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.

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.

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.

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.

Battle for…Deadmines

Tonight our troop of Alliance debutantes headed into our first dungeon, the deadly Deadmines.

Deep beneath the mines of Moonbrook in southwestern Westfall lie the Deadmines. Despite the demise of the Defias Brotherhood’s leader Edwin VanCleef at the hands of Alliance militiamen, the Deadmines is still the Brotherhood’s most secure hideout since Cataclysm. Here the survivors of Edwin’s crew toil alongside new recruits, so that the Defias juggernaut ship can be complete and the kingdom of Stormwind can be brought to its knees. All this is happening under the vigilant eyes of “Captain” Cookie… and Vanessa VanCleef.

Going back to Deadmines raised some old memories. Way back in the day I was escorting a Guildie through Deadmines in search of a Rogue twinking chest (is twinking still a thing?), and as he was busy looting while I one shot everything in sight, my young Rogue friend coined a nice term for what I was doing: PVE Ganking. The Defias mobs had zero chance, like an 80 whacking on a freshly minted level 1 in a PVP zone. That quickly joined our other favourites – Bag Rage (need more slots!), Drop Logic (“Maybe you have to kill the tar monsters in the tar for the teeth to drop?”), and Threading (for when you move through a group of mobs without pulling a single one).

It’s a great dungeon, and a great first dungeon if you’ve never seen one. Plenty of mobs and bosses, fun mechanics, and the lovely moment when you bust through the mines and emerge into a huge cavern with a fully fledged pirate ship ahead.

It’s also pretty funny for a dungeon – most are pretty standard heroic fare, but this one has ogres wielding kobolds as weapons, goblin bosses riding ogres in turn, and a murloc boss who tosses slowly rotting food whilst sitting in a cooking pot.

Cookie crumbled

Plus that murloc boss drops a weapon that is so ridiculous that Blizzard had to make a special rule to forbid it from being used for transmog.

The full Paladin fantasy

It was a great reunion for our group of players who used to play together regularly, with plenty of laughs and ridiculous situations, especially the revelation that our new player hadn’t realised he could change his characters appearance when he was created, so he has whatever the randomiser came up with – we had wondered about the haircut choice. But he’s a real character now, a budding hero of the Alliance, so he can’t possibly be changed.

One for all

We also had a friend join from Chicago where he’d moved many years ago, which was a great reminder of the power of gaming and MMOs to bring a dispersed group together. As the freshman noted, Warcraft is almost “a weaponised banter and nostalgia machine….really if you were all spread out it would almost be mandatory to play something like this.” We are, and it almost is.

Rarified

One of the goals I’ve always had in Warcraft was to hunt down every rare – or ‘silver dragon’ – in the game. It’s a fun goal, and a great way to tour some of the more out of the way caves and bogs and mountain tops.

Edan the Howler. No relation to Eden the commenter, I hope.

Plenty of people of done it of course, and I’ve started various blogs in an attempt to screenshot each find before inevitably running out of steam. Cymre at Bubbles of Mischief has the best presented list that I’ve seen – a labour of love with screenshots and many pages of adventuring.

Hammerspine and cowering captive

With the new Alliance Guild, it’s been fun tootling around Dun Morogh searching for the four rares that patrol the zone. I’ve found and, uh, murdered three of them, but the fourth – Great Father Arctikus – seems to have some kind of pathing bug that means he’s inside the mountain stone rather than the caves below. Oh well. His time will come!

Bjarn. Note friend approaching from the right…
… seeking revenge!

One of the other reasons for this project has been it’s away of paying tribute to the friend who tempted me into WoW way back in the Burning Crusade days. We discovered rares together in the game, and I remember taking a hardcopy of a Prima Guide to photocopying shop to make an A3 print of the list of rares it contained. We took a sheet each, and planned our assault on each rare with great care. My friend is no longer with us, but hunting rares sometimes brings him back.

Legion disbanded

Day two and I haven’t managed to logon for BfA play yet, missing the launch rush completely. Which doesn’t really worry me, as like many others I plan to level nice and slowly, investigating all the nooks and crannies and getting the most out of all the little details to be found. I like BarelyReadableDiary’s turn of phrase: “taking a ‘loremaster’ style approach to levelling”. Perfect.

Along with that post, there’s been a bunch of nice reflections of highlights from Legion. One of my favourites is from my Warlords Guild leader, Navimie of Frostwolves, who asked her guildies to supply a screenshot of a special moment from Legion. Such a great way to commemorate an expansion from many different angles.

Zeriah and Cinder have also published some nice thoughts on Legion and what they’re looking forward to in BfA. I think my lists would be:

Legion moments
  1. Highmountain Tauren – competing as my favourite zone ever.
  2. Unlocking the Underlight Angler – a fairly predictable highlight!
  3. Flying – I fully support keeping us grounded as I think it really opens up the exploration game, but the sense of freedom when you can fly is also special.
BfA anticipation
  1. The story – everything about the lead up has been pretty epic, fascinated to see where it all leads.
  2. New Allied races – the Dark Iron Dwarves look fantastic. Not quite sure how I’ll manage that given they’re Alliance. Maybe that’s a good use for the 110 boost.
  3. Participating all the way through – a bugbear of mine has always been a tendency to only play at the very end of expansions, which leads to missing a lot of content and playing catchup. This time I hope to stay vaguely current throughout.

Looking forward to logging on and getting started – maybe by the weekend, and hopefully before the end of Blaugust!

On rails

I normally cycle to work each day, but today had to catch public transport. It was about 10 minutes before BfA launched when the tram pulled up, and I was greeted by an unexpected sight.

Classic. I was on it when BfA went live (the tweet storms were in full flight), so made sure I was in the right carriage too.

Anduin’s Gnomes have planted a monitoring device.

The tram was pretty full, but not nearly as busy as Brann.

Have fun everyone!