Sunday, November 4, 2018

BlizzCon 2018 At Defcon 1

I'm not currently playing World of Warcraft. Much as I like WoW, I never really do play it, or not with any commitment, other than that six-month burst almost a decade ago. I haven't even been able to find a window in my oh-so-busy schedule to play the Legion expansion I was given for my birthday two years ago.

Doubling down on my lack of involvement, beyond my occasional dabble with WoW, I have never played any other Blizzard game, so I have absolutely no reservoir of nostalgic affection on which to draw. I can't even pretend to the smallest vestige of interest in any of the games in the current stable, not Overwatch or Hearthstone and especially not Diablo, the point and purpose of playing which has always entirely eluded me. The very little I do know about any of them comes from people who do play, whose blogs I follow.

With such a deep well of uninterest I wasn't planning on commenting on anything Blizzard had to say at that in-house celebration of self-love, BlizzCon. I do find these conventions bemusing. Even in the headiest days of EverQuest, when Sony ran the annual Fan Faire (later known as SOELive) I never felt an inclination to attend.

I never noticed the shoulder marking before today. Is that new?
The fact that it happened, mostly, on the other side of the world may have been a factor but chances are I wouldn't have taken the trouble to travel ten miles for a gaming convention. I find limited appeal in standing in a packed hall for long hours while people try to sell me stuff or in sitting on a hard plastic chair while non-professional speakers take hours to explain things I could read in minutes (or more likely seconds) in the comfort of my own home.

Not that I haven't been to plenty of similar events. I spent all of the 1980s and some of the 1990s going to comics conventions. I was close friends with the organizers of some of the biggest of the time and I took my turn stuffing bags, running security and even hosting panels. The novelty wore off fast, though, and it only took a few cons before I swapped the dealers' hall and the panel rooms for spending the whole weekend in the bar.

I'm certainly not knocking the social aspect. Meeting friends in an environment conducive to endless conversation on topics of mutual interest isn't something that needs arguing against, or not by me, anyway. These days I'm pretty sure I couldn't hack a whole long weekend of sleeping on floors, drinking from midday to midnight and generally behaving as though life was performance art but I'm happy to have done my share way back when.

In fact, it's curious what you notice after a long layoff. I'm guessing my druid could always turn into a bling elk but somehow I missed it...
I meant to let the entire 2018 BlizzCon slide. It wasn't really even on my radar. I suppose I'm mildly (very mildly) curious about the Classic WoW experiment but nowhere even close to caring enough to consider paying for a sneak preview. I'll wait for the inevitable blog reports.

Why, then, am I even mentioning it? Because, as usual, its all but impossible for anyone with even the smallest interest in MMORPGs to escape the event horizon of World of Warcraft and, by implication, of its creator company, Blizzard.

I read, with increasing mystification, accounts of the firestorm of outrage surrounding the announcement of a mobile version of Diablo. To a non-afficionado it didn't seem like much of a story. When the first news squib crossed my path a couple of days ago I barely gave it a thought.

I was momentarily attracted to the idea of a new MMO I could play on my tablet but then I realized that a) I don't play any of the excellent mobile options I already have installed (Dragon Nest Mobile, Villagers and Heroes, AdventureQuest3D, Celtic Heroes...) and b) it's Diablo. At that point I would have forgotten about it entirely, only apparently to do that would mean missing the entire part where Blizzard, cackling like evil carnival clowns, smacked the stunned audience around its collective face with a wet mackerel.
And here's another! I swear I can't remember this "travel form" option. I'm going to name it "Elk or Whelk". Maybe that will help me remember to use it.

To gain some kind of context, I tried to imagine a situation where I was expecting, let's say, an official announcement of Guild Wars 3 and what I got instead was notification of a mobile version of GW2 produced for ArenaNet by GameLoft. Okay, I'd be a little disappointed I wasn't getting the big win but I'd also be excited about the consolation prize. It's more of a thing I like. That's always good, isn't it?

The idea that this is some kind of zero sum game, where resources dedicated to a mobile app come from the same pool that supplies a PC game, seems bizarre. This is diversification not assimilation. The entrenched, embattled position taken by one group of gamers when faced with another shouldn't pain me the way it does. It's been the way of things in every special interest group ever, after all. It's still disheartening, though.

Even more disappointing were the comments levelled against leveling. From MassivelyOP's Live Blog summary:

Q: Character progression, especially with leveling, is not satisfying. Wouldn’t a level squish be a good thing?
A: It’s a great question; we are not satisfied with what leveling has turned into. A level squish would be a big ordeal, but we agree something needs to change. It’s not tenable to add more levels at the top.
I like leveling but these days everyone seems to be against it. We're marching towards a world of vertical zones and horizontal progression whereas I, to quote a recent anonymous commenter to this blog, hark back with affection to the days of "...yearly expansions in SOE style with very limited pool of assets and primitive flat zones with mobs randomly scattered around." Well, every six months was better but I'd take yearly and the rest of that sounds just about perfect!

Then there was the weighing in against randomly generated fun:

Q: Why is there so much RNG in the game? (Huge cheering.) Do you have plans to move away from that, where the time we spend is productive? (More huge cheering.)
A: We’ve always tried to navigate these waters; our concern with having things on a vendor is that you could mark the date on the calendar. (This is being claimed as a downside.) 

Where do I even begin? Productive? Productive?? Is this paid work now? Are we on the meter? I had this weird idea I was roleplaying an adventurer not clocking on at the Amazon Warehouse.

In trying to find a good spot to take a screenshot I fell off a waterfall and got swept down this giant whirlpool. I knew something was up when the UI vanished and the black cut-screen borders appeared. Turned out to be some instance related to Demon Hunters, which reminds me; I could make one of those...

Yes, it is a friggin' "downside" if I can "mark the date on the calendar", when my character gets a specific piece of armor or a weapon! These things should come as the spoils of a mighty battle or the entirely surprising, serendipitous outcome of a chance encounter, not the "reward" for saving up fifty box-tops and sending them in!

Whatever happened to "heroic adventure"? Okay, I can get behind the idea of a simulated economy in a virtual world but this is not that! Geez! Token systems suck and what they suck is all the fantasy, wonder and joy out of what was once a playful, imaginative, childlike experience, currently in danger of being reduced to nothing more than yet another adulting exercise in faux-responsibility and bloody "productivity".

The cheering in the room, as reported, is dismally echoed by the jeering and sneering in the comment thread, which itself follows the lead of some of M:OP's staff writers. I really ought stop reading this stuff. I'm getting to the age where I need to think about my blood pressure.

I imagine Demon Hunters are all about the rituals. They certainly use a lot of candles.

It wouldn't matter since, as I said, I don't really play much World of Warcraft. Except that, even in these reduced days of maybe "only" three million subscribers, what happens in WoW often sets the tone for the whole genre. Odd, when you consider the extent to which Blizzard sits back and lets other MMOs act as a test-bed before adapting and implementing whatever they deem to have value, but there you are.

The genre moves inexorably onwards towards places some of us would rather not go but there will always be backwaters - or so I hope. If there are, I plan on wallowing in them.

More positively and optimistically, I continue to enjoy the unnamed new game that on paper shouldn't appeal to me at all. Perhaps Blizzard's influence on MMO development is on the wane, anyway. I'd like to think so. I don't think it's been the ruination of the genre but then again I don't believe it's been its saving, either. We'll see what happens when WoW Classic arrives next Summer.


  1. Whatever happened to "heroic adventure"?

    Well, as you've said, it's pretty clear you have never played WoW for any particular length of time. "Heroic adventure" it is not. What happens from level 1 to level XXX is you complete trivial tasks and are consistently rewarded with upgraded weapons and armor. To have that faucet turned off at level cap is to have one's interest in continuing to complete trivial tasks dry up.

    Compare that to GW2. Nothing about that game is particularly rewarding at all. 99.99% of all drops are garbage, and 99.99% of the bags of loot contain more garbage. You are conditioned rather early that the best stuff is bought immediately from the AH, or you grind 5-10 tokens a day and suddenly have Ascended gear 20+ days later. So the people still playing that at the level cap either don't care about gear being rewarding, or those willing to throw cash money at the game. Or maybe masochists like myself who will collect Blood Rubies off and on for months inbetween other games.

    1. That's a somewhat cynical take on both games! Not entirely inaccurate but not exactly the whole story, either. I did get to the low 70s in WoW when the cap was 80 and I felt like an adventurer for most of the journey, which took me several months playing 30+ hours a week (I did have alts, of course). Some of it was trivial tasks but a lot was stories that were quite interesting and situations that somewhat ressembled the plot of an average episode of The Littlest Hobo, so adventure of a kind.

      As for GW2, I have no idea what you mean by "the best stuff is bought immediately from the AH". As far as I know you can't buy any Ascended there, only the old-style Legendaries, about which I don't care at all. I have several characters in full Ascended, most of which I crafted and the some of which I got as drops. Only a couple of backpieces and a trinket or two came from vendors as far as I can recall.

      It's true I can and do buy Ascended from vendors in WvW using the wvw currency/tokens but those are a by-product of playing the game in exactly the way I played it for several years before they were added. That's not the same as doing content in order to get tokens, not at all. My real issue with GW2 is the almost complete lack of vertical progression (gear ladders) not how easy it is to get the limited options that do exist.

  2. As someone very entrenched in Blizzard fandom, the hate over Diablo: Immortal also baffles me. Though in retrospect maybe it shouldn't. It's the perfect storm of the general attitude of the Diablo fanbase (which for reasons beyond my ken has been exceptionally bitter and toxic even by Internet standards from day one), the resentment over D3's abandonment and the following content drought, and a mountain of platform elitism from the vaunted "PC master race."

    I have no love for Immortal. I dislike playing on mobile platforms, and I have no intention to let this game change my mind. But the hate people have for it has little to no basis in rational thought.

    Regarding the leveling comments, I think your lack of time in WoW robs you of some crucial context here. I don't think anyone's saying leveling is bad. What you need to understand is various decisions have conspired to create a scenario where for the last two expansions leveling up has done nothing at all other than make your character get noticeably and measurably weaker with each ding. Leveling always served as a reset button of sorts so we'd have to start grinding for gear again, but in the past you at least got new talents and abilities to soften the blow. Since that stopped, it's just a nerf. I think we can all agree that's a bit of a broken paradigm. Leveling up should make you more powerful, not less.

    Finally, I disagree quite strongly with your view of random drops versus token systems. Randomness is fun when it feels like a bonus (IE WoW's Titanforging system, which I love), but when your ability to continue progressing through content is entirely gated behind random chance, it stops being anything close to fun. I need know that if I play for a few hours, it's going to do at least something to progress my character, and that I will not be shut out of the story for gods know how long because RNGesus isn't favouring me.

    1. Yes, I read plenty about the way the new 10 levels in BfA work and I found it quite bizarre. The idea that you'd take a sudden drop in power as the direct consequence of hitting the new level cap seems perverse. The question didn't seem to be particularly directed at that issue, though, but more at the supposed waste of time and effort involved in having to go through 120 levels in the first place and I can see the logic there. It is a heck of a first step for a new player. I certainly wouldn't be against something like SWtOR's 6X xp bonus to help with that, particularly for alts, but I'm becoming increasingly disenchanted with the popular solution of making everything scale. That way you never really get to feel more powerful, which is something I've always enjoyed.

      It's a thorny problem for aging MMORPGs though, that's for sure.

  3. Watching from home the Diablo Immortal thing was a bit of a let down. I don't play action games on my phone or tablet either. But I was more keen to play WoW Classic, and that made me very happy.

    But there, at BlizzCon, Blizzard likes to stoke up the emotions of the audience. There is lots of shouting, "For the Horde!" and all of that. And the hard core fans for each product are there and keen to shout as loudly as possible. So, in that scenario you roll out your promised big announcement and it is for a game on a platform nobody in that room cares too much about, and it is an outsourced to China project that looks and plays just like another NetEase mobile game, and the presentations that were previously titled "Diablo" get changed to "Diablo Immortal" and there is literally nothing now at BlizzCon for a current Diablo fan to care about. No Diablo IV. No Diablo II remaster. No additional content for Diablo III. Not even a hint or a teaser, any inkling of which would have dissipated a lot of fan anger. It was literally all about Diablo Immortal on the main stage.

    Yet, somehow, Blizzard was surprised at the fan reaction.

    I would find it odd if, say, a crowd booed a performer on stage and the press blamed the crowd and held the performer above reproach. But that was what happened at BlizzCon as the gaming press reviled those horrible gamers yet again... and then subsequently could find little positive to say about Diablo Immortal.

    We're back into how much say does the audience get in what is presented. Does Blizzard owe their fans anything? Does the audience owe Blizzard anything?

    Either way, Blizz displayed a massive failure in knowing their audience. They don't get a free pass on that in my book.

    1. I've only read the summaries, not watched the video, so I don't know how loud, persistent or aggressive the booing was. As you describe it, though, it can hardly have come as a surprise so presumably Blizzard were expecting something of the kind, if not the scale. It does seem odd. Could anyone in the industry really be unaware of the strong dislike PC Gamers have for mobile gaming? It may be ridiculous but it's hardly a secret. Things like that always set my conspiracy radar going but I can't immediately see what Blizzard might think they had to gain by riling up the hardcore Diablo fans - apart, of course, from a boatload of free publicity, most of which they would presumably have had just from the announcement itself had they handled it more sensitively.

    2. The most striking thing about it wasn't booing but silence. At an event of loud cheering, that was a serious rebuke.

      And people like to bring up the guy who asked the April Fools question. But you know what? His was the only question Blizz had an answer for. Every other question got some variation of "we can't say."

      It was bizarre to watch. But it was also only a slice of BlizzCon. Over at the Hearthstone or Overwatch or other panels people cheered as expected.

  4. In regards to the Diablo thing, I'm with Wilhelm that it seems to be more of a marketing snafu than about the game itself. I've seen quite a few people say that they don't mind the idea of a Diablo mobile game existing in principle, but Blizzard presenting it as the highlight of their big show and expecting people to get excited about that was seriously tone-deaf, and I think it's fair for them to receive backlash about that.

    As far as levelling goes, I'm with Tyler above in that at least in this context it seems to be more about WoW's levelling having been turned into something supremely awkward rather than a majority of people hating levelling as a concept.

    As far as RNG goes... I'm with you in that I don't get people's love for tokens. I like them as a backup system to get a consolation prize if you're really unlucky with drops, but as the main event they lose their lustre quickly.

    In general, from having seen people talk about RNG, I've observed two tendencies: First off, I think many simply don't really get how randomness done well is a core part of many games, so if it's done badly they just rail against the concept as a whole. Secondly though, I've also observed a weird progression towards randomness being viewed as nothing but a way to delay gratification, instead of something that's supposed to make you feel lucky sometimes. I often think of this when I see how many WoW players engage in "mount farming" these days, meaning they go into old dungeons and raids to one-shot everything, week after week, with the expectation that they'll eventually get every mount that used to be rare drop and which was never meant to be something that everyone would get. It feels like the attitude has shifted from good luck feeling like a lottery win to good luck being something that everyone is expected to have eventually, and if it doesn't happen then the evil devs are just trying to get people to hang around and roll the dice more often.

    1. That's pretty much exactly how I feel about rng. Tokens are fine so long as they act as a safety-net for people with really bad luck but not when they become the expected method of acquisition. I might do a post on this but the short version of my preferred gear/loot system is to have baseline useable and effective gear on regular NPC vendors at reasonable prices in normal in-game currency (gold, if you will), better gear in abundance from quest rewards, even better gear as uncommon/rare drops from any mob (although I like drops to be mob-appropriate, so armor only from creatures that wear armor etc), very good gear as drops from named/boss mobs and really top-notch gear from rare named/boss mobs. All non-quested gear including common drops from named/boss mobs should be tradeable, making player sales a main source for gear. Crafted gear should match all levels up to named/boss rare drops, with the best crafted gear requiring dropped components. The very top-end gear should be untradeable and have no crafted equivalent. Be there when it drops or go without.

      And people should expect to go without a lot of things. As you say, getting a really good drop should feel like winning the lottery. Or at least like winning a raffle! It's the creeping expectation that everyone can have all the things that's caused the problem. Everyone can't have all the things if any of the things are going to have value. I'm fine with a game designed where everyone really DOES have all the things right from the start but that's a different game altogether.

      It's clear that game developers have as many and as different ideas of how these things should work as players do. It's no surprise that whatever system we end up with, large segments of the playerbase are unhappy with it. You can't please all the people all of the time but you can't please most gamers most of the time!

  5. Playing a slot machine is so heroic!

    1. "Heroic adventure" refers to the action of the character, not the player. There's really nothing very "heroic" about playing video games, is there?

  6. I also think the bad reception of Diablo Immortal would've been less severe if there had been anything else alongside it. Diablo IV, Diablo II remaster, anything.

    Personally I don't care much about new content for DIII or even a DIV; I'm very happy with Path of Exile and don't exactly need anything new from the Diablo franchise. Yet I would've cheered heartily if they'd announced a high quality Diablo II remaster. Not happening it seems, instead we get a remastered Warcraft III.

    The thing is, I didn't actually have any expactations whatsoever for BlizzCon, yet Blizzard has managed the logically impossible and still disappointed me.

    1. Yes, as an outsider looking on it does seem to be a case of holding a three-day press conference with about half an hour's worth of product to promote. Maybe they should have used Classic as a peg to hang a celebration of the existing portfolio on, rather than build up expectations for major new releases that they didn't actually have.

  7. I'm always slightly baffled by your opinion of Massively. As someone who glances through actual forum threads, looks up what folks are thinking on various blogs, and reads the comments on articles, Massively's writers often drop the lightest of creamy ranch-flavored Mild Takes.

    1. It's because I see M:OP's job as flag-waver and cheerleader for the MMO genre and they very clearly don't.

      Firstly, I think very few of the M:OP writers who believe they are humorists actually have the chops to pull it off. I just recently read Sylvia Patterson's fascinating memoir "I'm Not With The Band", in which among other things she writes about her time at Smash Hits. Ver Hits was the apogee of this kind of writing and I measure all similar attempts against that yardstick. Few meet the benchmark and M:OP doesn't even come close. (In video game journalism the nearest successful equivalent of Smadh Hits would be Crash! magazine, not as mesmerically wonderful as Smash Hits in its pomp but pretty good).

      Secondly, and more importantly, it's because the pervasive and persistent aura of M:OP these days and for a long time is one of jaded boredom. The assumption seems to be either that MMOs genuinely were better in the past or that players have seen it all before. Most of the articles come across as negative because of this sense of underlying ennui. I personally feel that the genre is as thrilling and exciting as it ever was and its future is brighter than it has ever been but then I feel like that about most things. I was a nihilist in my teens and 20s and now, a week from my 60th birthday, I'm a futurist!

      The real problem with M:OP , though, is it is still essential reading. If I had an equally reliable news source for MMOs I'd drop M:OP altogether but there just isn't one. So I keep reading it and almost always it makes me cross.

  8. Part of the reacting to RNG is that WoW currently has RNG on steroids with the xForging system. Get a normal random drop? Boring. Get the same one that forged to one difficulty level above what you are doing? Ok. Get that same piece that forged several difficulty levels above what you are doing ('Titanforging')? Great.

    This same system also applies to the quest gear you get. A green quest item might forge upwards to blue or purple. There's a perception that we never get off the gear treadmill. You can never target Best in Slot gear because you'll never get it due to the forging system. You can never feel done or accomplished for a period of time, say while waiting for the next raid or expansion.

    Bonus rolls make it even worse as the two you are allowed each week give a pittance of gold or general purpose Azerite power (currently) if you fail to get an item. As bad luck protection Bonus rolls are perceived to be a true take-your-money slot machine that is completely rigged to be a house gold sink.

    1. I'm at a huge disadvantage, writing about this, since I don't play WoW at all, really, far less at the level where i'd experience these systems. I probably should have factored that into my outrage!

      EQ2 has several systems that allow you to modify gear using some form of RNG, though, and I quite enjoy those. Blade and Soul, Black Desert and a few other imports I've tried also had something similar. So did City of Steam, come to think of it.

      While that's wasn't the kind of rng I had in mind (I was really thinking of loot tables), I do quite enjoy that too. I'm not any kind of min-maxer or completioniost so the idea that I have gear that could be made better if I get a lucky roll is attractive. It's fun, in fact. Gevlon was sniping above about the non-heroic nature of playing a fruit machine and you can't argue with that, but there's entertainment to consider and I've always found games of chance, including fruit machines, entertaining. A whole heck of a lot more entertaining than grinding out tokens to buy something from a vendor, anyway.


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