Thursday, September 17, 2015

Chill Winston!

chillwinston.jpg (img:blizzard)

Title appropriate for reasons hopefully forthcoming. Header image appropriate because the title also references a line in my favorite Guy Ritchie movie and Winston just happens to be the name of a character in Blizzard's soon-to-be-in-beta FPS Overwatch. As you can see, if you're on the opposing side of Winston you're probably going to wish that he'd just chill out. Opening paragraph appropriate because this is probably going to be a rambling piece stating things I've said before using more words than I actually need. But I settled on a title and a header image before starting, so I'm feeling a minor obligation to finish it. I know, not many selling points to continue reading.

A few months back, I made a promise to myself to stop speculating about the design of World of Warcraft, and what Blizzard may or may not do by reading into what they're saying and not saying. So far I've kept my promise, even if I didn't speculate that much to begin with. Speculation, of course, isn't talking about likes and dislikes. Speculation isn't simply saying you don't like the fact it took so long for Blizzard to add flight. Speculation is saying Blizzard only cares about maximizing subscription dollars, and prolonging the leveling and end-game open-world content by prohibiting flight is one way to do that.

Speculation is forming a theory or opinion without firm evidence. Note the adjective; not a lack of evidence, but a lack of firm evidence. I alluded to my interest and study of the UFO phenomenon in the piece linked above; I spent several years researching the best evidence available to the public. As of this writing, ETs haven't landed on the White House lawn. Outside of that happening, the only way for me to know, to truly know, would be if I were a decidedly real secret agent with files of direct proof in my hand. I am not such a person, I must say.

There's a parallel here (you still there?) when it comes to speculation about what Blizzard is doing and saying. As is often claimed in ufology, the information possessed by those in the know is highly compartmentalized. The scope of what Johnny B. knows is not what Sally C. knows, and Ashley F. only speaks about what they've been authorized to speak about. The only way for me to know what Blizzard's up to would be if I were a drone on the wall in every single meeting. From CS to design, development, financials, organizational planning---all of them.

So the end result of speculation is the same: there's an inherent inability to know, and speculation will only take one so far until it becomes an utterly exhausting exercise. We can get close to knowing, sure, and sometimes we even stumble upon an actual truth, whether we're aware of it or not. But in the end, I had to distance myself from the subject. I had stop visiting the message boards, certain websites, and curb myself from talking to anyone who'd lend their ear. Oh right. I'm not talking about UFOs here. I'm talking about Blizzard's intentions, their game design, and what they should be doing to make it the game that seems ideal for me.

I've been out of the Blizzard speculation loop long enough to where the thought of speculation on an announced design or feature has zero appeal. Then again, I accepted Warlord's lack of flight from the start, even if communication about when it would actually be implemented left a bit to be desired. But perhaps my disposition was different from the start, compared to those who were outraged by the announcements or the silence or both.

What I had to do with Blizzard, like I did with ufology, was to take everything I'd learned and experienced up to that point and form a belief. To find a solid rock to stand on amidst the sand I'd been mucking around in. I'd have to look at the past ten years I spent in the game, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends; ten years of quality entertainment, how times have changed, and what has remained the same.

What I realized is that the belief had been there all along, the same belief that drew me into World of Warcraft and the one that has positioned me as a gamer who plays almost nothing but Blizzard games: that Blizzard Entertainment brings, and will continue to bring quality gaming experiences to the masses. We've had ample evidence of this (outside of and including World of Wacraft) during the past two years especially.

My truth is a personal one. Mine and mine alone, and one that I won't force on other people. The truth is something they'll have to discover on their own---should they even feel the need to seek it---whether their truth matches mine or not. But if the truth for me wasn't what it is, I wouldn't be in this space. I wouldn't be writing this.

In closing, if I have one bit of advice, it's to take this all in---the state of Blizzard, its games, and gaming in general---within the greater context of everything that's out there. Day to day. Hour to hour. Minute to minute. If you're disappointed, frustrated, or angry, self-imposed exile can be a valuable thing. The truths out there aren't going anywhere. They exist independent of all of us.

If nothing else, try to look up from time to time. Expect nothing, and I promise you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Q's for the Legion Q & A

Legion, the upcoming sixth expansion in the World of Warcraft franchise. (img: Blizzard)

News status: dropped.

We now know where the next chapter in our World of Warcraft journey will take us: back home, to fend off the largest demon invasion Azeroth has ever seen. Larger than the War of the Ancients, which of all the threats Azeroth has faced, it was the one that brought the planet closest to utter decimation.

This was the expansion setting I was hoping for, one set on Azeroth fighting back the ultimate invasion of the Burning Legion. I'm looking forward to learning a lot more in the coming months and getting a hands-on preview at Blizzcon this November. There's an in-depth Legion Q & A this Sunday which I'll definitely tune in for. Below are some questions I have that I anticipate will be addressed.

How does Illidan fit in?

I'll admit when they revealed the brief teaser cinematic that featured Gul'dan breaking Illidan out of his prison, I felt really uneasy. Not because I feared what sort of calamities Illidan could bring to the table, but because I was hoping Blizzard was done resurrecting dead characters for the time being. 

Granted, a recent tweet from Alex Afrasiabi that caused quite a bit of uproar may be the first instance where we see an explanation for Illidan's return: 

Previously, it wasn't clear if all demons shared this characteristic, or if it was just certain powerful demons. Earlier in the exchange, when asked if Archimonde was from our universe or the alternative universe of Draenor, Afrasiabi responded "that's not how demons work." Given this info, we might be able to assume that all demons are immortal unless killed in the Twisting Nether. A rather defeating thought.

Even knowing what we know now, I hope Illidan's resurgence is better explained than Archimonde's return was for story's sake, and that he's not just another nostalgia-villain Blizzard's using as an attempt to lure nostalgia-subscribers. Because I'm not prepared for that. 

Will we see traditional Legendary items this expansion?

The idea for Artifacts is actually an old one, prevalent in lore and talked about all the way back in Vanilla. We'll see that idea come to fruition in WoW:Legion, as each class will be able to earn an iconic Artifact weapon that can be leveled up in power and changed cosmetically throughout the course of the expansion. 

But what I'm wondering is if we'll see Legendary items in any of the formats we've seen in previous expansions. To me, the Artifact system sounds a lot like the Legendary cloak and ring systems we saw in Mists and Warlords, respectively. You start out with a lower quality item, and through the course of the game the item is increased in power until reaching its final form. While Blizzard could have a separate Legendary quest chain alongside the Artifact system, I don't see it as likely.

I'm wondering more about whether or not we'll see Legendary drops in raids again, ala the Burning Crusade, or the build-a-weapon formats from Vanilla, Wrath, and Cataclysm. 

And if we don't get Legendary items, could we at least see some Legiondary items?

Will Dalaran look any different than it did in WotLK?

Word is that the arrival of the Legion has awoken something sinister within the Violet Hold in Dalaran...or something like that. Whatever happened, it's made the Kirin Tor curious enough to move their city all the way from Northrend down to the south side of the Broken Isles.

Players visiting Dalaran in its current location in Northrend are treated to the same architecture and decor that first launched with Wrath of the Lich King. I'm wondering if perhaps they spruced up the place since then, or if we'll see any of the aftermath of the Kirin Tor purge that happened during Mists of Pandaria.

How will Wrathion factor in to Legion?

Wrathion warned us of the inevitability of the Burning Legion invasion. He was the one who pitted the Horde and the Alliance against each other in Pandaria, hoping one side would emerge the victor so that when the invasion came there would be a unified, focused front. He was sure Azeroth wouldn't survive unless his plan came to pass.

But we know Wrathion's plan failed. The Alliance and the Horde banded together briefly to destroy Garrosh's Horde, but neither faction destroyed the other. Draenor saw Horde and Alliance working together to a certain degree, but it's clear the faction war is not over. According to Wrathion, our current status should set us up to fail.

Given he foreshadowed events we'll likely see in Legion, I'm hoping to learn a lot more about what Wrathion's been up to since Mists of Pandaria.

Assuming we overcome the Legion, what's left for Azeroth?

This isn't really a question I would ask, as I think it's super early to be asking about what comes after Legion, but it came to mind after a guildie raised the point in our forums. Taking Alex's word that this is the largest Legion invasion Azeroth has seen, one could think that Legion expansion contains the resolution to the Burning Legion vs. Azeroth story. 

Additionally, there's some pretty lore-heavy stuff from the looks of it. Lady Azshara, the Pillars of Creation, Titans (who always seem to have an Old God lurking nearby)...a great deal of Azeroth's history from the last ten millenia that could be resolved here. 

The question also assumes that we win this fight. If Wrathion is right, we won't win. While I'm not actively speculating about what comes next, it will occupy a small, quiet space in the back of mind mind.

What are you hoping to learn more about?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Between a Rock and a Fel-Corrupted Apexis Fragment

I was about ready to give up on Warcraft last Sunday. Well, at least I felt that way for a spell. Prior to this, my Sunday afternoon in gaming looked promising. I had a good chunk of time carved out to play, something I find less and less of these days. My plan centered around my main objective for the afternoon: the round of dailies in Tanaan Jungle. I hearthed to Vol'mar, but before I could even grab one quest, I was dead.


As I made my way back to my body, the four Alliance I'd spotted had multiplied into fourteen or more. Horde representation was limited to corpses on the ground and those unlucky enough to appear in Vol'mar via login or hearth, only to have their lives quickly snuffed out. This continued for the better part of two hours, from what I could tell.

It was a familiar scene. The Alliance and Horde bases are ripe for these sort of encounters, and I witness the aftermath in Vol'mar more often than not. A sense of dread accompanies each use of my hearthstone, or cast of Astral Recall. As much as I hate it, this is the game working precisely as intended. I have that straight from the horse's mouth. But this post is still me complaining about PvP on a PvP server, so continue on at your own risk.

Why. Why why why did I roll a toon on a PvP server? The answer is that at the time, I wanted a more "real" experience. This is where my current self gives my past self a reprimand in the form of "You fucking twat you didn't even PvP much to begin with, how is the ability to have your PvE goals rendered impossible by something inherent to the game server's design a more real experience?"

Open world PvP allows and encourages other players to absolutely demolish my gaming experience, consent for which I gave when I first joined the server. The obvious solution is to transfer away, right? I wish. It's a hell of a lot more complicated than that.

I don't play on my current server because I'm a heavy role-player nor do I play there because I particularly enjoy World PvP. I play there because that's where I found the best match when it came to a community the last time I was trawling through the Recruitment forums. I've said many, many times in the past that if it weren't for the people I play with I wouldn't be playing this game. Transferring for me would signal the beginning of the end.

Still, the whole experience left me wondering some things. Allow me to gripe.

Why do Vol'mar/Lion's Watch NPCs hit like wet noodles?

Where the fuck are the pandaren guards from the Timeless Isle when you need them? At least those guys were annoying when players first set foot there and engaged in PvP. Do I even have guards in Vol'mar? You want me to believe that I'm the commander of this outfit...that I'd give my blessing to the most shittily defended base on the front lines of the most threatening warfare we've seen on the continent? If that's the case, strip me of all land, titles, and accompanying privileges. Send me the fuck home. I'm an undeniable failure.

I guess it's cool that Gargash the flight master can be kited far outside of Vol'mar and held hostage. You've got to hand it to that guy for his zeal and tenacity when it comes to the effort he puts into holding off opposing forces. But come on, Gargarsh! First rule here is YOU DO NOT ABANDON YOUR POST.

You're fired.  

Would the game experience benefit from more structured rules to open-world PvP?

I can almost hear the collective war cries from the PvP advocates on this one. Cannot fault that response.

PvP happens. I know, and I'm OK with it as part of the game. What gets annoying is the scenario I've outlined above: I've got a chunk of time to quest, yet I'm prohibited from doing so. While I'm attempting to grab quests between corpse runs, I'm killed repeatedly. The PvP is slowing me down, sure, but now because of several deaths in a short span of time, I'm given a resurrection timer. Now I literally cannot play the game. I suppose I could stick my thumb up my ass (that's where I keep my garrison hearthstone) and play around with my mission table for a minute, but I don't find that to be a very compelling alternative. Granted, the Horde side on my server does the same thing to the Alliance at Lion's Watch. It's a vicious cycle.

I don't know what I'm looking for here. And it's not a legitimate want, given I am on a PvP server. I don't want the game changed for a large group of people just to fit my fancy, but after I've ratcheted up to that two-minute death timer, I think it'd be nice to have a guarantee that I have more options than simply logging out.

Again, this stems from my choosing to be on a PvP server, and the experience that I'm looking for is readily available on a PvE server. I've outlined why that's not an option for me at the moment. At the same time, I question if having an unassailable enemy force holding the main PvE quest hub hostage for hours at a time is exactly what Blizzard had in mind for open-world PvP engagement. 

Could Blizzard perhaps include value-added services with each expansion purchase?

It must be clear that players don't necessarily choose their server based on its designation type, i.e. PvE or PvP. Some players may not fully understand what it means to roll on a PvP server. Some players may not know that even on PvE servers, it is possible to engage in open-world PvP. My problem is with how tightly we're locked in to the server we choose. 

I've advocated in the past for there being additional services included when a player buys the expansion. Wouldn't it be neat if a server transfer and faction/race chance were included with the purchase of each new expansion? Wouldn't it make sense to have those options, given how players come and go? A returning player with the ability to easily play with friends on his/her established toons without the prohibitive costs of character services seems like a win-win to me. 

Can we have cross-server guilds? 

I think the one legitimate gripe about this would be the watering down of a server's community. But I'd counter the community is only as large as the one you engage in. I play on a high-population server, yet my in-game community is limited for a few dozen people. It wouldn't matter what server I was on, just that I can continue to play with them---people I've now traveled across half the country to meet. While it's feasibly possible to do now, it's not possible to do under the same guild banner. 

With current cross-realm technology, I can't imagine we're far off from the ability to host cross-server guilds.  As the game ages, communities continue to get smaller and smaller. It would make sense to support what you've got. This would be the perfect solution to the problem I'm experiencing, and I'd exercise the option in a heartbeat. 

There. Do you feel better? I feel better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We Should Be Able to Talk

This piece is about the discussion---or lack thereof---in the wake of the Blizzard Watch article "Does the Warcraft movie have a problem with women?" If you're not interested, turn back now!

We've had a rough history, we humans. A perpetually out-of-balance history, when it comes to our relations. Those with power, and those without. Those with wealth, and those without. Those with rights, and those without. We are the child of that history. The love, pain, heartache, triumphs, struggles and losses of the past---those are all imprinted into our collective DNA whether we're aware of it as individuals or not.

We're drawn to see the world as we imagine it to be---and much of that is based on our own personal experiences. But one human's experience doesn't do justice to how things really are---it can't. Our time spent here is over in a beat, and much of that experience for most people takes place in a relatively tiny bubble. It's not easy to grasp our diversity, and the sheer will and sacrifice it took humanity to get where it is. We especially have it easy in this time of interconnectedness and relative prosperity---I'm assuming, since you're a gamer and reading this. And because of our technological advances, we're in a better position to both understand and talk about our history with one another than we ever have been.

The thoughts above came to mind after reading Elizabeth Harper's Blizzard Watch article titled "Does the Warcraft movie have a problem with women?" and spending time reading the comments it began to generate. The article was well-constructed and it was obvious Harper spent a good deal of time putting it together. Unsurprisingly, I cannot say the same about the majority of responses, both on-site and in my social media circle.

It doesn't pay to refute those who say that the article's main purpose was website hits; they've adopted a belief that fits their worldview. It doesn't pay to refute folks who say "I've never seen a problem," because they've decided based on their experience there isn't a problem at all---or at least, if the problem doesn't affect the perceived majority, it isn't one. It doesn't pay to refute the hyperbolic, name-callers, and slippery-slopers who seem to fear something they can't articulate on. I'm mostly done with that battle, but I'm never going to leave where I stand up in the air.

How women are represented in-game? That's on Blizzard. How women are treated in-game? That's mostly on us, the players. It's not surprising that women up until recently have often filled the roles of love interests, fodder for other characters or sex symbols. That's largely the role they've occupied in the entertainment industry in the past. But as we grow as a planet and learn more about one another and our history, stratified gender roles continue to crumble. Slowly, but surely, this will be reflected in our culture. It is changing, but that journey has not ended. It can take time to notice a problem in what has always been considered the norm.

If there's one thing we know about the past, it's that we get a lot of shit wrong. It's up to future generations to fix it, like we saw recently with same-sex marriage. Let's not forget less than 100 years ago, women didn't even have the right to vote. Up until the 60s, and arguably much later, women were expected to be homemakers---an ugly notion that still lives on today and seen all too often. Where do you think "go make me a sandwich" comes from?

Sexism is a problem in World of Warcraft both on the company side and the player side, but that's largely because they're both products of a sexist society.

The fact that the entire Warcraft universe was created by mostly men doesn't bother me; I don't see it as a good or a bad thing. It just is. However, I can also understand how the mechanisms of sexism in our society manifest themselves, unconsciously even, in the creations of a group of college-aged guys. While Blizzard are less creators and innovators, those guys were simply going off of what had been imprinted on them by their experiences in life---life within an advanced, industrialized male-dominated society. It would be astounding if sexism wasn't noticeable in WoW given its origins.

Things won't change overnight. It'd be naive to think they would. But they also won't be changed if they are ignored. If there are customers who would like to feel better represented and welcomed in even something as seemingly insignificant as a game world, they should be free to express their feelings. When it comes to players and how they treat one another in game? I can't solve that one, only do my part. But it's on all of us.

Sexism in Warcraft may not be noticeable to you, or it may not be a problem for you. But we still need to be willing to talk about this stuff with calm, open minds. Without hyperbole and baseless accusations. And that takes effort. Especially when it takes empathy and possibly requires us to look at a not-so-flattering aspect of ourselves. Our society. Our norms. But I can't convince anyone to act or see it any differently. I just think we should be able to talk.

I'm going to keep doing my own thing, with the hope that those hindering debate---consciously or not---will one day come to better understanding.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Done Reading Between the Lines

It's no secret right now that there are quite a number of vocal players who aren't happy with Blizzard, mostly centered around with what's happening---or not happening---with World of Warcraft. Even if you discount the anecdotes from folks e-explaining why they've quit, why they plan to, or why they're currently unhappy but still playing, you're left with the three million very real people who chose not to continue their subscription from Q1 to Q2....for whatever reason.

We can't assign a blanket reason for why those players left. Not even a general "dissatisfaction with the game" works, as surely among those three million are folks who left due to time constraints, finances, or an entirely different reason unrelated to their view of the game. At the same time, a lot of people have given reasons to why they're not happy. Everything from lack of content, to the implementation of garrisons, the removal (and now reintroduction) of flight, the current state of PvP, the lack of representation in-game, lack of a story, confusing lore...I'm surely missing a bunch.

Right now, it's quite easy to survey the forums and social media and see throngs of unhappy players. If you are an unhappy player, you may look around and feel a strange tickle. Sure, maybe you're not happy about the further monetization of the player base while someone else left over the flying issue, but the common ground is that you're both unhappy. Even if your qualms revolve around completely different issues, there are many others who are unhappy, so in some sense, you must be justified in your observations.

Inevitably, since we can't point to any one single wrong thing about the game, it's assumed there must be something wrong with the game as a whole. And if there's something wrong with the core of the game, let's extend that to mean that there's something wrong with the core of the company. Simple logic, right?

All of a sudden you have Warcraft players who have become hyper-focused on Blizzard Entertainment, analyzing and criticizing every micro-move they make that doesn't address their main concern. Players who've not once pulled up a chair became outraged at the fact Blizzard will offer purchasable skins for their Hearthstone class of choice. World of Warcraft Q&A pushed back in favor of keeping Heroes of the Storm in the spotlight? God damn it, Blizzard. The COO leaves which obviously confirms things are going to shit? God damn it, Blizzard. Trying to suck me into your other titles through cross-promotional in-game items? God. Damn. It. Blizzard.

God damn it, Blizzard. Fix ___________________________.

Blizzard has noticeably started to spend more resources promoting their other titles, and I feel this is what many Warcraft players struggle with. I think it's quite telling that most of the criticisms I've seen about the company as a whole came from the Warcraft forums, or from Warcraft players on social media. For a decade now, Warcraft players have been Blizzard's darling children, and I guess it can be jarring when suddenly it feels like you're not. It's like the five-year-old who throws a tantrum after he learns that mommy is pregnant and he might not enjoy her sole attention. Even if we want to pretend that Warcraft is still Blizzard's baby, it's not the reality.

The reality, in fact, might be that Warcraft to Blizzard is like that 19-year-old son/daughter who you love to death but wish would just move out of the house, or at least go to college---but you don't have the heart to kick out. I'm not saying Blizzard is trying to kill Warcraft, but that maybe they're trying to make it the game they want it to be for the time we're in---and they're in---now. And I'd have to imagine that's an awfully tall order when you've got pushback at every single decision from one of the most passionate player bases on the planet.

Perhaps Blizzard have ascertained the MMO of yesterday is no longer sustainable in today's market. I think it's easily argued they have ample evidence in that vein. No one can truly know whether they're phasing out WoW, reinventing WoW, or just doing their best---other than what they themselves tell us. But it's a battle they'll never win, as they're continuing the develop a game they never thought they'd still be developing while being fought tooth and nail at every turn. Like, they're making this game because we still play it. They have a right to maintain their vision for it, and we have the right to vote with our wallets.

If this is what the demise of a video game company looks like...someone better tell Blizzard. But it might be difficult for them to take you seriously. In the greater picture, one cannot discount the tens of millions of players around the globe who are currently enjoying Blizzard games, many of whom don't know who Paul Sams is (and wouldn't care), haven't read a quarterly earnings report, and didn't even know one could fly in World of Warcraft.

Even if I'm not the most cynical of folks when it comes to Blizzard's intentions and business practices, I'm finished with the paranoid speculation. I refuse to look at every Heroes skin, store mount, Hearthstone sale, and content patch with a sinister bent, wondering what angle Blizzard is trying to fuck me from this time. Maybe that's putting on the blinders full-force, but in truth I've never once felt that way about Blizzard. 

I'm well-versed in conspiracy theories. I know how Confirmation Bias operates. I understand how physically and mentally exhausting it is believing the government is actively hiding the reality of an extra-terrestrial agenda.* I've done my research there, but it's something entirely different with Blizzard. I don't need research, because I have personal experience: ten years of engaging entertainment. When I look at others' dissatisfaction, and what reads they get from Blizzard's action or inaction, it sometimes feels like we're playing two different games. Sometimes you just need to agree to see things differently, and part ways.

This is me parting ways. This is me accepting what Blizzard is offering for the time being. I'm still playing, and still enjoying it. Maybe it doesn't hold me for several hours per night like it used to, but maybe that's not a bad thing. At the end of the day, when I ask myself "Am I having fun?"

The answer is still yes. Seems foolish for anyone to try to convince themselves otherwise---whatever their answer may be.

*I'm not saying they're not hiding one.