Monthly Archives: September 2011

On Achievement Quality and the Inevitable Nerfs

Screen_shot_2011-09-07_at_11

What makes an achievement good? What makes it worthy of praise?

I’ve been thinking a lot about achievements as part of my disassociation from my main, and this topic comes up every so often as I reconcile myself to having put Cynwise aside for a while; perhaps for the rest of the expansion, perhaps longer. I don’t even have a lot of achievement points on her, compared to many, but I do have a lot of time invested in her, a lot of expertise, and yes, a lot of points there.

Running Stormwind Stockades awards 10 achievement points. It doesn’t matter if you do it at level 20, or level 60, or level 85 – it’s the same 10 points. Bad group? No group? Doesn’t matter. 10 points.

But what if it’s your first dungeon? That’s a pretty big achievement, right there. What if you’re soloing it, at level? That’s pretty cool! (I’ve never done that.)

What if you’re running it on your 85 in full T12?

Er.

Well.

I hope you got some nice Wool Cloth?

The quality of achievements is separate from their point value, or even from their existence as “coded fun,” as the man behind El called them. They very often are worth pursuing, of having a goal and reaching it.

But the quality varies. Player’s situations differ – perhaps they’re in a group with skilled raiders, who have helped teach them how to become a great raider. Heroic Rag down? Awesome! Perhaps they’re in a leveling guild, and no one they know has ever done a heroic dungeon before. Heroic Stonecore down? Awesome! Both of these things are praiseworthy for the player, and should be recognized as such.

Here’s something I hadn’t considered: by having so many achievements coded in the system, WoW actually enables in-game recognition of a wide variety of actual achievements by sheer coverage. Running your first heroic is a big thing. It’s easy to forget that when you’re running Zulroics all the time for points. It’s easy to lose perspective on how big your first PvP battle is, and how cool it is to not only get your first Honorable Kill, but That Takes Class! Wahoo! Stepping into PvP is scary.

So by having so many of the damn things, WoW is pretty sure to be able to give you a ding and a grats when you do something cool in game. That’s a good thing.

But it’s also interesting how psychology works. By celebrating a real achievement with a certain ritual (up comes the badge, lights flash, sounds go off, you get points in your bucket), that ritual becomes desirable in and of itself. So I (and others) chase it, even if the achievements themselves aren’t quite so cool, aren’t quite as awesome as the really neat ones.

I envy folks who don’t fall into this trap. I really do. It’s taken me a while to come out of it, to go… wait a minute.

I have Ambassador on Cynderblock, and I got it in a really fun and interesting way. I got to quest with some good friends of mine, see the entire Horde starting experience on a single toon before it all changed, and I grew to love a class and character through it. I had a blast chasing it.

When the city tabards came out in the Sundering, suddenly, the title became easier to get. A lot easier to get. My rare thing wasn’t so rare any more.

Except, of course, that the actual achievement – not the title, not the in-game achievement, but the thing that I did - didn’t get nerfed. So what if the title was easier to get now? I did this thing, it was hard, it was cool, I had fun.

Killing the Whale Shark at level 19 is a very different achievement, one which makes for a great story but really wasn’t that hard. Seriously! I lucked into a group that was doing it, I dodged level 80-81 mobs, and tried not to drown! It was fun, but I value it for vastly different reasons than chasing Ambassador. Killing the whale shark at 19 is the most in-your-face example of challenging notions of acceptable gameplay in WoW I can come up with. I took a lowbie into Vashj’ir. That’s crazy. Then I “killed” the Whale Shark (some random warlock actually kited it, not me).

It was all about having the guts to do it. That’s all that achievement is really about.

Context matters. Perspective matters.

So this isn’t really about ‘block, but about the inevitable nerfs. The Inevitable Nerfs are coming!

(That sounds like a band, doesn’t it? Ghostcrawler and the Inevitable Nerfs are playing the Astrodome on Sunday!)

Heroic Ragnaros got nerfed, there was some uproar, I dunno, I was in meetings most of today. The details don’t really matter, though, this is a story that gets repeated over and over again.

PvE content gets progressively easier as time goes on. Sometimes it’s obvious – the ICC buff getting stronger, bosses getting actively nerfed – but usually it’s through the acquisition of gear and experience. Your team gears up, people learn good strategies, everything clicks, boom, boss goes down.

It’s important to keep this in mind when hearing about content nerfs; timing matters. The best guilds in the world are going to kill a harder boss, with worse gear, than those who come after. Two guilds got the Lich King down at 5%, though only one of those counted in the end. Two. Maybe one, depends how you feel about Saronite Bombs as part of a Rogue’s DPS rotation.

I think only 37 guilds have downed H-Rag 25? Not a lot, really, and those who have done it struggle to consistently repeat it. It’s not like you get it and suddenly he’s on farm – no, this is a hard boss, dependent upon raid comp and RNG to beat. And now he’s a little less so.

I get that it can be frustrating, hugely frustrating, to have just run out of time to do something. The ICC buff drove that home – a lot of guilds were like, we need to get him at 10%, or 20%, dear god DIE Arthas! And some succeeded, and they made their achievement, and that’s pretty cool. Others didn’t, and that’s frustrating, but they got him in the end, which actually is still pretty cool.

I got him at 30%, with my rag tag guild, with friends. It was one of the best nights of my WoW life, that first kill. It doesn’t matter that it was “nerfed” content, it was big for me. Really big.

I got the same ritual ding and grats that everyone else gets with that kill. Doesn’t matter if it’s old hat, doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of level 100s going back and soloing Wrath content, doesn’t matter if it’s your first time there, doesn’t matter if you’re carried or exhausted from weeks of wiping – you get the badge, you get the title, you get the points.

Heroic Rag got easier to kill this week. The inevitable nerfs hit the Firelord.

I wager that killing him is still really fucking hard, so while it might affect some people’s perception that their accomplishment is somehow … lessened?

But really, it just means it’s gone from really fucking hard to fucking hard, and the accomplishment should still be celebrated. So it’s not quite as potent as it was last week? Each week encounters get a little easier as raids accumulate gear; this just sped it up. Heroic Rag 25 hasn’t suddenly become Stormwind Stockades, after all.

The quality of an achievement, and an accomplishment, depends upon its context.

Changes to that context matter – but so do changes to your perspective.

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On My Love/Hate Relationship with Vuhdo

I have two primary healer alts – a level 54 priest and a level 70 druid. I have leveled them both through battlegrounds and dungeons, not very much questing. The priest has been Discipline her entire career. The Druid has been Resto for stretches, and a Feral tank for stretches. I waffle with her a lot (part of my many problems with her.)

I’ve used Vuhdo on both of these characters for some time – first with the priest, and then the druid. When everything is set up well with Vuhdo, it’s a great tool. Click click click Imma pro healer!

No, really! I’m pretty good at healing leveling five mans! (Of course, I gear like a twink, so as long as I can keep the heals going in the right direction, the tank usually stays up. Even if they’re using a 2H instead of sword and board.)

I should probably mention that these two characters have also served as my primary cross-server (and cross-faction) mules, so I get to set up their interfaces a lot. And therein lies my problem with Vuhdo.

The initial default setup of Vuhdo displays a lot of … stuff. Primary tank, group frames, buffwatch – and they’re all stacked on top of one another. The spells that are assigned to buttons – well, they don’t reflect the spells you might have, let alone the spells that you should be using. And turning on and off the frames isn’t intuitive. It’s just not – there is a tremendous amount of flexibility in the addon, but it doesn’t make choices for you.

This is a pretty common failing in software design, to be honest. I’m reminded of 37Signal’s controversial stance on making opinionated software:

Some people argue software should be agnostic. They say it’s arrogant for developers to limit features or ignore feature requests. They say software should always be as flexible as possible.

We think that’s bullshit. The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.

(There are several posts along that vein in their Getting Real web book, which I encourage folks to read even if I don’t agree with it completely.)

Every time I have to set up Vuhdo, it’s usually after a period of activity on a character, so I’ve forgotten what exactly everything is supposed to do. That’s why the character became an heirloom mule in the first place! So the default configuration, of everything displayed, stacked on top of each other, and set to endgame spells, is completely wrong for what I want it to do.

Which, in turn. leads to me feeling overwhelmed when I log into those characters, which means I’d rather go play something else.

There’s another great post in Getting Real about Avoiding Preferences:

Instead of using your expertise to choose the best path, you’re leaving it in the hands of customers. It may seem like you’re doing them a favor but you’re just making busy work for them (and it’s likely they’re busy enough). For customers, preference screens with an endless amount of options are a headache, not a blessing. Customers shouldn’t have to think about every nitty gritty detail — don’t put that burden on them when it should be your responsibility.

Do what I want! I want simple raid frames in the center of my screen, with the abilities I can use available. I don’t need buffwatch, or private tanks, or public tanks, or tanks for the memory tanks – make it so when I first activate an addon, it’s got the most common settings!

SexyMap does this well, by the way. I know a lot of UI people don’t like the Stargate model, but a lot of folks do, and they keep the default. It starts off with an attractive modification and lets you customize from there.

The reason I complained about Vuhdo the other night, and the reason I think I’m going to move away from it, is because Vuhdo is too hard to set up when you don’t know the first thing about healing on a class. I don’t know what clicks should be primary, which should require modifiers. It’s not easy to configure. There are too many options. It’s like Pitbull in that respect. I really do think mouseover + raid frames will help me learn these two healing classes better, and make me a better healer.

When I’m a better healer, then it will be the right time for me to put Vuhdo back on my healers.

It’s a great addon – just not great for me, right now.

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On Growing Younger

Cynwine_and_hukrath_in_duskwood

I don’t remember where I saw this, but one of the ideas tossed around for Cataclysm was that you could temporarily reduce your level to allow you to play with your leveling friends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about how I would, in a heartbeat, delevel both my 85 and 84 toons and bring them down – WAY down – and either lock them at certain levels, or play leveling brackets in PvP without having to reroll yet another warlock, yet another warrior.

Prima facie this is a great idea. There are challenges, though.

Achievements. I think you should just keep all achievements, so that you can identify if a character has de-leveled or not to get certain items. (The max level achievement would stay, so you can see if someone is an achivement twink or not.) This is likely to ruffle some feathers, but there’s no real fair way to do this otherwise.

Professions. Drop down to the highest skill level allowed at that level, but keep all the patterns/schematics/etc.. Don’t penalize people for having to relearn professions every time.

PvP. This is going to fuck up PvP brackets like you wouldn’t believe. Get yourself a set of gear for each x9 bracket, enchant the heck out of them, and then drop down to level 10. Relevel to 85 via PvP. Always have the best gear waiting for you. Yikes. But you can go back and get those achievements you’ve always wanted! (Just watch out for other people doing the same thing.)

Twinks. Forget the twink brackets, if you want to play in the leveling brackets for a night it’s no sweat! Just beat up people for a bit and then drop back into your twink bracket. Another potential problem.

But think about this from every aspect other than PvP – this would be a great idea.

  • Revisit content at level after hitting endgame.
  • Outlevel a zone? Shed a few levels.
  • Want to try twinking? Drop down to 80 or 70.
  • Want to run Ulduar / ToC at level, at appropriate gear for achieves? Do it.
  • Want to go relearn a class, but don’t want to lose all the stuff you’ve gained? Drop back to 10, start over.
  • Want to go help your friends when they’re leveling? Do it.

I don’t even think this should be something where you can slide a lever and go from 85 to 19 to 85 again – make it one way only, if you’re going back you’re leveling back up. But make it so that it’s something fun for people to do.

The social benefits are strong. The replay benefits are strong. It will probably make leveling brackets in PvP worse than they are now, but… well, they’re already pretty bad.

There are a half dozen characters I would love to roll back to earlier stages, to learn the lessons of the class better. There are others where I’d like to experience the class again, see what it’s like to level, but not have that time spent be on an alt – I like that toon, that’s my warlock/dk/warrior/mage whatever.

I, for one, would love to see the Fountain of Youth come to Azeroth.

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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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On Why I Rerolled My Level 24 Hunter

Discyngage_-_razor_hill

I am still building my twink hunter for the 20-24 bracket, but yesterday I realized that I was doing it wrong. I shouldn’t have rolled an orc. Or, more correctly, I shouldn’t have started with an orc.

Not because I don’t want to play an Orc hunter. Because I do. Seriously, look at her! She’s a total badass at level 5. She has a boar named BustaSwines.

Not because I don’t want a boar named BustaSwines. Because, BustaSwines. How fucking awesome is he? TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME. It’s almost as good as Scratchfever. It might even be better!

Not because I don’t want to play Horde in the 20-24 bracket, where we’ll be outnumbered by hordes of F2P twinks who rolled Alliance for two reasons – they have better F2P gear, and the general new player Alliance bias.

Not because I don’t intend to provide an object lesson for the New Player Forum Crew about how much fun it will be to take out every single one of their frustrations on the F2P threads that keep popping up in their forum (because there’s no other place F2P accounts can post) with well-placed arrows and bullets of vengeance.

Not because I don’t need the Signet of Argas, because I do.

Not because I don’t need Ello’s Band, because I need that too.

Or, because I knew I was going to need those two rings (at least), that I probably shouldn’t go roll Horde, faction change to Alliance, and then faction change to Horde again, because that’s a waste of $25. Or $30, whatever.

No, it hit me that there was a much more compelling reason to reroll Alliance, get all the gear I could, and then faction change to Horde.

I could play an Orc in a top hat.

Discyngage_-_gilneas

Hello, puppy!

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