Flex Raids – World of Warcraft’s new content for serious casuals

siege-orgrimmar-wow

The final raid tier for Mists of Pandaria, 5.4 – The Siege of Orgrimmar – is getting closer and with it will come a new raiding tier – Flex Raids.  Personally, as someone who is too time constrained/antisocial to raid in a guild any longer this new system will add a lot of value compared to the slog that is LFR.  So what are Flex raids and who are they aimed at?

Flex Raids will provide a higher level of challenge than LFR, but less challenge than normal modes.  They’ve been likened to the difficulty of Wrath of the Lich King 10 man raids, which I enjoyed back in the day.  They will require you to form a raid so they won’t have the anonymous feeling of LFR groups and will hopefully maintain a higher quality and encourage civil interaction among the participants.  You can form them with cross realm groups so I would expect them to become a big deal on OpenRaid – that’s how I’m planning to get into them.

The really neat part of Flex Raids is that they can be anything from 10-25 players.  Boss health and damage will be scaled directly to the number of players you have in your group.  So if you have 13 friends who want to go raiding together you can do it and not have to force anyone to sit out.  Loot will be done the same way as LFR with per-player loot dropping and bonus rolls with whatever token is introduced in 5.4.

Considering the way that LFR degrades as progression players stop doing it for fill-in items you often find at the end of a raid tier LFR is nearly impossible to do without witnessing huge amounts of name calling, griefing, or players not fulfilling the role they queued for.  Hopefully Flex Raiding, which will have to be managed through Forum groups or a 3rd party service like OpenRaid, will attract a higher level of competence and decorum while giving casual players a good challenge and better rewards.

Hearthstone – Warrior vs. Paladin

I’ve tried really hard not to look at Hearthstone.  I feel like I play enough Blizzard games and another one – a free one at that with low time commitment – would only serve to lock me out of other games I’d like to pick up.  But videos like these make me want to go sign up for the beta…don’t you devour enough of my time already Blizzard?

 

 

World of Warcraft subscriptions down – What can Blizzard do?

In a recent financial report Blizzard announced that subscriptions for World of Warcraft have dropped once again last quarter, down another 1.3 million subscribers and bringing the game’s current subscriber accounts to 8.3 million.  This isn’t great news, but it’s also not unheard of in the middle of an expansion pack and we have seen a lot of new competition rearing its head lately in the free to play arena.  So what can Blizzard do to improve its game and continue to retain subscribers?

WoWScrnShot_030913_190429

Content.  The death knell of any MMORPG is lack of content.  Once players start having trouble finding something worthwhile to do in the game they go try other things and once they’ve stopped paying that monthly charge they become less likely to pick the game back up.  Blizzard claims to have addressed this issue by increasing the frequency of their major content patches, but I feel their increased patch schedule is disingenuous or doesn’t deliver the solution they’ve promised.  Let’s look at the progression of PvE content in Mists of Pandaria and consider ways the flow of the game could be improved overall.

Mists of Pandaria launched with 9 heroic dungeons, 3 raids, 16 raid bosses, 2 world bosses and numerous scenarios.  Gear progression was fairly straightforward – normal dungeons/scenarios -> heroic dungeons/justice gear -> LFR -> Normal raids/valor gear -> heroic raids.  But after that blizzard dropped the ball with patch 5.1.  Yes it was listed as a major content patch but it didn’t offer any new raiding or dungeon content.  The only thing it made available for gearing purposes were a few more valor items.  5.2 added a host of new raid content – 12 new raid bosses in all and a few scenarios, but offered no new 5-man content.  This created a bit of a hurdle for leveling new characters as the gear progression now required normal dungeons -> heroic dungeons -> 5.0 LFR -> 5.2 LFR -> 5.2 Normal/Valor -> 5.2 Heroic.  Basically for casual players blizzard didn’t create any means to bypass the original 5.0 LFR for progression while at the same time it gives no incentives aside from a few valor points for people to play 5-man content.  So the only way for many players – dps players in particular – to progress is to either sit through one hour plus queues for Mogu’shan Vaults or very slowly build up valor points through 5-mans until they can enter Throne of Thunder LFR.  5.3 was released just recently and again it has no new raid or 5 man content, but it does add heroic scenarios which will have gear that is slightly better than 5.2 LFR.  However, you have to form specific groups for heroic scenarios so it is unlikely that many players will participate in them.

The current content progression looks like this:

WoWRaiding53

For Blizzard’s vaunted claim that they’re putting out content faster than ever we see that there has been very little PvE content added to Mists thus far, and that content that has been added is not gated in such a way as to be easily accessible to casual players unless they are willing to grind for valor points.  Now you can also gain valor through daily quests and that seems to be the content that blizzard is prioritizing.  Rather than new dungeons, we get lots of daily quests tied to the current main story arc.  I assume that Blizzard has prioritized this way because daily quests are easy to implement and have a higher impact on the general population than 5-man dungeons do, but I don’t think that necessarily makes them the better solution.  I do daily quests all the time and I hate them but I have no choice in doing them because of reputation requirements on valor gear.  As soon as I hit revered on any reputation I immediately stop doing it, though.  So daily quests, while they might statistically show as being more significant for the game as a whole, aren’t fun for many people and they aren’t going to be what drives people to resubscribe.

What blizzard needs to do if they really want to preserve WoW’s image is increase their current development team and segment their patch development.  They need to have a simple content creation process with standard releases designed to tie together intelligently that will offer new players easy inroads to current content while giving current players lots of options and things to see.  My idea for how this would best be achieved is thus:  Have monthly patches.  Have ‘big’ raid jumps every 3 months, one development team should be assigned to do nothing but large raid content with 8-12 bosses.  On large content releases we should see gear ilevel jump considerably, as it did from 5.0 to 5.2 and would also have gated LFR and new valor gear. Next month, release a new smaller raid with 3-4 bosses.  This would be an optional raid not necessarily tied to the current story arc with gear only slightly better than the previous tier (maybe 2 – 4 ilevels).  Heroic content for this tier would be -by design – tuned to be extremely difficult.  One development team would be assigned to always be working on these more exotic encounters.  Next month, new scenarios, 5-man content, and perhaps 10 man content would be released.  These new dungeons and scenarios would drop gear equivalent to  the LFR modes of the previous tier and provide a way for new players to gear up or current players to fill a slot they just haven’t had luck with.  Also blizzard should consider bringing back 10-man dungeons for a more epic feel in daily dungeoning and that content should drop gear which is equivalent to the current tier LFR.  This would give players another way to enter normal raiding.  One Dev team should always be working on dungeon and scenario content – not necessarily tied to the main story of the current expansion.  A random cave filled with monsters somewhere and a bit of backstory is just fine.  The next month is another big content patch which starts the process over again.

I’d like to see the content progression look something like this:

BetterWoWRaiding53

OPTIONS OPTIONS OPTIONS and loads of content – that’s what will help you keep subscribers, Blizzard.  And while I know that, sadly, 10 man dungeons are probably never coming back nor will Blizzard ever produce this much content no  matter how much money they make, hey I can dream.

Diablo 3 – Inferno Act 1 Farming

I’m still playing Diablo 3 off and on, though my time with it has been severely shortened by the release of The Secret World.  I’ve progressed with my demon hunter up to act 3 but haven’t had much inclination to beat my head against that wall.  For me, I enjoy the game more as something I can do without really paying attention while watching TV or listening to the radio.  And that’s why my main activity in the game is to farm Act 1 of Inferno.  Because it’s easy and relaxing.  My system is simple:  I wear as much magic find gear as possible to get a passive MF of 229.  I run with a ‘tanking’ mitigation build and pretty much stand still until elite packs are dead.  And I don’t take more than 10 minutes in a run if possible – easy in, easy out.

My farming locations are Cemetary of the Forsaken -> Festering Woods -> Leoric’s Manor as detailed in the video above.  If I’m feeling bored with this short rotation I keep going onward to kill the Butcher, but experience has shown I get more loot in less time by just running these few areas over and over again.  I’m still waiting to find that nice piece I can sell for 50 million and finally buy the gear to start tackling Act 3.

And so I run Inferno Act 1.  Forever and Anon, so mote it be.

Diablo III – progressive racism at its finest

Blizzard must have been messing with us, that’s all I can think to say. They made the iconic hero of Diablo black and the iconic villain ‘feminine’. They had to know what was coming – every internet racist/sexist on earth came out to complain that Blizzard had ruined the characters, the lore, and the game. Meanwhile white knights took to the forums to disparage these backward thinking individuals and point out how progressive Blizzard was in its choices and how the game would appeal to the black community. I agree with this sentiment, I was very pleased with all of the character models in the game – well, aside from Azmodan’s nipple rings. I’m a prude.

But then you look at the actual game. Blizzard goes out of its way to create a new race to be discriminated against – Goatmen. NPC’s refer to them as ‘beasts’ not worthy of human consideration, despite the fact they obviously possess a rudimentary civilization and are an indigenous people. The Templar espouses capital punishment, brainwashing, and unflinching moral absolutism. The scoundrel is a womanizer at best. And the main character is a loveless killing machine.

Bravo, Blizzard. Some of us got it.

Diablo III – Inferno Insanity

For the past two weeks I’ve been playing the MMO Single Player RPG that everyone loves to hate – Diablo III.  After logging about 50 hours on my Demon Hunter and getting to Act II in Inferno difficulty I’ve come to understand the game a bit more.

I had criticized the game’s story and presentation recently, but only after playing the game do I see that it was an irrelevant criticism.  The game isn’t about story, it’s about grind.  It’s about feeding your OCD to get the best of the best loot so you can get the best of the best loot.  Why didn’t I get it before now?  Well, back when Diablo II was running I was on a fabulous 14.4K modem with ancient phone lines, so Diablo II was a single player affair to me.  The multiplayer loot grind never really came into it – and why would it?  I could just use a hex editor to get whatever loot I wanted back then.  But Diablo III….well I can say it’s opened my eyes to what the franchise is and was.

I can’t say I’m entirely upset by what I found either.  Granted it’s a mind numbing grinding experience, but at the same time it’s quick and accessible.  There is no subscription fee.  I can log on for 20 minutes and breeze through hell difficulty or spend a longer amount of time (and many deaths!) for inferno loot, and I can play the auction house game to wind down.   It’s not perfect.  It’s extremely frustrating at times.  But it’s also a game that’s both fun casually and rewarding if you make the investment.  And it gives me an excuse to play with my old guildmates from WoW.

We’ll see if I feel so positive once I hit Act III/IV in inferno!

Diablo III

After countless years of development Blizzard finally released Diablo III on May 15.  I haven’t played it yet myself but I’ve a few things to say about it.

As someone who has played World of Warcraft since shortly after it launched I know a lot of people who have been frothing for this game.  And why not?  It’s part of the holy trinity of Blizzard’s famous IPs and (to me) was arguably their most successful brand back in the days of Diablo II.  Since those days Blizzard has focused elsewhere.  With the astounding success of Warcraft III and World of Warcraft we saw much of Blizzard’s creative focus shifting toward that brand.  Or perhaps it was just due to a brain drain in Blizzard North, who were supposedly working on Diablo III back in 2003.  Regardless, the Diablo and Starcraft franchises sat on the back burner for years and years while Blizzard rode upon their good fortunes with Warcraft.  In that time, the company has changed.  And I don’t mean to say that in a bad way, all things must change.  However, I fear much of what made Diablo II so special was lost during this time.

And what made Diablo II great?  In many ways, it was one of the most mindless dungeon clickers to ever gain mass acceptance.  There have been countless similar games since then, many reveling in their derivativeness, but none has gained a player base the likes of which Diablo II saw.  I would argue that the spark which let Diablo II shine more brightly than many of the similar titles of its time and since was its story and the sheer weight of effort put into presenting that story to the player through music, text, and cinematics.  And while Diablo II’s cinematics haven’t held up so well from a modeling or animation standpoint, nonetheless they still have a lyrical quality of genuine narration that is hard to dismiss.  When one looks at this type of storytelling and considers its use in Diablo II, Warcraft 3 (and especially the Frozen Throne), and Starcraft its easy to understand how gamers form attachments to the worlds and narratives Blizzard has created for us.

But over the years Blizzard has begun to turn away from these qualities.  Over the years they have reduced their cinematic teams and turned to creating more visceral, action oriented cinematics.  It is much the same as we see in modern cinema – lots of action, camera movement, and explosions but with less substance.  And I find these new cinematics, and the narratives they spin, hold far less charm as a result.  A cutscene should not be merely a maddening din of extreme actions.  There needs to be an emotional aspect, a building to what needs to be seen, and a poignant move to action at the proper time to gain the full effect and to create the kind of engrossing stories we’ve come to expect of blizzard.  So we’ve seen countless times – The slow reveal of Mannoroth, the brief struggle, the death of Hellscream.  The slow contemplative climb to the Frozen Throne, the freeing of Ner’zhul, Arthas fate at the peak of Icecrown.  More recently, Zeratul considering the appearance of the Xel’naga, a confrontation with the Queen of Blades, and a lament of prophecy.

With Diablo III Blizzard has set new standards for both their modeling and animation.  Yet they have somehow failed to provide the same emotional impact that their other narratives have elicited.  The buildups are often not engaging to the player, the action sequences are  skewed towards anime style action, and there is little to contemplate at their denoument.

Act 1:  This was created as a teaser trailer – it has no particular emotional worth.  No real introductions.  Basically it just shows off how pretty the work of  Blizzard’s cinematic team can be.

Act 2:  The high watermark of the game, if only they could all be this good.  As impressive as the conflict between Tyrael and Imperius is, it is the exposition that stands out.  As Leah picks up her Uncle’s work and Tyrael slowly lowers the torch to his fire there is such a simple grace and beauty to the framing of the scene – it’s a true work of art.

Act 3 : Again, this cinematic was created to be used in trailers.  While it does show some impressive imagery, it suffers from a lack of emotional impact as the first cinematic did.

Act 4:  A battle between Imperius and Diablo.  This mostly relies on being loud and gaudy, but ultimately even the fight itself seems weak due to poor choreography.

So I haven’t played Diablo III, but I have looked into it a bit.  And it just doesn’t seem like it will be able to live up to Diablo II.  Considering I’m a solo player and I’ve heard you can beat the game in 10 hours I’m not in any hurry to buy this one, either.  It seems clear from what’s available that Blizzard didn’t put the care into the storyline that I value in most of their games.