Normality

Last night a group of Guildies attempted the SFK VD Bosses (with many a double entendre in trade chat trying to find a VD healer…). We failed pretty decisively, not quite having the HP nor healing gear to get through the perfumed chaos. Having both the green & purple debuffs on seemed a killer – I’d pugged it the night before with an offtank which meant you could keep the one Neutralizer up depending on who was targetting you. An OT for a 5 man! Not something our guild has quite yet, so no Love Rocket for us.

Refusing to learn our lesson, we thought we’d make our Forge of Souls debut – on normal mode. I was properly tanking for the first time in a long time on Banehammer, and my muscle memory was all for my Druid tank. So I was pretty rusty on the key mappings and priority rotation (where’s Heroic Throw gone? Where’s taunt!?). Luckily I’d mapped  abilities pretty consistently across toons, so I unrusted relatively quickly.

We wiped on the second trash pull, mainly due to me not grabbing agro on all five quickly enough, and not being able to resist the AoE power of our much better geared ‘lock ‘n’ Mage combo. But there was an inkling of success there – our Rogue suggested we changed strategy to a mark-up/burn-down single target approach, which worked a treat and we proceeded to march all the way to the first boss, James Brown (the trash even dropped a 1% chance waist upgrade for me).

I hadn’t tanked this before, and our off spec Shaman Healer hadn’t healed it. But after quick debrief from the experts, we managed to one shot the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, and I picked up a stonking big mace (and a New Bag).

The Devourer of Souls awaited, and having experienced this from a Rogue melee DPS vantage point, I didn’t like my chances of moving him around correctly, and living through the various don’t-argues this guy delivers.

We wiped on our first attempt, but weren’t discouraged. I found that the tanking vantage point was actually a bit easier than DPS – at least I knew when the guy was facing me, something I found confusing when slice ‘n’ dicing him due his multi-faceted face.

Our second attempt went much better, and we managed to down him (but barely!). I’d blown every single cooldown, and our Shaman was down to 4% mana when our foe dropped. The hoots could be heard all the way to the Halls of Relection, two instances hence.

It’s fair to say that this was thrilling stuff. It felt great to be working as a Guild team, on the edge of our ability/gear.

What was really interesting to me was that this was all in normal 5-man mode. There’s obviously recognition and challenge for world firsts (both alleged and legit) and 25 man hard modes, but for the  ‘hard core casuals’ (otherwise known as the majority), I’d suggest that taking on the normal mode progression is just as rewarding. You still see all the content, still get epic upgrades, still have a huge challenge and still have to work hard on your tactics and awareness. Plus if you clear all the normal modes, there’s no doubt you’ll be ready for 10 man’s next.

There’s a tendancy to think that if you’re not running at least Heroics, you’re not really playing. Which is just plain wrong – if normal mode is hard for your group, normal mode is the right level to be playing at and more importantly, enjoying. Throw yourself into the deep end of normal mode ICC. It may not be Ensidia depth, but it’s still pretty deep!

Every game needs Tauren

A friend recently decided to (re)start a Dungeon & Dragons group (using the Pathfinder ruleset). Having had a fairly lengthy break from roleplaying, it’s refreshing and inspiring to read through the core rulebook and dream up characters and classes. Should I play a straight-up Fighter? Or mix it up with a little Barbarian action? Or maybe stretch out and introduce the religious power of the Paladin or Cleric. Can the basic Fighter class really be balanced when compared to all the extra goodies the other melee roles bring?

Good stuff. But there was one problem: you can’t play a Tauren.

Humans, pah. Half-orcs, elves, halflings, gnomes, zzzz. A dwarven warrior, hmm, maybe. But what I really wanted was a Tauren. Blizzard absolutely nailed it when they designed the mighty hooved ones, creating an iconic and emotionally involving new race. And one that doesn’t have it roots in the brilliant but saturated Tolkein racial templates.

Their homeland of Mulgore is beautiful, and perfectly fits the spiritual and ethical nature of the Tauren philosophy. Rolling plains filled with roaming wildlife and epic sunsets over towering cliffs.  And Thunder Bluff, standing tall in the midst of the plains of Mulgore, is a unique and special place, certainly the most racially ‘right’ city (with the possible exception of Ironforge).

RPing a Tauren is a dream, as it is so easy to bond with the race, with the history, the leaders, and the aesthetic. Creating a toon that has only a Kodo to ride, a prairie dog non-combat pet, and (if you’re a Hunter) Mazzranache as a pet instantly makes you part of the rich Tauren history.

In fact the only thing Blizzard did wrong was remove the fabled Plainsrunning racial from the Tauren, which sounds like it would have been the icing on an already delicious cake.

The Panzercow clearly thinks the same – he’s trying to work out how to make a Tauren Trekkie. Alas for Pathfinder, I guess a Dwarf will have to do. Unless I can convince the GM to let me roll up a Minotaur…

Kings of Dire Maul

Last weeks’ level 60 Guild run saw us challenge the Ogres of Dire Maul, a 3 wing zone in mid Feralas.

We’ve all turned off our XP, so we’re running vaguely on level and as designed, albeit with all the player buffs and instance nerfs in play. It was fun having to be a little cautious on our pulls, as the big Ogre guards hit like trucks. Not that we never looked like wiping, even on an accidental fear pull, but still.

Dire Maul has one brilliant design feature – the Tribute Run.

The idea is to work your way through the North zone without killing any of the named mobs – completely contrary to instinct. Once you defeat the final boss, hence becoming the King of Dire Maul, each mob you left standing pays loot tribute to their new King – i.e. you!

This means all sorts of neat tricks as you move through the instance. There is a trap you set to freeze one boss in a block of ice, you can craft an Ogre suit mid instance to fool another, we used Seaforium Charges to blow up doors rather than killing bosses for the keys, and stealth to loot keys from chests under the bosses nose. We had to vamoosh out of the instance several times after accidentally agroing a named mob or two (Guard Fengus was particularly tricky to avoid) to keep the Tribute alive.

It’s a great little twist from Blizzard, and definitely worth running if you have a level 60 group available.

Pen & Paper Healers

Our DnD group is rolling up a new party for a fresh campaign, using the Pathfinder rules – euphemistically referred to as Dungeons & Dragons 3.75, as it was created by the disenchanted/disenfranchised writers of the of the official game, which went all MMO with its 4th Ed.

Given the WoW situation, it’s been funny to see that instead of a healer shortage, we’ve had a glut. After a call for a healer to be in the party, three of the five players are duelling over who will be the Cleric, another is a Pally, and yet another is rolling Bard – think Shaman in WoW terms. In other words, all can heal to some degree.

Why? Probably because in a pen & paper RPG you really get to play. Clerics get their power from gods. The gods are part of the world, the Gamemaster lets you interact with them, and you can be as creative as you like about how the powers manifest.

My Dwarf Cleric, for example, draws his powers from the very earth around him. Kneeling down with one fist planted to the earth, he pulls the healing power directly from the ground beneath his feet, and channels the might of the deep bedrock to unleash a devastating shockwave through his undead foes. The ley lines in the earth glow as the godlike power delivered by Torag surges through his chosen follower – me!

Epic stuff, and all from the imagination of the player and GM, not coded into the rules (other than the actual impact of the spell). Plus playing a Healer in DnD can still be largely about hitting stuff, squeezing in some healing and turning undead when the moment comes.

In Warcraft you can roleplay the same kind of thing, but you don’t really get the chance to flesh out a healer with other roles mid fight. Dual spec allows some flexibility, but realistically during a fight you Heal and that’s it. Druids probably come closest to giving the flexibility to make a difference, popping in and out of form to take different roles.

WoW can’t have the same freedom as RL roleplaying, and as a consequence healing isn’t as popular as it could be. If, as Tobold put it, “The most important addons for a healer in heroics are becoming Peggle and Bejeweled”, then something needs to be done to give the Healer role more flexibility during the fighting.

eLearning

Spinks asks how WoW (and others MMOs) could be improved to help new players learn the ropes – especially level 80’s who are expected to know ~48 bosses in 16 dungeons the moment they ding max level.

So what are some of the ways the game could assist?

  • Introduce some kind of instant replay on boss fights, so you can analyse what went wrong (or right) as a group. This would be a great addition, and would reduce the need to meta-research everything before you do it. It would be useful even once you do know the fights, to really polish your technique. I know our guild would love to go in blind if we knew there was some kind of in-game analysis tool.
  • Don’t use Random LFD if you don’t know the instance – research them one at a time, queue for the specific encounter, learn it. Once you start feeling familiar with the majority of instance, then jump on Random and earn your badges. I know as a tank I’m very uncomfortable doing an instance unless I know it, and know the mechanics. As Blessing of Kings comments, there is often a default expectation that tanks will lead.
  • An easy one is to run the available instances as you’re levelling. That way once you hit 80, the majority are familiar for Heroic mode, and it certainly reduces the number you have to learn.
  • Optional ingame Boss-mods should definitely be added. They don’t have to be as sophisticated as the many Boss-mod Add-Ons, but more visual feedback on what is happening, or about to happen, would help.
  • Mentoring (see post below!). At max level, mentoring could work where you reward players for leading others through instances. The LFD tool tried to implement a “leader” option, but Blizzard removed it as they “didn’t want to encourage players who had no business leading groups to do so.” Reintroducing it with some kind of method for the rest of the party to vote or feedback on how the leader went might be worth trying – and if people earn enough pats on the back, they’re rewarded appropriately.
  • An in-game mechanism to point you toward the best next instances to run based on your current gear would be great too. There’s a lot of meta gaming to do to work out where the next upgrade is coming from, which works for some, but would be far more effective & consistent if it were in-game. Going to consult an Oracle in Dalaran for direction would be better than flipping out of game to lookup Wowhead. In fact it’s a little surprising there’s not already “best dungeon to do next” add-on for planning your gear upgrades.

Certainly there is room for improvement, being thrown in the deep end can be very daunting. As wow.com comments, “Clicking a role in the random window is not the same thing as filling out a guild application. A lot of these players are learning the game by playing it: it’s not fair to assume they’re reading theorycrafting sites and working their gear always with an eye towards maximum performance.”.

Mentoring

Mentoring is an idea my MMO friends have tossed around for a while now. It’s not something you see much of in Warcraft, but mentoring junior players could add a level of class depth to the game, especially for those willing to RP the process.

There are plenty of excellent ex-game teachers, and most people are willing to help a newbie if for no other reason than to show their skills, so why not try and build it into the in-game mechanic. Introduce semi-enforced in-game mentoring.

Imagine that when a Hunter reaches level 10, instead of using an NPC they needed to be taught the art of taming their pet by another player. Or in STO, a Jedi Master must initiate young Padawan into the mysterious ways of the force.

The main problem would be finding someone willing to help – but that could be resolved if you also made it a condition of reaching level 20 that you go help a lowbie. Part of advancing your character to the next phase is helping to build the Hunter community by training up junior members. Or embarking on an quest chain, similar to Rhok’delar, where the end goal is to present a lower level player with an epic reward – their first purple.

To make it more than a one off task for the higher level toons, class specific rep or achievement status could be a reward for each time you do it. Eventually you would have Legendary Hunter’s running about who have earned the respect of their class through being recognised as great mentors or trainers.

The same principle could apply to any class of course – Warriors teaching the art of Charge, Druids learning how to be a Cat, Paladins training young disciples how to press “1” before going /afk.

Enforced mentoring wouldn’t work, and the game would need to cater for situations when people can’t or won’t assist, but it would certainly add to the immersion and sense of class community if it was at least an optional way of progressing.

Freedom?

Don’t Fear the Mutant posted a dissection of levelling vs endgame, where he came to a surprising conclusion: max level = freedom.

Surprising because that’s almost the reverse of how I felt on reaching 70 & 80. In fact I was temporarily paralysed: now what?

Whilst reaching max level meant that the on rails levelling was over, and despite a myriad of playing options becoming available, it actually felt like there was suddenly less scope to just play around:

  • Need to grind factions to Exalted;
  • Professions must be maxed;
  • Farm mats for crafted epics;
  • Accumulate badges for welfare epics;
  • Stay current with your gear;
  • etc.

Pike recently expressed a similar sentiment, staying gear capped becomes more restrictive than levelling an alt. There can be great pressure to keep up, which in turn limits your choices of what to do when you’re online. My much beloved ex guild leader used to insist on rep grinds (thank goodness the Hodir enchants are BoA now), min-maxing professions, dailies, the works, before his Guildies could have the freedom to… go fishing. It felt like wagging school to go in search of Old Crafty.

Of course the pressure to get to the level cap can mean just as little freedom. But unless you’re power levelling, you can drift around doing different things, exploring the world, doing instances just for the fun of it.

As Janis Joplin put it, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”, and you really do have nothing to lose when levelling, but there’s a lot to lose once you fall behind the end game.

Not that kind of Ironman

Achievements have been a huge success in WoW, obviously. Some love them (two of my guildmates are engaged in a daily see-sawing battle to stay 5 achievement points ahead of each other), some not so much (though even an admitted anti-achiever admits so wanting some of them). But they’re a nice mixture of fun and serious, and players are free to follow the achievement paths that interest them most.

One Achievement that’s missing and I’d love to see is some kind of Ironman recognition. What’s Ironman? It’s not dying. Ever. For anything – Murlocs are no excuse, nor Rocket Boots or falling off the Thunder Bluff elevator. A friend and I have started playing this way a few times: roll up a toon, start playing, and survive. If you die, by any means, you have to delete the toon.

It’s obviously insane, and easier for some classes than others – I got a Hunter to about 28 no problems until relaxing too much cleaning up Quillboars in The Barrens. And a Druid to mid 30s before getting overconfident on, you guessed it, Murlocs.

There is at least one WoW player who has actually accomplished this, a Warrior (yes!), which is all the more impressive for having no self-heals to speak of. And with a name like Cautious, she obviously set out to do this.

The PC adaption of the DnD “Temple of Elemental Evil” implemented Ironman as the ultimate hard mode, a no save option meaning if you die, you die. I’m not sure that any MMO has done so yet, the psychological damage to the player might be too great.

But it would be great if there was an Achievement that tracked this, including the progress. Maybe every 10 levels without dying you ding an Achievement, something that can stay on your permanent record. And if you reach 80 – “Ironman Banehammer” has an impressive ring to it.

Outlandish

outland trading cardsThe reinvention of ye olde Azeroth in Cataclysm is a stroke of genius by Blizzard. It’s revitalised interest in the game, and created a “one last time” levelling community who want to experience the original content before it’s rent asunder. So unlike many expansion or patch announcements which end up reducing the player base while bored end game players tap their fingers and wait, Cataclysm has probably increased the active player numbers.

But there’s one problem with the plan: Outland is immune to the pending events.

Outland is…annoying. I’ve read any number of bloggers who reach Outland and really struggle to get motivated to move through it. My level 60 Hunter is in this exact position. For whatever reason, it seems like a hard slog and a bit of a grind, especially when compared to the 1-60 experience. Hellfire Peninsula comes under a fair amount of criticism – it’s a visually harsh, unfriendly environment and tends to be a brick wall of sorts. Similarly Shadowmoon Valley and Netherstorm seem to rub people the wrong way.

In fact the only Outland zone that people seem to actively enjoy is Nagrand. The common description is “relaxing”. I suspect that is largely due to it’s visual appeal – it’s a lush, living environment teeming with wildlife that doesn’t just attack on sight. One zone out of seven isn’t a winning formula, and probably goes a way to explaining the Outland hump.

So what could be done?

Blizz managed to make the earlier levels fly by far quicker, by a combination of earlier mounts, heirlooms, more powerful talents, and nerfing instances. Outland was also modified, but another refresh might be needed – increase the XP gains again, or drop the average mob health to make quest grinding quicker. The LFD system has obviously helped too – many are levelling through Outland via Dungeon runs alone.

For the Recruit-a-friend brigade, one simple thing would be to continue the triple XP to level 70. At the moment it stops at 60, just when you’re ready to take the deep Hellfire breath. Given the pending 85 cap, why not keep the XP bonus through to Northrend. RaF users are a minority group though, so this would only solve the problem for some.

The biggest improvement would be to make Cataclysm hit Outland. Change the environment, make it a new experience, give Hellfire a fertile rainforest heart, flood Dragonblight like Thousand Needles will be, bring Zangarmarsh some sunshine. Of course this would be a huge undertaking, similar to Azeroth in scope, but Outland totally escaping the coming of Deathwing is a bit of a cop out.

Blizzard have cried resources when explaining why Outland isn’t being impacted, despite it being the zone that most needs work to make it more appealing. No-one wants to spend time there any longer, Shattrath is a ghost town, and there’s nothing much to farm. So make it quicker, or make it more interesting.

Oh, and leave Nagrand alone 🙂

(Non) fatal flaw

When discussing how to approach new bosses in WotLK, one of my Guildmates proposed that we run them unresearched. In other words, no pre knowledge of the instance, mobs, or bosses: “I like puzzle solving in games – so ultimately for me, our instance attempts would be true explorations without fore knowledge of the map/bosses/phases etc”.

Now this sounds great – in theory. I’ve had similar discussions with others – let’s go into Icecrown with just our skills and experience, and see how we go. After all that’s how we play every other computer game, right? You don’t research the bosses in HL2, Gears, Ico, or Advance Wars. In fact going to a resource like gamefaqs is somewhat frowned upon – it’s a last resort for when you are just plain stuck.

(Though having said that, these days I find it hard not to meta game everything. Warcraft has driven the “research first” mentality into me so hard, that I had to fight hard to resist the urge to min-max when first starting Dragon Age or even when revisiting KoTOR. Spinks has a great article about the MMO influence on solo gaming.)

WoW is a different kettle of fish. It’s expected that you will do your research before you zone in. You, or someone in the party, needs to know that Netherspite’s red beam is for agro and the green beam heals, or that Prince will enfeeble you. Or that dropping Herod will spawn 20 take-you-by-surprise revenge-seeking trash mobs.

But is this a good thing? I’m starting to think it’s a flaw, though obviously not a fatal one.

Due to the way the game is designed, it’s often unrealistic to spend the time trying to solve a boss puzzle. This is often due to respawns – if you haven’t downed the boss within 10-15 minutes, you’re faced with grinding your way all the way through it’s minions again. And for some instances, like Kara, it’s a 5 minute run back to the boss to even try a 2nd time.

This is a bit of a bummer really, because it really would be fun to try and unravel boss encounters on the fly. I am in awe of the guys who do world firsts. Working out a fight like Netherspite must have taken hours and hours and hours of wiping and mob clearing and wiping etc.

But that kind of research is beyond mere mortal players, even on small things like the Scarlet Monastery. Which is kind of a shame, and something that maybe future MMO’s could address through less punishment for wipes, and certainly no respawn timers to slow things down.

In game tools to analyse what just happened might be a good idea – something to let you replay the encounter as a group, and plan how to tackle it next time. Add-ons like BigWigs obviously help enormously, and could potentially allow you to give it a crack sight-unseen.

But maybe the game itself needs to start providing enough feedback to allow and encourage reaction based fights, rather than researched.