Sunday, October 2, 2016

Portal Hubs

This is a quick map I put together to help me with traveling throughout Azeroth, and particularly the Old World.  The excellent Order Hall quests often ask me to travel to various places in Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms, so I put together this quick guide to help me to get as close as possible before I have to begin my overland journey.  

To use the map, you must know where you want to go.  Then, find the portal destination closest to it.  Consult the legend (in the upper left corner) to see where that portal originates.  

For example, a Death Knight order hall quest sends me to Scarlet Monastery.  I look at the approximate location in northern Eastern Kingdoms and find that the Dalaran Crater is the closest portal (Bring a glider...).  Consulting the legend, I see that this portal originates in the New Dalaran Tower
Link to Larger Version
Click the image for a page with a larger version

My jewelcrafting trainer has another quest, Socket to Me, that sends me to various locations throughout the extended Warcraft world, and this map is perfect for making each leg of the journey as efficient as possible.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Warcraft movie: a first look

Now that the Warcraft movie has been out for its opening weekend in the U.S.  It's time to give it first impression.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who has ever played and enjoyed WoW.  All the familiar elements, all the rich artistry, all the deep lore is present here and better than ever.  And you owe it to yourself to watch it on the biggest screen you can find, and in 3D.  The art and cinematography are well worth the commitment.  Watching this next year on DVD is not going to be the same, because it's the overall immersive experience you're going for, here.

I loved the development of Khadgar from his early, uncertain theories to his more confident schemes at the end.  I liked the interaction between Khadgar and Lothar, a bond that seemed destined to develop into a lasting friendship.  The kind of friendship that Lothar and Llane were supposed to have.   I like the way that Khadgar has become a major heroic figure within Warcraft overall and our constant companion in Warlords of Draenor.

I also liked the re-structuring of Garona's character as a character awakening to the nobility of humans and striving to maintain her honor.  I like the way the story of her "betrayal" of King Llane was presented and it gave me a better understanding of the things that happened to her subsequently.  I wish that I had seen the movie before those scenes with Garona and Khadgar at his tower in Zangarra in Warlords. The emotional payoff when when we freed her from the influence of Gul'dan would have been exponentially greater.

Watching this movie gave me a much more concrete understanding of each of these characters than I ever had from playing the games alone.  This kind of portrayal makes these characters much more real to me, and whenever I run across references to Lothar or Llane, I will immediately reference these iconic figures.  If I had seen this movie a year ago, my Warlords expansion experience would have been much better.

I think that Blizzard should make more of these films.  A trilogy, at least, through the Second War.

Note that there are heavy spoilers in the following section where I discuss the limitations of the movie.

Many Characters:
There are a huge number of main characters in this movie, and in the short 2 hours we've been given, it's hard to learn them all and begin to sympathize with them.  This is particularly true for someone who has never played anything in Blizzard's Azeroth, but even for people who have a passing familiarity with the game, it's good to have a list of players.  The movie just doesn't have a lot of time to spend on establishing motivations and allegiances, so by the time you've got Durotan and Orgrim sorted out, the movie is well under way and you've got to wonder what else you've missed.  The problem is compounded by the fact that all of these characters are spread across many different groups

For the Humans:
  • Llane Wrynn, King of Stormwind
  • Anduin Lothar (no, not that Anduin), close friend of the king and General of Stormwind's armies.
  • Taria, Llane's wife and Lothar's sister
  • Callun Lothar, son of Lothar
  • Dwarves in Ironforge
  • Visiting Elves
For the Wizards:
  • Medivh, the Guardian
  • Khadgar, a lapsed incipient Guardian
  • the Kirin Tor mages in Dalaran (Antonidas, et al)
For the Good Orcs
  • Durotan, chief of the Frostwolf Clan
  • Ogrim Doomhammer, apparently now Durotan's buddy
  • Draka, wife of Durotan who is great with child
  • Go'el, the newborn son of Draka, later to become Thrall
For the Bad Orcs
  • Gul'dan, warlock and wielder of fel magic.  Leader of the Fel Horde
  • Blackhand, leader of the Blackrock Clan and nominal Warchief of the Horde
  • Garona, a half-orc prisoner of the Orcs, and later their spymaster.

So with 13 characters and additional factions, groups, and organizations, this is simply too many characters to keep track of over a 2 hour film, much less grow close to.  In addition, following so many characters dilutes the impact of events on any single one.

Too much happening in the plot
In reality we were watching two films, with the first being about the Humans vs the corrupt Guardian, and the second about the struggle between the Good and Fel orcs.  Each of these would have been a significant movie on its own, but trying to tell both stories simultaneously in a 120 minute format was simply overwhelming.

In the end, we couldn't develop emotional attachments for any of them.  Nor could we easily follow the twisting machinations of each of these sub-plots. For example, Khadgar went to Dalaran to visit the Kirin Tor and convince them that Medivh was corrupted.  What actually came out of that meeting was never clear, nor was the relevance of what the secret spirit in the cube, Alodi, told Khadgar.  We just didn't have enough time to explain.

Embrace Tragedy
As is usually the problem for Warcraft, there were no clear winners or losers.  No clear resolution of the story, simply a retelling of a series of events.  Looking at this more closely, there were really three storylines being followed here, all of them ending tragically.

The first is with King Llane and Lothar, who want to drive the invading orcs out of Azeroth and keep them from pillaging the humans. Ultimately, they fail to do this during the events of the film, with the dark portal temporarily re-opened allowing countless more orcs to stream through, Gul'dan still very much in power, and the orcs still a major presence.

The second story is with Durotan, the chief of the Frostwolf clan.  He wants to keep his clan safe, keep his family together, and oppose the destructive influence of Gul'dan.  Ultimately, he fails to do this with his clan destroyed, and himself defeated in Mok'gora with Gul'dan.  In addition, his wife Draka also appeared to be killed.  By the end of the movie, Durotan was definitely a tragic figure.

The third story was the betrayal by the guardian Medivh of the humans to the demons of the Burning Legion.  Khadgar managed to discover Medivh's fel taint and destroy him before he was entirely able to transform into a manifestation of Sargeras, preventing the ultimate consumption of Azeroth.  Nevertheless, Khadgar could not prevent the betrayal itself, which allowed Medivh to open the dark portal that gave Guldan and the orcs entry into Azeroth in the first place.

None of these stories are heroic successes, nor are they presented that way in the film.  In fact, the climax of the film is when Lothar returns to the Orc camp to retrieve the body of King Llane and it provides a moment of triumph only when Lothar is able to defeat Blackhand.  Sadly, this is merely a hollow victory, since it means nothing in the overall progress of events.

And finally, we have the story of Garona interwoven among all of them.  Her story is of one who was looking for a place to call home, a place where she could live.  The majority of the orcs rejected her for her half breed status, and when she appealed to Durotan, he could only reply that she would be safer among the humans.  The humans did reach out to her, first through Queen Taria who gifted her with the dagger that Garona would later use to kill Llane, and later through the romantic overtures of Lothar, who would later despise her as a traitor.  In the end, Garona found a place with Gul'dan, the one person she hated the most.

Hers is a wonderful story of tragedy, but it loses its impact among so many other personal tragedies.  More importantly, it does not provide the emotional uplift that a viewer associates with a herioc adventure movie.

In the end, the failing of the movie for Western audiences is one of basic storytelling.  A story places a character in a setting, from which arises a conflict that develops and is resolved.  The problem with the Warcraft film was that in every story the central conflict was unable to be resolved by anything except failure.  Each of the main characters has an ultimate objective that they singularly fail to achieve, except for Khadgar.  By rights, the main character in the story should be the mage, but that certainly isn't the way the director framed the conflict.

Director Duncan Jones was aware of these limitations, himself.
I kinda feel like we’d bitten so much off with what we were trying to achieve. We had to introduce all of these characters, introduce all of this world to people who may not know anything about it. I think the fact that they got the portal closed was enough. You know, whatever happens next will happen next. But that kind of felt like a pretty good chunk size. In two hours, we can get that done. Anything more, you’re kind of running into a convolution of epilogues and of story."  Gizmodo Duncan Jones interview
And this is the reason that it was so badly received by movie critics. They were looking for traditional storytelling with bold conflicts, developing characters, and clear resolutions. Jones was just trying to get the portal closed.

As a long-time player of Warcraft games, I am accustomed to Blizzard's style of storytelling.  Tales must be told in such a way that neither the Horde nor the Alliance are seen to be the clear winners. Clear and decisive resolutions are avoided in favor of open-ended and ambiguous narratives that create the maximum potential for future plotlines.   But that isn't the stuff of heroic fantasy novels and movies.  In fantasy such as the Lord of the Rings, it's important that the good guys win, that honor and heroism are rewarded.  That isn't what you found here.

More prosaically, if audiences were looking for a feel-good, triumphant tale of good overcoming evil, with the heroes coming out all right in the end, they simply weren't going to find it in this film.  Call it complex, subtle, nuanced if you wish, just don't call it a summer blockbuster.

In short, the Warcraft movie was a narrative that delivered the rich collection of lore surrounding the events of the first war, but didn't adequately create a formal Story to frame the events.  Movie critics were looking for a framework that didn't exist.

Watching this convinced me that this was made for WoW fans, and that this was the right choice.  I welcomed these major figures brought to life, and the visualizations of Ironforge and Stormwind and Goldshire and Karazhan.  While it did not have everything, what it did include was done well.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rumble in the Tanaan Jungle

It's getting a little dark out there in the killing fields of Tanaan Jungle.  It's an inevitability and a weakness of this style of game play but now we are reaching that stage once again.  It's something that we've seen before, but it's come earlier, and is likely to be more pronounced this expansion than ever before, including Mists.

I'm talking about the way the game plays out when a majority of players start reaching the ilevel cap and there's nothing more for any of those players to do.  We see the result in the mechanics of the apexis zones.  Rare mobs that used to require help to defeat are now regularly soloed by nearly any class, including my elemental shaman geared as a healer.  Bosses that used to take minutes to kill, are now down in less than 30 seconds by most adequately-geared characters, including my hunter.  If you aren't in at least an adjacent area when you hear a boss yell, there isn't much point in moving because you aren't going to make it in time to tag it.   Many classes, like my protection paladin, are now regularly rounding up 5-10 mobs in a zone and grinding them down, clearing whole areas at a time.  And believe me, I am a casual WoW player. 

The first casualties in all of this are the alts that are being newly leveled and don't have the same level gear.  It is very hard for them to compete.  The same is true for some classes, like my under-geared shadow priest.  And the frustration is becoming evident in areas where we used to find a modicum of cooperation that is now replaced by kill-stealing, ninja-ing completion items, and popping blood relics while someone else tries to destroy the bleeding hollow cultist that spawned it. I regularly enter an apexis area like the Fel Forge and find it devoid of mobs, as I fly in circles looking for something to kill. 

It isn't that anyone is doing anything wrong.  This is the logical result of how the zone is designed.  The players themselves are experiencing a kind of hysterical blood thirst as we all try to complete this now-tedious and trivial task in Tanaan Jungle as quickly as possible.

This is a symptom of a larger problem.  Many, many players have already reached saturation with this content, as I talked about in my last post.  For characters relying on LFR drops and Baleful gear bought with apexis, there isn't anywhere else for them to go, and many of them have already acquired the best gear they are likely to get, topping out at around ilevel 695-700.  With all 695 baleful gear, 3 crafted pieces at 715, and a few 705 trinkets et al from Kazzak there is literally nothing else to obtain.  Archimonde drops 685 gear in LFR so that's no help.  Two of my characters can literally gain no better gear from gathering apexis or anything else, short of raiding.

We are still looking at 9-10 months of this expansion.

Back in June, when Blizzard re-introduced the potential for flying, they also listed the requirements that would eventually unlock it.  Like many people, I began to chip away at the basic achievements.  While some people balked at the scale of what was required, most people recognized that it encapsulated the core content of what the game offered.  This wasn't some obscure "Insane in the membrane"-style achievement but simply asked players to work through the main features they had built. 

I'm not an extreme WoW player, but like many people with the basic goal in mind,  I had completed the requisite Draenor Pathfinder achievement when flying dropped at the beginning of September.  That means that I had already completed the heart of the game's content.  For anyone with flying, there's very little more of substance for them to do.

Now, apparently, I am just filling in the corners.  This is an expected phase at the end of every expansions, but something is different now.  Put simply, Mists of Pandaria was a full featured expansion with many different experiences spread across many substantial content patches.  There were several storylines to complete, factions to gain reputation with, whole islands of additional content to explore.  Draenor simply isn't that feature rich.

The thing for me is, I'm having fun in Draenor.  I'm NOT sick of the expansion, or ready to move on.  I understand the complaints about Orc Fatigue, but the truth is I wish there was more for us to experience.  I understand the motivation to unsubscribe and come back when Legion launches; I just don't feel like I'm ready to do that.  And it was to reach that realization that I had to write my way through this whole post. At least it will get the struggle out of my head.  In the meantime, I'll see you at the iron front.  I'll be the one tanking the wargronn, 'cause it's the fastest way to finish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Echoes of Orgrimmar: content gaps in Warcraft

With the announcement of the new expansion, Blizzard has basically slammed the door on Warlords of Draenor.  I don't know if that's a fair assessment or not, but that is certainly the way it feels to me right now.  I've been waiting for some further communication from the snowstorm that would give me any indication that they've got something further planned, but at this point they have taken every opportunity to shut that option down.

At first, there were some statements that seemed to leave the door open for more development on Draenor.  For example, our hero Ion Hazzicostas declaimed that while there were definitely no further raids planned on Draenor, he did sort of mumble that they weren't entirely done.  But when Cory came afterward, he again seemed to quash the whole idea.  The WoW team was definitely moving on and any further work on Draenor would only delay the ready date for Legion.  Nope, Draenor was out the door and we are looking on to the next show.

On the other hand,  Ion and his fellow lead designer types have also repeatedly assured us that the Siege gap of 14 months was too long.  They have learned their lesson, they earnestly profess, and it's never going to get that bad again.  But let's examine that claim.

If the beta for Legion will be out before the end of the year, that suggests to me around December.  Blizzcon attendees will fly home with shiny beta keys in their goody bags, and a few weeks to prepare for a December 15 beta server.  If we follow customary pathways, the Legion beta will be 6 months long, putting us at June 15, 2016.  I'm going to add a month for the promised pre-expansion activities and expect to see Legion in July.

This means two things:  First, that will very nearly be an entire year between patch 6.2 and the next expansion.  This is the thing they sincerely claimed they didn't want to do. Content droughts are bad for players, but not necessarily bad for game companies if they get all their players back at the release of the new expansion.

 Second, while the "year between content" goal won't be achieved, they will have made good on their intention to release expansions faster than every 2 years.  That tentative July date is at the 17-18 month mark, and they will have shaved 6 months off their delivery cycle.  A faster expansion cycle is good for game companies, because the pulse of expansion purchases flows into their accounts more quickly.  It isn't necessarily good for players, because it requires more cash and doesn't guarantee any more content.  Blizzard is showing that they are perfectly capable of creating 12 month content gaps, even in a 18-month expansion cycle.

I have a gut feeling in another direction, however.  My hope is that Blizzard still has an ace up it's sleeve and has already finished a final activity zone that they are going to release in January.                                                                                      

Friday, September 4, 2015

The View from Lion's Watch

It was just 9 months ago that we first shot into the Jungles of Tanaan, led by Khadgar and Thrall to start this expansion.  It wasn't all that long before then that we had the glowing numbers 11/13 burned onto our retinas as the date when the long content drought of Siege of Orgrimmar would be coming to a welcome conclusion.

I just want to take a minute and look back over the last several months to find out how we've gotten to where we are now.

Warlords of Draenor, a Timeline

September 10, 2013  - Patch 5.4:  Siege of Orgrimmar was released, including the final raid tier of Mists as well as Timeless Isle.  This commenced the longest time period between content patches the game had ever seen.

November 8, 2013. Warlords of Draenor was announced as the next expansion at Blizzcon.  Not only were we excitedly looking forward to the new content, but we were solemnly advised that the game was closer than ever to launch and we should expect it much sooner than the pattern established by previous expansions of 22-24 months.  Predictions were seriously entertained for as early as May for the new expansion to drop.

During a lore panel Q&A session we had the following exchange:
Fan #16: And since Zaela is possibly going to be going through with Garrosh, is Aggra going to be going with Thrall and Thrall’s little one?
Afrasiabi: No, I don’t know.
Metzen: Their honeymoon is over. This is more of a boy’s trip.
This set off a fire across the internet as fans question the role of female characters in the game.

November 20, 2013.  In an interview, lead systems designer Greg Street commented on a faster schedule.
"We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly," he says. "Once a year I think would be a good rate."
November 27, 2013.  Greg Street announces that he is leaving Blizzard Entertainment after 6 years. 

May 7, 2014.  Rob Pardo gives a talk to MIT Media Lab where he discusses candidly the struggle with gender representation in Blizzard Games.  "Because most of our game developers are guys that grew up reading comic books... they draw comic book-looking women ... which is offensive to some women." He places it in the context of an awareness of "a need to catch ourselves." A resulting article in Polygon magazine gives the statement wider availability.

July 3, 2014.  Rob Pardo, Chief Creative officer with Blizzard for 14 years, announces that he is leaving the company.

August 14, 2014.   With even the faithful starting to get restless, Blizzard called a special assembly and put on a cinematic culminating in the announcement of the release date for WoD: November 13, 2014.  This would put it at almost exactly a year after the announcement at Blizzcon, and 14 months since the last content infusion into the game with patch 5.4

Subscription numbers had dropped to 7.4 million

In the following 3 months, Blizzard began releasing an animated series titled Lords of War in which the major Iron Horde characters were introduced, along with short stories on their website.

November 6-7, 2014.   Blizzcon 2014 was light on WoW information, with the launch of Warlords just a few days away.  The event was instead dominated by news from other products, including Starcraft II, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. 

November 13, 2014.  Warlords of Draenor is released on schedule and to tremendous acclaim, though not without a few stumbles.  The game gains over 3 million returning players and subscriptions jump to over 10 million.  The initial questing zones are greeted as some of the best questing experiences that Blizzard has ever done.  Garrisons are more cautiously received, but are widely used.

Anticipating controversy, Blizzard begins to give warnings that flying in Draenor would not be available immediately upon reaching level cap.   Suggestions range from "in a future patch" to the possibility that flying would never be available.

November 21, 2014.  Molten Core is re-tuned to ilevel 615+ gear and released for a limited time as a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the World of Warcraft.

December 2, 2014.  The first raid, Highmaul, begins its staggered release.  The final LFR wing with the last of the 7 bosses, Imperator Mor'gok, becoming available on January 6, 2015

February 3, 2015.  Blackrock Foundry, the second raid of the expansion with 9 bosses, begins its release cycle.  All wings of the raid won't be fully available on Raid Finder until March 24.  Blizzard maintains that this is still part of the first tier of raiding, and that the release of Blackrock Foundry is not tied in any way to patch 6.1. 

Players are beginning to report that they are burned out on the time-consuming tasks of the Garrison and the static nature of Apexis daily zones.

February 24, 2015.  Patch 6.1 goes live, bringing with it the much-anticipated new Blood Elf models and a host of bug fixes and class tweaks.  It also brought minor controversy in the form of Twitter integration and the selfie camera, both of which were decried by many as inappropriate to the atmosphere of the game.

These two features set off sparks of frustration mostly because there is a growing feeling that the overall content of the game was lighter than expected and the first patch added no new story.  Expectations that this patch would bring some relief from the grinding nature of garrison tasks went unrealized. Ion Hazzikostas would later remark that Patch 6.1 was extremely light on content and might have been better named Patch 6.0.5.

March 31, 2015.  In its Q1 quarterly report, Blizzard announces that subscriptions had fallen to 7.1 million.

May 22, 2015  Lead designer Ion Hazzikostas gives an interview to Polygon magazine where he states " We're not going to be reintroducing the ability to fly in Draenor, and that's kind of where we're at going forward."  Public outcry in response is noticeable.

June 10, 2015.  Writing in a Dev Watercooler, Hazzikostas announces that they are implementing plans to return flying.  "...players who have earned Draenor Pathfinder on at least one character will unlock the ability to fly in Draenor..."

June 23.  Patch 6.2, Fury of Hellfire, is released.  This is a major content patch, opening an entirely new zone - the Jungles of Tanaan, expanding the Garrison with a shipyard, continuing the legendary quest line and beginning the release cycle of the final raid of the expansion, Hellfire Citadel.  With 13 bosses in 5 wings, this raid will be fully available with the release of the last wing on August 25.  As was intended, however, this patch does not include flying.

6.2 does include Timwalking dungeons, included among a rotation of event weekends.  Initially limited to Friday to Monday, the events are eventually expanded to begin on maintenance Tuesday.  Timewalking scales down the character to the level at which the dungeon was originally released in order to maintain some level of challenge, while scaling up the rewards to the character's current level. 

June 28.  In an interview with Wowhead, Ion Hazzikostas infamously re-coins a phrase by claiming that flying will be available in "weeks, not months."  Flying will not, in fact, be available until early September.

August 4.  The Q2 report lists WoW subscriptions at 5.4 million, which is the lowest sub numbers have been since passing that mark back in 2005.

August 6.  Blizzard announces the new expansion for WoW at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany.  Titled Legion, the next expansion will return to Azeroth in the traditional timeline and feature favorites such as Sylvannas, Illidan, and the Emerald Dream as well as the eponymous Burning Legion. Also included are the Demon Hunter class and Artifact Weapons, and a new zone called "The Broken Isles."

In a follow-up interview, executive producer J. Allen Brack gives a very tepid commitment to a faster release of the next expansion.
"We’ve had situations in the past where we’ve had this last big patch and then it’s a year before anything else comes out. I don’t think anyone thinks that’s a great situation for the players or the game. So it’ll be interesting to see where we end up on this expansion, how much time has passed, and then we’ll learn from that.
It’s definitely a topic of big discussion because one of the things we know we can’t compromise on is how people feel about the game when they actually get it. It has to be a great triple-A experience."
Nevertheless, a beta of the expansion is intended to be offered by the end of the calendar year.

August 13.  Blizzard reveals a new achievement, Draenor Pathfinder that will award flying in Draenor.  The achievement is an accumulation of several other achievements representing the majority of content in the Draenor expansion.  Blizzard also signals that this same kind of capstone achievement will unlock flying in future expansions as well.

September 1.  Patch 6.2.2 arrives, bringing flying to Draenor for those players who have completed the required achievement.  Several new rares are accessible with the new ability to fly, but no other major content is added to the game.

That brings us up to date as of this post.  The rest is speculation, looking into the future, except for one known date:

November 6-7, 2015.  Blizzcon is scheduled and is expected to bring more information regarding future expansion dates.

And there is another, even more speculative date hanging out there as well.

June 2016.  The World of Warcraft movie is released in US and European theaters, barring further delays.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Warcraft Positions for the Future

The latest buzz that has animated the Blizz-O-sphere is the announcement about WoW Game Tokens and a new market set up to buy and sell them for in-game gold.  Of course there is a certain amount of justifiable concern about how this move will affect the economy and disrupt the social contract, but what's really at the heart of this is a fundamental change in how the game is monetized.

A basic model of all free-to-play games everywhere is that a smaller pool of wealthy players, the "Whales," subsidize a larger pool of "free-riders" through lavish cash purchases from the game store.  The Whales can purchase premium gear, cosmetics like mounts and pets, emotes and banners in the cash shop, everything from useful gear, to consumables that minimize the grind, to ostentatious displays of finery.  This is important because it allows the game company to extract extra cash from some players who are willing to pay more.

Up until recently, WoW had a very limited ability to tap into this source of income.  One of the great strengths of the subscription model is that you get $15 from every player, month after month.  As long as the players are entertained, that income just keeps rolling in.  On the flip side though, one of the weaknesses of the subscription model is that the company is limited to collecting fifteen bucks a month, even though there are players who might pay much more.   

Contact has been made

This is that social contract thing I referred to earlier.  For the price of entry, all players get access to the entire game and are limited only by their willingness to play.  Each player is on a equal footing within the game and your success is based on your level of commitment - the amount of time you have to play.  This is very attractive to a player base composed of high school and college students with more time than money.  Regardless of their personal life circumstances, they can be a success if they are willing to do the work.

You always knew Thorn didn't need the eyepatch.

It's not so great, though, when your maturing player base has good jobs but less time to spend in the evening when they come home from them.  They don't want to spend 3 months grinding Tillers reputation on 4 characters; better to give them a commendation that will cut that time in half.  Rather than working for weeks to gather materials and farm savage blood to craft a 680 helm, they'll let others do that and just buy it off the Auction House.

Until now, Blizzard didn't have a way to profit from this play style.  Yes, there was the occasional mount on the fledgling game store but this was a far cry from the huge inventories of other f2p games that often changed on a monthly cycle.  Now, through the sale of Game Tokens, Bliz can extract as much real cash as they like from the Whales while providing a method for poor-but-active free-riders to continue padding the sub numbers.  Do the whales want to buy that very expensive raid-drop from the auction house, or the premium tundra yak motorcycle mount?  Buy a couple of game tokens and feed them into the machine.

The Black Box

The claim is that because a player must pay gold for the token, that no new gold is being introduced into the game, and therefore inflation won't be a problem.  This would have been true if the tokens had been listed for sale on the open market auction house.  That is not the case, however.  Instead, both transactions will take place in a black box where only Blizzard knows what is happening inside.  You put in your token, and Bliz gives you whatever gold it feels is appropriate.  Bliz tells you how much gold to donate and then gives you game time.  There is absolutely no transparency in this transaction.

A view from within the black box.

And if more tokens are purchased for cash then there are players willing to buy them, is Blizzard going to stop selling them?  Probably not.  Are they going to let the gold price fall below some threshold and discourage whales from buying and exchanging tokens for gold?  Probably not.  I'm not looking for them to throttle the new revenue stream.

The devs say that the price will fluctuate with demand, but since it's all inside a black box it's pretty clear that price support will keep the gold reward fairly stable.  What won't be stable is the price for desirable items on the Auction House.  These are now going to be measured in terms of game tokens, maybe 20,000 or 30,000g apiece.  And that warforged armor piece that seems high at 35k gold will regularly be listed for multiples of that; items over 100,000g don't seem unreasonable or unlikely.

Tinfoil Hat

So let's take a wider look at the potential for this alternate revenue stream.  For example, one of the favorite methods of extracting cash from free players is the sale of gambling boxes: SWTOR's cartel packs, Black Lion chests, Neverwinter lockboxes - they all do the same thing, take your money and give you a small chance for a very nice reward.  And we've just introduced a prototype for that mechanic into the game for WoW as well; Blizzard calls it the salvage crate.  It could be a 665 armor piece or it could be a level 12 green, take it to the Salvage yard and find out. The message is pretty clear, however.  Good things come in random boxes.

Right now, that sounds like paranoid ravings. Let's not even consider lvl 25 battle pets and items for the Toy Box beginning to show up in the crates as well.  I'll start to be worried when I find "Iron-Bound Salvage Crates" for sale from a garrison vendor for 500g apiece.

Hobbit presents for everybody. First one's free, kid.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Old Friends

So there was a moment, in these past few days, when the MMO collective held its breath.  Out of nowhere, two staunch front-line fighters were taken out with a massive blow.  We saw them fall, slowly, gracefully, and realized that there was nothing that we could do about it except thank them for all they had given to the community.

Think of that moment when your group has painstakingly reduced the boss to 20% health and suddenly both tanks go down at once.  Today we found a battle rez. 

 I was thinking about the ways that I was going to miss Wow Insider and Massively, these past few days.  One of the strengths of WI was something that is becoming a rare commodity in the internet space: long-form commentary and analysis.  It still exists elsewhere, but blogging has become more about quick observations and high posting frequency.  I enjoyed posts that you could settle into and get more than a cursory gloss on the events that might be happening in the WoW universe.

I was particularly grateful to the Know Your Lore column, not only for providing background and references, but fundamentally for asserting that understanding the lore of the game and exploring its potential implications was a valuable part of the Warcraft experience. 
I may have had strong reactions to many of the Tinfoil Hat editions, and there have been times when their speculation has been beautifully, terribly wrong in my opinion, but I loved the fact that they challenged me to take the lore seriously, and provoked me to consider it on my own. To make an effort to play the "Great Game" and not simply dismiss the story with a curt "Blizzard can't keep the lore straight, why should I?" 

Instead, they constantly strove to reconcile the individual elements into a coherent narrative that illuminated the saga that we, as characters, had been caught up in.

At the other end of the spectrum, WI gave a voice to the many players for whom the official forums weren't the friendly environment they were looking for.  With reply counts regularly in the hundreds, many voices were allowed a platform; not one free from criticism, but with a joviality that allowed anyone to make a fool of themselves and be corrected with good humor.

I loved Massively for continually re-asserting that the Warcraft franchise wasn't everything.  I credit them for standing against the storm and treating all games with respect and quiet curiosity.  They were successful precisely because they could ignore the elephant in the room with perfect equanimity.  Once you closed the door on the racket Blizzard was making, what other good things were out there to be explored, what risks were others taking, what amazing stories were being told in places like The Secret World, LOTRO, and The Elder Scrolls Online?

Massively wasn't a fansite of any particular game.  Instead, they were enthusiastic about the industry as a whole, and that gave them a perspective and freed them from a bias that single-game sites often struggle with.  They didn't pull any punches when it came to pointing out shortcomings and poor decisions, but at the same time they were willing to give devs enough rope to do whatever they wished with it, including hang themselves.

And I have to mention the amazing work that both of these sites did with podcasting, week after week and often on a professional level that was enjoyable to listen to.

I just realized that I've been speaking in the past tense, and of course the news today is that both these sites have announced plans to continue their work at different locations.  WowInsider has now become Blizzard Watch and Massively is mustering its forces under the banner of MassivelyOP (not yet up as of Wednesday).  I'll have to get busy changing the links in my blog and podcast rolls.  It isn't assured that these new sites will be the huge success that the old ones were. Start ups can be fragile things. They could probably use the MMO community's support right now, particularly in the month of February when they are getting their feet under them.