July, the Month Blizzard Forgot How to Expansion

Exactly one week ago, I wrote about the plight of a few MMOs in their attempts to expand content. Blizzard and World of Warcraft were included in that, but only for their problems with flight. Consider this an addendum to that post.

Warlords of Draenor was one of the most positive leveling experiences I ever had in World of Warcraft. The dungeons were fun, and I enjoyed tanking them for a couple of friends. The solo experience was better than ever before, as there were fewer quests and more things out in the world to see. While leveling, Garrisons were fun and inviting; they finally gave an alternate ‘thing to do’ and helped push me to unlock more.

And then max level happened.

On Heroic, the dungeons were the exact same as they had been while leveling. They were not especially challenging, nor were they particularly rewarding. I played long enough to extract the highest item levels I could from these dungeons, and by the time the first raid was launched, I was already bored out of my mind.

Garrisons failed to entrap me. While unlocking different buildings and outposts was fun, it all quickly settled into routine by the time I reached max. I think they could have been a compelling experience, but their implementation was so dull and uninspired, that I would have preferred Blizzard just add the housing that they always said they would not do.

I have followed the game from the sidelines ever since. I quit only a month into the expansion, long before my opinions on it could be justified. I did not thinking Warlords of Draenor was very good, and I am both sad and happy that those sentiments seem completely right.

It wasn’t an expansion without value. The raids they added looked fun, and I have read many good things about them. I also know a lot of people are enjoying the Tanaan Jungle. But there are so many problems, which I can see plainly and which friends I know have told me with great conviction:

The story is badJudging a story always implies the subjective, but I did have some hope for WoD coming into it. I skipped the prior expansions, but there was a real sense of wonder in getting to go back to The Burning Crusade before anything had been burned down or any crusades had ruined the place. Time travel is almost always a hokey way of telling a story, especially when it means an alternate universe, but even that seemed like it had potential.

We all knew about the orc-centricity coming into the expansion. In my pregaming, I hyped myself up despite concerns about Grom being the announced final boss. Blizzard changed their mind and defied themselves in only the way Blizzard does it. They threw in an unconvincing and underwritten Grom redemption story and forced Archimonde to be the final boss. Many had guessed that would happen, but I had hoped Blizzard might have a trick up their sleeve.

“Two” patches is too few. For the most ardent of Blizzard supporters, this whole kerfuffle over 6.2 being the final patch will appear to be a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t for Blizzard. “We wanted quicker expansions and less downtime,” they will argue.

I could care less how frequently expansions are released, but content patches do matter to me. They matter even when I am not playing the game. World of Warcraft, to this day, still rakes in cash. For Blizzard to be unable to add new content to the game for more than a year seems outrageous to me. Their expansions have shrinked in size and scope, and they don’t even come with the old Blizzard polish anymore either. Rarely do World of Warcraft expansions launch with everything promised, ready to go, and too frequently things get cut mid-expansion as if Blizzard is making this all up as they go.

Final Fantasy XIV is to blame. Not because the sudden competition has inspired Blizzard to be better, but because Square Enix’s success has only made Blizzard look worse. FFXIV also has a box cost, charges a subscription, charges for expansions, and has a small cash shop on the side. The game lacks the long history of success or the subscriber numbers that World of Warcraft has accrued, though the game is chasing down that legacy each year.

Despite their similarities and Blizzard’s advantages, we get a half-thunk expansion with minimal content patches from one, and- from what I have read – a great expansion not that long after a series of very significant content patches from the other.

They operate differently. It’s apples and oranges. Blah, blah, blah. The idea that Blizzard is a money-hungry, whore of a game developer, whose marriage to Activision has greatly tarnished a once great company’s legacy, is rampantly expressed these days. It is often dismissed as the spam of the hardcore who decry Blizzard’s love of accessibility, or brushed aside as failure to understand that companies make games to make profit.

Perhaps these words go too far, but there seems to be a kernel of truth there. Blizzard gives less, for more, and wants to only speed up the rate in which they do it. That makes great business sense, but after an entire expansion that did so little to add to their flagship, I am ready to watch it all sink down to the bottom of the MMO sea.

Part of me has always felt that way, but an even bigger part of me is sad to agree.

Special thanks to Alternative Chat for the signal boost and her own opinion (which is more qualified than my own). Also worth checking out: Asmiroth’s opinion on the matter.

A different kind of coming out.

If you are reading this, then you probably have an inkling that I am a writer. I enjoy doing it. I write something almost every day and when I am not writing, I am thinking of new things to write. Words have long come easy to me; I am lucky that way. Still, despite a passion that I can feel with every tap of a key in the pursuit of etching another word into the white void before me, I have doubts. Recently, I overcame a few of them.

Since you are reading this, I highly doubt that you are related to me or have ever met me. Those people closest to me don’t often read what I write. Even my mother, the family member I am closest to, never sees the tangled masses of sentences I send out to strangers on an almost daily basis.

When I began my Murf Versus 27 project detailing intimate moments about my personal life in regards to gaming, a few people voiced concern or their own hang-ups about being so open online. For as long as I can remember, the only privacy I hoped to obtain was from my family. I can be more honest here than I can be with them. Here, I am not bound by saying the write words, but typing them in my own time. Their interpretation seems far more malleable that way and rarely do they incur some immediate response.

As you might imagine, my family doesn’t really know me and I hardly know them. That’s the price I have paid, willingly and for other reasons I doubt I will disclose. They know that I majored in English in college, but I have never told them why. They know I am smart, but conversations rarely ascend beyond the weather. They make even have an idea that I enjoy writing, but they won’t why or about what or how often or where.

Last May, my grandmother died and I chose the occasion to loosen up about one of my greatest passions. I decided to come clean about something I deeply love. I decided to reveal that I am, in my own view, a writer.

It started when we were at the mortuary discussing the details needed for her death certificate. We were presented with a draft of her obituary for the local paper. It was simple and direct, just like my grandmother was in every conversation we ever shared; only, a particular set of commas struck me as being troublesome.

The sentence followed a formula similar to this:

Name Name Name, of Location, died on Month Day, Year, at Place Of Death.

I understand that commas are necessary to isolate nonessential phrases in a sentence, but I also know most grammar rules are made up by prescriptivists. To me, the look and the flow of a sentence are more important than arbitrary rules. Seeing an opening with so many brief pauses felt like running out of air. That’s hardly the sentiment I want expressed when someone has so recently passed.

I was shocked when I spoke up, but I argued in front of all my family that the commas around the location part of the sentence should be removed. While seemingly nonessential, I felt the location of her residence was equally important to her name and should be considered a title loosely akin to something like ‘Sir Robin of Locksley’. My grandmother had lived in the same place all her life: she was as much a part of her environment as the environment was a part of her.

I said this entire spiel aloud to everyone present. I said it without doubting my place to say it or my knowledge of the subject. The author of the obituary, a man whose job is to pump them out as quickly as possible, argued against me, but something magical happened. My cousin chimed in to agree with me and others followed her lead. In the end, the commas were removed because I spoke up.

When it came to choosing what would be on the handout for the graveside service, I remained silent. I had no interested in the tired, overused poems or scriptures in the example book. No one else was especially impressed either. I had my opportunity, but instead I went silent and started jotting down my own idea. We ended up with a standard verse, but I decided to share my idea with my mother afterward. She loved it and immediately wanted me to read it at the service.

I have no experience with eulogies, but I understand the metaphysical concepts that offer comfort to others. I spent years at college studying religion and philosophy, anthropology and sociology. I also spent much of my youth in and out of Christianity, while attending a private school where ardent followers frequently testified. I didn’t want to write something that had to be interpreted as religious, but I wanted to share a philosophy that had guided my grandmother throughout her life, one that she frequently shared.

I didn’t read it. My nerves denied me that much freedom. Instead, my second eldest cousin read it for me. He added his own flourish toward the end and changed the meaning of one sentence, but he was otherwise grateful to read what I had written. Honestly, his delivery was far better than what I would have done because he barely made it through without breaking down. I likely would have delivered an over-the-top mock sermon, half in jest, which would have been unfortunate. We got that at the opening of the service from a Primitive Baptist minister.

Or I would’ve read it dryly, but accurately. That’s the more likely scenario.

The continents did not shift afterward, but a few members of my family complimented my writing. There was no embarrassment either. I felt suddenly and instantly more connected with all of those people I had shared opposing sides of a wall with for most of my life. I felt more like myself, despite being surrounded by those who never made feel comfortable about being me.

It felt good to write something spiritual, despite my atheist leanings. I left it vague because, to me, religion and spirituality are blank spaces which an individual fills in with their own experiences and ideals. Heaven is an abstraction and a tool, a means to describe the otherwise indescribable, and to assign to the chaos of reality a place in which we may reference for comfort or community. I never want to overwrite anyone else’s self-discovered worldview with my own because few things run as deep or as personal as how each person sees the world from their unique vantage point.

In closing, here’s the piece that I wrote and that was read at my grandmother’s funeral:

When we leave, we take with us nothing but we leave behind so much. We leave behind our best days and our best moments. We leave behind our family and our friends. We especially leave behind those bad days, the pains we have suffered, and all the ills that ever troubled us.

Life is fragile and finite. It is limited and brief. The journey seems long until you come to its end and then it seems far too short.

To all those still journeying, today is not a day to grieve or to mourn. It is not a day to question our place on this earth or our destination tomorrow. Today is a day to remember, to hold in our minds someone so dear to our hearts, and to be reminded how rare a person can truly be.

My grandmother understood that an end will always follow a beginning, but she also believed in a truth larger than us all. One day, we will all meet again.

Murf@MMOGames

Not that long ago, I had an urge to branch out from only writing for this blog. Ever since I began blogging, I have been willing to do guest posts or try my hand at actual journalism. I love to write (especially about games) and I welcome the challenges of writing for different audiences with different restrictions. Blogging will remain my first love, but I wanted to add some spice as well.

Mostly thanks to Jaedia, I got into contact with the fine folks over at MMOGames (which already includes some of our blogosphere’s best and most passionate writers). For the past month, I have been working on a few articles for them, though only recently has one come to light with another that bears some of my words, but isn’t a post by me. I thought I’d share those two posts with you today!

In the first – the one I didn’t write but I do cameo – is a part of a series that asks MMOGames author’s important questions. In this particular one, the question was whether or not we pre-order expansions. Here’s what I had to say:

Sometimes, yes. Unlike other games, MMOs come with a built in incentive to be there early. Early starts or bonus DLC that will last the life of your account (which, for some MMOs, are effectively immortal) are excellent reasons to get on board early and fast. It isn’t necessary, however. Launch – either release or expansion – is simultaneously the best and worst time to play. The best because servers are bursting at the seams with new people to play with, and the worst because there is no room left on the bus to get in-game. Playing pre-release can help assuage that somewhat by at least giving you access to a game while the numbers are often palatable, but it can be just as good to wait it out a month and come back in when things are normalized and a few bug fixes are handled!

Everyone else’s answers are worth reading as well. Jaedia and Belghast both make appearances, so check those out.

My first official post for MMOGames was on PlanetSide 2 for PlayStation 4. I had a chance to jump into the beta for the game before it went live late this month, so I wrote a short hands-on about my initial experiences with it. You can check that out here.

It was a pretty shitty game. When it first released on PC, there was something alluring about it that kept me playing for a whole week, but none of that exists any longer for this new version. The game has certainly improved in spots, but, overall, I just don’t feel like it works.

Despite my feelings on the game, I am quite proud of this hands-on. It took a great deal of energy to play the game long enough to formulate an opinion, even one as shallow as what I did manage to express. Furthermore, despite this post going up after the game’s release (largely due to E3-related delays), I wrote it a good two weeks before launch and I correctly guessed that there was a strong chance it would have server problems.

I know, I know: a MMO with server problems? You’re hardly Nostradamus, Murf! But we’re talking about PlanetSide 2 for PlayStation 4, a game with its own servers that I doubt will be very popular.

They should’ve done a bigger beta test before going live, because those beta numbers were super small.

As for what’s next, let’s just say it involved a ton of research, multiple articles, and of the 8,000+ words I have written across those articles, I haven’t edited anything yet. SIGH.

The MMO Equivalent to the Mind-Body Problem is the Gear-Stat Problem

I recently had a chance to pen a guest post over at Herding Cats. In it, I said:

Looking good matters in MMOs. Like theories of evolution guided by sexuality, there are certain rewards that draw players to flames (the kind you aren’t supposed to stand in) as if they were moths. Progression is driven by the need to look better, to be more attractive to your mates, or to show off to others. Whether you are a powergamer or a roleplayer, a ganker or a crafter, a collector or a flavor-of-the month, having an avatar that looks good unites us all.

In the comments, Dahaka of Star-Fired Beef (who also has a guest post on Herding Cats out today worth checking out) reminded me – in a tongue-in-cheek manner – about the strong divide between looking good and playing better:

Yes they definitely can extend gameplay by having “stat-stick” gear as well as “catwalk” gear. Stats are important, but few things are better than being really really really really ridiculously good-looking!

For whatever reason, recognizing how fundamental a divide this was and how it has changed over the years as more MMOs introduce transmog or display-only options, reminded me of the Mind-Body Problem in Philosophy.

Essentially, it is a metaphysical problem about how a non-physical thing (the Mind) can control a physical one (the Body). I won’t bore you with the many answers to this problem or my own views, but I think the framing is similar enough to gears and stats.

Gear is the equivalent to the body; stats are the equivalent to the mind. For most, the stats will determine what you wear; though, if it is close enough, then a far superior looking item may justify taking on a few less stat points. For the longest time, an item was looked at as being a complete whole with both of these facets, but I think the ability to switch what your gear looks like or “level up” older items to match current item level requirements brings that notion into question.

It also means that we are at a point where they can be completely separated. Imagine for a moment a standard MMO. In it, you do high end content (PvE, PvP, raiding, etc.) to progress, which quantifies and rewards itself with new items to display and better stats for greater effectiveness.

Now, imagine that same game, but completely divorce gearing up and stating up from one another. That cool new sword they added last patch? That’s a reward for a quest that involves beating that new boss, not a product of RNG or something you are forced to use despite how ugly it is because of the huge DPS differential. Instead, those two things – the chance that keeps you playing over and over again or the boost in stats – come from jewels (or insert lore name here) which are slotted into your character sheet as progression.

This is not an idea original to me or one I am just now thinking about, but I think the MMO genre has reached a place where it can be both open to a broader audience of people reaping the rewards of high end play while also being accommodating to those who want to keep up the MOAR STATS treadmill. It also reminds me of materia in Final Fantasy VII or the direct ability modification that Inspirations brought in City of Heroes.

To me, the most important thing in a good MMO is the illusion of customization. I say illusion because absolute customization comes at the detriment of balance and fairness. I understand there are limitations, but within those limitations, I want a system that makes me feel like I have arrived at an interesting build even if theorycraft could’ve told me the exact same thing was viable without any of my own in-game experimentation.

That’s a big reason why I enjoyed talents in World of Warcraft. If I kept myself away from the forums or other people for a bit, then I found it fun to play around with my build and try new things. Was it 100% optimal? No, but my successes came from my skill at the game and quality play, not from having the dullest, most boring, and most effective build possible. (For example, I had a guild willing to let me do most anything even in progression raids, so I was doing Black Temple as Combat Daggers for a bit just for the nostalgia value of how boring Rogues were to play in vanilla World of Warcraft raiding. The damage sucked, but I still performed and we still made progress.)

For the sake of customization, I want the freedom to choose exactly what my character wears, without the bandage fix feel that most transmogrification systems have. I am tired of juggling old gear in my backpack or saving pieces “just in case”. If I have ‘looted’ it, then that skin should be unlocked in my character’s wardrobe and available to use. Let stats come from somewhere else. If that isn’t even progression and reward for people, then add in ways to customize and equip specific abilities like City of Heroes. Add in Alternate Advancement systems that reward players for doing content, no matter the level required or type, by giving them experience toward progressing their character independent of its overall level.

Do whatever you like, but let me do the same and wear whatever I want to. If you must, limit it by my race/class/political affiliations/moral alignments. Though, if that’s the case, then let’s dropped these forced Faction systems or limitations on which races can be what classes. EverQuest and EverQuest II were both better games for those reasons alone because they incorporated it into the gameplay and rewarded those looking to make their character even more unique.

More MMOs should do that. Let’s relax some of these limitations a bit, shall we? Let’s start by splitting up gear and stats once and for all.

2015, the Year MMOs Forgot How to Expansion

MMOs and expansions are the peanut butter and jelly of gaming. In a genre notorious for running out of content (and, paradoxically, never running out of content), expanding upon old content offers developers a chance to revitalize their game, reinvigorate its community, and refill their pockets with cash. Expansions offer a chance to softly relaunch a game and that has been the case for as long as I can remember, but in this year, 2015, we seem to have forgotten how expansions work.

Blizzard’s Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft technically dropped late last year, but it wasn’t until recently that their flying fiasco occurred. With it, Blizzard effectively overstepped their bounds (that’s a loaded thought, but I ere on the side of player expectations over developer intentions). By finally saying flying was definitely a no go for WoD and suggesting that flight in future expansions may be no more, they deliberately kicked the internet beehive and shook all of the WoW fans who have come to love and expect flight, especially when they have spent extra cash on the privilege of exclusive pixels.

In Blizzard’s Great Compromise of 2015, they reinstated flying in Warlords of Draenor, though buried heavily behind an attunement timesink. Moving forward, flight’s existence remains in question, but I have to imagine that Blizzard will stick to their current approach forever and ever, as they have with so many other approaches they’ve so diehardingly stuck to (hint: this is sarcasm, but not in a mean way – more a playful ribbing).

More recently, Guild Wars 2 upset its fanbase by not offering a bonus character slot for their new class and for being unsure what their expansion includes, after they had begun taking preorders for it. It’s troublesome too because from what I have seen, Guild Wars 2’s first ever expansion looks a little thin, especially for the asking price.

As soon as players had kicked up a sandstorm, Arena.net relented and caved in on every demand the playerbase had. They rewarded veterans with character slots and offered to refund anyone who had recently purchased the base game in order to play the expansion that now comes with the base game too. Furthermore, they clarified that from this point on, new expansions will include all previous content.

Finally, Destiny has gotten into some trouble with the pricing of The Taken King expansion for their console hit. Admittedly, Destiny is hard to categorize since their idea of expansion has always been more in line with DLC content packs that have plagued so many console-first games. The Taken King seems to have enough content to justify it as a true expansion in the classic sense.

Still, it is a bit strange to be changing your monetization mid-stride. At $40, The Taken King costs as much as the base game (which is still required). It also costs more than the last two expansions combined ($34.99). There is also content locked behind buying The Taken King’s collector’s edition, which clocks in at $80.

I don’t know about you folks, but it seems strange to have these three high profile games have so many problems with their expansions. Once upon a time, a MMO got bigger with an expansion, not smaller (World of Warcraft), not at less value (Guild Wars 2), or by ramping up the cost significantly (Destiny). I know that every developer has their own approach to expanding their games and the DLC model has mostly obliterated expansions as we know them, but expansions were once a staple of the MMO genre. It feels weird to see big companies get them so wrong after so many years of normalcy.

At least Heavensward and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn remains an exception to the new rules being written by the failures of giants.