Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Strike Teams" - A Substitute for Raids

So I was thinking about SWtoR, and realizing that even if I played it, I probably wouldn't be in for the long-term because of the potential endgame. When it comes to raiding, I'd play WoW. That's Blizzard's wheelhouse, and you should do something different if you want to compete. Plus, a dozen smugglers and a dozen jedi all facing a single sith lord with 1 trillion hp or whatever just wouldn't fit with that world. Han Solo wouldn't be part of an MMO raid.

But if the endgame was just more 5-man stuff, it wouldn't seem like a "serious" game to me. There needs to be some way to step it up at max level, and the option to play with more than a single group should be there. However, building an endgame around 10- or 25-man groups is, frankly, not a good idea, especially considering how scheduled and job-like raiding becomes.

Then I had an idea that would fit perfectly in the Star Wars universe, and could be used in other games as well:

Strike Teams.

Instead of a 10-man raid on a dungeon, you have a pair of 5-man teams that are linked into a Strike Force, with a shared chat channel and some other ui components (scale it up for larger groups). Then, each Strike Team of 5 goes into the dungeon from two different entrances or angles, with two different goals that link together. You are still playing in 5-man groups, but you're also getting a more shared and epic experience akin to raiding.

Let me walk you through an example. I know some of the elements I'm about to describe aren't part of the ToR world, but let's pretend for this example that we are in the time period of the original Star Wars films:

You form a Strike Force out of two Strike Teams: Red and Blue (oh, oh, let us name them in-game!). Blue Team approaches an Imperial Battleship in a millenium-falcon type vehicle pretending to be a cargo delivery. Once in the hangar bay, they begin to take out stormtroopers on their way to disable some of the security measures of the ship. Meanwhile, Red Team sneaks up on the Battleship by hiding behind asteroids, and launches an attack in a set of x-wings just as Blue Team opens fire inside the ship, creating a mutual distraction for each other. Once Blue Team takes out some of the defenses, Red Team boards in a different section of the Battleship and progresses towards the brig to rescue a captured rebel leader. Meanwhile, Blue Team takes out security and creates distractions that help the enemy from noticing Red Team, utilizing constant communication between the teams. As the mission reaches its climax, Blue Team unexpectedly faces down a Sith officer who has appeared to put a stop to their sabotage, while Red Team is pinned against the locked door to a cargo chute that leads down to the hangar bay, fending off wave after wave of security bots while protecting the rebel leader. Once the Sith officer goes down, Blue Team can activate the hatch allowing Red Team to reach them, and both teams escape together on the Millenium Falcon. Perhaps they lay explosives before they leave, leading to a dramatic ending as the teams fly away from the exploding imperial ship.

What do you think?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blood Princes 10-man

This is a Public Service Message:

Blood Princes, the first boss in the blood wing of Icecrown Citadel, is currently buggy in 10-man mode. There have been a torrent of reports of the bugs on the WoW general forums, but no official blue response yet. The bugs boil down to:

  • The bosses seem to be doing the same amount of damage in 10-man as in 25. Obviously, this is a problem when your 25-man group has 6-7 healers and your 10-man group has 2-3.

  • The purple orbs that are supposed to protect your shadow tank from Empowered Shadow Lance are not working as intended. The ESL does around 90k damage unmitigated, but each orb reduces that by roughly half, so with 4 orbs the tank should only take around 11k. I witnessed multiple wipes where a tank with 4 or more took 22k hits, and many others on the forums corroborated this. I verified this both visually and with multiple players' combat logs, on at least 5 different attempts. They aren't working right.

  • You have a 50/50 chance that the shadow boss will become empowered around the time the 3rd shadow orb spawns, making it impossible to have the 4 orbs that would make him safe and healable without big cooldowns.

  • Reports of damage done by the Princes vary. It may be different for different raid groups. Some report very low damage, some incredibly high.

It's clear something is wrong with the tuning of the 10-man version. Many 10-man strict guild especially are reporting problems, while 25-man guilds that overgear the instance tended to be able to beat the encounter, but uniformly found it much more difficult in 10-man compared to 25-man, which I'm pretty sure is not intended. Right now these guys are harder on 10-man than the endwing plague boss Putricide, which isn't intended, especially when they are reportedly a pushover in 25-man mode. We are executing the fight perfectly, and managing the other mechanics without a hitch, but every attempt ends with the shadow tank being insta-gibbed, either with 4+ protective orbs, or before 4 orbs could even spawn.

Lending more credence to this bug are the similar fixed bugs with Marrowgar (doing 25-man damage in 10-man) and Putricide (25-man aoe ticking for 10-man amounts). It looks like they simply did it again. Yet another in a chain of bugs that are stifling progress for 10-man-only guilds like mine.

Hopefully Blizzard will stop worrying about the resilience changes long enough to fix this encounter soon.

UPDATE: Well that was quick! Daelo responds:

Blood Prince Council

  • Prince Keleseth will no longer melee players. So if you get knocked into Keleseth or happen to move by him, he won't swipe in between his casts and kill a non-tank.
  • The first Shadow Resonance should appear earlier in the fight, which will allow the Keleseth tank to have more orbs on him or her if Keleseth is empowered second instead of third. We didn't want which Blood Prince was empowered second to be a major element of the difficulty in the fight.
  • We reduced the melee damage for the Princes by 10% for the 10 player difficulty. They were doing less damage than the 25 player before the hotfix, but this change lowers the damage further.
  • Empowered Flames will now run out of power after shooting fewer firebolts in the 10 player difficulty. We did not change the initial impact damage.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Is gear doing the carrying? And WoW class guides!

Forgive me father, for I am about to be a complete asshole:

A meme has been making the rounds in reference to the performance deficit between players in random heroics. The argument goes thusly:

"Player 1 thinks he is carrying Player 2 because he does twice as much dps. But in reality, it's just his own gear that is carrying Player 1 himself!"

This is wrong on so many levels. The quickest one to note is that tons of people are wearing full tier 9 now and still sucking.

The largest and most onerous problem with the idea of "gear doing the carrying" is that it completely ignores all the time and effort put into getting that gear and optimally gemming and enchanting it. It even ignores the research that goes into getting the right gear. Yes, the stats on the gear do contribute to the performance of the character. But that person put in the time and effort to get the gear and prep it. You can't just consider the gear in a vacuum. MMO's are about time, effort and skill put in to progress your character almost as much as they are about being a good player. If you want a game where all that's considered is skill, play an online shooter. If you want a game where all that's considered is what a nice person you are, play Facebook.

This is why going in ungemmed is so onerous. Leaving out gems will reduce your damage just as much as having a crappy rotation. So both should be reviled.

If you don't gem, you are saying "I care so little about my performance and helping the group that I'm not willing to spend a few gold on the AH before I Q up. Now please use those gems you paid for to make the run go faster for me while I slow you down. And I'm not slowing you down because I'm new, inexperienced, or simply haven't gotten the gear yet (which would be understandable), but simply because I'm cheap and don't give a crap about other people."

If you do not gem, you are a jerk. Plain and simple. You should not have a good self-image.

And I should not have to bother saying that! How far we as a people have fallen that someone actually has to say "please gem your gear"!

At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for new players with suboptimal rotations. Finding the right information is not always easy - oh wait, it is, just go to elitistjerks.com, or any of the million WoW sites and blogs that explain to you step-by-step exactly how to play your character!

I even did the work for you: (you'll never guess how I found these...google!)

Death Knight


You now have no excuse.

Or is there something I'm missing that makes reading things on the internet just too hard to bear?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Games that are Metal: Darksiders

This guy is a horseman of the apocalypse from the recent beat-em-up Darksiders. Check this mutha out:

He's like some grunge-loving The Crow fan's fever dream (read: I would love to look like this IRL). Not much of a surprise, because the awesome artist Joe Madureira also drew the X-men in the mid-90's.

This is the first image that comes up when you google his name:


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Blue Post: Random is Not Random

Some nice insight into how the Dungeon-o-matic 5000 works. Might shed some more light on my Oculus rants. Courtesy of Zaryhm:

"No, it's not random. There are some loose gear checks and gear matching systems in place. The Dungeon Finder weights dungeons you've already run a little lower, but then also looks at who is in the queue, what they are in the queue for, and tries to figure out the quickest way to get you inside a dungeon. It's a fairly complicated algorithm that isn't trivial, took a good deal of time to develop, and we're happy with the way it's turned out. Ultimately, it's getting players in dungeons with minimal wait times, but it's not completely random."

I'm on Twitter now, and the "controversy" of Spitfires' guest post on Matticus

So yeah, now that I got a new smartphone that I brag about at every opportunity, I've joined the 2008 and started twatting. You can follow me on Twitter:


I always poo-poo'd Twitter, but I'm discovering that you miss out on a lot of the interwebs conversation if you aren't there. For instance, I saw an intriguing twoot by prominent WoW blogger Matticus this morning:

matticus I sealed off that "controversial" guest post on my blog. Tired of moderating shit and tired of being accused I do stuff "for the hits".

The guest post he is referring to was by We Fly Spitfires, and it was indeed controversial. It was titled: "Tanks and Healers Should Get the Biggest Rewards". And boy, am I sad that there is controversy over that statement. Of course they should get some extra reward, because when compared to DPS, they are in higher demand, have more responsibility and harder jobs, and are really the crux of the group. Which is basically what Spitfires said.

I say this as a DPS who will top anyone but Jong on the meters while not pulling aggro or breaking CC or standing in bad shit, while leading the raid. When it comes down to it, I am the first to admit that no matter how leet my superstar dps is, I'm just a piece of interchangeable meat compared to the tank.

And sadly, speaking that truth is where Spitfires' post went wrong. Instead of the comments section becoming a reasonable debate about the differences between the roles and how we can incentivize the less popular roles, it became an angry flamefest in response to a few choice phrases he used to (coughaccuratelycough) describe DPS in most situations:

“But the DPS? They’re just meat in the room.”

“DPS are a dime a dozen.”

“DPS can just be picked up randomly as required.”

“I’ve got nothing against DPS. It’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with that but they simply don’t deserve the equality of rewards.”

I think he's absolutely right, (especially in the dungeon finder) except when it comes to the most high-end of raids, or in the case of absolutely terrible dps. But the bottom line is: your raid or group can handle one bad dps. Your raid or group is going nowhere with a bad tank or healer. Unless you are in complete denial of reality, the fact that there is a difference in the value of tanks and healers compared to dps, no matter how good the dps, is indisputable.

But petty little egos must be fed, so the the fragile, defensive dps players must come out and express how insulted they are. Bad dps! Bad! Back to the LFG Q with you!

Spitfires asked the right question, but tragically in the wrong way (not that I would do any different). Tanking and healing are more important than dps while requiring more responsibility and skill. And there is a shortage of both. DPS, it is in your best interest to encourage people to play tanks and healers at every turn. Kiss their feet. Massage their aching shoulders. Buy them presents. Take off your robe and wizard hat if you have to.

Just stop pretending like you matter as much as they do.


Your fellow dps who never has to wait for a tank or healer because he knows how to treat them.

PS: Just saw Rohan's thoughtful post on this issue. In light of it, I'd like to clarify that I don't think there is any "moral superiority" to tanking or healing, which is probably the perception that rubbed dps the wrong way. I am referring only to their higher value due to scarcity, and the increased personal responsibility of those roles.

Rohan makes a good point that at high level play, dps matter more and more. For instance, my guild runs two ICC 10 runs a week (one of them contains some geared alts and friends of the guild). The only real difference between the groups is the gear and experience level of the dps. Group 1, full of our best dps, pushes progression content while our second group has to actually try Saurfang twice before he goes down, can't beat Festergut, etc. And those dps aren't bad by any stretch, they just aren't the extraordinary deliverers of beatdowns that the other group is.

BUT - and that's a capital but for those of you paying attention - I'd argue that a tank or healer still has more personal individual responsibility, even in the highest-end raids, simply based on numbers. We as DPS are less important because there are 17-19 of us. There are 2-3 tanks and 5-8 healers (in my case in 10-mans its 5 vs. 2 and 3, a similar ratio). No matter how much great dps can "carry" a tank at the high end, it still won't fully make up for the responsibility of being part of a smaller group.

Plus, they are still rarer - but I would never argue that they are morally superior. I do argue that they should be pampered and incentivized so they become less rare.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Treatise on Oculus, Part 4: The Solution

Back to Part 3

So, now we have established that Occulus is different than every other Wrath heroic, and in fact 99.9% of the rest of the game, and we’ve established that, no matter what your personal feelings about the instance, these differences have caused negative consequences, especially when combined with how the Dungeon Finder works. First, I’m going to suggest three simple things to change in Occulus that I believe will “fix” it and for the most part and eliminate the negative impacts that I listed earlier. Then, I will suggest a small set of low-impact changes to the Dungeon Finder itself to put the reality of the player experience more in line with what I stated earlier to be the developers’ primary intent with the system. Finally, I'm going to give some suggestions for the Blizzard developers on how they might avoid similar mistakes in the future.

How to fix Oculus:

1) Change the spawn distribution of the enemy “trash” drakes. Instead of having them spread out in singles throughout the sky, place them in groups of 3 as “packs”. One of these packs will auto-aggro as you approach a robot platform during the second part of the instance, meaning that a normal group will face only 3 of these groups. A few more packs can be around the instance for flavor, as long as they aren’t too close together or likely to be directly in the group’s path.

2) Greatly decrease both the time the final boss takes and his difficulty. Eregos is the only boss in the instance you fight while on drakeback, and as such he should be nerfed, hard. Blizzard already did this to some degree, but I don’t think it was enough. He should only summon drakes twice, and should only banish himself and send sparks after you once. Then just cut about 20% of his health off. Now he’s more on par with the difficulty and time commitment of a boss in any other heroic.

Yes, Eregos can be very easy if you have a great group. But we aren’t talking about fixing the instance for an experienced group of guildies. We are talking about fixing it for random dungeon finder pugs, which are more likely to have ungemmed pvp-geared DKs who have never seen the instance before than they are to have good players.

3) Visual guides. Probably the biggest problem with Oculus compared to other heroics is how easy it is to get lost. There are no hallways, and shockingly few ways for someone who hasn’t been there, or even someone who gets lost, to tell where they are or where they are supposed to go, and this problem is compounded by the vertical nature of the instance. I know that it’s going to sound like I’m rebuilding this instance for a short bus full of blind people (oh wait I am), but when you think about the linear hallways of every single other heroic, you have to admit it makes sense. There are a few options for visual cues that will help people find their way:

  • Lines of light: This would be the best option, but I’m not 100% sure the tech is there on Blizzard’s end. When a boss or pack dies, a beam of light appears leading directly to the next objective. So, you kill the first boss, and a beam of light arcs up from that platform leading to one of the platforms above you with robots on it. Once you beat the last enemy on one of those platforms, another beam of light appears leading to the next one, etc.
  • Dragon Guide: similar to the beams of light. Once you beat the first boss, a friendly drake NPC leashes to your party and helps you fight. It follows a script as each enemy pack dies, leading you to the next one.
  • Platform coloration: Each “level” of the instance (sections between each boss) should be a different color, first of all. Then, ideally, the next platform you need to get to should turn a pulsing bright red until you get there.
Basically any strong, noticeable visual cue will work, but I think these would be the most effective.

Now that Oculus is fixed, let’s move on to how to improve the Dungeon Finder. I do not know if these are technically possible, but they are improvements that directly address the Oculus problem:

1) Weight the instances based on how many people have entered (not completed) the instance that day on that battlegroup. If tons of people are leaving Oculus, it’s less likely to show up for others. This is preferable to the mess of people leaving as soon as the loading screen is done.

2) If someone leaves in first 2 minutes, your group gets teleported out of the dungeon and inserted back into the front of the Q to replace those who left. The next dungeon will be assigned randomly. You can only do this once before you’ll have to leave Q and wait out the debuff if you want to get a different random dungeon.

Future lessons for Blizzard:

Thinking back to the early coverage of Wrath, Oculus was one of the most talked-about and anticipated pieces of content (oh, how things have changed!). It showcased the vehicle tech and promised an era of new and exciting instance design (that was only partially realized). In short, Oculus was actually a good idea. I’m glad they went for it. They just blew the execution spectacularly.

So I definitely think Blizzard should keep trying new things with instances. But how can they avoid a repeat of the failure of Oculus?

For one thing: don’t throw so much new and different stuff at us at once. If you want to add vehicles, then make sure the abilities are simple, the paths are clear and linear, the gear scaling is strong, and the enemies behave in traditional ways. If you want an open-world instance with scattered single enemies, don’t make people fly an unfamiliar drake with unfamiliar abilities in a 3-D plane at the same time. Before I knew what Oculus was actually like, I imagined it would be much like Nexus, only with a hole in the middle that you had to fly your drakes through. That would have worked much better. You clear a linear set of hallways, then do a brief drake flight across a chasm to reach the next clearly-marked linear hallway to dismount into.

Another thing to keep in mind: people like to play their characters much more than they like vehicles. If more than 25% of the instance is vehicle-based, you screwed up. Also, take a lesson from Ulduar and do not force players to start an instance in a vehicle first thing. Nothing was more annoying to me than having to do Flame Leviathan at the beginning of a raid week when I was just itching to play my character and get further into the instance.

Also, keep in mind how the instance will compare to other instances. If you add new mechanics, vehicles, or flying (or swimming! Hint hint!), compensate for it somehow. Make the instance easier or shorter than the more traditional ones. Or add an easy “freebie” boss with good loot. Plus, fully account for scaling from the very beginning. We’ve learned from Oculus that once an instance gets a bad reputation, it can be nearly impossible to improve that image in the eyes of the playerbase. By the time you start hearing complaints about how Oculus 2.0 doesn’t scale so geared people don’t want to go there, it’s already too late. Think of it ahead of time.

Finally, and by far most importantly: hire more fucking people to develop and test instances. There is no goddamn excuse for Oculus to be released the way it was, to be as ill-thought-out as it was, and to remain so shitty for so long. There is not enough content in this game. Blizzard has enabled us to consume content more quickly and accessibly than ever before, but development has not even begun to keep pace despite the literal fortune of cash we send them every month (which gets siphoned directly into Bobby Kotick’s pockets instead, awesome). Get more people on it, and get more testing done by intelligent people who know their shit. I could name 20 people in the community right now who would accept peanuts as pay (literally) if they got to go to Blizzard every day and test instances. Smart people.

People who could have made something better than Oculus with their eyes closed and using nothing but their nipples to type in the lines of code.*

Thanks for reading, and may all your randoms be VH.

*Blizzard devs are smart and skilled, I’m just suggesting they are understaffed. They had too much time pressure and too few resources to get Wrath done, and that’s why Oculus is so bad. Not because they are bad developers or people.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

WoW Radio Closing Its Doors . . . Sort Of.

My favorite podcast provider announced a few days ago that it will be closing down. WCRadio.com, affectionately known as WoW Radio, has been around for 6 years, providing a centralized, united source of WoW media, flagshipped by their fleet (wait, that metaphor made no sense...) of weekly WoW podcasts, and accentuated by events like their exhaustive Blizzcon coverage and WoW Idol, a showcase of WoW-themed music created by fans*

But thankfully, WoW Radio won't really be gone. Each of its nearly a dozen podcasts will be continuing on their own, and the wcradio.com site will become a hub to help us keep track of where they've gone. Though my favorite podcasts will continue, and perhaps even be improved now that the overhead of running the entire organization is gone, I can't help but feel, with a twinge of sadness, that this is the end of an era.

So long and thank you, WoW Radio.

If you, dear reader, are not listening to WoW Radio, here's what you should be downloading right now:

Blue Plz!

Winner of Larisa's "Best Podcast" award for 2009, and my favorite podcast ever, Blue Plz! is not to be missed. Snarky solo host Totalbiscuit brings his homebrewed combo of British wit and belligerence to bear on the most controversial WoW topics of the day . . . and if there isn't a topic of the day, he'll make up some controversy on the spot! He's intelligent, opinionated, and always entertaining, and he's not letting the over-entitled get away with anything.

Except . . . TB . . . please stop it with the "singing".

Casually Hardcore

Much more generally inviting, but only slightly less entertaining, is Casually Hardcore. It's hosted by a team of older gamers (in their 30s) who talk about trying to fit WoW gaming into their busy lives around their children ("Nemesis" can often be heard interrupting the show to ask his parents for a juice box), jobs, and other hobbies, but it's by no means dry. Hosts Gnomewise, Iolite, Gwenora, Daksa, and Grail (a nice mix of 3 men and 2 women) imbue the show with constant levity and humor, and most of the meat of the show is about relaying and digesting WoW news to help the casual player keep up with what is going on and actually make sense of it. They definitely showcase what it means to be "casual" without any of the negative connotations that word sometimes gets.

Octale & Hordak vs. The World

You are the world, and they are versus you! Often imitated, never duplicated, and sometimes eviscerated, hosts Octale and Hordak - along with their 3rd wheel Doc Dead - are smart guys with a great sense of humor. Though the show rarely discusses WoW anymore, instead focusing on other developments in the wider world of gaming, it's non-stop entertainment. Their use of "drop-ins" (a common radio trick of using audio clips they can play at the push of a button) is especially enjoyable.

the rest

The three I've already listed are at the top of my weekly podcast listening list, but that doesn't mean that the rest of WoW Radio's offerings are any worse. For more Totalbiscuit, listen to his general gaming show called "Gaming the System". Natural20 provides great guides to WoW class mechanics in "Just Plain Better", which I'd highly recommend to anyone who wants to better understand their class. General gaming show "Maxspeed" is also entertaining (if a little bit more on the juvenile side) and "But Wait, There's Lore" is great for people who care about - you guessed it - lore.

So if you are interested enough in WoW to be reading this blog, I highly recommend you check out the shows on WoW Radio, and follow them as they go their separate ways. It is a sad day to see an institution in the community go, but I can't be too sad when the podcasts are still going to be there.

And finally, I want to offer a heartfelt "thank you" to WoW Radio for all of the hours of entertainment you've provided for me. Keep it up.

*Check out Brewguy, especially "The Ganker", and Fatty, especially "Nerdcore".

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Treatise on The Oculus, Part 3: Working as Intended?

Click here to go back to Part 2
  • I'm forging ahead with my original set of posts, despite the many changes made to The Oculus this week (thank you Blizz!). When I give my own suggestions for "fixing" the instance tomorrow, you'll see that I somewhat support the route Blizzard has taken, but would have done it slightly differently. I just wish I had posted this over the holidays when I originally began jotting down these ideas.

Back to business!

“Random is random.” This is a refrain on the WoW General Forums in the extremely common event that a player begins a new thread to complain about getting Oculus in the random Dungeon Finder an inordinate number of times, seemingly defying all statistical odds. If such a thread is started less than 3 times an hour, then it’s a slow day.

But the Dungeon-o-matic is, in fact, not purely random. It uses weights, which influence the outcome. For instance, if a player already completed a heroic once today, they are less likely to get it again. Which means that if the Finder puts you in a group with them, you too are less likely to see that dungeon. Another influence is the built-in gear thresholds. Fewer people in the Q will be allowed to do Halls of Reflection, so you are less likely to see it than one of the Wrath release dungeons.

So you can already see how the system is slightly weighted to give you Oculus: it's the least likely heroic for someone else in your group to be already saved to, and it has no gear requirement.

But the biggest reason why the supposedly "random" system gives you Oculus all the time (and I know there are many who, like Larisa, have resigned themselves to an eternal purgatory of running nothing but the big O when they Q for a random) is that if a group loses a member, they get put back in the system at the front of the line. Think about that for a second, and realize that whenever you are put in a group, you too are necessarily at the front of the line. Now add in the fact that Oculus is the only dungeon that players leave immediately in droves. Combine that with the fact that, as I have already explained, it is the most likely to be failed and/or have people leave or be kicked during the instance. Suddenly, you find yourself playing a kind of Russian Roullette where most of the front of the Q is populated by partial groups already in Oculus who are looking to fill in the spots left by leavers.

That is the explanation for why everyone is constantly getting Oculus, in defiance of all "random" odds.

To be fair, the system really is, in a sense, "random" because it's not preferentially putting you in any single dungeon. It's just that circumstances are exposing a specific weakness in the system Blizzard chose to use to place people in dungeons. The Dungeon Finder isn't broken at all. But is it really working as intended? True, the system is working "as designed". But I'd argue that the intent of the developers when creating the Dungeon Finder is not being fulfilled.

I do not believe that they intended for people to get Oculus constantly (and too much Old Kingdom and Halls of Stone, to a lesser extent). "Because they wanted that type of system" is not the reason they made a random system. They made a random system to achieve a goal, and in this case that goal was twofold:

1) Provide players with variety, showing them all of the dungeons in a roughly even distribution. A purely randomized system would be excellent for this goal - but, as we've seen, this Finder isn't purely random.

2) Prevent exploitation: keep players from being able to repeat the "easiest" dungeon over and over, or otherwise "game" the system to gain better rewards or grief their groupmates.

The current system is doing OK at achieving (2), but failing spectacularly at (1). Players are not getting variety. Players hitting the "random dungeon" button are nearly guaranteed to see Oculus, and maybe HoS or AK:OK. This is not very fun.

Tomorrow, I'll wrap up this series by discussing solutions for both The Oculus itself and the Dungeon Finder tool. Blizzard has already implemented pretty decent changes, but I intend to both improve upon those changes and offer advice for how future designs can avoid the pitfalls The Oculus hit.

Until then, may all your randoms be VH!

I spell "Oculus" wrong, but I'm too lazy to change the graphic I made.

Just FYI, I'm not talking about a dragon in Tanaris. :)

Turns out I should be calling it "The Oculus". Sigh.

Sidebar: Once back at level 70, while waiting for a CoT group to form up, 3 of us decided to take on Anachronos, an elite boss dragon outside the Caverns. After about 10 minutes of beating on him, he reached 20% health and totally ****blocked us by despawning and saying ""A terrible and costly mistake you have made. It is not my time, mortals."

I'm totally going to say that to Rotface the next time he kills me, and then despawn. Take that!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Treatise on Occulus, Part 2: "The New Heroic" & "Like a Different Game"

Back to Part 1

Now that Blizzard has put another Band-Aid on the Occulus problem, one that I believe will stick, I’ll redirect the thrust of this thesis towards discussing what actually went wrong here and how Blizzard can avoid it when designing Cataclysm without giving up on trying novel ideas for dungeons.

When the “3.3 PuG-o-matic Deluxe” (thanks Ixo) was impending on the PTR, the Blizzard developers recognized that Occulus was the least popular – and in fact, the most reviled – of the heroic dungeons. They nerfed it, adding gear scaling to the player drakes and nerfing every enemy in the instance. As evidenced by the many continuing problems with the dungeon, their gesture was insufficient. That’s because the problem with Occulus is not that it’s “hard”. Let me illustrate with two quotes from my guildies.

Soon after 3.3 hit, one of my guildies noted that change to the landscape of max-level 5-mans. She described it as “The New Heroic: push the lever, get a pellet.” To a certain degree, WoW – and most MMOs – have always been about performing a task for a reward, like the quintessential lab rat pushing a lever for a food pellet. But never before have heroic dungeons, the pinnacle of 5-man content, been so blankly lever-like. The New Heroic is all about blowing mindlessly through easy dungeons as quickly as possible, disenchanting every useless item along the way as you grind out Emblems. Anything that gets in the way of the pellet – any added complexity to the lever, if you will – is viewed with disdain. Bosses in HoL and DTK were “fixed” to accommodate the new status quo of bursting bosses down in 30 seconds (changes I support).

But, every time one speed bump is removed, the next most delaying boss mechanic becomes the new evil. Your massive overgearing of the content won’t help you get through the HoS computer event any faster, and Anub’arak and King Ymiron will still prevent you from attacking them to an annoying degree.

Occulus is pretty much made of speed bumps, and that’s one of the core reasons it is so undesirable in the Dungeon-o-matic environment. Back when all of the heroics were reasonably challenging, Occulus wasn’t quite so different. But now that the goal is to blast through as quickly as possible, the differences between Occulus and every other dungeon become more grievous.

No matter how many flat nerfs you apply, Occulus still won’t be comparable to other dungeons in the new environment.

The other quote from another of my guildies illustrates what’s really wrong with Occulus: “It’s like a different game”.

As I observed in the last installment, the game you played leveling to 80, and all of the other dungeons you do, share certain characteristics that Occulus does not. Let’s go through the list:

Abilities: Throughout the game, players learn to handle abilities based on their class. When put on a drake, they are robbed of every one of those abilities, and instead given 2-3 new abilities. This in itself wouldn’t be so difficult to manage, except each of these abilities tries to do too much at once, all while including effects that are not found elsewhere in the game. For instance, not only does the red drake’s attack chain to multiple targets, but contrary to every other chaining ability in the game, it does more damage to the secondary targets. The red drake shield and the bronze drake focusing beam are other clear examples of abilities with no analogue in the player’s normal arsenal and way too many simultaneous effects.

In a way, the abilities constitute a puzzle for the dungeon-crawler to solve. Unfortunately, players are looking for WoW’s gameplay, not a puzzle that involves reading ability tooltips and considering them in light of enemy abilities. The bottom line is that these abilities are difficult to figure out and constitute a massive roadblock to the expected “faceroll normal rotation for badges” that players expect in the New Heroic.

3-dimensional combat: Players spend the vast majority of the game locked down to the ground, limited to 2-dimensional movement. When they get flying mounts, they are explicitly prevented from engaging in any mounted combat. There are almost never dangers to avoid while flying, and certainly no dangers that cannot be escaped by continuing to fly away until the pursuer gives up. Players are simply never prepared for flying enemies who could come from any direction while they themselves are trying to navigate 3-D space on a 2-D screen.

Linearity: Most instances are sets of hallways, or otherwise quite linear. Occulus is a giant open space with very little clarity about where you are supposed to go next, especially considering how graphically same-y the whole place is. It’s very easy to get confused or lost, and even easier to lose track of where your group is.

Monster “Pulls”: All of the other dungeons in the game offer groups of stationary or patrolling enemies that you pull in a small group, dealing with each “pull” one at a time. Occulus fills the air with drakes who can spot you from above, below or to the sides, and rather than being pullable in groups, they stand individually, but literally fill the sky. This is very counter-intuitive for the player who is used to a normal enemy loadout in a dungeon.

Dismounting: In no other dungeon, as part of the normal, intended game mechanics, can you be rendered nearly unable to attack an enemy who is killing your party. Almost everyone has had an experience in Occulus where a flying drake pulled after your party had dismounted, forcing you to awkwardly kill the drake, if you were able to at all. The drakes are much harder to kill without your own mount, and if you don’t have a DK to death grip or are short on ranged dps, they can be a massive pain to deal with once you’ve dismounted.

Blunted gear scaling: People in tier 9 and 10 will mow over any other heroic. In Occulus, they will do a tiny bit more damage on a drake mount. No comparison.

Coordination Requirement: No other dungeon requires the coordination Occulus does. Aside from the difficulty of staying together without guiding hallways, and the dangers of straying an inch from your group and pulling 2 more adds, there is also the functionality of the bronze drakes. To maximize their dps, your group must work together in a way that requires either ventrillo, ESP, or unusually skilled and attentive play (which is not required anywhere else).

That’s a lot of differences, many of them drastically changing the core of the game and/or requiring a totally different set of skills.

One lesson Blizzard can take from Occulus is that when they get creative, they shouldn’t change too much all at once. We’ve seen many of the differences above in other dungeons, with much greater success. And that’s because only one or two of the above aspects are integrated, rather than all of them flying at your face trying to kill you at once.

The difference between Occulus and other dungeons is not simple “difficulty”. It’s the mix of changes to the gameplay that vastly increase the potential for disasters, as well as the potential that the players simply will not enjoy the dungeon.

Next, we’ll take a quick look at the Dungeon Finder itself, and its relationship to Occulus and consider whether or not it is working as intended. When is random not random?

Blizzard Poons Me, RE: Occulus

To oversimplify, Occulus is riskier than other heroics. And one way to balance that risk (which I was going to suggest in my series of posts on the dungeon, which may or may not see the light of day now) is to offer better rewards.

Blizzard is incentivizing Occulus, and doing it pretty well:

To encourage players not to shy away from the many invigorating adventures to be had in The Oculus, we have applied a change to enhance the rewards players are provided when selected for this dungeon via the Random Heroic option in the Dungeon Finder. Once Ley-Guardian Eregos is defeated, one loot bag per character will be provided in his chest in addition to the current rewards. Each loot bag will offer players rare gems, two additional Emblems of Triumph, and a chance of being rewarded the Reins of the Blue Drake. These fine treasures could be yours should you honor your fellow party members by besting the challenges contained within The Oculus! Keep in mind, however, that these extra loot bags will only be awarded to each party member if Oculus is selected by the Dungeon Finder when players choose the Random Heroic option.

In light of this change, the Reins of the Azure Drake will now have a chance of dropping in both 10- and 25-player versions of The Eye of Eternity.
So clearing Occulus will now give you extra emblems, gems (hopefully epic rather than blue, remains to be seen) and a chance at a rare mount. Neat!

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Treatise on Occulus, Part 1: The Occulus Problem

My goal with this Treatise on Occulus is nothing short of creating the definitive examination of what is wrong with the Occulus heroic dungeon and how the Blizzard developers might go about fixing it. This is not QQ. This is an acknowledgement of a problem that is very real and negatively impacts every WoW player who has ever used the new random dungeon finder. Though I do, of course, have personal feelings about Occulus, I will strive to look at this issue objectively; so that we might arrive at useful conclusions and solutions that could actually be implemented to improve the experience for every player, not just a niche. These solutions should help retain subscribers while improving the experience for the widest and deepest range of people.

But first: what exactly is wrong with Occulus? Depending on your attitudes toward the dungeon, you have undoubtedly experienced at least one of the following issues. But, as we will see, these tangible issues are all a manifestation of the same core problem.

  1. Painful grouping experiences: if you decide to “stick it out” and run Occulus with a poor pug, you have experienced this at least once. For reasons I will get into in the next installment, Occulus is in a league of its own when it comes to the potential for things to go wrong in a heroic. If you go with a good group, you’ve had some good runs of the place, but you’ve also undoubtedly had some bad runs, especially with PuGs.

  2. Leaving Occulus: On the opposite end of the spectrum, some leave the group immediately if they get randomed into Occulus, accruing a 15-minute penalty. This causes the next two:

  3. Getting ditched in Occulus: you may plan to stick the dungeon out, but too many group members leave as soon as they see which instance they got, leaving you stranded, and in the worst cases, waiting in Q through a procession of tanks who refuse to do Occulus.

  4. Getting Occulus when you random Q much more often than you get any other dungeon. I’ll explain the causes of this in Part 3, but it is a real and widespread phenomenon, and NOT a case of selection or perception bias. It is definitely actually occurring.

As you can probably guess, Problem 1) is the main cause the other three: people have bad experiences with PuGs in the dungeon, so many of them refuse to run it. But that is not the true cause. Problem 1) is the result of a more abstract Problem Zero: Occulus is a starkly different play experience than anything else you’ve ever done in your preceding WoW career.

This leads to two abstract sub-problems: Occulus is easier to screw up than any other heroic, and is more likely to be not fun for a given player than any other heroic (which is the other reason some players leave it immediately). If you got to level 80, you probably enjoy the normal WoW experience of using your class’s abilities in a 2D plane and running relatively linear dungeons made up primarily of hallways. However, your enjoyment of WoW gives absolutely zero indication of how much you will enjoy using a limited selection of unfamiliar abilities in an enemy-crowded 3-D environment (ie, riding the drakes).

We'll explore this idea further tomorrow in:
AToO, Part 2: “The New Heroic” & “Like a Different Game”