Blizzcon this year was fairly light on big news, which was kind of expected given the expectation-hosing Blizzard did before the show even begun, and which was disappointing enough for some (like Syp) to say the show should have been cancelled. I guess for a newshound maybe it was a let down, but people on the ground seemed to have enjoyed it, and despite the lack of huge announcements there was plenty to absorb, made easy by the top notch reporting from BlizzardWatch.

The Overwatch news was very thin, with the only real announcement being the reveal of Ashe, who looks like a great addition (and has been immediately adored by the fanbase). I wonder if Blizzard intentionally unveiled a Western themed hero in the same week as Red Dead Redemption 2 dropped? Seems a little too evil genius I think – and an opening weekend of US$750m for RDR2 wipes everything else off the map.

Meanwhile over in Warcraft land, there’s the remastered Warcraft III, which excited a lot of people, and a bunch of ‘coming soons’ for Warcraft itself. None of which were earth-shattering, but there was a general lifting of the mood around WoW as a result, with the feeling that the developers are starting to get in the expansion groove and listening and responding to the fans. Perhaps there’s hope for BfA yet? Plus, Tauren Heritage armour!

The biggest Warcraft news was saved for the Vanilla version, with the launch being set for mid 2019, and perhaps most surprisingly the fact that it will be ‘free’ for existing subscribers. This is a nice bonus if you’re already playing, as it means there’s no cost to trying it out, and I guess Blizzard’s theory is that those who sub just for Vanilla will also end up having a go at ‘real’ WoW. Smart thinking, and probably worth leaving the money (and potential ill will) on the table that would have come from charging extra for current subscribers.

The panel went into a lot of detail about getting the old code and assets working on the new platforms, and the BlizzardWatch liveblog is well worth reading to understand just how tricky it all is – stuff like finding the old source code (on a backup of a backup!), first bug fixes, lighting, art assets, terrain rules, it’s all a fascinating and rare look behind the scenes.

It was also encouraging to read just how strict Blizzard are being about Vanilla. There are plenty of shortcuts that could be added, but most are being denied. Hour long waits for mail, goblin auction houses, and no dungeon finder. It’s going to be pretty close to the real thing, but with a modern engine, and no real shortcuts – unlike the LotRO ‘Legendary’ server which is probably allowing cash shop advantages, something that seems like a mistake at first glance.

Blizzard also going to be staging the content releases, adding raids and dungeons as they were originally available. That’s great news as it allows time for guilds to work through content slowly, which is probably going to be a requirement given the legendary grinds that used to exist. People who tried the limited Blizzcon beta were already remembering just how clunky things were (the hunter dead-zone, dying a lot, ammo, weapon skills, feeding your pet), but there’s also great features like the old talent trees, a greater sense of purpose in planning your upgrades and progression, and the charm in activities like collecting for its own sake in the pre-achievement driven world.

It’s a tremendous experiment (and hopefully experience), and will interesting to see how long it thrives.


One of the more interesting – and controversial – changes with the 8.0 BfA Warcraft patch has been the further introduction of level scaling. It was already around before the patch, but it now seems to be universal. Which has had a huge impact on the speed of levelling.

For the longest time people have complained about out-levelling content so that they feel they can’t effectively finish storylines because the XP reward is basically zero. Not that that meant you couldn’t do the content, just that it felt like you were wasting time – it’s a strange mental trick.

So Blizzard have introduced scaling across all continents and content, effectively splitting it into Vanilla / Burning Crusade + WotLK / Pandaria + Cataclysm / Warlords / Legion / BfA. You can now level in any zone within those brackets, and the mobs and rewards will scale accordingly.

This is pretty great in many ways, as those that enjoy the storylines can experience the entire thing. You can jump to a zone you haven’t played and everything will be a gentle challenge and you’ll get gear upgrades as you travel. It’s a boon for the Alliance levelling we’re doing, making each zone relevant and interesting.

The main disadvantage is all the old speed levelling techniques have dried up. I’m interested in levelling an Allied race – Highmountain Tauren, naturally – so started investigating how best to do it. The received wisdom seems to be that there are basically no shortcuts any more.

The old favourite of chain running dungeons appears to be off the cards, as the time invested in the run is often better served just doing simple questing.

When we started running the low level Alliance dungeons, I assumed everyone would be gaining two or three levels per run, meaning we’d have trouble completing them all. But the scaling has meant that people are lucky to level even once, and all the dungeons are available until level 60. Pretty great, and very clever.

Some claim that carrying through dungeons with a high level friend (or second account) is still an option, running Stormwind Stockades from 1-60(!), but that is terminally dull. Some redditors seem to think that there’s a pet battle loophole, but that too sounds super dull. I want to level fastish, but I don’t want to just do the same thing over, and over, and over.

So in the end, it seems that the simple act of gearing your character up with heirlooms, taking mining and herbing, and setting out into the world is the best method. Which is probably as it should be, and I’m merrily making my way through the Barrens once again as a result, and enjoying every moment.

The WoW Diary

Blizzard Watch has posted about an interesting sounding project – a development diary about the very early days of the creation of WoW. It’s being written by John Staats, who was apparently one of the key designers of a slew of early dungeons and content, including Karazhan, Wailing Caverns, and much more.

There’s a good extract of the book over on Wowhead that details some of the work on Scholomance. In the early days apparently it could take 6 hours(!) to finish a single run – and this is a 5 man dungeon, not a raid.

It’s fascinating to read how Staats wanted to change the mob density in the dungeon as a result, but Jeff Kaplan (at the time the ‘endgame designer’ for WoW) pushed back as doing that may have had unintended consequences on the world economy. The less mobs, the less loot, and also the less crafting drops:

The next morning, I went back to Jeff’s office, to tell him again about the length. Ever patient, he explained that it wasn’t simply a matter of removing spawns, there might be quests that depended a number of drops and removing monsters might unbalanced quests.

[Kaplan] explained that there were also trade skill recipes that used ingredients from loot tables – so reducing monsters could also affect the trade skill economy. “There’s lots of systems connected to monsters, and we also could be introducing bugs into the game by changing things.”

It’s very much an insider account, and he’s not hiding the politics and tensions of working on a high pressure development, which is unusual for this kind of book. Apparently it’s a fully Blizzard approved project, so it must be (mostly) accurate. There’s a fair amount of ego on display in that Wowhead excerpt, but we can probably forgive that if the content is strong enough.

There’s a Kickstarter to fund the book starting August 28 (which is now, here in Australia!). I’ll update this post with a real link once it’s live, in the meantime here’s a beta link to whet your appetite. Here’s the live Kickstarter – funded almost immediately.

US Gamer – How World of Warcraft was made

Speaking of oral histories, US Gamer has just published an epic ‘How World of Warcraft was made’ article that interviews many of the main players – current game director Ion Hazzikostas, principal artist Jimmy Lo, and technical director Patrick Dawson, as well as old hands like Rob Pardo and Greg ‘Ghostcrawler’ Street.

It’s a huge effort by writer Mike Williams, covering everything from the genesis of the game through to the launch of BfA, and there’s a tonne of great quotes, detail, and concept art.

Tauren Shaman concept artwork

One of the emerging themes from the article is how random or lucky things would become key planks of the Warcraft experience. Originally quests were meant to run out eventually and leave the player with an open sandbox to play with:

“That was our on-paper design. But pretty early on, once we were doing team play tests, what we learned was the moment that you ran out of quests in your quest log, the game just felt broken and people didn’t know what to do,” says Pardo. “It was definitely this big moment where the team was like, ‘Uh oh, I guess we have to do ten times as many quests as we thought we were going to do.’ But I think it’s one of those great moments that happen in game development, where once you find the nuggets that are really fun, you double down on it.”

Similarly the art team were originally heading down the realistic graphics path before they decided something more hand painted might work better, as Lo describes:

“When we first saw the human farm building in Westfall, that was the first time where I was like, ‘Wow, I think we got something here.’ It was also cool because it had a handcrafted feel to it because we were painting everything; we weren’t photobashing and using photo textures. It went with the word ‘Warcraft.’ It had the ‘craft’ in it. It’s kind of a cool, happy accident that came to be.”

“…I think with WoW it turned out as this kind of stylized, timeless art style where it aged very well. It never really got outdated.”

As has been recounted before, the team were also somewhat blindsided by the popularity of the game. Things like the opening of the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj were so popular designers had to intervene directly:

“I think the WoW development team maybe wasn’t as well-oiled of a machine back then, because it actually came as a surprise to the engineering staff that we decided to funnel the entire population of World of Warcraft into a single area. Everybody was waiting for that moment all in the same area,” recalls Dawson. “We’re sitting here teleporting out level 30 characters-‘You’ve have no business being here and you’re just killing your server!’-and we’re doing this by hand just trying to make it.”

Orc Death Knight concept artwork

Greg Street talks about how the Cataclysm rejig started as a mission to refresh a few zones that were showing their age into something far greater (which perhaps explains why it wasn’t wholly successful):

“And so what started out as a series of surgical projects ended up with probably redoing 70 percent of the world in a very fundamental way. And so that was redoing 60 levels worth of content, redoing 70 percent of the entire [outdoor environments] from 2004, while also making five brand-new zones for leveling players from 80 to 85, and the new dungeons, new raids, and everything else. That was a tremendous undertaking.”

He also discusses how Mists of Pandaria was intially badly received by the playerbase:

“The mistake we made was we imagined that all WoW players loved the idea of a Pandaren, which had been originally kind of designed as a joke,” Street adds. “I think in retrospect if we had just made an Asian-inspired continent and had the Pandaren race, but not made them the focal point? Not named the expansion after it, not put a Pandaren Monk on the box, we probably wouldn’t have gotten that response. People saw the Pandaren and I think that was when they’re like, ‘Wow, they’re forsaking their roots.'”

Mists of Pandaria concept artwork

Pandaria ended up being a player favourite, but (probably due to development lead times) Blizzard responded by building the polar opposite in Warlords of Draenor – as the author puts it, “If Mists of Pandaria was a lighter Chinese opera, Warlords of Draenor was literally death metal.”. And we all know how that turned out.

It’s a great article and a must read if you’re a fan of the game.

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!