Training wheels

Gloriaboboria recently posted some impassioned thoughts on how Warcraft could (and should) go about attracting, and more importantly retaining, new players. It’s a common problem in established MMOs, and one not easily solved:

A running theme I’ve seen among newer players giving feedback, including some I’ve introduced to the game like my own brother, is that they’re entranced by the initial portions of the game, love it, rave about it, but eventually fall off around level 20-30 and leave and don’t come back. That’s not even halfway to the level cap.

There are so many nuances and interlocking systems in an MMO that it feels like a new player has no chance. If they want to play an MMO, it seems like they’re better off jumping in on a new one where there is an entire playerbase learning the ropes and sharing knowledge.

The problem with this of course is that new MMOs struggle to gain traction. Even heavily promoted and well executed games like Wildstar floundered after launching with much fanfare. So playing one of the established games with an already strong community becomes a better choice. At which point we’re back to the problem of complexity.

One suggestion from Gloriaboboria is a mentoring system:

It seems like a monumental issue to try and tackle and yet we already have examples from other games that at least make attempts to rope new players in via mentoring systems. I’m not saying the mentoring systems in games like FFXIV and Guild Wars 2 are perfect, because they aren’t, largely because they aren’t monitored in any way. But at least they EXIST. Take a page from their notebooks and set up a basic mentoring system in WoW.

I agree this would be sensible – whenever I’ve logged onto GW2, I’ve noticed specially designated players who have been granted some kind of mentor role. I’m not exactly sure what they do, but it seems like a smart idea that rewards your dedicated players with an enhanced in game role and also helps new starters.

Warcraft has done well by streamlining the gameplay experience, making it as seamless as they can despite the ancient code base and massive history. The class trials seem like a good idea too, though throwing someone into a level 100 scenario for a test drive is more for experienced players than new. But there are still mysteries for the new player that are nigh impossible to unravel without help. How does a guild bank work? Why is the bag UI so bad? What’s a Beastmaster Hunter compared to a Survival Hunter compared to a Marksmanship Hunter??

And perhaps the greatest problem of all – how to Dungeon? How to Raid? The two pinnacles of content are also the two things that have the greatest barrier to entry, and are the most likely places to suffer a crushing experience that will make you leave the game and never come back.

I’ve long considered starting a guild that is for mentoring dungeon and raid groups. A few level locked tanks and healers, with an open policy to guide and help new players learn the ropes when it comes to coordinated group play. It wouldn’t take long to get new players comfortable with the concepts, and give them the confidence to get out there in Dungeon Finder and LFR to enjoy the high level content.

The problem is there are no good in game tools to support such a concept. Using the forums is hardly effective, and in game advertising is more or less limited to general chat and the broken find-a-guild systems. Blizzard seem to have acknowledged some of the problem in creating their new Communities system in BfA, but it still seems to focus mainly on existing players and friends.

Maybe one day I’ll give it a try using the tools available, but it feels like there should be more systems in game to support the mentoring role. Then again Blizzard are probably not too worried about recruiting and retention at the moment given the huge reaction to the BfA preamble. Only a few days to go!

Gear equalised dungeons

The always thoughtful Rohan at Blessing of Kings has a great proposal: equalising gear in levelling dungeons the same way it is (as of 7.03) in PVP:

The problem is that leveling dungeons need to be balanced such that a group of new players in quest gear can complete them. But if one or more heirloom characters are present, that balance goes out the window.

I think stat templates for leveling dungeons would be a great idea. Everyone would be reduced down to an even playing field. Dungeons would be a proper group experience once more. I rather doubt anyone will sheep anything, but maybe it could happen.

Despite the fun of tanking in heirlooms, this is a very worthy idea. I especially like the idea of cc returning! I remember using Distract to sneak past mobs in dungeons once upon a time, and trying not to hit the sheep with AoE.

Another idea for the mooted ‘Pristine’ servers, perhaps, though given they’ve done it in PVP why not implement it into PvE too – the tech is there with the Timewalking gear scaling. This would just be scaling as you level, rather than scaling down from max.

Boost mechanics

Having boosted my level 60 Prot Paladin to 90, I was surprised to find that all my abilities and talents had been locked away. I couldn’t even summon the Paladin mount. It was effectively like being a first level character again – Crusader Strike and Judgment were my only skills. It felt very underpowered after blasting through dungeons on the way to 60.

As I ventured into Draenor, quests started rewarding clusters of abilities – damage boosts, mitigation, healing – and talent tree unlocks.

Thinking about it, I realised this is obviously the mechanic for Blizzard to introduce newly boosted level zero characters to their abilities. I wonder if they could have made it less abrupt by leaving abilities unlocked for characters that were boosting from a higher level, but that would pose it’s own problems – what level did they boost from, which abilities are left, how to introduce them.

The main problem I think is that even though the abilities were gradually unlocked, there was nothing in the way of explanation as to what they were and how to use them. When levelling, you get one at a time and can read the ability text and work out (or look up) how they are best used. With the boost, you just unlock three new abilities and hope for the best.

The other problem is the unlocks are not matched to what’s happening in game, so getting the defensive abilities wasn’t because a quest was about to call for them. It also had the strange effect of making me feel vulnerable – some of the quests were harder than expected due to a lack of skills, which I think would be off-putting for a fresh player.

It seems like there is an opportunity to create an isolated boost scenario which would match the skill and talent unlocks to events and challenges in the scenario. Similar to the Proving Grounds, but tailored more toward teaching. And because it’s quarantined from the game story, it can scale to each expac as they are released, before launching the fresh player into the storyline. It would be a lot of work for Blizzard given all the classes and specialisations, but given boosting characters appears to be the new normal it might be money well spent.

Ding ding ding – power levelling an alt in Draenor

Just as I started levelling my Rogue, I stumbled upon an article on Blizzard Watch that asked how best to power level an alt. Now I had no plan to power level her, but there was an intriguing strategy outlined that involved using the 300% XP boost granted by an Elixir of the Rapid Mind in combination with having all Gorgrond bonus objectives one step short of complete.

Having found two Elixir’s as part of Winter’s Veil, I decided may as well give it a go. The article comments1 also tipped to polish off an Excess Potion of Accelerated Learning for an additional 20% boost – making it 320% total. Gorgrond is particularly great for this plan as it has nine bonus quests and they’re all relatively close to each other.

And the whole endeavour is only possible if you can fly in Draenor, so this only really works for your alts.

I was already level 93 heading to Gorgrond thanks to treasure hunting in Frostfire, and in the process of getting all the bonuses to tipping point I levelled to 94. One tip is that some bonus areas only unlock after opening your Gorgrond Outpost, so get that done first.

The Elixir lasts 15 minutes, so you need to make the most of it. I decided to also prep the three Frostfire bonus areas, in case I had time to spare. This turned out to be a bit of a waste, as there are only three bonuses, they are spread out, and because they are lower level it wasn’t worth as much XP. If you have the level or skill, maybe try the Talador bonus quests instead.

With everything ready, I checked the most efficient flight route, rehearsed the finishing move for each objective, took a few deep breaths, and went for it.

When I started I was level 94.
11 minutes later I was 97!

It was great. Approx 300k XP per bonus area, and the levels flew by. Very entertaining, the only frustration was finishing everything with four minutes to spare and nowhere to spend the XP. A small price to pay.

In summary, if you want to try this:

  1. Acquire an Elixir from the AH & Potion from your Garrison Quarter Master;
  2. Get your Outpost built in Gorgrond to unlock all nine possible bonus objectives;
  3. Complete all but one item for each bonus – I’d suggest leaving the easiest possible thing waiting (normally a ‘click once to do something’ chore instead of a kill);
  4. If you get over level 94 doing this, go and grab some bonus objectives in Talador (instead of Frostfire/SMV).
  5. Drink down your potions and fly like the wind!

Good luck and good levelling.

  1. Amazingly the comments at Blizzard Watch appear to mostly be safe to read. Good job BW moderators! 

Picking all the Pockets

Levelling my Rogue alt – and first ever toon – I’ve rediscovered the joy of pick pocketing. Stealthing through Ogre camps and picking the pocket of each and every mob is enormous fun, especially now you loot fun flavour items like Magma-Infused War Beads as well as a few loose silver coins. And discovering that in the entire camp, only the loincloth sporting Ogre Chef didn’t have pockets made me laugh out loud.

For the Rogues out there, just create a simple macro that adds a pick-pocket to all your stealth attacks and you’ll be looting your way to glory in no time. For example, here’s an Ambush macro:

#showtooltip Ambush
/cast Pick Pocket
/cast Ambush

I have no idea if you can ever pick things like pets and actual loot, but it’s entirely fun and a great class perk for the lonely & misunderstood Rogue.

Alt Skies

Whoa so levelling in Draenor with flight is entirely different.

I hopped on my Rogue, built my Garrison, and headed out into Frostfire Ridge. And realised I could just fly straight to each treasure on the map. XP-a-rama. And fly to the rare spawns. And skip the trash mobs before the quest objective.

It’s a different game altogether, far less immersive, and I’m super glad we were forced to do everything on foot first. On the ground I learnt the world, and felt part of it. Having done that makes flying above it rewarding too, but if we had have flown from day one, the detachment flight grants would have really detracted from the sense of place.

But it’s brilliant for alts. Pick and choose how and where you want to level, and avoid the grindy parts. Thanks Blizzard!

Emulation: everything old is new again

Following in the footsteps of MAME, there’s a pleasing resurgence in fan-crafted MMO emulation projects.

From Star Wars Galaxies to vanilla Warcraft to Warhammer Online, it’s great to see these worlds being preserved. Even better to see people like John Smedley giving them the thumbs up.

Even if they can never be the same as they were – the lightning-in-a-bottle communities are impossible to recreate – it’s important that the history and joy those worlds represented aren’t lost.

I briefly tried a Vanilla Warcraft server, and it was amazing to remember just how far things have changed. Hunting with ammo, pet happiness, minimum range, weapon skills – and the possibility of dying in starter areas1. And despite the small numbers, there’s every chance the emulated games will generate unique communities of their own.

  1. What I really wanted to try was Plainsrunning, though I’m not sure it ever made it into a production build. 

The Watcher

Thinking more about how people could learn the game without YouTube or Tankspot, it seems that an Observer mode would be an excellent addition. Some mechanism which allowed you to join a fight in progress as a watcher only, hovering above god-style, kind of like you can hover around when dead and see what’s going on.

I’d love to be able to follow a Warrior tank who was running my chosen bête noire, to learn how they handle the adds and time their cooldowns. Or to hover over a new wing of Naxx once our guild ventures in for the second time.

This would allow you to watch and learn fights that are new, or that you’re struggling with. It removes the element of surprise when encountering a new instance or boss, but then very few approach a new fight without first watching a strategy video or reading a debrief. In fact Observer mode would be much more involving than those kind of meta approaches.

You’d probably need some kind of way to allow or disallow observers, so as not to be encumbered with additional stresses or having strangers judge your skills. But given people Livestream their attempts already, I’m sure it would be a pretty popular feature.

eSports depend on the ability for an audience to join a game as observers and hence participate in the event like they were at a real sports game. The venerable Quake engine allowed god mode overview for tournament play, Starcraft II will feature some kind of observer mode, as well as replays, so why not offer it in WoW too?


The Interwebs are bathed in the fiery afterglow of the Cataclysm class changes, with the main response being: “NIMBY“.

It’s a little disconcerting reading bloggers whose opinions are usually well thought out and rational going a little crazy in response. I guess most active bloggers are pretty serious players, so any changes tend to be leaped upon with vigour, and horror if there’s even the slightest hint of dramatic change.

  • Responding to the new Priest ability Leap of Faith, the normally very sane Tobold offers his services to Blizzard as a Chief Social Engineer because “I really don’t understand why nobody at Blizzard considered the consequences”. Really Tobold? No-one at Blizzard has considered the consequences?? Please.
  • Similarly the always angry Rilgon gets even angrier after reading the Hunter preview: “Focus: F*ck it. This sh*t is f*cking worthless”. And that’s mild compared to his twitter stream. Overreaction, much? All this without having even tried it, or giving Blizz any credit for perhaps being able to make it work. It works for Rogues, why can’t it work for Hunters?
  • The Escape Hatch disses the Warrior: “Based on this preview, I will be shocked if there is not a mass exodus from the warrior class come Cataclysm”. Why? Because there aren’t enough “cool” changes. Are people really going to abandon a class they love because Heroic Leap isn’t exciting enough?
  • Even Tamarind goes nuts: “Is this April Fools Day leftovers? It’s now not enough that I’m expected to heal the moronface standing in fire I’m expected to yank him out of as well?!!”. At least Tam has the good grace to realise it’s all a bit ott: “I’m sure, in practice, it’ll all be fine and I’ll be a Stupidity Grip convert, eating my words and looking small and silly”.

From all the class announcements, about the only change that I can see would cause real angst is the change to Druid Tree form. This one is a fundamental change to how you enjoy a class, not to a background mechanic. Hunters will still be able to shoot and have pets despite the change from Mana to Focus. A Tree Druid who’s not a Tree? That’s more problematic – support Tree Bark Jacket’s campaign!

For the rest, surely we can have just a smidgen of faith that Blizzard, um, know a little bit about what they are doing?  That they aren’t trying to break their game and drive everyone away to SW:ToR. That we’re grown up enough to adapt to the New Thing and enjoy it just as much as the Old.

Garwulf, in a thankfully balanced review of the Hunter changes, summed it up best for me: “FFS, quit yer bitchin’!”

Boss Fight Pause

Wednesday night saw our group play Pathfinder with table-top miniatures for the first time. It was awesome. We didn’t have anything like the crazy 3D extravaganzas Penny-Arcade create,  just a flat sheet of grid paper, white board markers, and figurines. Despite the simple setup, it was still awesome. There’s nothing like seeing the battlefield laid out to bring an event to life, and demonstrate the consequences of things like line of sight and proximity.

My cleric couldn’t bring any healing to the party (despite two members desperately needing some hit point love) because we started the fight spreadeagled all over the playing field. So I had to resort to bringing the big hammer down, which is more my style anyway 🙂

Our Sorcerer’s pseudo-dragon, who flew high above, could give him strategic advice, and his positioning on the steps meant he could better see where our enemies were coming from, but none of that could be conveyed to the rest of us due to the tyranny of distance.

Despite all these nub mistakes we got through it – helped by a friendly GM, some lucky dice rolls, and the fact that it wasn’t real time. That’s the difference between pen & paper and an MMO: we would have definitely wiped HoR style on the second wave of ravenous goblins, but the turn based nature of the fighting meant there was time to pause and consider our approach. We could focus fire, move closer together so I could heal the group, and generally adapt our strategy.

Which begs the question, could something similar be implemented in an MMO? Could you have a turn based mechanic in an MMO? What if you could pause a boss fight to discuss tactical approaches to the next phase, or to dissect what just happened? That would alleviate some of the need to research every fight before attempting it, and open up all sorts of learning opportunities. A learner mode.

It would also break the ‘flow’ of a fight, but it could be an optional feature that you flip on and off depending on whether you are on your first attempt or a veteran. Start new boss attempts by pausing and working out what is going on, then once you’ve got the fight down pat, start running it through end to end. During the pause attempts, no loot would drop to stop farming.

Could this work? Would it mean not having to Wowhead the fight before you begin? Be nice if it did. If nothing else it might allow the tanks and melee DPS to see the boss mechanics, rather than the boss nether-regions 😎