change is more complicated than a race change, and probably more complicated than a faction change. There are quests that need to be checked, abilities which need to be reassigned, mounts which need to be modified.

I think gear is probably the easiest thing to consider. If I wanted Cynwise to have a radical transformation and become a Paladin, for instance, I can see Blizzard saying that she shouldn’t be able to wear Warlock tier sets anymore. This should be simple, because the class restrictions on the class-specific gear would go into effect as soon as the class transfer took place, leaving players with the daunting task of both gearing up with the new class tier, while trying to juggle bank space in case they ever changed their mind and wanted to go back.

But is there a compelling reason to not allow class changes in WoW?

Say there’s a concern about people changing classes too often to suit the needs of a patch. Put a 30-day CD on it, but also use class change data to track population and identify balance issues with the class. If Shadow Priest DPS is off the charts, or a specific tank performs really well in a given tier – and everyone changes to take advantage, that’s 1) revenue for Blizzard and 2) an indication that that spec needs tuning. Migratory data would actually be a net positive.

I suppose that one advantage of account-wide achievements is that low-level characters can contribute. In a way, this provides a way to “delevel” your characters – you can have different characters twinked at different levels to play in certain brackets, at-level content, or to play with friends. That’s something to consider in favor of achievements.

While I like the idea of account-wide achievements, I can’t help wonder what would have happened if Blizzard went a different way and considered allowing class changes. Changes would end class tyranny but preserve the uniqueness of a character, of feeling that you really have done it all on one toon.

And they would generate a huge amount of class migration data. That kind of shit would be analyst porn.

Account-wide achievements need to be fairly seamless – and include reputation and other earned currencies – to match a class change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take ‘em, and gladly. If account-wide achievements been in place during Cataclysm I think subscriber numbers would look better – if nothing else, the trapped by a class crisis could have been avoided.

But don’t forget about the benefits of class changes, either. It’s a conspicuous hole in WoW’s polished portfolio.

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On Silverpine Forest

Silverpine Forest.

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

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

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

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

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

Consider that several warnings, all rolled in to one.

LILIAN VOSS AND THE DAUGHTERS OF LORDAERON

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

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

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

Are you free, or are you a slave?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KNEEL BEFORE YOUR QUEEN, CYNWISE

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

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

Kneel before your queen, Cynwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROPERTY DISPUTE: REAL ESTATE AND THE UNDEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This place is a scholar of jurisprudence’s dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a good reason to fight for it.

EXPANSIONISM, MISOGYNY, AND CAUSES FOR WAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Dave Kosak’s Edge of Night:

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

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

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

Garrosh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all comes together here.

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

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

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

Watch your clever mouth, bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smooth move, dumbass.

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

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

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

War serves the Dark Lady’s purposes now.

THE CHOICE OF FENRIS

Why was I fighting in the mud of Gilneas?

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

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

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

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

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

The clues start on the Isle of Fenris:

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

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

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

Powerful, powerful stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING CURSES TACTICAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SILVERPINE COMEDY TROUPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEATH, REBIRTH AND FREEDOM

Daughter of Lordaeron, again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well done, Silverpine. Well done.

Next stop: Welcome to the Machine.

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Play With Your Friends: WoW as the Social Game Network

My druid, Cynli (born on Durotan), visits Visper, the GM of Waypoint on Medivh.

Play with your friends. That’s the promise that online games have held out to us for many years, the ability to play computer games with friends regardless of physical location. MMOs take this to an extreme – play with thousands of people, some of whom may be your friends – but that’s the general idea with any networked video game. It’s the reason that Blizzard implemented RealID messaging across their game platforms. It’s the reason why they are working towards removing your server as an impediment to playing with friends with cross-realm dungeons, raiding, battlegrounds. I fully expect to see cross-realm arenas, questing, and progression raiding in the future.

Blizzard has even started working on addressing one of the biggest problems with RealID – the lack of anonymity – by implementing a BattleTag system, one that will hopefully address the very real privacy concerns of RealID, while allowing people to still play with online friends. This is great! Over the past few years we, as a culture, have developed a lot of social network tools that allow us to control the amount of information we share online. This should be as true for a video game social network tool as it is for any other social tool; users care about how much information they present about themselves, and will migrate to tools which allow them the right amount of control.

Consider how different the internet landscape is today, in 2012, as opposed to 2004, when World of Warcraft launched. Facebook had launched a few months earlier, but in that year it expanded to over 800 colleges and grew to 1 million active users. Warcraft reached 10 million users in January 2008, while Facebook had reached 60-70 million. Social networks were in their infancy in 2004, centered around weblogs and photo sharing sites. The rise of Facebook is illustrative of a larger trend of making social internet tools more accessible, to a broader swath of the population.

I mean, the numbers are mind-boggling.

  • One in nine people on the planet is on Facebook. (I’m not one of them.)
  • Twitter handles a billion tweets every week.
  • Google+ gained its first 10 million users in 16 days.

The amount of traffic generated by these kinds of sites is simply staggering. The impact of them upon MMOs like World of Warcraft cannot be understated. MMORPGs distinguish themselves from other video games by their social component, and since 2009 they are competing not just against other MMOs, but against all types of social computer activities – games, photo sharing sites, networking sites -

– even Farmville.

Furthermore, social networks have capitalized on something that MMOs have failed to – new mobile computing platforms. Only now, 5 years later, are we really able to see the impact that the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 had to the mobile computing market. It wasn’t just that it revolutionized the smartphone market – it did, making other manufacturers and platform developers realize they needed better interfaces and support for widespread application development. It also laid the groundwork for entirely new device markets like tablets, devices with great entertainment capability due to their flexibility, power, and ease of use. The iPad and Android tablet market has crushed other device types – remember when netbooks were going to be the new big thing? – and as technology moved away from the desktop, social media came right along with it.

Online social groups just aren’t what they were in 2004-05. We’ve rapidly moved past the idea of localized communities, instead going for fully global networks, with integration across websites and media. Your phone is, in all likelihood, a powerful computing device which can keep you connected to nearly all of these networks. It’s more likely that you keep in touch with your friends and family through some kind of social network than not.

And because it’s not just a social network, it’s also a video game, Warcraft is trying to keep up with these changes. Xbox Live is also doing this on the console space, but only WoW has both the subscriber base and the vision to pull off this necessary transformation.

I said in my post On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal that Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of a social network. I really think that gets to the heart of the matter, and is something that any criticism of Cataclysm needs to take into consideration. Not only does the video game have to be compelling, but it has to allow us to do things with our friends – friends who we are tied to through those other social networks. The sheer number of online connections people have now means that any networked video game needs to be able to be flexible enough to accommodate them, to allow them to play video games with those friends. Cloud-based gaming is the way of the future.

Battle.net is in a great position to become the default social network for computer RPGs. By providing a framework of interaction between players on different servers and even in different games, Blizzard can use Battle.net to allow other game companies to adopt their network instead of developing one themselves. By publishing APIs to be usable by third parties, this puts Blizzard in the position to:

  1. Capture the customer relationship (by requiring a free bnet account, or creating one for the player)
  2. Introduce players of other games to Blizzard products (free marketing)
  3. Create new revenue streams from other game companies for “enhanced” bnet services.

Is there a cost to this? Yes, absolutely, and as a product developer I’d be very concerned with how to recoup the operational and development costs here. Perhaps the API is free to use for most games, but special features (guild circles, intergame profile management, etc.) are charged to the hosting game company. Perhaps the Google+/Facebook model of monetizing member data is used. Maybe it’s a hybrid.

This kind of technology addresses a need that multi-player games will need in this new social reality, but game developers don’t want to spend time developing. It also has reach far beyond a single game – if it can get into the market with the right services, for the right price, with one of the largest embeddded userbases in the space, the potential for Blizzard to form an ubiquitous social gaming platform is very, very high.

However, there’s one problem within Warcraft that stands in the way: Guilds.

Do you have to belong to a guild in WoW, or not? Is it an optional social circle or a requirement for full participation in the game?

The guild system that has evolved in Cataclysm is very different from that which existed before, and is actively countering not only the general movement in social networks to be more inclusive, but also Blizzard’s own attempts to make players more able to play with their friends.

World of Warcraft’s infrastructure requires players to create accounts on specific, mutually exclusive servers. If I roll on Durotan, I cannot interact with players on Drenden or Moonrunner, and vice versa. Each server is effectively its own independent social network, limited in scope, much like old-school BBSes were. This made sense in 2004, but in 2012 social networks are broader, which is the whole point behind Real ID/BattleTags grouping. Warcraft is moving players towards a cloud-based existence, where your server matters less than your friends list. I personally think this is a good thing, because no matter how nostalgic I am for the old days of BBSes, I enjoy the present day reality of a global social network.

But guilds remain tied to servers, and they remain mutually exclusive.

This wouldn’t be quite as problematic if guilds were merely social units, like they were before Cataclysm. But not only do we now have to contend with the integrating this social circle in to the cloud-based experience, an entire system has been developed around them to make belonging to a guild valuable and worthwhile to a player.

Let’s take a simple example, a player who wants to play both Horde and Alliance. She joins nice guilds on both sides of the same server and enjoys spending time with each group. But depending on which character she chooses to play, she either has to choose one social group or the other. This doesn’t have anything to do with guild perks or reputation – imagine a social network that forced you to choose between talking to one set of friends or another when logging in, and see how popular that would become. It’s not enough to be able to talk individually. The community of a guild is important.

Now, while you might want controls over who you interact with at any time – think of Google+’s Circles here – you don’t even have that option here within Warcraft. Either you’re able to chat with Guild A, or with Guild B, but not both at the same time.

Yet, you’re able to talk to individuals in those guilds if they’re bnet friends.

Guilds, as they stand today, are both WoW’s greatest social strength and its strongest force working against letting players playing with their friends. Guilds are important, but they tie players to a specific group on a specific server, isolating and separating them.

But with a few changes, guilds can join the new cloud-based paradigm Blizzard is moving towards with Battle.net.

1. Allow player characters to belong to multiple guilds at the same time. How this manifests is open to debate – one guild might be chosen as the only one they can represent at a time, allow access to the bank, has the guild tag on display, generates guild rep towards that guild, etc.. At a minimum, give players access to the social components of guild membership – guild chat. This allows them to stay connected with their circles.

2. Allow guilds to function cross-server. Remove the server as a consideration of guild membership. Guilds need to be able to function as social units across servers. Are there technical restrictions to this? You bet. Perhaps guild banks and perks are limited to the founding server. Perhaps limits are put in place to how many cross-server members are allowed. But allow members to group up with other guild members easily, regardless of location.

3. Extend guild chat to games outside of Warcraft. This gets a little trickier, and may involve changing the guild association from character to player. Any Battle.net-enabled game should be able to carry with it the idea that a player is a member of a specific guild, and feed guild chat to him or her in that game’s chat interface. The game in question may not have guilds, but the player can still interact with those text channels through the game’s interface.

Imagine how different things would be right now if players of other MMOs could still be present in your guild’s chat.

4. Extend guild chat outside of video games. Stop tying the game’s social experience to video games and leverage existing social networks. Go multi-modal with their tools. As a game company, you have to consider the ROI of putting Battle.net on every different platform out there. My recommendation – don’t even try. Use their tools to get off the desktop and onto the phones and tablets of your players.

See, guilds are – or should be – supersets of friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers. They’re folks united with a common purpose, a common goal, even if they might not know each other very well. It doesn’t matter if they are a hard-core raiding team, a PvP world defense squad, or a fledgling leveling guild – they’re a group of people working together. Doing things together. Playing together.

Attaching mechanics to guilds causes pressure on the social cohesion of the group to conform to those rules, to achieve goals that are (in many cases) counter to the goals which brought them together in the first place. This genie is out of the bottle, so to make the best of it Blizzard needs to bring guilds into the cloud.

Like it or not, servers as social units are not Warcraft’s future. Each and every new cross-realm development shows this trend. Unfortunately, the guild structure remains the strongest bond to the server mentality in WoW.

For guilds to survive – and they need to survive – they need to change to meet the new social networking reality WoW finds itself in today.

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The Problems of PvP Reputation Grinds in Cataclysm

Cataclysm Patch 4.2 introduced several undocumented changes to the reputation system in Warcraft. Some were quite welcome: city tabards now worked in Burning Crusade dungeons, allowing alts going from 60-70 to keep gaining home city reputation while running LFR. Others were less welcome: dungeon bosses gave less reputation in general.

The biggest change for battleground enthusiasts, however, was in Arathi Basin and the reputation awards for the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

  • Before 4.2, you got 100 reputation per win (10 reputation per 160 resources).
  • After 4.2, you get 60 reputation per win (10 reputation per 260 resources).

Yes, that’s a 40% nerf, and is before guild perks or Diplomacy bonuses are factored in.

Exalted with any faction requires 42,000 reputation points. To get Exalted with the Arathi Basin factions before 4.2, this required, in the best case, 420 wins. More realistically, that’s probably around 600 games, as you still gain experience from losing as long as you get some resources on the board.

After the 4.2 changes – and as this has never been confirmed as a bug, we have to assume that it was a deliberate change – Exalted requires 700 wins, or probably around 1,000 games total.

One thousand matches to Exalted. At 20 minutes a game, that’s 13.9 days /played in Arathi Basin.

Warsong Gulch isn’t really any better, but it didn’t change during 4.2. It’s been bad for a while. At 35 rep per flag capture, you’re looking at 1200 flag caps, or a minimum of 400 three cap games. Since you can win with a single flag cap, and can lose without any flag caps, you’re more likely looking at 600-700 matches to Exalted.

Does this seem like good design?

CONTENT THAT GETS PROGRESSIVELY HARDER

The 4.2 Arathi Basin reputation nerf is actually not the first time that PvP reputation has been nerfed – these reputations used to be far, far easier to grind, and the Justicar/Conqueror titles (Exalted in Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin, and Alterac Valley) were much more in reach.

Back in the old days, Marks of Honor – remember those? – could be turned in to the appropriate quartermaster for reputation (3 Marks for 50 rep), shortening the grind considerably. Before Wrath of the Lich King, you needed far fewer victories to reach Exalted:

  • Warsong Gulch: 273 wins
  • Arathi Basin: 280 wins
  • Alterac Valley: 70 wins

Let that sink in a bit. Getting to Exalted takes 127 more WSG and 420 more AB victories than it did now than it did in Burning Crusade. That’s victories – I figure you’ll have to play 30-40% more games total to do it. If you’re in a guild with the reputation perk when you start and all the way through, you can shave 10% off.

No analysis would be complete without looking at some of the other changes that have taken place to these battlegrounds:

  • Warsong Gulch now has a timer, which limits the amount of time each battle can take, so 40 mins – 1 hour long matches are no longer the norm. Unfortunately, this timer also means that each victory can be earned with a single cap, making the rep gain wildly variable. It’s pretty much a wash.
  • Arathi Basin was reduced from 2000 resources to 1600, which means each victory awards fewer reputation points. The rate of gain, however, has remained unchanged before 4.2.

The resource gain reduction in Arathi Basin is partly responsible for the increase in the number of games required to play to get to Exalted. The rate of reward wasn’t substantially modified until 4.2, though, so while we can say that it’s not quite as bad as the numbers say, it’s still bad.

It’s still about a thousand games to Exalted with the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

I guess they’re really hard to impress.

IMPROVING REPUTATION IN BATTLEGROUNDS

This is what content that gets progressively harder looks like. And it’s honestly not all that much fun. If you started playing in 2005, this was difficult but doable. If you’re starting now, in 2012, this is brutal.

Is this a good game design? Is it good to have a goal like this, one that is so far out there that you really have to focus on a single character for years to get it?

Yes, for years. Let’s say you are a relatively casual player and can play 3-4 AB battles a night (2 hours with queue times). You better keep up that pace for 286 days.

Nothing but Arathi Basin. No Arena. No PvE.

Just AB. BS, LM, ST. No, go GM. LM inc 3. Go Farm. GO FARM. BS going. BS gone.

I’ve played about 300 Arathi Basins across my different characters in the past 3 years. Cynwise has the Veteran achievement there. I know the place pretty darn well at this point, and I haven’t even scratched the reputation post. She’s 9796/12000 Honored. Yikes.

I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m complaining, because at this point I’ve totally given up on this as a reasonable goal for me. I’m not getting it. It’s not worth it to me.

But contrast AB reputation to Alterac Valley reputation, which most people get Exalted around 80-100 victories in. I have two characters at Exalted there, another two at Revered, and most of the others are making great progress. Some of this is due to factional imbalance in the old battlegroups, but it’s also due to the amount of reputation awarded.

This kind of reputation grind – one that requires commitment, but is doable on your way to the Veteran (100 victories) achievement, feels more realistic. Let’s face it, after you’ve won 50 battles, you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of it. By 75, the NPCs should know your name when you zone in.

All three of the original battlegrounds have reputation, and they are all tied into specific objectives within those battlegrounds. This has benefits – you gain rep for doing the stuff in the BG – but it also has drawbacks, as we see here. The scale is so out of whack now that changes need to be made to WSG and AB to make their grinds relevant again – otherwise people will simply look at them and go, that’s not worth it, and it fails to have any value.

Just like now.

These tasks are supposed to be hard, not impossible.

(There’s also the issue of  lingering resentment caused by increasing the difficulty on a task over time, but that’s a different post.)

My opinion is that the reputations need to be scaled to a number of games or victories. That’s how we evaluate these grinds, after all, and that the huge disparity between AV and AB points out that one can be done on multiple toons, while the other is an all-or-nothing deal. Personally, I like the 75-125 win mark – it’s an investment, but given the number of battlegrounds out there, it’s not unreachable. It still allows you to play other battlegrounds without feeling guilty. You could make an argument that it should be easier – 50 – or harder – 200 or 250 – and I’d go, okay, at least we’re in a ballpark. Personally, with the number of other things to do in the game, I lean towards a lower number. But settle on some number of victories/matches and base your rewards off of that figure.

Also, standardize reputations and rewards in battlegrounds. It baffles me why the Isle of Conquest has a tabard for the Master of Isle of Conquest achievement, AV/AB/WSG have them for Exalted reputations, and EotS, Strand, BfG and TP completely lack them. I’m not crazy about the IoC model – I don’t really like Battleground Achievements that aren’t “Win” and “Win More” and “Win ALL THE GAMES,” but it’s at least a viable, consistent model that could be used.

The gear rewards from leveling should also be adjusted to reflect the new brackets and early introduction of several battlegrounds (Eye of the Storm, I’m looking at you), but that goes without saying.

Consider extending the BG reputation system to PvE and Arenas. I like this option least of all, but I think it needs to be put out there – the way it works now is really bad. Arathi Basin and Warsong Gulch are arguably the two worst rep grinds in the game. Tabards that could be worn while questing, dungeons, or – best of all – in Arenas and Rated PvP – would allow people to grind while doing other stuff.

If you could Arena in the name of the League of Arathor, would you? (I bet you would. I’m not wild about raiding/dungeons for PvP rep, but it’s something to consider as well.

I actually think a piecemeal approach to fixing reputation systems is harmful, and that the battleground reps need to be considered as part of the entire reputation system. Reputation tabards are an interesting idea, but wouldn’t it be simpler to code the game to award X amount of tabard rep per Y thing done (mob killed, boss killed, BG/Arena won), then check the tabard and award it appropriately? I know I’m falling into the non-programmer fallacy of “it sounds logically simpler, so it should be simpler to code,” but… I have been a professional programmer, and it actually is simpler to code up one system than a bunch of disparate other systems. It’s harder to yank bad code out and make sure things work right after the fact, but … I’ll stop.

One of the things Blizzard mentioned they wanted to work on in Mists was WoW’s reputation systems.

I hope when they do so, they take a long look at the BG reputations and make them a more accessible part of the game.

Because tasks that get progressively harder as the game ages?

Yeah. They’re not fun for anyone.

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Level 60 PvP Gear Not Available for Transmogging

I, for one, was really hoping that scenes like the above picture would have become more commonplace: the bright and dramatic designs of the level 60 PvP gear filling the streets of Azeroth’s cities, allowing players to choose some dramatically great looks at a relative pittance.

However, it is not to be.

Quoth Bashiok, who is just the messenger:

The items out in the world (Marshals, Grand Marshal’s, High Warlord, etc) that use the level 60 PvP art are un-transmogrifiable (including the item level 115 stuff that shares the name from Burning Crusade).

In Area 52 a set of vendors has replaced the PvP Vendors who used to live there. Grex Brainboiler, Krixel Pinchwhistle, Tini Smalls, Kezzik the Striker, Big Zokk Torquewrench, and Leeni “Smiley” Smalls. These vendors sell new, transmogrifiable versions of the classic armor to players who have the Feat of Strength for Legionnaire/Knight-Captain or higher under the old PvP system.

There was a bug with the Feat of Strength granting access to these items, but was hotfixed within the last couple of minutes. If you meet the criteria log out and back in and you should be able to access the vendor.

The design intent with the Feat of Strength achievement requirement was specifically to limit these particular art styles to players who earned them through the OG (and relentlessly difficult) PvP honor system, while keeping the door open to reward them to more people in the future.

In a future patch the items sold by the Area 52 vendors will also be renamed ‘Replica of’ to be more consistent with the items sold by the Darkmoon Faire – they’re currently exact duplicates of the original items that allow transmogrification, which is obviously a bit confusing.

Potentially related, since he’s in the same area, Kezzik the Striker sells inaccessible Season 1 Gladiator’s, Season 2 Merciless Gladiator’s, and Season 3 Vengeful Gladiator’s gear to all players, as the majority of that gear didn’t have restrictions.

This is somewhat confusing if you’re not up on PvP gear sets, so let me summarize:

  • Level 60 PvP gear, of all ranks, is not available for transmogrification. This includes any armor you may have had purchased previously from the Legacy Honor Vendors.
  • If you had the right to wear this armor back in Vanilla, you have the ability to wear this armor as a mog set. However, you can’t use your old set – you have to go to Area 52 and purchase a lookalike set. You have to have the Feat of Strength to be eligible.
  • Arena sets which had been removed from the game (S1, S2, S3) are now available for purchase again in Area 52.  This gear should have no restrictions.
  • All other PvP gear looks to be eligible for mogging. Brutal and Wrathful gear both appear to have no issues. All the level 85 gear I checked seemed fine, too.

This issue with the level 60 PvP gear has led to some confusion about what does and doesn’t work with transmogrifying PvP gear. It’s a pretty simple rule – everything but the  distinctive level 60 gear should work.

To be frank, that kinda sucks.

I THINK WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

I confess, I was really disappointed by this exclusion. I was really looking forward to trotting out the Knight-Lieutenant’s gear I’d ground Marks for back in Wrath and rocking the old-school Vanilla Warcraft look. I knew that there were some things that I wanted to try mogging that probably wouldn’t work – Direbrew’s Bloodied Shanker for one, Dark Herring for another – but that’s because they fell outside the mogging rules as explained by Blizzard.

Having the level 60 gear be excluded really made me go … wait, what? I see a lot of the gear while leveling through the 60-70 bracket, the shields are some of the best looking in the game, and it’s a really distinctive, Warcrafty style. It’s a great look, and I wanted it.

But there’s another side to this, too.

There’s the side of the Warlords and Marshals and all the players who ground out the truly hellacious PvP grind back in Vanilla. For a long time, they had their titles, and they wore them as badges of pride. Once removed from the game, those titles were impressive and had an aura of Old Skool about them, something that later PvPers couldn’t touch. Anyone could get their gear, but no one could get those titles.

Cataclysm took those titles away from these players. Oh, they still had the titles – but Rated Battlegrounds allowed anyone to get them. They were no longer unique signifiers. The vestiges of the old grind were washed away.

So here’s something for those players who did that grind – they’re the only ones who will get to wear the really great PvP fashions as their daily wear. They’ve gotten something special back, something unique, something Old Skool.

I think, had this just been communicated in advance, I wouldn’t be sitting here going, man, this sucks. I’d have gotten over it, just like wielding a beer bottle or fish. It sucks, it’s arbitrary, it’s confusing as all getout, but at least it wouldn’t be a surprise.

I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people, sadly.

ACCEPTANCE

This is going to confuse a lot of players, especially those who pick up some of the 60 PvP gear as they level an alt and then wonder why they can’t use that great outfit later on for transmogrification.

I think it’s a nice gesture to say, hey, as a tip of the hat to our long-time PvP players who did the grind way back when, let’s let them be the only ones who can wear the old armor. It returns some uniqueness to the old PvP grind, and instills a sense of wonder around these outfits.

I’d love it if Blizzard presented it as such, not slip it in unnoticed. Someone at Blizzard made this decision and got it implemented. Someone approved getting the new sets in to Area 52. Folks at Blizzard knew this was coming, and it has the potential to be cast in a really good light.

But it wasn’t. It was dropped in unnoticed. And when gear changes get dropped in unannounced during a season transition, I start getting really nervous. Bad things happen when Blizzard doesn’t talk to their PvP playerbase. I’m really trying hard to forget the last time they forgot to tell us things about how the PvP gear system was going to change.

Sure, I’d selfishly like this change reversed, because then I can have the great old Vanilla PvP fashions for my Wrath and Cata and Mists toons. But if this is a way to honor Vanilla PvPers, I’m actually really okay with that. What they did was special! Preserving uniqueness is a great thing! I can go wear the Burning Crusade PvP gear!

It just would have been nice to not get my hopes up.

 

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The Curious Case of the Big Daddy and Secretly Scaling Equipment

The Big Daddy is the Cataclysm heavy explosive available to Goblin Engineers. It requires Engineering 440 to use, and 500 to make, it’s expensive, but it also does respectable damage – about 5k – and the damage is tripled against targets at full health. Oh yes, it can crit, too, so you could get a lucky 30k damage off this baby. It’s also off the GCD, so it’s great to use after an instant cast spell, though you really want to use it on “unsuspecting targets” – thats those poor folks at full health – whenever possible.

They’re not quite as nice as the Global Thermal Sapper Charge was in the early days of Wrath – massive siege damage in SotA/WG/IoC was awesome – and they’re not as cheap as Saronite Bombs, which you could make part of your attack rotation with impunity – but they’re good for what they are.

Except… you notice that little bit about “Requires Engineering 440″ to use?

You can get Engineering 450 at level 65, when most characters have around 4k-8k health. Even in the level 70 twink bracket, health pools range from 10-14k, with 18-20k reserved for tanks.

These bombs can 1-shot an entire defending force if you attack when they’re at full health at level 70. At level 80, they can still take out 1/3-1/2 of the defender’s health.

Holy crap.

PvP being PvP, players figured this out, and maxing your Engineering at level 65 became an even easier way to dominating the battlegrounds than rerolling Mage.

(I kid, I kid!)

So far, you’d think that this is a simple story of an item being overpowered in the leveling brackets and getting removed from said brackets, right? I mean, you can’t have bombs that can take out entire nodes of defenders, can you?

But instead of doing the obvious thing – raising the required Engineering level beyond 450 – Blizzard did something really interesting.

SCALING DAMAGE WITH LEVEL

Sometime between 4.1 and 4.2, the Big Daddy was changed so that the damage scaled with level. No longer was it 5k at level 65 – now it was 700. Level 79? 1400 or so. The damage was changed to allow it to still be used at lower levels, but for it to become less attractive overall. Saronite Bombs do more damage at level 65 than Big Daddies, which solves the problem neatly and returns us to the idea that you might be able to use things from the next expansion while leveling, but you probably shouldn’t be using things from two expansions away.

That’s actually an interesting rule to consider: think about how unbalancing Wrath-level gear, gems and enchants would be if they were available at, say, level 30. There are limits on enchants to prevent this from happening, for instance (item level 35 for BC, 60 for Wrath), but no limits on the gems – but sockets don’t show up until BC-era gear anyways, so it isn’t a big deal. With the introduction of Cataclysm, gems needed to have restrictions added because you could have level 60-70 players sporting Cataclysm gems.

So why didn’t the devs just change the Engineering requirements on the Big Daddy to be 475 instead of 440? This would have placed the items out of reach of everyone lower than 75, which would take care of the most egregious abuses. It would still unbalance the 75-79 bracket, but that bracket is already unbalanced because of the availability of Cataclysm-balanced gear starting at 78. The 80-84 bracket is unbalanced as well, but it’s unbalanced because of scaling and the hard ramp of gear. Adding in a bomb that does 5k-30k damage isn’t going to further unbalance things.

Or will it?

Think about this for a minute. Instead of making a simple change that mostly fixed a problem, the developers dramatically changed how something worked by level, making it scale all the way from 65 to 85 (and possibly beyond). It still does a lot of damage, and is great against unsuspecting targets, but it’s not going to 1-shot people in any bracket it’s available in. That took thought, planning, and careful analysis to realize that a simple level restriction wasn’t going to work.

In every sense of battleground fairness, this is a great change. And it’s great for many brackets.

Which is why it’s so unexpected. Not because we shouldn’t expect that Blizzard does the right thing (we should), but that it’s one of the first times I’ve seen an item nerfed in PvP in such a way to take into account its impact in multiple brackets.

The problem with items with fixed stats is that their value increases the earlier you get them. Cataclysm introduced stat inflation into not just the endgame, but up through level 65. The inflation is really unbalancing. It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that if you increase health pools five times between level 80 and 85 that maybe, just maybe, items that are scaled for 85 shouldn’t be used at lower levels.

But hopefully, we can start seeing more fixes like the Big Daddy nerf, which address this inflation in multiple brackets.

Fixing leveling PvP is not simple. Little things add up. I’ll wager you didn’t even realize there was an explosive that could 1-shot you from level 65 to 80 until this post. The fact that it was fixed without your knowledge is a good thing. There are a lot of small, unbalanced items which good PvP players seek out and use against their opponents, and they add up. Not all of them are as big as this one, but hey – this is the Big Daddy we’re talking about.

Smart fixes like this raise the possibility of other items using smart scaling, which would be a good start towards equalizing the brackets. Heirlooms already do this; having normal items start adhering to this rule would help bring leveling PvP back into a more balanced state.

Bravo, Blizzard. Well played.

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