Tag Archives: Rants Disguised as Posts

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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Using Healers Have To Die to Protect Friendly Healers

(This post is a continuation of Healers Have To Die and the PvP Addon Arms Race, my defense of the controversial PvP addon Healers Have To Die (HHTD). You may want to revisit my arguments in that post before reading.)

Despite my best efforts to get healers to take the initiative, I don’t see many yells for assistance in the battlegrounds. And leveling two healers through PvP right now, I understand why – when I’m getting focus fired, I have about 1 second to switch over and start spamming heals onto myself before I’m dead. The last thing I want to do is to bang the Help Me! macro, which is kinda out of the way, when I really want to cast Nature’s Swiftness or Power Word: Shield to buy myself time.

It’s okay. I should probably macro yells for help into my panic button; I’m still amazed at how effective SaySapped is at telling other players what’s going on. But I keep forgetting to do this because I have a much better personal solution: Healers Have to Die.

Healers Have to Die is the single best addon I have used to protect friendly healers in a battleground, bar none. I am not kidding here. It may be a valuable tool for DPS in PvP to help identify enemy healers, but where I’m discovering it really shines is by identifying friendly healers, marking them, and – most important of all – notifying you when they are under attack.

I wished for another addon called Healers Have To Live. I got it in Healers Have To Die.

HOW HHTD PROTECTS HEALERS

Take a look at the screen at the top of this post. This is my level 70 warrior twink, Ashwalker, fighting at Iceblood Graveyard in Alterac Valley. The camera is zoomed way out so I can see everything around me, but I can’t see details like what kind of clothes people are wearing or even really casting without UI assistance.

You’ll hopefully notice the large blue cross in the screen. This is a friendly healer that HHTD has detected. HHTD looks for specific spells that are usually only cast by healing specs, so it doesn’t get fooled by a Feral Druid casting Rejuvenation – it picks up the real healers.

When a healer shows up in a scrum, I know it now. Enemy healers, friendly healers – they’re all visually represented in a way which makes me know who to protect at all costs – no guesswork.

But that’s just the first part of HHTD’s defense.

When HHTD detects that a friendly healer is getting attacked, it lets you know in BIG HUGE LETTERS across your screen. It tells you which healer is getting attacked, and by whom.

Oh yeah, it spits out warnings in your chat window, too, in case you aren’t looking at the top of your screen.

And it does all this by default.

If there is one addon I absolutely want my BG team to be running, it’s HHTD. Not only for finding opposing healers – I want it for that – but also because it increases everyone’s situational awareness to come to the defense of friendly healers.

How would you not want that?

POP QUIZ: WHERE’S WALDO?

Let’s try a little test. Click on the picture above to view it at a bigger size, look at it for 2 seconds – be honest here – and then close it and come back to reading. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

All done? Good. Pop quiz time, then. Without looking, which healer was being attacked, the top one or the bottom one?

I’ll wager that a good number of you actually will get this right, and pick the healer near the bottom of the screen. But it’s not easy; Beamz’s nameplate is obscured, while Ranting’s is not.

Now, let’s be really honest here – how many of you would have known that Beamz was getting attacked at all, had it not been for the HHTD warning?

I know I wouldn’t have. Unless I saw a mob right on his face, I’d assume that he was fine and dandy, surrounded by people who could take care of him.

To be honest, if I didn’t have HHTD, I wouldn’t have known he was even there, let alone that he needed help. There are 12 friendly players and 3 friendly pets on the screen. HHTD makes my own healers stand out.

HOW TO MAKE HHTD WORK FOR DPS

One of the biggest challenges in getting people to use HHTD to its full potential is that DPS generally don’t run with friendly nameplates on, therefore they’ll never see that a healer is in trouble.

I use Tidy Plates, combined with Threat Plates for PvE, to help manage my friendly nameplates.

Tidy Plates allows you to automate the display of your nameplates based on your combat state, so you don’t have to walk around Stormwind or Orgrimmar with huge crowds of glowing nameplates blocking your view. By selecting the “Show during Combat, Hide when Combat ends” option, friendly plates smoothy come up in combat, and disappear when I leave. It’s really slick.

The second part of my setup is HHTD itself:

Here is the HHTD basic configuration tab. The configuration is relatively straightforward, but you’ll want to make sure that:

  • Protect friendly healers is On. Seriously, why would you have this off?
  • Set friendly healer’s role is On. If you’re the BG leader and you spot a healer who didn’t mark themselves as such, this sets it for you.
  • Announcer and Name Plate Hooker are both On.

These are the default settings. I can’t emphasize that enough, you don’t have to do anything but install HHTD to get it to start working to protect healers.

Healers are your friends. It doesn’t matter if they have a funny name, or are from a different server – all healers are your friends. Don’t abandon them to the rogues.

Get HHTD so your friends can live.

CLARIFICATIONS AND FINAL WORDS

I see a lot of assumptions made in the forums when HHTD comes up, usually made by people who haven’t really looked into the addon, let alone tried it to see how it works. But even when you try it out, you might have some misconceptions about how it works.

  • HHTD only modifies name plates; it doesn’t set raid markers or share information with other players. HHTD’s crosses are only visible to those people running the addon. It’s not like AVR, which shared information with other clients to modify the game world. It’s not setting BG-wide markings on your healers. It is hooking into nameplates and modifying them if someone casts a specific type of spell, NOT communicating that info across clients.
  • HHTD doesn’t target other players or cast any spells. Whenever I see an argument saying that HHTD does this, I wonder what addon they tried out, because that addon sounds much better than the one I’m using.
  • HHTD is pretty tough to fool. This is one I’m guilty of believing wasn’t true – thinking that I could get a cross over my head as a Feral Druid casting some healing spells. It’s wrong. The lua code looks for spells that only healing-spec healers use, or a certain amount of healing from the base spells. It’s actually easier to fool people than it is the addon, just because if you have a big mana pool and are standing in the back casting sparkly healing spells, folks probably aren’t going to check to make sure that it’s Resto, not Elemental.
  • HHTD detects friendly healers. Now you know just how good of a job it does.

I wrote my original defense of HHTD still struggling with the Healers Have to Live concept. At the time, I thought its absence was a weakness in the addon, but it really was a deficiency in my understanding of it. In the subsequent months, I’ve come to explore and appreciate how much better I can be as a PvPer by understanding where my own healers are, no matter how crazy things are getting.

Healers Have to Die is an excellent PvP addon, and I fully recommend it. Not only will it help you find enemy healers, it will help you defend your own teammates better.

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Valor and Vengeance: Rethinking Resilience

I like looking at how other games do things. This is true for board games, computer games, RPGs; it’s great to see other ideas that people come up with. So, while I don’t play Rift, I was interested to see this dev PvP-focused post on the Rift community blog that Rilgon tweeted a few nights ago.

I don’t play Rift, so I apologize if I get the nuances of this wrong, but they’re making a few interesting changes.

  • PvP damage reduction (Valor) is being standardized across gear sets and tiers.
  • Gear sets will be differentiated by their main stats instead.
  • Attack and Spell Power on select PvP items will be divided into Vengeance – a PvP only stat – and regular offensive power, making these items far less appealing for PvE (but desirable in PvP).

Hey, those are some pretty cool ideas!

STANDARD DAMAGE REDUCTION

There are several big challenges regarding damage reduction when progressing through endgame PvP during an expansion.

  • Resilience levels become unevenly distributed through the PvP playerbase as characters reach different gear levels at different times.
  • Resilience levels increase with each new tier of gear. This increase somewhat offsets the increase in main statistics and overall firepower, but unevenly.
  • PvE gear usually starts off weaker or more difficult to get than PvP gear, but eventually becomes more powerful. (Don’t mention Legendaries, please.)
  • As more raid tiers are released, PC abilities are tweaked for those encounters (and the gear they drop), in turn unbalancing PvP play. (Same thing in reverse for new PvP seasons, let’s be fair.)

There’s something really appealing about moving from this messy, dynamic situation where people could have from 0-45% damage reduction to a simpler model, where a full set grants you a specific amount of Resilience, no more. Perhaps you can choose to enchant or gem a little higher, but in general, players having more Resilience wouldn’t lead to the increasing returns on damage reduction we saw early in Cataclysm (and continue to see.)

Let’s imagine a game in which all PvP gear gives you a certain % damage reduction bonus, regardless of level. (This can be accomplished through Resilience scaling, or some other means.) For survival, the only important point you’d have is to have a complete set of PvP gear. It wouldn’t matter if it was crafted, last seasons, heck, level 70 gear  on an 85 – if you have it, you get the flat 30% reduction, and your survival goes up. (Probably not way up, because you wouldn’t have the health pools of the later gear. But up.)

Offensive power, health pools, and some resources (like Mana) differentiate gear sets. Once you have a basic PvP set, you might not be as effective as people with better PvP gear, but at least you have the standard Resilience level.

The downside of this kind of model is that it causes PvP to speed up as gear improves over time. So at the beginning of the expansion, let’s say you have 6,000 Spellpower, midway through, you have 8,000, and at the end, you have 11,000. (This is a hugely simplified model.) Spells are hitting for 83% more damage – and if there is constant damage reduction, then PvP damage increases at the same rate. The only ways around this is to make abilities scale non-linearly with Spellpower/AP etc., to increase health pools at the same rate, or to accept that PvP will get faster during a given level cap. It’s not actually a bad thing to mix and match responses here – health pools will get bigger, so that slows down the increase a bit, but yeah, the first season will feel a little slow, while the last season feels a little bursty.

So I think it’s kind of a mixed draw at the endgame, to be honest. I think standard damage reduction on PvP gear would make PvP more accessible, but not necessarily easier to balance over time.

Where I think this idea absolutely shines is for leveling. Having a standard set of PvP gear available every 10 levels or so that lets you add damage reduction to offset the burstiness of low level PvP would be fantastic. It wouldn’t need to be treated like Resilience is now – it could be a neutral stat on a lot of items, just something that says “this gear is approved for battleground use.”

The key here, though, is making Resilience a neutral stat on items, because right now it isn’t – it’s a key component of the item budget, which means that if an item is marked for PvP use in WoW, it gets less potent in PvE (and PvP). You make tradeoffs, and when stats scale as well as they do at low levels, those tradeoffs are important.

There’s a balance challenge here, between bringing better PvP scaling into the leveling game (which could be accomplished simply by introducing Resilience gear at low levels), making PvP more accessible to new players (especially at endgame), making it less grindy and possibly easier to balance – with the potential for really disrupting endgame PvP by making combat increasingly faster, of making people feel like they’re actually getting weaker over time.

I don’t know if I’m for or against standardized damage reduction in WoW, to be honest. It’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

PLAYER-ONLY DAMAGE

Vengeance is another really interesting idea. What if a component of damage could be made to be only affect players? You then have a way to make PvE and PvP gear functionally different and remove the desirability of PvP gear in PvE. That’s a good thing. If you have two equivalent pieces of gear, and the one you get through PvP does half the damage in PvE as the other, then it’s not going to be an appealing piece of gear for anything but PvP.

The challenge I see here with WoW is that while there’s a real problem of bringing PvP gear into PvE (tanks, I’m looking at you!), there’s an equally bad problem of PvE gear disrupting PvP, especially in the latter stages of an expansion. PvPers bring heroic raid gear because it’s the best gear they can get. Taking some of the damage out and making it player-only doesn’t help with this – since that damage is all PvP damage.

This leads to an interesting thought exercise – how could you make PvP gear in WoW work so that it was not appealing to PvE, but more appealing to PvP than the best PvP gear you could get? You make it better than the PvE gear, but assign half its damage to a player-damage only stat. You’d have to flip the current model, where PvP Conquest gear lags behind PvE Heroic raid gear by half a tier, and instead move the PvP gear up – while degrading it’s PvE utility considerably. That would be a pretty substantial change.

The effects of this change on other parts of the game would be felt pretty quickly. Let’s say PvP gear jumps up a tier. Relatively speaking, within PvP it’s balanced, but now you’re closer to that bursty end-of-expac state where damage is high and mitigation is low.

What about players who supplement their gear with PvP gear in certain places? I’m not talking about the tank in full Conquest gear, I’m talking about the healer who picks up a set of bracers and a nice weapon and uses them in both PvP and PvE. Those pieces become useless in PvE, which makes gearing up for raids a bit harder. Not a lot, just a little.

Instead of applying to gear, this might make more sense to apply player-only damage to abilities. This would change the dynamic of abilities to allow them to be buffed/nerfed separately in PvE and PvP. And while it usually would mean that PvP damage would always seem to be higher than PvE damage, the assumed standard damage reduction would help bring it back in line. If an ability does X damage in PvE, and X+10% in PvP, if there’s a standard reduction of 30% the PvP damage remains lower than PvE. But that involves a pretty radical restructuring of abilities.

I think Rift’s Vengeance is an interesting idea, especially coupled with the standard damage reduction of PvP gear. But you have to really structure everything around it. It solves one problem brilliantly – PvP gear going into PvE. It would make a great solution to PvP weapons, allowing them to be immediately available but not desirable for PvE. This would allow the gating mechanism – which serves to drive PvPers into PvE – to be phased out. But it doesn’t seem to really address some of the big issues, like having an ability be overpowering in PvP, but the nerf seriously impacting a PvE function.

Vengeance is another way of expressing having the same ability do the different things in PvP and PvE, only it applies universally to all the character’s activities. That’s pretty neat. It’s also a way to make PvP gear unappealing to PvE players, which could solve the clunky gating on weapons. Perhaps weapons, trinkets and bracers would be the best place for a Vengeance-like mechanism in WoW, since those are the items most commonly sought after by PvEers.

The issues with PvP/PvE balance in Warcraft are complicated. As a core game mechanic, I think this is pretty cool – but it’s not a core mechanic of WoW, yet, and while it solves one problem neatly, it exacerbates others.

Still, I find it really interesting to consider the possibilities.

CYN IS A RIFT NOOB

It probably bears saying that I don’t play Rift, and as such, I have no idea how this is going to affect Rift PvP. My commentary (both enthusiastic and skeptical) is solely directed towards Warcraft, and shouldn’t be taken as a commentary about Valor and Vengeance in Rift PvP. I leave that to the Rift PvP bloggers!

My gut tells me that if you make these kinds of decisions early on, and make them the core of your PvP game, then they’ll work just fine. So I hope Rift PvPers will let me know how it all works out!

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The Challenge of Fixing Low Level PvP

In Zarhym’s recent foray into the PvP forums, the sentiment that low level PvP is broken in Cataclysm was voiced over, and over, and over again. The floating skull responded diplomatically:

We talked to Ghostcrawler about this yesterday. He’s well aware of this, but more importantly, he’s not very happy about it either. The class design team’s first priority is obviously balance around the end game, but absolute neglect of low-level balance isn’t okay. This is something that isn’t going to improve much in patch 4.3, but we hope to have more sound solutions coming.

I really sympathize with Zarhym here. This is not an easy topic to cover; I think the issues around low level PvP are actually more difficult to resolve than the balance problems of the endgame, because there are contradictory elements that simply cannot be reconciled – elements which do not exist at the end game.

These elements have a name. They are called new players.

And they are the reason not only why low level PvP is imbalanced, but why it should stay imbalanced.

THE PROBLEM OF LOW LEVEL PVP

It’s not enough to wring our hands and say, “low level PvP is broken.” While it may be true (and I believe it is), we have to look at the specific ways in which problems manifest in the battlegrounds.

  • Classes are imbalanced. Some classes have very good burst, others do not. Some have very good defenses, others do not. Some have counters, others do not.
  • Damage is very high relative to health. Characters die quickly in 1:1 situations.
  • Statistics vary wildly between characters within a bracket. Whether it is due to gear, professions, or enchants, players in the very early brackets show up in a wide variety of gear that can make one character ten times more powerful than another.
  • Stat scaling at low levels heightens small differences in gear. Due to rating decay, a few points in any stat will have a more dramatic impact at low levels than at higher ones.

These four interrelated problems cause lowbie PvP to appear “borked” and “broken.” I don’t like using those terms because I think that even in its current form, lowbie PvP is actually a lot of fun, both on the geared and ungeared side. But these problems combine to create strata of twinks within low level battlegrounds that can create seriously lopsided matches.

The real problem of low level PvP is that Blizzard removed one kind of twink from lowbie battlegrounds, only to have the void be filled by by another, more pernicious kind of twink:

Regular, experienced players.

LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME

Think back to when you first started playing WoW, or your first MMO. Not just the early levels, either – the very first day.

I remember my first login, fumbling around on my MacBook’s trackpad, trying to right and left click with a single button, struggling to simply move and target. Concepts like combat stat decay and burst damage were far from my mind; I was trying to figure out how to perform the most basic functions of character control. And I struggled with it! It took me a week to get up to level 12; I didn’t even know basic MMO conventions. I didn’t get my first green piece until my second character – it was a Disciple’s Vest of the Whale, and I had no idea that green items existed before then.

I bring this up because the starting experience for a new player has a radically different set of challenges than that for an experienced player, and the game must take those into account. It must teach them basic mechanics of the game while also making them feel like they are accomplishing things. In order to retain customers, the game must reward new players and make them feel powerful and heroic – to pull them in and get them so they want to see more, to challenge them just enough so that they hit level 10 and go, WOW, this is awesome, let me keep on playing!

What Blizzard does not want to have happen is for someone to get frustrated at level 5 and walk away from the game, leaving a virtual corpse in the road outside Goldshire.

This is why characters start off with one ability and grow slowly – so players don’t get overwhelmed. This is why early abilities were substantially reworked in Cataclysm – so that each class would have just enough abilities to keep things interesting without overloading someone. It’s not just to make classes easier to learn – it’s acknowledging that new players are learning a lot of other things, too, and that low levels don’t need class complexity to make things worse.

Compare and contrast this with an experienced player, one who has learned the fundamentals of an MMO through the endgame. Zones which forgive the mistakes of someone just learning how to steer their character become trivially easy to a character who has a gaming pad and mouse set up, customizes their UI on the fly, writes attack macros as soon as they log in, knows how to pull multiple mobs, etc.. This isn’t about “catering to casuals,” however you want to take that term – this is about a real difference in skill between someone who is just picking up the game and someone who has played it for some time.

I used to think that the lower levels were easy for me because I outgeared them on my alts. I’d go roll an alt with enchants and heirlooms and stuff would die very quickly. It was only later that I realized I could do the exact same thing in starter gear and quest rewards, because I was a better player than the first time I leveled a character. Of course I should find the content easy! It’s made to be challenging to someone else, to teach them the skills which I already possess!

Think of how big this skill gap is that these early zones have to cover – be accessible enough to a completely new character, but not completely bore a veteran rolling yet another alt.

This is a fundamental truth of the lower levels which cannot be ignored when talking about low level PvP imbalance: the early game has to hook new players on the game and teach them the skills to play it. It has to be accessible to new players – not just to teach them the new skills, but to hook them on the game so they don’t go do something else! World of Warcraft has to be engaging enough through the first 20 levels that someone picking it up for the first time says, hey, this is pretty cool, it’s worth paying money to keep going.

From a business standpoint, this is a far more important priority than keeping experienced players challenged for 30 levels or so. They’ll get their challenge through other means.

Keep this in mind as you think about low level PvP, and as we dive into the math of stat scaling.

WHY THINGS ARE ALL DOWNHILL FROM LEVEL 10: THE PROBLEM OF STAT SCALING AND RATING DECAY

Most of the low level zones follow a fairly consistent character development arc. You start with trivial tasks at the very early levels, overcoming a minor obstacle by level 5 or 6, gaining experience, and overcoming a moderately difficult challenge by 10-12. By then you’re ready to move on to another zone, where the difficulty increases substantially over the next 5 levels or so, but so does the importance of the story – and the rewards. By the time you hit level 20 in that next zone, your character is authentically heroic – low level, but they’ve saved the day in a major way.

This arc is reinforced by a substantial shift in game mechanics that takes place at level 10.

I love going over at Shadowpanther.net’s formula page when trying to explain why a character at lower levels is sometimes better than one at higher levels due to stat scaling. Having each level laid out in a chart provides a better visual aid to see how ratings decay for a lot of people than mathematical formulas.

If you haven’t read these kinds of charts before, the first seven columns go over how much of each combat stat you need for 1% of the value; so if the Crit column in the level 19 row says 2.94, that means you need 2.94 Crit to equal 1%. (3 Crit rating is therefore 1.02% at 19.) The rest of the table relates to a very specific Rogue (and Hunter) stat called AEP, which isn’t relevant to our discussion here.

The Shadowpanther chart helps illustrate how stat scaling works. The more you level, the more value of a particular stat you need to get 1% of it. You need more stuff on your gear as you level in order to maintain a certain level of power. You can think of it as gear getting weaker as you level, if you like, or of driving you to acquire better gear to stay in good form.

Where stat scaling gets interesting is in the really low levels. Look at levels 1-10. There is no change in stat scaling in those first 10 levels – 1 point of Crit will get you 1.85% increased critical strike chance. There’s no gear decay at all until you reach level 11 – when suddenly, stats start to drop off pretty quickly.

Let’s go back to the initial character development arc again, but this time, looking at stat scaling.

From 1-10, characters get increasingly more powerful as they level. They gain primary statistics at each level that apply linearly; if you gain 5 of your primary statistic, you get the full benefit of that 5 points. This happens with or without good gear, mind you – because combat statistics are flat, the more you gain, the better your character becomes.

This increase has a deliberate, positive psychological effect on players. People feel like they’re getting more powerful as they level – because they are. This is much like a traditional RPG, where a level 5 character is substantially more powerful than a level 1 – it’s an entirely different ballgame.  Challenges have to be adjusted for the fact that you’re now a badass. That can be pretty cool.

Magical gear and enchants function in a linear fashion with this model. Just like in AD&D, a +1 Sword in the hands of a level 1 character functions exactly the same as in a level 10 character. It increases the chance to hit and damage the same amount. The damage might be a lower percentage of the higher level character’s overall damage, but that’s a function of them doing more damage overall. The gear remains unchanged.

Let’s translate this idea into WoW: let’s say a piece of gear gives you +3 Haste, which (for example’s sake) gives you +1% Haste at level 1, and at level 80, and at level 85. The more you level, the better gear you gain, the better your stats get. You could wear your level 70 gear and be just as effective at level 85 as you were at 70 – more so, since your base statistics have improved! Perhaps your linear stats (like Stamina and Mana) are lacking, but your gear is as effective as it was when you raided in Burning Crusade! It would make for a very different kind of game, since once you reached a certain level of power on your gear, it would be sufficient to handle most challenges in the game – but that would eliminate the idea of a gear tier, where it gets progressively more powerful.

For the first 10 levels your character gains in power, drawing you in, making you feel like yeah, I’m getting good at this!

Starting at level 11, linear scaling goes completely out the window, and rating decay sets in.

Starting at level 11, characters get decreasingly more powerful as they level due to stat scaling. At some point, they actually get weaker as a result of rating decay, as each point of a statistic they get by leveling counts for less than it used to. Gear becomes required to start making up the difference.

Look at the charts again. See how all the stats (other than Resilience) start going down in potency at level 11? That’s rating decay in action. Each point of a rating contributes less actual impact the more you level.

During the normal questing arc, this change is ideally hidden by moving to a new, more challenging zone. Things feel tougher in the second zone because they are tougher – but it’s not just because the opponents are tougher. You’re getting progressively weaker as you level, at least until you start getting gear to help make up the difference – and even then, you never really go back to the great scaling you enjoyed at level 10.

The story arc carries you towards a heroic achievement at level 20 at the same time game mechanics make you less potent. In a way, it makes a lot of sense to increase the overall difficulty of the game at this point for new players – but instead of making the mobs substantially more difficult, WoW makes PCs weaker and more dependent upon gear. This bait-and-switch works because it prepares players for the rest of the game, where they will be acquiring increasingly powerful gear to overcome more powerful challenges. The challenges are harder, but characters don’t get any more efficient from their improvements. The damage numbers are just bigger. The mana pools are bigger  - but so are the spell costs. You’re not actually any faster or more accurate. You’re not more skilled, you just have bigger numbers.

This ties in directly to the first symptom most people point to when talking about low level PvP’s problems: gear.

THE PROBLEM OF GEAR AND ENCHANTS

Heirloom gear and enchants represent two sides of the same problem – adding stats where new players lack them. They are both fundamentally unbalancing because the early leveling game is balanced for new players who lack those stats, not for experienced players with them. By walking into one of the 1-20 zones with anything other than quest rewards, you’re overgearing the content.

Generally speaking, that means the content is geared for:

  • Mostly whites through level 10-12
  • Whites and greens through level 15
  • Greens and maybe 1-2 blues by level 20

Keep in mind that many slots will not be filled either, even by white gear, so you’ll be missing a head, neck, 2 rings, 2 trinkets, and maybe a ranged slot.

The obvious problem is that there are players who have gear with stats in slots where other players don’t. It doesn’t take long to figure out that someone in blues versus someone in whites is imbalanced.  And that is absolutely true: better gear increases the amount of damage, healing, and health available to low level characters.

But the unseen problem is that, even with rating decay, gear scales better at lower levels. That scaling curve makes small differences much more prominent at levels 11-20 than at 40-60. It’s not just that gear grants more spellpower, attack power, or stamina – it’s that it grants more Haste, more Dodge, more Crit than it will at later levels. Heirloom gear is better gear at level 10 and 19 than at 35. 

But wait; enchants are even worse.

I’ve maintained that enchants outperform heirlooms in terms of raw power, but they’re even more potent at lower levels because of stat scaling. Keep in mind that many of these enchants were to be used at level 60 for raiding, and are not scaled for the leveling game. So an enchant like +15 Agility is pretty good at level 55, but it’s amazing at level 10. With the right combination of enchants, you can approach 100% Crit, Dodge, even Haste (Iron Counterweights FTW)!

But only for levels 1-10. After that point, stat decay kicks in, but vanilla enchants remain overpowered for the early brackets (up to 20-24, at least.)

Consider that you can have two rogues in the 10-14 bracket, and one could have 10x as much Agility as the other. Ten times as much.

And that Agility is giving more Dodge and Crit than at any other point in the game.

Let that sink in for a bit.

You have experienced players with access to gear through heirlooms, professions, and the AH. They can get great enchants which are at the peak of their potency in the early brackets. They have access to consumables (scrolls, rum, buff food) that new players don’t.

And they are playing the same game with players who are over the moon about a blue cloak with +4 of their primary stat on it.

I don’t see any potential problems with this in PvP. Nope.

THE PROBLEM OF CLASS BALANCE

You know, the gear problem is actually probably the easiest problem to solve with respect to low level PvP. Modifying the BG matching algorithm to filter based on an aggregate gear score – be it item level, total attack power/spell power, things like that – would be hard to implement, easy to work around, but conceptually it could work.

Class balance is a much harder problem to deal with at low levels.

Cataclysm brought with it a complete reworking of how abilities were learned by classes. A few gained some abilities early on, but many abilities were moved to later. Most AoE abilities were moved up to at least level 20. And Talent Specialization at level 10 granted some new abilities, but at the cost of a more flexible playstyle. I once wrote in Wrath that I needed to think of myself as a Mage, not a Frost Mage. Now I have to think like a Frost Mage – only lacking a lot of the tools of one.

The abilities at lower levels always present people with a challenge. Things are so basic and elementary at low levels. You have some of your core abilities, but not all of them. You don’t have many things that work together. Very few classes have counters, and those that do are OP.

The decision to move abilities around was entirely driven by making a class easier to learn for new players and for players new to the class. The first 5 levels are very basic, with abilities coming at a relatively steady, bearable clip. (The only class where I feel like you get too much at once is Druid because of Cat form at level 8.) The first 20 levels see a lot of abilities get introduced to a character – but not all abilities are equal, or are granted at the same time. And that’s not a bad thing, for leveling! Druids having Cat form at level 8 is honestly good for their leveling!

But how do you propose to balance this?

Look at the level 10-14 bracket and what different classes gain. Warriors gain Taunt at 12 and Heroic Strike at 14. Warlocks gain Bane of Agony at 12 and Fear at 14. Hunters gain Wing Clip at 12 and Hunter’s Mark & Disengage at 14.

  • Warriors get basically one attack which replaces an attack they already have (Strike).
  • Warlocks get an instant cast DoT (dramatically improving their damage output) and the best PvP CC in the game.
  • Hunters get two different escape methods: a snare and a leap. Both of those can’t be countered at this level by melee classes. They also get an attack buff.

There are two points here.

First, each class changes between the bottom and top of the low level brackets. In most cases, these are important abilities that get picked up in the early levels.

Second, each class changes differently. Warriors are actually becoming excellent lowbie tanks, while Hunters are picking up skills to make them great in PvP.

Third, many abilities have counters later on – but not yet. Warlocks might have a reliable escape from melee – but it comes at level 80. Warriors get gap closers – but at level 35. Counters add a lot of complexity to a class that, frankly, a new player isn’t ready for, and many experienced players who are new to the class aren’t ready for, either.

This isn’t a case of simple DPS balancing, of tweaking damage output to bring classes in line with each other. Each change made for PvP has to be considered in the context of a specific bracket, not “low level PvP.” What will it do at 10-14, 15-19, 20-24? More importantly, what will it do to the leveling experience? Will it give players too many buttons to push too soon?

Here’s the thing – when you take away gear as a factor, like in the xp-off bracket, you still see differences between class performance in both PvP and PvE. This is true at level 10, it’s true at level 70, and it’s true all the way up to level 85. Level 85 is where it’s the most balanced, not only because that’s where the majority of the players play, but because that’s where class toolkits are complete.

If you ask me who you should play in low level PvP, my standard response is to play what you enjoy playing, because then you’ll have fun. But secretly, I keep a list.

(I know, you’re shocked, shocked I say.)

You want to be OP under level 25? Play a Hunter, a Sub Rogue, Arcane Mage (Frost is also good at 19), Disc Priest, or Resto Shammy.

Consider what is really being asked for when people want class balance throughout the leveling experience: please balance 30 specs across 15 brackets in addition to the endgame. That’s 450 different class/spec/level combinations to balance against each other at 15 different points.

Oh, with no real standard of gear.

And make sure it’s balanced for PvP and PvE, too. Don’t screw up the leveling curve and cause players to get overwhelmed.

And don’t forget that you have to keep the endgame balanced, too.

See where this is going?

I’m not saying that classes shouldn’t be roughly balanced – they should, and this is where homogenization comes in handy. And this is a real problem in low level PvP – some classes are just not very good at certain points, even with the best gear you can get on them. I don’t PvP on my level 19 Warrior twink anymore, it’s too damn hard to be successful.

But blanket calls to fix class balance at low levels have to consider the context of that balance, and why it’s not as simple to implement as it is to ask for.

LOW LEVEL UTOPIA, OR THE PROBLEM OF EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

When you combine aggressively scaled statistics, rewards for experienced players that allow them to easily and consistently overgear early content, and a redesigned leveling program which spreads class abilities further along the leveling curve, and then toss that mixture into the early part of a game designed for new players, you get a highly combustible mixture.

Sending it in to Warsong Gulch at level 10 makes it explosive.

The complaints about low level PvP are valid enough – burst damage is too high. Some classes lack any real PvP defenses. Other classes and races may have abilities which are perfectly suited to PvP.

But… these problems have always been there, in the lower brackets, in the higher brackets, pretty much everywhere in Warcraft.

It’s interesting that these complaints are so rampant now, in Cataclysm, when there were periods in Warcraft’s history when low level PvP was far more hostile to new players.

Before the split brackets, before xp-locked brackets, before heirlooms, there were twinks. Twinks ruled low level PvP with an iron fist. They weren’t kind or gracious about it – they were as good as they could be, they played to win against the other twinks, and if you got in their way as a new player you were going to get steamrolled.

It was not balanced. It was not fair. It was not a good experience for new players, to be sure. And twinks were reviled for it, but they had unapologetic fun on their own terms.

With 3.2, battleground XP, and the creation of the xp-off battleground bracket, twinks were moved away from new players and given their own playground. Battlegrounds became a place not to perfect your craft and your self, but rather part of the leveling experience.

And that, right there, is where the current problems started. Not with heirlooms, but with adding experience to battlegrounds.

The promise of twink-free BGs was a heady one. I remember the excitement of those first months when people flooded into BGs to level through PvP. And it’s remained great – being able to mix up PvP with dungeons and questing keeps leveling fresh and exciting. It lets you avoid Outland or Northrend entirely, if you’re burned out on those expansions.

But with experience came the expectation that leveling through PvP should be fair(er).That by removing the twinks, the leveling brackets were now safe places to go with undergeared characters or new players. They weren’t, of course, but as long as the gear difference between characters wasn’t too extreme, the brackets weren’t too out of whack. And that was actually what happened, since those BGs were for leveling, people didn’t stop to get great gear and PvP – they came in the gear they had.

And then came heirlooms.

Heirlooms allowed players to outgear their opponents right from the beginning in PvP, and as more heirlooms have been added, the problem has gotten worse. While enchants are actually more imbalancing than heirlooms, most players aren’t willing to blow 500g on a glove enchant for an alt. (Heirlooms are vastly more popular than Hand Me Downs, so they get the blame for this one.)

Heirlooms gave early PvP levelers the edge they needed to be really good in PvP, to the point where they could dominate (and level faster.) Others noticed this, and got BoA gear too, and Heirlooms are now a really good idea if you want to level through PvP from 10-60. A new twink class was born: experienced players.

Instead of the PvP utopia that removing the twinks and granting XP was supposed to create, the exact same conditions prevailed.

The only difference was that now there was an expectation that new players could participate in low level PvP, that you could go in without putting a lot of work into your gear and still be successful.

The expectation might be there, even if the reality doesn’t match it.

Oh! And that the people who formerly decried twinks had become them. Let’s not forget that.

But PvP in Warcraft hasn’t changed. It has been, and always will be, very dependent upon gear. If you have better gear, you will do better. It’s also very class dependent; certain classes will do better at certain points than others.

Can low level PvP be improved? Absolutely. There are class tweaks that can be made to help both with leveling and PvP – Destro Warlocks getting Soul Fire at level 20 was a good example of this.

But even if you can fix some of the class balance issues, you will still have to contend with the very brutal fact that there will always be a great disparity between new and experienced players. As long as you have PvP as a viable leveling option, there will be wildly different gear levels between players.

Balancing low level PvP makes the endgame balancing act look easy.

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A Brief History of Alterac Valley

Foury @ Spinebreaker’s “A Brief History of Alterac Valley” is a gem of a post on the official forums.

Over the years, you have made a significant number of changes to Alterac Valley. Some changes appear to have been made in isolation. For example, maybe you felt that there were too many NPC’s before patch 1.8, so you conjured up a mighty avalance and buried the treacherous Syndicate stronghold. Other changes, such as the introduction of reinforcements, were in response to problems caused by other additions like the Mark of Honor system.

Unfortunately, each individual change has brought about such a drastic reshaping of this battleground that its purpose is now virtually unrecognizable when compared to what the initial vision seems to have been. Even the isolated changes became catalysts for a chain reaction that has, in the opinion of a significant number of players, gutted Alterac Valley and made it totally un-fun to play in.

We have been engaged in thoughtful discussion for some time now, but I have decided to provide some additional background for players who might not know exactly what they were missing when AV was truly a legendary experience.

He then goes through a detailed history of Alterac Valley, one that lives up to its promise of giving the reader a thorough understanding of how the somewhat fragmented battleground that exists today came to be. It is a long read, but it is exceptionally good, and I suggest you read all of it. Even the poem.

Starting with post #8, Foury then goes into a detailed proposal for how to change Alterac Valley to restore it to its former glory. Remove it from the random battleground rotation, lower the honor per minute, make significant restorations to the environment, make quality of life changes – make it cohesive and relevant PvPvE again. There’s a lot of attention to the little details of AV, things that have always bugged me (the location of the trinket teleport, the lack of owls in Van’s chamber) that shows that this is the work of a careful though.

Seriously. This is a good post; go read it. You can agree with it, or disagree with it, but you will learn something about Alterac Valley.

 

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ilvl 365 Vicious Gear and the Phantom Tier

I’m sorry; I’ve not been able to let go of the changes to how PvP gear is handled between seasons I talked about in my last post. I think that the issue around compensating players for the miscommunication between seasons threatens to obscure a more pernicious problem – the way in which gear changes between Seasons – which will have effects well beyond the mistakes that were made between Seasons 9 and 10.

Surely, there must be a reason for all this.

THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER

Let’s address the compensation package Blizzard has put together for players affected by their screwups first. Blizzard is going to offer 4k Honor Points to players who acquired gear during the interseason week as an apology for wasting their time; had Blizzard told players that the Vicious gear they were getting would be obsoleted in a week, players could have made an informed decision about gear purchases. Blizzard forgot to say anything, so players spent a lot of time grinding gear only to have it be replaced without warning.

No matter how much s9 Vicious gear was gained during that time, no matter how many Honor Points were ground out on Alterac Valley weekend, affected players will get 4k Honor as a consolation prize. There’s no accounting for the actual investment of time players made, so the relative justice or injustice of this payoff will vary between individuals.

This is a relatively simple fix that, most importantly, can be rolled out quickly, on a large scale once affected characters have been identified. There’s no need to perform a case by case analysis of each character – just identify all characters who made a purchase of S9 Vicious gear during a set period of time, and email them 4k Honor.

The problem is when this refund doesn’t make a customer whole. By not addressing individual effort, Blizzard shortchanges many of the affected players. If you’d ground 12k Honor Points for naught and got 4k back, you might be glad for the little bit back, but you’re still out a lot of Honor.

There are a few things Blizzard could do instead. They could refund all Honor Points spent during that week, and give people another week to make their purchases. This doesn’t replace enchants and gems and the like, but  at least it brings the gear pieces up to parity. The advantage to this solution is that it targets only those people who could have been affected by the miscommunication, and not people who waited a week.

The other option is to upgrade the S9 Vicious gear to match S10 item levels, either in bulk or only for affected individuals. A bulk update is simpler to achieve, but if you’re trying to apologize to players who actually lost time, upgrading only affected players would be the fair thing to do. This could be much harder to implement than one might expect, despite the simple logic behind it all.

I don’t think Blizzard will pursue either option.

THE VICIOUS CHANGE OF SEASONS

I really feel that the new Vicious and Bloodthirsty sets introduced in Season 10 represent a step backwards for Blizzard. They represent a change of philosophy which will make PvP less fun and more confusing should it happen again in Season 11.

Take a look at the way the Season transitions were handled.

The original system that was introduced by Blizzard in Season 9 was:

  • Each season would have three tiers of gear available for purchase: fair (crafted), good (Honor), great (Conquest).
  • When the season ends, a new tier is introduced at the Conquest level, and all the other tiers slide down. Conquest becomes Honor, Honor becomes crafted.
  • Players in the previous season’s Conquest gear are now in Honor gear, and will get upgrades from Rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s Honor gear are now in crafted gear, and will get upgrades from regular battlegrounds or Rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s crafted gear are now a tier behind, and will get upgrades everywhere.

This system is easy to understand, plan for, and keeps the overall amount of PvP gear available to a manageable level. It mirrors the PvE gear setup, providing a consistent, universal gear philosophy that corresponds to the points system introduced in Cataclysm.

The system introduced with Season 10, however:

  • Each season still has three tiers of gear available.
  • When the season ends, the old tiers are removed. Three new sets are introduced, two bearing the names of the previous season’s Conquest and Honor gear.
  • The new sets are effectively a half-tier ahead of the previous season’s version bearing the same name. The current season’s Honor gear is a half-tier ahead of the previous season’s Conquest gear, and the current crafted gear is now a half-tier ahead of the previous Honor gear.
  • Players in the previous season’s Conquest gear are now a half-tier behind the current Honor gear, and will need upgrades from both regular PvP and rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s Honor gear are now a half-tier behind the current crafted gear, and should get upgrades from the AH, regular PvP, and rated PvP.
  • Players in the previous season’s crafted gear should hit the AH ASAP.

I don’t understand how this change benefits players. You take an elegant system which showed no problems and substantially modify it with negative consequences.

  • More gear sets: instead of going from 3 to 4 PvP sets in the game, we’ve jumped up to 7. Each season will compound this issue.
  • More gear confusion: not only are there Glorious Conquest recolored sets for 2200+ ratings (which confused a lot of players), but now there is gear with identical names but different stats.
  • More gear grinding: instead of letting players continue playing in their chosen realm, we’re sending Arena players back to regular battlegrounds to grind out a new set each season.
  • More time spent acquiring gear: not only will rated PvP players have to spend more time getting gear, but casual PvPers – BG enthusiasts, PvEers who like a little PvP on the side, etc. – will lose the benefits of any Conquest pieces they managed to get last season.
  • Different gear systems for PvP and PvE: instead of having a unified system that new players can pick up in one realm and transfer over to another, now we have two different systems.

Consider that last point for a moment: what if the Valor and Justice point systems required raiders to go out and grind heroic dungeons for gear each tier, just to stay competitive?

(Oh, wait, that was actually proposed for 4.2. But it was dropped, and for good reason – raiders wanted to raid to get Valor Points, not run heroics they outgeared.)

Is this trying to get players to spend more time in battlegrounds? I wondered about this one briefly – perhaps because I’m playing Alliance with instant BG queue times I don’t see population problems across servers. But why regular battlegrounds? All of Blizzard’s focus has been on getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, not regular ones.

What problem could adding a half tier to PvP gear between seasons possibly hope to solve?

THE PHANTOM TIER

It’s easy to lose sight of things when you’re angry. I think a lot of people are still really pissed about the miscommunication of the Vicious gear ilevel change and compensation package, which jeopardizes losing sight of the substantial changes made to how gear upgrades from season to season. The personal injustice of now has more urgency than a longer gear grind later.

But I too am angry, and I think I got lost in my own anger at Blizzard bringing the Honor grind back into PvP. The problems that have been introduced are real, and will have a wide-ranging unpleasant effect on people, and there’s no explanation from Blizzard why these changes were made. Getting pissed about what this change meant to a lot of casual players blinded me to a very simple observation.

Season 10 Conquest Gear is an extra half-tier higher than expected.

This isn’t about the low gear. It’s not about Vicious gear. It’s about Ruthless gear.

It’s easy to get lost in the urgent now, in looking at the problems with Vicious gear that will make players spend a lot of effort to get back up to their previous baseline. But that’s not the point of this change. Not at all.

The gear model that I presented above is actually a currency model.

  • Great: Valor, Conquest
  • Good: Justice, Honor
  • Fair: Gold, Materials

The currency model is then mapped to an activity model, corresponding to the rewards you get:

  • Great: Raids, Zulroics, Rated PvP
  • Good: Heroics, Dungeons, Tol Barad, BGs
  • Fair: Playing the AH, gathering, dailies

Now we can go ahead and equate the gear gained from these activities with the currencies that they provide, right?

Except… the model is missing something.

In PvP, going from activity to currency to gear works flawlessly, because there’s no other way to get gear in PvP. You have to PvP to get the currency to get good PvP gear, period.

In PvE, the activity itself randomly rewards you with gear. Currency buys you good gear, great gear even – but not the best gear.

No, the best gear in the game comes from raiding heroic modes. There’s an entire tier of gear that’s not in the currency-based model. A phantom tier, one of superb gear.

  • Superb: Heroic Raids
  • Great: Raids, Rated PvP
  • Good: non-raid PvE, unrated PvP
  • Fair: Crafted, quest

The simple currency based model which worked so well in PvP – where points are the only way to get gear – doesn’t translate when you take Heroic Raids into account. Look at the various item levels of rewards from specific activities.

Source Item Level
 Heroic Firelands  391
 S10 Conquest Gear  384
 Firelands  378
 T12 Valor Gear  378
 Heroic T11  372-379
 S10 Honor Gear  371
 S9 Conquest Gear  365
 T12 Justice Gear  359
 T11 Raids  359
 PvE BoE/Crafted  359-379
 Zulroics  353
 S9 Honor Gear  352

The best gear available at any given time is always heroic raid gear – that’s a given. But look at the point differences between gear types.

  • PvP gear is always 13 ilevels apart within any given season.
  • Heroic raid gear is always 13 ilevels higher than the regular raid gear.
  • T12 Justice gear is 19 ilevels lower than T12 Valor gear because it matches the T11 raiding gear ilvl (per the currency model).
  • S9 Conquest gear is 19 ilevels lower than S10 Conquest gear. If S9 Conquest gear adhered to the currency model (like Justice gear) and converted to S10 Honor gear, PvP would be imbalanced because of the huge gap between Honor and Conquest.
  • PvP gear has a higher ilevel than equivalent vendor-purchased PvE gear, likely due to Resilience in the item budget.
  •  Conquest gear is always 7 ilevels below Heroic raid gear.

The reason that Season 10 PvP gear was bumped up 6 ilevels has nothing to do with PvP at all. PvP item levels were bumped to keep pace with PvE gear, most notably Heroic Firelands gear. Honor gear was kept within 13 ilevels of Conquest gear to keep PvP balanced.

Consider what would have happened if the S10 Vicious gear had not received a 6 ilevel boost: S10 Conquest gear (Ruthless) would be 13 item levels higher than S10 Honor gear (Vicious), putting it at 378 – equal to T12 Valor gear. That’s not bad in and of itself, but then Heroic Firelands gear would be 13 ilevels higher than the Conquest gear – which is a full tier better.

If the best PvE gear available is a full tier ahead of the best PvP gear, PvPers will go after that gear. Each sphere of the game will do this – if the other side grants better gear, then it becomes Best in Slot and people feel they have to go after it. In PvP’s case, such items can unbalance rated PvP play – Shadowmourne in S8, anyone? – which can cause a ripple effect through the lower brackets.

So the reason that we have two different sets of Vicious gear, the reason that we have a lot of PvPers grinding out another Honor set, the reason why the PvP gearing system is out of whack right now, is not because Blizzard is trying to screw over casual PvP players.

No, it‘s entirely because Firelands drops 378 loot, 6 ilevels higher than the T11 Heroic raids. Firelands could have dropped 372/385 loot, but it doesn’t. I can speculate on why this was done – more epic feel, give people who have been raiding Heroic T11 immediate upgrades – but in order to maintain parity between PvE and PvP, PvP gear was bumped up too. That decision had a negative cascading effect for PvPers gearing at the start of the season, as well as inadvertently causing a major snafu with the transition from S9 to S10, but it will keep PvPers from having to get Heroic raid gear in order to be competitive.

I no longer know if this is going to happen every season. I seem to recall that PvE gear levels used to go up in pretty even tiers of 13 in Wrath, but there must have been a 6-point jump somewhere to get to 245. (There was 200, 213, 226, then … 232 in Ulduar, 245 with ToC?) So it might happen, it might not happen.

I feel better knowing that there is a explanation for it all.

I may not like its effects, but at least there’s a reason for the change.

DON’T POINT FINGERS

This isn’t about PvE screwing over PvP.

I mean, yes, in this specific instance a design decision in PvE had wide-ranging implications for PvP players. And it’s a decision I don’t personally understand – because I don’t raid – but because I don’t understand the nuances of it, I’ll take it at face value for now.

This is the price we pay for having an interconnected game. Balance issues in PvP affect PvE abilities. Class issues in PvE can cause problems in PvP. Gear needs to be balanced between the two, which is – obviously – more complex than it seems.

Changes in PvP affect PvE, and changes in PvE affect PvP. This happens all the time. There’s no agenda here, just the butterfly effect. One example of this happening doesn’t prove anything. Instead, let it serve as a reminder: little changes matter.

Adding 6 item levels to Firelands gear caused Conquest-clad PvP players to get new Honor gear at the beginning of the season, but that grind also was also a byproduct of ensuring an even tier between Conquest and Honor gear, and prevent PvPers from seeking out Heroic raid gear for PvP.

Is this still a problem? You bet. If T13 comes out with another half-tier boost, we’re going to go through this all over again.

But at least we can have a discussion about if that boost was worth the trouble it causes in PvP.

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The Changing Face of PvP Gear and the Rocky Road to Season 10

The transition from Season 9 to Season 10 has not been smooth.

  • Conquest Point caps were adjusted to encourage players to participate in Rated Battlegrounds. The resulting system is more complicated than what it replaced, and also splits the uniform PvP/PvE reward model introduced in Cataclysm.
  • At the end of Season 9, Conquest Points were converted into Honor Points (as expected.) Unfortunately, the Honor Point cap was not raised during the interseason week (as intended), causing all points over the 4000 cap to be converted to gold, preventing people from using their earned Conquest Points to complete their Vicious sets.
  • In an unannounced change, Season 9 Vicious sets (ilevel 365) purchased by Honor Points in the interseason week were not the same as the Season 10 Vicious sets (ilevel 371) purchased by Honor Points during Season 10. This means that players who spent the week between seasons grinding out Honor Points to start Season 10 in full Vicious gear found themselves with inferior gear than what they could have purchased once S10 started.

The first one is a policy change, and is irritating because of the devious way in which the change was introduced, but at least it was communicated and isn’t going to be a long-term frustration. Either you’re okay with it, or you’re not, but it’s the way things are now. Rated Battlegrounds are here to stay and Blizzard wants you to play them.

The second change was a deployment bug. Someone fucked up and included code in the 4.2 release that shouldn’t have been in there until a week later. In hindsight it really wasn’t that big of a deal, because the gear you could get with the lost Honor Points wasn’t going to be all that great in a week’s time anyways. But it was frustrating if you had Conquest Points and wanted to do something with a nice big pile of them.

Which leads us to the third change, which actually is a really big fucking deal, and there are two parts of it.

  • There is a major change in the way PvP gear is going to be upgraded between seasons, with significant implications for all PvP players.
  • And Blizzard forgot to tell anyone about it.

Let’s be honest. Blizzard fucked up in not telling anyone about this change, and they know it. They’ve had the good graces to come right out and say it, to their credit. How something like this gets missed is a lesson in corporate communications – someone might have noticed it, but it wasn’t the right person. Sure, I have found forum threads talking about it on the PTR (which does me no good in hindsight), but the right person didn’t stand up and say, hey, we need to mention this.

A lot of people spent time and effort in that week between the seasons grinding Honor Points so they’d be ready for Season 10. It’s a chance to get all caught up – everyone starts off equal at the beginning of the season. Only, because someone at Blizzard forgot to mention a critical point in the patch notes, that effort was wasted.

Don’t forget, that’s real time spent. Don’t try to say that it’s only a week. That’s bullshit. That’s real time people could have spent doing other things. That’s customer time just outright wasted.

Will the communication gaffe blow over? Eventually, maybe, I don’t know. Blizzard has indicated that they will try to make it right, because this is an actual customer service issue, but how can they really compensate them for it? Customers didn’t get the rewards they were expecting for the work they put in because of a corporate mistake. They made choices with their time that were wrong, and time is money.

But that’s not even the biggest problem here.

BRINGING BACK THE PVP GEAR GRIND

And there is no longer a requirement to “grind” unrated BGs for Honor each season, so the real time investment isn’t changing as much as some players are perceiving it to be.

- Zahrym, “4.2 Conquest change

The Bloodthirsty and Vicious Gladiator’s gear of Season 9 (i352 and i365, respectively) are not as good as the Bloodthirsty and Vicious Gladiator’s gear of Season 10 (i358 and i371). You can make a good argument that the set and gem bonuses of the S9 Bloodthirsty Gladiator’s gear are equal to or outweigh the stats of the S10 crafted Bloodthirsty gear, but the S9 Vicious gear is a clear loser to S10. Not by a lot, mind you – but it’s better gear.

The gear progression path laid out for Cataclysm, both for PvP and PvE, was both simple and elegant.

  • Raiding and rated PvP gets you the the current tier of gear (Conquest/Valor Points).
  • Heroics and unrated PvP gets you the last tier of gear (Honor/Justice Points).
  • Crafted gear gets you two tiers back.

Yes, the absolute best PvE gear can only be gotten by raiding, but this currency system made sense. It’s easy to understand the flow between different tiers, it’s easy to plan out your gearing needs when a new raid tier is introduced, or a new season starts. Your current gear drops down a level, and you work your way back up to the next one.

Zahrym touches on this in his post on the 4.2 Conquest Points changes, quoted above. There were many great things with the new PvP system, but one of them was the promise that once you’d geared up for rated PvP, you didn’t have to go back to unrated BGs to do it again. This was good for both Arena players and regular Battleground players, as seasons past would see a swarm of well-geared Arena players either destroy casual battlegrounds, or resort to afk/botting to grind the Honor Points required for their PvP kits. The new system allowed people to assume that, by having a full Conquest set in one season, it would become a full Honor set in the next, eliminating the need to visit unrated Battlegrounds to gear up. Rated PvP players could keep playing what they wanted to play.

And don’t forget – the Honor Point grind for a full set is long. If you’re getting about 150 Honor Points per battleground – a pretty good average, by the way – that’s 179 BGs. At 15 minutes a BG, that’s 44.75 hours of play. So not having to grind out Honor Pieces each season is actually a really attractive perk, and Zahrym is right in calling that out.

But that’s no longer the case.

The change that was introduced in 4.2 is that each season will introduce three completely new sets of PvP gear. These sets will be calibrated for that season, not for the season preceding it. They will (confusingly) share the names of the previous season’s sets, but that’s it. No more cascading tiers, no more smooth transitions from season to season.

Every season, you start the gear grind over again. Rated PvP for top gear, with a weekly cap. Unrated PvP for the rest of your gear until your eyes bleed, or you seriously consider botting.

You can argue that the slight increase in stats between the i365 and i371 isn’t worth the time to upgrade. It’s not a huge difference. It’s only six points, after all!

Well.

What if I rephrased those six points as half the difference between Vicious and Relentless sets? What if the sets were called “Season 9.5″ instead of “Season 10 Honor Gear”?

If you’re in full S9 Conquest gear now, you can upgrade to S10 slowly with Conquest Points, and S9.5 quickly with Honor Points.

The difference between tiers is 13 item levels. The difference between seasons is 6 ilevels. If you’re in S9 Conquest, you’re now 19 ilevels behind S10 Conquest, not 13.

You still think you can’t use some upgrades?

Whether this was done to encourage players to spend more time PvPing in general, or to increase attendance in regular BGs (something I hadn’t thought was a problem, to be honest), or to just make it take longer to get geared up – this has the effect of laying naked the gear grind that’s such a central part of Warcraft’s endgame, of taking the last shreds of a system that rewarded past effort and throwing it to the winds.

This isn’t a slight change. Changing gear distribution so that PvP players are faced with investing time they were not planning to spend is not something you forget about. This change not only destroys the symmetry of the PvP/PvE point system, it brings back the gear grind that we had hoped was gone the way of the dodo.

And that is the real problem with this change.

STOP THE RIDE, I WANT TO GET OFF

I took a break from Warcraft this past week, expecting to come back refreshed and ready to tackle S10 and Firelands. I rather enjoyed reading books at night and going to sleep early, but I still missed WoW. I was going to get into some PvE, see what these dungeons and raids were really like, but still keep my hand in with PvP through Arenas. After all, I have a full S9 Conquest set, I have some time free to work on my T11/T12 now, right?

I may have been refreshed when I logged back in, but my enthusiasm for PvP got washed away pretty quickly once I saw the changes to PvP gear in S10.

These changes are bad ones. They complicate the PvP gear system, which is exactly the wrong direction it needs to go in. They reintroduce a gear grind that is unmatched by anything in PvE.

And, most damningly of all, the PvP developers forgot to put them in the release notes.

If you want to give the appearance of not caring about your customers, about the fans of your game, I think this is just how I’d go about doing it. I think if I wanted to give the impression that I didn’t give a damn about PvP, this is the way I’d do it.

You seriously forgot?

(W)e’ve maintained an open dialog with our developers over the past 24 hours regarding the way in which the PvP season transition went down since patch 4.2 (this includes relaying a lot of the feedback we’ve seen on the forums to them).

- Zahrym, “i365 Vicious vs. i371 Vicious”

I trust that y’all will make up their own minds about this change, and will either decide that it’s a big deal, or not a big deal, and just get to work getting your Vicious (S10!) and Ruthless gear, or go find something else fun to do. I know you will!

But you know what? I liked getting enough sleep, and cleaning out my home directory, and shopping for crap on the internet, and playing stupid cute addictive games on my iPhone, and having nice, relaxing non-WoW evenings with my spouse. WoW is fun, but it’s not that much fun.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never been more disappointed in this game company than I am right now, and the only thing keeping me from canceling my account is that my son wants to see how the Gilneas starting area ends. There have been enough mismanaged changes to PvP in the past few months that, frankly, I’m sick of dealing with it.

I’m tired of the sticks and carrots to get me to do the things that I don’t find fun.

I’m tired of the gear grind. I’m tired of feeling like a rat in a lab being told to do this thing and that thing and oh my god where is my cheese now? Dailies and heroics and rated battlegrounds and cheeeeese!

I’m tired of the bullshit.

I would rather go fly a turtle to Mars than PvP in Warcraft right now.

Blizzard, you can take that feedback how you will.

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