Foxy Azeroth

I finally finished off Nazmir, enjoying it more as the storylines all wrapped up – helps having the end in sight no doubt.

Surprised this construct took me seriously with my headgear. His is way more impressive.

I bumbled around choosing which zone to go to next, eventually settling on Vol’dun, as I was tired of Trolls. And oh boy was I glad I did. The first person you meet is this magical creature:

They’re called Vulpera, and they’re the best thing in WoW since the Highmountain Tauren. If this had have been the first zone I played, I think my entire attitude to BfA would have been different. Armed foxes!

Armed foxes fighting snake people!

Armed mounted foxes!

As many have said, if these guys aren’t the next Horde allied race then Blizzard are mad. I think it would even get Bhagpuss to stump up for a sub, given his #1 favourite race ever were the Vanguard Raki (‘Stocky foxes with a great backstory, characterful animations and the happiest faces’). I can’t wait to play one. Please Blizzard.


On the Alliance side, we ventured into Scarlet Monastery last week, which is another great dungeon. It’s the first one that introduces more complex mechanics to the bosses, which meant we dutifully wiped a few times due to only being practiced in tank and spank. Suddenly having to deal with damage spikes and insta-kill mechanics was a whole new thing, but all the more fun as a result.

A breather before the final boss

The second run through had a memorable moment, when everyone wiped on the boss’s killer whirlwind mechanic except me. This left the boss on about 33% health, so I started popping all my defensive cooldowns, healing almost constantly, and doing very tiny chunks of damage to the boss and his adds.

Ironically his mechanic (where he whirls off on his own for ~20 seconds) made it possible, as I could heal almost to full each time before he returned. It’s my first experience of how a Paladin can just keep going and going whilst chipping away at the enemy and eventually wearing them down via sheer persistence. Otherwise known as boring them to death!

…and then I popped Consecration, followed by Flash of Light…then Consecration again…

Blizzconsiderations

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.

From the other side

I tried, BfA, I really tried.

My Hunter main is sitting at 112, bogged down in the swamps of Nazmir. The storyline is mostly enjoyable, but like Syp, I tired of the brown and grey environment very quickly, and it seems to go on forever. I’m sure I’ll get to 120 eventually, but the swamp and the fact that Trolls have unfortunately never appealed to me means the expansion has really failed to get its claws in.

Poor Torga

Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, I’ve been having great fun with my levelling Dwarf Tank. Trying the ‘other side’ has always been a long term goal, and I’m very pleased to be finally doing it. The Alliance really does have quite a different feel, despite fulfilling the same collect x of y quests, where there is far more emphasis on being right, and being the ‘good guys’ when compared to the barbaric Horde.

All of which is rubbish of course, but I’m embracing my Alliance righteousness: wearing ‘the Hordebreaker’ as my title and laying waste to any Horde that crosses my path. With the exception of Tauren of course – on one escort quest I kept the NPC alive rather than killing the Tauren warriors, though I’m not sure how sustainable this policy will be.

It’s been refreshing playing zones I’ve never seen too, all the Eastern Kingdom Alliance only areas, and now Darkshore (post-Cataclysm but pre-Sylvanas horrorshow). Some of the questing and storytelling is excellent, with the ridiculous Bravo Company of Redridge Mountains being a particular highlight. So too Duskwood (end of the zone to the other and back quests excepted), which included some lovely personal stories and a fun crypt section which was a brand new layout for the normally predictable underground territory.

Hey, wait a minute…

Dungeon runs have continued apace, and we’re now up to Scarlet Cathedral. It’s been great revisiting the dungeons in sequence and with a group of friends, meaning we can take our time to scheme and laugh our way through. Shadowfang Keep has probably been the pinnacle of the early dungeons – it’s terrific being on the battlements seeing out into Silverpine Forest – though the hilarity of pet-pulling half of Gnomeregan and the ‘rope trick’ in Blackfathom Deeps also rate highly.

All of which is making me fear it’s more likely I’ll end up experiencing BfA from the Alliance side before the Horde. Then again – our dungeon group has a pact to play all the dungeons together before advancing, so at one a week it will be years before we catch up to current content. Phew. For the Horde!

Matryoshka secrets

One of the most fascinating – and mind boggling – recentish developments in the Warcraft community is the Warcraft Secret Finding Discord. It’s a huge community of players who are dedicated to discovering and solving secrets that are hidden throughout the game world, and some of the things they’ve solved are incredible.

At some point the Warcraft developers/designers started hiding things in the game for players to discover. I’m not exactly sure when that was, but it seems to have really ramped up during Legion. The secrets are often hidden deep within other secrets, with the ultimate solution leading to a reward like a mount or pet.

Senior designer Jeremy Feasel aka Muffinus seems to be the main culprit, or at least the person who leaks small clues and teasers about what might be out there to find.

Once the secret has been solved, the community share it so we can all benefit from the fun. Syp chronicled his adventures earning the Lucid Nightmare mount, and you can see from the steps involved just how complicated it must have been to work out.

My favourite is probably the solution for the Sun Darter Hatchling. It’s hard to fathom how the community managed to work this one out, with the steps involving a baffling sequence of puzzle solving, potion guzzling, battle pets, and costumes.

Given the popularity of the community and puzzles, it’s no surprise that BfA includes more – and more challenging – challenges. The current hot topic is trying to work out how to earn the elusive Hivemind mount. The first major discovery was the Baa’l battle pet, which has a staggeringly complex sequence to complete before you can claim it.

Meanwhile Muffinus has claimed that the Hivemind was removed during the beta. Such is the game of cat and mouse with these secrets that no-one trusts that to necessarily be true – he does tease that ‘the secret hunt is far from over’ after all.

It just occurred to me – I’m a bit slow – that of course the ultimate secret is called the Hivemind, as the only way these increasingly complicated mysteries can be solved is with exactly that – a community of likeminded, focused, and slightly insane explorers.

Scalability

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.

Looking good

One of the questions I had when pondering the rare mob collection project was how to improve the quality of the screenshots – pictures or it didn’t happen, after all.

After a bit of hunting around, I found that there a few console only settings in Warcraft related to the screenshot quality. If you type these commands in the chat window and press enter, they are changed permanently everywhere. (You don’t get any feedback that anything happened, but it does work.)

The first is choosing between JPG (the default) and TGA. TGA is a lossless format, so the image quality is higher and non compressed, but it is a fairly arcane format – you’d want to convert it to something more useful like PNG to use it on WordPress et al. In any case, the command to change it to TGA is:

/console screenshotFormat tga

And to switch back to JPG:

/console screenshotFormat jpg

Sticking with JPG is more convenient, but the default quality is pretty average. The good news is there’s another console setting that bumps up the JPG quality until it’s barely different from the TGA files (confirmed by much internet commentary). Wowheads screenshot submission guidelines state the default JPG level is 3, but we can bump it all the way up to eleven 10:

/console screenshotQuality 10

I tried this and while the difference is noticeable if you look closely, it’s not as huge as you might expect. One byproduct is the filesize grows from about 500KB to 2MB, but with some judicious resizing the filesize gets more reasonable.

So it seems changing the quality setting is not quite enough. Which means learning more about doing some post processing on them. There are some great photography-inspired tips in this excellent article on Blizzard Watch which seems a good place to start.

Aside from the framing tips, the main advice seems to be about adjusting colours and contrast, to get the details to really pop and sparkle. The main problem I see is that the screenshots are too dark, so I played around with an image of our second RFC run to see what could be done. Here’s the default shot:

The heavy contrast is quite nice, but it does tend to hide much of the detail

Using Irfanview (which admittedly is more of a viewer than an editor), I mucked around with adjusting contrast and saturation, but in the end found that the ‘auto adjust colours’ setting did a pretty good job:

Details are much clearer, at the cost of some depth

Finally I used the ‘sharpness’ setting to see what that would do:

Things like belts, tabard edges, and moustaches(!) are picked out, though there is also some jagged edging

Hm. I like that you can see more once it’s adjusted, but it does wash it out a fair bit. I guess using the default settings isn’t a great plan – more to learn and more experimenting to come. Either that or I should just start taking screenshots in daylight…

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.

Ragefire Chasming

Tonight’s Alliance guild expedition took us to the centre of Horde territory, into the catacombs below Orgrimmar: Ragefire Chasm.

Ragefire Chasm extends deep below the city of Orgrimmar. Barbaric troggs and devious Searing Blade cultists once plagued the volcanic caves, but now a new threat has emerged: Dark Shaman. Although Warchief Garrosh Hellscream recently called on a number of shaman to use the elements as weapons against the Alliance, the chasm’s current inhabitants appear to be renegades. Reports have surfaced that these shadowy figures are amassing a blistering army that could wreak havoc if unleashed upon Orgrimmar.

From an Alliance perspective that last report doesn’t sound entirely bad, but then unleashing uncontrolled shamanic magic is probably bad idea, so in we went to clean up the mess the Horde have made.

One of these figures is much smaller than the others.

Compared to Deadmines, RFC is a quick and relatively unpopulated affair, with far fewer mobs and only tank & spank bosses – and the lava boss which I fell into fighting Slagmaw. Ahem.

We made short work of everyone, rescued our trapped operatives, and cleared the dungeon to allow our investigators start unravelling what foul magic the Horde had managed to stir up and subsequently lose control of.

The Alliance continue to be upright and relatively dull – the Horde quests want you to basically just kill all of the things, the Alliance ones want to do some research – but we’re in this for the long haul and I’m warming to our Hordebreaking role.

As we finished I copped some deserved ribbing for our guild tabard, which was dark red with a dark logo – my Horde bias clearly on show. So now we have a fetching new Alliance-blue number, with a clearly visible logo. Unless you’re a Dwarf.

For the Alliance!

Add on, add off

As part of my rare seeking project (hm, I think it needs a better name), I started looking around for addons that would help find the vanilla zone rares. I was hunting for something that would put a marker on the map showing you where each rare spawns or patrols, so I can plan my movements efficiently.

The venerable NPCScan is the obvious candidate, and it works well for alerting you when you enter the radius of a rare mob. But it doesn’t seem to have a static map option for just showing the expected location. There is a map overlay plugin, but it’s being reworked for the new 8.0 version of the mapping API, and from memory it is kind of overkill for what I want.

Next I turned to HandyNotes, which I discovered during Draenor when hunting treasures. The base version simply allows you to create pins and notes on the map, but the great thing about it is it allows plugins. The main use for me has been the rares & treasures plugins (for Draenor, Legion, and now BfA), which is kind of cheating but didn’t reduce the fun for me at all (in fact it may have reduced the self induced pressure to find all the hidden treasures).

However I found there’s no equivalent plugin for the vanilla rares – perhaps because there’s no associated achievements? This immediately got me thinking – surely there’s a demand for this, and surely it can’t be too hard to modify one of those plugins to create a Vanilla version. I have a vague understanding of coding, and usually find taking an example and modifying it the best way to learn and create something new.

How wrong I was. Despite the HandyNotes page referencing a ‘plugin API’, I can’t find any documentation or examples anywhere, despite using all the google-fu I could muster. Downloading the code for the other plugins didn’t help much either, as they are mostly undocumented and use some zone specific tricks that I’m not sure translate.

I tried looking at a simpler plugin – one that shows Dungeon and Raid entrances – but even that left me befuddled. At least modifying that one I managed to get an icon for Bjarn to appear on the map, which felt like a minor triumph.

I feel like there must be a hidden community of HandyNotes addon developers out there that I’m not finding, or maybe I’ve just picked the wrong addon to modify. The reference to an API though, and their encouragement of plugins, make me think the truth must be out there somewhere.

In the meantime I guess it will just be more alt-tabbing to Wowhead – and maybe it’s time for a second monitor!