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…

Why we watch

Mailvaltar has an interesting post about why we sometimes prefer to watch rather than play a game. Having a love/hate relationship with Overwatch means that they prefer to watch the game instead of the stress of the pressure to perform when playing. I can totally understand that tension – Overwatch is a sure fire stress machine if you’re having a bad run.

I watched some of the Overwatch League and enjoyed it, but I did find there was a fair bit of assumed knowledge and often not enough time to unravel what just happened. Often a critical play would happen off camera, just because the maps aren’t compressed into a single camera zone. And I’d pretty quickly start thinking I should be playing rather than watching. That’s not a feeling I get watching live sports, for example, because you can’t just stop watching and go play a quick game of rugby or basketball. With gaming you obviously can.

The time investment required to watch something is probably where I balk, especially when compared to reading. A live of recorded video requires full attention and doesn’t allow much time shifting, or doing something else simultaneously. Whereas I love reading about games, especially on blogs where you get a personal take on something rather than the often banal professional feed. Mailvaltar’s example of TAGNs Eve posts is a great example – I don’t play, and likely never will, but still enjoy reading about it immensely.

I’ll also check in on Polygon and Kotaku regularly for the industry side of things. And I very happily subscribed to the printed version of Edge magazine, which is a superb publication that has somehow managed to retain incredibly high production values in this age of the near death of the newsagent.

Mailvaltar closes with this observation, which is spot on:

For a long time I couldn’t quite come to terms with the fact that enjoying a game doesn’t necessarily require to actually play it.

I feel the same way, though I still get itchy hands reading the great Blaugust blogs about SWtOR, GW2, DDO, LotRO, etc, let alone all the incoming games on the horizon. The good news is someone out there will write about it, and it will become their passion, and we’ll get the benefit of them sharing that passion, even if we can’t play them all. Thanks in advance!

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.

Goldeneyed

I love reading ‘oral histories’ of things , where a reporter gathers recollections of events or cultural phenomena and weaves together a story that becomes more real than a single perspective or more formal analysis. They can be slightly contrived, but when they’re done well they’re hard to beat. A great example is this retelling of the filming of Predator, which is hilarious.

I really admire Arnold because he knew exactly what he was playing. I remember there’d be rewrites every morning, and one morning Arnold steamed out of his trailer straight up to John and grabbed him by the collar and said “John…” and John said “Yes?” “There are four words here; I’ll do three.”

Today I read a slightly more low key one about the making of Goldeneye, the classic Nintendo 64 game that (almost accidentally) reinvented – or more correctly invented – the multiplayer FPS on a console.

Doak: The multiplayer mode, which is now seen as critical for its big success, was for a long time just a wish-list thing, not a thing that we were definitely going to have. The N64 had four controller ports so it invited the idea that you’d have four-player split screen, but we were only going to program a multiplayer mode if we had time.

The story has some great images of hand drawn level maps and faxed bug reports. Amazingly the 21 year old game still has a vibrant and dedicated community playing it, largely due to the rise of speedrunning, and the support Goldeneye included for that activty before it was a thing:

Doak: We inadvertently invited speedrunning from very early on, because we had the timed unlocks.

Clark: Finishing the level faster than the target time unlocked a cheat. The harder the target time, the more awesome the cheat mode: Turbo mode, Bond invisible, invincibility, unlimited ammo — essentially keys to enter God Mode, a means to explore the game in unimaginable ways. Personally, the challenge itself got me addicted: It was a very dynamic game for speedrunning, and the target times were a clear invitation to prove yourself. Facility 00 Agent’s target of 2:05 was the legendary measuring stick. The elite.net, the home of GoldenEye speedrunning, has been tracking records since 1998. Remarkably, the game has more active speedrunners right now than at any point in the past.

The speedrunning detail reminded me of an amazing video I stumbled across last year, which showed Australian (represent!) streamer Karl Jobst beating a 15 year old record as it happened. It takes 52 seconds and his reaction when he realises is incredible. From a completely relaxed start – and probably his billionth attempt so he’s not expecting anything – to an emotional wreck.

Watching that led to a rabbit hole of trying to understand what I was watching. The aforementioned The Elite Rankings has a huge history of speedrun times, and such esoteric concepts as tied vs non-tied world records. From there I found a YouTuber RWhiteGoose who has a channel where he talks in great detail about the lore of Goldeneye speedrunning. Some of the epsiodes run for hours talking about a 60 second level, discussing the records and how they were achieved and then bettered. I was fascinated to see he’d posted an analysis of whether ‘Dam 52’ was even possible 10 months before Jobst proved that indeed it was.

All of which led to one of the most entertaining gaming videos I’ve ever seen. I kept seeing references to Ryan Lockwood’s legendary run on ‘Streets 1:12’, and eventually found Goose’s 2h40m analysis of that run, including the full video and audio. 2 and a half hours on a 1:13 run might sound excessive – ok it is excessive – but sit back, skip to 1:37:15, and enjoy. Language warning!

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!

Suiting up

It’s been a while since I talked about Overwatch here, which is largely down to not having a PC for 6 months to play it on.

Having a large gap like that in a game like Overwatch is quite challenging, as it’s the type of game where your reflex, reaction, and map awareness skills can drop off quite quickly. And it’s especially hard to come back and adjust to the new heroes, changed loadouts, nerfs, buffs, and the ever present meta.

This POTG was back in the good old 5 rez days. Hard to earn one now as Mercy.

While I was gone Mercy, one of my favourites to play, was further nerfed so that her rez and ultimates were far less effective. Having to stand stock still while you rez someone is no fun in a shooter that’s for certain – anything that makes you stop changes the flow and feel considerably.

And this was from the carwash days. Good times.

And Symmetra, another fave, was completely reworked so that she’s barely recognisable. Her ult has been replaced by a massive zone blocking wall, which may be tactically useful but isn’t as strategic and fun as the old choice between a defensive shield generator and a teleporter. Plus, no carwash! I can kind of fumble my around with her, but it really is like learning a brand new hero.

Then there’s the new heroes like Brigitte – a kind of tank/heal hybrid by the looks – who I’m very interested in, and Wrecking Ball who seems a bit too chaotic for my style of play. With both it’s hard to start playing them once everyone else has already got to grips with how they are most effective – though in Quick Play it’s not that important if you struggle a little for a while.

Activating self destruct sequence – best ult or best ult?

If all that sounds a bit negative, the good news is there’s still D.va to have a riot with. She’s still great, fully mobile, fully over-the-top, and fully fun. And as of about 30 minutes ago, she’s also the star of her very own animated short.

It’s a funny game because you can go on horrendous losing and triumphant winning streaks, often based very much on how in the zone you get – and how lucky you get with random teammates. It can also leave you feeling furious when you’re not playing well – my trusted tactic with that is to always quit playing after a win. Game on!

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!

Hunter’s Mark

In my ongoing quest to avoid BfA, today I was further pondering the rare hunting project and how it might work.

Should it be a single character that does all the ‘collecting’?

It seems like that might be a good policy, creating a specialised rare-hunter, with a backstory and attitude to match. The name will be important, to capture the flavour of the endeavour.

When to start?

Before flight is available it’s quite a challenge (or at least pretty slow) getting around finding the rare creatures. So it’s tempting to start this with a high level character, and go back flying around one-shotting the vanilla mobs. But it’s been great fun doing it on foot with the new Alliance team, so maybe clearing each zone as it happens is more appealing, and makes the hunt more in-character.

Gruff Swiftbite
Which class?

A druid might make sense, with the travel forms and tanking spec to help with the tougher fights. Or maybe a Paladin for similar reasons. But my heart thinks a Hunter is the natural choice here. A soloist at heart, carefully tracking and researching wild prey.

I considered Marksmenship as a spec, the idea of a sharpshooting sniper appealing, but BeastMaster is probably closer to my head canon for this character. Having a trusted companion along for the journey makes it more appealing – especially one that can tank 🙂

Gug Fatcandle
To kill or not to kill?

This is a tricky one. Sometimes I find rares and feel like they should be left in peace, especially the free roaming animals. I despise the idea of hunting in the real world, so celebrating it in game is a bit contradictory. Then again, this is a game, and Hunters hunt. Maybe I can play it by ear, sometimes letting live and let live, sometimes finishing the target for the good of Azeroth.

Slark
Screenshots

One of the harder things is getting a good screenshot before the dead mob dematerialises, or before another character on one of those @#$@# low level sidecar mounts arrives to ruin the photo. And do you have the name (and nameplate?) of the mob showing or not? It’s a good record of who it was, but I guess that could also be achieved by the layout of the blog page recording the deed.

I’d also like to learn how to make screenshots look better – mine are often too dark and badly lit. The gold standard is Bendak’s screenshots at Eyes of the Beast, which all manage to look spectacular, so I assume he’s doing some post processing on them. Further research required.

Mother Fang
Blog presentation

I’ll probably shamelessly steal Cymre’s layout and have a page per zone with all the rares collected there. Simple and effective.

Should I do this?

I think I should! It’s a long term thing, a fun side project, and for some inexplicable reason I can imagine it best playing it as a human, of all things. Maybe Hell can freeze over after all.

Developing appreciation

It’s been nice reading the various Developer Appreciation Week posts on the Blaugust blogs, the surge of positivity is very welcome.

The obvious candidate for me is Blizzard. Warcraft has provided endless hours of entertainment, fun, laughter, obsession, joy, sorrow, and accomplishment, and continues to do so even now. Most recently I’ve discovered the cleverness of level scaling in dungeons, which has meant our lowbie guild can all be completely different levels but still play together – something that must have been very hard to implement into the creaking framework of old WoW code, and yet appears seamless to the player.

Overwatch is also a brilliant game, the perfect antidote to the long termedness of an MMO. Jeff Kaplan in particular is a great front man, communicating extremely well and obviously loving what he’s doing, but the entire team have achieved incredible things. The game is constantly evolving and updating, which is all due to the dedication of the dev team no doubt.

On a slightly different note, I’d also shout out to the team that have put out 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Our tabletop group have loved the current version, which managed to simplify the rules somewhat and also introduce a bunch of great new mechanics like Inspiration – basically a free re-roll granted by te DM to a player for particularly clever role playing. It’s a simple idea that escalates the enjoyment instantly without bogging things down. They have also managed to make all the classes feel exceptionally heroic, with every class feeling powerful and different, and the official modules have been entertaining for DM and players both.

Finally I’d call out gaming bloggers again. So many great, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, curious writers who are passing on their love of a game, or many games, to all the readers out there. And through that enthusiasm they in turn highlight what a great job so many of the developers are doing. It’s a virtuous circle, and may it ever grow stronger.