Friday, March 11, 2011

Boss Mechanics - Chimaeron

WoW has it's share of gimmick fights. I'm not a huge fan of that terminology because it is used as a kind of absolute description when in reality there is a spectrum or a sliding scale. Every encounter has mechanics that force you to play differently for that boss. Sometimes, however, these mechanics so deeply change how you are playing that you feel like you are playing a little mini-game rather than playing WoW.

Obviously vehicles fights are like this because you literally are playing a mini-game, but every other fight falls somewhere on the spectrum. I would describe Chimaeron as a very gimmicky fight, at least for healers. And the mini-game that it asks healers to play? Wrath of the Lich King!

Outside of the feud phase, Chimaeron is a return to the days when people had three health states - full, almost dead and dead. Added to that is the fact that every healer can return someone from almost dead to "full" in less than 1.5 seconds. Inside the feud phase Chimaeron is a massive AoE damage fest. It's Wrath of the Lich King healing split into two parts.

Heroic Chimaeron adds a third Wrath era healing mechanic to the mix - the dire necessity of a Discipline priest. When healing is impossible and everyone is constantly taking damage, Power Word: Shield is the only thing that can save an attempt from a particular kind of relatively minor mistake.

Chimaeron is not a great fight. I think gimmick fights rarely are. The problem with them is that usually heavily favour one class or another. Bringing a Blood Death Knight to Vezax allowed our guild to get the realm first hardmode kill despite being a 10-player guild. A party of one shaman, one holy priest, one hunter and seven holy paladins could have won the heroic Valrithia encounter in under 15 seconds - before any adds could even come into play.

Similarly, because self healing isn't really "priced" for dps classes - that is, some do it for free in amounts significant to Chimaeron and others don't - some dps classes are greatly superior to other for this fight. Saving a healer nearly 6000 mana every time you get spit on is a huge asset for early kills.

But despite not liking gimmick fights, I think Chimaeron was worth making. Gimmick fights are bad because they usually don't work out well. But if the developers never tried crazy ideas just because those ideas rarely work out then the game would be a lot more boring. For that reason, I think Chimaeron deserves a pass.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Counting Patches

It seems quite a few people are upset about Firelands not being in patch 4.1. This is being seen as the insult added to the injury of Cataclysm, which is rather light on content.1.

Of course the object of criticism here may be entirely fictional. The fact that Firelands is going to be in 4.2 rather than 4.1 probably has absolutely no impact on how soon we will see Firelands live on the servers.

Suppose instead that Blizzard had announced that because 4.1 was going to take longer than they anticipated, they were going to do a patch 4.0.7 that had some of the content they originally planned for patch 4.1, such as the troll dungeons. The PTRs would be changed to say they were testing for 4.0.7, the patch notes would tell us what to expect in 4.0.7 and so on.

This would be exactly the same thing as what is going on now. Version numbers are totally arbitrary. Even if there are rigid rules that govern how they work they are still totally arbitrary. If people are upset that it isn't coming as soon as they had hoped then that's one thing, but version numbers shouldn't be part of that equation.

Of course from that perspective I think I can agree that no Firelands in 4.1 is a bad move. It's a bad public relations move, though, not a bad game design move. They should release Firelands when they release all of their content: when it's ready.

1, Cataclysm wasn't actually content light. It had tons of content, but a good amount of the content was aimed at characters under level 60. This may have been a mistake - it might have been the game design equivalent of teaching an old dog new tricks. Still, any criticism should be about poorly targeting their efforts, not phoning it in.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to earn Guild Experience by Cheating

Here's how to max out your daily guild experience: Run heroic Shadowfang Keep with a full guild group. Why Shadowfang in particular? When Baron Silverlane dies, all his living adds despawn. Then you are awarded guild experience for him and for each add. I can't claim to understand what it is in the code for awarding guild experience that would cause this. If you kill the adds before he dies they do not award guild experience, not all bosses with adds give guild experience for adds that are alive when they die.

Anyway, if you manage to not kill any of his adds at all, which is not that easy to do since the wolves that come with Nandos have very low health then you get experience for eight bosses all at once. Heroic bosses are worth 37.8k. With the 25% bonus for having five people that's 47.3k. Eight bosses makes it 378k for each person in the group for a total of 1.89M guild xp for that one kill. Since you killed Ashbury on the way for another 236k, you end up earning 2.13M guild xp in probably 15 minutes. Do this with three groups and the cap has been reached.

Similar guild experience errors exist in other places. Omnitron rewards four times the guild experience that most raid bosses do. A single Omnitron kill in a 10-player raid gives over half the daily experience cap, though obviously you can do that only once a week.

I bet Halfus could be killed with his adds for bonus xp, though killing halfus while his adds are still alive would be a bit tricky.

But it's the SFK bug that bothers me the most. Here is the question: If my guildmates and I want to run a heroic to get some guild xp - since we don't really run heroics for any other reason at this point - should we queue up for SFK or not? Obviously the extra xp is a bug, and so by using it we are exploiting a bug. But what is our responsibility to avoid exploiting this bug? Should we queue up for the next best heroic for guild xp (probably Halls of Origination) instead? Should we queue up for random and secretly hope for SFK? If we get SFK should we kill Baron Silverlane's adds before we kill him to avoid earning the xp we know we aren't supposed to get?

But maybe underneath all of this is the real problem that we don't particularly like earning guild xp. The methods of earning guild xp are remarkably narrow, and running heroics is really the only way to get to the xp cap for the day for a smaller guilds. The fact that guild xp is capped daily means that raiding will never be a good source of guild xp, no matter how much the bosses are worth. Since many guilds are formed for the purpose of raiding this seems somewhat counterintuitive.

I know that the developers said that they didn't want to give guild experience for a lot of things like making flasks for or providing enchants to guild mates because they felt these things would be gamed. The developers have to worry about systems being gamed because the large number of well known information websites about WoW means that the optimal path to guild xp will spread through the community quickly. If making flasks was how you max your daily xp, then someone would be expected to log in each day and make the flasks.

The problem is that guild xp is primarily rewarded for something that guilds don't necessarily do. If having someone log in to make flasks to max experience seems bad, I don't see how having people queue up for SFK seems that much better. At least the flasks are actually helping the guild.

In an effort to create a system we couldn't "game", the developers have created a system that is far too restrictive and doesn't represent the purpose or values of a large variety of guilds. The broad base of players may have been better off with a system that could be cheated, if it also let them earn guild experience by doing the things that their guild does.

As it is this complaint may not end of mattering, since most guilds will hit maximum level in about a year and guild experience will become a thing of the past.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Virtual Rewards and Mortality

Tobold has a post about the "trap" of virtual rewards which I posted a medium-sized comment on. Of course these rewards could be achievements, gear, titles, gold, high scores or whatever else a game gives you, and the topic is obviously quite relevant - if not specifically directed at - WoW.

I commented because I wasn't quite sure what he was trying to say. I don't put much stock in the idea that virtual rewards are impermanent, because we are impermanent and everything we do is impermanent. If that disqualified things from having value then nothing would have any value.1 I think, though, the phenomenon that he is concerned with is the following. Please bear in mind this that I don't mean to put words into Tobold's mouth, but just that this is what I understand the problem with virtual rewards to be:

When we first start playing a game, we get really excited by the gameplay, the graphics, the world, or whatever it is we like about the game. Most games quickly start giving us some kind of reward for playing. Our character levels up or we get a new weapon or we unlock an achievement, for example. The reason we like the game is because we actually like playing it, but the rewards we get serve as a point to crystalize our enjoyment around. In order to easily attach value to an activity as a whole, we like to be able to give that activity a beginning, a middle and an end and the end is what gets top billing. This, of course, all has something to do with dopamine, apparently, but whatever the chemical explanation, we do seem to have a fascination with conclusions.

So though we liked exploring the game, we affix all of that like to hitting level 2 or getting a new weapon or whatever. Then we affix a bunch more like to hitting level 3, and so on. We create for ourselves the mythology that we are enjoying the game because of the rewards it gives us. At some point we will have ceased enjoying the actual gameplay, but we will have long since convinced ourselves that the rewards are good, and so we will continue to trudge through gameplay in order to get to the next reward.

Humans, being terrible at knowing what makes them happy, will not realize that this is not making them happy, and will continue doing it, expecting it to make them happy despite the fact that reality has stopped supporting that expectation.

The fact that there are undoubtedly tons of people playing WoW who fall into this category, and tons of people playing other games as well doing this same thing, certainly seems like a problem. Perhaps less of a problem than marrying someone you really don't like or spending your entire life addicted to a damaging substance - two other things that can be caused by the same phenomenon - but a problem nonetheless. People are doing something for fun, and not having fun doing it.

Of course I think Tobold is also concerned with the other effect that this has. The longer a game like WoW exists, the more people are playing it who don't actually like playing it. Those people think that they'd be happier if they got more stuff, so they tell the developers they want more stuff. The developers put in more stuff. The game ends up being all about getting this stuff and it loses the reasons why the people liked it in the first place.

But here's where I think things get a little weird. Yes, the developers eventually start taking out the things that made those games popular in the first place. But no one actually likes those things anymore. People may have come to the game because it was hard as hell, because there were insane grinds, because there was massive travel time and forced grouping. Those are the things I was talking about at the beginning - the things they liked that ended up getting lumped in with the virtual rewards. The whole reason, however, that the virtual rewards became the desired thing was because none of that stuff that originally attracted people to the game is enjoyable for them anymore. If they still loved all that stuff then they'd be getting the same satisfaction out of the game they were in the first place. The reason they are on the virtual rewards treadmill is because the game isn't fun for them anymore. So what value are all those things that have been taken away to make the virtual rewards grind faster? Who wants those things anyway? Just because people liked a game for reason X when they first started playing it doesn't mean they will ever want to play any game for reason X again.

Virtual rewards trapping people into games is more of a function of how people are than how games or virtual rewards are. The real problem here is that our love for games, like everything else, dies.

And this is why the reams of blog posts saying that WoW sucks or that it has gone completely wrong or that it is dying are so depressing. It's like looking in on a eulogy - an angry eulogy all about blaming the person who died. Of course this has nothing really to do with the Tobold post I started off talking about, since it isn't a "look at where WoW went wrong" post.

A lot of people are still genuinely enjoying playing WoW. It is quite possible to do so. Lots of people like getting virtual rewards, not because they've fallen into a trap, but because they are fun to get. If you don't like doing these things anymore, then maybe it's time to give up the game, or at least cut back on it. As long as you actually like doing those things, there is no problem.

Game designers can make better decisions that will help games have more longevity and that will make them better games, but they can't do anything about the fact that the individuals who play their game will stop wanting to play one day. They also can't make a new good game by just resurrecting all the things that made an old game good.

1. The fact that I am personally troubled by the idea of affixing value to impermanent things is a major contributor to me needing drugs to be able to function in society. I don't recommend this, and if you can manage it, I'd go with accepting that impermanence is okay instead.

Friday, February 25, 2011

10 / 25 Player Differences

For most heroic bosses, it seems that 10-player is currently harder than 25-player. Interestingly, the two bosses where it is clearly much harder on 25-player both have chain lightning abilities.

Which brings us to the obvious question of what abilities actually make fights harder for one size of raid than the other. Here is a quick compilation of things that the developers should be keeping in mind when balancing the next round of raid encounters for 10 and 25 players.

Spread Out
When there are more people, there is less room for each person to stand. This is pretty obvious, but it doesn't seem to translate into ability balancing. If a chain lightning jumps 8 yards on both 10 and 25 player mode then it is pretty easy to stand in appropriate positions to avoid jumps on 10 and quite difficult on 25. Since chain lightning often does more damage with each jump, 25-player makes it is very harsh mechanic.
Solution: Vary the jump distance for 10 and 25 player. With a shorter jump distance on 25 player or a longer distance on 10 the mechanic won't favour one size or the other.

Melee Hate
A typical 10 player raid might bring two melee characters, while a typical 25 player raid may have five. Many melee hate mechanics much more difficulty with more melee characters. Think of Kel'Thuzad's Frost Blast. In 10-player, there was no need for more than one person to get hit by it at a time. In 25-player, brining more than three melee meant it was always possible.
Solution: Significantly reassess melee hate - this needs to be done anywway.

Limited Access Abilities
This is a wide range of different abilities that are only available to certain classes and specs. I'm not talking about the fact that it's harder to get all the buffs you need when player with 10 people than it is with 25 people. I'm talking about interrupts, damage reduction cooldowns, Leap of Faith, AoE slows and other abilities that make boss fights much easier. In a 10-player raid, you may have no AoE slow, making the fester blood part of Cho'gall extraordinarily difficult. On 25-player you should have four or five interrupters available to stop a mob that needs to be interrupted regulary, in 10 you might have just one or two. The less specs that can use an ability, and the more uesfull the ability, the more likely it is than 25's have the edge.
Solution: Consider which abilities have a strong influence on the ease of the encounter and whether those are widely available or open only to a few specs. Especially do this with Hand of Protection.

In 25 player you have a pretty easy option for a third tank, in 10-player a third tank is not very viable for the majority of fights. Putting in a large number of adds to be tanked dramatically shifts the difficulty from 25-player to 10-player.
Solution: Vary the number of adds, not just the add health, between the difficulties.

There are plenty of other asymmetric abilities between 10 and 25 player. Most 10-player encounters still feel like afterthoughts based almost precisely after the 25 player version but with lower numbers. Blizzard still has a way to go in terms of understanding 10 player raiding and the same mechanics feel so different when there are different numbers of players up against them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Strength of Soul Revisited

I posted about Strength of Soul in light of the 4.0.6 changes to Power Word: Shield. Now we have the subsequent hotfixes to increase the cost of Power Word: Shield and to increase the value of Rapture. Is Strength of Soul still a useful talent?

I had concluded that against a single target, Strength of Soul provided a 10% increase in throughput and a 4% increase in efficiency. Assuming you still cast Power Word: Shield whenever weakened soul is done, Strength of Soul now provides the same 10% increase in throughput but actually ends up costing you some mana for that extra throughput, decreasing efficiency by 2%.

Of course Strength of Soul is also what lets us do heavy single target throughput when the fight calls for it. The Shield -> Flash Heal x3 rotation just doesn't work without it.

Strength of Soul is now a talent that lets you burn mana for throughput when you need to. Given the state of Discipline Priest healing, I think this makes it a worthwhile investment. But if you are not in a moment where high throughput is required, Power Word: Shield should be timed to maximize Rapture procs instead of being cast whenever it is available.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


1 week ago - Power Word: Shield cost in increased by 36%

Now - Rapture is increased from 6% to 7%.

Power Word: Shield cost too little, so they made it more expensive. Apparently then discipline priests couldn't afford it so they gave us more mana when we cast it. At this rate by mid summer Power Word: Shield will cost 50k but Rapture will return 70k when it breaks.