Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A flood of ideas

My Heroes By Trade campaign came to a crashing halt last night.  To no one's great surprise it happened because there was finally a showdown between my character, Po, a paladin type with a penchant for smashing objects (or smashing people) when things went sideways, and Gnarr, a gnome who never ran into a bad idea he didn't test out.

Gnarr had 'accidentally' smashed much of a city.  He 'accidentally' invited a powerful and dangerous creature from below the earth to come and visit the surface, and the city was significantly damaged and had to be evacuated.  This was a disaster because we desperately needed the city's housing and infrastructure to cope with a large number of orks that needed a place to live, and they were going to take it by force if negotiations failed.

Then Gnarr decided to try to coax even more of the powerful and dangerous creatures from below to the surface and they listened, causing a volcanic eruption and annihilating the remains of the city.  The first time it was reckless and foolish, but Gnarr didn't know that his actions would be nearly as destructive as they were.  The second time was, in Po's humble opinion, pure evil.  He destroyed a city just to watch it burn.

Following this Po decided to tell Gnarr that he was out of the group and demanded he hand over his powerful magic items so he could do no more damage with them.  Gnarr refused, and tried to flee.  Our merry band was on Po's side, so the merry band prevented Gnarr running away.  Gnarr, backed into a tough spot, decided to use one of our powerful magical items to immediately kill the merry band.  This also destroyed Gnarr's spirit, but since he already had a demon riding around inside his head this didn't stop his body.  (The demon rider was a previous extremely bad idea of Gnarr's.)  Po and Gnarr's body (piloted now by a demon) fought to the death and Po was victorious, finally going through on her endless litany of threats against Gnarr for his recklessness.  Po wouldn't have killed Gnarr otherwise, but because he murdered the merry band she murdered Gnarr in turn.

Po, filled with grief, gathered all the items of power and embarked on a magical quest that was certain to kill her.

And so it ended.

Sort of.

I mean, I am curious as to what will happen with the world now that the heroes who were trying to save it murdered each other.  Probably it is catastrophic.

But Gnarr is dead, and although he is likely less destructive than the demons the party was aiming to kill, that isn't certain.  The world might be better off with the demons than the gnome.

Now I have to get the next version of the game ready.  I have been sitting on it for a year now, occasionally tinkering, but mostly just waiting for an opportunity.  I don't know if every writer is this way, but as soon as I have a deadline like this I am suddenly flush with ideas. I need to fix everything, change everything, make everything better!  I could have been doing this stuff a week ago, or a month ago, but now I actually have to put the next version in people's hands, and that gets my creativity juiced up like nothing else.

I really work to deadlines and my hobbies are no different than my actual work in this way.  I just have to convince people to give me another 24 hours to push all of my stuff into the document in a big pile now that things are coming fast and furious.

Time to begin testing out all the mechanics I have been carefully massaging for so long and see if they are as beautiful out in the wild as they were in my head.  Also to test some half baked notions I just now came up with in a flurry of last minute pressure.

So excited!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

No one wants to see that

There was an interesting letter to Blizzard and WOW players in general written recently by a top raiding guild called Exorsus.  They have been banned because they used an exploit to beat Mythic Helya and they wanted to explain the exploit and make some complaints about the game otherwise.  This is one of those exploits that you can totally understand a top guild using, because they had a strat that was reasonable and not an exploit in phase 1, but when they tried to do it in phase 3 of the fight it broke the fight.  Programming error, for sure, but they used it to get a kill and Blizzard punished them for it.

I am not here to argue about that exploit today though.  What I wanted to address was some of the other stuff in the letter, particularly the bits where the author asked for more support for the PVE dragonslaying part of WOW, namely big cash prizes for beating bosses first.  Along with that they want Blizzard to actually show off those races and make it more of a prestige thing.

This is an example of a person who has no clue about how entertainment works.

Imagine a tennis program on TV.  Roger Federer hits the ball, and gets an ace.  Then he hits it again, and gets an ace.  Then he hits it a third time, and does not get an ace.  But there is no opponent, just a computer and a camera checking to see if it is an ace.  When Federer misses he starts again, and he keeps restarting until he hits 20 aces in a row.  So hour after hour Federer hits the ball, checks to see if it is an ace, and his count gets higher and higher, but doesn't quite hit 20 for the victory.

Eventually Federer goes off to sleep, and then eight hours later he is back at it.  At some point within a three day span he will hit his 20 aces, celebrate like mad, and walk off the court.  Compelling TV, right?

That is what some PVE WOW players think people should want to watch.  It is fun to practice and get better at raid encounters but it is absolute shit as entertainment for the masses.  We want to watch Federer play against Nadal because we know someone will win within a few hours and the activity is varied and unpredictable, in as far as tennis can be such a thing.  Federer hitting aces and the computer verifying them is awful.  In just the same way watching a guild die to an encounter making incremental progress for 14 hours a day until they win is not entertainment.  PVP WOW actually has some followers, though not a great number by any means, because it is a far better viewer experience.

Which is why nobody is going to put up big prize money for it.  Nobody wants to see it.  What possible reason could Blizzard have for throwing enormous wads of cash at hardcore players?

They have a great reason not to though, and I don't mean "We want to keep all the money".

If you think players cheating, exploiting, and doing outrageous things to try to get world first kills is bad now, imagine how it would be if they were playing for a million dollars.  The pressure to break the rules becomes absurd when someone's rent depends on killing the boss, and the problem is that with a lot of these exploits you actually have no idea if pursuing them will get you banned or get you victory and accolades.  Sometimes people know they are cheating, but it would end up being a constant issue where players would get a kill and then Blizzard employees would have to decide if a thing was legal or not and who to give the million dollars to.

That can't end well.

In most sports they get the rules down pat pretty well because they do the same thing over and over again.  In WOW things constantly change.  Raids are new, classes shift, and the preparation part of the game is ever changing.  Coming up with a really robust set of rules under those circumstances isn't practical.

Thing is, WOW makes money off of casual players.  Blizzard wants some hardcore players out there so the casuals have something to check out on websites and addons to put into the game but trying to keep every hardcore player working their asses off has no payoff at all.  You play WOW PVE hardcore for the love of the game or you don't play.  I am not saying that is how it *ought* to be, just saying that this is how it is, like it or not.

Nobody wants to watch you slay dragons.

So slay the dragons, or not.  Cheat, or not.  But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that us doing this is entertainment for the masses, or that we are going to make big money doing it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

To infinity

I saw an interesting discussion today about the way Mythic+ dungeons have worked out in WOW's latest expansion.  Basically the way it works is each week you get a key, which can be used to do a specific dungeon at a specific difficulty.  If you complete it in time, you get a key for a harder dungeon, and you can do that until you fail the timer.

In theory this means that players doing 5 person content can do it for a little while until they hit their difficulty cap and then they stop.  Just like raiding, there is a finite amount of stuff you can do in a week.  In theory.

In practice once people get done with their own keys they just split off into 4 person groups and advertise for noobs with keys that still work.  The noob gets hauled through the dungeon and everybody gets loot.  The supply of noobs with keys who are willing to be hauled through dungeons by geared players is huge, so people can effectively run Mythic+ dungeons all day every day if they feel like it.

If you happen to be a tank or healer with good gear you don't even need a group to do this, as your services will always be in demand and you can just run whatever dungeon you like forever using other people's keys.

Some people really don't like this, and I can see why.  If you are in the position where you can always be doing something to advance your character and you are a competitive person you will often feel obligated to do those things.  People feel guilty about not being as good as they could be, and mad at people who play 24/7 and are further advanced.

I am the type who isn't bothered by other people playing all day and being better.  I am old and my arms hurt if I play too much.  I have responsibilities that are more important to me than tiny marginal increases to my WOW character.  If someone else doesn't have those things, then they are welcome to be better than me.  I won't be that far behind, in any case, and I am not doing anything where being a tiny bit better is necessary.

It does sometimes get difficult to know when enough is enough though.  How do I decide when I have done all I should do for the day?  In older times in WOW I could just be done raiding and it was over.  Nothing productive to do.  I remember back in Burning Crusade when my best gear came from PVP so I 'had' to PVP all day, and raid all night, rarely getting gear from raids because it wasn't good for me.  That sucked.  Now it is similar because I can run Mythic+ all day if I want to and there isn't a good, clear boundary for when I am done.

I don't like entrepreneurship at least in part because I like having clear boundaries.  I like being able to walk away from my job at the end of the day and be done with it.  WOW is similar in that I like to be able to log off from the raid and know that I have enough gold to buy my potions and I have done the other maintenance required and the rest is just about fun.  With the current design that never happens.  I can always be hunting for better gear and more artifact power without any end in sight.

I like Legion a lot.  There are so many things to do!  But there are challenges with establishing boundaries on play for the good of the players, and you can't please everyone no matter how you do it.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The next big thing

Blizzard is making a bunch of balance changes to WOW in the next patch and I am excited to guess what they will do.  The main thing I am thinking about is how they will change retribution paladins.  They have said that they want to fix the screwy scaling people have with their various secondary stats and so I expect to see changes to ret paladins mastery in particular.  Right now ret paladins have a situation where all of our stats are pretty boring.  Haste just makes everything in the rotation happen faster in a predictable way.  Crit just increases our damage.  Versatility is never interesting, though it is perfectly effective.  The last stat is mastery, and our mastery is just bad.

I don't think the numbers are off, but I do think that something ought to be done to make things overall more interesting.  Other classes have special effects that happen when they crit or mastery that actually works or even haste that does good things for them, but ret has little of that.  In terms of stat scaling I would really like at least one stat that is more interesting / powerful than versatility, which just offers pure, flat damage benefits.

The other issue with ret is that it has one totally dominant talent.  Crusade replaces Avenging Wrath as a powerful 20 second cooldown.  However, Avenging Wrath is a flat bonus and Crusade stacks up to outrageous levels, eventually offering a 2.3x damage multiplier.  Artifact traits let you extend the duration of Crusade, which is absurd because you extend not the mean benefit, but only the massively stacked portion of the effect.  This is a problem because the traits that extend Avenging Wrath are reasonable, but when they are extending Crusade they become absolutely dominant to the exclusion of all else.  I suspect Crusade is so broken because Blizzard just didn't realize how powerful the traits that extend it would be because they are decently deep into the tree.

Baseline Avenging Wrath is worth about 10% more damage.  The other decent talent choice aside from Crusade is worth something like 9% damage.  Crusade is worth 30% more damage, so even when you lose the base 10% damage of Avenging Wrath and forgo the 9% it is still totally dominant.  I don't think that this talent being so completely mandatory is a good thing.  It also grants so much haste that it makes it really hard to hit buttons reasonably during it and I dislike the gameplay a lot.  I want an alternative, but the other two options are so crap that I am stuck taking it.

In one build during the last patch cycle Blizzard removed Crusade, so it is clear they aren't happy with it.  That build didn't go to live though, but I expect some changes will be incoming.

What I would do is scrap Crusade completely.  Build something new and exciting, and make sure it is worth about 9% damage so it is worth taking but other options feel worthwhile.  Of course this would be a 10% nerf to ret paladins, so something else would have to happen.

I think that thing should be a doubling of the damage done by Judgement.  Judgement does about 10% of our damage now, so this would make up for the Crusade nerf in terms of damage, but it would add a lot of value to our mastery.  Mastery would, at that point, come close to other stats in value, and could be pushed a lot higher by taking talents that boost Judgement like Greater Judgement and the new version of Crusade that we saw weeks ago.  When Blizzard had Crusade changed on that previous version of the PTR they had it boosting Judgement a ton, and I think this would be a fine sort of replacement assuming the numbers were right.

This set of changes would accomplish a few things.  With the boost in Judgement damage Mastery would be a solid but slightly subpar stat.  However, should you take the two Judgement boosting talents then Mastery would end up becoming quite powerful indeed, probably jumping up to best stat status.  The way Greater Judgement works it would also devalue crit to some extent.  This would leave ret paladins some interesting choices.  They could stack mastery and take the appropriate talents, stack crit and take other talents, or stack haste and hedge their bets.  It leaves multiple gearing and spec paths open, and means that every talent row would have some interesting choices to be made.

That is the crux of it really.  Make sure there are multiple ways to play, multiple spec options on each row, and lots of thinking and planning to do.  There would still be a bazillion ways to play badly, of course, but it would open up a lot more in terms of possible optimal loadouts.

If I am permitted to ask for absolutely anything I would also get rid of Holy Wrath.  I just don't see how it is ever going to ride the edge between total garbage and overpowered.  It should be replaced with something that preserves the current ret paladin style that focuses around a extremely powerful and long Avenging Wrath setup.  Maybe just something that increases crit damage by 100% during Avenging Wrath.  It would turn Avenging Wrath into a really powerful cooldown to sync with other abilities, not push up against haste limits of the UI, and also change the value of crit a lot for a build that wants to do that.  Plus if you love the huge cooldown type build you can stack Avenging Wrath duration and crit and have a blast with it.

Now to see if any of my suggestions have any legs!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A place for everything

Blizzard is updating Legendary items in their next World of Warcraft patch.  On live servers right now there is a problem that some Legendaries are extremely effective and others are ... really bad.  They have decided that the gap should be closer, and I quite agree.  It isn't that they should all be the same, but just that there should be a real argument for using each one depending on your situation and priorities.  Each character can only use 2 Legendaries so the balance between them is very important.

For example, as a Retribution Paladin I currently have 2 Legendaries that give me a 5% dps increase.  (I don't own either of them, but they exist.)  There are also a couple of Legendaries that give decent utility, and then a couple that are absolutely garbage.  Generally the people who are really competitive, top tier players all say that the 2 Legendaries that increase dps are good and everything else is irrelevant and has no use.  I tend to disagree with that stance because not everyone is pushing the hardest content with barely enough gear.

As an example, there is a Legendary that saves you when you die and gives you a big damage shield.  This is excellent in any situation where dying is the problem.  However, if you are trying to do a boss that requires 105 dps to beat and you only do 100 dps, then you simply have to take the Legendary that gives 5 dps.  You can't take the Legendary that saves you from death because you just have to not die.  This is the situation a lot of top raiders are in.  They can't win if anyone screws up and they play like crazy so they are doing bosses that their gear is just barely adequate for and that extra 5% is what will let them win.

In my guild though we are doing much easier content.  We have a lot of casual players.  Most of our kills happen with tons of raiders dead, especially first kills.  We don't play over and over until nobody makes a mistake - we just play until we make few enough mistakes overall that we win.  In that environment the Legendary that saves you from death is *amazing*.  We don't need 105 dps to win.  We just need 85, so if you live throughout the entire fight you have done your 100 dps and easily beaten the benchmark.  This is a fine scenario.  I don't need 10 Legendary options that are competitive for the hardcore raiders, I just need 10 Legendaries that do something useful and have their niche.  While using a Legendary like the one that saves you from death you might get mocked by the hardcore types it is still useful for them and great for people in my situation.

That sort of thing doesn't describe all the Legendaries though.  For example, one of ones I have is called Chain of Thrayn.  It heals anyone I cast a Blessing on for 15% of their health.  I have a Blessing to use with it which I can cast about every 30 seconds, so I heal about .5% of a person's health/sec using this ability.  A healer heals about 15% of a person's health per second, so this is worth about 3% of a healer.  It doesn't sound so bad thus far, but there are a ton of downsides.  First off is the problem that I need to take time to cast the blessing, and doing so costs me about 3% of my damage.  Then I need to pay attention to other people's health and figure out who I am targetting and that costs me time I could be thinking about other things.  It ends up shifting damage to healing in a way that isn't profitable and it costs me brain cycles to do it.  Plus if I do this I lose access to that Blessing for other utility.  On the flip side it means that if I use that Blessing randomly (which I do, at times) then it is helpful without cost.

The net assessment of this Legendary is that it is absolutely wretched.  It provides a modest sized heal very rarely and not when I want it.  Compared to 5% bonus damage it is a joke.  There simply isn't any circumstance in which this Legendary is actually a solid choice.  If they increased the heal to 50% instead of 15% then we would be looking at an item I would actually be excited about.

Blizzard noticed this and is changing Chain of Thrayn to improve my damage by 25% and healing by 70% during Avenging Wrath, which is up about 25% of the time.  The new functionality is really interesting and while most people will just use it for damage I think there are a lot of powerful healing applications too.  In any case it will be competitive and I won't be sad to own it anymore.

Overall I really approve of the direction they are taking.  There are still Legendaries that are kind of niche, and ones that have utility I don't think a lot of people are looking for.  However, all the absolutely trash ones are being buffed, and instead of 2 Legendaries standing head and shoulders above the rest there are going to be a bunch of options.  I like that, because it means once you have a few Legendaries you will have some good stuff.  Nobody will end up with 3 Legendaries and not have a single one that is decent for them.  It isn't a great feeling to know that you are doing 10% less damage than you could be and that nothing you can do will change it until you get the perfect drop.

We don't need all Legendaries to be the same.  Having some that do wacky but useful things is great.  We just need a selection of choices in the top tier so people can do different stuff and be ok, and some fun things for those who really want to branch out.  The first iteration of Legendaries failed at this, but the new set actually looks really good.

So far, so good.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Failure to be instant, penalty card

The WOW group finder is having some real issues.  The way is works in theory is that people sign up for one or more roles - damage, healer, or tank.  Then the system groups up 3 damage, 1 healer, 1 tank, and sends them off to do dungeons.  Practically speaking there are a lot more than 3 damage folks for each healer or tank so the damage types have to wait in line.  What *should* happen is that damage folks wait a long time and there are a few healers or tanks in line, but not both, because as soon as there is at least 1 of each a new group should launch immediately.  Blizzard makes this clear to people by offering bonuses to the role that is most needed to get them to queue up, and this works, to a degree.  Many people, myself included, sign up for whichever role has the bonus attached.

Recently this has not been happening at all.  I have been signing up mostly as a tank when it has the bonus attached and then nothing happens.  Obviously since tanks are in demand I should have a group instantly but instead I wait.  I go do some quests, chat, run around the city, and then 10 or 15 minutes later I finally get in to a dungeon.  This is a complete failure on Blizzard's part.  That is 10 or 15 minutes that the healer and 3 damage folks are waiting in line for absolutely no reason.  It irritates me, and I am sure it irritates them, and there is no rationale for why this should be.

There are other weird bugs too.  Sometimes it tries to assemble a group for me as a healer or tank, and the group fails because one of the damage types is afk and doesn't click YES.  Then the system tries again, but this time signing me up as a damage type.  This is obviously contrary to the goal of the system, and it usually offers me the damage role without the bonus stuff.  I signed up just because I wanted the bonus stuff, so previously I would just decline, which would boot me out of the system and force me to requeue.  It turns out though that when I accept the invitation it lets me do damage but still gives me the bonus stuff despite the fact that it said it wouldn't and I didn't perform the role I was supposed to.

They really need to get their asses in gear and fix this.  Part of the appeal of signing up as a tank or healer is that I get an instant queue.  I can just go do my dungeon without waiting, huzzah!  When I have to wait around for a long time for no reason I often just give up, log off, or miss the queue when it pops and then instead of a tank filling out a group Blizzard now has 4 irritated people still waiting.

Waiting isn't fun.

The thing I like about the dungeon finder is the FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT feeling.  I just hit a button and then FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT for twenty minutes solid and then leave.  I don't have to be social, I just play as hard as I can without screwing around.  I am happy to do whatever role is required to make that happen, and Blizzard really should set up the game so people like me can help other people who are from the bad classes that can't do everything.  FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT is fun, waiting is unfun.

I don't know what has caused this screwup but it has lasted for a month at least and it is really putting the hurt on the dungeon experience.  People like the dungeon finder and it is a big draw for casual players.  When it works it is tuned well enough to get overgeared people like me queuing up to help the undergeared and casual players do stuff.  When it doesn't work they sit and wait and get grumpy.

Blizzard, you have been put on notice:  Fix this.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


My character in my current DnD campaign just hit fifth level.  This is the big one because I am a wizard and now I get to cast Fireball.  Fireball is so much better than my previous best spell it is staggering.  My best spell at level four was usually Thunderwave, which hit 9 squares for 14.5 damage.  Fireball hits 48 squares for 28 damage.  Also instead of being close range it has a massive range.  (Thunderwave pushes enemies back, which I have found usually isn't helpful, but it could matter.)

In any case, Fireball does twice the damage over more than five times the area.  It is absolutely devastating.  There are encounters that almost wiped the group at level four that I could handily win with a single casting of Fireball now that I am level five.  The enormous range is also something simply cannot ignore because being able to hit an enemy at 150 feet means I can rain destruction on them for a half dozen rounds before they can get to me, and that is assuming they have a nice flat stretch of ground to work with.

I also have access to Counterspell which lets me simply negate a spell entirely on my opponent's turn.  This is a whole new kind of power, one which lets me totally dominate another caster in a battle where it is a single enemy caster as the threat.

It isn't just me that got better at level five though.  Many melee characters get a second attack at level five, allowing them to do twice as much damage.  That isn't as good as 'twice as much damage and hit five times as many targets' but it is still an immense improvement.

This all makes encounter design a bit nutty.  When I think of the fights that were insanely dangerous over the last few sessions all of them would be halfway defeated by a single Fireball, and if the monsters get unlucky it could easily wipe them right out.  When I look at the theory behind monsters though they don't assume that fifth level characters are that much more powerful at all.  The XP and challenge rating system assumes relatively smooth power increases for the characters but the actual game doesn't work like that at all.  It isn't as though you can just put twice as many monsters into encounters and call it done either - they all die to Fireball.

I think this crazy step up in power for our party is just an artifact of the design choices of 5e DnD.  They chose to have bounded accuracy so your bonus to hit goes from +6 at level 1 to +13 at level 20.  It doesn't go up much, so they can't inflate character power by increasing that.  They could continually give big damage bonuses, but instead they chose to give more and more attacks and have the attacks do similar damage.  I don't like that solution because the jump between one and two attacks is so enormous and because it leads to longer and longer turns as the game progresses.  Having high level characters just drag out combats is not a good design.

They really ought to give people more damage instead.  It would mean that you don't have the incredible power jumps that lead to level four being super hard and level five being a cakewalk, and it would prevent drag on high level combat.  For example, let people add their stat bonus to their attacks (not with offhand attacks) an additional time at various levels, or double their weapon damage roll.  That increases their power but it does it in small chunks and doesn't add clutter in terms of extra dice and added resolution time.

Perhaps the best solution is to simply start characters at level five.  That way you avoid the ridiculously dangerous low level time and everyone has lots of dice to roll.  You do get more predictability that way, and that is a good way to avoid some of the swinginess (and constant deaths or wipes) that occur in low level play.

Also I am so going to yell FIREBALL constantly now.  It will be wonderful.