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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have not been playing Warcraft for about 4 weeks now due to a RSI. Playing WoW leaves my thumb and fingers numb and my hand in agony, and I’ve needed a lot of ice and painkillers to make it through each workday. I have no opinion of the 5.3 changes because I haven’t played anything in 5.3.
Health comes first. I’ve cancelled my sub and it will probably be a few months, at least, before I even think about returning. It’ll be good to take a break, but I’ll miss the folks I play with while I’m out. But not playing gives me time to think, and tap out stories with my left hand, and remember other things I want to do.
Anyhow, here. Have a story of Cynwise’s departure heading into 5.4.
Visper rested her head on her hand, her elbow propped up on the table. It was late evening in the Waypoint Cartographer’s Union Guild House and there was paperwork to be completed. Karanina and her staff took care of most of it from the office in Pandaria, but there were things that still required branch office approval.
Branch office. Visper shook her head and smiled faintly. I’m running a branch office of a guild instead of a platoon of Death Knights. What happened to me? What happened to us?
A soft knock at her office door made her straighten up. “Come in,” she said firmly. Cynwise entered quietly and quickly took a seat in one of the leather-backed chairs in front of the large desk.
“You’ve seen the reports out of the Vale?” Cynwise asked without preamble.
“Yes. Some kind of a dig led by that madman,” replied the draenei. “If it isn’t one thing it’s another with Garrosh.”
“It is one thing after another with Garrosh, though I don’t think he’s actually crazy. This excavation, specifically, is unusual.” Cynwise turned her head to look at the large, exquisitely detailed map of Pandaria on the wall. The guild master of the mapmaker’s union got the best of the best for a reason. Small colored dots were affixed to the map throughout the continent. The blue ones with white borders were Waypoint expeditionary teams, surveying the new countryside and sending back information to continually update the maps which were Waypoint’s reason for existing. Various orange dots scattered the regions, marking places of past conflict. Yellow denoted treasure troves; white, points or persons of interest. And red dots marked the location of Horde forces.
There were a lot of red dots on the map now.
Visper had worked with Cynwise long enough to wait out the silence, her glowing blue eyes flicking back and forth between the map and the warlock. After a minute of looking at the map and thinking, Cynwise turned back to Visper.
“He moved the 3rd Darkspear Battalion?” she asked.
Visper nodded. “From today’s dispatches.”
“Huh. Okay. He’s practically inviting the Alliance to storm the beaches at Krasarang. That’s likely a diversion or a trap.”
“The Reliquary is stranded out there, with little more than a contingent of goblins supporting from Domination Point – but, if they’ve abandoned the Krasarang digs for strip-mining the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, then…” Visper trailed off.
“Then, the real action is at that dig. Militarily and politically he’s risking a lot by strip-mining land that’s sacred to the Pandarens. I know the Warchief doesn’t care much about the Sunwalkers, but the Shrine is too good a fortification to simply throw away – no matter how much Dezco has irritated him.”
Visper nodded, her glowing blue eyes focused on the human woman. “I agree. But why is it unusual? There’s something there that that madman wants. And what he wants, he gets, no matter what it costs him,” she pauses, eyes widening, “Especially if he can spend the blood of the non-Orcs to get it.”
Cynwise quirked her mouth wryly. “Noticed that, did you?”
Visper smiled a little. “Yes. It looks like the 3rd is going to be reinforcing the dig site, which means they’ll likely start having more skirmishes with the Sentinels.”
“So much for quietly exploring a new continent full of wonder.”
“Indeed,” said Visper, as she got a funny look in her eye.
“Visper, this is foolish!” yelled Cynwise, slamming the door shut.
“I’ve made my decision, and that’s final!” the former Death Knight of Arthas yelled back, slamming a sheaf of papers on the desk as she stalked behind it. Visper didn’t even bother yanking her chair out, she just leaned on the desk with one arm and pointed at Cynwise with the other. “You can see it too, this is the way it has to be!”
The much smaller human woman didn’t shrink back from that accusatory finger. “The hell it is! You founded this guild with one purpose – mapping knowledge – and now you want to throw it away for war. Wars are not just won with the flesh and sinew of troops, they are won with the mind, with intelligence and knowledge! They are won by knowing what your enemy will do before he can do it! They are won by planning, and preparing, and planning some more. That’s what this guild is about! Winning through superior intelligence!” Cynwise’s eyes flashed dangerously.
Visper responded angrily. “That’s what this guild is about? You have the nerve to tell me what this guild is about?” The draenei’s voice got quieter, colder. “Do you remember who founded this guild, warlock?” She spit the last word out like an epithet. “You are a mercenary brought in to help guard and train. This guild is what I say it is, and we operate where and how I say we operate. My decisions are made for the good of all. Is that clear?”
Cynwise stood there, lips drawn, blood pounding through her veins. The office outside was suspiciously quiet, the normal chatter of the clerks and cartographers stilled by the fight between the two women.
“Yes, sir,” she said, finally.
“Are the new members trained? Are they ready for deployment in the field?” Visper asked, her eyes furious but her voice cold and forceful.
“They are, sir,” replied Cynwise, her voice deflated. “To the best of my ability, they are ready for deployment.”
“Then that is all. Get them ready to ship out.”
Cynwise stood there for a moment. She looked at the map, at the red and blue dots. At the black and blue dots which marked the places that cartographers had given their lives for these precious maps.
“No, sir. I cannot do that,” she said.
Visper blinked, once, twice. Cynwise knew that the Death Knight was weighing her options, that her rage was tempered by cold analysis of winning a fight with a veteran warlock. Visper’s fist clenched slightly, almost reflexively, and her eyes narrowed. The entire office was silent.
“What did you say?”
“I will not lead this deployment,” Cynwise said. “I cannot condone this course of action. I have seen enough war to know when resources are spent unwisely. And if I cannot convince you to change your mind with my words,” she said, drawing a small knife from her belt, “perhaps I can change them with my actions.”
Visper stood behind her desk, angry but not threatened, as the warlock smoothly reached up to her left shoulder with the knife. Cynwise deftly cut the Waypoint insignia patch off of her overshirt, slicing the threads with practiced ease. She sheathed the knife and tossed the Compass Rose onto the desk.
It landed there, atop a stack of the latest dispatches from Kalimdor. Visper looked down at it, at the blue and gold patch resting on rough maps of the Barrens. Then she looked up at the disobedient warlock.
“Get out,” she said flatly. “You’re dismissed.”
Cynwise’s expression didn’t change.
“No, Visper,” she said. “I resign.”
And with that, she did a smart about face to exit the Chief Mapmaker’s office.
The sounds of clerks scrambling to get back to their desks could be clearly heard as the warlock opened the door to leave.
The spring air brought a welcome warmth through the open office window. Visper breathed in deeply. The turbulence of the last few months seemed to fade away with the scent of flowering trees and gardens that made Stormwind’s broad avenues such a pleasure to walk.
Maybe I can get a walk in today, she thought, turning back to her desk. A small frown appeared on her face as she eyed the dispatches Velaa had neatly placed on the center of her desk. Maybe before I vanquish this latest enemy. She turned back to look out the window and sighed.
A soft knock at the door brought her out of her reverie. “Just drop them on my desk, Velaa,” Visper said, “unless there’s something really urgent I need to see.” Visper knew the ultra-efficient Velaa thought nothing of discretely scanning the dispatches to ensure that the most important ones were on the top of the stack. It was something Kara had taught her.
“This will only take a moment, Visper,” said a familiar voice that was not Velaa’s.
Visper turned around. Standing in the doorway was Cynwise. The warlock was in the full dress uniform of the Alliance High Command, a sight which made Visper involuntarily stiffen at attention. There were a fair number of medals on display. Cynwise’s mouth quirked to one side.
“At ease, Lieutenant, you’re not on active duty,” said the human to the draenei, smiling.
“Sorry, Colonel. Old habits …” Visper said, relaxing. She didn’t quite smile back in return. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Maps, mostly,” said the dark-haired warlock. “I need the best maps I can get now.”
“Well, you’re in the right place for that, at least,” said Visper. “What’s with the uniform?”
Cynwise smiled. “I got an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“Oh, I’m sure you could have if you really wanted to,” said Visper. “Thought you might have held out for a promotion or something, though.”
“I didn’t want a promotion, Visper,” said Cynwise. “While plenty of Generals end up in the field, they’re not supposed to be there, they’re supposed to be behind a desk. I don’t want that, not yet. Colonel is more than fine with me, it’s as high as I can go without losing a field command.”
“Hm,” said Visper, nodding along.
“Is that enough small talk? I want to make sure I’m doing this right. We could talk about the weather next if you like?” asked Cynwise.
Visper finally smiled at that. “Yes, I think that’s enough chatter. What maps did you need?”
“I need maps of the areas around every Horde capital city and encampment with more than ten thousand residents,” Cynwise said. “Plus general maps of Kalimdor, Pandaria, the southern coast of Northrend, Lordaeron and Gilneas, and anything you have around Quel’thalas.”
Visper blinked. “That’s a tall order, Colonel. And an expensive one.”
Cynwise nodded in agreement. “I know it is, you can upgrade me to the full Atlas package if you like. I need the best you can provide me today for some meetings at the Keep this afternoon, and then we can get the rest sorted out when we see what we’re missing.”
Visper quickly thought through what was in the shop downstairs. “We have Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms in stock, but the detailed maps of the Barrens and Mulgore might need to be updated. Pandaria, we’ve only got the tourist-quality ones, but there’s a military grade one in the war room in the Keep. I delivered it last week.”
“Okay. That will do for now,” Cynwise said. “I can pay Velaa for it all below.”
Visper raised an eyebrow. “You could have done the entire order through Velaa, warlock,” she said. “You’re not here just for maps. Why are you really here?”
Cynwise looked a little guilty at that question. She sighed and responded, “I came to apologize.”
“What?” Visper was honestly surprised.
“I came to apologize,” Cynwise continued. “I shouldn’t have challenged your authority in front of your people. That was wrong of me and I’m sorry. You paid me to do a job, and I did it, and it’s not my business what you do with your organization.”
Visper looked at the human with her glowing blue eyes. “Interesting. You’re not sorry you quit, though?”
Cynwise smiled. “No. I disagreed with you then, and I still disagree with you. I absolutely think your people serve the Alliance better by making maps, not dying on the front lines. But I should have handled my objections better. All I can say is that I’m sorry.” She offered her right hand to the taller draenei.
Visper eyed the outstretched hand for a moment, and then shook it. “You let yourself care about a bunch of cartographers you were hired to keep safe, warlock,” she said. “No crime in that. Apology accepted.”
“Now let’s go get you some maps for whatever war you’re planning, Colonel.”
World of Warcraft’s Patch 5.3 was released on May 21st, 2013, so as with previous patches I’ve taken a snapshot of population data to provide historical analysis of class popularity trends. The methodology is unchanged from my 5.2 population analysis, so the same caveats and cautions apply here. The patch dates serve as handy labels for each snapshot, but it’s important to remember that they effectively mark the beginning of a period, not the end. The 5.2 snapshot represents data at the beginning of 5.2 – or the end of 5.1.
Like previous versions, I’ve constructed a separate spreadsheet for this patch’s data. There is one new sheet looking at the realmpop population data (instead of just popularity data) which is finally giving us a view into how players are leveling through Mists of Pandaria.
INTEREXPANSION VERSUS INTRAEXPANSION DATA
The data on the first tab is relative class popularity over time at the endgame of an expansion. There are 11 classes available in Mists, so median popularity sits at 9.09% (down from 10% from Wrath). That 9% isn’t so much a target as it is a line to keep in mind – just because Mages are currently ranked #7 with 9.15% doesn’t mean they’re unpopular – but neither are they wildly popular, either.
I think it’s important to note with this graph that it’s mixing apples and oranges a bit. The Wrath and Cataclysm data is from late in those respective expansions, when people had had time to level alts in addition to mains. Starting with the third snapshot (Mists Pre-Release) the environment shifts to those characters who received priority in leveling. Nearly a year out we’re starting to see player stables fill out a bit more, until eventually it will be an apples to apples comparison.
This intraexpansion data is interesting because I think it shows in very broad strokes a picture of which classes got leveled first, and which got leveled later. My hunch is that changes in popularity percentages here, now, are more likely to be from players leveling secondary characters/alts than from new players joining or huge flaws within a class. There are no doubt exceptions and rerolls – the Warrior spike in the 5.1 snapshot was almost definitely due to PvP dominance – but I think we are seeing more alt activity than before.
CONSUMING MISTS CONTENT
Above is the 5.3 snapshot for all levels, 86-90, and 90.
Quick comparison to the equivalent one for 5.2:
Monks have continued to take a little more of the overall pie, but the overall numbers are fairly steady. Rogues have improved a bit at level 90.
The popularity data is well and interesting, but I think there’s a more interesting way to look at the question of how players are engaging Pandaria – using population figures instead of popularity figures.
These population figures come from Realmpop, and are just the class totals for the US and EU regions added together. I’ve talked with Erorus a bit about how he gets his population sample and it reaches pretty deep. The important thing is that the methodology hasn’t changed over the course of the expansion, so by looking at the sample set of 17 million toons we can extrapolate out to general class trends. (I’d like it better if the data wasn’t missing Korea and China, but we have to work with what we have.)
Keep in mind this isn’t the total population of the game for these regions, but rather a consistent subset we can use for analysis.
I’ve been adding these population figures in since 5.1 – they’re in the hidden columns on the 5.3/5.2/5.1 base tabs – but I wanted to sit on them for a bit until we had enough data points to look at trends. So this is new, and it’s pretty neat! It’s on tab 3 in the spreadsheet.
The data is laid out in three blocks – all population, 86-89, and 90 – each showing population growth by class across the expansion.
For All Levels, we can see a few interesting things about class growth and stagnancy. Over a period of time where subs have dropped by ~1.6 million subscribers, character populations have remained stable in the US/EU. Monks continue to be created, and I expect we’ll see them level off somewhere in the 2 million range by the beginning of the next expansion. Warlocks, Warriors, and Hunters have all seen some growth over the course of the expansion, while the rest of the classes are mostly stagnant.
Rogues are the only class to have a drop in figures between patches (5.2 to 5.3) and I’m not sure why.
Let’s move on to the Mists levels.
About twice as many characters are out of Cataclysm and into Mists of Pandaria right now than at the start of 5.1. Okay, it’s a little less than twice for almost everyone but Monks – 1.74x Paladins, 1.98x Warlocks, 2.56x Monks – but the population of characters in Mists content has basically doubled in 6 months.
Since the general population didn’t double, a lot of this movement has to be attributed to existing characters moving up from pre-Mists levels into Mists. How about at level 90, the endgame?
This is probably my favorite bit of data to look at. There are two components – the population increase over time, like we did before, and the percent of a class which is level 90. The first block is very similar to what we saw before at 86-90, though most classes have more than doubled their number of 90s in the sample. Druids are the furthest behind at 1.94x, everyone else has a factor of 2.1x or greater. There’s something going on there, but I’m not sure what. I think we need more data points, and someone who can evaluate how each class does in current content, to look at that – definitely not me.
The second block is amazing, though. I love it. It’s the number of 90s versus the total population of a class over time. With one exception, classes started out in a fairly predictable spread and have coalesced into one of two packs, either at 16-17% or 18-19%. Monks started out amazingly strong – people who rolled Monks at the very beginning were motivated to get them to the endgame – but have come in line with Paladins, Death Knights, Priests, Shamans and Druids in the top pack. Mages, Hunters, and Warlocks are in a second pack a percent or two behind, which might be a result of their pure DPS roles? More incentive to level a hybrid alt, perhaps?
Warriors are stuck back with the pure DPS for reasons that I can only attribute to their being perceived as poor tanks in current Mists content. I’m speculating there, but I think it’s notable that they’re behaving like all the other hybrids.
And then there are Rogues.
At all levels, there are more Rogues than Monks, Warlocks or Shaman. There are almost as many Rogues as there are Priests! But Rogues are not making it to level 90. The 5.14% in 5.1 could be assumed to be the Rogue mains with a job to do, but even with a healthy influx of level 90s after that, they are not playing in the endgame. That 12.42% outlier result is amazing. It’s terrible, but it’s amazing.
Some of this might be due to Rogue populations swelling in late Cataclysm for the legendary daggers. A large number of leveling PvP rogues might also account for it? I’m sure that the Rogue community will have much greater insight than I over it.
But right now, Warriors are behind the other hybrids by a little, and Rogues are behind the other pure DPS classes by a lot.
The last bit of data I want to talk about is the PvE/PvP representation data from World of Wargraphs. The basic idea behind this is that if a class is more or less represented in high-end play in one sphere or another compared to their general population trends, they may be over- or under-powered for that activity.
Some general observations:
- Monks: Very underrepresented in PvP. Brewmaster FCs seem to be the only decent spec?
- Hunters: Underrepresented in PvE, dramatically underrepresented in PvP.
- Priests: Mind-bogglingly good at high-end PvE and PvP.
- Paladins: Really strong in PvE (I assume from both Prot and Holy right now).
- Warriors: Have dropped from completely dominant in PvP to underrepresented in both PvP and PvE.
- Shaman, Rogues, Warlocks – doing pretty well, all things considered!
There are detail tabs for each spec in the spreadsheet if you want to dive into this data a bit further.
I’m not sure what to say about Hunters, to be honest. They’re a hugely popular class – more Hunters overall than Paladins, and soon to be more level 90 Hunters too – but they don’t have the same popularity in high end PvE or PvP. Is it that Hunters are fine in high end play, but simply have a larger population of casual players? Or are the problems with the class such that Hunters face problems in high end play above and beyond other classes?
I think there’s evidence to support both theories, and they are not mutually exclusive.
THE PROBLEM CHILDREN
Warriors were the PvP darlings of 5.1 – no more. They are struggling in both PvP and PvE and it’s showing.
Monks, as the new class on the block, have done a great job catching up to the population numbers of the other classes. They may never be as popular as the big 4 (Pally, Druid, Hunter, DK) but they are likely going to carve out a niche for themselves. They are leveling well, and the only real area of concern seems to be their PvP viability. As someone who’s been leveling a Monk, I expect to see some much-needed cleanup to the class in the next expansion to make it a smoother, more coherent experience.
Hunters are the dominant class in World of Warcraft, yet they are underrepresented in high-end play. There are more Hunters than Paladins at all levels, and soon Paladins will be ever so slightly less popular than Hunters at level 90. The question of Hunter’s role in endgame play is an important one – are these population discrepancies indicating real problems in high-level rated play, or is it due to the overwhelming popularity of the class? Is it due to their pure DPS role versus the popularity of hybrids? There’s a serious discussion that needs to happen there.
Rogues are more popular than they seem but are struggling to make it to the endgame. Those Rogues who make it to the endgame can do well, but so few of them do compared to everyone else that there’s something abnormal with them. Rogues are less likely to experience Pandaria than any other class, and that is worth investigating.
Update June 5, 2013: Svelte Kumquat @ The Red Hatted Rogue has taken this data and is running with it for Rogues. He’s pulled some additional data from Realmpop about our sneaky friends.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Five of us were in Ulduar, helping our guildmate and friend Rezznul finish up his Val’anyr, Hammer of Ancient Kings. Val’anyr – dubbed the Science Mace, for reasons – is created by gathering up 30 fragments that drop from bosses in the instance. We usually get 2-3 fragments a week, so it’s about a 30-40 week grind.
So we run Ulduar a lot. That’s fine, it’s a chance to hang out and do stuff together, collect nerd points, get transmog gear, have fun. Ulduar is a beautiful raid, like Karazhan before it.
But it’s become kinda routine. Not boring – we change it up, bring different alts, try different specs out, I Demo tank a lot of the first bosses and trash packs, until we get to the ones where two tanks is redundant – but it’s routine. But last night’s pulls on Yogg-Saron were anything but routine, all because Cynwise has a new toy but hasn’t quite learned how to use it right.
After the BG scaling changes of 5.2 there wasn’t any advantage to staying at level 85 in the 85-89 bracket, so I’ve been slowly leveling Cynwise up to 89. This decision proved to be shortsighted, as it looks like the scaling changes are getting fixed in 5.3 – but I was already level 86 and lost 25% of my secondary stats. So I decided to stop at 87 so I could get some of the cool epic gear (engineering goggles, BoE pants, trinkets) and two new abilities, Demonic Gateway and Symbiosis: Rejuvenation. The Demonic Gateway creates Stargate-like portals with a wormhole in-between, allowing rapid transport across distances. It’s really neat, I’m looking forward to using it in PvP, and it’s a token prize for having given away about 33% of my secondary stats.
So we’re at the Prison of Yogg-Saron, final boss of the run. It’s been a usual run with small, unremarkable hijinks. A little slower because there are only 5 of us, but, whatever, we’ve gotten 3 shards for Rezz so it’s a pretty good night. I decide while the other folks are talking about who goes into the portals (I’m always on the portal team, so I wasn’t really paying attention) that I would set up my Stargates to allow us to do a really cool pull of Yoggy. Instead of running in, we’d teleport over to the boss. All of us at once, zip zip zip zip zip, incoming adventurers! It’ll be cool, right? I lay the gates as you see above – one just inside the door, one down by where Sara lurks to start the encounter.
Up the gates go! Charges start building. This is going to be SO COOL.
Two charges, three charges, four charges. Five. Okay, we’re ready to go. The other guys are still chatting about strats (this was the second pull, we’d wiped the first time because I went crazy, then Snacks went mad, then hilarity ensued) and I look over to raid chat. I shift myself, getting into a more comfortable position.
See, I should mention that I’m playing on a laptop which is perched on my lap as I’m lying on a floor chair in my son’s room. It’s an old Macbook which has a wiiiide mouse bar below the trackpad at the bottom. Sometimes I click it accidentally while moving it around.
This happens to be one of those times. And my mouse was right over the Stargate.
So I shift to get more comfortable, and suddenly I’m flying straight at the boss. No warning to my friends or anything – just a completely random Warlock Fastball Special at the boss. What was supposed to be a cool thing has turned into a disaster.
There’s a little bit of role play at the start of the boss, so I have enough time to yell “RUN OUT” in /raid before hitting my rocket boots and Burning Rush to try to get out before the door closes. There’s a brief panic at the door (see: Warlock just ported herself at the boss) but everyone backs out as I come rocketing back to them. The doors are closing, closing, crap, I’m … going to make it. I shoot the gap of the closing doors into the antechamber and stop as they slam shut behind me. Inside the locked chamber, Sara continues her dialog as the Faceless Ones begin to spawn.
“I’m really sorry guys!” I type out. There’s some good natured ribbing amidst the chaos. Rezznul on his druid and Lech on his monk tank had gotten the farthest away, so they head back.
That’s when the first two Faceless Ones come through the locked door.
“You have GOT to be kidding me!” I yell, hitting Rain of Fire. Rezz and Lech turn and book, Hal on his hunter gets distance, Snack on his warlock joins me in setting fire to these adds. We start retreating as another wave comes through the door.
“Oh crap, I just got ported inside!” says Rezznul.
What? WHAT? Are you kidding me?
So now our healer is on the inside of Yogg-Saron’s chamber, the tank is trying to get distance to save us from the wipe, and two warlocks and a hunter are DPSing down waves of adds that they can’t stop.
My understanding is that Rezz did the natural druid thing at this point – he hotted himself up, went bear form, and proceeded to valiantly tank the waves of Faceless Ones. This worked for a time as Hal, Snack and I cleaned up the ones who had gotten through the door – but then Rezz died, and all those mobs came charging after us.
By this point we’re up to add 15 or so. Not satisfied with his druid snack, Yogg-Saron ports Lech into his prison. The DPS are hurting but had kept ourselves up with self-heals and Snack riding his Rejuvenation Symbiosis button, which has now vanished, but we handle the wave of about 10 or so. Lech tanks the adds which are spawning in the room. Because I’ve got Rain of Fire and Immolate ticking on all these adds, I had plenty of Burning Embers. We don’t have a way to solve the problem of stopping the adds from spawning, but at least we’re not dead yet.
Suddenly, an unexpected achievement pops up – [They're Coming Out of the Walls (25 Player)] – and we all start laughing. I mean, I’ve been known to pull ungodly amounts of mobs, because OMFG I LOVE MOBS, but I’ve never gotten an achievement for my antics before. And they really WERE coming out of the walls! Most of us didn’t even know we should be trying for that achievement (it’s not part of the meta). Normally my raiding victories are pyrrhic, but last night they resulted in nerd points. YES.
Anyhow, Lech goes down somewhere around add 29 or 30, and a pack of 15 comes roaring through the door. (So hax, those doors.) Hal feigns death. I take most of the aggro while Snack wails on the pack, I die, they transfer their attention to Snack. Since I am more brave than smart, I have a Soulstone on me and use it to come back and try to … save Snack? I dunno. I rez, generate a bunch of embers, heal up, buy myself a few more Faceless One scalps, but let’s face it – there’s no victory to be had here. We’re all dead because I shifted my laptop and clicked a button at the wrong time.
So we’re lying on the ground, dead, laughing. What the hell just happened? Hal hops up, mass resurrects us, and I carefully put the Stargate down on each side of the door – JUST IN CASE. We down Yoggy on the next pull. No fragment but there’s always another week for that.
This might be a weird game, but it can be a heck of a lot of fun, too.
I really enjoy battleground healing on my Druid, Cynli.
She spent most of Cataclysm as a level 70 twink, and while she was effectively my main in 4.2, I haven’t played her much of late. That’s okay. We can go through cycles with our toons, hopefully they’ll forgive us.
The changes to BG scaling in 5.2 made me return my attention to my wayward druid, unlock her, and set out leveling her though PvP with a vague goal of either 80 for Herald or 85-89 for even more Mists-level PvP fun. Picking her up again has been a genuine pleasure. She’s the only toon, and I mean this very seriously, she’s the only toon which I feel completely comfortable displaying the Battlemaster title on in BGs aside from Cynwise. On everyone else I’m keenly aware of my limitations as a player playing below my potential; with these two, I feel like yes, I am as good as this title proclaims me to be.
Druid PvP healing is fun, hugely mobile, more than a little overpowered in the 70s, and gives me a different perspective on the game. I do things I wouldn’t ever dream of doing on a DPS character with Cynli – take the flag and go over to a Horde-controlled base, just to taunt the 4-6 DPS there with their inability to take down a single healer – but ultimately there’s still a sense of fun that comes from playing a character that I’m good at playing. Even though I know that I have a lot of room for improvement, the convergence of competence, confidence and cool toys makes for a character I love to play.
We’ve come a long way from the Druid which I deleted twice out of frustration.
I have an alt of every class. I didn’t use to – I used to delete alts whenever they bored me – but I’ve tried to stick with ones that I find boring, give them great outfits, learn the basics, and then put them in a corner where they don’t bother me too much. When I want to dabble with leveling they’re there, waiting. I might not be Great with them, but I can be Fair to Good, and that’s almost always more than enough for PvE leveling content. It irks me when I can’t perform up to the level I’m accustomed to in PvP, though. It really irks me. I know it’s a matter of getting fluent with a class, of having the muscle memory down for what buttons to press when you want something to happen, and that fluency takes time. When I’ve switched PvP specs on Cynwise, I usually need 2-3 weeks to get back up to speed so I don’t feel like I’m flailing and letting everyone in the battlegroup down. Weeks! The first few days are terrible, I hate it, it’s one reason I stopped switching specs in PvP so often (and why I’ve never really gotten good a Demo PvP) – I hate feeling like my primary avatar is incompetent, because my skills are lacking. Dismissing that feeling of incompetence on an alt is far easier than on a main. You have to focus to be good, and you can’t focus on mastering 11 classes at the same time.
Well, I can’t. Maybe you can.
THE COMPETENCE TRAP
This story is from a while ago, so my apologies if you’ve heard it before.
I had someone roll an alt and whisper me a pretty standard question – what class should they play for PvP?
I answered their question with a question in return: what do you like to play?
“I like playing all of them.”
“Okay, what class do you feel you’re good at playing?”
“All of them. I’m equally good with all of them.”
Now, because I’m polite, I didn’t respond with what I really thought at that moment. But if you say that you’re equally good with all classes, you’re saying that you’re equally bad with all of them. (The personnel manager in me also says that you lack self-awareness and don’t know your strengths and flaws, and to expect overinflated evaluations of your own performance. But I digress.) There are 11 classes with 34 specs in World of Warcraft now, and you’re going to find that some are better suited to you than others. Classes appeal because of the playstyle, the mechanics, the function and power of the class. Maybe it’s the fantasy of the class which appeals, or the role, or the character. Maybe it’s the outfits.
But soon, competence appeals. As you learn to play it, becoming good at playing it is its own reward. You become good with the class and spec, and then great with it, and then you log over to another alt and … aren’t.
So now the other class is at a natural disadvantage because of your own competence with another class. There have to be reasons for flailing around on an undergeared alt, struggling through the initial learning curve, gearing up, making things click in your head, that makes the effort worth overcoming the skill gap. Sometimes it’s because of social pressures – your raid needs an X to fill a different role, too much competition on certain rolls, missing buffs. Sometimes it’s because you just don’t like the old class anymore because you or it changed. Sometimes it’s just to see how other classes play.
I have 1 main and 11 alts, one of each class, and I do not play them all equally well.
The ones I play well make me want to play them more, and playing them more makes me play them better, which widens the gap.
THE LEVEL OF PLAY TO WHICH WE ARE ACCUSTOMED
I have friends who have lots of alts, and I have friends who have a few alts, and friends who have no alts, and it all seems to work out pretty well for them. Some folks can hop on a new class and be brilliant in no time flat. (Rades is particularly good at this, by the way. Little known fact about him.) Others stick with the tried and true and add alts very slowly, carefully, keeping their rosters pruned like a well-tended garden. Some are like me, and it bugs them when they can’t be good on an alt. Others aren’t fazed at all and just soldier right on through, leveling them up and getting the job done until they are good with them.
(I admire those folks. Wish I could take a page from their book.)
I personally can only be really good – really really good – with one spec at a time. I should probably amend that to one spec per role at a time, because I’m able to compartmentalize things like “this is how you tank” and “this is how you heal” and “this is how you ranged DPS” pretty well since they’re different activities. But even with that amendment, there’s a level of play within a given role that I’m accustomed to. There’s a class, a spec, where I feel like yep, this is as good as I play. Sometimes that changes – I used to feel really confident tanking on my Death Knight, but that was as a Frost tank back in Wrath – but as the years go on, I get settled in and never seem to achieve the fluency with a new spec as I do with an old one.
(I think it’s also probably still fair to say that even between roles, there’s only one spec that I’m best at at a single time. I am not nearly as good of a tank as I am a ranged pvp dps.)
That idea of the level of play to which I am accustomed really strikes me when I’m playing PvP. I don’t like being bad at a class in a BG. I really don’t. I can play all of my alts relatively competently in a PvE environment – in 5 years I’ve learned how to quest on pretty much anybody with an attack button, how to tank an instance or heal the tank through an instance. (My struggles with leveling in PvE are far more attention and interest-related than skill.) But I queue up for a BG and weaknesses come out. Sometimes I get through it, figure out ways to make it work. I know how to play the BGs and can (usually) contribute.
But on some alts, I just … flounder. Knowing how to heal a 5-man doesn’t always translate into knowing how to heal a BG. Being able to DPS through a pack of mobs doesn’t mean that I can win a 1:1 against anyone but a really weak opponent.
Those alts depress me.
Other alts surprise me. Folks told me to keep going with my Resto Shaman, switch to Enhance for a while but that Resto didn’t really get going until the mid-60s. You know what? They were right. Much happier with my performance as a Resto Shaman at 70 than at 50. I’m not great with her in PvP, but I’m not floundering anymore. There were definite toolkit problems there that got fixed later on. It’s tough sometimes as a novice to really identify those times when it’s you, and your lack of skill, versus the spec not working right. When you’re an expert, sure, those problems are apparent. But learning? Maybe it’s me.
My Shaman and my Mage are illustrative examples. I rolled a shaman because I sucked at them and wanted to not suck anymore. After about 2 years of dinking about on her, I’m no longer terrible and wondering when I can delete her. I’m slowly climbing that competency curve. My mage, on the other hand, started off strong – PvP on a low level twinked out mage is a lot of fun – but has gotten progressively weaker as I’ve leveled her. Is that me? Is it the class? I assume they’re fine, or reasonably fine, at the higher levels – so why does she suck to play so much in the 50s-60s? Is this just something to get through?
It’s tough to look at an alt and just say, you know, I could probably quest on you, and maybe do some dungeons, but the content I can do competently at your level is just painful.
I’d rather log on to someone I could be a rock star with.
ALTERNATE WAYS TO LEVEL
My Rogue is level 85 now. I don’t play a Rogue well at all, but she’s level 85 through a lot of pet battles. My Death Knight went from 80-85 solely through mining. My Paladin, Mage and Shaman have more than their share of levels solely from cooking dailies. These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, alts that I don’t feel all that great about playing. There are other ways to level aside from questing, dungeons, and battlegrounds, and I’ve tried out a lot of them.
I have really mixed feelings about using alternate ways to level. Part of me likes it, because I can skip over those parts of the content where I have trouble retaining any interest at all. Oh boy, time to get lost in Blackrock Mountain. Oh boy, Hellfire Ramparts with a fresh DK tank, yay. Oh boy, Utgarde Keep. Again. Doing pet battles or archeology or gathering at least lets me feel like I’m getting something out of the deal, be it a stash of gold from gathered materials or a leveled profession in addition to a leveled character.
But I’m also reminded that I’m using those alternate means of leveling because I don’t like playing the character. If I choose to level with something that could be done on any character on that specific alt solely for the experience gain, I’ve fundamentally said that playing the other parts of WoW don’t appeal to me with that toon.
Oh, if I do them as part of the leveling process those alternate means of experience gain are great. Pet battle and gather while questing? Perfect XP boosts. Grinding out a bunch of mobs for professions? Hey, at least you’re in combat and learning how the class works. Leveling by mining and hunting rare mobs in Pandaria on my DK has been the opposite experience I had in Cataclysm because I have had to learn how to play her to do it. I don’t have to quest, I hunt Karasang rares for their BOE drops and sweet XP. The rares are all challenging encounters, but not impossible, so I’ve actually watched my DK fluency rise again while leveling. I even felt confident enough to take her into BGs last night! I felt the competency gap, I was squishy as all getout, but I didn’t feel like I was floundering and a failure.
But I don’t know any more about playing a Rogue than I did when she was 70 now, because she’s the product of pet battles. I leveled her for her crafting skills and that was really about it.
When I find myself leveling solely through alternate means, I should probably take a long look at that alt.
THE FEW VERSUS THE MANY
This post started out with me realizing how much I really enjoy playing my Druid. I might have a lot of alts, and a lot of healers even, but when push comes to shove I know who I want to be playing in a battleground.
There’s a dynamic tension within a computer game like Warcraft that just doesn’t exist in a traditional RPG between multiple characters. In a tabletop or live-action RPG you’re pretty much expected to play one character per session, and probably only 1-2 characters over the course of a campaign. I played V:MET for 12 years and only played 5 characters total. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything by not playing a Nosferatu or Malkavian. When I played AD&D, I didn’t ever feel like I should play a Barbarian just to experience everything. If I wanted a Barbarian, I switched to one – but there was no need to have a Barbarian rolled up so I could have a crafter or fill another role. If I played a Ranger, I played a Ranger and worked within the limits of that class.
MMOs have concepts of roles and factions. There are in-game abilities which are restricted to certain classes. There are limits on professions which require multiple characters to learn. Even your social circles are limited – you can only be on one server and one guild and one faction at a time. You might still only play one character at a given moment, but you’re able to have a whole roster of characters to work around game-imposed limits. You don’t have to have additional characters, but if you want to bypass those limits an alt is the way to do it. Hybrids have an advantage here in that they can change roles in a single character, but it’s not a fix to profession, server, guild or faction restrictions. You also don’t really know how another class plays until you play it.
I have 11 alts, one of each class, and it kinda stresses me out. I’m trying to embrace having what – to me – is a lot of alts, because it seems like a good way to experience the whole game of Warcraft. But those classes I struggle on sit there on my screen, reminding me that there’s work to be done, a project which is not finished, and it’s not a fun project. There are times I want fewer projects, to just have the ones left which I really love. Then there are times I try to convince myself maybe just 4 characters would be enough, one for each role. Then it’s 5, because I need someone to play on the other faction with. Then it’s 8, because why not have the 4 armor types represented on each faction? And then once you have 8 you might as well have 11. But I don’t love playing all 11 of those alts. I like them well enough, but I don’t love them. I have them to cover my bases.
Do what you love. It’s hard for me to log in to a toon I don’t love playing when there are options which I do love playing.
And yet I do.
This game is weird.
Children’s Week 2013 has begun, and with it is everyone’s favorite holiday PvP achievement – The School of Hard Knocks. And by favorite I mean “slightly above a root canal,” since for the past 4 years there’s been more anguish over this one achievement than … well… okay, there was a lot of anguish over the Battlegrounds in the Legendary quests too.
But I guarantee you that SoHK is hated more.
Anyhow, what the past 4 years has shown me is that you can do this achievement. No matter how much you dread it because you don’t PvP – you can do it.
In 2010 I wrote and recorded my Guide to the School of Hard Knocks. It’s aged a bit, but is still accurate and I hope you find it helpful. It has maps and video walkthroughs for each step of the achievement (hah, early Cyn videos! oh god my UI, I am so sorry).
The key is still practice and perseverance – you can do this!
Good luck out there!