Author Archives: Cynwise

About Cynwise

Warlock from Northshire. I write about the battlegrounds of Azeroth, warlockery, auction house tomfoolery, and assorted other Warcraft topics on my various blogs. I love the smell of seaforium in the morning.

On Faction Imbalance in Random Battleground Populations

Cynewise - Arathi Basin Farm

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

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

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

Let’s look at why.

THE IDEAL SYSTEM

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

In an ideal world, it looks like this:

Faction Imbalance - Figure 1

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

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

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

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

Now let’s introduce faction into the population.

Faction Imbalance - Figure 3

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

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

INTRODUCING IMBALANCE TO THE SYSTEM

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

I’m going to assume just two things here.

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

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

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

CASE 1: THEY’RE THE BETTER TEAM

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 4

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 5

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 6

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

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

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

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

CASE 2: THE STREAMS THAT FEED THE POOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 7

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 8

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 9

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 10

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

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

CASE 3: BETTER GEAR

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

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

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

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

The key is the rewards for winning a random battleground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hooded Monk - Cynwiser - S14

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faction Imbalance - Figure 2.png

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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A Highly Subjective and Personal List of the Most Irritating Battleground Achievements

20140227-081139.jpg

Argh! So irritating!

  • Warsong Gulch: Silverwing Sentinel, because capping over a thousand flags is so much fun.
  • Arathi Basin: Resilient Victory. Ever since AB changed to be 1600 points instead of 2000 this has been a total pain in the ass.
  • Eye of the Storm: Storm Glory, because you gotta MOVE when you control all 4 bases.
  • Alterac Valley: Alterac Valley All-Star requires you to move all over the map. Better hope for a long, drawn out game.
  • Isle of Conquest: Mine. SO CLOSE SO MANY TIMES ARGH.
  • Strand of the Ancients: Strand of the Ancients Veteran. “Don’t cap South GY.” “The Alliance has taken the South Graveyard!” “WHAT DID I JUST SAY.”
  • Battle for Gilneas: Double Rainbow. So dumb.
  • Twin Peaks: Cloud Nine. The most irritating achievement of all. It’s like Frenzied Defender, only 80% worse!
  • Silvershard Mines: Mine Cart Courier. Who can keep track of which cart is going where?
  • Temple of Kotmogu: Temple of Kotmogu Veteran, because of all the spectacularly bad groups you get pugging this one.
  • Deepwind Gorge: Capping Spree. Just because.
  • Wintergrasp: Didn’t Stand A Chance. First you have to find an enemy player. Then you have to convince them to take off all their clothes and mount up in front of a cannon. Then you have to …
  • Tol Barad: Just Another Day In Tol Barad, because nothing says PvP like fighting for the right to do dailies over and over again.

In general, the new battlegrounds have far less irritating achievements than the old ones. And that’s a good thing.

I’m grumpy enough as it is.

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Class Distribution Data for Patch 5.4.2

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - General Population Graph

 

 

Oh. Hey, how’s it going? Enjoying the end of Mists of Pandaria? Leveling a lot of alts, are we?

While Patch 5.4.2 wasn’t a major content patch, it marks a good point to take a look at the middle of this long end-of-expansion period and see how classes are doing in World of Warcraft. This data follows the same methodology of my previous census posts (previously, previously, previously, previously) in that it is snapshotting census data from  Realmpop and World of Wargraphs,  then analyzing that data over time.

All data is available in my Warcraft Class Distribution – Mists of Pandaria 5.4.2 Google spreadsheet. Previous versions are linked in the previous census posts.

This snapshot was collected on 1/8/14 and 1/13/13. I’m going to call it Patch 5.4.2 data even though the patch dropped on December 10th, 2013. (I got busy during the holidays, sorry.)

Go ahead and open up the spreadsheet in another window, and let’s get started.

OVERALL POPULATION TRENDS

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - General Population Chart

 

The expected flow of an expansion is that players will level their main characters to endgame first, with alt characters following later on as time permits. The final content patch of an expansion allows many players to focus their attention on other characters after completing the final raid, resulting in people leveling alts. My theory is that we should see a more even distribution of classes as the expansion ages and players level those alts.

In general, I think we’re starting to see that. The 6 point disparity between Paladins/Druids and Rogues/Monks from the beginning of the expansion has lessened. Monks and Rogues have both gained a point, Paladins and Druids have lost a point, but everyone is starting coalesce around the 9.19% mean.

The one exception to this rule is Hunters; the Hunter class continues to steadily hold at 11.5%. My guess is that the Hunter class continues to be friendly to new players, Hunter mains, and folks leveling alts, so we aren’t seeing any drop off there. 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - Percent of Total At Endgame

 

The chart above is the percentage of a class which has leveled to level 90, which gives us an insight into the overall health of a class through the leveling process as well as who people picked for their initial mains in Mists of Pandaria. Hybrids tend to level to 90 more frequently than Pure DPS classes, so we can evaluate them in two groups.

Hybrids (tanks, healers, DPS) tend to all be around 27-28.5%. Hybrids who can perform all three roles (Druids, Monks, Paladins) aren’t really that different from those who can perform only two roles (Death Knights, Priests, Shamans, Warlocks) in this respect, with one exception: Warriors. Warriors continue to be the least leveled-to-endgame hybrid class, and are the second least popular overall. Considering the class which overlaps them the most (Death Knights) is the second highest on this chart, that continues to be alarming.

Pure DPS tend to all be around 26%, with one exception: Rogues. Rogues are still the least leveled-to-endgame class, continuing the trends we saw in 5.4. There’s been the same slow improvement as before but it really seems to be a niche class for both mains and alts.

We’re now seeing a consistent trend throughout Mists – players are not choosing to play Warriors and Rogues at the endgame. If you look at the overall population figures you can see that Rogues are much more represented in the 10-85 pool – 8.85% – but then they fall off dramatically in the 86-90 range and never recover. Interestingly, Warriors do not have this drop in population – instead, they’re just an unpopular hybrid at all levels (compared to other hybrids). 

Without substantial changes to the class play style or a substantial carrot offered to players of these two classes, I don’t see any real substantial changes for Rogues or Warriors until the next expansion, Warlords of Draenor

DOING THE HARD STUFF

Class representation in Heroic PvE (6+ bosses) and Rated PvP (1800+ rating) is always a tricky thing. It’s all well and good to look at the classes to see what people are using when Doing the Hard Stuff, but the presence or absence of a class is not in and of itself a sign of a problem. Raid mechanics might favor one spec over another, PvP burst might favor one class over another, etc.. We have seen times when representation in hard mode Warcraft was absolutely fine, DPS was fine, and yet the class was seriously struggling (Warlocks in Cataclysm) – and we’ve also seen times when certain specs have been vastly underrepresented, yet people do amazing things with them. (Demonology Warlocks were abysmally represented in Rated PvP at the same time a Demolock won the World Arena title.)

So use this data cautiously. Think before you jump to any conclusions with it.

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - Class Representation in Hard Stuff

 

Here’s the total population vs endgame vs PVE vs PVP chart. The general idea behind this one is to point out areas where a class might be over or underrepresented in an area of the game relative to its overall endgame population. Paladins, for instance, are 11.1% of the endgame population and 11.7% of the heroic raiding population – relatively balanced. Priests, on the other hand, are 9.5% of the endgame population but 11.8% of heroic raiding and 12.8% of the ranked PvP data set. They are performing very well at the hard stuff.

General observations:

  • Death Knights, Hunters, and Warriors are less represented than their general endgame population. For DKs and Hunters my guess is that they are excellent classes for casual players as well as experts, so they are overrepresented in the endgame pop and underrepresented in heroics. Warriors are a different matter. Mages struggle a little bit in heroics. Rogues struggle in PvP.
  • Shaman and Druids seem to be doing very well in heroics. Warlocks seem to have a bit of an edge with mechanics in the current raid tier and have solid representation as well. Warriors and Priests are doing amazingly well in PvP.

The details for each class can be found on the PvE and PvP tabs. 

Digging into the specs (PvE, PvP) shows us some interesting tidbits, like Arms and Holy are doing great in PvP, Destruction Warlocks are dominating in SoO (due to raid mechanics, I assume?). But we also have a complete enough data set that we can start plotting Spec Popularity over Time, at least for heroics and rated PvP. 

POPULARITY OVER TIME

You snapshot data enough times and finally you can do some visualizations with it. I’ve divided the spec data from World of Wargraphs into 4 sections for each Hard Mode activity (PvE, PvP) and graphed them according to role and function within that activity. In theory, people familiar with each class should be able to pinpoint certain changes that were made either to the class or to the content that swung the herd into favoring certain classes over each other. 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvE Healer Specs

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvE Tank Specs

 

 

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvE Melee Specs

 

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvE Ranged Specs

 

As I look over these graphs, I can’t help but wonder about things like raids which favor absorb healers vs throughput healers, tiers which favor more tanks versus fewer tanks, encounters which reward cleave specs versus multi dot or single target specs. 

PvP is a different set of stories, presented in a similar fashion.

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvP Healer Specs

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvP Tank Specs

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvP Melee Specs

 

Warcraft Census 5.4.2 - PvP Ranged Specs

 

It’s amazing, looking at these graphs, to see the effects of certain changes in gameplay. Fix the bug in Spirit Shell, change how Vengeance works in PvP, and watch players switch in high end play. Arms is a roller coaster that is currently going off the tracks in PvP.  The BM/MM flip is startling to see. All of these changes are likely tied into changes in each patch. It’ll be neat to see if folks can correlate the data with the changes.

CAVEATS AND CONCLUSION

A final few caveats.

First, there appears to be a lot more spec data in here than in previous census posts, though really it’s the same data presented over time. I don’t think a popular class being popular in a hard activity is really all that unusual. A small class like Monks or Rogues are going to be a smaller piece of the hard mode pie. It’s when an unpopular spec is popular at an activity – or vice versa – that I think it’s worth standing up and taking notice. Take a look at the spreadsheet and see where there’s huge deltas between the general endgame population and a given activity – that’s where there’s something going on, something good or bad.

Second, take these numbers with a grain of salt. They represent the movement of the masses, and while they might help shed light in to why people are playing – or not playing – a class, they’re not a determiner of your own personal performance or enjoyment. If you’re not chasing heroic mode achievements or 2200+ ratings, the spec data shouldn’t make you feel bad about your choices. 

But there’s a flip side, as I found out in Cataclysm – sometimes it’s reassuring to know when you’re struggling with a class that it’s not just you. If you’re not feeling your Warrior right now, or are suddenly really digging your Shaman – well, other people are too. Really like your Priest? There’s a reason for it. You’re not alone, there are reasons why people are making these kinds of decisions en masse

I’ll leave it up to you to level those alts and figure out which ones you enjoy the most.

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On Grabbing The Brass Ring

Cynli at the Stormwind Bank (edited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Huh.”

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

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Basic Destruction Warlock Guide for 5.4

1) Holy shit, these dailies go on forever. 2) No wonder so many of you were in such a fucking grumpy mood over the past year. 3) This is SO not worth my left wrist going out too. 4) I have never been happier with my decision to lock at 85 for this expansion as I was doing Glotus for the first and only time.

A friend of mine asked me for some help with her Destro warlock alt. Even though all I do these days is tend my farm and tinker in my workshop, I threw together the following guide to the basics of Destruction Warlocks at the end of Mists of Pandaria.

Let me stress: these are the basics. I’m not kidding when I say all I do is putter about on my farm these days.

CYNTHIA BLOCK’S GUIDE TO DESTRO

Okay, nugget! Listen up! Sgt. Block here to talk to you about warlocks.

Facing a warlock is like, holy fucking shit everything is on fire and then there are fucking green dragons flying at you. There’s fire out of the sky and you’re on fire and then fucking green dragons. Did I mention those fucking green dragons hurt? Hit the fucking warlock in the fucking face with your fucking shield, nugget, and don’t let her get back up. Ever.

By the fucking Light, green dragons? REALLY? Who plays around with shit like that?

Fuck that.

… wait, you mean you want to learn how to play Destro? Fuck, I’m the wrong soldier for that. I thought you wanted to know how to take OUT a Destro lock. Let me go get the wordy lady. She’ll talk your ear off.

(Nobody in their right mind lets a warlock finish casting, though. Hit them with your fucking shield until they stop moving.)

Right. Here’s the big lady. Don’t forget to salute, nugget.

Cynwise - Setting Things On Fire Is What I Do

CYNWISE’S INTRODUCTION TO DESTRUCTION

Thank you for that introduction, Sgt. Block. I think.

Destruction requires you to become awesome while on fire. This is both a joke and a literal truth; the primary way to succeed at very high DPS is to manage your Burning Embers resource (setting you on fire) while alternating between different kinds of nukes and CDs. There’s some dot management (Destro is a Warlock spec, after all) but it is only a component of your damage, not the whole thing.

Ready to be awesome while on fire? Let’s begin.

You’ll use the following spells to inflict pain.

  • Immolate
  • Incinerate
  • Conflagrate
  • Chaos Bolt
  • Rain of Fire
  • Shadowburn

Very optionally, you can add Fel Fire on to this list once you are comfortable with those six spells and you have room on your bars.

You have two resources: Mana and Burning Embers. Playing Destro means you ignore your mana. Seriously. Mana is a limiter for you casting too many of one kind of spell in a row; the only way you should be running out of mana is spamming Fel Flame or Rain of Fire or Incinerate, maybe.

Ignore mana. Look at your Burning Embers instead.

You gain Burning Embers by having things be on fire. You always have one, and it will regenerate pretty quickly out of combat. Incinerate, Rain of Fire, Immolate, Conflag, Fel Flame all generate Embers. You spend Embers on the following:

  1. Chaos Bolt (big nuke)
  2. Shadowburn (execute)
  3. Fire and Brimstone (AoE)
  4. Ember Tap (self-heal)
  5. Flames of Xoroth (pet regen)

We’ll talk about all these uses later, but only the first three will matter in a dungeon.

SINGLE TARGET

For something that is going to live for a minute or so, like a dungeon boss, you do the following.

  1. Set them on fire with Immolate. Refresh Immolate when you get a strong proc or when it’s about to fall off.
  2. Blow them up with Conflagrate. There are two charges; just hit them both to start out with.
  3. Spam Incinerate to build up Embers.
  4. When you have some Embers and/or get a good proc, let fly with some Chaos Bolts. (When your Embers are at 3.5 or so, you should start spending them to avoid capping them out.)
  5. When the boss hits < 20% health, Shadowburn is INSANE DPS. It takes the place of Chaos Bolt. Always SB, never CB when SB is available.

Right. So. Immolate, Conflag when it’s up, Incinerate as you generate Embers; Chaos Bolt and Shadowburn when you have Embers to spend.

TRASH PACKS

For a trash pack (3+ mobs), your strategy revolves around Fire and Brimstone instead of Chaos Bolt/Shadowburn. F&B turns your three primary spells (Immolate, Conflagrate, Incinerate) into AoE spells (hit all mobs around the target) at the cost of a Burning Ember and reduced damage. It acts like a toggle as long as you have Embers available; hit it once and it stays on until you are drained, or until you turn it off.

Multi-dotting is an extremely strong DPS strategy, but it does require mobs to live a *little* while. If they’re going to last more than a second or two:

  1. Start Rain of Fire over the area.
  2. Hit Fire and Brimstone.
  3. Cast Immolate to spread dots everywhere.
  4. F&B a Conflag when you have another Ember (should be very fast)
  5. If you run out of Conflag charges to F&B, Immolate and RoF are both up, but still have Embers, F&B Incinerates.
  6. As mobs start dropping in health, SHADOWBURN them. Steal those killing blows.

If trash packs are blowing up quickly, I usually drop step 3 (F&B Immolate) and do AOE Conflags instead. This has two advantages: it almost always returns a full Burning Ember, so I’m able to Shadowburn once stuff drops, and it gets some damage out on the mobs FAST.

Shadowburn returns 2 Burning Embers for the cost of 1 if the mob dies within 6 seconds of you casting it, so you should walk out of a trash pack with a full Ember Bar if you do it right. Shadowburn is the key to good trash DPS.

Cynwise - Mists Beta - Double Chaos Bolt - Dancing With Dragons

WREAKING HAVOC ON THE WINGMAN

For 2 mobs, or a boss and add, you’ll want to use Havoc. Havoc is a curse that says, “the next three things I do, do to this target too.” (Chaos Bolt counts as three things.) Here’s how you use it.

  • You are facing Mob A and Mob B.
  • Cast Havoc on Mob B.
  • Target Mob A.
  • Cast Immolate on Mob A. Both Mob A and B are now on fire.
  • Cast Conflagrate on Mob A. Both Mob A and B blow up.
  • Cast Incinerate on Mob A. Flames shoot out at both A and B.
  • Cast Conflagrate on Mob A again. You’re out of Havoc charges, so only Mob A blows up.

Unlike F&B, the spells aren’t reduced AOE versions of the spells, and they’re not limited to your top three damage spells. You can Spell Lock or Curse two mobs at once (which is fun when you’re fighting a lot of casters.) But the real fun comes from using your Burning Ember spells on two mobs at once.

  • You are facing A and B. Havoc B, target A.
  • Cast Chaos Bolt on A.
  • DOUBLE DRAGON

or, better yet:

  • You are facing A, B, and C. They’re big adds or mobs, think of the ones in Vortex Pinnacle at level.
  • Immolate everything like a good multi-dotter, then DPS focus on A.
  • When A is at about 1/3rd health, Havoc C.
  • A drops to 20% health. Shadowburn A, which hits both A and C.
  • Switch to B (which your friends have probably AoEd down to 20%. Shadowburn B, which hits C as well.
  • A, B, and C are now all dead and you have a full Burning Ember bar.

Chaos Bolt costs 3 charges, but Shadowburn only costs 1. Remember that.

I use a mouseover macro to manage Havoc. This lets me target A and mouse over B. Alternately, if I’ve set my focus (on a healer, usually) it will cast Havoc there.

/use [@focus,harm][@mouseover,harm][harm] Havoc

Practice this a lot on dummies until it becomes habit.

MANAGING PROCS AND BURST

You must have a burst macro. I fought against this for a long time as Affliction (what’s a burst?) but, no. You want to maximize your periods of burst when you get procs off your gear or enchants and when you are fully charged with Burning Embers.

Warlocks have burst now, it’s called Dark Soul. There are three different versions (one for each spec) and the Destruction one greatly increases your Critical Strike chance, which in turn makes your Chaos Bolt and Shadowburn damage AMAZING.

Here’s my pump macro.

#showtooltip
/use [spec:1] Dark Soul: Instability; [spec:2] Dark Soul: Knowledge
/use Unending Resolve
/use Volcanic Potion
/use Potion of the Jade Serpent
/use 14
/use 10

Some of this is specific to Cynwise; by specifying the [spec:1] and [spec:2] I can use the same macro for Destruction and Demonology. You can just use /use Dark Soul, I suppose. I use an Intellect potion at the same time, and trigger either my DPS trinket or Synapse Springs, whichever is off CD.

Unending Resolve has both a 40% damage reduction (which is neat) but ALSO has an 8 second immunity to Silence and Interrupts, which is … well, I’m using this in PVP. When I pop my CDs I don’t want to get Kicked into losing massive damage.

The important part is hitting this when you’ve got procs going – Lightweave, Jade Spirit, Heroism, whatever – because Dark Soul on top of those procs is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

If you use Grimoire of Service, you can add in /use Grimoire: Felhunter to this macro. GrimSac can add in /use Grimoire of Sacrifice to get more DPS if you aren’t running petless all the time (like in PvP, where you want to alternate pet/petless for double Spell Lock.)

You’ve also got Demonic Guardians (Doomguard, Infernal) on a 10 minute CD. Use them on the tough bosses. Doomguard is single target. Infernal is AoE and an AoE stun. They don’t need a keybind if you don’t have space.

Cynwise - November Bars

ABILITIES THAT SHOULD BE ON YOUR BARS

You’ll want the following:

  • Immolate
  • Incinerate
  • Conflagrate
  • Chaos Bolt
  • Shadow Burn
  • Rain of Fire
  • Fire and Brimstone
  • Havoc
  • Curse of the Elements
  • Dark Soul / Pump Macro
  • Doomguard or Infernal (These don’t need a keybind, it’s a 10 minute CD.)

These are useful and should be there, too, but have no impact on your DPS.

  • Demonic Command
  • Fear
  • Ember Tap
  • Twilight Ward
  • Flames of Xoroth (Another one that doesn’t need a keybind, but is really handy to have when you need your pet back in a hurry.)

OTHER MACROS

Shadowburn is one of those spells you want to cast IMMEDIATELY, no matter what else is going on. Use a stopcasting macro to interrupt whatever else you are casting.

/stopcasting
/cast Shadowburn

I have long had a OH SHIT macro for massive healing.

/use Dark Regeneration
/use Healthstone
/use Alliance Battle Standard
/use Ember Tap
/use Master Healing Potion

That can bring me to full from 10% in about 5 seconds. A simpler version is just using a Healthstone in conjunction with Ember Tap:

/show Healthstone
/use Healthstone
/use Ember Tap

I have a buff macro so I don’t have to worry about getting all my buffs back up when rezzing at a Spirit Healer. Adjust to suit your particular Grimoire.

/castsequence reset=5 Dark Intent, Grimoire of Sacrifice, Create Soulwell, Unending Breath, Crystal of Insanity

I like tossing out guild battle standards when they are off CD, but I only want them on bosses. So I tied them in to my Chaos Bolts.

/cast [mod:shift, @focus, harm] Chaos Bolt; Chaos Bolt
/use 10
/use Battle Standard of Coordination
/use Standard of Unity
/use Banner of Cooperation

Since Fel Flame doesn’t refresh dots anymore, and you can cast Incinerate while moving in PvE, I don’t use it as much as I used to. I do still use it for juking / fake casting in PvP though. Quick way to interrupt a cast while still doing SOMETHING.

/stopcasting
/use Fel Flame

WEAK AURAS

Here are some Weak Auras I use to help call out when to use different spells.

Cynwise - Weak Auras - November 2013

Spinning Circles: I have three circles which go around my character, center of field of vision. The inner one is “is Immolate on the target?” The next orange one is “is Conflagrate available?” and the third, big purple one is “is Shadowburn castable if so OH GOD CAST IT”. These only appear in combat.

Immolate

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Conflagrate

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Shadowburn

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Auras to be aware of: these show icons of things that you need to know about.

Dark Intent: I have been going through every alt and putting an aura of this type up whenever I can. It says: there is an essential self-buff you need to cast (almost always on my Z key.) In this case, it’s Dark Intent.

dCdNcaWsPeTlIWRjP2NkPMPGmxvIzd8nrjTtb2lA3q2pj8trXFfXVLQHsKmys0WLIdkOoMQYHPyHQslvfSyIslhQhsu9uLhlspNWejkMkPMmLA6sUOQQRkkXLP66GSrIOHrKAZQuBxuDBkXxLs6ZG67KKrkLQ7jkLrtjnEvsoPk6wsjCAHoVQyCIs10KszzQqZpQ5muZjJbRwHYtu5OI7mq)FqYWY)VCkptWUiACairLbd6PQtU7PqcHvJDxflob3NeTjrwL4tAolC2C2uZb6gBQ5GeEskWie8Ld3bo1CwGavKAwS4GeEcWZDaF5aEUds6no2uDm31zJt04PuZjIiyGZGJCwGavKAgCKVSyXLcmcb1CIicg4CTg(qOmYBjloGN7aUSFKfh2HJDK(PX5IPDexHJWWoMAUUkuge4HVCruUJfoF5qglUGAg8XjJbRwHYtu5OIflUOnxRgmONQwHYwOqPmgSAfkprLJkoJTDSIDKbKu4imSJfuZGpQ5kCeg2XuZvpnoNbcB4eqY65oQg09D8kUe5HNoz6Wh0CDvOmiWdF58ChvCT7gqzLtajRN7OskSFhVIBs9hkexeL7yHZxoKXIlOMbFC)gCzvHYzn6aBwCqOyX1ampoMZ2Lf6(w)04CT)hskjZsiwCqOchHHDm1SyXIdbzrJJWWowWGJC2rrdW8CM2rCNb6)dsgw()Lt5zc2frJdajQmyqpvDYDpfsiSAS7QyXLZGV2KwAwKa

Dark Soul: Shows your Dark Soul countdown in BIG ASS LETTERS to make sure you don’t waste it.

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Burning Rush: When Burning Rush is ON and your health drops below 50%, this reminds you that you have a speed boost on which can POTENTIALLY KILL YOU.

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Fire and Brimstone: Big Icon showing that, hey, you’ve got F&B on.

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That’s it. Enjoy being awesome while on fire.

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Cynli - Tree of Life Form - Strand of the Ancients - Courtyard - LOL

 

I’ve added an Addons page to this site with some of the Warcraft addons I’ve written over the years. I’m not playing right now, but figured it was worth putting them up in case folks wanted to use them.

Enjoy!

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On The Vale of Eternal Blossoms

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September 10, 2013 · 8:44 pm

Class Distribution Data for Patch 5.4

Class Popularity Graph at Endgame for 5-4

World of Warcraft’s Patch 5.4 was released on September 10th, 2013. This is the latest entry in my series on population data snapshots. All data is contained in the Google Docs Spreadsheet for 5.4. The methodology is unchanged from the previous entries:

As before, the patch dates are handy labels for each snapshot, but they mark the beginning of a period, not the end.

My hands are still in a lot of pain and I haven’t played in any real capacity since before 5.3, so my commentary is mostly about interesting facts in the numbers I find. I’ll leave it to current players to propose solutions.

CHARTS AND GRAPHS AND DATA, OH MY

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First tab is relative class popularity over time at the endgame of a given patch or expansion. Some changes to note:

  • Hunters are now the number one class at endgame, Paladins are now number two.
  • Death Knights surpassed Druids for the number three spot.
  • Warriors fell past Mages into seventh position. If we normalized their numbers for the addition of Monks they’d be worse off than at any point since Wrath.
  • Shamans, Warlocks, Rogues and Monks all gained ground (but maintained relative positions.)

The next tab, Mists 5.4, is a data collection sheet, just like in 5.3.

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Rogues are probably the most interesting story here, since they continue to have more toons at all levels than at 90. Last patch Ghostcrawler confirmed that people roll Rogues, they just don’t finish leveling them, and we continue to see that here. This probably won’t change until changes are made to how the class levels, which is typically an expansion revamp.

Monks, Death Knights, Paladins, Druids, Shamans: they all get leveled to 90. That seems to be a hybrid class trait. Pure DPS struggle more. Warriors struggle as well, but we’ll talk more about them later.

The data set shrunk slightly between June and September of this year – 31.1 million toons as opposed to 31.3 million toons. I think this is the effect of characters aging off of the Armory after several months of inactivity, but it could also be a relic of the RealmPop database getting cleaned out periodically.

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Next tab is patch-by-patch breakdown of class populations in Mists. You can see the drop in the populations between 5.3 and 5.4, which might be part of the overall drop in subs – or it might not.

I want to zoom in on my new favorite chart, the Percent of Total Class at 90:

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There we go. Nice and big. Notice anything there?

Hybrids are around 22-23%. Pure DPS classes have caught up a bit at 20-21%.

And then there are Warriors and Rogues.

The reason I like this data so much is because it functions like a health check – what are people bringing all the way to endgame? In the first patch, it was primarily mains, but now we’ve had a chance for people to level up their stables of alts. Hybrids are still a little easier to get to endgame than pures, though that gap is decreasing. The low percentages for Warriors (19.4%) and Rogues (15.4%) puts them at the absolute bottom of the pack. Warriors, as hybrid tank/melee DPS, should by rights be up at around 22%. Rogues should be around 20%, though even 19% would look okay at this point.

There are problems with those two classes. Everyone else looks pretty good.

DOING HARD STUFF

Class Representation in Heroic PvE and 1800+ PvP

The next few tabs are, as before, the data sets from World of Wargraphs, which uses a different data collection methodology than RealmPop. The general population numbers match, however, so while there might be some statistical variation it’s slight.

This class looks at the relative popularity of classes within Heroic raiding (2+ bosses) and rated PvP (1800+ rating).

Class Distribution, Heroic PvE 5-4

Priests, Pallys, Shamans, Druids, yep. I have no idea what’s gone on with raiding this tier so I’ll let other bloggers cut loose on this data set. Here’s the breakdown by specialization.

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Ready for the PvP? Of course you are.

Class Distribution, Rated PvP 5-4

In case you were wondering, Priests are really, really overrepresented in PvP right now.

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The Discipline Priest numbers are … way out of control. I don’t know what’s actually gone down this season, but they are probably going to get some heavy PvP nerfs. The last time we saw deltas like this was with Arms Warriors at the beginning of Mists, and they were nerfed into the ground.

THERE IS TOO MUCH, LET ME SUM UP

  • Hunters: How’s it feel to go from one of the smallest classes in Wrath to the biggest class population in Mists?
  • Paladins: It’s okay, you’re still doing just great.
  • Rogues: Still hurting to get to 90.
  • Warriors: Having a long, slow decline throughout this expansion. Rogues have the obvious problem; Warriors have a subtle one.
  • Death Knights: No, you can’t change your name to “Way Better Than Warriors.” Be nice, former servants of Arthas. Suffer well, but suffer politely.
  • Priests: Yowza.
  • Druids: You still have instant flight.
  • Shamans: I worried about Shamans in Wrath and Cataclysm, I’m not worried about them anymore.
  • Monks: surprisingly healthy for a new class, need time to mature and catch up to other populations.
  • Mages: Wait, you want me to say something nice about Mages here? REALLY?
  • Warlocks: you should probably roll a Warlock alt, I hear they’re lots of fun.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Enjoy patch 5.4 for me!

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On Golden Lotus Dailies

1) Holy shit, these dailies go on forever. 2) No wonder so many of you were in such a fucking grumpy mood over the past year. 3) This is SO not worth my left wrist going out too. 4) I have never been happier with my decision to lock at 85 for this expansion as I was doing Glotus for the first and only time. 5) Let the fucking thing burn.

Nope.

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A Thousand Cuts: Cognitive Fatigue in the Warcraft UI

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Kathy Sierra returned to blogging with Your App Makes Me Fat, a thought-provoking post about the effects of decision making and cognitive fatigue on our willpower.

Like all good posts, this one doesn’t have an easy interpretation. It’s a simple fact – mental effort consumes willpower – with complex implications. Kathy looks at the related effects marketing and application UI design have on users; by reflecting upon what brand engagement and gamification mean for the overall quality of customer’s lives. When is your application or service adding real value, and when is it stealing cognitive resources?

I like that there are no easy answers here. It’s not that branding, marketing, or gamification are bad per se, but rather that there are additional consequences when employing them on users. If you drain their willpower to buy your goods, that has an impact on their life. Even seemingly innocuous interactions add up. The cognitive implications of brand engagement are worth further consideration and study.

My best man got one of his undergrad degrees in Cognitive Science, and he frequently joked that “Marketing is the Dark Side of CogSci.” Learning how people think and behave in non-rational ways gives you a toolkit to manipulate them. By itself, the manipulation is amoral – you could uplift as easily as you exploit – what you do with it is what matters. Pushing a public health program, selling a well-made car that provides utility and creates good memories, or creating an app that empowers your users to create new things all need marketing, too. But more often than not marketing is used with less noble goals in mind.

Matt Siber’s The Untitled Project explored urban landscapes with all text removed from signage. The effect is eerie – immediately a normally hectic environment becomes calmer, almost serene. Blocks of colors form patterns but don’t demand attention. Details are easier to spot quickly because there are fewer things competing for your attention. Take a few minutes to look at his work and let it all sink in.

To be honest, the self control studies referenced in Kathy’s post left me thinking much more about World of Warcraft’s user interface and game design than Blizzard’s marketing strategy. My hand injury and related break from WoW has forced me to find diversions with substantially simpler input systems. I’ve started thinking that 17-button mice and game pads are like regular expressions; when you think that the best solution to controlling your character is dedicated input hardware, now you have two problems. You’ve added hardware complexity to UI complexity to solve the problem that it takes 8-12 buttons to attack something in Warcraft.

I think this idea is more subtle than the cognitive limits that the Warlock class explored in Cataclysm, though. This is more about the small inconsistencies in the user interface that require conscious effort to address and the cumulative effect of those choices. Games with simple interfaces can still be extremely complicated and challenging, yet they feel more light and fun than those with more intricate controls.

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At the simplest end of the interface spectrum are one-button side scrollers like Tiny Wings and Badland. Press anywhere on the screen to make yourself move vertically (dive down in Tiny Wings, flap up in Badland.) That’s it, the whole screen is the entire UI. It does one thing. These are challenging, fun games, but the UI doesn’t present any choices or cognitive challenges. Either you press the screen or you don’t.

Slightly more complicated games often still have but a single UI mechanic – Frisbee Forever takes advantage of the phone accelerometer to turn right or left by the user tilting the phone (Tilt steering) but allows the user to tap small buttons on the side of the screen as well (Tap steering). It’s the only preference in the game.

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Dots, which my 3-year old daughter made briefly famous on my Twitter feed, is a masterpiece of minimalist game design. You draw lines between dots of the same color and they disappear. The only cognitive dissonance I have seen is when someone tries to do a diagonal line, which doesn’t work. Players who make that mistake quickly adapt and then the game interface becomes a non issue. Dots is seriously relaxing fun.

Games don’t have to have simple interfaces, but they do need to be tight. Reducing choices and setting limits helps focus users, which is another way of saying it reduces cognitive leaks. Take a complicated iOS game like Infinity Blade. Stunning graphics for a fighting game on a mobile device, innovative use of touch screen swiping, won a bunch of awards for good reason. Press center button to block, side buttons to dodge, swipe to attack, swipe against an attack to parry, draw a glyph to cast a spell. By the time you’re on the 4th opponent you’ve learned all the basic controls. And even though this game has a gear grind that puts WoW’s endgame to shame, I was solidly engaged in many, many, many repetitions of the same storyline, honing my skills and dexterity.

I’d started playing IB before my hand injury, and attempted to continue after it, but eventually it became clear that thumb/index finger activity of any kind introduced small, incremental strain on the ligaments and nerves. Hundreds of swipes and taps add up on already inflamed tendons, much like hundreds of small decisions take a noticeable toll on willpower. I put down IB and IB II about two months ago, and even Dots only gets played left-handed these days.

I suck at playing Dots left-handed.

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The idea of cognitive fatigue helped me understand why I liked the original Infinity Blade so much more than its technically better sequel, Infinity Blade II. Infinity Blade II has more stuff than the original – two new styles of combat, hundreds of new items, more options within each mechanic, gems to customize gear – and I frankly don’t like it as much. Instead of “press right or left to dodge,” now you have to consider if you’ve already dodged too much in this fight and have fatigue. Parrying now has three different levels, blocking too, all depending on your timing. Each style of weapons introduces more changes, like 2-handed weapons allowing only parries or blocks, while dual-wielded weapons replace blocking with a duck button. (Duck as in to dodge downward, not turn into a waterfowl. Or quack like one.) And the gems add another layer of irritation, do I have the right gems for this drop, do I save or reforge this one, etc.. This is all before I can comment about the new story and content!

My 8 year old son and I disagree on the relative value of the two Infinity Blade games. He loves the sequel precisely because it has all kinds of neat new stuff. I’m old and crotchety, but my reflexes are good and I enjoy the simplicity of the original design because it’s easier to work within.

Also, the main character of IB II turns out to be a bit of an idiot. But I digress.

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To get a frame of reference, I gave World of Warcraft a try on my iPad. I fired up Splashtop with the Gaming Pad Addon to remotely connect to my computer, designed a left-handed interface, then signed up for a F2P account so I could tinker around with no distractions. This is a bad idea. The Warcraft UI is a product of a full keyboard and mouse design philosophy – and with all those keys available, they get used. Simple, basic tasks like moving around while not losing control of the camera become major challenges. In a way, they are fun challenges, because they require ingenuity to overcome. I had fun trying to balance the needs of my hands and the screwy, lag-filled interface.

But after a while those challenges became irritants. Cognitive leaks. Ugh, moving. Click to move does part of what you want, but then you sometimes spiral around when you reach your destination. Joystick-style controls are too sensitive, so my toons wandered around spinning like drunken children’s toys. Sometimes when you click on the screen you spin your camera wildly and can’t manually readjust it. It’s super frustrating. The actual game content takes a backseat to just making your avatar do what you want it to do.

I’ve talked privately with friends about how the inability to move well is one of the biggest reasons for me canceling my sub and taking a break. In a MMO your hands are both your body and voice, which has been something gamers understand but has required some conversations with medical professionals. Doctors immediately grasp the professional impacts of not using a computer well, but the psychological impact of digital disability sometimes takes a bit longer to explain. Mostly I don’t bother.

But an unexpected benefit of my hand injury and experimentation is that it jolted me out of the context of users who can master a UI as complicated as a fighter jet cockpit. Have you asked a non-gaming friend to watch you play and give honest feedback? It’s like drinking from a pixel firehose. There is an incredible amount of information pouring onto the screen in a MMO. Raiding, PvP, chatting, whispers, AH trading – questing is the simplest activity, and even then there’s the potential for 3-5 tasks going on at once. Pet Battles and Gathering are possibly the calmest activities you can undertake in the game and yet they still require motion and positioning. It is super frustrating to go from playing fluidly to stumbling around a starting area, but it’s humbling, too. You become aware of small issues with the game interface that perhaps you didn’t see before, or which you’d ignored and accepted years ago.

Take targeting. Targeting a mob in Warcraft is a relatively simple matter; click on the mob, hit start attack, or hit tab. A relatively simple matter with three separate, different methods to accomplish it.

Irony runs deep.

Once you’ve got the mob targeted, then you have to consider range – on a Warlock, your ability to target something with tab or /startattack corresponds with the range of Shadow Bolt or Corruption, so if you target them they’re in range. Priests have Smite. Smite has a shorter range than Shadow Bolt. So the exact same function (basic ranged magical attack) now has two checkpoints to use correctly – is the mob targeted and is it in range? If it’s not in range, now you have to reposition yourself to attack. Repositioning takes effort. It doesn’t matter if this makes sense at the endgame, these are little cognitive drips on a baby priest.

Why do some abilities grey out when you change form while others stay available? Why do some stances or shapeshifts change your action bars, while others do not? Why do some abilities light up when they are usable while others don’t? Why do Cats and Bears have different abilities which do the same thing? Why isn’t auto loot on by default? (Seriously. Why is auto-loot not a default?) Why isn’t @mouseover casting an option in the UI?

Drip, drip, drip.

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Mastering any computer program requires deep knowledge of its quirks. Those little gotchas in the UI, the little glitches in process, the places where parts don’t fit together seamlessly – experience teaches us how to overcome them, to make the decision the same way every time to modify and adapt. We move into range, we circle around back, we set up our bars, we set alerts for Shadowburn that we don’t need for Execute. Pick a standard and stick with it. Execute abilities (those usable at low target health) currently a) do nothing, b) activate but don’t flash, c) activate and flash the button, or d) throw out an aura. Yes, they’re all different spells – they all do the same thing. Make their UI the same. This is like having Windows and Mac versions of the same program behave differently, or use a different menu structure. Why do you do that to us, Adobe? Why?

But though we master those quirks and overcome those imperfections, the cognitive drain is still there. It’s almost unnoticeable, but it’s there. A thousand little cuts.

This isn’t something unique to World of Warcraft. When Outlook acts up or your calendar suddenly syncs to the wrong time zone, it’s stressful. Navigating transit systems to work and home involves thousands of little decisions. A badly constructed subway map, an unclear traffic sign, a confusing promotion – all these things drain our willpower. We have to take care of ourselves, drink fluids, eat small meals, and keep our energy up through the day. We have to do things which we find fun and productive, satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy. Our goal is to thrive, and that requires activity. There’s a constant cycle of replenishment in our lives.

But we should also slow down and realize that sometimes, there are a lot of little drains on us. Changes to a video games’s UI to make things less confusing are going to have effects beyond just the game. Good effects. Making a game subtly easier to interact with leaves more mental juice for the good stuff.

Not everyone can fly the fighter jets.

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