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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cast More Spells

On Monday I looked at one way to liquidate excess mana: by substituting an intense casting rotation for a more regular one. Another way to liquidate mana is to simple cast more spells. If we simply took our excess mana and converted it into Power Word: Shields then the rankings for secondary stats would be Spirit (41.5%) > Mastery (28%) > Crit (12%).

If we instead used the extra mana to cast half shields and half renews - thinking that we are probably squeezing these extra spells in while on the move - then the values wouldn't be much different with Spirit (41.4%) > Mastery (23.5%) > Crit (14.7%).

But I feel that this is probably less representative of what is really going to happen in a battle, since encounters are designed around the idea that you will cast spells pretty much as often as you can, but in reality we don't have 100% active time on our log reports, so we can definitely squeeze some more casts in there. I was using a figure of 130k excess mana to spend, which would be enough for 28 shields, or about 38 seconds of extra casting over a 5 minute fight. This is surely an unattainable figure. 38 seconds would mean increasing your active time in a fight by 12.6%. Since my active time is usually around 87% this is getting a little too close to 100% to be believable. In addition to this, the reason we use intense healing rotations is because there are periods that warrant intense healing - even if these periods are just the result of a long time with dodges or critical heals. We can't make up for that loss by simply casting more shields during the lighter damage times.

Another option is to take a half-and-half approach, where we spend half of our excess mana on intense single target healing and half on extra shields and renews.

This result looks a lot like the result from Monday but with the numbers even closer together: Mastery (31%) > Spirit (28%) > Crit (23%).

Of course this doesn't mean that it's time to reforge spirit into mastery. In the case where we are simply running out of mana by the end of the fight, more mana would allow us to continue our normal 6.92 mana efficiency rotation. In this case Spirit (40.6%) > Mastery (18.7%) > Crit (16.5%). So it's a real blowout in favour of Spirit. If such a situation where actually winnable, it would mean damage output was low enough that the full rotation wouldn't be necessary, and mana efficiency would go even higher, making the benefit of spirit relative to the other secondary stats even more extreme.

Spirit has a kind of diminishing returns. Once you have enough mana to cast a baseline mana efficient rotation over all available times during an encounter, the value of spirit drops off. Similarly because an important part of what Intellect does is provide you with mana, the value of Mastery and Crit relative to intellect increase when you pass that point.

But of course determining where that drop off point happens is pretty difficult. Fights are not simple enough to be easily modeled all the way through. Also, I haven't talked about haste at all. Haste increases throughput at the cost of mana. But if I am trying to compare spirit to mastery through estimations of what extra mana can do for us, then surely I can try to fit haste in there somewhere.

When I have some time in the next week I'm going to build myself a spreadsheet dragon and discipline priest and have them face off in a tug-of-war over tank health. That will provide a better picture of how haste fits into the overall scheme of things.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mana Liquidity

In a previous post I said that Discipline Priests were in the position of usually having enough mana to do the healing they needed to do over the course of the fight, but not having the throughput to actually apply that mana to remedy bad situations. Pach 4.0.6 changed that. Discipline priests now have the ability to have an all out mana fire sale, shipping our mana off in massive quantities for whatever healing we can get.

Before I get into that, I want to look at the question of how to understand spending more mana to do more healing. Given a fixed fight length you generally find yourself with a certain amount of mana to spend. In the case of a discipline priest and a 5 minute fight, that amount of mana might be in the neighborhood of 450k to 490k (plus about 40k per resto shaman in the raid). In a fight of that length you will probably be called on to do something like 2.5M healing, meaning you'll need to average between 5 and 5.5 healing per mana to get there.

A simple single target rotation of Shield -> Penance -> Renew (when Borrowed Time is up) -> Inner Focus -> Greater Heal gives 6.92 mana effiency, more than enough to do the job. With a rotation like this, you'll spend only 361k mana doing 2.5M healing, leaving you with something like 130k mana to play with. The question is, how quickly can you liquidate your mana into healing when you need to?

There are two ways to spend more mana: cast more often or cast more expensive things when you are casting. If we are sticking with a simple single target healing model then casting more often probably isn't a legitimate option. While no one is casting all the time, we are generally casting at all times when we are able and when healing is needed. Running out of a fire might cost us healing time, and a phase transition where no damage is incoming might also cost us healing time.

So today I am going to talk about replacing our existing casting time with more mana intense casting time. I hope to come back to this subject tomorrow or the next day with comments about casting more during downtime.

Discipline now has the Shield -> Flash Heal x3 rotation available. The ability to cast a Power Word: Shield every 5.3 seconds makes for some pretty extreme throughput. Using just Flash of Heal and Shield in 359s you can achieve a throughput of 19.7k, but at the cost of around 4360 mana per second, 2100 more healing per mana than the baseline rotation. For that extra mana you get 4130 more healing per second. You are buying extra healing at a rate of 1.97 healing per mana.

If you use the slightly less insane rotation of incorporating Penance when it is off cooldown, you can buy 3670 healing per second for around 2.23 healing per mana. If you incorporate Renew you get only 3250 extra healing per second but actually only get 2.19 healing per mana, so this is not recommended.

Given the high cost of these rotations, it stands to ask how long we actually afford them. With the 130k unused mana, Shield/Flash could replace the baseline rotation for up to 61 seconds. That actually sounds like an awful lot. If you are casting 90% of the time then you could afford to be on all out mana destruction mode for almost a quarter of the time that you are casting.

So can this tell us anything about how to value Spirit compared to throughput stats?

Using this model, we can calculate how much more healing we can expect to get out of various stats. Of course there are two ways to approach it. One is to fix the amount of time you have to heal and calculate how much more healing you can squeeze out in that time with more of a stat. Another is to fix the amount you need to heal and see how much mana you have left over.

Using either of these methods generates fairly similar results. With fixed healing time, we get Mastery > Crit > Spirit at 36%, 28%, 20% of an Intellect respectively. With fixed healing to be done we get the same order but closer together in the raw amounts at 33%, 27%, 26% respectively.

This model has a lot of deficiencies, and should not be applied as a stat weighting. My hope is that by doing calculations like this I can get a better sense of how Spirit interacts with the other secondary stats. These results can only be narrowly applied, but could suggest that if you find you have enough mana to get through fights, you should consider moving some of your spirit into mastery to increase your ability to deal with difficult situations. They also make me fairly comfortable that mastery is the better choice than crit for improving my throughput, but that could change as I go through more examples.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Almost 50%. Really!

In July I wrote about why the developer idea that discipline priests would get 50% of their healing from shields was ridiculous.

This week Blizzard multiplied the strength of Power Word: Shield by more than three. Of course this didn't just mean three times as much shielding from shields, it meant casting more shields since Power Word: Shield became such a good spell with the change. It also meant stacking mastery over crit, further increasing the power of the shields. I now have one night of raiding data, and my total shields as a fraction of heals was 49.4%. Very near the 50% mark that the developers thought we might have.

So they were basically right, assuming you are willing to overlook the mistake of making our signature spell about 30% as good as it should be.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mana Tide Madness

I wrote before about Mana Tide Totem and how it seems like a large and meaningful anomaly in the current mana regen landscape.

Patch 4.0.6 significantly changed Mana Tide by basing the bonus off the Shaman's spirit rather than the recipient's spirit. I understand this was to prevent Mana Tide from being overpowered when used with temporary spirit buffs like Core of Ripeness. Preventing temporary spirit buffs from generating more than three times as much mana as they were intended to is probably a good thing.

Elevating the value of Spirit to obscene levels for Shamans was not.

If you are a Discipline Priest in 359 gear, gaining 100 spirit would give you about 5k more mana to spend over a 6 minute fight. For a Paladin its slightly less, only around 4.6k mana. Druids get 4.8k. Holy Priests, thanks to Holy Concentration get a whopping 6.5k. What about Shamans?

Ignoring Mana Tide, Shamans get around 4.6k just like Paladins. Mana Tide essentially multiples that extra 100 spirit by five for 16.8 seconds out of every 180 seconds, or 9.33% of the time. That's the equivalent of a 37.3% increase to your spirit. If spirit was increasing your mana by 4.6k without Mana Tide then it will be increasing it by 6.4k with Mana Tide.

No big deal, around the same as the Holy Priest. Except for the fact that the other people in your raid get the same bonus. If you are in a 10-player raid, your 100 spirit generates not only an additional 1.8k mana for you, but also for the two other healers. So the total healer mana from your 100 spirit is 9k. That's if the other two healers are also paladins or shamans. If one is a holy priest and the other is a druid then your 100 spirit generates 11k extra healer mana for your raid.

If you are in a 25-player raid with 2 paladins, 2 holy priests, 1 discipline priest and 1 druid, then your 100 spirit generates 19.1k mana.

So in 10 player raids a shaman might get around 1.7 to 2.4 times the benefit from spirit that another healer would get. In 25 player raiders, the number is more like 3 to 4 times the benefit in terms of total mana restored to the raid. Of course shaman are also widely thought to be one of the weaker healers in terms of throughput. That means that giving other people mana is probably better than giving yourself mana.

If other healers stack spirit as high as they can, reforging other stats to it and matching blue sockets with int/spirit gems, then shaman should be taking this a step further. Gem pure spirit, use spirit enchants in every slot (such as 40 spirit to chest rather than 20 stats), eat spirit food and drink a spirit flask. Tell your other raid members they can let a little bit of their spirit go in favour of throughput because you are the mana guy and they don't have to worry about it.

It may not be possible to directly compare throughput to mana stats, but when a mana stat that is desirable to other healers is four times as good for you as it is for them, there is no possible way that at throughput stat can keep up.

And still there is the problem that there is no analog to Mana Tide anywhere. More resto shamans means more mana for your raid. Less shamans means less. You cannot substitute anything, and you can stack as many as you want.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Are Glyphs Better?

Nearly a year ago I wrote about Glyphs and how I thought they were a failed game element because they existed to offer choice but didn't offer any real choice and because they interacted very strangely with the skill that made them. Glyphs have been changed substantially since then, so I thought I'd take a look back and compare the state of glyphs then and now.

One complaint on my part was that inscription skill has nothing to do with glyph power. This has only gotten worse since there are no new glyphs at higher skill level in Cataclysm. Inscription is the profession that lets you make glyphs, but you cap out on your ability to do that at 450 skill. The glyphs still come in a seemingly random order and can still be learned well before or after they become useful.

The introduction of major glyphs, however, solved many of the other problems that I had. We no longer have a slew of useless glyphs sitting around that no one will ever use. There are meaningful choices to make between major glyphs that will be made on personal preference as well as on fight mechanics.

But while the major glyphs work well, the prime glyphs and minor glyphs are in the same sorry state they were. Prime glyphs basically offer no choice at all - they are determined entirely by your spec. Their purpose, apparently, is just that players would find it weird that they didn't have glyphs for their most important abilities. I could grudgingly suggest that if this were true there would be a glyph for Greater Heal. But why do I even want them to make a prime glyph for Greater Heal? It's because if it is better than what I'm using I'll use it, and if it's not then it's no skin of my back. Prime glyphs don't add anything to the game. Major glyphs that affected these abilities that didn't get them a percentage boost would be way more interesting.

There is also still remarkable homogeneity in the choice of minor glyphs, when these should be the place where there is the most flexibility. Some choices are just much more attractive than the others, and this should be fixed.

I don't understand the system of getting to choose three minor glyphs of out of five or six - it doesn't seem like much of a choice at all. I truly don't understand the system of having players choose three prime glyphs out of the three that affect their spec - this is definitely not a choice.

Was I right about Glyph of Feint? I don't know, I could actually imagine a rogue taking that for certain fights. Since you aren't GCD locked you could use that on cooldown to lower AoE damage. 50% less AoE damage 60% of the time is actually a very good glyph.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Saving the World

Last night my wife asked me how my raid went and I said we beat Al'Akir. She said, "Yay! You're a hero!"

Later on, my wife asked me what the ultimate goal of WoW is.1 My first response was "There is no ultimate goal." My second try, after further pressing was, "To beat all the bosses on hard mode, but in a few months there will be new bosses to beat."

Then, in no small part because me talking about things helps her go to sleep, I told her something that started with, "I'm not sure whether the titans created or found Azeroth," journeyed through old gods, the corruption of Deathwing, his recent escape and the ensuing cataclysm and ended with, "So we need to go to the throne of the four winds and defeat Al'Akir, the lord of air; break into the bastion of twilight, defeat the guards and kill Cho'gall to cut off the head of the twilight hammer cult; and stop Nefarian in Blackwing Descent." We're out to save the world.

I really try to avoid writing nice things about WoW in my blog, but recently I've been feeling kind of down from the number of posts I've been reading about problems with the game. I write posts about problems with the game, of course, but it's the doomsaying that really bothers me. Whether it's outlandish claims that Cataclysm is the worst expansion, not only for WoW, but for any MMO ever, or it's people's concluding blog posts because they just aren't having fun playing anymore, it makes me feel like the sorts of problems that I constantly see with the game are somehow adding up to a bigger picture of decline.

But I genuinely like choosing which heal to cast and on whom. The game really is more fun because I'm playing it with other people. I even like running heroics on easy mode2 to get my guild experience. I also really want Sthenno to save Azeroth from Deathwing, even if I need my wife to remind me of that.

WoW is great. Now if they could only do something about the numbers.

1. She had absolutely no idea who Al'Akir was.

2. In 359 gear.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Strength of Soul

Strength of Soul is a really rotten talent. It lets you cast a bad spell more often at the cost of casting another bad spell. There was really no reason to take it, and if you did take it, you were best off treating those talent points as a sunk cost and never making use of the bonus it gave you.

But of course I am writing this on the eve of 4.0.6, and given the coming changes, this talent deserves some reevaluation. As of tomorrow, instead of letting you cast a spell you don't want to cast more often by casting another spell you don't want to cast, Strength of Soul is going to let you cast a spell you desperately want to cast more often at the expense of casting a spell you want to cast anyway. That sounds like it has a lot more potential.

So I modified one of my old simulators to see what benefit Strength of Soul would give if you had the following casting priority on a single target:

Power Word: Shield
Renew (if Borrowed Time is up)
Greater Heal

With this priority, Strength of Soul results in a 10% increase in throughput with a 4% increase in efficiency for the two points. Of course this isn't a very realistic situation, so I modified the order to the following:

Power Word: Shield
Prayer of Mending
Renew (if Borrowed Time is up)
Prayer of Healing*
Greater Heal

In order to simulate sometimes using Prayer of Healing I gave it a random cooldown with each cast from 0-30 seconds, which roughly corresponds with how often I cast Prayer of Healing against bosses on my last raid. Since Strength of Soul isn't doing as much with this set up, the two points give a 5.4% throughput and 1.4% efficiency increase. That's still a good amount of work to be getting out of two talent points.

With a top end of 5% more healing per point and a midrange of 2.5% healing per point, I think these talent points are probably better than some of the others I currently have, but I don't have a lot of flexibility to move talent points around. I think my weakest talent in my current build that I can afford to get rid of is Surge of Light.

As a side note, for now I am going to be moving two points of Mental Agility to Soul Warding as a nod to the new strength of Power Word: Shield. Both talents get better with Power Word: Shield getting better, but I think Mental Agility goes from somewhat weak to mediocre while Strength of Soul goes from downright useless to situationally great. After I've actually raided with the changes I'll be able to reevaluate Mental Agility to see how much I'm getting out of those points.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Plans Get More Complex

Matticus recently put up a really simple healing guide for Discipline for path 4.0.6. I was asked once in the past if I could put together such a thing, and I've really struggled with the idea because my concept of how to heal isn't very readily summed up.

I'm not saying that healing advice can't fit into short tidbits and neat packages. I actually think Matticus' advice is a pretty good starting point for people who are wondering how 4.0.6 will affect them, or people who are starting to heal as discipline priests after the patch comes out. For example, his AoE healing advice (5 players) is to cast Prayer of Healing. Good advice!

But as I discussed on Wednesday, you can actually increase your throughput by alternative Power Word: Shield and Prayer of Healing. In fact, on Wednesday I forgot to include that using a Shield between Prayers would allow you to get a tick off of the Glyph of Prayer of Healing, increasing Prayer's effect by 6.5%1 and meaning that this alternating cast heals for almost 13% more than prayer alone for only about 7.5% more mana per healing - again assuming that your Rapture proc time will decrease to once every 14 seconds from once every 15.

There are other crazy interactions, however. If you are in for a long period of AoE healing and you cast Penance on one of your targets then while Penance has clearly worse numbers than Prayer, it stacks Grace on that person, giving them 24% more healing from Prayer for 15 seconds. That's an increase of 4.8% to the effect of the prayer as a whole, or more if you were only intending to heal three or four people. You can also haste the Penance with a Borrowed Time without consuming the Borrowed Time so it still gets used on the subsequent Prayer. By squeezing in Penance and Prayer of Mending in the same Borrowed Time window, you get an additional tick of Prayer of Healing. These shenanigans have the potential to get you around 0.8% less healing for around 1.6% less mana, which is hardly any different unless you have your 4-piece set bonus in which case you are spending around 28% less mana by doing this instead of just alternating Shield and Prayer.

Of course if the damage is being dealt equally to all people and there is no additional damage being thrown around, then you won't want to use tactics like these because there will create differences in the health of the people you are healing which will cost you efficiency later. That is, unless you know damage will be coming in for a long enough time that you will be able to give everyone a turn getting the boost. Or if the tank is if the group you are AoE healing then you can do this on the tank while AoE healing everyone else.

So, my AoE healing strategy for discipline priests would be something like this:

1. This is 6.5% rather than 10% because this glyph does not help the Divine Aegis portion of the Prayer.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Power Word: Shield is Awesome, but it May Not Be Overpowered, but it Probably Is

Obviously Power Word: Shield is going to be awesome come patch 4.0.6, if it doesn't get nerfed into the ground before then. I uploaded a fragment of a spreadsheet I have to google docs so you can see some of the numbers yourself. Check out the bottom of the "Spells" sheet here. The values on the sheet are based on my current gear.

For those who don't like looking at spreadsheets, the key facts are that Power Word: Shield has 97.2% of the throughput of Prayer of Healing and 73.3% of it's efficiency. Those are some pretty strong figures. The only single target competitor is Penance, which is 7% more mana efficient than Shield, but Shield has 72% better throughput than Penance. Nothing else in the single target department is ever close to Shield in either category.

The question is, is shield really a single target heal? If there was a healer who had an instant cast heal-to-full spell that didn't cost mana, but couldn't do anything else and that spell had a 15 second cooldown, you probably couldn't afford to use one of your three healer spots in a 10-player raid on them. 15 seconds is really a very long time to wait between being effective. Of course Discipline priests can do things when they are not casting shield, but the question is, is it right to consider a heal that can only affect a single target once every 15 seconds a single target heal, or is it more like an AoE heal?

As an AoE heal Shield is right about where it should be. Worse than Prayer of Healing in raw numbers, but probably better than Prayer of Healing because of targetting restrictions and overheal. Prayer has a tendency to overheal in excess of 20% because it will hit a target who doesn't need the healing. Shield doesn't overheal much if at all when used correctly.

Shield is both better an worse than other AoE heals. It's better because you can stop the damage from happening at all and react quickly and powerfully to individuals who are at low health. It's worse because you have to anticipate damage rather than being allowed to react to it, and because it doesn't heal evenly over multiple targets.

The second part is a minus because AoE heals are much better than single target heals. If a big AoE is coming at five people and I shield two of them before the AoE hits then those two people don't end up down health, or at least not much. If I then choose to use Prayer of Healing, my best spell for healing three people up after an AoE then it is working at 60% effectiveness. My pre-shielding was acutally just pre-overhealing. If I can shield all five people, or shield four and use Penance on the last one, or if the damage is dangerous enough that waiting on Prayer to heal them up after is too slow, Or shield everyone but the shadow priest and the feral druid who will heal themselves eventurally, or shield the one person who isn't in the same group as the others then Shield was great. If I just shield a couple of people at random, Shield may end up being a total waste of mana.

This is also why just casting shield every three or four seconds probably won't contribute enough to the group healing. By keeping a larger number of people at full health through the AoE you are denying your co-healers maximum mana efficiency in order to maximize your own. With smart shielding this shouldn't happen, but there are some damage distributions where it's simple not possible to contribute beneifically with a single-target effect that cannot be repeated within 15 seconds.

Back in Wrath I read all about how Discipline priests did nothing but spam Power Word: Shield. Some players countered that they cast all kinds of heals and that people who just spam one spell aren't playing right. The argument from Blizzard was that while spamming one spell may not have been the best way to play, it was close enough to the best way to play that it was a problem.

This never entirely clicked with me, but I realized at some point it was because I raided with 10 players. With a 1 second GCD on shield spam and only 10 people to target every 15 seconds, I was forced to do other things. Not that I kept a shield on everyone at all times, but even in a fight like Freya + 3 where putting shields on everyone is the norm, I still had to spend some of my time on something else. Now that the majority of raiders are raiding 10 player we may see shield "spam" go down dramatically even if Shield is substantially overpowered.

If Power Word: Shield is an AoE heal, then it probably balanced. If it is a single-target heal then it is grossly overpowered. In reality it is neither of these things, and I think the experiment of making it extremely powerful will be an interesting one. We'll see how it works out over the next month or so.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Strange Vengeance Math

I've been wondering how Vengeance worked for a while. Since you don't actually get a buff it can be pretty hard to tell exactly what is going on. Courtesy of the rawr tank modeling discussion on Elistist Jerks, I have my answer, and it is stranger than I could have guessed.

Your maximum vengeance value is, as a blue post indicated not too long ago, your stamina plus 10% of your base health. It was 10% of your health before they increased the health per stamina to 14, but they didn't want to increase Vengeance when they did that. For reference, a tank in 359s might have a maximum Vengeance value around 13k.1

When you take damage, if you do not have Vengeance, you start a new stack of Vengeance which is 5% of the damage you took. Then, every 2 seconds Vengeance ticks and does one of two things:

If you took damage in those two seconds then your new Vengeance value is 95% of your previous value plus 5% of the damage you took.

If you did not take damage then your new value is your old value minus 10% of the largest that stack of Vengeance has ever been.

So if you are taking continuous damage over time at a given rate, your Vengeance stack will tend towards the amount of damage you are taking per two seconds. That is, if you are taking 10k damage per second then your Vengeance will tend towards 20k. Of course that will be way above your cap, so you will actually trend towards your cap quite strongly.

Of course tanks don't take damage continuously. If a boss is swinging once every 2 seconds, and hitting for your Vengeance cap then that will be good enough. The problem is that you will avoid some of those attacks, causing a 10% decay in Vengeance. That will leave you with a 11,700 Vengeance stack. If you get hit again before the next tick then your Vengeance will be 11,115 plus 5% of the hit amount, so you'll need a hit of at least 37,700 to top you back off on that tick, or, more generally, a hit equal to 2.9 times your maximum Vengeance stack. Two misses will mean you will almost certainly not be back up in one strike.

This means that in practice your actual Vengeance will increase non-linearly with Stamina. The more Stamina you have, the more your maximum stack is going to be and the harder a boss will have to hit you to recover the stack after a miss. Of course higher stamina will mean higher stacks, but more stamina means less value for each point of stamina. Against Maloriak, for example, the marginal AP value of Stamina decays from .88 to .71 as you move from 11k to 13k max Vengeance.2 If you could reach 17k Stamina then it would go into freefall, going from .5 to .3 to .02 value per stamina as you got from 18k to 21k. Then at 22k max Vengeance something strange happens: your marginal return is negative. At some point, more stamina means less average AP from Vengeance.

Why does this happen? Given the long period I ran my simulation over, at some point you will dodge infrequently enough that your Vengeance stack will approach Maloriak's average 2 second damage. This will be the high value for your Vengeance stack, and will define the amount of Vengeance you lose if you don't take damage during a 2 second window. The higher this is, the more AP you lose when you successfully dodge an attack. If you are not consistently hovering near your maximum Vengeance stack then you are not getting much benefit from having a higher maximum, but you are still going to end up suffering the drawback of the higher stack size.

If you had no maximum Vengeance against Maloriak hitting you all day, you would end up with around 14.4k Vengeance - at whatever level of armor my Maloriak tank had last time we beat him. But if your Maximum Vengeance stack is around 21k, you will get an average of 15.7k Vengeance. You start doing better than no maximum at around 16k maximum, which is probably attainable this expansion, though obviously not while Maloriak is still relevant.

I don't think there are any bosses currently where more stamina would mean less Vengeance at intended gear levels, but I think Ignacious would close if it weren't for the fact that he is only one phase of the fight and leaves quickly. He has all the right ingredients: short periods of intense damage followed by drawn out periods of mild damage with occasional times where he stops attacking to guarantee a large decay of Vengeance. I can certainly construct reasonable sounding bosses in my head where appropriate levels of Stamina would pass the point where more Stamina means less Vengeance.3

Is this terribly important? I'm not sure. Apparently modelling tools are advising bear druids to gem for stamina, and I know returns from Vengeance are a part of that. I'm sure that advanced modelling tools are using reasonable estimates of Vengeance return for stamina points, but estimates can be reasonable at best, they cannot be accurate in a broad since because there is too much variation based on fight mechanics. I wonder if this is really the best advice a bear can get.

This would be an easy problem to fix. The value of the 10% decays for taking no damage should be set at the last time you took Vengeance damage, not the maximum size your stack has reached. Alternatively, there could simply be a 5% of current value decay every 2 seconds as there is when you do get hit right now, and have it rapidly decay and fall off when you are out of combat. If they don't want it to be that strong then they could simply lower the maximum value.

The current system is just a little too bizarre. If it gave great results then I could accept some strange math, but it gives wacky results. Wacky processes that give wacky results should be replaced with simple processes that give acceptable results.

1. This is the cap for a tank who is gemming heavily for Stamina. Depending on tank class, this might not be a good idea, so that cap might be much lower.

2. Using Maloriak's physical attacks hitting you for a day. In reality he has breaks in his attacks and you'll have to rebuild your stack, so it will be lower than this, spiking temporarily higher during red phase.

3. Imagine a twins fight. We'll make them faceless because I like faceless. So one twin is the caster twin and the other is the beater twin. You put on tank on each. The caster stands and nukes his tank with shadow bolts every 2.6 seconds (2 seconds but he is susceptible to cast slows), but sometimes he does cone of death centred on a random raid member with a 3 second cast (3.9 seconds for real). Every 45-60 seconds one of the twins puts up a shield and channels a spell on the other that makes him do way more damage, increasing over time. You break through the shield and interrupt before the tank on that twin dies. There are adds, void zones, explosions or whatever to do raid damage and keep people reacting to things.

In this fight, when the caster twin is being powered up he would do lots of damage and stack his tank to maximum Vengeance. Then his relatively lighter damage that comes more than every 2 seconds (the healers spend a lot of time on the raid) coupled with taking 3.9 seconds off hitting the tank now and then, would allow the stack to suffer from significant decay. The higher the maximum, the more the tank would be losing, but the stack would never fall off to reset the highest value for that stack because the damage is coming in too consistently.

This sounds like an encounter that could exist. It is an unlikely but believable mix of ingredients that allows Stamina to decrease Vengeance stack size.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Improving Normal Dungeons

This week I've talked about a number of problems with dungeons, and suggested that many of the perceived problems with heroic dungeons are really caused by normal dungeons being marginalized. I've criticized the awarding of Justice Points of normal bosses as an ineffective solution to this problem because it only serves to further marginalize normal drops.

Now I am going to present some of my solutions to these problems. These are real solutions designed to create a space for normal dungeons. With each of these solutions, I present what I think is a realistic timeframe for when this could be implemented given the current state of the game. These changes are radical, but probably the best thing about WoW and about Blizzard is that radical changes are considered if they are good changes. I will be submitting all of these on the suggestion forum.1

Fully Separate Normal and Heroic Difficulties
I've talked about this before, but it really is part of the solution. The current model for progression is normal dungeon to heroic dungeon to normal raid to heroic raid. The ideal would be to have two separate streams, normal dungeon to normal raid and heroic dungeon to heroic raid, possibly with some heroic players running a few normal dungeons just after reaching maximum level to get some gear.

Whether you choose to approach normal or heroic difficulty should be a legitimate choice based on your preferred playstyle and time commitment. Normal difficulty should not be a stepping stone on the way of heroic. Currently every progression stage has to be two things: 1) challenging for those who will never reach beyond that stage and 2) a gear grind for those who don't think of that stage as an accomplishment. At the same time as many people are struggling with heroics, many other people are already bored of running them every day for their 70 Victory Points. Having these groups play together is a recipe for conflict.

In this model the gear from heroic dungeons should be equal level to the gear from normal raids and heroic dungeons should be harder than normal raids. Both normal dungeons and heroic dungeons should be beatable in quest gear with good play - good play being a relative term depending on the difficulty level. Raids would be tuned expecting players to be mostly geared in appropriate dungeon gear. Because normal raids and heroic dungeons would give the same gear, those who played normal dungeons would be ready to try heroic raids to see see if they wanted to switch streams. But this would be a function of practice leading to increased play skill, not a function of getting more gear.

Timeline: I thought it was important to bring this is as an ultimate goal, but it is completely unrealistic to implement this until the next expansion. Changes being made now should be seen, in part, as preparation for this new state.

Less Gear from Vendors
When the emblems system first premiered in Burning Crusade it seemed like a really great idea. We all know the frustration of waiting for those last one or two drops to complete our gear sets, so having a way that we acquire a few pieces of gear for certain with sufficient work seemed like a good remedy. But in Burning Crusade, gearing up for raids involved a lot of running heroics for drops. In Cataclysm faction vendors and Justice Points provide so much variety in gear that dungeon drops are becoming insignificant. Waiting for that one drop your need is even more frustrating because it was the only drop you needed in the first place. Sometimes I would wonder why dungeons even had cloth gloves in them at all.

The amount of slots that can be covered by reputation vendors should be reduced, and the rate at which points are earned should be reduced as well. Points should be a way to fill in for slots you just can't seem to get rather than the primary reason to run dungeons. Each difficulty setting should earn points only at their own difficulty. So heroic players earn Victory Points but not Justice Points. This would prevent the marginalization or normal difficulty gear.

Timeline: In Cataclysm this ship has already sailed at the gear cannot be taken back. It might be possible, though, to hybridize this concept in with the current one by not giving out Justice Points like candy in heroic dungeons as soon as the next major content patch.

Three Dungeon Difficulties
Normal difficulty dungeons are currently trying to fulfill two incompatible roles. First of all, they are the ends of the stories of each zone. The storylines presented through quests end in assaults on enemy stongholds that are the dungeons. For this reason, normal dungeons need to be extremely accessible to everyone, and they need to be accessible at the level appropriate to the zones. As a result, only a handful of those dungeons are appropriate for maximum level characters, and it creates the impression that normal difficulty is a throwaway to be played through once only.

I am proposing a third difficulty be added - Story mode - that is intended to be played through at a level appropriate to the zone the dungeon is in. This difficulty would replace the current normal difficulty (i.e. all current normal dungeons would instead be the "story" dungeons) and a new normal difficulty would be placed between heroic and story. Normal difficulty would be for maximum level characters, and would present many of the same challenges as heroic difficulty but be more forgiving in terms of damage outlay, dps checks and time to adapt to or avoid fatal attacks.

This would mean that those who want to play at a lower difficulty level would have a full range of dungeons to experience, including dungeons like Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep that have been updated for maximum level. Normal dungeons could be something that people choose to play with their play time, rather than being seen as just glorified group quests.

Timeline: I honestly think this should be implemented in 4.1 or 4.2. That may sound completely crazy because of the amount of work involved, but I think it's pretty easy to overestimate how much work it would really be. These new dungeons would be exactly the same as heroic dungeons, but with some numbers dialed down. Because they are being tuned to be easier, they do not need to be tuned as tightly, so applying a ratio across the board for damage and health would probably suffice as a first pass with a second added here or there to abilities that you have to react to to stay alive. With future dungeons more care could be put in to balance properly based on lessons learned from the first batch. The infrastructure already exists for difficulty levels, so it is hard to believe that adding another would be a more massive project than is normally taken on in major content patches.

Dungeon Fragment Finder
Limited play time is a definite hindrance to experiencing content, especially if normal dungeons were a little harder than they are now. With the current dungeon lockout system, however, it would be possible to implement a system where someone could essentially save their progress through a dungeon2 and then later look for a group to finish it. I necessary people who were not saved at the same point could be brought in, since people are generally pretty happy to join a dungeon run already in progress to reach the end boss faster. A good progress saving system would also be helpful for guilds running dungeons together who play for limited amounts of time.

Timeline: Patch 4.2 or 4.3. I'm sure there are some technical challenges to implementing this system, and it is a lower priority suggestion. It would be a valuable upgrade to the dungeon finder, though, to make dungeons more playable with limited play time.

Normal Difficulty Achievements
Achievements add a lot of replayability to heroic dungeons. When a boss has been mastered, there is something else to try for. Similar achievements should exist in normal to add the same amount of replayability.

Timeline: I think this could be added any time after the third difficulty, but if another difficulty is not added then achievements would need to wait for the next expansion. Unfortunately normal dungeons are just too easy to overgear to make these achievements even feel like achievements, and most of the normal difficulty dungeons are not for maximum level characters.

Less Loot Inflation
Reduce a "tier" of gear to only 7 or 8 item levels. This would help with scaling problems from the beginning to the end of the expansion and also reduce the role that overgearing plays in defeating content.

Timeline: I'd really like to see this change in 4.1, but I'm not holding my breath.

Better Information About What Went Wrong
This is actually something the developers have mentioned they would like to do and I wholeheartedly support it for normal difficulty. If you are killed by Rajh's Inferno Leap, getting a message telling you that that was what killed you, and that in order to survive it you have to get away from where he is landing, would be a great addition. I know that currently this is primarily intended for heroic difficulty, but in the long run if normal and heroic difficulty were separate then I don't think this would be necessary for heroic difficulty. Playing heroic would indicate a level of comfort with figuring things out on your own.

Timeline: I think we'll see something like this in patch 4.1 or 4.2.

Suppose all of these things had been done for Cataclysm, what state would we be in now? Imagine that by the time you completed all of your solo play you had access to one piece of 333 loot from a quest chain and two pieces from getting to revered with all the factions. The rest of your loot is 325 from quests. You choose, based on your own preference, whether you want to play normal or heroic difficulty and start looking for dungeons of that difficulty.

In terms of execution and play skill requirements - not in absolute terms - heroic bosses are close to the same challenge level as the easier normal raid bosses currently are. A heroic boss dungeon boss would put up nearly as much of a fight for a newly geared 85 as Halfus, Double Dragon, Magmaw or Omnitron would right now for a full 346 geared group. If you choose normal you find that those bosses are a little harder than current normal bosses, expecially in the sense of being less forgiving of mistakes, but that they have significant amounts of instruction in terms of raid warnings plus indications of what went wrong if you lose. By succeeding in these dungeons you would be able to gradually upgrade all your gear to 333 for normal or 341 for heroic, giving you in the neighborhood of a 10-12% increase in suvivability, healing and damage. Introductory raid bosses would be toned down in their difficulty from where they are now by a noticeable margin (remember that if you were playing heroic you would not do the bosses on normal first), and final bosses could be either a little easier or stay the same given appropriate adjustments for lower gear numbers.

Casual players would feel that they were accomplishing something by playing normal dungeons with their limited play time. "Hardcore Casual" players would get to approach heroic dungeons with like-minded players. Servers would have a small number of heroic guilds and a larger number of normal guilds. Raid accessibility would be increased - a goal of developers since Wrath - without watering down content for those who like the hardest challenges.

This would allow a wider array of players to access dungeon and raid content, generate less friction by putting players with very different play styles and goals together less frequently, and give players more space to set their own goals instead of being forced down the one progression path.

If you think these changes sound insane or counterproductive, I'd love to hear about it how terrible I am. If you think that they sound awesome, help to spread the word. Blizzard is very responsive to customer feedback, and the more a good idea gets echoed in the player base, the more likely the are to notice it.

1. So far I have quite a remarkable record of my suggestions being implemented, which probably means that I generally have made suggestions that the developers were already planning on doing anyway. I hope I'm behind the curve on this stuff too and they already have it in the works.

2. This is already essentially possible with the lockout system by just extending your last instance, but the interface is somewhat hidden and not user friendly.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Justice for Normals

The developers have heard the complaints about heroic dungeons and they have responded. In patch 4.0.6 the rate at which you will be able to earn Justice Points by doing normal dungeons will be greatly increased. Not only are they doubling the Justice Points earned by doing a daily random to 140, they are giving 30 Justice Points per boss for Halls of Origination, Lost City of Tol'vir and Grim Batol.

The idea, it seems, is to make normal dungeons more rewarding and to help players enter heroic dungeons with more gear. But how does this goal measure up to reality?

First of all, let's consider how good a source of Justice Points normal dungeons will actually be. Bosses being worth 30 versus 70 Justice Points seems like a big decrease, but they also die a lot faster. Heroic Anraphet has 4.9M health while normal Anraphet has only 2M. If you wanted to farm Justice Points and had the choice of fighting either of those bosses repeatedly, you would choose normal for the simple reason that 30 divided by 70 is greater than 2 divided by 4.9.

It's not that simple, of course, but heroic trash has a lot more health too. The ratio isn't consistent, but aside from the fairly common 309,960 / 387,450 mobs, heroic trash usually has about 75% more health than normal trash and bosses have between 2.3 and 2.8 times as much health. Adding up the total health of normal versus heroic Halls of Origination gives the slight edge to heroic in terms of Justice Points per mob health, and of course the time to run between mobs is the same on both difficulties.

So heroic is the clear winner for Justice Points assuming that you have the same amount of difficulty with both. If your healer drinks more on heroic, if your dps die more, if you ever wipe or stop to discuss strategy, if you mark mobs for CCing when you could be using AoE abilities to do more damage, then normal is a better place for you to earn Justice Points. The number of slots you can expect to get 346 items in from normal dungeons and heroics will reach 10 of 16. If this does prepare you for heroics, it also leaves you with few things left to upgrade when you get there.

I think all of this runs the risk of substantially mischaracterizing the people who are going to play normal difficulty dungeons on an ongoing basis. I seem to be talking as if everyone who plays the game is only interested in a frantic gear grind. I know that this is not the case, but I think that how the frantic gear grind works has ripple effects that will affect everyone. So let's divide the audience for normal dungeons in two categories: 1) Those who are playing normal dungeons because they like to play WoW and that is what is accessible to them in the play time they have; and 2) Those who are playing normal dungeons only as a stepping stone to gear up for heroics.

The first group is a group that doesn't get talked about a lot. If you only log in for 30-90 minutes at a time (maybe a little more sometimes on weekends) and you only play WoW two to three times a week then it is a pretty safe bet that you also don't spend a lot of your time talking about WoW on forums, reading WoW blogs or otherwise making your presence known in the WoW community. The dungeon finder was a huge boon to people who play in this category because they could run dungeons in the limited time they actually play the game. The dungeon finder can still work for this group of players, but only for normal, not for heroic instances. A typical random heroic takes too long to complete, and may be too difficult.

The second group has a playstyle that is going to be antithetical to the first. If I felt like the best way to upgrade my chest piece was to run normal Halls of Origination 11 times then I would do it, but I certainly wouldn't want to take my time doing it, explain fights, or possibly even exchange pleasantries.

By making normal dungeons a viable source of gear for people who are having trouble with heroic dungeons, these changes will force these two groups to play together, which will be less fun for everyone. They will be a disservice to the first group because they diminish the rewards of the dungeon in favour of rewards to be purchased from a vendor. They will be a disservice to the second group because they give people the impression that the way to solve their gameplay problems is by grinding better gear. If Corla's friends are ascending, then at 346 chest is not going to help you, so people are going to end up grinding up gear in normal dungeons that have become boring for lack of challenge and then find that they are still having the same problems with heroics they were having before.

Tomorrow I'll be concluding my Normal Dungeon Manifesto with a list of suggestions that would improve normal dungeons by making normal dungeons seem like a worthwhile goal unto themselves and by responding to the needs of players who run normal dungeons.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bad Habits

Cataclysm was a rough time for many players who had developed very bad dungeon habits in Wrath of the Lich King. The group up and AoE model for trash, often taking more than one pull at a time, didn't translate to the new dungeons and the new healing model. This adjustment to CCing, paying attention to enemy abilities, and otherwise playing well was never going to last, however, and for the most part my guildmates have already returned to killing everything at once in heroic dungeons because 359 gear allows that.

But if 359 gear enables the group up and AoE strategy in heroics, what level of gear is required to enable that strategy in normal?

Let's look at the abilities from normal and heroic trash. Here I'm intentionally choosing some of the most deadly trash mobs available in level 85 dungeons. These mobs aren't necessarily that dangerous if handled correctly, but will easily kill individuals or groups if their abilities are ignored.

Ascendant Waterlashers have wiped more than one group I've been in because their front cone has been facing the group. This cone lasts 4 seconds and deals damage every 0.25 seconds. On normal it averages 1500 damage per tick, on heroic it averages 4000 damage per tick.

Temple Shadowlancers channel Pact of Darkness doing high damage in melee range, and often killing off melee dps who do not interrupt it while also putting a strain on tank healing. Pact is channeled and deals damage every 1 second. On normal the average damage is 4500, on heroic it is 18000.

The penalty for not dealing with an ability correctly on normal is in the range of 27000 damage to a single character or up to 96000 damage spread around the group. On heroic it is instead over 108000 to an individual or upwards of 256000 damage divided among the group.

Not all heroic versus normal mobs have such extreme differences. In many cases, the damage difference seems to be around 50%, but spells that you are supposed to avoid or play around are often much higher. All of this brings us to the fact that if you walk into normal with some 333 gear and some 346 gear then there is little reason to CC trash or react to abilities. Failing to interrupt a spell that an enemy is casting doesn't mean very much. Facing the enemies the right way doesn't mean very much. Targeting the right enemy first or burning down a dangerous enemy doesn't mean very much. The gear you can get from soloing is adequate to group up and AoE in normal instances.

Equally important are the boss abilities. On normal, General Umbriss' Blitz deals 30k, on heroic is deals 100k. On normal, Erudax's Shadow Gale deals 3k on the first tick, increasing to 30k by the last one for a total of 165k, on heroic it deals 10k on the first tick, increasing to 100k for a total of 550k. On normal failure to dispel Anhuur's Divine Reckoning means 15k damage, on heroic it means 45k. It is hard to directly compare bosses outside of level 85 dungeons because you encounter them at different levels, but the numbers are still telling. The rocks High Priestess Azil throws on normal deal only 35k damage, which is survivable for a level 82 character. On heroic they deal 400k damage which is not survivable for anyone. Ozruk's Shatter is similar, dealing only 30k on normal - a hit you would expect your tank to simply take - and 150k on heroic - an instant fatality to new geared heroic characters. With the new healing system, I often see healers saying, "I can't heal stupid." In normal dungeons, you can.

When the developers say that players who are having trouble with heroic difficulty may want to try normal difficulty to learn the fights, they are ignoring the fact that you can't really learn many of these fights on normal. Learning only happens when there is a motivation for it. When your tank gets killed by Pistol Barrage the first time you face Godfrey, you ask questions like, "Can you move out of that ability or should you use a cooldown? Will he move to keep facing you when he's casting or can you escape without taking any damage at all?" If we imagined a level 85 normal version of Shadowfang Keep, the tank would be taking manageable damage while standing in the barrage. Those questions may never get asked, and while the healer would walk out of the fight saying that it seemed like a lot of damage, a win would be quite possible while ignoring all the mechanics. If you never have to ask questions like that to win, then you never learn to ask questions like that when you aren't winning. What is going wrong in heroics becomes a mystery - it seems like you just can't heal enough.

You don't learn Altairus' upwind/downwind ability when you can heal the fight with the haste penalty. You don't learn Throngus' Phalanx ability when there is no penalty for standing in front of him and your healer isn't in danger of running out of mana. In some cases key abilities don't even exist on normal. Normal Ozruk doesn't cast Paralyze, normal Beauty pulls separately from her pups, normal Setesh doesn't have attackable portals.

The longer you stay in normal dungeons, the more gear you get, the easier they become. But the bad habits that people form in normal dungeons are going to do more harm than the gear they collect can do good. This is why we see healers complaining about getting kicked from groups after the dps make unhealable mistakes. After enough experience in normals, "unhealable" leaves your head as a concept.

Tomorrow I'm going to look at the solution that the developers are implementing in 4.0.6 to make normal dungeons more attractive - increased Justice Point rewards - and what effects we should realistically expect from that change.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Normal Dungeons Manifesto

My first excursion into a heroic dungeon was somewhat challenging. It was Stonecore, which is undoubtedly one of the harder heroics, and Corborus gave us a bit of a run for our money. Of course it was because we were playing terribly, getting hit by his charge while he was underground, but it left me with a good feeling that heroics really were harder now, and that encounter mechanics could not be ignored in favour of overgearing. As much as I like the new heroic design, there are clearly many who don't, and they regularly show up on forums to talk about how heroics are no longer fun for them. My gut reaction is to defend heroics because I don't want them to change or to be made easier, but that adversarial relationship is just masking the real problem. It's not that heroic dungeons aren't fun, it's that normal dungeons aren't fun.

This post is the first in a four part series on what went wrong with dungeons in Cataclysm from the perspective of a casual player. Today I'll be talking about how players can acquire gear and why normal dungeons are out of place in that progression. Tomorrow will be about how the current system of dungeons creates a dichotomy between normal and heroic dungeons where the best way to beat a heroic is by playing well and the best way to beat a normal is by having better gear. Thursday I will look at the role of Justice Points and what we can expect from the change to the way normal-difficulty players can earn Justice Points in 4.0.6. On Friday I'll present some real solutions to some of these problems.

Before I get to the topic I really want to discuss, and that is where gear comes from for non-heroic players, I want to talk about a few of the common concerns that are echoed around the forums. I don't want to dismiss 45 minute queue times for dps, the length of time it takes to clear heroic dungeons, or the challenges of doing difficult content with people you don't know through the dungeon finder, because I think all of these are legitimate issues for some people. But I think that too many people are trying to find solutions for problems that they perceive with heroic dungeons when they should be trying to find solutions to problems with normal dungeons. Almost everyone wants content to be tuned so that it feels like a challenge but it is ultimately surmountable. Unfortunately, a single dungeon cannot be that to all people - it has to run the gamut from unbeatably hard to boringly simple depending on the players that enter it. In focusing all efforts on finding ways to fix heroics, we are trying to make them into something they can't be - content for everyone. There are two levels of difficulty for dungeons, and if we work on fixing the problems with normal difficulty dungeons then instead of having one level of difficulty that is meant to be something for everyone, we could have two meaningful levels of difficulty and allow people to play the one they have the most fun with.

So why aren't normal dungeons working? One problem is definitely that there are only three of them for level 85 characters. This doesn't give enough variety for players who want to player normals dungeons. Even if all eight heroic dungeons were playable at level 85, though, they still wouldn't see nearly enough play.

A casual player, or any player, has most likely leveled up by going through the various zones and doing the quests. While some people have have leveled mostly from archaeology, this is certainly the exception rather than the norm. Having done all those quests means having gathered quest rewards, and having a decent amount of reputation will all of the new factions in Cataclysm. Questing alone will get you to, or pretty close to, Revered with the various factions. That means a lot of gear, including many 346 pieces, are readily available to players who have done nothing but solo content. Let's take a look at what a cloth-wearer1 could have in terms of gear from solo content alone.

You can get 346 items in the following slots: Back, Chest, Finger, Finger, Weapon (2-handed)
You can get 333 items in the following slots: Feet, Hands, Head, Legs, Waist

That means you are settling for less than 333's for your Neck, Shoulder, Wrist, Trinkets and Wand. Of course there are dungeon quests that give you 333's for Shoulder and Wrist, so one run through each of two dungeons guarantees those upgrades. That leaves you with only 4 gear slots that do not have 333 gear in them by the time you have run two normal instances even if you don't get any drops. Some drops in normal instances may be side-grades for some of your slots, but you already have many 346 items making many of those drops completely useless.

In fact, with a little bit of effort and an appropriate profession, you can hit the 329 ilvl requirement for heroics without actually doing any normal dungeons. Normal dungeons are a stepping stone that most players don't even need to step on if they want to avoid it.

Given this is it no wonder that players are complaining about heroics instead of enjoying normal dungeons. What is there to enjoy? Normal difficulty dungeons were virtually designed as throw-aways to be run once at most. Furthermore, many of the upgrades you could in theory get in normal dungeons have Justice Point vendor items in the same slot, making any upgrades that can be found feel temporary at best.

Some blue posts have suggested to people that if they find heroics too hard, they may want to consider gearing up a little more. This advice from blue posters would be helpful if normal dungeons were actually a place to gear up, but for the most part they are not. While it is possible that running a few normal dungeons could increase average item level by 1 or 2, either by filling out a rep to revered or by actually finding a drop, that kind of gear upgrade is not really what people who are struggling with heroics need.

Wrath of the Lich King gave a large part of - probably most of - the player base the impression that for dungeons (if not for raids) these difficulties should really be called easy and normal. There was no hard mode for Wrath dungeons, but there was a very trivial mode that people spent little or no time in. Part of making heroics harder, should have been trying to reverse this impression. Normal mode for dungeons should be what it is for raids: the difficulty that the majority of people find success in. Unfortunately by making the rewards of normal difficulty dungeons easy to match or beat through quests and solo play, the developers trivialized the rewards of normal dungeons and left players little reason to want to spend time in them.

Tomorrow I'll talk about why running dungeons on normal difficulty could be making things harder, rather than easier, for players who want to graduate from one to the other.

1. I am assuming that they can make use of either Spirit or Hit, so I guess I am excluding shadow priests.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Not the Right Number?

Prayer of Healing is getting a little bit of rebalancing in Patch 4.0.6. It's effect is being reduced by 15%, but Divine Aegis is going to have an additional effect on it. From the looks of it they thought Prayer of Healing was too powerful for holy priests, maybe a little less so for discipline priests, but they wanted to make Crit rating having a bigger effect on it for discipline.

So they changed Divine Aegis so that you get twice the effect out of it when you get a critical on Prayer of Healing. As things stand now, Prayer of Healing may hit for around 7k and put up a 2.8k shield with around 14 mastery. On a critical it will heal for 10.5k and put up a 4.2k shield instead.

With the changes that same Prayer will only hit for around 6k and put up a 2.4k shield. On a critical, however, it will hit for 9k and put up a 7.2k shield. The non-critical heal is 15% lower, but the critical heal is 10% higher. This change makes your Prayer of Healing worse if you have less than 52% crit and better if you have more. We aren't really hoping to see 52% this expansion, so this change is definitely a reduction.

The amount of crit you need for this to be a good thing is sensitive to the amount of mastery you have, but at all levels of crit and mastery we will have throughout the expansion, this is going to be a slight reduction in Prayer of Healing power. Since the glyph does not account for the Divine Aegis shield, it is an even greater reduction if you use the glyph.

I already had the suspicion that Prayer of Healing was too powerful, so I'm not surprised by this. They are also providing significant boosts to non-Prayer of Healing heals from Discipline priests, most notably Power Word: Shield, but also Penance and to some extent all other heals through the Grace change. I'm not unhappy with the changes, aside from worrying that the Power Word: Shield buff is too big and will result in an extreme buff/nerf cycle.

What is really bothering me, though, is exactly how much extra shield you get when you crit with Prayer of Healing. Say you have enough mastery to get 40% of your heal value as a Divine Aegis. In that case, if you critical with a spell your critical does 1.5 times the normal amount and then gets an extra 40% in the form of a shield for 2.1 times the base heal. With a prayer of healing, your normal heal + shield is 1.4 times the base healing. The critical amount is 1.5 time the base heal with a shield equal to 80% of that for 2.7 times the base heal. That means it is 1.93 times the non-critical value. Prayer crits for 93% extra and other heals crit for 110% extra. The relationship varies with the amount of mastery you have, with Prayer falling further behind in the value of crit the more mastery you have.

I don't understand why they wouldn't just pick the value that actually made Prayer of Healing crits the same as the crits on other spells. The current implementation just seems so inelegant.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Heroic Dungeon "Nerfs"

I am a little bit late to the party in terms of weighing in the heroic dungeon changes. Many other bloggers have made the point that they like hard things and don't want everything to get dumbed down to Wrath levels. At least one post says almost the same thing I'm about to say, but like everyone else on the internet, I assume I am a unique snowflake and have my own valuable take on things.

I don't want to go through the changes line by line the way Righteous Orbs did, since I think if you want that you can just read that post. I want to say a few general things about changes, though, and why I like the thrust of these changes in general.

It's important when a change comes to not get too caught up in how things are now. Changes are changes because there was a way it was before the change. If there isn't they are new things rather than changes. But we tend to get too caught up in how things were and don't pay enough attention to how things should have been in the first place. Changes that change things so that they are how they should have been in the first place are good changes, even if we kind of liked something about the bad state things were in.

Many of the "nerfs" to these encounters seem a lot more like bug fixes. While they may not always deal with literal bugs in the code, they are correcting what we may call bugs in the design.

First of all, there are many changes to the visual effects of boss abilities to make it easier to distinguish what they are doing. Being able to distinguish what the boss is actually doing does make encounters easier, but it is also how things should be in the first place. A boss that dropped invisible fires would be harder than a boss that dropped visible fires. A boss that dropped fires that appeared to have a radius of 4 yards but really had a radius of 10 yards would be harder than a boss who dropped fires that looked as big as they are. A boss that requires you to hit your "G" key (regardless of what you have it bound to) at 1:30 into the fight to avoid dying without giving any indication that this is what you had to do would be harder than a boss that did not have this requirement or that put up a raid warning telling you you had to do it. But in each case the former is a pretty bad way to make a boss hard1. If the boss is going to drop fire, the visual effect should line up with the game effect of the fire. If you want to make it harder, do so by making the fire do more damage, or giving me less time to get out of it, not by not letting me know where it is or what I am supposed to do.

Second there are changes to bosses that seemed overly sensitive to group composition. I agree with the principle but not the form of many of these changes. There should not be a boss that requires two beast CCs to beat, or one that requires interrupts more than once every 10 seconds, or one that requires two snare effects. Bosses should be beatable by a tank, a healer and three dps in ilvl 329 gear with good play.2 The specifics of how Beauty, Ashbury and Erudax were nerfed didn't deal with the issue appropriately, though. Beauty went from being nearly impossible with only one beast CC and fine with two to being fine with one beast CC and really, really easy with two. A better solution would be to make the pups a lot less threatening, give them less health, and make Beauty herself more powerful. Ashbury could have simply healed for less with Mend Rotten Flesh, perhaps 10% instead of 25% of his health. That way interrupts would have been good but not required. The Faceless Corruptors are now still pretty hard to deal with if they are not slowed but even easier if they are slowed. They should have had their movement reduced more dramatically and been given an immunity to, or at least a severe resistance to anything that would slow them. Maybe reduce the duration of slowing effects on them by 75% or 80%.

Third there are changes that don't really make the encounter easier, but people call them nerfs anyway. Foe Reaper 5000 does take a long time because you are down a dps. Making it a little shorter doesn't really make the fight much easier to master, just a little less boring after you have mastered it. Slabhide spending little time on the ground was a key factor in allowing us to beat him more than a minute and a half after our tank died. If he'd spent more time on the ground then shadow priest tanking would have been unsuccessful. Grand Vizier Ertan may have less health, but that's just to compensate for the fact that you'll actually have to pay attention to his mechanics now.

Of course the patch has undeniable nerfs in it, but I agree with most of them. Setesh seemed significantly harder than his compatriots on the second floor of the Halls of Origin for PuGs. A little more time to avoid Corborus and Ozruk's sudden death attacks is welcome as those are real PuG killers. A reduction in damage from the Naz'jar Tempest Witches sounds like a great idea, as does the reduction in damage from trash in Throne of the Tides.

And when looking at the "nerfs" it's important to notice that some bosses were made harder, and rightly so. Ptah, Asaad, Walden and Anraphet were all real pushovers - I doubt the changes to them will even go far enough towards making them harder, but we'll see.

So what don't I like? In addition to the specifics of the composition sensitive boss changes I mentioned above, there are a couple of boss nerfs that I simply don't understand. Specifically, I don't understand why Valiona was nerfed in the Drahga Shadowburner encounter. No one is supposed to be getting hit by that ability anyway, and the challenge in that encounter is dealing with adds properly, so the change makes little difference. I also don't see why Throngus' impale shouldn't still be a stun. I know people don't like their healer getting impaled, but if you play that fight right he just doesn't do that much damage. I really don't understand the Ozumat nerf in the Neptulon encounter either - but maybe it's just that Prayer of Healing is very good for that part of the fight.

There are also a few things that I find it hard to believe they didn't nerf. I feel comfortable calling Springvale the hardest boss in any heroic, and I think he could stand to have his melee damage reduced, even if only a little. Also, they reduced the damage of Gilgoblin Hunter's Poisoned Spear attack "slightly." Rather than "slightly" that should probably say, "by half," and there should be a similar note regarding the aquamages and their tsunami. Having a pack with eight enemies, each of which has a 40k attack is a little bit much. Generally how that pull goes is the tank pops a cooldown while running in, we start AoEing and just before we kill them four aquamages tsunami at once killing the tank and any melee, then we clean them up. Chained tanking CDs for the duration shouldn't be the norm for trash pulls, and, more importantly, should be sufficient to avoid one-shots if you can actually pull it off.

I also wouldn't have minded seeing a few other changes:

Blackrock Caverns
Corla in BRC should have her haste aura removed and her attack speed and damage increased so that she does roughly double the damage she does now in the end. This would make the fight easier when her friends evolve and not trivial if they don't.

Halls of Origination
Veil of Sky should be made more powerful and undispelable while Astral Rain should be reduced if it is left for the third ability on Isiset - the damage seems fine at both the first and second thirds of the fight, but appears to be multiplied by about 10 if you leave it as her last ability. The rain does nearly twice as much, hits all five people instead of just two, and lasts seemingly forever. Simply affecting everyone with no damage or duration increase would have been fine.

Shadowfang Keep
Baron Silverlane could have used a buff of some kind. Lord Godfrey should have the damage of his cursed bullets dot reduced and his other damage increased to make the fight less dependent on whether you have a curse remover. I don't mean that a curse remover shouldn't be helpful, but he should be beatable in reasonable gear without one in the group.

Throne of the Tides
Mindbender Ghur'sha should make your allies more threatening when he controls them, take control more often, and do something when he's flying around by himself.

1. I could actually imagine invisible fires having a place in some boss fight at some time, but it doesn't seem likely, and the other two examples are right out.

2. Giving paladins tanks an interrupt will also help with this.