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There’s been a distinct drop off in attendance in our guild over past few weeks. We’ve had to cancel raids quite a bit – exacerbated by the fact two of our prominent players have had busted computers and a tank has been moving house, so has had no internet for a while. But people have also been having breaks because they feel a bit bored.

Battle for Azeroth has had rather a shaky start. At first, the majority of players seemed happy with the new landscapes and dramatic questlines. Initially, island expeditions and warfronts were regarded favourably. But as time’s gone on, these aspects appear to have lost their shine. The ongoing fulminations over Azerite armour and its implementation hasn’t helped. I too haven’t been playing as much, mainly because I’ve been swamped with work, getting several books ready for publication in December, but also because I haven’t felt the driving need to log on every day. And you know – I think this is actually a good thing.

I’ll explain why.

In previous expansions, and especially so since mission tables became a thing in WoD, most players have felt obliged to log on every day to attend to tasks, which, if left unattended, might result in lost opportunity, gold, gear or whatever. Emissary caches felt mandatory because of the RNG rewards in them – essential mounts and so on for collectors of such things and, previously, the chance of legendaries. But I quite like the fact I don’t feel so driven by these concerns any more. When I have the time for a long run of play, I can pick and choose what world quests I want to do for their specific rewards. Gear for alts, or pet tokens or whatever else might be of use. Now I’ve got my main characters to exalted on all the factions, I don’t feel it’s necessary to get to that point with alts. It actually feels liberating not being bound to daily activities for fear of missing out somehow. Things like warfronts and island expeditions can also be dipped in and out of. You don’t feel you HAVE to do them every time they’re available, but just if you feel like it. You can raid and do mythic + dungeons, if you feel like it. You can level alts. Or you can go back and collect things from previous expansions – because you have more time for it now.

While some have complained of lack of things to do, I think it’s healthy to have a bit of a lull between patches. You can have a break, or a semi break, then return refreshed and enthusiastic for new content. Blizzard seem to be keeping to the promise they upheld in Legion of fairly regular new content. How quickly a player uses that up is down to them, but if you’re so inclined you can pace yourself to match the stream of release.

All this said, I do think Blizzard are responsible for some massive whoopsies at the start of this expansion, but with patch 8.1 some of the things that upset people are being addressed head on. I won’t go into detail about the patch, because videos and blog posts about it can be found all over the internet and I don’t need to repeat it all but suffice to say I’m happy with what’s coming.

It’s become almost a fashion to hate on Blizzard at the moment, which I don’t think is good for the game. This is spearheaded by a contingent of streamers and youtubers whose settings are set permanently to pissed off. They want to be pissed off, and people find voyeuristic pleasure in watching the rivers of woe that pour from these doomsayers. I think it’s important people talk about what’s not working in the game, and suggest how it might be improved, but an endless stream of negativity and pessimism doesn’t help anyone. Those who love WoW don’t want to see it founder. They simply want mistakes corrected, and the game to go onwards and upwards. But others seem to take delight in proclaiming WoW is dead and how terrible a game is now is. They’ve been doing that for years.

And the fact is, it’s not that terrible. Having played a little on the WoW Classic demo, I could appreciate fully how much WoW has come on since its early days. All the little quality of life features we take for granted and barely notice become huge when they’re suddenly not there. Modern WoW is flawed, yes, but can any game ever be absolutely perfect? Blizzard make what seem to be insane decisions sometimes, as if the developers don’t actually play the game themselves, for surely no player would implement some of the daft ideas we’ve had to stomach over the years. But good came with the bad and continues to do so. We’ll never have the game that’s perfect for us, because it’s doubtful any two people have the same absolute concept of what the perfect game is. Quite frankly, I think if we’re happy with three quarters of WoW and disappointed with the remaining quarter, we can’t really complain.  We’re all too different, with differing requirements and preferences, ever to have that 100% hit from one game. People’s dissatisfaction in BfA has in many cases slithered towards being disappointed with more than a quarter, but it seems the complaints have been heard. Something’s being done about it, and hopefully successfully, and there’s much to look forward to in 8.1.

It was probably revisiting WoW Classic that opened my eyes to all this. I played only for about fifteen minutes on the demo and that was enough. No, I don’t want to go back there. I do miss the old landscapes, yes, because it was where my characters grew up, but looking at them again now, they’re not quite the idyllic places I remember. They’re crude and bare in comparison to the lush, rich landscapes we frolic about in today. It really is as if we look back on Vanilla through the eyes of a child. But we can never revisit childhood, not with the same sense of wonder and newness – we can only remember what we felt like back then. The questing was often frustrating and meandering. There were no guides to point you to where you had to go. Finding a quest objective might have meant wandering around for hours looking for it. Levelling was much tougher, and if you weren’t ultra careful with your pulls, and attracted more than one mob, you were quickly dead. You had to run around on foot until level 40, and then the amount of gold required to get your first mount was punishingly high. Gold came very very very slowly in Classic. We were all paupers. I remember grinding mobs for weeks in 1000 Needles with a few friends, because the ones at the raceway dropped trash that sold for slightly more than mobs elsewhere. Weeks. Every night. We’d kill things until our relatively small bags were full, then run to the vendor to empty out before going back for more. We felt euphoric if we garnered a couple of gold each time we visited the vendor. Even at top level, I only ever saw a few players with upgraded mounts that ran faster. These beasts cost 1000 gold, which in those days felt like the 5 million needed to buy a brutosaur mount today.  I can remember that when The Burning Crusade came out, a richer friend insisted on helping me out with the gold to buy a faster mount, because you bloody well needed one sometimes to escape from mobs in the new Outland zones. A slower mount merely helped kill you.

The hunter I made on the demo felt horrible. I’d forgotten you couldn’t use your ranged weapon close to a target, never mind the inconvenience of having to know where you could buy arrows or bullets nearby so you didn’t run out of ammo. The boar I was given as a pet (no choice in the demo) was a rough bunch of blocky polygons, who wasn’t a great deal of use, because in Classic you had to go off and hunt for skills for your pets. Only by taming certain animals could you learn the skills needed for an effective companion. I quite liked that part of it at the time, because it was fun to go hunting, and there was no sense of urgency about anything back then, (for me, at least), but I’m unconvinced modern players who never experienced young WoW will feel the same. People don’t have the same amount of patience today. And one thing you needed in Classic was patience. Let’s see how things go when it’s released next year. I probably will make a character to tinker about on now and again, simply to revisit the zones as they originally were. I do miss them, because they meant something to me at the time. It’ll be cool to take a walk down Nostalgia Lane. But I think some people who are currently longing for Classic (and probably never played it) will be both shocked and disappointed. I think for most players who try it (discounting the diehard Classic fans who’ve played on private servers), it’s destined to be a curio – a kind of interactive museum it’s interesting to visit sometimes to see the past, but not an experience to replace the modern version of the game.

I think it’s better to look upon the aspects of the modern game we love, and not dwell gloomily on the parts of it we’re less happy with. It’s still WoW, most of us have been with it for a long time, and if we take a break now and again, there’s nothing wrong with that. The good thing is that there’s always new stuff to come back to.

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(*A 17th Century term for altering the direction of a ship – seems pertinent.)

Despite its faults, I’m really enjoying Battle for Azeroth. As a storyteller myself, I appreciate how the game has gradually changed over the years into what feels like taking part in a movie or a novel. The story is a driving force. While this could be said – to a degree – of former expansions, it wasn’t so obvious, since most of the action and drama took place inside the large raids that few players got to see back then. But now, even my friends who’re not that interested in lore like the way the story’s currently presented.

But… There are problems with the game, not least the rather stumbling iteration of gear progress this time round. I have to be honest and say I can live with that, (albeit with a sigh and a frown at the ineptitude of the development team), as to me gear is only a means to an end, and if our guild can complete the end game content with the gear we have, fab. I don’t lust after ever higher ilevels, nor enjoy the prospect of having to sim my gear continually (urgh the tedium). To me, the most efficient and least awkward way of maintaining your character’s effectiveness is to be aware of which secondary stats are good for their spec and why. Also, we should be able to tell easily from the dungeon guide where the ‘best in slot’ pieces drop for us and aim for them. Surely it shouldn’t have to be more complicated than that? I resent having to look outside of the game for information about my gear, (which for Azerite armour appears essential). If I can do my job effectively in a team, that’s good enough for me. Our guild habitually finishes Normal mode in raids and then ventures into Heroic, not always finishing it before the next raid comes out. We’re not hardcore by any means, and I suspect the majority of guilds are similar to us, with a range of player ability and skill. We take part in a wide range of WoW activities, more than enough to fill my limited play time. However, outside of mythic raiding and the high level Mythic + dungeons, I reckon the gear as it stands is good enough for anyone. It’s not right, and in some cases is frustrating to acquire, but it works, and teams can still kill bosses. That said, I do understand the anger and frustration the vocal players are expressing on MMO Champion and such like. For them, gear is all.

Other mishaps that have occurred (to put it lightly) such as the mismanaged class balancing, the pruning of talents and skills, the fact some characters fare far better than others in solo content, and the frankly horrible changes to the GCD, really need seeing to. I have no idea how things got in such a mess, but you’d imagine the development team is savvy enough to fix it. Shouldn’t have happened in the first place. What on earth were they thinking? Certainly not thinking things through sufficiently, such as the detrimental effect that removing legendaries and artefact weapons would have on characters during levelling.

But, there are many good things about the way WoW is changing. The world of Azeroth looks great, the dungeons and raids are fun, the new voice acting from established actors, including from well-known shows such as Game of Thrones, is very professional and perfect for the story, plus the questing and storylines have been enjoyable, atmospheric and on theme. For those who like collecting, there’s plenty to collect. There are more activities to take part in at end game. And we’re only a few months into the expansion, so there will be much more to come. But I have been aware of niggles, things that have made me slightly discontent, or else had me pondering what improvements could still be made, outside of the obvious ones to do with gear and classes. I’ll leave the dissection of that for those who are adept with the number-crunching aspect of WoW; its more competitive side. I’m going to look at the aspect of pure entertainment. I know my views won’t be shared by everyone, and I don’t expect all to agree with me. These are just some ideas I’ve been pondering.

I do think WoW is in a strange position at the moment. It’s an old game, and a large proportion of its player base, those loyal subscribers who’ve stuck with it since Classic, are also older. Looked down upon as ‘casuals’ by whatever demographic still plays relentlessly 24/7, some of these players must now have responsibilities and interests outside the game, not least young families that they might not have had at the start of their adventures in Azeroth. Yet they still want to play, albeit in a pared-down manner. I too have less time than I did to tinker about on WoW, because my publishing company has got busier No more staying up till 4 a.m. because I just have to get a particular alt to a certain level before bed.

Older players, who were once hardcore raiders, often now want a more laidback approach to the game, and fewer hours spent bashing theirs heads against raid bosses. They still enjoy raiding, progressing through Normal to Heroic, but they don’t want a frenetic pace, frayed tempers, dramas or burn out. I know because we have such people in our own team who were once in dedicated raiding guilds but who don’t want that pressure any more. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the higher end of raiding is on a downward slide in general, as more and more people feel the same way about it. WoW is predominantly a game for grownups now – It’s quite worrying that the excuse we used to make for badly-behaved idiots was ‘they’re kids’. Sadly, I don’t think that excuse is quite so accurate nowadays. But anyway…

Subs are said to be sliding too, and this could be because the more hardcore type of player is stomping off or sighing dismally, or whatever it is they do before cancelling their sub. Perhaps one of the truths Blizzard has to face up to is that the modern WoW player is different to what they were back when the game was launched. And… here I almost wince as I type it… most players probably want less group content not more. In fact, if I dare go so far, I think the majority of players would cheer from the rigging if Blizzard took that tack and steered the ship into waters where a solo player could do more in the game, the type of player who might have a few friends they can team with now and again, but who often finds themselves online alone. I see time and again on forum threads people bemoaning the fact their friends have left the game, they’ve got no one they know to team with, don’t feel they have enough time to commit to a guild, so are forced into the murky swamps of Pugland, simply because Blizzard designs the game to include a lot of group content.

I play both Alliance and Horde, with my main focus being on Alliance, but even on that faction I often have to pug my way through story progress, because guild mates have already done it on their main, aren’t interested in progressing alts through it, or are concentrating purely on Mythic Plus dungeons and don’t want to waste their limited playing time doing story stuff. As for Horde, I have to pug or nothing. There’s rarely more than two people online in our Horde guild. I hate pugging and have to steel myself to do it, as does just about everyone else I know in WoW. I don’t think progressing through the story should ever involve group content. Like professions, it should be a solo activity. The only exception to this is perhaps the plots that unfold inside raids. If you’re not in a regular raid team, it’s fairly easy to keep your head down in LFR and not attract the attention of idiots, so to me it’s acceptable that raids provide a bigger stage for the bigger stories.

The new communities feature has helped with team activities for our guild. We’ve joined forces this expansion with two other guilds comprised of great people, one guild on our own realm, another somewhere else. This has been a lifesaver in terms of raiding, and it’s been wonderful (if not a relief) to start making new friends in the game. But I don’t think this is enough. Each guild has their own activities outside of raiding and, as yet, we’re not teaming up for any other kind of content.

Blizzard has to face the grim reality that pugging can be a dire experience, and mature players don’t necessarily want ‘enforced teaming’ thrust upon them. Sometimes, it’s as if the developers imagine we’re all like happy little children, dancing around holding hands as we complete dungeons together in perfect harmony. As we ALL know, the truth is very different. It would be really liberating if Blizzard could let us have the choice about group content. We know scaling technology exists, and surely that can be utilised further, so that more content is soloable, or playable for small teams of two or three players. Even dungeons. It’s been done in other MMOs and I’ve really enjoyed sampling that kind of content when I’ve played through it. I’d love to be able to tackle achievements in the current expansion rather than have to wait until I can steamroll through them at a higher level in the next expansion. The dungeons don’t have to be made easier, simply scaled to single player, rather like the earlier challenge modes or mage tower, but not quite so challenging – even solo dungeons could have a mythic+ mode for those who like a harder experience. This would inevitably interfere with the enshrined idea of the ‘holy trinity’ of tank, healer and 3 dps, but we have to deal with that already in island expeditions that are for a team of 3. Tanks are a great help there, but healers aren’t essential, more DPS being preferable for an effective run. All the solo scenarios we already do require us to survive by ourselves. For those who have plenty of people to team with, or are happy to pug, the 5 person version of the dungeons would still be there.

As far as trying to complete dungeon and raid achievements, I admit I could make the effort to try and recruit other like-minded players in the group finder, but then I won’t know the other people, making it more complicated to coordinate them efficiently to succeed at the achievements, preferably using voice chat, and if that’s not possible try to organise the team through typed text etc. It all seems rather a tiresome, time-consuming headache, before I even get started. I’d just rather do it with friends or alone, on the spur of the moment with no fuss. I think this is a dream of many players.

During levelling, needing a group to complete quests along the way is often annoying and time consuming, when you just want to be getting on with the job. Are group quests really appropriate for working towards max level? I see their point and relevance in end game content, but not before. For the more difficult quests, perhaps quest text could signal that a group would be helpful, but shouldn’t a skilled player be able to solo tackle all the ‘group quests’ as they level, regardless of class? This time around, the situation’s been worsened by the fact our characters get progressively weaker as they quest towards 120 and all mobs continue to scale with us as they did in Legion. So, instead of being able to go back to those group quests a bit later on, we’ll pretty much always need a group, or at least one other person, unless our character happens to be one of the privileged classes who can cheerfully do things by themselves because they have the toolkit to do it. (Paladins are a prime example of this. I’m currently taking mine to 120, and it feels like levelling a character in an earlier expansion. She’s unconcerned with mob strength or numbers because of the tools she has at her disposal to ensure her survival until all enemies are dead. Even surprise ambushes by opportunistic mob patrols converging en masse are unlikely to kill her. But I wouldn’t fancy my mage’s chances faced with the same situation – other than by running away!) I imagine few players will want to go back and do group quests once they do outgear them, because they’ll be irrelevant by then. It’s surely preferable to do them as they’re current in our levelling. This also applies to dungeons being required as part of vital campaigns within the game. On the character you level first, it might be easy to find guild mates or other friends to do them with you. Not so on your fifth alt and beyond. Dungeons with a pug can be… an interesting experience. Occasionally, it’s good, but you tend to remember the worst examples of teams you’ve been herded into.

For players who get stalled on group content during one of the few evenings a week they can play, the game might lose its shine, and possibly lose those players completely. If certain aspects were more solo friendly, perhaps a lot of disaffected former players might be tempted to return, because they could play at their own pace unimpeded. And there will be more for them to do. The solo pet battle dungeons are a great idea – that could be extended to dungeons in general, couldn’t it? And island expeditions? And war fronts even? I would say raids, but perhaps some things should remain sacred as an activity for teams, and remain entirely group focused until a later expansion, when people can pile in and steam through them solo if they want to. However, I must confess the idea of raid scaling for smaller teams of 5 holds great allure! I realise this is probably impossible because of balancing issues.

I imagine that some people reading this will be saying to themselves, ‘she’s off her head, this is an MMO – multi player – we’re supposed to group’. I’ve heard this refrain many many times. But the fact is, you can be part of a dynamic, thriving online world, teaming with others when you like, and interacting with them in other ways, but still spend time alone in it. If we compare it with real life, you might live in a town full of people, yet you don’t group with them to go shopping, or visit the dentist, or form a team to do the housework. You get together to socialise and take part in specific activities when it’s appropriate and desirable. No one (well few) would want to live in an empty ghost town, but neither would they want to do everything with other people. It’s good to feel part of a community but do our own thing within it. Sometimes it’s cool to go shopping with a friend, but it’d be an almighty pain if you couldn’t go shopping without one. I know that other players feel the same, because I’ve talked about it with them. That doesn’t represent everyone, obviously, but a range of people.

Another thing that could be addressed is how to keep players online – providing an experience so they want to log on every day or at least as often as their real-life permits. That is not the same as feeling you have to log on every day to do stuff that doesn’t exactly set your heart racing with excitement. At the moment, Blizzard’s main weapon in this battle is shoving a lot of rewards behind RNG so that people have to grind endlessly with no guarantee they’ll even get what they’re grinding for eventually. (The mounts from the Paragon caches in Legion being a prime example – I’m still working on them in BfA.) Quest chains to acquire cosmetic items are a great idea, if they don’t involve RNG. For example, I’ve already spent too many hours trying to get the pterosaur egg that will enable me to start a long quest chain on Horde to acquire a mount. Unfortunately, the egg to start the chain won’t drop from the appropriate mobs. If the egg were a tad easier to acquire, so I had a starting point, from which I then had to log on every day to do tasks to make it hatch, I’d be online to do so, even if it took quite some time. Making people grind mind-numbingly isn’t the only way to keep them online. I’d happily do any amount of quests and so on if I knew the reward was 100% at the end, and so would many others – instead of thinking, ‘why the hell have I just wasted two hours or more mindlessly killing mobs for nothing, when I could’ve been doing something productive? Sod it, I can’t be bothered, life’s too short…’ and abandoning the endeavour completely. Blizzard at present dangles the carrots, but for many the carrots are never reached. So the idea of carrots becomes horrible and players are no longer tempted by them. I cannot understand why luck should be such a huge factor in the game, because some people simply don’t have it. Some RNG is essential, perhaps, but not to a punishing degree.
Blizzard does implement non-RNG content effectively sometimes, with quest lines like the ones for Ba’al the demonic goat pet. They’ve included activities like these for a while now and they’re – mostly – fun. The Lucid Nightmare chain from Legion wasn’t that great, because some of it was well, ridiculously difficult and/or irritating, but the tasks to unlock Kosumoth the Hungerer as a weekly quest were fine. This kind of content appears to be popular. At the moment it’s aimed towards collectors – mounts, pets, toys – but perhaps it could also extend to gear, say a desired weapon or piece of armour – much like the original legendary quest lines in earlier expansions, but easier to acquire than those legendaries in that you attain them in a different way that doesn’t involve RNG, although perhaps a lot of time investment or other game activities (professions?). By this I mean, regular engaging content that has a beginning, a middle and an end, much like a good story.

Another thing that seems somewhat nonsensical to me is the continuing faction divide. If the common forum threads on the topic are anything to go by, it appears that the majority simply don’t care about it anymore. Some people, I know, are still invested in the war of Warcraft and think the heart of the game would be destroyed if the faction divide should go, but it has more or less gone already, but for the artificial resuscitation it’s received via the story in Battle for Azeroth. In every expansion, Horde and Alliance have ended up working together to defeat a common foe and save the world. I’m fully prepared for a moment later in this expansion when the factions resolve their differences again and focus on what really needs to be done. Does any other outcome seem at all likely? (Please prove me wrong with great plotting, Blizzard, but I won’t be holding my breath.) The faction divide could still exist as a kind of ‘cold war’, and that could provide many interesting stories. Neither would such a change have to affect the PvP aspect of the game, because battlegrounds and arenas could remain as they are, (regarded as a kind of gladiatorial combat), nor world PvP for those who want it. Think what a relief it could be if Blizzard allowed players of different factions to communicate and team together, and perhaps even go so far as to join the same guilds (as in Rift). The friends that many players have who are part of the opposite faction would be able to play with them. At present, the faction divide halves the amount of players available to each side, in what seems to be a diminishing player base. Doing away with it to some degree would double (roughly) the amount of potential team-mates. There could be limits, such as not being able to visit the other faction’s cities, but I’ve even seen some players suggest that earning rep with an opposing city so you could actually set foot in it would be another game activity for people. There’s a lot that could be done, post faction divide, that would provide content, not cull it.

One thing I’m firmly against is WoW going free-to-play. In the MMOs I’ve played where this has taken place, I’ve seen nothing good come of it. In fact, those games end up being far more expensive to play than simply paying a sub, because if you want to get the best of the game, so much has to be purchased from the store. I’ve no doubt WoW would go the same way if it went free-to-play. That business model is a cold-hearted, greedy game killer that simply encourages gambling with loot bags etc. I hope Blizzard do everything they can to prevent this eventuality for WoW – and part of that might well include listening to the best ideas from players, ideas that a large part of the player base would welcome and enjoy. I really think expanding solo content dramatically, reducing RNG and bringing in some ‘crowd pleaser’ features that players have asked for repeatedly could provide a boost for the game. And it goes without saying, (although I have less hope of this happening), that class balance, talents and skills could be addressed with a surgeon’s precise hand and expertise rather than hacked at with a butcher’s cleaver, not caring if the best bits of the meat fall off with the fat and gristle.

If you got a group of WoW players together (sensible ones, not whiners, haters or hotheads), and asked them all to come up with an activity to keep them online that wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility, you’d get dozens of cool ideas. Instead, it seems that Blizzard has an edgy relationship with its customers. Sometimes, like a warped parent, it showers us with gifts, such as the fan-pleasing elements of Legion, yet other times it’s almost as if they delight in being cruel, denying what players want, making us struggle – and sometimes making quality of life and classes worse. It comes across as if they enjoy taking things away from people just as much, if not more, than giving them things. This seems at best a peculiar relationship. For example, why won’t they bring in player housing, something that’s been asked for persistently? Wildstar’s rendition of it is universally praised, and that was an MMO that took itself quite seriously in its appeal to a more hardcore type of player (perhaps too seriously since it’s no longer going – we can only conclude the hardcore are a minority). This idea could go even further, such as the guild housing found in Runes of Magic, a free to play game. While suffering from the downsides of other ftp MMOs, in that it’s very expensive to play, the guild housing is amazing. Castles to be built up over time, players contributing resources to add features and conveniences, plus the ever-expanding visual aspect of the guild hall. The original Guild Wars had amazing guild halls, all intricately themed and beautifully rendered. I would imagine a large amount of WoW players would love this feature.

A large proportion of modern players lack the time or dedication to play an MMO like they used to be played over a decade ago, and surely it could only benefit Blizzard to go with the tide. Adding features like player housing to the game, with built-in longevity, plus more solo content, and less RNG could make it far more appealing. If such changes came to pass, we might even be able to ‘recruit a friend’ again. (That pool dried up years ago for me.) As it stands, all that potential new players see is a wall of levelling in front of them, too much catch-up, too much group content, and too much focus on progressively more challenging end game. It’s fine to have all those things – and they are part of what make a great MMO – but emphasising them exclusively does nothing to appeal to a wider audience. People I’ve spoken to, who I know would love WoW if they tried it, always say the same thing: ‘there’d be so much catch-up it’s too daunting to start’. And there is – if players aim only at cutting-edge content at the current highest level. The hardcore players (or more accurately perhaps, the wannabe hardcore) complain that WoW has been dumbed down and made too accessible for their taste. Their desired content is valid, but is it the prime interest of the majority? I love WoW and I don’t want to see the game sink further into decline as its players drift away. There are things that could be done not only to retain players but to attract new ones, which frankly I don’t see happening at all at the moment. One character boost does not a new fan make.

After mulling over all these ideas, plus others (too many to list in this article) that other players have come up with, I can’t help thinking that giving WoW some of the benefits of a solo RPG, but within an MMO environment would be a good direction for it to head towards.

I’ve played Battle for Azeroth for some days now, long enough to talk about my first impressions. I’ve also got my main character to top level.

First off, navigation about the world is far more user friendly than it was in Legion. Finding quest objectives in the previous expansion was sometimes so difficult the majority of our guild resorted to using an addon that helped you find where you were supposed to be. There’s a new version of it for BFA but so far I’ve not had to turn it on. There are still quest items and mobs hidden in caves, but at least the dot on the map specifying where they are in the landscape is reachable without going round the outside of a huge mountain, across a few lakes, to find a tiny hole in the ground amid dense shrubbery that’s the hidden entrance to the cave you need to be in. Now – there’s simply a pretty clear path to a cave. Short of physical sign posts along the path, it can’t get any better.


(Drustvar Mountains from the Air)

BFA’s landscape is also less vertical. While there are breathtaking mountains aplenty and beautifully realised topography, pathways up the mountainsides are clear and easy to find and lead to where you want to go without any screaming, hair pulling or frantically looking things up on the internet.

The questing itself, however, isn’t quite so user friendly. It’s clear this is because at the end of Legion we had to surrender the perks of our incredibly powerful and multi-talented artefact weapons. We were used to being amazingly strong, scything our way through foes as if they were mosquitoes. While the artefacts still work as ‘stat sticks’ until around level 115, even though their special qualities have been disabled, thereafter they’re replaced quickly by questing greens – those throwaway bits of gear you hasten to replace immediately you hit top level. Your legendary items work until 115 too, so the first half of levelling feels like you’re skipping round the beautiful landscape, singing to yourself and admiring the scenery. Then… at 115 all the special qualities of your legendary items are disabled. Bam! The mobs have scaled up as you have, but you are effectively far weaker than you were only a level ago. You’re soon replacing those legendaries with more questing greens. From thereon, questing gets slower and more onerous. We’re used to being superheroes in Legion. Now we’re back to being foot soldiers, wielding a stick with a nail in it, dressed in ragged hand me downs rather than sparkly armour.

It’s always been this way at top level in new expansions. Traditionally, the moment you get to max, you go from carefree questing to being as weak as a kitten who can’t even hit a ball of string. We expect it then. The idea is that at top level we start earning new and better gear through world quests, dungeons, raids and so on. That’s what end game’s all about. But levelling to get there wasn’t taxing or that annoying – other than (in Legion) problems with navigation.

I really hope Blizzard will do something to fix this situation, because I think the effects of the recent stat squish and scaling, coupled with the disabling of our superpowers, have been more catastrophic than they realised. I’ve read forum threads about this topic, where there are plenty of people scoffing at those complaining, claiming that levelling is supposed to be hard, not ridiculously easy. The usual smug cries of ‘learn to play, noob!’ abound. Actually, levelling is supposed to be fun. It is (or should be) the easy part of WoW. The challenging content comes in dungeons and raids, in doing mythic+ content, or the various challenges Blizzard offer to the hardcore and those who really like to be tested.

My main character was equipped with heroic raid gear from Legion, so was used to having a fairly easy time of it in the open world, but he struggled through the last few levels to 120. He died to things I’m really not used to him being killed by. The main problem is that he now doesn’t regenerate energy fast enough. He’s a Druid, and I habitually level him in his Feral cat form. Now, he doesn’t have enough of the Haste stat to regenerate energy efficiently, and if more than two foes attack, making a fight lengthy, he quickly has no resources, so I can’t use his skills and have to wait painfully for his energy bar to refill. This also has a huge impact on his instant Regrowth procs, essential for a cat whose skin is rather thin. Friends who play Rogues or Monks have also reported the same frustration. Now, after my Druid’s limped to top level, hissing furiously, I’ve had to use his bear Guardian form instead of cat. It’s going fine as his personal resource regeneration is far easier to manage in that form and the reduction in damage is more than made up for by his survivability. I’m trying to finish the quests in all the zones in order to gain reputation with the various factions, and hostile creatures in more than pairs would be lethal at top level for the cat. Mini-bosses found at the end of quest chains also seem overtuned. Some quests intended to be soloable really aren’t. I know I only have to wait to get more gear and be patient but… patience isn’t my best quality, and I do think questing shouldn’t be so burdensome.

How on earth my lesser alts will fare, especially the extremely squishy cloth-wearers, I can’t bear to imagine. All my characters capable of being a tank will certainly be one the moment they set foot in the Isles. But if things don’t improve for the more vulnerable characters, (including all classes affected by the drastic reduction in resource regeneration), I can’t see me levelling them, because the experience post level 115 won’t be fun at all. As a friend said to me today as I was complaining about the situation, this will be the worst it’ll ever be in BFA. From now on, we’ll be earning gear and getting stronger. But that won’t help my mages and priests, nervously waiting in their flimsy negligees for me to take them out to level up. (I won’t include warlocks there. They are a class unto themselves and operate outside usual WoW parameters – as any player with a lock will know!) I wish Blizzard – and all the masochists banging on about loving challenge – would just remember that a game, by its very nature, is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.

Another thing I’m really not happy about is Warmode, Blizzard’s way of (allegedly) pleasing both those who like to PvP (player versus player) against real people in the game and those who prefer their enemies to be pixelated, i.e. PvE (player versus environment). I hate world PvP, which to me seems only to give unpleasant people, who love annoying others, license to be a jerk. I’m no good at it, and don’t have the gazelle-like reflexes to cope with my characters being attacked by frenzied teenagers without dying almost immediately. So I avoid it as much as possible, doing any kind of PVP only with gritted teeth, when there’s a reward I particularly want that demands I take part in it. But with Warmode, which players can elect to ‘turn on’ in their capital cities, they can do all their questing in PvP, only seeing other players in the landscape who’ve made the same choice. So ideally all the pvpers can inconvenience each other to their hearts’ delight, leaving us pvers to get on with levelling hassle-free. Except… Blizzard has dangled an immense carrot with Warmode. Players who elect to have it on get increased experience and better quest rewards. As this is an attractive prospect to any player, regardless of their feelings about PvP, they begin to think it’s mandatory to do it. A lot of players are desperate to get to max level in any way possible because the thing they enjoy most in WoW is end game content, and levelling is just a chore they do to get there. The knock-on effect of this is that quite often I’ve been playing on my own in the landscape, never seeing other players. I can only assume this is because so many have opted for the rewards and turned on Warmode, thus making themselves invisible to me and the PvE world seems empty. This makes it difficult to find other people for group quests too. I’ve tried making my own groups, but after 15 mins of no applicants, I’ve given up.

Another downside of Warmode is that Blizzard will now see world PvP in BFA as a big success. They won’t (or will refuse to) see that the majority of players only turn it on for the rewards and swift levelling, not because they want to PvP. I read one forum thread where some PvE players were discussing the hardships of Warmode levelling. ‘You only get killed about once every 7 quests,’ someone said plaintively. ‘So it’s not as bad as it could be.’ Excuse me? Getting killed by a PvP player once every 20 quests would be too much for me and would only make me angry. I want to get on with killing mobs and picking up quest items, as well as paying attention to the story, not have to fight off aggressive players as well. The impression I’m receiving is that people are resigning themselves to Warmode in order to level faster, not that they’re enjoying it. But what they don’t seem to realise is that they’re allowing Blizzard to set a precedent. Since I started playing, it’s always seemed they’ve wanted more players to take part in PvP. They’ve often forced PvE players into it to complete important quest chains or achievements, which we’ve done with a shudder and a grimace. Now, they’ll claim Warmode is a huge triumph and clearly players have wanted it all along, which could lead to world PvP being forced on us even more. Really, I think people who hate PvP but are using Warmode for convenience are stupid and doing harm to the PvE game. Why not take a bit longer to level? Is an extra day really that bad? And for how long exactly will you keep those slightly higher ilevel questing greens? The precedent is dangerous, because once lines are crossed, it’s nigh on impossible to go back over them.

Enough griping! There is still so much to enjoy in BfA. I’ve tried out the dungeons and they’re all amazing to behold, with some interesting bosses and beautifully designed landscapes and interiors. The island expeditions for three players are also enjoyable, which you can complete either against NPC foes or in PvP mode against the other faction. These are a race against time to gather resources and stop the other team from grabbing them. We still have Warfronts and the first raid to come, adding more content to end game play. On top of that we have factions to cosy up to and increase our reputation with them, unlocking vendors who sell gear and crafting patterns.

The storylines in each zone are compelling and rather like reading a story or watching a film. You want to know what happens next, which helps offset the horror of being jumped unexpectedly by multiple mobs that slash your questing greens to ribbons. There is a main narrative thread, but also multiple sub plots found in the landscape. Drustvar did not disappoint me. I adored that zone, especially the spooky child quest line. That was genius. More of that type of thing please, Blizzard. The whole zone, with its theme of dark witchcraft and tainted families, its strange wicker effigies and creatures that are seemingly constructed from sticks and bones, PLUS the absolutely disgusting pig men – apparently humans with heads of pigs grafted onto them in some obscene magical experiments. I loved wandering through the haunted forests, and in such a setting the constant sense of threat works very well.


(Drustvar Forest)

I’ve just finished questing through Stormsong Valley too, which is more of an open landscape. The theme is sea-faring communities and – naturally – pirates. Here, the minions of the naga queen Azshara begin to make their presence felt as well. There’s something funny going on, with Lovecraftian beings appearing here and there. Evil is building in this beautiful zone. The Alliance also meet with the Tortollan, a race of humanoid turtles, who are amusing creatures saying things like ‘I’ve seen things that would scare the shell off you!’ We need to be friends with them (and as they’re a neutral race I assume it’s the same for Horde) because a lot of crafting patterns are locked behind reputation gains with the Tortollan.

From what I’ve seen of professions in BFA (and I’ve only scratched the surface so far), advancing them will be more pleasurable this time round, after the horrid mess that Legion made of crafting. The fact that each expansion will have its own crafting tier is a great idea. In BfA, we start at level 1 in each profession we have and only have to reach 150 to max out – which anyone must agree is a far better prospect than levelling up to 900 through all the expansions.

So, after nearly a week, my first impressions are mainly good with only the levelling experience and Warmode to complain about. Actually, well, the levelling experience is rather important right now, so perhaps casts a dark shadow over all the good stuff. I hope not, and that Blizzard will make a few adjustments to make the process smoother, especially once everyone’s got their main characters to top level. Take pity on the alts, Blizzard.

There is some explanation in this article for people who aren’t familiar with the story of WoW, which inevitably contains some spoilers concerning all the pre-patch events before Battle for Azeroth. Don’t read if you’ve not yet played through the Siege of Lordaeron and don’t want the surprises ruined.

Here we are at the eve of a new World of Warcraft expansion. Launch nights are always, for my guild mates and me, an exciting time. It happens once every two years or so and you really feel you’re off to discover new landscapes and races and adventures. All good. Battle for Azeroth will take us to breath-taking new lands and, having been in the Beta for it, (albeit not doing much as I don’t want to spoil the story), I can’t wait.

However, the run up to this particular expansion has been more melodramatic than usual. This is down to how the story is developing within the game. Azeroth is a huge world, with an immense amount of lore attached to it, which could give Lord of the Rings a run for its money in terms of complexity and fully realised histories of multiple nations and continents.

When you’ve played an MMO for getting on for twelve years or so, its native people feel more like friends than bunches of pixels. When I began playing WoW, back in Classic, I didn’t even notice the story and only started to become interested in it during the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The story within The Burning Crusade, the first expansion that led WoW out of Classic into a new age in a lot of respects, didn’t engage me as much, not because it wasn’t compelling but because so much of it was hidden inside raids, and at the time my guild could only access the 10-person Karazhan and Zul Aman. The bigger raids, for hardcore players only, held the meat of the story within them. But in Wrath, you occasionally ran into the Big Bad, Arthas the Lich King, as you were doing quests and levelling, as well as in the 5-person dungeons. There were dramatic cinematics to further the story – and not this time hidden in raids that were simply for the hardcore elite. Raids – often the most spectacular part of the game – also became accessible to more players, specifically for guilds with smaller teams. Our guild loved this. Everyone felt involved.

WoW has built on this type of story-telling ever since, so that players can engage with what’s going on. You feel like you’re in a book or a film, and it’s not just a case of mindlessly killing 10 of this or collecting 10 of that for quests. What you do has more purpose. You’re busy helping oppressed races or fighting enemies that threaten the whole world. Through the story, players have changed the world of Azeroth, for better or worse.

In Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard is (initially) taking the story back to the faction divide. If anyone’s reading this who isn’t a WoW devotee, I’ll just explain that when players join the game, they choose either Alliance or Horde and begin playing their first character in that faction. Eventually, we might make characters on the other faction in order to see the story from both sides, and I imagine very few players don’t do that nowadays.

In the build up to BfA, Horde and Alliance are at each other’s throats again, in a tit for tat war. For the uninitiated, here is a very simple precis of a quite complicated story: Horde Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner, nuked the World Tree Teldrassil, which was home of the Alliance Night Elves. A great many civilians perished, burned alive. In retaliation, the boy king Anduin Wrynn led Alliance forces against the Horde at the occupied city of Lordaeron. Here, Sylvanas decided to release the Blight, a hideous, fleshing-eating disease that killed both her own troops as well as Alliance soldiers, all of which she then raised gleefully as undead to fight for her. Despite this, she still didn’t win, thanks to the timely intervention of Jaina Proudmoore, a somewhat conflicted character herself (to put it mildly), and a very powerful Alliance mage. The leaders of both sides escaped the devastation, thus setting the stage for the launch of BfA.

Sylvanas’s actions at Lordaeron following the slaughter of civilians in Teldrassil has left a lot of Horde players feeling pretty angry. They disagree with their leader’s tactics and decisions – and it seems several non-player characters in the game feel the same, as shown in the movie-quality cinematic Blizzard released last week – The Old Soldier. In this, the veteran Orc general, Varok Saurfang, is so disgusted with the ways things are going – including perhaps how his world has changed since he was young – that he’s prepared to take off his armour and go to face the Alliance troops alone and unarmoured on the morning before the final battle. Sure suicide. But to Saurfang, honour is everything, and he feels the war he’s caught up in is dishonourable. He’s only dissuaded by a young Troll shaman who, as the dawn breaks over the mighty war engines of the Alliance surrounding Lordaeron, brings a degree of hope back to the grizzled old fighter. It was well-written, well-directed and beautifully depicted, and I found it profoundly moving. But the cinematic only highlighted the discord within the Horde itself.

I like the drama of this, and it makes me eager to discover how the story is going to play out. It’s clear Blizzard wants everyone to feel furious with Sylvanas and worried for the future, regardless of their faction, but I think the developers have got more story surprises up their sleeves. Some players are suggesting this plot is a precursor to doing away with faction divide completely – something I’d personally welcome, although a lot of players (perhaps even 50%?) would hate that. To me, faction divide is annoying in many ways. Story-wise, we’ve been teaming up to fight a common foe for over a decade. Everyone (player and fictional character alike) is older and wiser, yet even so, Horde and Alliance are now back to scrapping like school kids. It doesn’t make sense to me. Surely, a type of Cold War plot would be more convincing? I’m mainly an Alliance player, but I do have a lot of Horde characters I love just as much. Unfortunately, I can’t do end game group content with them, because all my friends play Alliance exclusively at top level. My Hordies are paupers in comparison to my rich Alliance characters, and because they’re on opposite sides, I can’t mail my Horde gold or resources, which is really galling when my Alliance have far more than they can use. Removing the divide, so that the factions could group for high level content, and otherwise communicate in all sorts of ways, would mean my Horde characters might even see a bit of raid and dungeon action, which I’d be really pleased about. But… if Blizzard does decide to sow permanent harmony between Horde and Alliance, a large proportion of the player base might have tantrums about it. We’ll have to see whether Blizzard wants to risk that. I have no gut feeling either way, because so much is up in the air story-wise at present.

There are many predictions about how the narrative will go and I enjoy being tantalised by this. It’s like beginning to read a novel in which anything could happen. But… I can’t help thinking that some of the narrative decisions that have been made since the beginning of the recent (brilliant) Legion expansion have their roots in what has become popular in genre fiction as a whole – whether in books, comics or film. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Game of Thrones has been a huge influence on story-telling. It was this show (and books) that popularised the idea of provoking (and perhaps displeasing) the audience by killing off major characters en masse, characters who normally readers/viewers would expect to be comfortably invested in. It seems a cold-hearted act, almost breaking the contract between writer and reader, to exterminate too many characters simply for the sake of being shocking. The Grimdark genre truly deserves its name. I hate the brutality of this story-telling fashion in fantasy fiction, the attention to gory detail, the gloating over torture and torment, and the constant soft porn, which is just boring. The way I see it, if someone wants to watch porn, they can go and watch it on a channel or DVD devoted to erotic titillation. I don’t see its place in mainstream entertainment. But there it is, and it’s probably not going to go away now. The demons are out of the bag, which means that me, and people like me, just can’t watch some shows, even if we otherwise like the story and setting. (For the record, I can stomach the soft porn, even if it’s dull and wastes screen time when some actual story-telling could be going on, but I simply cannot and will not watch drawn out torture, dismemberment, graphic executions and rape. What kind of person enjoys such scenes?)

I think WoW has been infected by this trend, which began in Legion with the slaughter of the human High King, Varian Wrynn, one of his veteran generals, Tyrion Fordring, the Horde Warchief Vol’jin (a much-loved Troll leader), and several others. The fact that WoW lead developer Ion Hazzikostas recently compared the Burning of Teldrassil with the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones speaks volumes. You can see it must’ve been an influence, however unconsciously and if only for its shock value. OK, the upsetting moments at the start of Legion moved the story along and created high impact drama. It set the scene for the amoral Sylvanas to become Warchief of the Horde and the young and inexperienced (and pleasingly pretty) Anduin to become the human High King. New stories to be told, new characters to invest in. And now we are facing its legacy in BfA. But I do think Blizzard might have gone a bit too far with the ‘realism’ in a game that’s essentially an escapist fantasy. I’m not sure I trust the creators (who are primarily game developers rather than fiction writers) to handle the story skilfully and convincingly. And the players want to be convinced by the story. The professional writers Blizzard do employ undoubtedly have to work to a predefined script, so can’t be held responsible, and certainly don’t deserve the threatening vitriol that’s been directed at them on social media, but quite honestly the current writers are not that great. I would like to read the WoW novels to discover all the story detail that doesn’t happen ‘in game’ but I can’t bear the hackneyed writing. I did try, I really did… But it just hurt my eyes, never mind my own creative sensibilities, to read it. As an editor as well as a writer, I couldn’t stop editing the prose in my head as I was reading. But anyway, those people are just employees, and it’s some committee, somewhere deep inside Blizzard, that calls the shots.

The good side of all this is that story has become very important – nowadays, people expect their entertainment, even in games, to have complex, mature themes, realistic characters and situations, and convincing dramatic tension. I’m delighted I’m sitting here writing about all this, because it means story-telling is alive and well, and that modern obsessions with technology, plus short attention spans, haven’t damaged it past repair. Quite the opposite, even if fiction has expanded far beyond the pages of books.

Part of The Old Soldier showed Saurfaung morosely removing his shoulder armour and throwing it to the ground. In an act of defiance against Sylvanas, (or solidarity with Saurfang, who is currently in the custody of the Alliance), some Horde players are currently choosing not to display their shoulder armour on their characters. I read that on some servers, (perhaps those devoted solely to role-playing, sadly I can’t remember), players congregated in the Horde capital of Orgrimmar to demonstrate, in a ‘Not in my Name’ kind of way. That shows how the story is affecting people, so Blizzard are doing something right. WoW is a game, yet its narrative touches people deeply. As a writer of fiction, I applaud this – and of course this is why WoW has held my attention for so long.

This evening, as midnight strikes in Europe, the islands of Kul’Tiras and Zandalar will open, and the conflict of the Horde and Alliance will be taken there. I’ve already seen the landscape, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The artwork has come on a long way since Classic WoW. One zone in particular – Drustvar – is a haunted land of dark witchcraft and supernatural strangeness. That’s the area I’m heading to as soon as I reach Kul’Tiras. From what I’ve seen it’s entirely my kind of place. I’m crossing my fingers that the story as it unfolds will be grand and surprising, and ultimately satisfying for all players. Sylvanas will definitely not be Warchief by the end of this expansion, I’m quite sure of that, but even though Saurfang seems the obvious replacement, I’m not so sure about that. Anduin will grow and change, perhaps pick up a wife along the way (the Wrynn dynasty needs continuance and Anduin could do with a strong partner to support him. There are several compelling female characters who’d make outstanding queens) – or… maybe the boy king won’t survive the story. Whatever happens, it begins tonight, like a two-year long movie or novel. I loved Legion, its story, its landscapes and its characters. But now we’re moving on to new horizons. I’m more than ready to be part of that.

Goodbye to WoD… Hello to Legion

I haven’t written many blog posts during the course of Warlords of Draenor – not because I haven’t wanted to or have had no interest – but I’ve been much busier the past couple of years, which has left less time for writing posts. And what free time I did have I wanted to spend playing WoW rather than writing about it.

However, as WoD is now drawing to a close and the new expansion Legion is upon us tomorrow evening, I thought I should say at least something about my experiences of WoD. A lot of people talked long and loud on forums and blogs about their disappointment in this expansion, how it was cut short, seemed rushed, lacked content, and confined people to their garrisons to slog away in the mines and fields, or send followers out on endless missions, while not doing much out in the field themselves. Some thought that players had been short-changed. While I see what they were getting at, I still think WoD had a lot going for it, and I had plenty to do in game right up until the end – mostly thanks the prepatch content. Some months ago, I had one break for a few weeks to work on my dimensions in Rift, but that was it. And after all the disappointment and shenanigans that were going on in Rift, I was grateful to return to WoW. I think if more of the complainers spent time playing other MMOs they’d see which side their bread was buttered. WoW is still the best as far as I’m concerned and whatever complaints can be made against Blizzard they seem like saints in comparison to some other developers out there.

It was clear that WoD was a victim of Blizzard’s aim to try and push expansions out quicker. Some content was cut to facilitate a speedier release, which was a shame. I’d have loved to explore the Farahlon zone (the Draenor version of Netherstorm in Outland), which didn’t make it into the final version of the expac. But it seems the developers realise now that their aim wasn’t very realistic and it’s better to keep an expansion going longer, but with regular additional content, rather than cut corners to bring out new expansions at a faster rate. That said though, the zones of WoD were all pretty amazing and the questing was perhaps the best ever in WoW. The story-line was engaging, and players interacted more fully with ‘famous’ NPCs in the game. You felt part of the story, and I found myself reading more quest text than I’ve ever done. But once all the alts were levelled and done with questing, and had been geared up either through garrison missions or doing LFR, the game began to wind down for me. I have one main raiding character in the guild team, and it wasn’t fun being stuck with him in the same raid for so long. I reached the point where the prospect of Hellfire Citadel every week filled me with weary dread. I was absolutely sick of the sight of the place, was on first name terms with all the mobs, and had a loyalty card. I thought I actually wanted to give up raiding altogether, I was so bored with it. But now I’m looking forward to new challenges and my interest has revived.

One thing that was good about the extended raiding of HFC was that our guild raid team progressed further than they ever have. We finished the raid on Heroic while it was current. That was a first for us. We’re not really a Heroic raiding guild, but were willing to give it a go, since we’d done everything else and wanted to keep our two weekly raiding nights going. Everyone got their flying moose mounts, from killing Archimonde on heroic, which we really hadn’t expected to get for the team. In fact, some of us (mount collectors) got our heroic kill with another guild who were offering free places in their team for people wanting the mount. This was quite some time ago, as we were so sure our team wouldn’t be able to kill an end boss on heroic difficulty. But happily, we were wrong.

As for the garrisons, I really enjoyed them, but by the end of the expansion I was getting tired of the compulsion to log all of my alts on every day to fulfil the irresistible gold missions. No one was forcing me to do that, but – like many other players – I felt I should make the best of all that gold while it was there, in case income in Legion isn’t anywhere near as lucrative as it’s been in WoD. However, while part of me was sad when Blizzard removed all the garrison gold missions with the prepatch for Legion, another part of me was greatly relieved. My alts were freed from the slavery of earning wages and could go out and camp rares, and generally have more fun than being cooped up in their garrisons. The idea of garrisons was great, but when you have an army of alts, as many players do now after over a decade of playing WoW, the maintenance became a huge chore. I loved the bodyguards, which protected my squishy cloth-wearing characters, and I loved all the powerful gear I could get from missions, which saw my alt army better dressed than they’ve ever been. I also liked having my own little town, watching the NPCs going about their business, interacting with each other, even sometimes falling out. I simply think the implementation needed to be slightly different, more streamlined for players who have multiple characters.

One of Blizzard’s main problems, I think, is that they feel they have to conceal truth from players. I don’t believe this is because they want to be underhand – it’s because player reactions to changes can be extreme and often hostile. Players can also fly into tantrums when things appear ‘promised’ to them, but then Blizzard – for whatever reasons – are unable to deliver. This has no doubt led to the company thinking it’s better to keep players in the dark about developments rather than risk the hue and cry that arises on forums when controversial decisions and changes are made. But the silence, and what is perceived as misinformation, can appear secretive and deceptive, as if the developers are conniving to deceive and annoy the players. For example, when adjustments to characters classes are made, in an effort to keep the game fresh and new, some players feel that Blizzard deliberately want to destroy their class, just to upset them and because they can. Change for the sake of change. This is obviously not at all the case, but the developers’ lack of transparency gives rise to these disgruntlements. I’m sure that WoD’s deficiencies weren’t just down to a rushed expansion, but also other factors – perhaps a radical change of personnel, as many people left the company round about the same time, and perhaps other factors we can’t even guess at. But it’s not sensible business policy to share sensitive inside information with customers. So players speculate, add 2 and 2 and get 5, usually a dark foreboding 5 from the dark side of reality. There’s not really any way round this. I think there’ll always be a volatile relationship between the developers and a certain segment of the player base.

One thing I do think was a huge mistake was the ‘no flying’ affair, or perhaps we should call it Flightgate. Mid-way through WoD, when we were all expecting to gain flight again near the end of the expansion, Blizzard announced they wanted to disable flying completely from WoD forward. It would still be allowed in older areas of the game, but not in new expansions. This announcement was met with a huge display of outrage from the players. I was one of the outraged players. I didn’t buy the excuse of ‘immersion’ and how it’s better to keep to the ground, even when you’ve played the whole expansion through the hard way, and fight every annoying little mob while questing, gathering materials for crafting or digging for the Archaeology profession. Neither is it fun, on your 3rd alt onwards, to have to go the slow and long way to everywhere and everything. I have no objections whatsoever to playing through the game once from a worm’s eye view, but after that it’s just annoying. Neither do I mind having to work to regain flying later in an expansion – that’s just another part of the game. But no, the decree was that flying henceforth would not be allowed. If everyone just had one character, maybe removing flying wouldn’t be as bad, but to take away such a huge quality of life facility was just insane. As I said earlier, most players have multiple alts now. I have around two dozen. Can you imagine levelling while ground-travelling everywhere on all of those? Shudder. Sometimes you have to trek a long distance to various activities in the game, and the ‘taxis’, especially in the old world, are really slow and take far too long. The world of WoW is enormous now. Players would suffer equally enormously if flying had been taken away. There’s also the fact that people had collected a lot of flying mounts, and in some cases paid real money for them. They are on the whole very beautiful mounts and it’s enjoyable to fly around on them. Fortunately, Blizzard relented over that decision. I was really relieved they did. But dear gods there were a few weeks of high drama over that issue!

Now onto the pre-patch for Legion. I think this event and what it offered players was done really well. It was great to give everyone the opportunity to level their characters’ gear up to 700 so that most would go into Legion fully equipped for their initial questing in the Broken Isles. Also, the experience gained from the demonic invasions was fantastic for levelling up any lowly alts you might have had languishing on the backwaters of your realm for years. I levelled up two new characters in a few days, one from scratch and one from level 12, and both are fully geared ready for Legion. For those who’d preordered Legion, we were given access to Demon Hunters, the new class. I made one for Horde and one for Alliance and really enjoyed their starting area and the way they play. The scenarios introducing the plot for the new expansion were dramatic and exciting. Once again you feel fully engaged with the story. THIS is immersion – not just riding around immense mountain ranges on a ground mount!

There’s no doubt that Legion will be a ‘player’s expansion’. Blizzard is giving us things we’ve wanted for years – Demon Hunters probably being the prime example. The most loved raid in the game – Karazhan – is being given a new lease of life without destroying its beloved original form. It’s to become a 5 man dungeon without being cropped or redeveloped. I was sad when, in previous expacs, old dungeons like Sunken Temple and Scholomance were gutted to become quick 5 mans, losing half of their antiquated charm. I disliked the chopping up of Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman too, and think – like with Kara – Blizzard should have kept the original old raids as well as adding the new 5 mans. If only all those mangled old dungeons and raids could be brought back. A lot of players are really into WoW nostalgia, and I think few would complain if they returned.

Anyway, that’s all for now. There’s a lot more I could say but… I have a Death Knight and a Rogue who are still lacking a couple of weapons from the invasions, and I want to get those before tomorrow. Can’t wait for Legion!

Warcraft Movie Musings

Games turned into movies rarely work. The evidence is there to see, in shudderingly weak examples – ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’, ‘Super Mario Bros’, ‘Prince of Persia’ and so on. (‘Silent Hill’ I rather enjoyed, though.) As a long-time player of World of Warcraft – a veteran of Classic WoW in fact – I was intrigued to discover how the world of Azeroth would translate into film.

The lore of WoW is notoriously convoluted. The story-tellers at Blizzard Entertainment have shamelessly plundered a variety of mythologies over the years in order to build the history of their world. You can spot influences from Lovecraft, Norse Myth, Egyptian Myth, Native American culture, to name but a few. It goes without saying some of the races – Orcs, Dwarves and Elves, for example – can also be found in Tolkien’s work. But Tolkien didn’t invent these creatures. A lot of his ideas came from mythology too. But naturally, because Lord of the Rings is the iconic story of these mythical races – many people know more about LOTR than they do about the source material – any creative endeavour that loots the same sources will inevitably be regarded as somewhat plagiaristic. I’ve never thought this particularly fair.

The lore of WoW has always interested me, simply because it’s so well fleshed out – it’s detailed enough to rival Tolkien’s world-building, even down to the creation of languages. As a story-teller myself I enjoyed that part of the game and became immersed in it. A few of my own stories were inspired by my experiences in Azeroth. I knew that a WoW movie had long been a dream for Blizzard, and several directors had, over the years, been associated with it, but the project never took off. When I read that Duncan Jones had taken up the sword, I felt instinctively that this time it would happen. I’d enjoyed his two previous films – ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’ – and when it became clear he was also a fan of WoW, who wanted to do the lore justice, my optimism increased. Was it wisely placed? For me, yes.

I cannot honestly say if people who aren’t aware of the lore will find it as satisfying as I did, but I think those who love fantasy will enjoy it regardless. The advantage the LOTR movies had was that a large percentage of viewers had read the books and were aware – at least to some degree – of Middle Earth’s history. It was part of popular culture. And while WoW is undeniably the most popular MMO ever created, its audience is somewhat niche in comparison to Tolkien’s books. I hope to go and see Warcraft again in the cinema, with friends who don’t play the game and get their opinions, but from what I’ve heard from other players, their non-WoW friends really enjoyed the film.

When I first saw ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, I became so immersed in Middle Earth that when the film was over I remained in a daze for the journey home from the cinema. I had a similar feeling with ‘Warcraft’. I was unaware of the passing of time, and was so completely in Azeroth, I was somewhat stunned when suddenly it was all over and the end credits were scrolling on screen. Part of the pleasure, of course, was seeing familiar places created, as if for real. It was like watching a film of a country in which I had spent a lot of time and remembered fondly. I had ridden down those forest paths, flown over those deserts. I had walked through the city of Stormwind and visited the keep. I had met Llane Wrynn’s son Varian, and Varian’s son Anduin, (named of course after Anduin Lothar who appears in the film). I had worked for and with the mage Khadgar, and had explored the haunted ruins of Karazhan, where once Medivh had worked his magic. I had even fought and killed Moroes, the undead steward of Karazhan, many many times. (Poor old bugger! As if he hasn’t suffered enough.)  I had lived for a couple of years in the flying city of Dalaran. I had gone back in time with Khadgar and other lore figures to an alternate Draenor and befriended Durotan and Draka and their clan, fought with them to vanquish Guldan and defeat the Iron Horde. Back in ‘real time Azeroth’, I had helped the shaman Go’el (or Thrall as he became known), the son of Durotan, fend off deadly threats. I’ve been doing these things in my leisure time for nearly twelve years. So the film was like home to me and its characters like old friends.

Another thing that worked for me was the fact that Duncan Jones told a balanced story. I had read that previous scripts shown to Blizzard had always centred on the orcs being archetypal baddies, while the humans were the white knights in shining armour, destined to vanquish their bestial enemies. I also read that Blizzard had not been happy with this kind of treatment, because it wasn’t representative of how Azeroth is. In WoW, you can choose your faction and race, and play either for the Horde (led by the orcs) or the Alliance (led by the humans). Neither faction is presented as wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘evil’, although you encounter bad ‘uns on both sides. The factions simply have a different world-view, different aspirations, religions and cultures. You could say that the ‘other side’ is often demonised because of a lack of understanding, or shallow judgements made on physical appearances. Not to be all PC, but there’s an amount of racism involved, although both factions have committed atrocities in the past. I was impressed that Jones intended not to go for the easy route of a run-of-the-mill good vs evil story. Yes, there are nasty characters who have to be overcome, but there is good and bad on both sides. What isn’t highlighted so much in the film, and which is very important in terms of plot, is that the Burning Legion are behind everything, influencing certain characters to further its destructive aims. The Burning Legion is part of the pre-history of Azeroth, interdimensional and demonic, and never up to any good. If there are further films in this series – and I sincerely hope there are – the Legion’s influence will probably become clear. (I can’t imagine the story being furthered without involving this aspect of Azerothian history.)

Because of the depth of the lore, not of all of which could be crammed into a mere couple of hours, some viewers might find the story rather rushed. You are whizzed to Dalaran for only scant minutes, for example – I wanted to see more of it. There could have been further development in the characters’ relationships, but I didn’t feel as if this aspect was sacrificed so that extra fighting scenes could be included, which is often a fault of films, and not just of the fantasy genre. (The material that was left out of ‘Prometheus’ for example, and the excessively long fight scenes – argh! And no director’s cut yet where the interesting stuff is put back in.) There just wasn’t enough time in Warcraft for everything. If there is a director’s cut – and there really should be – I’m hoping more detail will be added to flesh the story out.

As for the casting, I didn’t feel any of it was jarring. If I were to pick nits I suppose I could say Khadgar was the least how I imagine him – really didn’t like that facial hair, but that’s subjective – but the rest were spot on. (Khadgar, in the game, is probably what you’d refer to as a ‘silver fox’, but of course he had to grow into that.) I’ve read negative reviews that have scorned some of the performances, but I was never jerked out of the story by bad acting. All seemed convincing to me. The mo-cap CGI of the orc characters was particularly believable – after a few minutes I forgot they weren’t real, because they looked real to me. The landscapes were awesome too. There was humour and sadness in the tale, and the plot didn’t shy away from the consequences of war. I won’t go into the actual plot in detail because – well, just go and see the film – but the initial premise is that the orcs seek a new home after their world dies. Starving and homeless, they travel through a magically-conjured Dark Portal to Azeroth as refugees and, as we know in reality, masses of refugees turning up often initiates conflict and prejudice, never mind when they look like orcs. But even the orcs don’t know the motives that really lie behind the warlock Guldan’s choice of destination. They are soon to find out – painfully – as do the original inhabitants of Azeroth. Only through alliance can the diverse races hope to survive.

The negative reviews are disappointing, but I think a lot of them can be down to three things in particular. One, some people were determined to hate the film whatever it was like. Two, some reviewers dislike this genre of film anyway and review it dismissively without really giving it a fair chance. Three, Duncan Jones always had that mountain before him of previous film adaptations of games. Some people won’t even bother going to see Warcraft because of that. All in all, this is a great shame. Warcraft is beautifully-made, engaging and well-told, head and shoulders above other films of its kind. People who don’t like fantasy films probably won’t warm to it – I can’t see it changing their opinion of the genre. But those who enjoy being transported into fantasy worlds will be entertained. I just hope the negative reviews don’t affect the possibility of Azeroth’s story being continued. I can’t wait to see Illidan and Arthas on the big screen. I am so prepared.*

*Obligatory WoW in-joke.

 

 

As the content drought in WoW stretches towards a summer wasteland, I was interested to hear about a new MMO that’s just been released. Players in its Beta have been praising it online for ages. As I’ve virtually run out of things to do in WoW until Legion (which hopefully will be sooner rather than later) I thought I’d give this new Black Desert a go. It’s a ‘buy to play’ title, and because of the unctuous praise it’s received, I thought I might as well splash out and buy one of the launch bundles. I envisaged I’d be playing it throughout the summer. The game was advertised – and reviewed – as the ‘new generation’ of MMOs. But sadly, if that’s the case, it looks to me as if the genre is moving backward.

When I play a new MMORPG, I like to be able to pick up the basics fairly quickly. Most I’ve played share a syntax, in that components of their User Interfaces share common elements, so that you know pretty much from the start how to move your character, how to use combat skills, how to access your inventory and so on. Obviously, there are differences between games, but not generally to the extent where you can’t work things out and get into playing straight away. Usually there are good tutorials to help with that too. Whenever I’ve run into an MMO whose UI feels utterly alien to me, and/or the tutorial aspect is lacking, it’s put me off playing. I want the way I operate my characters and interact with the game to feel instinctive, not baffling. Black Desert is absolutely baffling – not just to me but to several other members of my WoW guild who are currently trying to play it.

OK, I accept my own prejudices concerning how I like to play are colouring my views of this game, and it is – I understand – typically Korean in the way it operates. Many players who are currently raving about it online are probably already familiar with that style. But to me Black Desert lacks that familiar syntax I look for in a game, which allows me to immerse myself quickly. The complication of learning completely new systems interferes with that immersion. I feel annoyed at having bought this game, purely on the recommendations of gushing reviews, most of which showed videos of characters in combat within the visually stunning world, and slavered over the character customisation. What wasn’t so obvious in these reviews was how you actually play. If I’d been in the Beta to try the game out for myself, I’d never have bought it. Usually, you can trust reviews that come out of a game’s Beta to at least warn people about the downsides. Perhaps I looked at the wrong reviews.

The default mode of character movement is to use the keyboard – I personally prefer using a mouse for that. The default mode of combat is using the keyboard too, but not through the number keys as in most other MMOs. You might have to use – for example – the F key in combination with the left or right mouse button, or with Shift as well. It often also involves memorising a longer series of ‘combo’ button pressing. I’m used to having quick and easy action bars to access combat skills, which are numbered 1 to 10 and can be activated either by a number key button or the mouse. In BD, you can, to a degree, change the UI so that you can move with the mouse, but it’s clunky. Also, you *can* have a basic action bar of 10 slots, but some skills can’t actually be put on it at all. I had to read several web pages to discover how to put *any* skills on this apparently grudgingly-provided bar, and then discovered that there is a ‘mana tax’ for using it rather than the main key combos. Another MMO I played, Aion, uses skill combos, but much more elegantly, and you learn how to get the best from them as you level and acquire new skills. The combos are baked into the key strokes and don’t require any memorising. In Black Desert you get loaded with new skills that require memorising different key sequences almost from the start. There are only two quests that teach you some basic moves, and there is a pop up video you can elect to have on screen that shows the key sequences. But having to peer repeatedly at this while fighting isn’t good. OK, you’ll learn the sequences eventually but really… why? Just seems needlessly complicated and adds nothing to the common combat mechanics found in other games. The combat system owes more to Street Fighter than to games like World of Warcraft. On top of all this, you have to use the Tab key to swap in and out of combat mode, which is often annoying when you find yourself in the wrong stance, chucking fireballs at a hapless NPC merchant. You have to hit the CTRL key to gain control of your mouse, which you need to do so you can click on elements of the UI. Normally, the mouse only swings the camera about. Again annoying when you have to keep doing it, because camera mode swings back into action constantly. You have to use R to interact with anything. I prefer to use the mouse to click on NPCs, loot, mobs, gathering nodes and so on. I don’t like that combat and interaction with the world are what amounts to different stances, and you can’t do them simultaneously. Constant swapping just becomes a tiresome chore and if you’re the kind of player who prefers always to use the keyboard to move, you’ll no doubt get sick of finding yourself flailing around wildly with your weapon instead of walking up the road.

I suppose that with determination I’d get over this unfamiliar way to play so it would become as instinctive as how I play WoW, Rift, Guild Wars, Aion, Wildstar and others. (Tera I couldn’t bear for the same reason I find BD difficult.) But for me, BD’s failings aren’t just down to combat, movement and interaction. The game simply isn’t newbie friendly. Economy and commerce are a huge part of the game, and very complex, (which will undoubtedly keep the game fresh for a long time for those who master these aspects), but it’s all gobbledegook to me. I’ve only just worked out how to get my horse in and out of a stable and to ride it. I got this mount as part of the bundle I bought, but have little idea how you get a horse otherwise, other than you have to be level 20 and then start taming them in the wild, or something. (That might be completely wrong, by the way.) The intricacies of getting more horses, then breeding them to sell, remains an impenetrable mystery, as does the whole ‘become a successful merchant’ feature. I’ve bought a house but it’s not doing anything. I seem to have bought a farm, or am at least renting it, but have no idea what to do with it now. Workers are mentioned, but I don’t know how to hire them. There are crafting professions but I’ve not found out how to learn them yet. You can apparently build boats, and have trading caravans… somehow. There are different currencies, and a core mini-game to do with earning good reputation with named NPCs, all of which again have to be studied online if you want to understand them properly. And even then, there’s a huge amount of information to take in. What tutorials do exist in game miss out important tips or else the translation to English isn’t quite right. I think lots of breadcrumb quests would have helped, that led players to learn about how to get a horse and cart and fill it with produce from their farms, and then sell it, along with a quest to find and hire workers, and so on. Nothing in this game flows naturally for me.

The developers seem to take for granted that players will be familiar with the style of play, which of course might well be the common MMO syntax in its country of origin. Other Korean games have been franchised in the West, and generally get a makeover to make them comprehensible to their intended market, but sadly I’m still in the dark about how to access most of BD’s features, and I’ve had it for about three weeks now. The difficulty of finding out what you’re supposed to do has put me off playing, so therefore I don’t play as much as I normally would with a new title, and consequently I’m not learning it. Vicious circle. Even searching online hasn’t been the greatest help. I’ve found bemused players trying to get information on forums, often to meet with that tiresome scoffing response from ‘expert’ players, who’ve been with it all the way through the Beta, and who scorn anyone who can’t get their head round the arcanery. I can’t see this MMO doing well in the West. People want to get into a game and get on with it as soon as possible, not have to try and find info online every five minutes about its most basic aspects.

Black Desert doesn’t have end game like the majority of other MMOs – there are no raids and dungeons with their enforced gear ladders. I don’t disapprove of this, and do appreciate it offers a new form of character progression – the idea apparently is that you level constantly in such things as trading, riding, farming and so on. As BD would always be my secondary game, (if I could be inspired to play it more), I don’t mind at all being free of the usual end game activities. Trading and becoming a better horse-woman sound pretty good to me for a game I’d play casually. But I can’t get round the way it works. Some people won’t mind, and will no doubt consider my criticisms trivial, if not misguided, but given the amount of other players we’ve noticed floundering around in the game, I wonder how many will feel like me and simply write off bitterly the cost of buying it.

As for the acclaimed character customisation, while you do get a lot of it in some respects, in others it’s limited. (Aion, I think, still holds the crown for having the best character creation in any MMO I’ve tried.) Classes are restricted to one gender, and one class is the obligatory Anime schoolgirl type, which, with a fair amount of tweaking on the character creation screen, you can just about change enough so she doesn’t look too disturbing. Who plays these deliberately provocative ‘little girl’ characters anyway? I always find them very creepy, if not downright perverted. One of the NPC races in the game is comprised of what look like tiny children, who may or may not really be adults – haven’t worked it out yet – but I found one with facial hair that was quite… odd. I know this sort of thing is common in Far Eastern RPGs, and it’s clearly a cultural thing, but I don’t think it translates well beyond their home countries, and I’m not the only female player who finds the idea of scantily-clad, pre-pubescent girl characters with their knickers showing somewhat repellent. But the downsides of the characters are a minor gripe in comparison to the rest of the game.

To be fair, BD does have a ton of features and activities within it, and the world itself is beautifully designed. I understand it’s huge too, although I’ve barely left the starter area. Because I spent money on it, I’ll persist with trying to learn it for a while longer. I don’t want that money to have been wasted. But I’m disappointed with the lack of guidance. Even its most newbie-hostile aspects could have been tolerable if the tutorials had been thorough and well-written. I’m not averse to trying games that do things differently, but only if I’m given clear instructions on how to play. Black Desert just doesn’t do that for me. At least it wasn’t marketed as a ‘WoW killer’ like other MMOs, because it certainly isn’t. It’s ‘buy to play’ at the moment, with a cash shop, and maybe if it goes ‘free to play’ it’d be worth giving a try. All I can say now is don’t waste your money, unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time getting to grips with the Korean style of playing, or are already au fait with it.

Whenever I return to the subject of raiding in WoW, I’m aware there are always echoes of previous posts, concerning earlier raid tiers, if not downright broken record syndrome! Some things Blizzard get absolutely right and improve upon, but some things, even if hidden within greater things, persist as flaws.

One thing has to be said, despite what the rose-tinted goggle-wearing, Vanilla-nostalgia crowd might attest: raiding as a group activity has become progressively more difficult. Blizzard constantly has to provide exciting new fights, with mechanics rarely, if ever, seen before, to keep things interesting. Also, player skill is considerably greater than it was 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, so fights also have to be tailored for this, again to keep the encounters engaging and satisfying. Nobody except the dimmest LFR jockey wants raiding to be face-rollingly easy, otherwise – what’s the point? Raid bosses are puzzles designed by Blizzard developers that we, the players, set ourselves to solve. It’s as simple as that.

However, as once again our team has fetched up against an absolute wall of a boss, in this case Gorefiend in Hellfire Citadel, it’s struck me that Blizzard always does this – plonks an overtuned boss near the start of a raid. The effect this has on teams can be catastrophic. End bosses you expect to be difficult, they are the Big Bads of the raid, but surely bosses should build in difficulty, allowing teams to gear up as they progress, so they are better prepared to tackle the harder fights? I remember Horridon in Throne of Thunder – dear gods! Second boss into the raid and an absolute nightmare. Our team splintered over that. Many dropped out because of low morale and sheer frustration and boredom. Eventually, thanks to an influx of new members, we overcame Horridon, but at the time I thought he was far too difficult for a second boss, and I still think that. There have been others – Garalon in Heart of Fear being another example. Gorefiend is the same. He is the roadblock that teams have to take down to get to easier bosses deeper into the raid. It’s plain silly. You’ve got five potential farm bosses before him on which to gear up your team, but only one tier piece, since Gorefiend drops the second one. And only five bosses that players still needing the legendary ring can farm for the Tomes of Chaos they need. (Some of our players flatly refuse to partake in LFR, even for their rings.)

I’m not talking about Heroic or Mythic level of raiding – simply Normal. As with most teams who tackle this content, we can’t field a bunch of experts every raid. Even in teams that raid at higher level, you get a mixed bag of players – some excellent and some good to ok. In some teams, (more so at Normal difficulty, I assume), you even get fairly inept players, because they are friends or family, or simply because they’re a bum on a seat that means the raid can go ahead because of numbers. Gorefiend does not tolerate such players. Not only does the fight demand perfect execution against a lot of his abilities, but there is also a high amount of RNG involved – random factors that sometimes players have no control over. You can mitigate the damage from such situations by thinking ahead and using initiative learned over nearly a decade of raiding, but even so, players have to be on their toes at all times. That’s fine if you have a team of veteran raiders who are used to such things, but people newer to the game and wishing to learn suffer for it. Not to mention the teams who accommodate them.

Players do not generally learn how to raid at Heroic level or higher – they learn at Normal level. This is partly why I wonder what happened to what was once Flex mode. When this was brought in during Mists of Pandaria, it was an absolute gift to guilds like ours. One step up from LFR difficulty, and perfect for practice. Not only could we take a varying number of players, but the fights themselves were tuned forgivingly. We blithely assumed that in future we could learn fights – and train up new players – through Flex mode, and progress to what was then Heroic, giving us, in fact, more content to play through. We started doing this in Siege of Orgrimmar at the end of the expansion, and looked forward greatly to the new raids in Warlords of Draenor.

The first WOD raid, Highmaul, was fairly easy, with a middling-challenge of an end boss in Imperator Margok. He always felt ‘doable’ even when we were wiping on him. Then we hit Blackrock Foundry and met Oregorger, and the Blast Furnace… and some of their friends. The step up in difficulty seemed large to me, and it felt like we were back on the pre-Flex level of raiding. Moving into Hellfire Citadel confirmed it. While the first bosses were again fairly easy, which is what you should expect at the start of a raid, so that players can have them on farm to gear up a bit, bosses like Gorefiend are nowhere near what the bosses of Siege of Orgrimmar were like. This seems like Throne of Thunder difficulty – not the Flex which we were told is now the new Normal. It isn’t. I don’t know why Blizzard changed their minds on this. It seemed clear they wanted to encourage LFR players to learn the game properly, and Flex was introduced to help them with that, to progress from the farces that are LFR raids. But it seems to me that we’ve simply gone back to how things were pre-Flex. Difficult, then more difficult, and now, with the introduction of Mythic raiding, insanely difficult. We’ve also noticed that all fights are easier on Normal with around 15 players. If you only have 10 in the team (and this is often the case for us), it’s far tougher. While the bosses’ health pools scale in accordance with the number of players in a team, this doesn’t seem to affect positively the difficulty of the fight for a smaller team.

The officers of our guild have read forums about Gorefiend, discovering that he’s seen as a problem at all difficulties of raiding. One poster advised that no team should expect to take him down in fewer than 50 pulls. Others have gone well into the 100s in their attempts to conquer him. I think we’re at about the mid 40s in our number of attempts. We keep finding new strategies to try, and trust that eventually we’ll have the sublime ‘Eureka!’ moment that tends to happen on difficult bosses, when suddenly we can kill him, enabling us to move on within the raid. I don’t mind the puzzles, and enjoy solving them, but as a raid leader and officer, you can just sense when things are going on for too long and your players are starting to get disheartened and are losing interest. I really hope the two new techniques we’re going to try tonight will help matters. It’s not just kills that raise morale. I find that teams are happy to keep plugging away at a boss for weeks if they can only perceive progress. You can feel you’re inching towards a kill, and that’s fine – it’s what raiding is all about. But, the opposite, no progress, is vile and really bad for teams. People just feel like giving up, because they’re swamped by hopelessness.

That said, our team has made fairly steady progress on Gorefiend, depending on which players we have with us. The fact remains that when HFC began, we got 5 bosses down in about six weeks, but we’ve now been on Gorefiend for another six weeks or so. No new kill since early August. That’s not good. Our best pull on Gorefiend has got him to around 33%. Prior to that we were failing at 60% and above. But on some nights, it feels like we’re back at square one, usually because we’ve had a change in the team makeup, because some of our best players are on shift at work, and new faces come along. This lack of consistency does nothing to aid progress, but it’s a fact of life for guilds of mature players who have jobs and families. Three of our best players work shifts – and that’s a lot in a team of our size. Everyone still loves raiding, but often they don’t have the hours that a young person with fewer commitments can put in. With WoW now being ten years old, we can assume many of its players have far more commitments than they did when they first made their accounts.

To finish, I wish that Blizzard would think carefully about the raids in Legion, and once again have the different difficulties tuned for different types of teams. Perhaps they should be tested by a wider range of players than the hardcore ones who take their teams into Beta. You know, ordinary players, the majority? I don’t want faceroll raids, but neither do I want this horrible feeling of hopelessness. There is a happy medium. We once had it.

While WoW is the game I play the most, I also dabble in Rift – less so since WoD as I’m kept busy in WoW with what game time I have. I’ve kept visiting Telara, the world of Rift, over the past six months; tinkering about because I do love the atmosphere of that world. Nightmare Tide, Rift’s latest xpac, came out a short while before WoD, so I played it pretty relentlessly during the weeks I was waiting for WoW’s new xpac to hit, knowing I wouldn’t be spending as much time in Telara thereafter. I didn’t manage to get a character to level cap in that time, but recently – having levelled nearly all of my 20 Nordrassil WoW characters to 100, and a bit quested out with Draenor – thought I’d grind out the last two levels on my main in Rift with the benefit of some hefty experience potions.

One thing that struck me when I went back to Rift to level was that I didn’t feel as immersed in the game world as I do in WoW. I think this is partly down to the nature of the Nightmare Tide xpac – we were carted off to the dimension of Water to help out with various calamities, but our faction leaders and familiar figures from Telara didn’t come to fight alongside us or appear constantly as such figures do in WoD. Consequently, you feel sort of isolated from the main world. In WoW, we have a lot of well known figures from Azeroth making the journey with us to Draenor – some of them lose their lives for it – but as a Defiant player in Rift, I missed those old faces, such as Asha Catari and The Faceless Man. It didn’t feel like the faction was doing anything *together*. The new races in the Plane of Water don’t appeal to me that much. The mermaids are cool, and so is the strange aquatic beast, Fenric, who isn’t quite what they appear, (that character is probably the best), but there isn’t much characterisation otherwise. Fenric is the only NPC who travels with you throughout the story, changing and growing themselves, much as Yrel does in WoD. But Fenric is a one off. The ruling class in Draumheim, the major city hub, are all bonkers, living in hallucinations and delirium, and their madness started getting on my nerves rather than amusing me. I didn’t warm to any of them. The baddies are just out and out baddies, generic RPG almost, spouting clichéd lines and lacking the nuances of the Draenor warlords, with their distinct characters.

I also missed the levelling experience of WoD. We take so much for granted in WoW. Rift sometimes seems like the retirement home of all the disaffected WoW players who complained WoW was too easy. Levelling in Rift isn’t. Yes, you can pick your way around carefully and not get into too much trouble, but much of it seems geared towards group play – even during questing. You can’t just plough in and take on multiple mobs and expect to emerge unscathed. With questing gear alone it takes a while to kill things and while mobs aren’t as sensitive as they were in earlier days of Rift, they still get annoyed with you at a fair distance. You often have to search for quest objectives that might be in difficult to reach places; constant lengthy fights with irrelevant mobs gets tiresome after a while. Even without flying (and regular readers of this blog will know my feelings on that!), levelling in WoD was – and is – fluid and satisfying. You don’t get stuck in bottlenecks of difficulty where you can’t progress alone. In a game of this type, I think that’s the way levelling should be, an interesting, colourful journey – save the hard stuff for level cap.

So, going back to Rift has made me appreciate WoW more. I realised how much of WoD I like. One thing I’m utterly satisfied with is the garrisons and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get something similar in the next xpac. But I can’t help thinking that due to the fact a lot of players seem to dislike garrisons, Blizzard might possibly jettison them, rather than tweak them carefully to iron out their weaknesses. Such is Blizzard’s usual response – go to extremes. For me, garrisons have enabled my army of alts to have purpose again. The follower missions are great for getting them gear, so it’s possible to raid with them, with premade groups, not just LFR. My warlock and mage are both around the 660 ilevel mark, with others not far behind. I like the fact that if I haven’t got time to go out farming for mats, (without flying, a vile chore), I can just send the alts round their mines and herb gardens for a while, gathering enough to support those who need mats for their professions. The only farming I tend to put off, even when it’s needed, is trapping beasts for my barns – one each on Horde and Alliance. That’s a chore, because we have to taxi to Nagrand for it, and with some classes those elite wolves must be pretty annoying, as they pack a punch. I have Hunters for both barns, which makes the job easy enough, but even so, lengthy. It’s fine for passing the time when I’m in a queue for group content, but that’s about it.

Prior to WoD, I’ve always had my two mains, a Druid healer and a Hunter, who’ve stepped in to work as our raid team required them. I’ve had a couple of tanks, who are not needed at the moment, so would, but for WoD, be languishing doing nothing. My next two characters – semi main – were the warlock and the mage, but often they didn’t get much to do, if anything. Now, with the boost of follower missions, it’s possible to have multiple characters capable of end game. I can pick and choose which ones I’ll do LFR with each week – there’s no rush after all . These occasional visits help augment their gear. If there’s ever a situation where we need one of these classes present in our raid team, I have a fairly decent character waiting in the wings, who can be brought up to scratch without too much effort. With my mains, at present I’m healing in our guild raid team exclusively, but have kept my Hunter pretty much on par, should I need to swap to him at any point. I adore this flexibility, which we’ve never had to this extent before. Other guild members have also got a couple or more characters at a decent level, which helps with team formation when members fluctuate. Blizzard have got this aspect just right. Small and medium sized guilds need this flexibility, and the ability to gear up a character to an acceptable level pretty quickly in a personnel emergency is great.

Going back to garrisons, another thing I love about them is the followers themselves. If you bother to ask one to help when you’re defending a garrison invasion, some of them have cool animations and spell effects, as well as great-looking armour and weapons. A friend of mine had the gnome warlock Ranni Flagdabble along the other night when I went to help him with a garrison invasion, and this little gnome spontaneously erupted into a huge demon form to fight. I also particularly like the priest Rorin Rivershade, and her gorgeous armour has tempted me to brave pvp so I can farm honor points for a similar set for my own priest. (There are a lot of older pvp armour sets on sale for honor at the pvp vendors on Serpent Spine wall in Pandaria, many of which are stunning.)

In a way, Rift has player housing with the dimensions, but those buildings you create, and the landscapes you can transform, are empty. There are no NPCs, so they’re like ghost towns, as if everyone has just left. Rift players who are into dimensions plead for some life in the form of critters and humanoid NPCs, but Trion don’t seem keen to devote time and resources to granting that wish. In WoW, we have life in abundance in our garrisons. When all your followers are at home, the garrisons are busy and full of residents. Nor are they just static – they appear to be getting on with their lives, talking to one another, wandering about, going for a drink in the inn… Rift dimension addicts would kill for that!

I’ll really miss my followers when we leave Draenor. They’ve become as familiar as my actual characters and I enjoy seeing them mooching about the garrison. I came across two having a row the other day, and one of them burst into tears as I passed by. I wondered what they were arguing about! I like the way Blizzard has made an effort to give these 100s of NPCs their own little character traits. I don’t want to leave mine behind, and would happily take all of them with me into whatever adventures we have next. I wouldn’t mind levelling them up again, in the same way my characters will have to level, perhaps swapping in some new team members now and again, if someone interesting pops up in the inn. But I’m more or less resigned to the fact they’ll remain in Draenor. I can see myself going back to visit them, once they no longer have to work by going out on missions and are always around the garrison.

Another thing I think Blizzard has done really well is the changes to the subsidiary professions. While the crafting professions have become a bit tiresome, Cooking, First Aid and Fishing are now easy to level. It’s possible to get all your alts to top Fishing without too much effort. That has never happened before, mainly because Fishing was such a grind and so time-consuming. Now, it’s a great thing to do (along with barn stocking) when you’re queued for a dungeon or LFR. Passes the time and is very productive (even more so when you have Nat Pagle ensconced in the Fishing Shack). The more proficient fishermen and women can provide the fish for the daily quest for alts, which awards a whopping 15 points, so you can steadily advance everyone’s Fishing level without having to pay too much attention to it. You need *something* to do while you’re queuing, after all. Cooking and First Aid are also mainly levelled by fish, so Fishing helps max them quickly too. I’m still surprised that it’s most likely all of my alts will have top Fishing by the end of the xpac. That’s unheard of! I still think Archaeology needs some work (shudder), and in the next xpac I hope Blizzard makes changes again to the crafting professions, but they shouldn’t touch the subsidiary profs now – they’re perfect as they are.

One thing that most players seem to agree on is that the levelling aspect of WoD is really good. It’s polished – no other word for it – and I really can’t see it can be improved upon. There are shaky areas in the game, which I’ve talked about on this blog, as have many others on their own blogs and on forums, but really when you look at the competition, WoW still deserves its crown. I’m fond of Telara and my characters in Rift, but if you think crafting profs are now grindy in WoW, go there for a bit. It costs a fortune to level them and they’re really fiddly. All of them. There’s no fast track method to gear up alts, even if crafting materials are easily acquired through minion missions. But those minions are just pictures on a mission Window, they’re not there with you inworld.

I’m not sure Blizzard will ever be able to perfect such aspects of the game as raiding, dailies, class changes, and pvp, since players have so many different requirements, and what pleases one lot of players greatly disgruntles many others. But the aspects that are constant Blizzard generally does well. Crafting, hmm, still needs attention – finding that balance between commitment and result without making it too fast or too slow. As for the story, whether you like the way it’s done or not, there *is* a story, a history, and people within it. It’s not just tacked on as an afterthought.

People tend to look back on earlier days of WoW as some kind of Golden Age, but the improvements to the game and quality of life changes have lifted it miles above its formative years. We just tend to forget all the bad stuff and concentrate fondly on what is perceived as good. I think it’s time we reflected on just what’s so good about WoW *now*. I can remember thinking I’d never get to see places like Black Temple and Serpentshrine Cavern, but now every raid is available to all – at different levels of difficulty. I can remember thinking I’d never be able to afford the faster ground mount in Vanilla. It took me months to grind the gold for the slowest mount. Now, gold comes easily and there is an abundance of mounts – account wide. I won’t go further with the comparisons because it’s old news, but it’s also good to remind ourselves of the changes. WoW is never going to be the perfect game we’d all like, because there are millions of visions of that perfect game. But despite its shortcomings, there’s no doubt: it’s a damn *good* game.

Coda: as Blizzard are renowned for their spectacular pendulum swings, are we looking forward to an xpac that’s flying only? 😉

No one who pays any attention to community forums in WoW could have failed to notice the hue and cry over the fact that Blizzard saw fit to plonk a new mount on the game store yesterday, right after it was announced that subs had dipped by 3 million. Many have seen this move as a cold-hearted effort by the company to claw in some dosh in the face of lost subs. I personally don’t think this is the case, since the mount itself – the Mystic Runesaber – was datamined as long ago as the last patch. It was always destined to be a store mount – simply by the look of it (and that’s another matter) – so *when* it appeared is irrelevant in a way, although it could be said that Blizzard committed a faux pas by releasing it *this* week. Still, if it was a week before or after, or even months, a lot of people would still have shouted that this was a callous attempt to milk money from the remaining player base.

I’m lucky – or some might say stupid – in that I can afford to buy the store mounts when they appear, 2 or 3 times a year. There’s no doubt that these mounts are far flashier than most that appear in the game, and those who can’t afford to buy them for real money have a legitimate reason to be annoyed, or at least disappointed, about that. The new mounts put into WoD itself are pretty poor, aside from the Poundfist (gronnling) and Rukhmar (golden dread raven) drops, which are both very rare. As many have said, why couldn’t store only mounts like the Grinning Reaver and the Iron Skyreaver have been put into the game as rewards for getting exalted with one faction or another? The mounts you currently get for such endeavours are too boring to bother grinding for. There is a precedent for cool mounts in game in the Nether Drakes of Burning Crusade, and the Flameward Hippogryph of Cataclysm. Both required lengthy quest chains and dailies to acquire, but I don’t remember a massive amount of moaning about that.

I have no problem with store mounts in principle, but it’s not good when new mounts provided in the game are so woefully inferior. I’ve often winced at the big, bulky ground mounts, such as yaks, which just scuttle along like poodles. I never ride the ones I bought because of that. The Core Hound was great in that it had a long, slower, but ground-covering stride – exactly how an elekk or yak should move. But the new boars have the undignified scuttle that spoiled many other mounts, including the camels – who should also have had a long, loping gait. In the face of a dearth of content at present, would it really have hurt Blizzard to have put a mount of the Runesaber’s calibre into the game itself – attained through a lengthy quest chain, or a slew of dailies… or something? It would have given bored players something sparkly and desirable to work for. Admittedly, the Blizzard shareholders want their dosh, and store mounts are always a golden goose for the company. However, as a business person myself, in Blizzard’s position, I would have considered providing two distinctly different colours or variations of the Runesaber – one for purchase, one for earning in game. Those with the money and the desire would most likely have bought the store mount anyway, as well as gone for the different coloured one in game. It would have been a win win situation really – those who won’t or can’t buy the store mounts would have been given a pacifier and maybe – just maybe – there would have been less ranting and dissatisfaction.

Sometimes, I’m baffled by Blizzard’s decisions. To my mind, it’s best to keep as many of your customers as happy as you can, even though it’s impossible to please everyone. I wouldn’t continue to rile customers up so much, when obvious solutions are so visible. (Well, I wouldn’t upset customers to that extent in the first place, but then I’m a *small* business, so all my customers are valuable to me.) Certain things get WoW players up in arms, and glossy store mounts is one of those things. Other things, such as changes to classes or talents, are another matter – they have grey areas – but store items are pretty black and white. The fact that Blizzard charge an awful lot for these items is also galling. I can’t help thinking that if they were more generous about the whole issue, making the store mounts cheaper, as well as offering a different but equally attractive alternative in game, it would pour a whole tanker-full of spilled oil onto troubled waters. Those who can’t afford game store mounts, or won’t buy them on principle, would still feel valued as customers, because they could work for an alternative in game. Those who don’t feel that way would buy the new mount as they always do. Mount collectors and fanatics go for all variations of a mount. I know: I’m one of them. Those who would like to buy store mounts but regard them as too expensive would most likely feel the cost was justified – and affordable – if it was £10 or so less. (These mounts are just pixels, they don’t cost much per unit to generate, if anything, beyond the initial design cost.) At a cheaper, fairer price, more store mounts would be bought, more players would find less reason to complain. Why is this such a difficult concept for Blizzard to get their heads round?

I know WoW players can exhibit a ridiculous amount of entitlement, and complain about anything, but sometimes their frustration is justified. I play other MMOs that have game stores, and their prices are far cheaper than Blizzard’s. The sad fact is that it all comes across as Blizzard having contempt for their customers. There is never any generosity. I remember one festival time in Rift – I think it was Yule – when, after an inworld ‘warning’ to alert the players, GMs spontaneously appeared in major cities on all the different servers and literally threw loot pinatas into the air for 10 minutes. Items would just appear in your inventory. People got all sorts of loot, and no one went away empty-handed. Free gifts from Trion, the developers. People were happy and excited. GMs were there among them, their characters visible to everyone, and everyone felt part of something, and valued. It was a small gesture but extremely effective. I could never see Blizzard doing anything like that. OK, their game is far bigger than Rift, and has hundreds more servers across the world, but even so… there are a host of other things they could do if they got their creative heads together and thought about it. Happy customers, who feel valued, are the most important thing to any business, and customers who feel valued will inevitably be less inclined to complain, or indeed abandon the product. Changes Blizzard have to make to the game sometimes will always cause upset, ranting and peevishness. But store items shouldn’t come into that, because ultimately they are not an important part of the game. They might be important in a monetary sense to the company, but they could have their cake and eat it, if they were more accommodating.

I’ve written this piece from the viewpoint of someone who can afford the store mounts and doesn’t object to buying them – but who also sees the downside and unfairness of them. WoW players pay a sub, not like in the free to play games that rely on game stores to exist, so why in WoW should the most shiny things be game store only? I actually felt somewhat nervous getting my new Runesaber out in game last night. I knew that some players I might pass by in Draenor would in some way see my purchase as traitorous, encouraging Blizzard’s meanness and greed, perhaps even to the extent of spitting on my character. It happened with the first store mount, the sparkle pony, which was – and still is – a great mount, but the shine of owning and riding it was diminished by the anger of players that it was a store only item. Some people were kicked from raid groups for wearing the risibly over-priced store helms that came out some time ago. It’s not just because of envy – although that must inevitably play a part – but I think it’s more down to the fact that players feel cheated, or taken for fools. Why pay £10 for a cosmetic helm, when in other games, they cost pence? I worked out that a full transmog set in Rift, including all gear slots, came out at 38 pence per item. £10 for one item? Oh, that’s simply greedy! And players see that, and conclude Blizzard must just think they’re stupid. Game stores obviously can work, but items within them should be balanced with items in game, at least in a sub game.

WoW is the biggest and most successful of MMOs – at least in the West, I can’t speak for the Far East – but the way Blizzard often behave simply comes across as them feeling unassailable, all-powerful, and having a streak of arrogance because of that. My opinion might be completely wrong, but what Blizzard spokespeople say in the face of fierce criticism rarely gives any other perspective.

So, last night, I took my new mount – which flies – out on my Horde DK, who’s only level 78, and flew around Northrend. It’s a beautiful mount, a purple glowing cat, armoured, and with spectral wings, although you’ll only see the best of it in expansions of the game earlier than WoD. I wrote my previous blog post about flying, or lack of in WoD, so I won’t go into that again, but even as I was flying around, admiring my Runesaber, I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been a game reward, not just something you slap on a credit card. How much more sense of accomplishment would I have felt if I’d known I’d just completed a long and difficult quest chain to acquire it?

My last two blog posts have been centred around aspects with which I’m dissatisfied, but I do still love the game and enjoy my time in its virtual world. I don’t want to be a constant moaner, but sometimes you have to let off steam. My next post will have a more positive tone!